All posts by ChrisScruggs

Chris Scruggs is a retired Presbyterian pastor and attorney. Chris is the author of four books on Christian life, wisdom, and discipleship, Most recently, "Crisis of Discipleship," and is working on a fifth on political theology and philosophy. He authors the blog "Path of Life."

William James: the Politics of Pragmatism, Humility, and Smallness

William James (1842-1910) is unquestionably the most famous American philosopher. While C. S. Peirce founded pragmatism movement, James was its most famous popularizer, and his influence was felt in philosophy, psychology, and a number of disciplines. Like his friend Peirce, James was a member of Chancy Wright’s circle of friends and participated in the famous group of which Oliver Wendall Holmes was a member for a short time. Unlike Peirce, James was likable and successful in navigating academic life.

James came from a prominent American family. family. His father, Henry, was independently wealthy, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and a writer. As a child, James traveled with his family and met Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Stuart Mill as well as others. His brother, Henry James, was a well-known novelist and literary critic. His sister was and is well-known as a diarist. Never healthy, James suffered from a number of ailments in his younger years, ailments that prevented him for serving in the American Civil War.

James was not primarily a political theorist. His influence has been felt in political thinking, but he never wrote a scholarly work devoted to the subject. His political philosophy, therefore, must be gleaned from his other writings, a task that is more appropriate for a professional philosopher than a retired pastor. [1] However, because of his importance, it is impossible to pass over his work.

Pragmatism

James accepted Peirce’s famous definition of truth as related to the conceivable courses of action an idea might imply. James’ own view was that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the actions one might be willing to take or refrain from taking based upon the idea. He is famous for his sometimes criticised notion that the truth of an idea can be described as its “Cash Value,” by which he meant what work it can be put to in day-to-day life. In his lecture, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” James famously observed:

Pragmatism … asks, “Grant that an idea or belief may be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” [2]

In a letter to Bertrand Russell, James gave a technical definition:

In a nutshell my opinion is this: that instead of there being one universal relation sui generis called “truth” between any reality and an idea, there are a host of particular relations varying according to special circumstances and constituted by the manner of “working” or “leading” of the idea through the surrounding experiences of which both the reality and the idea are part. [3]

Fundamentally, James pragmatic philosophy was a method for making decisions, of testing ideas for their workability, and of eliminating useless speculation. Like Peirce, he viewed philosophy as filled with false questions, and saw pragmatism as a way to limit endless discussion over metaphysical and epistemological problems by relating them to the process of reaching concrete decisions in life. To be a true statement in some way that statement must be capable of verification and use in life.

Pragmatism, as much as anything is an attitude, “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ and supposed necessities and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” [4] Finally, and important for political decision making, there is not to be found “One universal relation, one true solution to a problem, for the circumstances that surround a problem constitute an always evolving reality in which truth is arrived at and decisions must be made. The best solution to a problem at a particular moment in history may not be the best solution in any other moment.

It is easy to see why such a philosophy would appeal to practical people, and especially to Americans interested in building a “new nation” free of the constraints and limitations of European politics, economics, and social stratification. For the purposes of this blog and its interest in relational thinking, it is important to note that for James, truth is a relational concept, dependent upon relationships and context. This leads James to a philosophy of humility and a recognition of human frailty and fallibilism.

Individualism and the Importance of Individuals

James’ version of pragmatism was emphatically individualistic. In a celebrated essay, “The Importance of Individuals” James sets out his individualistic ideals and their importance in life:

…I for my part cannot but consider the talk of the contemporary sociological school about averages and general laws and predetermined tendencies, with its obligatory undervaluing of the importance of individual differences, as the most pernicious and immoral of fatalisms. Suppose there is a social equilibrium fated to be, whose is it to be,—that of your preference, or mine? There lies the question of questions, and it is one which no study of averages can decide. [5]

There is a tendency in Fascism, Marxism, Laisse-Faire Capitalism. and in any purely materialistic evolutionary philosophy to regard social forces as primary and individuals as secondary. [6] James, on the other hand, believed that all positive social change and improvement in the human condition are the result of individual decisions. These decisions may be partially motivated by environment, economics, physical geography, social conditions, and other factors, but the importance of the individual and the individual’s personal responsibility for his or her own decision-making remains important. [7]

In a particularly important passage says:

The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the example of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, centres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction. [8]

In the end, it is individual human beings whose ideas, goals, aspirations, and dreams matter,

Preference for Smallness

A second characteristic of James pragmatist approach to politics is his dislike of bigness and defense of the small, particular, individual, and unique. In a private letter, James wrote:

I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.—You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself. [9]

This quote expresses James preference for small businesses, small organizations, families and individuals as opposed to “big business,” “big government,” “big empires,” and the like. Bigness is generally less human, less moral, and less connected to the deepest needs of the human heart that are small businesses, governments, political unites, bureaucracies and the like. Here is the way one commentator put James view:

The problem of empires, be they imperial national projects (such as the U.S.’s presumption to control the Philippines) or conceptual philosophical totalities (such as Hegel’s argument for the state form as the highest form of actualization), arises less from their content than from their size. The idea that any idea, polity, or system of meaning can encompass everything, everyone, and everywhere directly contradicts the aspirations of pragmatism, which is always provisional and partial. The politics of anti-greatness implies a turn away from totality, a theme with a special resonance in the contemporary political realm. [10]

Thus, James was interested in the smallest units and the elements that made up a complex system, such as a society or political organization, as well as the larger system itself. I would argue that one of the most important lessons contemporary Americans can learn from the pragmatic approach to politics is the importance of the small, of small steps to solve great problems, of small communities, such as families, small businesses, small social agencies and even small churches to human flourishing and social order. This requires restraint among political elites. As one writer put it:

James’s anti-imperialism was directly related to his fear of the effects of “bigness.” He argued forcefully against all concentrations of power, especially those between business, political, and military interests. He knew that such vested interests would grow larger and more difficult to control if America became an overseas empire. [11]

James would have agreed with the notion that “big things,” like nation states, cannot be stable unless the underlying smaller social units are healthy, nurtured, and allowed their own freedom. He was opposed to all forms of imperialistic advance to the detriment of families, local communities and smaller nations. In particular, he opposed Theodore Roosevelt in this intention to make of the United States an imperial power.

Pacifism

In one of his final essays, entitled, “The Moral Equivalent of War” published shortly before his death James takes an historical and pragmatic look at the institution of war. War is, James believed, a part of human history and flows from basic human agressive  instincts as they have developed over the ages. The competition of nation-states for people, land, power, wealth, and resources drives nations to war. (One might easily look at the current war in the Ukraine as an example of a war for land and resources.) Nevertheless, war is an expensive luxury the human race can ill afford:

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them. I see no reason why all this should not apply to yellow as well as to white countries, and I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples. [12]

One reason that James opposed the imperial ambitions of the Roosevelt administration was his clear realization that imperial ambitions almost inevitably lead to war.

Ideals and Action

Perhaps a good place to end this brief look at an important figure is to return to the subject of a pragmatic view of social life. In an essay entitled “What Makes Life Significant” James takes a look at the connection between our ideals and our actions. Not surprisingly, he is critical of ideals unaccompanied by action:

Of course, this is a somewhat vague conclusion. But in a question of significance, of worth, like this, conclusions can never be precise. The answer of appreciation, of sentiment, is always a more or a less, a balance struck by sympathy, insight, and good will. But it is an answer, all the same, a real conclusion. And, in the course of getting it, it seems to me that our eyes have been opened to many important things. Some of you are, perhaps, more livingly aware than you were an hour ago of the depths of worth that lie around you, hid in alien lives. And, when you ask how much sympathy you ought to bestow, although the amount is, truly enough, a matter of ideal on your own part, yet in this notion of the combination of ideals with active virtues you have a rough standard for shaping your decision. In any case, your imagination is extended. You divine in the world about you matter for a little more humility on your own part, and tolerance, reverence, and love for others; and you gain a certain inner joyfulness at the increased importance of our common life. Such joyfulness is a religious inspiration and an element of spiritual health, and worth more than large amounts of that sort of technical and accurate information which we professors are supposed to be able to impart. [13]

For James, the most important qualities of a human being is the kind of values that allow a person to act with humility, sympathy, empathy, and appreciation for others. His underlying pragmatism show up in his conclusion that mere sympathy or empathy without the willingness to act is an empty thing. It is only when we get out of our own individualistic self-seeking and engage in loving service to others do we find true emotional and spiritual health. The kind of person that can escape the endless drive of self-centered, self -seeking is characterized by tolerance, reverence, and love for others.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For an introduction, see Joshua I Miller, Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

[2] William James, “Lecture VI: Pragmatism’s Conception of the Truth” in William James, Writings 1902-1920 (Library of America, 1987), 573.

[3]  Letter to Bertrand Russell, (May 24. 1908).

[4] Id, at 510.

[5] William James, :The Importance of Individuals” (890) at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/The_Importance_of_Individuals (downloaded, April 23, 2022).

[6] This is one reason that Peirce felt “Agapism” was a necessary and important feature of his system.

[7] William James, “Great Men and their Environment” at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/Great_Men_and_Their_Environment (Downloaded April 23, 2022).

[8] Id.

[9] William James, “Letter to Mrs. Henry (Elizabeth) Whitman, June 7, 1899.—The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 2, p. 90 (1926).

[10] See, “Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism” reviewed in

Contemporary Political Theory (2018) 17, S6–S8. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-017- 0103-5; published online 7 March 2017 (downloaded April 21, 2022)

[11] Zach Dorfman What e Talk About When We Talk About Isolation Dissent Magazine https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-isolationism (May 18, 2012, downloaded April 23, 2022)

[12] William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War” in William James, Writings 1902-1920, at 1289.

[13] William James, What Makes a Life Significant” (1900) at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jsignificant.html (Downloaded April 23, 2022)

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Social Darwinism on the Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) holds a special place in American jurisprudence. [1] He taught law at Harvard Law School, and practiced law privately in the area of admiralty, among others. In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced his famous dictum: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [2] He served on the United States Supreme court from 1902 until 1932—the longest tenure of any justice to date.

Brief Biography

Holmes was born into a famous American intellectual family. His father, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr., was a noted poet. His family situation meant that he was introduced to all the best families in Boston. He graduated from Harvard as an undergraduate in 1861 and immediately enlisted as a soldier in the Massachusetts militia, where he served with distinction. Holmes saw action as an officer in the Peninsula Campaign, the Wilderness Campaign, and was wounded during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. In the end, Holmes was breveted a Colonel in the Army, and returned home in 1864 weary and sick.

As a Bostonian from a prominent intellectual family, Holmes was well-acquainted with the early pragmatists. He was a close personal friend of William James. He attended a study group known as the “Metaphysical Club” with James, Charles Sanders Peirce another lawyer, Nicholas St. John Green, and Chauncy Wright. It is quite likely that Holmes was present when Peirce read his classic paper, “Fixation of Belief” in which he outlined his pragmatic theory of truth. Holmes attended some of Peirce’ s lectures, on science and inquiry, at the Lowell Institute in 1866.

It is my view that Holmes jurisprudence was substantially impacted by his experiences in the Civil War. His occasional ruthlessness and friendliness towards Social Darwinism evidence the impact of the “Great Crusade,” on his life and thought. A quote I ran across makes this point:

For the generation that lived through it, the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience. It tore a hole in their lives. To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas. As traumatic wars do—as the World War I would do for many Europeans 60 years later and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans 100 years later—the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.[3]

The author of this quote was speaking about Holmes and the other members of the Metaphysical Club of which he was a member and Chauncy Wright the leader. Holmes came out of the suffering and tragedy of Civil War an ardent materialist, a Darwinian evolutionist, and a religious and moral skeptic. He took these views with him to the United States Supreme court. [4]

In 1864, Holmes entered Harvard Law School. In those days, a three-year law degree and admittance to the bar by testing was not the norm. Holmes attended lectures for a year, read theoretical works extensively, and then clerked for a year in his cousin’s law office. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1866. After traveling to London to complete his education, he practiced law in Boston, where he was a commercial and admiralty lawyer. Holmes taught at Harvard Law School and was a member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1899-1902, when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1902 until 1932.

Holmes as a Pragmatist

In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced an empirical theory of the law, saying:

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics. [5]

Law as Experience-Based. In the quote from The Common Law, we see the empirical, pragmatic basis of Holmes thinking. The law is something that results from human experience. That experience included the felt necessities (or political pressures) of the day and time in which law is made, prevalent moral theories, political theories and ideas of public policy, all the ideas and prejudices that a given society has internalized over centuries of time. The judge is a kind of “legal scientist” who along with all other members of the bar are in a common activity examining the facts of cases, looking at the results of prior similar cases, examining the legal and public policy ideas and prejudices attempting to create a coherent and practically effective set of laws to guide society.

Law as a Communal Task. As such, the law is a tradition of inquiry, a common undertaking of lawyers, judges, legislatures, and officials, all of whom participate in the development of the law. The law grows over time as the participants in the legal community work together to apply existing law and adapt it to the demands of the day and time within which they live. In other words, law is a communal undertaking, much like the communal undertaking of a community of scientists, an ideal that Holmes would have heard from Peirce.

Law as Fallible. There is also in Holmes an element of Peirce’s fallibilism, for the law grows also by a process of trial and error, in which there can be doubt, conflict, and missteps that must be corrected over time. [6] Judges and courts can and do make mistakes, as do legislatures, administrations, and permanent bureaucracies. It is the willingness to hold one’s ideas firmly, but with a willingness to learn, change them, and adapt to new information and ideas that is the mark of a fallibilist. Only if courts and legislatures are aware of their limitations and tendency to err can a government be truly pragmatic.

Legal Realism

In a famous essay entitled, “The Path of the Law,” Holmes more clearly set out his notion of legal realism. [7] In this essay, which was originally a lecture, Holmes set out three views that characterize much of the legal realistism movement of his day:

  1. A “Predictive Theory” of justice;
  2. A “Bad Man” theory of law.
  3. An opposition to the conflation of law and morality; and

A Predictive Notion of Justice. Holmes begins his analysis by defining a legal duty as nothing but “a prediction that if a man does or omits certain things he will be made to suffer in this or that way by judgment of the court; and so of a legal right.” [8] In other words, law is a kind of prophetic activity by which lawyers advise clients as to what may or may not be the consequences of a particular course of action. Notice that ideas of natural law and justice disappear from view in this analysis. What is left is reflection on the power of the law as administered by the courts.

A “Bad Man” Theory of Law. Homes then goes on to introduce his Bad Man theory of law, which will be used to distinguish law and morality:

You can see very plainly that a bad man has as much reason as a good one for wishing to avoid an encounter with the public force, and therefore you can see the practical importance of the distinction between morality and law. A man who cares nothing for an ethical rule which is believed and practised by his neighbors is likely nevertheless to care a good deal to avoid being made to pay money, and will want to keep out of jail if he can. [9]

Here we see set out the basis of a distinction between morality and law. While good people want to abide by the law and act with justice towards others, bad people have no such moral impulse to be law abiding citizens. They do, however, want to avoid punishment and the expense of litigation and the payment of damages. Therefore, the law is of interest to all people, good and bad, but for different reasons. So far as it goes, both Christian and a natural law thinker can agree with Holmes on this point. The law is different from morality. Not everything that is moral is legal, and not everything that is immoral is illegal.

The law, as a practical occupation, must take the human race as it finds it. The law has to be constructed so that good people and bad people are both alike instructed in the behaviors that are permitted and for bidden by a society. Thus, Holmes notes:

I have just shown the practical reason for saying so. If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience. [10]

Note Holmes’ distinction: If what you want to know is the law and nothing else, look to that person who is unconstrained by morality. Good men act properly from broader motives than law, and have reasons for good conduct that the bad person does not have.

Opposition to Conflation of Law and Morality. Having begun by distinguishing law and morality, in hopes to avoid confusion in matters of law, Holmes then attacks misguided attempts to confuse law and morality. In my view, it is this portion of homes argument that is both often misunderstood and partially ill-advised. Holmes begins his analysis with the following disclaimer:

I take it for granted that no hearer of mine will misinterpret what I have to say as the language of cynicism. The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men. When I emphasize the difference between law and morals I do so with reference to a single end, that of learning and understanding the law. [11]

Commentators often miss this limitation on what Holmes is saying. He begins by stating clearly that he does not want to be seen as a defender of moral cynicism. Law is connected to morality, because it is the “witness an external deposit of our moral life”. In fact the law contains (or should contain) within it a history of human moral progress. In addition, as a practical matter, law tends to make people better human beings as well as better citizens. However, morality is not law, and in order to understand the law and apply it, it is necessary to hold the two ideas separate for purposes of analysis. This separation is pragmatic and theoretical not as a matter of life in its wholeness. Thus, Holmes goes on to say:

I do not say that there is not a wider point of view from which the distinction between law and morals becomes of secondary or no importance, as all mathematical distinctions vanish in presence of the infinite. But I do say that that distinction is of the first importance for the object which we are here to consider—a right study and mastery of the law as a business with well understood limits, a body of dogma enclosed within definite lines. [12]

The distinction between law and morality is a practical one as it enables us to focus on law and to create a coherent body of law within defined limits, being the limits of what the state is and is not willingness to enforce. It is also a theoretical distinction because it enables an analysis of law as law. [13] What Holmes is not saying (or at least in my view should not be saying) is that morality is irrelevant to the actors, legislators, administrators, bureaucrats, and judges who administer the law. It is the law that is different from morality, not people who should be bound by some moral vision. In fact, Holmes seems to be aware that “from a broader point of view” the distinction between morality and law might disappear.

What Holmes means is difficult to grasp, but I think this may be a point at which he was influenced by Peirce and his version of pragmatism. For Peirce and Royce, while within the boundaries of history there is little prospect of human agreement on certain points of law or other communal activities, the goal of any community of inquirers is to seek that point of agreement that they have discovered the truth about a matter under investigation. This, at the end of history, one can hope that any disagreements between law and morality would disappear. In the meantime, on many points further inquiry and careful experiment may result in such agreement.

Conclusion

Holmes was a complex thinker and not systematic in his approach to legal or philosophical issues. As a materialist, he lacked Peirce’s faith in the reality of such abstract universal notions as “Justice.” As a committed evolutionist, he saw the law as a constantly evolving body of rules for human behavior. As a Social Darwinist, he was inclined towards support of the powerful and socially successful as against the weak, poor, and powerless. [14]. Consistent with this overall view of law, he attempted to keep that search within the boundaries of the law as enacted by the people, the legislatures, and courts.

His attempt is to build a coherent body of law without reference to natural law and some ideal of human flourishing is, in my view, useful theoretically but dangerous practically. It is a short step from Holmes to the kind of legal nihilism common today in which law is “nothing but what the judges say it is.” A better jurisprudence is one constrained by notions of law and justice developed over centuries, and in the case of American Constitutional Law, over the history of the United States of America. The ideal of justice is a universal ideal that continually reveals itself as the members of the legal community embark on a shared journey seeking justice and the common good in the practice and theory of law.

Such an undertaking is not a journey of certainty but of measured attempts to achieve public wisdom and the public good under the constraints of human fallibility The courts are but one link in the chain of reasoning toward the public good. Legislative bodies, administrative bodies, and others have a role to play along with the judicial system. I would argue that the notion of Natural Law and ideals of justice and common good are more important for legislative bodies for they are the groups who in the first instance are to make laws and embody notions of morality and justice in their decisions.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For those who wish a longer and very favorable treatment of Holmes’ life, I can only recommend Catherine Drinker Bowen’s work, Yank from Olympus, which has been the most popular of his biographies. I have relied on Wikipedia for some of the details of this introduction. See, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr. (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[2] Oliver Wendall Holmes, The Common Law Mark D. Howe, ed (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co., 1881, reprinted 1963).

[3] Thomas B. Silver quoting “Pragmatism’s Four Horsemen” in Clairmont Review of Books, Volume 1, Number 4 (Summer 2001)at https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/pragmatisms-four-horsemen/ (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[4] See, Sheldon M. Novick, Justice Holmes’s Philosophy 40 Washington University Law Review No. 3 (1992) for a very fine analysis of the philosophical interests and commitments of Justice Holmes.

[5] Common Law, previously cited.

[6] This was suggested to me by a paper by Cheryl Misak, “A Pragmatist Account of Legitimacy and Authority” at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a47c831be42d6e6324a04f5/t/5a48fb758165f54918c12f2e/1514732410344/PRAGMATISM-AND-AUTHORITY-FINAL.pdf (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[7] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, The Path of the Law 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897), reprinted in Milton R. Konvitz, ed, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland, OH, Meridian Books, 1970).

[8] Id, at 145.

[9] Id, at 146.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id at 146.

[13] . Holmes goes on to note “The theoretical importance of the distinction is no less, if you would reason on your subject aright.” Id, at 147.

[14] See, Seth Vannatta, Justice Holmes the Social Darwinist 14 The Pluralist 1 (Spring 2019). This aspect of Holmes philosophy is by far the most often critiqued.

Pragmatism 4: Agapism and Political Thought

This week we take a final look at the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce’s life was something of a tragedy. He was a prodigy, reading Kant as a youth, studying under his famous father, a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and acknowledged to be one of the greatest and broadest minds of his day. He divorced his first wife and lived with his second wife before marriage. He lacked social skills and good political instincts. As a result, he was exiled from the most prestigious academic posts in America. He made a bare living writing articles for journals, lecturing and teaching where he could. For a time, he worked as a practicing scientist for the United States Coastal and Geodetic Survey, which is where he developed his theories of verification and his dislike of a kind of speculative philosophy he regarded as untrue to how human beings actually think. In the end, his suffering produced a rare, lovely, and brilliant character.

A Guess at the Riddle

If political life is to be essentially communal, and characterized by a communal search for a just social order, then some kind of unselfish, community-creating and community-sustaining ethic must be present. Peirce held that the evolution of the universe, and therefore of every society, involves a kind of love that expresses itself in a devotion to cherishing and tending to people or things other than oneself, as parent may do for offspring.

During the period from 1891 to 1893 Peirce wrote a series of articles collectively known as “A Guess at the Riddle.” [1] In these articles, Peirce sets out a system of understanding the world based on Chance, Necessity, and Love. This is to say that the process of evolution, which lies at the basis of much of his thought, involves, among other things, the response of the creature to the circumstances of existence, the orderly evolution by natural law, and the impact of love. Here is how Peirce describes these three modes of evolution:

Three modes of evolution have thus been brought before us: evolution by fortuitous variation, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution by creative love. We may term them tychastic evolution, or tychasm,anancastic evolution, or anancasm, and agapastic evolution, or agapasm. The doctrines which represent these as severally of principal importance we may term tychasticism, anancasticism, and agapasticism. On the other hand the mere propositions that absolute chance, mechanical necessity, and the law of love are severally operative in the cosmos may receive the names of tychism, anancism, and agapism. [2]

The term “Agapism” is the term Peirce uses for that cherishing or self-giving, sacrificial love that is at work in creation and in all human endeavors.

In Peirce’s view, all order emerges from chaos or what we might call in today’s quantum language, “pure potentiality.” This potentiality exists before the laws of nature and is the source and ground of whatever is. [3] In “A Guess at the Riddle,” written in the late 19th Century, Peirce expounds a theory of creation that anticipates modern “Big Bang” cosmology, and in which he sets out his view that there is at work in creation an evolutionary principle that we can call love.

As one author puts it

“Evolutionary Love” is one of Peirce’s most fascinating philosophical writings. It describes the existence of a cosmic principle of love throughout the universe creatively supporting the formation of new evolutionary forms. This love is a cherishing form of love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce calls his new theory “agapism,” and he contrasts it with evolutionary theories that are based on a selfish form of love; these preach “the Gospel of Greed.” Peirce points out the occurrence of such selfish, greed-based thinking in the modern politico-economical structures, and in Darwin’s biological principle of natural selection based on the competition of private interests. On the other hand, agapism promotes a devotion to helping one’s neighbors, and is a true doctrine of Christian ethics. [4]

This quotation by Nicholas Guardiano sets out the reason which Peirce’s Agapism is important for this blog: Peirce is partially motivated by a desire to overcome a kind of excessive laisse faire capitalism prominent at the time by setting out his own, Christian view of the role of love in society. However, underlying this position is the notion that the universe itself is characterized not just by competition, but also by love.

Agapism

For Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and love. In order to understand what Peirce is trying to say, it is important to understand what he means by the term “Agapism.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines this love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [5]

According to Peirce, Agapistic Love manifests itself in three specific ways:

  1. Agapistic Love may affect a people or a community and its collective personality as an idea or experience is communicated to individuals who in sympathy with the common connection of the collective mind of the group.
  2. Agapistic Love may affect an individual enabling that individual to apprehend an idea or appreciate the attractiveness of an idea due to an increase in sympathy with his community under the influence of a striking experience or development of thought.
  3. Agapistic Love may impact and individual independently of a human affection by virtue of an attraction exercise directly upon the mind prior to comprehension. [6]

As examples of the three kinds of experience of which Peirce is speaking, consider the appearance of Christ to his disciples after the crucifixion. This was a striking appearance to a group in sympathy with one another such that the group as a whole was enlightened and changed. Secondly, and an example Peirce uses, consider the experience of Paul on the Road to Damascus, a striking event that brought Paul into sympathy with the Christian movement. Peirce calls the third kind of example, “the divination of genius” by which a single individual is struck by an idea that immediately attracts the individual. Perhaps the famous incident of an apple falling at Isaac Newton’s feet, which gave him the immediate notion of gravity is an example.

From the perspective of political thought, all three characteristics of agapistic love are important. First, there are incidental moments of genius by which political thought is moved forward. This might for example, be seen in some of the great philosophers this blog has studied. Second, there are times in which an individual who is not in sympathy with a society or political system is struck by some virtue in that system and immediately grasps its importance. This might be seen in, for example, some of those who were in favor of communism but whose faith in freedom was kindled by contact with democracies. Finally, there are times when an idea impacts an entire society, as perhaps when the ideals of the Enlightenment impacted the American nation leading to the American revolution and national freedom.

Agapism and Politics and Morals

It is important to note that Peirce believes that Agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance and necessity, are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic for the creation of the world and of human societies. It is not an “add on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context I have called the kind of love to which Peirce is referring, “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [7]

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with with quotations from the letters of John in which he says that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). He then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. After introducing this theme, Peirce proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ. He then begins to discuss its application to evolutionarily theory.  What is important in Peirce’s approach is that he gives an ontological basis for morality and politics: It is built into the nature of creation.

I, however, would like to approach agapism from a different point of view. Peirce wrote before modern relativity and quantum theory and before the abundant proofs in science that relationality is built into the universe. Beginning with Einstein’s insights, the notion of the world as built upon independent unites of matter related only by forces acting upon them was undermined. Time and Space are relational phenomena. According to the best science available, particles are waves or “excitements” in a universal field that permeates the universe. Both the quantum phenomenon of “Entanglement” and Chaos theory point towards a relationality of creation embedded in the universe, whatever one’s theory of creation may be. [8] The physicist Argyris Nicolaidis puts it this way:

In conclusion, a mode of thinking has been reached where the primacy focuses on an “interactive being,” a being constant in relation to the other and being in continuous ex-stasis to reach the other.  This relational mode of existence, which has been associated with creative growth, novelty, and free development is qualified as agape. Agape then is something more than an emotional state or sentimental experience it is a very principle of existence…. [9]

In defending an agapistic ethic, I would move from the phenomena of relationality within the creative order, a kind of Deep Relationality, to the emergence of the various kinds of love best captured from their Greek forms as a part of the process of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection ( στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love ( φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα).
  • “agape” or self-giving love ( αγάπη),

These loves emerge out of a loving relationality at the root of creation. This loving relationality has evolved as human consciousness and human society evolved into new forms, forms that are not possible without the existence of the human race, for in the human race the inherent capacity for these loves has evolved in new and wonderful ways. From a Christian point of view, the created loves described above are derivative from and point to the uncreated love of God, reflected in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all the loves have some meaning, but three perhaps are important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which considers the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerance in sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

Love and the Gospel of Greed

Although this blog is getting long, I would be untrue to Peirce if I were not to return to his original thought that his theory of “Agapism” can be contrasted to the “Gospel of Greed” that he found present in American society, and which he thought unworthy of human society. Peirce was appalled at the way in which Social Darwinism had used the scientific principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest to justify a social organization and social policy based upon unlimited, selfish striving for power and position, which he called “the Gospel of Greed.” He felt that the kind of political and economic structures that this way of thinking promoted were immoral. This does not mean that Peirce opposed free enterprise, just a particular form of free enterprise that operated without an underlying morality based on love.

Against this “Gospel of Greed,” Peirce posited his own “Agapism” as involving devotion to other people and a personal and social ethics built upon a personal and communal ethic of love. Human beings do not find their fulfillment in unlimited self-promotion, but in as participants in a community of persons who are engaged in a common endeavor. In the case of American democracy, the creation of a society based on freedom, equality, and a search for the common good.

Conclusion

This is Easter Week, and it is appropriate that I deal with Agapism on the week when Christians celebrate the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world and his resurrection as the assurance of his victory over sin and death. I will give the last word to the Apostle whom Peirce refers in his work:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (I John 4:7-12).

Copyright, 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Happy Easter

[1] C. S. Peirce, “A Guess at the Riddle” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp158-360, hereinafter “Guess,” at and page number.

[2] Id, at 245. These three terms are derived from Greek terms meaning chance or fortune (τύχη), Greek (ἀνάγκη) necessity, and agape, or love (ηγαπ).

[3] At the moment of creation, this “first” was followed by a “second” in which a kind of mediated habit begins to be formed due to reaction to the first, this is followed then by a third, involves reflection, reaction, and the beginning of cause and effect which forms a habit, law, convention, or rule of action.

[4] See, “Evolutionary Love” in “ Nicholas Guardino, Charles . Pierce and the open Court, 1890=1893:  Promoting an American Metaphysician at https://scrcexhibits.omeka.net/exhibits/show/charles-s-peirce-open-court/-evolutionary-love- (downloaded April 11, 2022).

[5] Guess, at 249-250.

[6] Id, at 251-252,

[7] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[8] See, John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). This volume, in which Polkinghorne is a contributor and editor, contains a variety of articles by scientists and others on the theme of relationality in the universe.

[9] Argyris Nicolaidis, “Relational Nature” in The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology, at 106.

Peirce and Pragmatism 3: Politics and a Community of Seekers

As mentioned in prior blogs, in addition to founding pragmatism, Peirce struck what might be called the final intellectual blow to the kind of idealism represented by Descartes, and his essentially individualistic standard of truth. For Descartes, what was true was that which could not be doubted by any reasonable person. His argument, however, began with a fundamentally individualistic premise, “I think therefore I am.” Notice the “I.” For Descartes and much of the modern movement he began, the ideal was the solo individual, thinking on his own in the solitude of his or her study, reflecting on life and solving problems as a solitary individual.

Peirce’s philosophy, on the other hand, begins with a fundamentally communal, semiotic, communication-oriented standard of truth: truth is a matter of the correspondence of our ideas, which are inevitably expressed in signs, with some external reality we and others are trying to understand. Because human beings are inevitably controlled by their presuppositions, prejudices, limitations, and the like, no one human being can ever know the full and complete truth about any important matter. This drives Peirce to a theory of knowledge that is essentially communal. The truth is not known in solitude but as part of a community of inquiry, or what I have called a “Community of Seekers”.

If for Descartes and much of the modern world the ideal was the solitary individual deciding for his or her self, the ideal for Pearce is the individual scientist who, as part of a team of scientists is trying to solve some problem of science or medicine. Think of a research laboratory with many scientists in constant communication in the laboratory and in their private life, who read and comment on each other’s work, and who are in a common pursuit of a breakthrough in science or medicine. For Peirce, all knowledge is the result of this kind of a community of inquirers who work in both competition and in cooperation with each other.

We human beings are part of an infinite number of such communities. For example, I am a member of a family, and I have to understand my family and its relationships in order to solve problems. So does every other member of our family. I happen to be a lawyer and member of a bar association. As such, I am part of a community dedicated to the understanding the principles of American and Texas law. I’m also a pastor, a part of a community that is interested in the knowledge of God. I’m a citizen of San Antonio, Texas, interested in San Antonio and Texas and understanding its culture, laws, and government. I am a citizen of the United States, interested in the government and policies of our nation. My father, in addition to being a part of some of these things, grew roses. He was a member of the Rose Society interested in the methods and means of growing the best and most beautiful roses possible. Members of my family are farmers who beloing to various farming groups interested in the best methods of growing corn, soy beans, wheat, and other crops. You can see that all of us are members of many communities seeking understanding.

In a paper published in 1868, Peirce described philosophical inquiry as essentially social, claiming that, “We cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.” [1] At the end of the same essay, Peirce concludes:

Finally, as to it anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is only by virtue of addressing a future thought that is in its value as thought identical with it, the more to be developed. In this way, the existence of thought now, depends upon what is to be here after so that it has only a potential existence depended upon the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only in ignorance and error, so far is he is anything apart from his fellows and from what he and they are to be is only a negation. This is man. [2]

Notice that for Pierce, the acquisition of knowledge is essentially communal. Twice in the passage quoted he speak of the “decision of the community” and “the future thought of the community.” He speaks of “the ignorance of human beings apart from their fellow human beings”. For Peirce, knowledge is the end result of a community’s process of reasoning not simply the result of an individual’s individual thoughts and reasoning.

Secondly, Peirce speaks of the dependence of the community not just upon its current thought, but upon the future thought of members of the community. In other words, there is no end within history of the expansion of meaning and progress of thought, for their will always be “future thought of the community.” As to political thought, there is no “end of history” in which a certain political theory or organization will be final and complete, for the communal process of understanding will continue so long as history continues. We human beings are essentially oriented both towards the past, the present, and the future. We emerge from our past. We live in the present. And, we seek a desirable future.

Community and Growing Political Wisdom

For the pragmatist, truth is never absolute in the sense that it cannot be revised based upon new information and insight; however, the goal of a pragmatic, scientific approach to learning is that it is possible that a perception of the truth will be accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community and will be proven by such adoption to have approached a kind of “operational (or pragmatic) certainty.” As demonstrated above, the most important analogy between science and politics is the fact that science does not take place among isolated individuals, but rather in communities of scientists who most often are engaged in programs of research requiring cooperation and interchange of information.

Despite the disputes remaining between participants in quantum research, there’s no doubt among scientist the Quantum physics is an improvement over Newtonian physics and has a deeper insight into reality. Although one cannot eliminate the possibility for a radical change in quantum physics, most scientists expect that any further progress will be made within the boundaries of the fundamental view of quantum physics. Disputes between the so-called “Copenhagen” approach and the “Hidden Variable” approach to the problem of indeterminacy are all conducted within a community that is working from the same general scientific data and involved in similar research programs designed to resolve the issues between them.

Politics operates in the same way. Politics is a communal effort and requires a community, bound together by common principles and a common set of values seeking to build a society for the benefit of all. In American society, those fundamental principles are set forth in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the various decisions of policy makers and courts interpreting these fundamental principles. This is the past from which we live in the resent. The application of these principles to contemporary problems is the process of inquiry in which we are engaged as a society as we seek the common good for all participants in our society.

The problem we face in America and in much of the West is that, under the impact of Enlightenment distrust of history and tradition, we have been unable to maintain a consensus as to fundamental aspects of human life and human thriving that we all agree are necessary. We have lost that sense of a communal participation in a living tradition that is essential for maintenance of any society. At the same time, so-called “negative politics” and the search for a final victory over political opponents has undermined our ability to function as a cohesive society. This is a failure of our educational, media, and other institutions. There is no way forward unless and until we can recover a sense of communal solidarity in the search for “liberty and justice for all” or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [3] or as the Consitution puts it:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [4]

These are the foundational ideals of the American community of which we are all a part.

Political Life as a Tradition-bound Process.

The modern world was inclined to also believe in a kind of “tradition-free” thinking that a scientific approach to political philosophy undermines. Peirce and other philosophers of science point out that all thinking takes place within a tradition of inquiry conducted by a community of persons. At any time in history, that community has an established “world-view” and establish principles within which reasoning takes place. While there can be and are revolutionary changes of scientific insight, such as the change from a materialistic to a quantum way of viewing reality, these changes are not part of the ordinary operation of science.

The same is true of government. While revolutionary ideas cannot be rejected as a matter of course, it can be realized that they are not part of the ordinary function of government. Because revolutionary changes in approach cannot be ruled out, freedom of thought and speech is important so that the public square can hear and be informed of all possible approaches to public issues.

Consensus, Conflict,  and Hope in Community

For Peirce the process of inquiry of the community always seeks a consensus such that all members commonly recognize a position or theory as true. This is the hope of any community of inquiry: that doubt will be eliminated for all participants. However, this consensus is normally a future hope, not an experienced present reality. This would be especially true in the political arena. In a private letter to a critic, Peirce acknowledged this essentially incomplete and future-oriented hope of any community:

We cannot be quite sure that the community will ever settle down to an unalterable conclusion upon any given question. Even if they do so for the most part, we have no reason to think the unanimity will be quite complete, nor can we rationally presume any overwhelming consensus of opinion will be reached upon every question. All that we are entitled to assume is in the form of a hope that such conclusion may be substantially reached concerning the particular questions with which our inquirers are busied. [5]

No community of inquiry devoted to a subject like government is ever complete within human history as regards things that are complex and not subject to unanimous decision. As I have mentioned in the past, such an endeavor is a fool’s errand that dooms the society that undertakes to end debate to decay and despotism.

Conclusion

In a very fine ending to a dissertation entitled, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self” Jacob Librizzi makes the following point:

No one is radically independent and self-supporting in this life. Rather, we are all sentimentally entwined with others in our thoughts and deeds. As such, to treat the memories of others poorly as means alone, and not equally as ends in themselves, is to falsely acknowledge one’s own existence as merely a means toward an end indifferent to its makings. Such a paradoxical, life negating thought—seeking radical independence and autonomy—achieves only to explain the self by explaining it away in isolation. [6]

Much of modern politics, left and right, is guilty of exactly this mistake, the mistake that St. Augustine pointed out so long ago: Treating those we should love as ends in themselves as means, and thus cutting ourselves off from the essential communal aspects of human life. [7] Isolated individuals, unconnected to a greater community, but only responsive to the needs of those who think and feel as he or she thinks and feels, are always unwilling and unable to act in the best interests of all members of society, for they lack the vital social connection necessary for such a task.

The greatest challenge political philosophy and theology face is the recovery of a kind of communal love that can sustain a democratic and free society while protecting minorities of all kinds. We need to find a way out of our cultural fixation on radical independence and autonomy, which increasingly makes us unable to solve serious social challenges, and into a community of seekers bound together by a kind of love in a common project to achieve the common good for all.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy,1868 as reprinted in Charles S. Peirce, Essential Writings Edward Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), 87.

[2] Id, at 118.

[3] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[4] United States Constitution (US 1789).

[5] Peirce, Charles S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vols. 1 and 2. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), at 6.610. (Private letter to Paul Carus) I am indebted for this quote to Librizzi, Jacob, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self”(2017). All Theses & dissertations. 317. https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/etd

[6] See, Jacob Librizzi, footnote 3 above, at 51.

[7] See, St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 28 First Series, Volume 2. 1886–1889. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 528-534.

Crisis of Discipleship Published

Dear Friends:

I recently finished and now published a book on Disciple-Making, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making. As I say in the Preface, “Both my wife, Kathy, and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, Kathy participated in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study made up of young people who were new Christians or seeking God. Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes, businesses, schools, and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [i] Salt & Light provides one simple, practical lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to make self-replicating disciples in an orderly and effective way. We continue to share our lives with others in discipleship groups.

This past weekend, we were in Houston for a reunion of that little group after forty or more years. It was a precious time of sharing, remembering, and fellowship–a taste of heaven as one person said. It was this little group that first shared Christ with me and helped me grow as a new disciple of Jesus.

The Great Commission was not just given to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. Every Christians is intended to share the Good News and make mature disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship clarifies some of the causes of the crisis of disciple-making in our culture and suggests a possible strategy to respond. Hopefully, readers will be empowered to understand the crisis of discipleship more deeply and more effectively share their Christian faith with others as well as lead other church members in the way of Christ.”

You can find the book at:

https://virtualbookworm.com/products/crisis-of-discipleship?_pos=1&_sid=c8bd27c55&_ss=r

and at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/crisis-of-discipleship-g-christopher-scruggs/1141298125?ean=9781638680567

The ebook is or soon will be available at VirtualBookWorm, Amazon, and Apple IBooks.

[i] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017), hereinafter, “Salt & Light.”

Pragmatism 2: Logical Decision-Making, Fallibilism, and Freedom

Occasional readers of this blog will wonder why so much time is being given to the work of someone who was not a political philosopher nor well-known to the general public. As mentioned last week, C. S. Peirce was a seminal figure in philosophy and particularly in the fields of logic, semiotics (signs), and philosophy of science. Last week, we focused on Peirce’s development of pragmatism. This week, we explore his “logic of abduction,” which is central to the pragmatic way of thinking. Pragmatism begins with the “Pragmatic Maxim” first developed and published by Peirce:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object. [1]

For Pierce, this maxim was a “logical principle” connected with his ideas of what counts as reality (metaphysics), the proper methodology for philosophy to undertake to resolve its quandaries (epistemology), and even moral and other questions (ethics and aesthetics).

The maxim was designed to cure philosophy of the habit of channeling energy towards disputes with little or no practical value in the search for indubitable truth. In particular, Peirce opposed Descartes’ program of “doubt leading to certainty” via indisputable ideas. Pragmatism (or what he called “pragmaticism” to distinguish his personal program) has been many things to many people, but for Peirce pragmatism was the core principle of a way of doing philosophy and of solving philosophical problems in a more “scientific way.” [2]

Peirce’s pragmatic maxim is a rule designed to clarify our conceptions by directly relating them to actual or anticipated experience. In very broad terms, the pragmatic principle urges that thinkers anchor concepts and ideas in their potential practical application in actions to be taken, including “rules or modes of action” to be adopted as a result of inquiry. Transported into the language of politics and political philosophy, this maxim might be rephrased as follows:

In evaluating any aspect of a political philosophy, the inquirer should consider what practical impact the adoption of a given philosophical conception might have for the government of society, and the impact of such a conception would have on some action to be taken is key to understanding that concept.

Thus, a “Peircean approach to political philosophy” finds its ground in the potential application of its ideas to substantive problems and actions to be taken to solve them.

Three Methods of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic, which he called “Abduction.” Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely, but not certain, in light of accumulated evidence. For example, suppose I use bleach on my sink 1000 times, and then conclude from experience that bleach is a good cleaner for sinks. This is an example of inductive thinking.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning starts with the assertion of a general rule and proceeds from there to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. In deductive reasoning, if the original assertion is true, the conclusion must also be true. In my example above, suppose I start with the general principle (A) that bleach is a good for cleaning porcelain objects. Then, I observe (B) that my sink is a porcelain object. The conclusion (C) is then logically certain that my sink can be cleaned by bleach.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experience has revealed. Let us suppose that I want to clean my sink with the best possible cleaner acceptable to my family as a whole. I might use plain soap, an all-natural soap my children recommend, a cleaner my wife recommends that contains hydrogen peroxide, a cleaner labeled “for porcelain” the woman who cleans our home prefers, or a cleaner which includes bleach which I prefer. Each of these options have a proponent in my family who strongly support its use. I initially prefer the cleaner containing bleach because my mother recommended it; however, I also try out all the other cleaners recommended before concluding that, given all the concerns of family members, the hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner is best choice. This is an example of abductive reasoning, which we consciously or unconsciously use in everyday life.  Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence.

Abductive reasoning is at the center of any scientific approach to understanding. In all scientific inquiry, science begins with a problem that needs solving and one or more hypotheses or ideas about what might be the best solution to the problem at hand. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of sciences as based solely upon “facts alone”. Science is interested in developing and analyzing facts, but those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical framework, a hypothesis or theory about how the world is actually organized.

The ability of a thinker to engage in a pragmatic philosophical endeavor involves the ability to think in what Peirce called, a “scientific manner” about problems, which leads directly to an understanding of abduction as a logical method intimately connected to a pragmatic philosophy. In fact, the pragmatic approach is applicable in many situations where logical certainty is impossible, as is always the case with politics, where information is inconclusive and different approaches have support.

In the first stage of an abductive inquiry, a hypothesis is created. (For example, “I believe that shrinking the national debt without social instability is best achieved by selective tax increases on the wealthiest segment of society.”) In the second stage, deduction is used derive predictions. (“If selective tax increases were to work, small but significant increases in tax rates on the wealthy should bring down the national debt without increasing social inequality.”) In the third stage, induction is used to verify the assumptions by searching for facts. (“After enactment of a small increase in tax rates on the wealthiest one percent of Americans, it was noted that they deficit fell by “x” while lower and middle-class incomes and purchasing power remained stable.”). When and if the process does not yield sufficiently fitting facts to validate the hypothesis, the abductive cycle is to be repeated until it a verified theory or course of action is established.

Abduction and Political-Decision Making

More than one author has worked out implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. [3] This is important because abduction is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty.

Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering.

One implication of this kind of approach to political decision-making is the observation that policy makers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality as they test the results of their policy choices. Small adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can established.

I have used a contemporary example of the importance of incremental approaches to policy formulation and implementation in the results flowing from the enactment of what was known as “Obamacare.” The time the proposal was made, most people familiar with a medical insurance business understood that charging lower than average rates for the highest risk category defied the logic of the insurance business as a whole. Congress, determined to make a radical change in the way Americans receive medical care, enacted the proposal as developed solely by the party in power without considering the views of the minority or experts who disagreed with their approach. There was little or no attempted compromise and policy adjustment. Once enacted, the problems that were foreseen by experts occurred and the program failed in many respects. The party which enacted the program suffered multiple electoral losses. A more graduated approach toward change, might have avoided successive election losses by the party that produce this legislation.

Having used an example of relative to a decision made by one political party, let us take another in which the other party was a leadership. After the bombing of the Twin Towers there was a political consensus that America had to go into Afghanistan and eliminate the terror base of Osama Ben Ladin. There was massive political unity that this was a proper policy to follow. However, following the successful initial invasion two decisions were made that did not have widespread acceptance nor did the majority of the members of government believe the wisest course of action. The first decision was to stay in Afghanistan for a long period of time engaging in “nation building” in a society with little commitment to democratic principles. The second decision was to invade Iraq with the same objectives. These policies were not enacted after extensive dialogue and with a sense of national unity and were ultimately unsuccessful. The party of the institutors of this policy suffered electoral defeat.

Both of these policy failures illustrate the importance of a dialogue, compromise, and rational adjustment among members of the political community in responding to national problems, including considered attempts to meet objections and adapt policies to factual circumstances, rather than take ideological grounded actions on the basis of preconceived notions.

Fallibilism and Freedom

The fact that abductive reasoning takes place under circumstances where there is a diversity of opinion, are many facts to be explained, and no absolutely certain decision available, leads to another principle central to Peirce’s way of doing philosophy: Fallibilism. In his view, the kind of truths that pragmatism is able to generate is never absolute, and always subject to revision based on additional information or a better explanation of the information at hand. In other words, where rules of action are involved, all opinion is subject to change and any theory or explanation of the facts could be wrong. In political terms, this principle of fallibilism means that any decision made by those in leadership in principle could be wrong and require adjustment, however certain we may be at the time a policy is adopted. [4] Fallibilism is a principle of humility—a characteristic notably lacking in much contemporary political conversation.

Fallibilism is also important to another value of our society: Freedom of Thought and Speech. If I think I possess the unquestionable truth about matters of policy, then I may ignore, suppress, or distort others positions, since my opponents are obviously wrong. If, however, I understand that I am fallible in my opinions and policy preferences, then it is important and essential to my own participation in political life and to the operation of our political system that other views be able to access the public square, so that policy-makers, and in a free society, citizens, can make wise judgments about matters of importance.

Freedom finds its most secure grounding in a sense that no one person or group has access to the truth about matters of public policy nor is everything a matter of “Will to Power” as the Nietzscheans would have it. Instead, our understanding of political reality is of necessity limited and subject to incompleteness and the necessity for change and adaptation.

Conclusion

Our political system is subject to rampant irrationality, increasing intolerance, emotional and social manipulation and a host of evils that can be and should be ameliorated by a pragmatic approach to decision-making. In politics, there is rarely certainty or complete consensus. There is always conflict to some degree. It is the function of leadership to mitigate the weaknesses of a democratic system by wisely considering and discussing policy matters with a willingness to make slow, incremental, and rational changes for the public good. The great challenges we face as a society cannot be healed by irrational conflict, public anger, demonstrations and other similar programs. The greatest single change we could make in American politics is to embrace a pragmatic and logical approach to policy making at all levels of government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 105, hereinafter, “AP.”

[2] Peirce was in disagreement with the ways in which Dewey and James developed pragmatism, especially as to the reality of universals, and so he coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his approach.

[3] See for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/publicservice_etds/41 (down loaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[4] Fallibilism sits under any “critical realistic” philosophical position. This blog often defends critical realism as a philosophical position. It is the view that all of our opinions are subject to critique and change, but that the theories we develop are, nevertheless, insights into reality.

 

Pragmatism No. 1: What Difference Does Theory Make?

For the next several weeks, we will be looking at the political implications of the American pragmatist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To begin, we return briefly to perhaps the most brilliant philosophical mind that America ever produced, Charles Sanders Peirce, who began that movement—and in so doing began the movement from what I would call “the modern age” to the “constructive postmodern age.” Peirce is an important figure on the number of levels. He was a brilliant logician and made important contributions to the study of logic. He was the founder of modern semiotics, or the study of signs. He was a practicing scientist, familiar with the scientific method. He was skilled in mathematics. He understood the fundamentals of the physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific disciplines of his day.

Born into an academic family, Peirce was not an easy person, managed to get himself blackballed from the academia of his day, and earned his living writing for fees. Friends like William James and Josiah Royce did the best they could to support him, Peirce died in poverty. Nevertheless, he was acknowledged by James, Royce, and others as the founder of the movement we call “Pragmatism” and one of the great minds of the 19th and early 20thcenturies. He split from James and others who he believed had taken Pragmatism in the wrong direction and created his own version, which he called “Pragmaticism.” This will later become important to understand.

Tradition vs. Doubt

The modern world began with Descarte and his program of systematic doubt. [1] Peirce was the first philosopher to recognize that the kind of philosophic doubt that Descarte represented was a “false” or “fake” doubt. Peirce points out that Descarte did not in fact doubt in his every day and professional life what he proclaimed to doubt philosophically. Therefore, his doubt was a “philosophic” or “fake” doubt designed to support a conclusion he had already reached. Peirce, a scientist who worked within the scientific community of his day, responds to Descarte, observing:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by maxim, for their things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception and not a real doubt; …. [2]

It is at this very point that pragmatism begins to emerge. Real doubt is not philosophic doubt. Real doubt is a doubt that leads to action to undo some kind of real doubt as to some feature of reality, so that it may be understood and responded to appropriately.

For Peirce, doubt is in an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves so that we may pass into a state of understanding or belief. All intellectual progress begins with some kind of doubt or uncertainty. A scientist is motivated to inquiry by doubt that a current understanding is complete. Furthermore, doubt cannot be permanently removed from the human situation for it is the motive for continuing human inquiry.[3] Every understanding of any reality is temporary. “Real Doubt,” unlike “Philosophic Doubt” is a part of the human condition.

Peirce was familiar with the scientific method, which is normally not the activity of a sole individual but of a community of inquirers (for example the community of cancer researchers), whose joint efforts produce a better understanding of reality. Thus, he is also opposed to the radical individualism of Descartes’ method. This is an extremely important feature of Peirces philosophy on knowledge, a taken up by others.

We cannot reasonably hope to attain progress in philosophy or any other aspect of reality without participation in an historic community of inpuuiry and their understanding of reality. [4] Thus, pragmatism in its original form reinstates tradition as an important aspect of any kind of reasoning. We cannot reason effectively except within a tradition of inquiry, which is one reason this series of blogs had attempted to survey much of the history of political philosophy.

Pragmatism and Progress

As early as the late 19 century Peirce was developing a notion of how intellectual progress occurs, a pragmatic notion that relies upon a continuing course of inquiry by human beings. This notion of truth includes the idea that to believe a proposition to be true is not merely an intellectual commitment or removal of doubt, but instead a belief that includes a willingness to conduct ourselves on the basis of the truth we believe ourselves to have discovered to satisfy the desires that motivated our inquiry. [5]

Peirce compares the method of pragmatic inquiry with other methods of establishing truth often adapted by the human race:

  1. The Method of Tenacity. The method of tenacity removes the dread of doubt by holding a belief irrespective of the evidence. Interestingly, person is aware that this method is often used by highly successful individuals in practical day-to-day affairs. It is not however, result in a kind of progress in human understanding that inquiry six.
  2. The Method of Authority. A second method of inquiry establishes some kind of power, government, and administrative group, a bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to prevent any contrary doctrine from being established or spoken.
  3. A Priori Method. The final method with which person disagrees is the method of deduction from a priori first principles, characteristic of European rationalism. The A Priori method actually does not differ from the method of authority, except that individual human reason becomes that authority. Nothing new can be discovered because nothing new can ever be discovered without new information and the results of investigation. [6]

It is at this point that a connection with political philosophy is easily seen. Governments, throughout human history, have tried to enforce their legitimacy, and the wisdom of their policies, by creating bureaucracies, administrative centers of power, educational institutions, and other social organs, the purpose of which is to establish and promulate certain views as obviously true and even a priori true and a segregate those which disagree from any possible influence upon public policy. [7] In an important passage Peirce sets out the terrifying nature of this approach:

Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time the power to prevent country doctrines from being taught, advocated or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions let them be kept ignorant less they should learn and some reason to think otherwise they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. [8]

We see this kind of behavior at work today in our schools and universities, in their intolerance of certain ideas, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in the “cancel culture movement,” in political movements left and right, and even in our governments.

The method of authority is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by stigmatizing those who hold contrary views. It is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by a process designed to prevent real though so that ordinary persons will simply concede. Throughout human history, this method has been used by governments, and particularly by those governments dominated by an aristocracy or an oligarchy, to prevent the expression of any views which might undermine the power of those in authority.[9]

The Pragmatic Alternative

Having critiqued the methods of tenacity, authority, and reliance on a priori ideas,  Pearce outlines his pragmatic alternative. He begins by noting that willful adherence to a belief in arbitrary forcing beliefs upon others must be given up in a free society so that people may find rational means of fixing their beliefs. This rational method is analogous to the method of science in that it involves appropriate investigation and experiment in order to establish a new belief.

In addition, the pragmatic method begins with the realization that there are real things that exist independent of our opinions about them. That is to say, notions such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and the like are not subjective as the modern postmodernist would have it, but real in the sense that they have the capacity to impact our behavior and adaptation to an environment, including a social environment, for good or ill. These things are not just material but also immaterial, before they have a reality born of their capacity to enlighten and inform human action. [10]

One implication of Peirce’s method is that it discourages impulsive, dramatic, or radical solution to problems unless the situation demands it. Most of the problems of a society require sober inquiry, careful experiment as to alternatives, and wise implementation by persons of capacity and practical wisdom.

Another implication involves maximizing freedom of speech and action. For a wise course of social action to be taken, the maximum number of views possible needs to be heard and studied by those responsible for a decision. Otherwise, the best practical solution may be missed.

Conclusion: Freedom of Speech and Pragmatic Inquiry

Before going on to other pragmatists, and especially before reviewing Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had a enormous impact on American jurisprudence, I wanted to spend some time with Peirce, who was the originator of the pragmatist movement of which Holmes and others of more direct political significance were a part. We will return to Peirce before this study is over, because he is such an important figure. For now, I want to end with the importance of this thought for Freedom of Speech, a right that we see being undermined in our society. In one of his passages that has a definite bearing upon political philosophy Peirce comments:

The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organizational force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give us through approval. [11]

Those who believe that they are surely correct in their political views, and those who value social peace and the maintenance of the current social, political or economic order, whatever it may be, will always be tempted to use the method of authority to secure their position in society, and the social piece which they enjoy. It is a method that has both a benefit and a danger to human progress. However, in the end, such a method can lead only to intellectual and social decay. Instead, there needs to be a pragmatic approach. Peirce believed that he had found this approach in the pragmatic method, which begins with the logical task of ordering ideas and recognizing inconsistency and incompleteness in those ideas, but which also involves further research and analysis before doubt is resolved and correct action can be taken.

Motivated by the doubt caused by the incompleteness or inconsistency of our understanding (and a corresponding unwillingness to take action based upon that incomplete or inadequate information), the pragmatist engages in further inquiry so to better understand that world and how to respond to it. This can be the physical world, as in science, the moral world, as in philosophy, the spiritual world, as in religion, or the social world, as in politics and government. The exact nature of the method will vary depending upon the community of inquiry and subject matter of the inquiry. So, for example, the method of politics is not the method of science or the method of religion. Each of these disciplines have their own adaptation of the pragmatic method.

The goal of the pragmatic method is the discovery of new information that will permit us to develop a new rule of action with confidence, that is a new mode of adapting ourselves to the environment. [12] In politics and government that new rule of action is intended to solve some social or political problem which the society of which we are a part faces and needs to solve.

The desired result of the use of the pragmatic method is to develop a course of action, what Peirce calls a “habit of action,” that will produce a beneficial result that is tangible and practical. [13] In one of his clearest statements of the pragmatic method, Peirce urges that, in the course of any intellectual inquiry, the best course of action is to consider what conceivable effects having practical bearing on the problem, might result from the conceptions developed as a result of our inquiry of some aspect of reality. [14] In the case of politics and social policy, the careful consideration of potential results is absent from much political discourse. For example, the impact of increasing government debt is rarely seriously considered as a restraint on policy desires by whichever party is in power.

One of the most attractive features of Peirce’s pragmatism as relates to practical matters of political thought, has to do with the “Critical Common-sensism” he endorses. [15] Unlike all systems based upon the premise of doubt, Peirce bases his system upon human “common sense,” upon the reality and reasonableness of our common sense understanding of the world and all of its attributes. However, this is not a naïve common sense. Or common sense is not always right. What Peirce recommends is a critical common-sensism, that is subject to revision based upon future discovery.

As mentioned earlier, the pragmatic method is always controlled by the result of criticism, doubt, and further inquiry, and there is no definite, established limit or end to the human search for understanding in any area in such a system of thought, including politics and government. In other words, our current ideas are always subject to revision based upon new evidence. Included within the scope of our ideas are our current political ideas, whatever they might be, which is why freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, respect for a diversity of opinions, including religious and other opinions, is important to a wise and good government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Descarte, if you will remember, claimed to doubt everything except for this ability to think. “I think, therefore, I am. His inquiry was not unmotivated however, a factor of which Pearce takes note. In fact, his method of doubt was designed to defend the Catholic religion and the consensus of his day.

[2] Charles S. Peirce, “The Rules of Philosophy” (originally published in 1868) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists(Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 80-81, hereinafter referred to as “AP” with essay title included. The “maxim” to which Peirce referes is “Cognito Ergo Sum,” or” I think therefore I am.”

[3] “Fixation of Belief” in AP, at 87.

[4] “The Rules of Philosophy” in AP, at 81.

[5] Id, at 89.

[6] This important discussion is in AP, “Fixation of Belief” (1877), at 89-96.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Id, at 91.

[9] Id, at 92.

[10] Id, at 95 ff. I do not have time to deal with the reality of universals in this blog. For those with an interest, see my prior blog, “Faith in the Unseen Reality of Truth: The Work of Michael Polanyi” at www.gchristopherscruggs.com, May 28, 2020.

[11] Id, at 97.

[12] “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in AP, at 105.

[13] Peirce uses the term, “habit” to refer to a rule of action or mode of action that can be repeatedly embraced to lead to successful behavior.

[14] Id at 108. See also, “Issues of Pragmatism” (1905) in AP, at 119.

[15] Id, at 119. I take Peirce’s “Critical Common Sensism” to be a form of Critical Realism, a principle of humility that holds common sense ideas of a time and place subject to revision upon further inquiry.

Rauschenbusch 4: Concluding Analysis

This is the final installment (for the time being) covering the life and work of Walter Rauschenbusch. By profession, Rauschenbusch was a pastor and church historian, and his arguments are buttressed by historical analysis. Rauschenbusch achieved prominence with the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907, which is why this book is being analyzed. [1] From 1907 until his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the American “Social Gospel Movement,” which had great influence in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries,

Among Rauschenbusch’s other writings are Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). It is my hope to return to his thought and later in this series with a look at Christianizing the Social Order.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Rauschenbusch was of German, Lutheran heritage. He studied in Germany and admired and respected the German People. He was sensitive about the public dislike of Germany that accompanied the run-up to American involvement in World War I. His opposition to war generally, and to the war with Germany in particular, resulted in much criticism, and his popularity waned. Rauschenbusch completed his final work A Theology for the Social Gospel, in early 1917. Thereafter, Rauschenbusch’s health declined. He was hospitalized in June 1918 due to colon cancer and died that July. [2]

The Social Crisis

As Rauschenbusch analyzed the social crisis of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, he came to believe that the Industrial Revolution and prevailing capitalist form of economic organization had stripped the working class from the land, from the security of the European Guild system, and from the dignity of ownership of the enterprises from which they gained a living. I found his discussion of the nature of pre-industrial land ownership intriguing. It was his conviction that the United States would soon see the same kinds of problems as Europe because of the centralization of land ownership and the decline of agriculture as the primary occupation of most people.[3] Interestingly, the ultra-rich of our society are increasingly purchasing farm land.

In his view, the existence of large numbers of people without significant ownership of property nor any claim on the profits earned by their labor was bound to work to the detriment of labor and their families. [4] The growth of laisse faire capitalism had so severed the social bonds and diminished the dignity of labor, that fear, not pride in labor was the primary motive of many workers. In a passage of great beauty, Rauschenbusch concludes:

For an old man to be able to look about him on the farm or business he has built up by the toil of his life is a profound satisfaction, and antidote to the sense of declining strength and gradual failure. For an old man after a lifetime of honest work to have nothing, to amount to nothing, and be turned as useless, and to eat the bread of dependence, is a pitiable humiliation. [5]

In my view, there is no question but that Rauschenbusch is at least partially motivated by a longing for a simpler, more organic, agriculture-based economy. He is taken by the notion that human beings need space, light, physical labor, and a healthy diet to remain active, all of which were lacking in the New York City of his ministry. He believes that the secret of the energy and prosperity of America was just those features lacking in an industrial (and perhaps even more in a post-industrial) economy.

In Rauschenbusch’s opinion, the crisis created by the Industrial Revolution undermined the moral foundations of American democracy. In his mind, “approximate economic equality” was a foundation of democratic government. [6] For example in Revolutionary America, most people were landowners and small farmers. Great fortunes existed, but nothing like the great fortunes that characterized the Industrial Revolution or America today. Where there is a proximate social equality, and people live in community with one another, the normal social intercourse of life bonds society together. [7]Where the rich and poor are separated by a great economic distance, and the rich live in enclaves of wealth removed from the life and problems of ordinary people, this bond is dissolved.

This is an aspect of Rauschenbusch’s analysis that coheres with current social analysis of the wealth disparity that characterizes contemporary America. We might well consider Rauschenbusch’s conclusion:

Politics is embroidered with patriotic sentiment and phrases, but at bottom, consciously or unconsciously, the economic interest dominate it always. If therefore we have a class which owns a large part of the national wealth and controls nearly all the mobile part of it, it is idle to suppose that this class will not see to it that the vast power exerted by the machinery of government serves its interests. And if we have another class which is economically dependent and helpless, it is idle to suppose that it will be allowed and equal voice in swing political power in short, we cannot join economic inequality and political equality.[8]

It may well be that political polices designed to give the middle and lower classes greater ownership in American business is essential to sustaining our democracy.

The Stake of the Church in the Social Crisis

In Rauschenbusch’s view, the social crisis has profound implications for the Christian church. The church, as a social institution rooted in the common life of a people, suffers if the society in which it is located suffers.[9] As in prior chapters, Rauschenbusch argues for the religious and moral necessity for the church to act. As a social institution, the church is bound to suffer the impoverishment of its members, the high cost of goods, the lower capacity for giving, and the loss of good pastors that economic decline causes. [10] Institutional maintenance aside, the church cannot remain indifferent to chronic and acute poverty. The church has a moral and spiritual obligation, to remedy human suffering. A loss of capacity to undertake this task would be a great loss to the church. [11] Finally, if the church cannot act to undo the commercialization of life, then the church itself will inevitably decline and be captured by commercial forces. [12]

Rauschenbusch attacks the use of Darwinian and Nietzschean theory to justify the current social order. Thus, he concludes:

With many of the Darwinian theory has proved a welcome justification of things as they are. It is right and fitting the thousand should perish to evolve the higher type of the modern businessman. Those who are manifestly surviving in the present struggle for existence can console themselves with the thought that they are the fittest, and there is no contradicting the laws of the universe. There is an atomistic philosophy crowds out Christian faith in solidarity. The law of the cross is superseded by the law of tooth and nail. [13]

Rauschenbusch goes on to reflect upon how the philosophy of Nietzsche had been used to justify the current social order with its opposition of “Christian slave morality” to the morality of self-asertion. This is not to say that Darwinian theory is not a true account of evolution, but with the emergence of the human race, a new factor is at work in the universe.

In our own society, political considerations prevents the honest admission that many of our economic and political leaders hold just such views.  In a few weeks, I will address the decline of the atomistic view of the universe to which Rauschenbusch refers, and the decline in the fundamental world view at work behind the thought of Nietzsche and others. For now, it is enough to observe that Rauschenbusch is clear about the fact that these views are not compatible with a Christian view of social relations.  A Christian view of social relations is inevitably a view based upon the goodness of God and of God’s creation, the inherent worth and value of the human person, the underlying unity of the human race, and the power of love in human social relations.

The Way Forward

Rauschenbusch concludes his great work with a chapter devoted to the broad outline of what is to be done to remedy the social crisis. The world and the Christian movement were (and are), as Rauschenbusch sees matters, at a moment of crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis of its history, as the force of industrialization and the formation of a society formed on materialistic principles becomes the dominant form of social organization.  Rauschenbusch begins with an analysis of the responses that show little promise of success.

  1. First among these unworkable responses is the vain hope that somehow human society could return to an earlier stage of development. The progress of democracy and the benefits of the scientific and industrial progress of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be turned back. All that can be done is to rationalize and humanize the results. Rauschenbusch believes that some form of socialistic modifications of society are required for such an endeavor.[14]
  2. Secondly, it is not productive to attempt to reconstruct society on purely Biblical principles, as if the social organization of ancient Israel could be imported into the 20th or 21st In particular, the social structures of ancient Israel were created for an ancient agricultural society, distant in time and character. Rather than attempt to reconstruct ancient Israel in the modern world, the proper adaptation is to look for the timeless principles of justice and quality that motivated the Mosaic law and Jewish social organization in the years before Christ. [15]
  3. Finally, it is not reasonable for the church to retreat into a kind of monastic or communal retreat from modern society. While some of the Christian, socialistic and communal experiments of the past have proven useful, they can only make large scale changes when their ideals and principles ae put into practice on a larger scale. In particular, Rauschenbusch was aware of some of the experiments in cooperative ownership in Great Britain, which had gained much attention but little lasting influence. [16]

Rauschenbusch believes that the church should use its moral influence, but should not attempt to regain the kind of power that it possessed in the Middle Ages. The experience of the church in the Middle Ages, and the ultimate decline in its moral and spiritual power, are sufficient evidence of the temptations to power that did and would ultimately corrupt and undermine the church as a spiritual institution. The church can only assist in the transformation of the social life of a nation if it is content with inspiring a social movement on the basis of its faith. It must not attempt to control that movement for its own benefit or it is unfaithful to the spirit of Christ. [17]

The church in general, and every Christian in particular, can make their best contribution to the social restructuring of society by repenting of their own social sinfulness and receiving the spiritual and emotional power to create a more just society. Creation of a just society is ultimately based upon our common humanity and the organic nature of human society, for  no one can truly be an island or live solely for his or her own desires.[18] In the creation of this society, the church is a servant dedicated to transforming human lives in the service of a just society.

By creating a new kind of human individual, dedicated to the creation of a more just society, the church has a role to play both through its leadership and lay membership. Rauschenbusch believed that there was a need for pastoral leadership trained and willing to accept the call of using their position to enhance social righteous. [19] On the other hand, the kingdom of God can only be created when carried into social life by the common consciousness and personal faith of ordinary Christians. Therefore, any movement towards social righteousness must also be a movement of laity. [20]

One notion that runs throughout Christianity and the Social Crisis is the idea that the church has done a relatively good job of preaching and enhancing private morality, and Rauschenbusch was a believer that the private morality of his day was an improvement over prior periods in history. [21] On the other hand, he believed that the church as an institution had not been successful in promoting a social morality. Therefore, to him, there was no moral question more pressing than the question of public morality. [22]

Conclusion

Christianity and the Social Crisis is an important book, and its author one of the most important American contributors to any kind of a social political theology. Rauschenbusch exemplifies the best of 19th and 20th century liberal Protestantism. He never cut himself off from the evangelical roots of his childhood or the fervency of his early faith. His book walks a delicate line between bringing into the social conversation of the church new ideas and maintaining historic Christian faith. Rauschenbusch was heavily influenced by modern critical scholarship and the political winds of his day, but he never cut himself off from his Christian roots. Perhaps most important in this regard is his understanding that human society, governments and law rest on something deeper—a moral and spiritual reality without the support of which no society can endure. [23]

If Rauschenbusch was attracted to both Socialism and communism, it is to be remembered that he died before the horrific results of the Russian Revolution became known. He died before Lenin’s leadership and the emergence of Stalin. He did not see the end of the communist regimes we have witnessed. What he did see was the hope they presented for a more organic and Christian society. It is for our day and time to think through what might productively transmit of that hope to a new generation, perhaps in a different way. We must leave Rauschenbusch for now but hope to return to his thought before these blogs are complete.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] For further biographical information, see “Walter Rauschenbusch” in the online Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Rauschenbusch (Downloaded March 10, 2022)

[3] CSC, 211-230.

[4] Id, at 234.

[5] Id, at 237.

[6] Id, at 247.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 255.

[9] Id, at 287.

[10] Id, at 287-304.

[11] Id, at 304-305.

[12] Id, at 314.

[13] Id, at 315.

[14] Id, at 344.

[15] Id, at 345.

[16] Id, at 346-7.

[17] Id.

[18] Id, at 352-353.

[19] Id, at 357.

[20] Id.

[21] I’m not sure it’s possible to agree with his conclusion, but he’s to be remembered that he lived at the time of prohibition, and the victory of conservative groups over the force of alcohol. He was actually a supporter of probation. He may have not seen that the social mores of the industrial society were becoming corrupt. In addition, he did not live to see the results of the First and Second World Wars.

[22] Id, at 358.

[23] Id, at 373.

Rauschenbusch No. 3: The Church and the Social Gospel

In Rauschenbusch’s analysis the message of Jesus was fundamentally social, concerning the coming of a kingdom of righteousness and social justice as a continuation of the ministry of the prophets. If Jesus’s message was essentially social, concerned with the Kingdom of God and its victory in reorganizing human societies around the Gospel, then the question is immediately raised, “How did the message of Christ fail to activate the kind of social change its founder intended?” The answer given by Rauschenbusch in Christianity and the Social Crisis is that the church failed to proclaim and enact the message of its founder in the way he intended. [1]

It is appropriate to locate Walter Rauschenbusch both theologically and ecclesiologically within the Christian movement. Rauschenbusch was a liberal Protestant, raised as a fairly conservative Lutheran. He went to a Northern Baptist seminary, where he embraced progressive theological ideas, ideas which powerfully impacted “Mainline Protestant Denominations” of his and our day. [2]

Rochester Theological Seminary (formed in 1850) was the central founding institution of what is today known through a series of mergers as “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.” It has been for many years a significant force in American liberal theological education, impacted by liberal biblical and theological scholarship and the Social Gospel Movement.  Throughout its history, the seminary has been known for its commitment to academic freedom, a quality that led it to support Rauschenbusch in publishing what, at the time, were extremely forward thinking ideas. Another faculty member, William Newton Clarke (1840-1912) wrote An Outline of Christian Theology (1898) that became, in the words of a leading historian, “virtually the Dogmatik of evangelical liberalism.” Yet another faculty member, Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) served as president of the seminary while producing theology that incorporated the doctrine of evolution and the emerging practices of biblical criticism within its scope. [3] The seminary distinguished itself for academic rigor and social witness, traits remarkably combined in its most famous faculty member, Walter Rauschenbusch.

I have given this lengthy introduction in order to reflect upon both the strength of Christianity and the Social Crisis, as well as what I believe is one of its limitations. It is the definitive work of the Social Gospel Movement in the United States of America. It is, however, influenced by the Protestant suspicion of the Catholic Church and of the veracity of the Church Fathers in transmitting the message of Jesus. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch’s work is infected with the suspicion of tradition as a reliable source of wisdom and knowledge that is a legacy of the Reformation and Enlightenment. In many cases, this defect leads Rauschenbusch to overstate his case and slightly misunderstand and underestimate the positive role of the Church in social progress that has marked Christian civilization.

What Went Wrong

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Jesus was a great man, and like all great men and founders of movements, his disciples were not of the same caliber. Thus, he begins his analysis with the following:

There are a few men who maintain their first love and shield to their colder age and their earlier purposes untarnished by policy and concession to things as they are. But as soon as the thoughts of a great spiritual leader passed to others and form the animating principal of a party or school or set, there is an inevitable drop. The disciples cannot keep pace with a sweep of their master. They flutter where he soared. [4]

In Jesus, a lofty mind and powerful spirit had proclaimed the Kingdom of God in a powerful and motivating way. His followers, alas, were not so gifted or energized for the task—at least until the Reformation and post-Reformation scholarship. This dismissive attitude towards the Christian tradition is the major defect in Christianity and the Social Crisis.

From an orthodox position, one wonders if Rauschenbusch has somewhat overstated his case. It is difficult to think of the apostle Paul as not gifted or energized for the task of sharing the gospel. It’s equally difficult to think the same thing about Dr. Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. It is, in fact, difficult to fully agree with Rauschenbusch’s conclusion as to all the apostles and leaders of the first 300 years of the faith, many of whom went to their death as martyrs for the Gospel. One might wonder if twelve ordinary men were gifted for the task, but one cannot easily deny that they were energized and committed to the task Jesus gave them.

A second factor at work in the failure of the church to accomplish the social mission of Jesus, in the mind of Rauschenbusch, has to do with its organizational development. As the church developed, and particularly as it became institutionalized, a structure was established (including the office of Bishop) which was both organizationally committed and conservative. Naturally, like all institutions committed to survival, there was a tendency to give way before the powers of the Roman Empire. In the end, it is Rauschenbusch’s view that the church distorted the true aims of its founder. [5]

Impact of Millennial Hope

A final factor has to do with Rauschenbusch’s view of the role that the millennial hopes of the first and early generations of the church played in the lack of social progress made by the founders of the movement. There is no question but was the early Christians anticipated that Christ would return relatively quickly, certainly within their own lifetimes. While there is evidence that the church was forced to come to grips with the fact that the return of Christ would not occur during the lifetime of the Apostle’s themselves, the fact is that the early return of Christ was a motivating factor in the mission of Paul and the other Apostles (See for example, I Thessalonians 4:13-18; I Peter 2:11-12). Through the time of Revelation, there is the constant hope that Christ would come quickly and soon (Revelation 22:20).

This Millennial hope was the hope of a return of Christ in which he would establish God’s kingdom of righteousness. In the words of Rauschenbusch:

The return of the Lord meant the inauguration of the kingdom of God. What the prophets had foretold, what the people had longed for, and what John the Baptist had proclaimed as close at hand, would come to pass when Jesus returned from heaven to reign. He had not achieved his real mission during his earthly life; the opposition of the rulers had frustrated that; it had been God’s will so. But he was still the Messiah of Israel; the national salvation was bound to come; the kingdom of God would yet be restored to Israel. In a very short time he would descend from heaven and then all their hopes would be fulfilled in one glorious and divine act of consummation. [6]

Sitting within this passage are several points of interest. First of all, Rauchenbusc assumes that Jesus failed to achieve his “real mission” during his life. This, of course, denies that the Cross was the central mission of Christ’s earthly life. [7] Second, implicit in this statement is that, at the time of Jesus’s death, he was seen as and saw himself as “the Messiah of Israel” and not a universal savior of the world. As Russian Bush goes on to say, it’s a national salvation that Jesus was intending.

Rauschenbusch is not unaware of passages in the Bible that cast doubt upon his analysis. I want only to mention one, the final passage of Revelation where, relying on Isaiah 63:17, the writer describes a “New Heaven and New Earth” descending from heaven:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:1-5).

A close analysis of this passage reveals that there is going to be a “new heaven and a new earth.” The New Earth that is the creation of God will be seen in “the holy city” that is descending upon the earth. This is not the historic city of Jerusalem (the center of Jewish prophetic hopes), but the church of Jesus Christ, “the new Jerusalem”. In a change of metaphor, this New Jerusalem is clearly the church the Bride of Christ. In this new Jerusalem, God himself will be present by the Holy Spirit empowering its witness in mission.

This analysis is made even more clear by Chapter 22 where in the image of the writer, “a river of life” flows through the city of God, that is the new Jerusalem, bearing fruit as it flows out of the city through the witness of Scripture in the old and New Testaments and of the Apostles. In the words of one commentator, the vision of John, written after the destruction of the earthy city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is a vision of eternal blessedness of the people of God. [8]I would add, it is a vision of the spiritual task of the people of God to bear fruit within the earthly kingdoms.

Rauschenbusch clearly identifies the millennial hope of the Jewish people, and his analysis of that hope in the life of Jesus and the early church with an earthly kingdom to be created by the people of God: “The millennium was the early Christian utopia. It occupied the same place in the imagination in hopes of the first generations of Christians which the cooperative commonwealth occupies in the fancies of modern socialists.” [9] Rauschenbusch describes this hope as a “revolutionary hope”. [10] The hope of the early church was a “hope of social perfection.” [11]

It is at this point but I think one can easily see that Rauschenbusch has gone beyond a careful interpretation of the words of Jesus. For example, when brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). When discussing leadership with his apostles before his death, he indicates that his style of leadership will not be the style of glory leadership of earthly rulers, who lord it over others (Mark 10:41-45). An analysis of the relevant texts appears to reveal that Jesus was identifying himself as the Messiah of Israel, but not identifying that Messiahship with an earthly rulership of the Jewish people (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; and John 18:28-40).

Conclusion

In my view, Rauschenbusch overstates the impact of the Kingdom of God in the thinking of Jesus; and therefore, he blames the early church for its failure to adequately establish the social message of the Gospel. This is not to deny that there are social implications to the gospel, implications that Rauschenbusch points out. Consistent with a point often made in these blogs, impacted by a kind of Enlightenment ideology and materialistic millennialism, Rauschenbusch isconcerned with the establishment of an earthly, material kingdom of God within history, and therefore, is automatically led to a prophetic analysis and interpretation of the meaning of Jesus and the gospels. A more careful analysis might conclude that Jesus was primarily concerned with creating a Spirit empowered people of God which would always be at work within human history to redeem and save human beings in their totality, physical, mental, moral and spiritual. This is not at all to deny the importance of the prophetic impulse in the life and ministry of Jesus or that there are profound social implications of the gospel.

One of the insights that a study of history brings is that one should not expect too much of those who went before us nor critique their failings too strongly. Each generation builds upon the achievements of the last, and it is not given to anyone to see the future and what changes it will bring. Rauschenbusch was a creature of his day—and a fine example of his day and time. He had a true Christian sympathy with the poor and downtrodden of his and every age. As we shall see next week, he also had a vision of what might be done to make things better. May we do as well in our own day and time.

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] When referring to the “Mainline Denominations” one is normally referring to the Northern Baptists (American Baptists), Congregationalists (United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ), Episcopalians (The Episcopal Church), Lutherans (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or “ECLA”). and Methodists (United Methodist Church) and Presbyterians (Presbyterian Church USA or “PCUSA”). In recent years, all of these groups have experiences schisms and departures involving the formation of more evangelical groups (The United Methodist Church is currently in the midst of such a split). Because of the similarities in these groups, I refer to the split off groups as the Neo-Mainline, since the experience many of the same problems as their more liberal traditional mainline groups.

[3] See, “Who We Are” on the website of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, at https://www.crcds.edu/who-we-are (downloaded March 7, 2022).

[4] Id, at 92.

[5] Id, at 94.

[6] Id, at 104-105.

[7] I do not have the time to completely discuss this important point; however, it is to be noted that the Gospels use about one third of their text to describing the last week of Jesus’ life, which leads to the assumption that the Gospel writers thought that the cross and resurrection of Christ were the central purpose of the incarnation, not the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

[8] William Barclay, “The Revelation of John” in The Daily Bible Study Series Volume 2 Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 202.

[9] CSC, at 108.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 111.

Rauschenbusch No. 2: Jesus and the Social Gospel

Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century continue to impact Christian response to political questions. For this reason, if for no other, taking a few weeks to come to understand the Social Gospel movement is important for the project of understanding American political and social theology.

Background

By the time Rauschenbusch wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis, [1] Enlightenment rationality and what is called “Higher Criticism” was impacting Biblical scholarship in American Protestant circles. Since the 17th Century, scholars had engaged in a “Search for the Historical Jesus,” which was a project of “demythologizing” Scriptural interpretation to try to determine the human character of the historical person, Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth. Under the impact of the Enlightenment and its skepticism towards the supernatural, these scholars attempted to construct a life of Jesus and an interpretation of his ministry consistent with the view that he was a human being working from a premodern world-view.

Rauschenbusch was profoundly impacted by the early “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in writing Christianity and the Social Crisis and brought its conclusions into his work. [2] He was, however, careful not to cut himself entirely off from the Baptist tradition in which he worked, especially in Christianity and the Social Crisis. His goal was to educate and motivate not just theologians and pastors, but lay people has well. He was not disappointed, as the book sold well and was extremely influential among American Christians.

Begining with Albert Schweitzer (1875- 1965), the Enlightenment “Quest for the historical Jesus” faced increasing and devastating criticism, in particular because of the participants’ obvious inability to distance themselves from their own naturalistic assumptions. According to Schweitzer, the scholars of the Quest for the Historical Jesus went searching for the “real Jesus” but instead found a typical, post-Enlightenment critical scholar with the views and prejudices of the time during which they wrote. This insight has been true both of participants in the initial quest and its modern and postmodern participants. [3]

Rauschenbusch was particularly impacted by Albert Harnack (1851-1930), who interpreted Jesus as a prophet whose message was remarkably similar to the and social ideals embraced by 19th-century liberalism. As one commentator put it:

Harnack believed that the doctrine of Jesus as the divine savior was an invention of the early church. He saw Jesus instead as the ideal ethical humanist. The essence of Christianity, according to Harnack, lay in a few timeless spiritual principles that Jesus taught: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. Jesus’ primary message was to individuals and their inward spirituality. The kingdom of God was an invisible spiritual kingdom in the hearts of well-mannered men and women which would gradually grow in the world through human efforts of personal morality and civic duty. [4]

Before going further, to give credit where credit is due, the “timeless spiritual principles” of which Harnack spoke are, in fact timeless principles that are embedded in the Christian message, the essential humanity of all people, the value if human life, and the need for social morality and Christian activity in public life.

The Social Aims of Jesus

Rauschenbusch begins his analysis of the social thought of Jesus by confessing that he believes that the human race is in a revolutionary period. The modern world ushered into existence a new era in which the study of history and the interpretation of nature had vastly changed. As a part of that revolution, new histories of Jesus and the new interpretations of his life in ministry had developed, and Rauschenbusch proudly places himself within that tradition. [5] Nevertheless, before launching into a discussion of the political importance of Jesus, he connects himself to the Christian tradition by expressing the view that Jesus was not primarily a social reformer but a religious figure whose life and teachings have social importance. [6] Thus:

No man is a follower of Jesus in the full sense who has not through him entered into the same life with God. But, on the other hand, no man shares his life with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all the relations of life and reconstructs everything that it touches. [7]

Here again, we see a view with which every disciple of Christ can agree: To enter into the life of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is to enter into a life from which there must issue “rivers of Living Water” (John 7:37-39). It is, therefore, not possible to uncouple one’s religious self from one’s social self as if they were two entirely separate regions of life.

Rauschenbusch believes that it is important to observe that Jesus’ ministry was preceded by the ministry of John the Baptist, whose message was one of repentance, including repentance from national sin. In Rauschenbusch’s view, John’s message of preparation for the Messianic kingdom of God involved repentance from personal and social sin and the institution of a brotherly life that would involve the equalization of social inequality. [8] In support of this view, Rauschenbusch quotes Luke 3, where it is recorded:

What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:10-14).

In Rauschenbusch’s interpretation, in this and similar passages, contain the essential message of the prophets of the Old Testament and the roots of Jesus’ social gospel. Jesus was not the initiator of the movement of the prophets, but its consummator as he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. [9]

Jesus’ Use of the Kingdom of God

The Gospels reflect that Jesus’ preaching was profoundly impacted by and contained the essential message of the Messiah as the institutor of the Kingdom of God. From the time of the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the Jewish people had look forward to a restoration of the kingdom of David. In the beginning, their hope was for the physical restoration of the dynasty that David had begun. During and after the Babylonian captivity, that hope of Israel began to take a different and more universal turn. According to Rauschenbusch, by the time of Jesus, the idea of the kingdom of God included not only a physical restoration but also a time of social justice, prosperity and happiness for which the people of Israel longed. [10]When Jesus used the term, “kingdom of God”, it was Inevitable that people would hear him in light of the collective history of their people, and a way of thinking that had developed in the post-exilic era. On the other hand, Jesus brought new thinking to the whole concept of the kingdom of God.

At this point, it is helpful to think about how language works. Whenever one wants to communicate an idea to another person, one must use terms with which the hearer is already familiar. This is true and important in every translation of the Bible or any other document into another language. For example, if we want to talk about “God” then we must use a word from a language that has that or a similar meaning.

In my view, Rauschenbusch has an incomplete understanding of the metaphorical use of language in any form of human inquiry, which causes him to assume that Jesus must have meant at least as much, if not more, by his use of the term “Kingdom of God” than was intended by the people of his day. [11] This is not correct. He may have used the term metaphorically to carry his own and different interpretation of the term. Nevertheless, I think Rauschenbusch is correct in his view that Jesus is using the term “Kingdom of God” to mean both and internal blessedness and the impact of that blessedness on the ordinary lives of his hearers.

In one of my favorite passages, Rauschenbusch attributes to Jesus an understanding of the organic nature of human society and human social growth, an view that rejects the violent and revolutionary elements of the millennial thought of his own days, and instead embraced the slow, sure and organic growth of the Kingdom of God in the little things of life and human history:

It takes more faith to see God in the little beginnings than in the completed results; more faith to say that God is now working than to say that he will someday work. Because Jesus believed in the organic growth of the new society, he patiently fostered its growth, cell by cell. [12]

Rauschenbusch believes Jesus rejected just what modern people are anxious to see.  revolutionary change. Jesus, however, was content to see the Kingdom of God grow one human life at a time.

Having set the stage, Rauschenbusch moves on to a discussion of whether the Kingdom of God should be seen as a future, eschatological reality, never accomplished within human history or a present reality. In an eloquent passage, he sets out his view;

This, then, is our interpretation of the situation. Jesus, like all the prophets and like all his spiritually minded countrymen, lived in hope of a great social transformation, of the national, social, and religious life about him. He shared the substance of that hope with his people, but by his profounder insight and loftier faith he elevated and transformed the common hope. He rejected all violent means and thereby transferred the inevitable conflict from the field of battle to the antagonism of mind against mind and of heart against heart. [13]

Nevertheless, Jesus is still, in Rauschenbusch’s view urging the complete transformation of the social order of his day and of ours. The Kingdom of God which Jesus prophesies and the salvation Jesus offers involves the complete social organism we know as “human society.”[14]

Conclusion

There is much for the contemporary Christian to learn from Rauschenbusch’s analysis. It is clear that Jesus was in fact concerned with the human person, and through the human person with all of society because changed hearts cannot but change the social order in which they live and work. By focusing on the human Jesus, his sociability, and his connection with the common people and society of his own day, Rauschenbusch does a service Christian thinking about politics and society at large. [15] Neverthless, one can at the same time recognize that the naturalistic impulse of the Englightenment and the tendency of modernity to attempt to construct a perfect world (“Kingdom of God”) within history is present in his thinking. As I was preparing this blog, one of my quiet time readings included Jesus’ confrontation with his disciples over leadership in the church, where he says:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles sexercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-29).

The most natural way to interpret this passage is that Jesus is contrasting the nature of leadership among the secular nations with leadership within the body of believers who have become part of his “kingdom,” which would be the extension of Israel into human history through the ministry of the Apostles. This kingdom is not a current reality in any age, but a future reality towards which his followers work in their own lives and communities within the boundaries of human history.

Rauschenbusch is committed to a kind of millennialism in which the church brings in a physical millennium within history by a process of social change which does involve changing human hearts and minds as Jesus did but also a kind of social transformation. I am inclined to believe that his view underestimates the inevitable results of human sin and brokenness, which renders that vision incapable of accomplishment within any secular history.

He is to be commended for his rejection of the revolutionary violence that accompanies the Marxist and Nietzschean vision of human history and for this understanding of the organic roots of human society and the need for gradual, rational, organic change. It is a message that needs to be heard in our own age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] The quest for the historical Jesus was an attempt by scholars determine what words and actions contained in the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels could be properly attributed to Jesus in the attempt to create a biography and picture of the historical Jesus. It continues to this day in the work of the so-called, “Jesus Seminar.”

[3] The Tablet: The Internaytional Catholic Weekly (downloaded March 2, 2022) puts it this way: “In The quest for the historical Jesus Schweitzer concluded that the quest was largely futile and that scholars’ reconstructions of the historical Jesus were subject to Feuerbach’s comment in The essence of Christianity (1841) “Man … objectifies his being and then again makes himself an object to the objectivised image of himself thus converted into a subject” In other words, “what man wishes to be, he makes his God”; the historical Jesus became a projection of what the scholars questing after him wanted him to be.”

[4] Kurt Struckmeyer, “The Search for Jesus” in Following Jesus: The Life of Faith in the Post-Modern World https://followingjesus.org/the-search-for-jesus/ (downloaded February 28, 2022).

[5] CSC, 45-46.

[6] Id, at 47.

[7] Id, at 48.

[8] Id, at 50.

[9] Id, at 54.

[10] Id, at 56-57.

[11] Id, at 57. Rauschenbusch defends his view of the social intentions of Jesus by assuming that he would not have used the term Kingdom of God unless he intended to mean by it the entire cluster of hopes that the collective people of Israel had invested in the term. I think this is not correct.

[12] Id, at 60.

[13] CSC, at 64.

[14] Id, at 65.

[15] Id, at 69.

Walter Rauschenbusch No. 1: Christianity and the Social Crisis

As I sit down to write this morning, Russian troops are in the Ukraine. I ask myself, “Why sit down today and write a blog about the role of Christianity in the history of American social thought at the turn of the century?” C. S. Lewis was once required to defend the work of scholarship and thought in the midst of the Second World War and the West’s defense of freedom. He reminded his readers that the human race has always been in some form of crisis, and civilization has always has to make progress in the midst of social change and disorder:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have began. [1]

This quote from Lewis is a reminder that important human achievements have and always will occur in the shadow of poverty, war, and human suffering. There is a propensity among modern people to be overly-concerned with any present crisis and to lose sight of eternity. As we shall see, the work of Walter Rauschenbusch speaks to us today in the midst of our present economic, social, political, and other uncertainties with a voice important to hear.

Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was born at the beginning of the American Civil War and died during the First World War. His life was bookended by conflict, and his work was dedicated to ameliorating the human suffering created by the Industrial Revolution. His father was a Lutheran minister. The son became an American Baptist minister, serving beginning in 1886 in an economically depressed area of New York City. It was an experience that changed his life, and his book, Christianity and the Social Crisis emerged from this experience and dedicated to those he pastored during these formative years. [2]

The book that made him famous was originally published in 1907 by which time Rauschenbusch was on the faculty of Rochester Theological Seminary, at the time a leading Protestant seminary in the United States. Christianity and the Social Crisis was and is the leading text in what is sometimes called, “The Social Gospel Movement” that powerfully impacted American Protestant thought in the early 20th Century and continues to influence political theology today. Rauschenbusch himself was influenced by the German theology of his day and relies on the insights of critical thinkers in outlining his position. In addition, he was influenced by the Socialist and Communist thinkers, though as we shall see, his position avoided some of their more radical ideas. His aim was to energize the Christian church in America to attack social evils.

Social Background

It is difficult for modern people to fully understand the upheaval in human society created by the industrial revolution, an upheaval that continues in some form to this day. People in the year 1700 lived pretty much as their parents and grandparents had lived as far as human memory extended. Economies were primarily agricultural and land was the primary source of economic and social wealth. With the industrial revolution, society changed dramatically. People were forced from the land and into cities, where the industrial revolution was creating opportunity, jobs and a new form of wealth. Families were fractured, as children left the land for the cities of Europe. Existing social forms were disrupted, and the burgeoning cities were often places of poverty and disease. Rauschenbusch saw the impact of all this during his years in ministering to a poor area of New York.

The Prophetic Voice in Old Testament History

Rauschenbusch uses an historical approach to building his case, moving from the Old Testament roots of the notion of the “Kingdom of God,” to Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom, to the early church’s embodiment of the idea, and on to the present day. Crucial to his analysis is the notion of a fundamentally political orientation of the Old Testament and especially of the prophets, and Jesus’ continuation of that tradition. In Christianity and the Current CrisisJesus is portrayed as a prophetic figure who stands against the injustice of his day in such a way as to create a permanent movement for social justice in human history. Therefore, for Rauschenbusch, “a comprehension of the essential purpose and spirit of the prophets is necessary for a comprehension of the purpose and spirit of Jesus and of genuine Christianity.” [3]

As opposed to what Rauschenbusch regards as a primitive state of religion focused on the worship of the gods to gain some control of nature, the prophetic impulse is inherently social. It urges a social reformation to create a more just society in the midst of social decay and disease. [4] The prophets saw the immorality and social decline of Israel and spoke a primarily moral and social message, calling their society to repentance and restoration. The “restoration” they had in mind was the restoration of the society of Israel as it developed from the emergence from the Egyptian captivity to the end of the prophetic age.

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on morality in public life is the inheritor of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which is one reason why the countries of Europe under the sway of Calvinistic ideas developed modern democracy. [5] His book is an attempt to rally the prophetic impact of Cristian faith to eradicate the social ills of his own day, similar to the way in which Christian faith impacted the society emerging from the Middle Ages.

An Organic Model of Society

Sitting beneath Rauschenbusch’s analysis is an organic view of society, which he believes that laisse fairecapitalism and industrialization disrupted, substituting an atomistic and mechanical view of society:

Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic view of an organic national life and of national sin and salvation. We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental view distorts the utterances of the prophets as soon as we hear them. [6]

This observation is important in understanding the attraction of socialistic ideas in Rauschenbusch’s day and our own. Rauschenbusch does not want to denigrate the emphasis on the individual in modern society, but he sees the danger in overemphasizing the individual at the detriment to community. [7]

The past 400 years have seen a change in the fundamental idea of what a society is and should be from an organic ideal to a mechanical and individualistic ideal. The politics of our day is deeply impacted by this fundamental division. A truly post-modern political philosophy will not necessarily take sides on this division, so much as it may seek to transcend it by unifying an organic and individual approach, preserving the best of both. I hope to deal with this in a future blog. For today, it is important to note that Rauschenbusch yearns for a more cohesive social fabric in which the division of labor and capital, with labor impoverished is superseded by a more just form of economic organization.

Prophetic Preference for the Poor

Anticipating recent liberation theology, Rauschenbusch sees in the prophetic tradition another emphasis that should motivate people of faith to social change: The constant preference of the prophets in defending the poor and their needs against economic and political oppression. In the Old Testament the prophets condemned the tendency for land, which was the primary wealth of their day, to be centralized in an aristocracy who joined together plots of land acquired at the expense of the poor, which resulted in economic inequality and human suffering. [8] Thus, a dominant concern of the prophets was the protection of the weak and restoration of some kind of economic equality.

Rauschenbusch sees the analogy of the Old Testament situation with the economic inequality of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as we might well see the value of his critique as we look at the vast economic and social inequality created by the “Second Industrial Revolution” that the growth of an information-based society and economy has produced. This does not necessarily argue against private property, for the goal of the ancients was to recover a society in which people did own their homes and the fundamental property needed for some kind of economic security. It will not be “every man owning his own fig tree” in a post-industrial society, but some kind of human security based upon what I will call “personal ownership of the fundamental requirements of life” may substitute as an ideal in our post-industrial society. [9] Far from limiting the ownership of labor of the elements of capital, we should encourage its extension by every reasonable means.

Eschatology and the Perfect Society

There is an eschatological aspect to Rauschenbusch’s thought that begins with the Old Testament. I will leave to the future a full discussion of eschatology as it impacts Christianity and the Social Crisis. This week it will be enough to mention that the prophetic impulse in the Old Testament is connected to the ideal of a perfected society. [10]Rauschenbusch recognizes that the Hebrew prophetic tradition did not primarily focus on an unrealizable equality or perfection of society, but upon those improvements which lay “within a realizable distance” of current social conditions. [11] For the prophets, a return to the national freedom of the Davidic kingdom under the rule of a just and faithful ruler was within reason and ought to be attempted in order to forestall a judgement falling on the people. In their view, national repentance and a restoration of a just society was realizable.

In this insight, any Christian political theology can agree. Christians may disagree as to what improvements increase societal perfection or are within the reasonable reach of society. Christians cannot agree that no attempt ought to be made to move society to a greater level of justice. It is the duty of the church to cooperate with those elements of society and thought that would maintain and increase the level of justice in our society.

Conclusion

I have refrained for the most part from critiquing Rauschenbusch in this blog. This will not be possible throughout what I think will be a several-week look at his thought. This week, I would point out that his focus on the prophets in the Old Testament leave out the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, which contains powerful political implications and foreshortens his analysis of the Torah upon which Hebrew society was built. Without the law and without the wisdom tradition, it is not possible to understand the prophets. The prophets were calling Israel back to the insights of both the Torah and the Writings.

The prophetic aspect of Christian faith is an important element in its impact on individuals and society, even at the cost of critiquing current direction of our society. In a passage that could easily be directed at our own day and time, Rauschenbusch concludes his discussion of the prophetic background of a Christian response to the suffering and corruption of his own day with these words:

[S]uppose that our country was bleeding through disastrous foreign wars and invasions, shaken by internal anarchy, terrified and angry at blows too powerful for us to avert, and in that condition a preacher should “weaken public confidence” still further by such a message? The vivid Oriental imagery of the prophets must not give us the impression that the injustice and corruption of that day were unique. It is impossible to make accurate comparisons of human misery, but it may well be that the conditions against which moral sensibility of the prophets revolted could be equaled in any modern industrial culture. [12]

Here we end the beginning of our look at Christianity and the Social Crisis. Next week we will look at the figure of Jesus and his extension of the tradition.

If we were to substitute “post-industrial” for “industrial” the critique Rauschenbusch makes might also be applicable to the injustice of our own society, an injustice that has reached the end of the earth and created an elite in every nation whose interests are not those of the common person.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War Time” in The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeardman’s Publishing, 1949), 44.

[2] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[3] CSC, at 3. As will become clearer in the next installment, I believe that Rauschenbusch overstated his case as regards the intentions of Jesus. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable political aspect of Jesus’ thought that Rauschenbusch correctly emphasizes.

[4] Id, at 5.

[5] Id, at 8.

[6] Id at 10.

[7] Id, at 29.

[8] Id, at 11.

[9] I have hinted at the exact way in which I think this might be accomplished. I disagree with the growing notion that we should create a society of renters on a world scale in which private ownership (and inevitably freedom) are abolished. Instead I think that worker and consumer ownership of elements of all businesses, as well as individual ownership of homes and essentials is the better course for maintenance of a free society.

[10] Id, at 33.

[11] Id, at 34.

[12] Id, at 38.

Friedrich Nietzsche: Third Horseman of the Apocalypse

This week we come to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve been titled this blog, “Friedrich Nietzsche: Third Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because Nietzsche is often referred to with Darwin, Marx, and Freud, as one of four figures most responsible for destroying the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment. The results left the intelligentsia with a materialist, power-oriented view of human nature and human society, a dark view of human nature ultimately hostile to the democratic ideals that gave birth to the United States of America and the free nations of the world.

For those disinclined to see God at work in evolution, evolutionarily theory opened up a way to see the human being as not created by God, not made in the image of God, not gifted with the rationality of God, but as an animal struggling for survival. Marx extended the vision of human beings and human society as simply the result of materialistic forces into the area of politics, with dialectical materialism as the force behind the inevitable emergence of the proletariat and a communist form of economic and social organization. Freud, who we will look at in a later blog, undermined the notion that human beings are rational, seeing human intellect as a front for deeper, and often dark, psychological forces.

Biography

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a 19th century figure, whose influence has been felt powerfully in the 20th and 21st centuries. Nietzsche was born into a Christian household. His father was a Lutheran minister. Unfortunately, his father died when he was only five years old, leaving him to be raised by the women in the family. Throughout his life, he was attracted to strong male figures, such as Wagner, who could provide for him the father that he was deprived of in early life. This event left him a perennial loner who often felt as if he did not belong.

There is no question but what Nietzsche was brilliant. There’s also no question but what he was increasingly frail, nervous, overly-sensitive, and ultimately mentally unbalanced. He had a sensitivity that drove him, as it drives many today, to see the faults and failures of others and of society, without the ability to sympathize with human frailty and limitations, even gross misbehavior.  Personally, he was kind in the extreme, and neighbors in Italy, where he sometimes lived, called him “the Little Saint.”

In his childhood and early teenage years, he was exceedingly religious, and his mother hoped that he would follow his father into the ministry. Around the age of eighteen, however, he lost his Christian faith. This is an important fact, because his rigidly logical and brilliant mind forced him to face the consequences of his loss of faith. Unlike others, he did not assume or quietly accept those portions of Christian faith and morality, he rejected Christian faith and morals wholesale..

Philosophers of the Enlightenment often rejected Christian faith in the sense of the existence of miracles, the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and other doctrines, but continued to believe in God, the God of Deism, in an orderly rational universe that had produced an orderly rational human being, and in a rational human society, governed by orderly moral laws that might be discovered by reason. This vision leads directly to the notion that human beings can be trusted to govern themselves and will in the end discover the most appropriate social organization and laws for a society. With Nietzsche, this vision reaches a philosophical endpoint.

The extent of his alienation from the faith of his childhood is vividly demonstrated by his friendship with Wagner. Early in his life, while a student Leipzig, nature met Richard Wagner and became a close acquaintance. Wagner was the father figure for whom Nietzsche longed. Their friendship lasted into the mid-1870s, but ended when Wagner returned to Christian faith and began to express admiration for Christian tradition and virtues in his work. Nietzsche immediately broke off at the friendship from which it never recovered. Nietzsche’s departure from his Christian faith was irrevocable, into the end of his days he rejected the Christian tradition. He expressly told his sister that he did not want to be buried in a Christian funeral.

Nietzsche as a Political Thinker

Nietzsche has been an important influence on 20th century, and early 21st-century philosophy. The entire movement toward what we today called “deconstructionism,” or “post-modernism,” is a fruit of Nietzsche’s skepticism toward faith, morals, and traditional notions of social order. Because of the association of Nietzsche’s thought with the thought of the Nazis in Germany prior to and during World War II, many philosophers have tried to defend Nietzsche from any association with political philosophy, and particularly with any kind of association with a political philosophy that might be associated with Nazism.

These philosophers have often taken the position that Nietzsche was not a political philosopher and should not be understood as giving political advice. Philosophically, they make a good case in favor of their view. However, this dispute among philosophers does not really matter in the attempt to outline Nietzsche’s influence in political thinking. Whatever Nietzsche’s intentions, the fact is he’s been influential in the thinking and behavior of politicians. This particular blog focuses on those aspects of Nietzsche’s thought that undermine confidence in democracy and which have influenced the course of 20th century and now 21st Century politics.

God is Dead

Interestingly enough, I think the place to begin is with Nietzsche’s famous observation, “God is dead”. [1] One might say that all of Nietzsche’s philosophy is a working out of his loss of religious faith. In the ancient world, societies often felt that their civilizations were founded by the gods, and their system of government and/or royalty were descendants of the god’s. The imperial system of Japan as it existed at the end of the Second World War was probably the last of these societies. In western Europe, and especially in England in the United States, even after the Enlightenment, natural law theory, and the many connections between natural law theory and religious faith, continued to influence the legal order of society. It might be the Christian God, the Deist God of the Enlightenment; or in the Muslim world today, it might even be Allah; but in any case, somehow the social order  and law was a reflection of a divine order embedded in the universe.

Nietzsche clearly understood that the phrase “God is dead” meant that the social order of Europe had no stable foundation. In other words, if the Christian God is dead, then European society, culture, morals, law, even such mundane matters as the vast majority of its holiday’s had no foundation. Like many people today, Nietzsche was appalled by the decadence of European Christianity and its many compromises with power, economic and political.

Nietzsche believed that something like the pagan society of the ancient world, which he admired from his philological studies, was a possible replacement for the Christian basis of Western society. Much of Nietzsche’s thought involves the creation of a kind of “alternative mythology” upon which such a revitalized European society might be based. He did not believe that such a society would be easily achieved, and felt that the end of the Christian era would be, as it has been, filled with social decay, violence terror, and revolution. It is also clear that he did not believe it was possible to return to the social structures of the ancient world.

The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Nietzsche also saw that the loss of religious faith had another consequence: the death of God meant the death of the ideal of truth as absolute certainty and the religious quest for absolute truth. The death of God resulted in Nietzsche’s belief that all truth claims were illusions, falsehoods that needed to be unmasked. He began his analysis with religion but extended it to science and other forms of truth seeking. For Nietzsche, not only the achievements of religion, but of science, literature, culture, metaphysics, morals and morality, all of previous philosophy were illusory. In particular, Kant and Hegel, the giants of German philosophy were simply procrastinators,” dupes of a dying ideal,” who wove vast systems of words that hid the death of God, the death of metaphysics, the death traditional morals, and the death of traditional society based upon the illusion of absolute reason. There is no final truth, “and the sincere person realizes he always lies.” In the end, Nietzsche is an absolute nihilist.

Materialism, Evolution and the Will to Power

Nietzsche is a radical materialist. His concept of the “Will to Power” is a result of his commitment to a fully materialistic version of evolutionary thought that is central to his thought. When Nietzsche gave up religious faith, he gave up any notion of intellectual or spiritual forces as guiding human history. In his theory, which denies wisdom and truth as stable categories (because they are illusory), human will becomes primary. Nietzsche believed that the implications of Darwinism, combined with Newtonian mechanism, was not the Deism of Newton and others, but instead what I will call “Evolutionary Materialism.” Unlike Darwin who sees the fundamental driving power of evolution as the adaptive struggle for survival, Nietzsche sees the Will to Power as the fundamental driving force of evolution, of the development of human society, and of human progress.

The Will to Power, the will to dominate, to control, and to create, is the ultimate driving force of evolutionarily history. Whereas Darwinian evolutionary theory posits that the driving force of evolution is the adaptation of individuals to external circumstances, that is to say the world as it is, for Nietzsche the driving force of evolution is the desire for power. Nietzsche sometimes describes the Will to Power in almost demonic terms, for the Will to Power is the will to appropriate, injure, destroy, conquer, overcome, eliminate weak opposition, impose one’s own will, and to form the future in accordance with one’s own desires.

Human Equality vs. the Overman

The final characteristic of Nietzsche’s thought that I want to discuss has to do with his radical individualism and denial of a common humanity, which is central to democratic societies. Nietzsche conceives of human beings as isolated foci of power, connected to others only by the will to power. [2] His concept of the “Over-Man” or “Superman” as it is sometimes translated illustrates another feature of his thought: not only are human beings fundamentally isolated units, but they are not equal by any means. There are different types of men, some lower and some higher. Nietzsche thought of himself, the isolated sufferer who has pierced through all the illusions of human society, as the supreme embodiment of the aristocracy of the mind.

The “Over-Human” is one who has transcended the illusions of morality and embraced the nihilistic core of the human soul, the Will to Power. He or she understands that the Will to Power is the ultimate and essential driving force in history. Such a person is filled with a life-force that demands that it achieve that which it wills. There’s no doubt but what Nietzsche himself saw this in philosophical, moral, and aesthetic terms. Nietzsche’s defenders are correct that to the gentle philosopher, the Over-Human was not a beast trying to gain political power at all costs. The Over-Human was a person like Nietzsche who had seen the implications of modern science and modern philosophy, with its destructive power for all traditional society, had reached the end of faith, and embraced the task of reconstructing that society, driven by a desire for success (power) in reconstructing Western Civilization. However, most people are not at philosophers or philologists in love with words or classical culture.

The notion of the Over-Human, implies power over others and, cannot help but, in the hands of political types, result in some kind of despotism, for in their hands power is everything and the power they desire is political and economic. In this sense, I do not think that Nietzsche or Nietzscheans can escape the complaint of Christians and others that their philosophy is dangerously inclined towards totalitarianism when applied to human affairs by practical persons of aspirations to power. When the loner Adolph Hitler was attracted to Nietzsche’s thought as supportive of his racial and totalitarian theories, whether Nietzsche or Nietzscheans like it or not there was an is a reasonable ground for the attraction.

Conclusion

In an earlier Blog entitled, “Are We at the End of a Nietzschean Age?” I concluded that Nietzsche’s program of seeing all truth claims as simple bids for power finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting the attempt the weak to gain power over the strong, what in this blog I call the Over-Human, who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) undermines the fundamental common humanity upon which republican democracies rely. In practice, the results of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of totalitarianism, whether embodied in physical violence or deceit. [3] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy towards physical or moral violence. [4]

Finally, Nietzsche’s thought is hostile to a concept of “servant leadership” so desperately needed in contemporary politics. I stand by this earlier evaluation of this thought and the dead end it has created in American politics. The antics of the “Super-People” who dominate the social, economic and political thought of America and the West today, with their insatiable and morally bankrupt search for power, is the end of the line of thinking that Nietzsche embodies.

We will return to Nietzsche in the future. I was a philosophy major in undergraduate school, and no one was more instrumental in my thinking the Nietzsche. In the end, I became a Christian and abandoned this position. Against the Will to Power, I would substitute the notion of a society built on the slow progressive embodiment of wisdom and love in human history and the traditions of human society. Nevertheless, as pointed out over and over again in this blog, at any given point in history we cannot see everything. Nietzsche saw the implications of materialism and Darwinian evolution and applied his perception to philosophy, morality, culture, and aesthetics. In this way he participated in the great flow of history. A future political philosophy cannot ignore his achievements.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Unlike most of the blogs in this series, I am not able to extensively footnote this blog. My library is filled with volumes by and about Nietzsche. I have relied upon George A. Morgan, What Nietzsche Means (New York, NY: Harper & Row1941) which is a sympathetic look at his thought and Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Random House, 1966) and Twilight of the Idols and Anti-Christ tr. R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1968). Professor Morgan would not agree with my conclusions. I have read extensively on Nietzsche and was deeply impacted by this thought as an undergraduate.

[2] As in so many areas, Nietzsche takes to an extreme the materialistic and radically individualistic implications of Enlightenment thought. In my view, when he does so, he simply illustrates the inadequacy of such a view. The world and human beings are not characterized by radical disconnectedness but by radical universal connectedness.

[3] See, John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory 2nd ed. London, UK: Blackwell, 2006). Milbank would not agree with all my conclusions, nor I with his. Milbank believes, as do I, that Nietzschean nihilism leads to some form of totalitarianism not much different than national socialism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society. In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life.

[4] Id, at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326

Marx 2: The Communist Manifesto

Social Conflict as the Engine of History

The first words of the Communist Manifesto set out the basic insight of Marxist theory of history. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” [1] According to Marx, the rise and fall of the empires of the ancient world, the kingdom of Alexander the great, the rise of Rome, Charlemagne and the rise of medieval Europe, the rise and fall of the dynasties of Russia and ancient China, according to Marx all of these can be reduced to a single formula: Class struggle.

It’s important, therefore, to stop right at the beginning, to identify the importance of this single statement for our politics today. Since Marx, on the left and on the right, but particularly on the left, there’s been a tendency to seek power through class struggle. When I was in college, I read an influential history of the American Revolution written by the historian, Charles A. Beard, who was influenced by Marxist historical analysis. Beard reduced the American Revolution to a struggle of the bourgeoisie against the Crown and Colonial Powers of 18th Century England. [2] For Marx, Baird, and their modern followers, including many prominent political figures, social progress results from class conflict. Beard has been much criticized for his view that, for example, the American Civil War and the elimination of Slavery was not fought on moral grounds but as a result of the inevitable conflict between Northern bourgeoise and Southern agrarian culture. This despite the abundant evidence that vast numbers of northern soldiers and Lincoln were highly motivated by a moral objection to slavery.

For Marx, writing in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in 19th Century Europe, the struggle was between the working class and the bourgeoisie. I find his description of that struggle illuminating and important. I do not find quite so convincing his historical analysis from the ancient medieval world. It seems to me that economic forces cannot explain, for example, the emergence of the empire of Alexander the Great and the death of the Persian and Egyptian empires by conquest, which seems to be based upon the human will to conquest and not upon economic factors at all. The emergence of the Kingdom of Charles the Great similarly seems to me to result from the human desire for order in the midst of the chaos resulting from teh fall of Rome, not solely from economic factors.

When the communist revolution emerged in China, that Marx’s industrial analysis was inapplicable. In the period after World War II, China was largely a preindustrial society, a fact which Mao recognized. Therefore, Mao and his followers based their struggle on the struggle between rural peasantry and those in power in the cities. In the third world generally, the Chinese version of class conflict has been more important that Marx’s original formulation. Before this series is over, we will look at so-called, “Liberation Theology,” which is much influenced by Mars and been powerful in Latin America and other Third World areas which remain primarily rural. [3]

I hope by the time this blog is finished readers will understand that the insight of Marx into the importance of economics and class struggle in history is significant. However, it can be overstated. While there is no question but what economic and class considerations motivate people, and that motivation creates social conflict, social conflict is not at the basis of all social progress. In fact, a close look at world history indicates that excessive conflict caused societies to deteriorate into brutality not reach a higher level. It doesn’t take a lot to see in Stalin and others not progress but deterioration. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol and their followers have been the source of endless brutality and genocide. None of this is progress. After seventy years of Communism, Russia did not look like a classless utopia, but like one huge, poverty-stricken third world country which happened to have a large army and nuclear capacity.

From a Christian point of view, because we are all fallen in selfish people, conflict is an inevitable part of human history and human society. Because we are all innately self-centered and potentially greedy, economic conflict is also inevitable. However, beneath our propensity for self-seeking economic behavior also lies the human capacity for goodness, the search for truth, order, meaning, purpose, and love both personal and social. A truly post-modern theory of history and politics will not involve a “reductionistic materialism,” but rather recognize the importance of human values and wisdom in social order. It will not embrace seeking a secular end to history, but rather emphasize the never-ending role of human beings in creating life-affirming social orders within a history that has no certain or sure movement towards a “better world.” History teaches that if human beings make unwise decisions within history, the future is not better, but worse.

Spread of Capitalism

Having set out some limitations to Marx’s analysis, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. If one looks at the emergence of capitalism and the emergence of free markets in Britain in Europe and growth of an industrial civilization out of the primarily agrarian civilization, one is struck by the rapid change of society and the advance of Western culture and Western economic organization throughout the world. As Marx observed in the Communist Manifesto, modern industry has established a world market, and traditional modes of social and economic organization have been pushed aside in every society in which private capital and free markets, have gained a foothold. The discovery of America and the founding of the United States as the first truly “Post Enlightenment Nation” fueled the spread of capitalism as American trade began to reach the ends of the earth and American power began to grow. [4]

The rapid growth of the post-Enlightenment industrial economy, was not without social cost. The feudal societies of Europe degenerated, and with that degeneration came an end to the highly structured, patriarchal socio-economic organization common in the Middle Ages. In addition, traditional crafts, represented by the guilds of medieval Europe were dissolved as the bourgeoisie and private capital gained began to dominate Western culture. Large numbers of people fell into urban poverty, which is harsher and different than rural poverty. [5] Finally, the professions, such as law, the ministry, medicine, government service, and the like began to change as the economic power of a new class of economic power began to emerge and hold sway over society. [6] By the time of the First World War, the class system of the Middle Ages, which only a century and a half earlier looked unassailable, was at the end of its life.

In our day, we have seen a form of capitalism extend itself into previously socialist economies, and Latin America, into Africa, the Middle East, and the most important way in the Far East, which have been a center of the growth of capitalist society since the end of World War II. Almost no one could have foreseen the growth of Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, and other burgeoning neo-capitalist economies in the east on the last day of the Second World War. And yet a change favoring private capital and some form of “freer markets” has prevailed and enhanced human life where it has taken root.

The changes in society caused by the emergence of capitalist society are vast. Entire populations left rural areas for cities where more opportunity was to be found. In addition, capitalism went beyond rationalizing existing means of production and economic activity. As Marx observed, the bourgeoisie not only rationalized existing economic order but created a situation where there was (and is) constantly revolutionizing “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of producers and with them the whole relations of society.” [7] This is the source of the phrase “creative destruction” so often used (and misused) among free market aficionados.

It does not take a lot of imagination to see the continuing impact of capitalism in the recent development of computers and the emerging information age. The rationalization and extension of economic activity under the control of private capital continues, and bourgeoisie market capitalism continues to change and upset existing forms of life with which people are accustomed. As it does this, capitalism continues to create new centers of economic power, as we see in the great fortunes that have been made in the information technology industries and the media in our own day. During such periods (and we are currently in one) it is easy for some people to lose confidence in the underlying value of free markets. It is also in times like these that problems with unregulated markets begin to be seen more clearly than at times with the average person feels life is getting better and they and their families are benefiting from free markets.

Socialism as an Alternative

Marx spends a good bit of the Communist Manifesto critiquing liberal forms of social democracy. [8] It should surprise no one that the revolutionary proposals made by Communists during the 19th and early 20th century did not appeal to everyone and many well-meeting people attempted to develop alternatives. The most common alternative was a form of social democracy in which private capital is supplemented by public ownership of certain industries and large charitable contributions by wealthy individuals, families, corporations and others. Marx believes that this is a half waist step. In our own day, there are many American thinkers who believe that this approach is the one America should take.

There are a couple of observations to be made that impact both communist and social democratic thinking. By the end of the 20th century, communism had failed in Russia and China, the two largest export social experiments in this form of economic organization. In addition, and perhaps less well-known, social democracy had largely failed in Western Europe. Publicly owned companies, whether in communist or social democratic countries, rapidly became non-competitive. Their capital structures became outdated. In the end, steel mills, railroads, automobile plants, airlines, and a variety of industries had to be at least partially privatized in order to be updated to meet the demands of a contemporary market. There is little or no reason to believe that any future form of this kind of capital organization will work any better.

As to Communism, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Regime in Russia, I had the opportunity to travel there for a few weeks. The amount of poverty, the distortion of economic activity, the poor quality of housing and almost any manufactured good, all visibly testified to the failure communist social organization. What had transpired in Russia was the emergence of a huge, ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy which was woefully incompetent in almost every area of life. All of Russian society had suffered from a corruption from which it has yet to emerge.

In Great Britain, the Labor Party eventually began to sell publicly owned businesses into private hands in order to solve persistent capital shortages and management problems. This turned out to be a less than adequate alternative, as what we in the United States called “crony capitalism” developed. The development of a kind of crony capitalism even more apparent in formally communist regimes, where the military and intelligence bureaucracties have ended up controlling large amounts of the economy.

A Faulty Materialistic Eschatology

When I was growing up, it was common to see communism as a kind of secular religion. Scholars on the left and on the right have observed that the Marxist notion that the end of history will come with the creation of a classless society in which everything is owned in common involves a kind of materialistic eschatology. For the Marxist, the end of history will not come by the rule of an all knowing, all kind, all loving, and all wise God, but in the rule of them seemingly all knowing, all kind all loving and all wise proletariat and the operation of blind economic forces.

We now have enough experience in the actual operation of “all- knowing, all-kind, all-loving and all-wise bureaucracies to know that this is not possible. In the two great experiments in communism, the end result was a kind of oligarchy in which the military, intelligence services, and insiders transferred to private ownership the common goods of the society and our rule as an oligarchy. There was no idyllic worker state. There’s no reason to believe that there would be any other result if humans were to experiment further along this line. Marx’s faith in a cataclysm followed by the emergence of a worker’s paradise was an impossible vision.

In a materialistic age, it is to be expected that people might look forward to any materialistic end of history in which all of their hopes and dreams for prosperity, equality and justice might be met. One basic intention of these blogs is to disabuse people from engaging in such fantasy. History will not end within human history. Inside human history, we can make the world a better place though small, wise, loving decision-making as we attempt to solve problems we can solve and ameliorate suffering we can ameliorate. We cannot perfect the world by any action, however dramatic. In fact, we will almost certainly cause immense and terrible suffering if we try.

Conclusion

As insightful as Marxist critique of capitalism is, it’s possible that the fault in capitalism and the fault in communism both flow from their inherent reduction of all human behavior to material, self-centered economic decision-making. In fact, it is my guess that this is precisely true. This does not mean that we are stuck with only two alternatives, laissez faire capitalism or some form of public ownership. There are other alternatives, such as increasing consumer and worker ownership in business enterprises. This kind of approach could involve more or less dramatic changes in the ownership of capital, from encouraging employee ownership programs to giving incentives for businesses to be converted to worker and consumer owned COOP’s. In due course, we will examine the potential for a new, personalist and communal approach to the problems Marx identified.

As I reread this blog, I am aware that it is not as neutral as I hoped it would be. I want to end with a note of appreciation. Marx’s analysis of the problems of the industrial economy of his day is important. At least some degree, he pushed human knowledge forward in an important way. That is all we can expect from any human being. Perhaps it would have been better if he had avoided some of his more radical conclusions, but in his day and time it might not have been possible to do so. It is a sad fact of human history that not all of the mistakes and suffering we inflict on ourselves or others are avoidable, which is one good reason why humans should work so hard to avoid every mistake possible and mitigate the suffering of every decision we make.

[1] Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party  in Britania Great Books, Vol. 50 Ed, Mortimer J. Adler (New York, NY: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 419. Citations to the Communist Manifesto will be from the same source, and hereafter each will be referred to as Communist Manifesto.

[2] Charles A. Baird, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of The United States (New York, McMillan and Company, 1913, 1922).

[3] See, Gustavo Guitierrez Mereno, OP, A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1971).

[4] Communist Manifesto at 420.

[5] My mother often observed that growing up on a farm in rural Illinois during the great depression they were very poor. However they didn’t know they were poor because they had plenty of food to eat from the fields, clothes to wear, and a school to attend. It didn’t seem to the children that anything was terribly wrong despite the worries of her parents!

[6] Communist Manifesto, at 420.

[7] Id, at 421.

[8] Id, at 432 ff under the caption, “Conservative or Bourgeoisie Captialism”.

Marx 1: Background and Assumptions

As I began this week, I realized it is impossible to give a sympathetic review of the work of Karl Marx without first discussing Adam Smith and the industrial revolution. Modern economic theory began with the work of Adam Smith. Though today best remembered for his seminal work, “Wealth of Nations”, in his own day Smith was primarily known as a moral philosopher. [1] Skipping Wealth of Nations in this series was a mistake, and the Adam Smith needs to be covered. I will not stop to do so at this point in time but will cover Smith as a political thinker before this series is over.

Adam Smith occupies a position intellectually as a part of the Enlightenment. Subsequent to the work of Smith and Wealth of Nations, what we would call classical free market economic theory developed. Particularly important for understanding Marx is the work of David Ricardo, who expanded the insights of Smith in the area of the theory of wages, profit and rents, to which Marx responds in his work, Das Capital. [2]

Without going into detail, the growth of classical free market economic theory paralleled the growth of industrialization in Europe. This, in turn, resulted in Marxist analysis in the development of two different groups of people:

  1. What is sometimes called the “bourgeoisie,” which were the owners of capital and what we today refer to as the “middle class”; and
  2. What Marx called the “proletariat,” or the working class and lower classes, including the poor.

By the mid-19th century, wealth, property ownership, and power in Europe had shifted from wealthy, feudal landowners, to a new class of individuals who had made their money in industry and commerce. This new power-base, made up of industrial entrepreneurs and the business class, had great wealth and disproportionate political and economic power. This shift in power partially accounts for the development a liberal democracy and also the development of what is sometimes called “laissez-faire capitalism.” The theory of laissez-faire capitalism is and was that markets should be free to operate without interference. Although today there are few people who subscribe to an unregulated form of capitalism, in the 19 century it was popular.

The development of an industrial economic system created tremendous economic dislocation as families left traditional communities and society, and moved to cities and areas of industrial concentration. Often, these people lived in substandard conditions. In addition, because of the power was held in the hands of the capital owners, the working class had little control over their destiny. It is to be remembered that modern developments, such as labor unions, were a late 19th-century development and not part of the early industrial revolution. The same thing is true of governmental restrictions on business. The figure of Karl Marx and his thought cannot be understood without this background, for Marx reacted against the dislocation, poverty and suffering of the working class of his day to which he was extraordinarily sensitive.

We live in a somewhat similar time, in that the development of an “Information Society” as opposed to an “Industrial Society” has resulted in a new class of elite, the creators and owners of vast information businesses in the area of technology, electronic media, what is sometimes called the “tech industry,” and the like. This new class of elites has enormous economic and political power and exerts influence that has lessened the power of traditional industrial and commercial concerns and other entities, such as labor unions, that emerged as counter-balances to the power of the industrial and commercial businesses. During such times, it is easy for some people to lose confidence in institutions and in the fundamentals of their society. Even freedom can fall victim to the stress of the emergence of a new era. More sympathetically, there is always a lag as a free society develops protections for the common people as a new era emerges.

Brief Biography

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) is, without question, the most important political philosopher of the 19th and 20thcenturies. His works have been influential in philosophy, history, politics, government, and economics—in every aspect of modern society. Even in the West, where capitalism sustained its leadership as an economic theory, Marx is exceedingly important, if for no other reason than his status as the primary intellectual source of Soviet and Chinese Communism and the attraction of his thought to intellectual and political elites.

Marx studied law and philosophy in Germany where he was born of Jewish/Christian parents. In his youth, he appears to have been religious but under the influence of his teachers and friends became an atheist. Throughout his life, Marx aligned himself with political radicals, including founded the Communist Party. His was not an easy personality, and he often fell out with his allies in political and economic matters.

Despite family objections, he married Jenney von Westphalen who was of a middle-class family, to whom he remained loyal his entire life. Unfortunately, Marx was unable to maintain regular employment, working only intermittently. He was irresponsible in his spending habits, and the family suffered great poverty, resulting in the death of two of their children. He seems to have been unable to function effectively in ordinary life. It is a paradox that the champion of the working class was himself not a worker.

There’s no question but what Marx’s friendship with Frederick Engles, who both financially supported and acted as an advisor to him, was of great importance to Marx as a thinker and activist. His most popular works are the Communist Manifesto and Das Capital (1867-1883). The focus of these blogs will be on the Communist Manifesto, but it is not possible to understand or appreciate Marx without reference to his other works.

Basic Philosophy

Materialism. Much has been made of the influence of Hegel upon the thought and work of Marx. During Marx’s education in Germany, the dominating figure was George Frederick Hegel, who was an idealist. His form of idealism relied upon a dialectic of the Spirit that he believed operated within human history. The dialectic moved from a thesis, to an anti-thesis, to a resolution. At the risk of oversimplification, Marx takes the fundamental inside of Hegel and gives it a materialistic interpretation. Human history is not the development of the spirit but a development of material forces seen in the development of economic regimes. Capitalism, and the economics of Smith and Ricardo are not, in Marx’s view, the final form of economic organization but only a phase in the historical development of humankind. [3]

Marx’s materialism was not, however, an inhuman materialism. Instead, he imbedded into his philosophy an important role for human consciousness. As one writer put it:

Marx was a close student of ancient and modern materialism. His dissertation concerned itself with the difference between the Epicurean and the Democritean philosophies of nature. He was at home, as his short excursion in Die Heilige Familie into the history of materialism shows, with modern materialisms. He could trace down to its finest nuances the influence of Cartesian rationalism and Locke’s empiricism upon French medical theory out of which the materialistic sensationalism of the Encyclopaedists developed. He followed with keen interest the progress of the biological sciences in the 18th century. In all of these philosophies he finds one fundamental defect, an inability to explain the facts of perception and knowledge – in short, of meaningful consciousness. [4]

It’s important to give Marx the most positive interpretation possible but at the same time to understand the limitations of his position. It is a positive aspect of Marx’s analysis that it embraces the role of the human knower. Hegel over-emphasized the impact of the spirit and ideas on the course of human history. Marx reacted against this view, seeing the importance of material forces at work in history, politics, and particularly in the area of what we would call political economy.

As mentioned above, the Middle Ages ended with the development of a middle class, and power shifted from the landed gentry who were descendants of the original nobility in Europe to the bourgeoisie made up of capitalists, professionals, and others in a position to acquire wealth and power in such an economy. In some respects, the emergence of democracy was heavily influenced by the emergence of this middle class and its desire to be free of the historic power of the nobility and landed gentry. The powerful economic forces unleashed by the development of science and technology caused a massive change in human economic organization and in the structure of human life and consciousness. This aspect of Marx’s work is important.

On the other hand, from up at purely historical perspective, it’s obvious that not all human progress has been economically motivated. For example, it’s difficult to see the work of Handel and many others as solely the result of historical material economic forces. Handel is a case in point: he seems to have been primarily motivated by religious concerns. A more balanced view is that, while economic forces are important and particularly important in a materialistic era, they are not the only forces at work in human history.

At this point, it may help a reader to introduce two terms: “Idealistic Inflation” and “Materialistic Collapse.” In certain thinkers, Berkeley and Hegel being two, there is a tendency to inflate the importance of the ideal and the spirit in human affairs. In others, like Marx and modern materialistic capitalist thinkers, there is a tendency to reduce everything to the material and material forces. Wisdom is achieved by keeping the ideal and material influence in human affairs in an appropriate balance. [5]

More fundamentally, as this blog never ceases to point out, in the way of thinking characteristic of Newton and the Modern World, and which the work of Marx embodies, it is common to see the universe is made up solely of material particles and forces in the form of energy acting upon those material particles. Marxist theory is an outgrowth of that view of the world. However, we now know that this view of the world is fundamentally limited. At the deepest level, materialism breaks down and what appears to be the case is that the fundamental reality is made up of something like information, potentiality, and the emergence of order from non-material events at a subatomic level. [6]

In this view of reality, the “material world” is an outgrowth of a world that is not material. In addition, the material world is made up of what might be called “layers of reality.” Chemistry is an outgrowth of physics but cannot be reduced to physics. Biology is an outgrowth of chemistry but cannot be reduced to chemistry. Human society emerges from biology but cannot be fully reduced to biological principles. At the level of human society, there emerges law, politics, art, literature, morality, and all the other aspects of human society and culture. These emergent realities cannot be fully reduced to their constituent physical participants or matter or forces. As a result, one difficulty with both Marxist economics and laissez-faire economics is the tendency to ignore the nonmaterial aspects of reality in their analysis of politics and other phenomenon.

Historicism

An interesting paradox in Marx is that, while he critiques Smith and Ricardo, as well as all of “bourgeoisie culture” as historically relative phenomenon, he remains captured by the tendency of modern thinkers to in fact seek an end to history, which Marx finds in the dictatorship of the proletariat. As I have pointed out, the work of Charles Peirce and others casts grave doubt about the viability of such an endeavor, for all of history is relative and progressive and will remain so until the end of time. Every advance brings new problems, and every solution to the fundamental dilemma’s of human life proves to be temporary. This is an inherent feature of human existence. The search for an end of history is dilusional.

Class Conflict

In the Newtonian world view characteristic of the 19th Century and Marxist thought, all that exists is matter and forces acting upon that matter. Marx reduces the forces at work in political history to economic forces, and most importantly to an inevitable conflict of classes characteristic of human history. In the ancient world, it was a conflict between creditors and debtors. In the Middle Ages, it was the struggle between the feudal over-lords and serfs. In the modern world it was the struggle between the capitalists and bourgeoisie. It is class conflict that is the “force” that powers human history and human society towards the end of a classless society. [7]

While it is important to give Marx credit for the insight that human history involves social conflict, Marx ignores and even dismisses the communal aspects of human history, which have been the subject of other essays in this blog. He regards the social and religious impulses of human beings as reflective of “immature development.” [8] Human beings are essentially social, and they seek social support. While there have been communities and social systems created by violence and conquest, there have also been societies created by the simple human need for order, protection, friendships, economic relationships, education, and a host of human values which are not reduceable to economic forces.

Conclusion

Next week, we shall look at the Communist Manifesto, which is historically Marx’s most famous contribution to political philosophy. I hope that this week’s review of Marx gives a sufficient foundation for a look that the Manifesto. Marx is often a perspicuous critic of classical economic theory, and while not always accurate, his critique is to be pondered. His notion of “Class Struggle” as a component of social development and change is valuable, though perhaps not the “end of the story.”

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Chicago, IL: Henrey Regnery Company, 1953).

[2] Karl Marx, Das Capital in Britania Great Books, Vol. 50 Ed, Mortimer J. Adler (New York, NY: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), Citations to Communist Manifesto will be from the same source, and hereafter each will be referred to as Das Capital and Manifesto, respectively.

[3] Das Capital, at 8.

[4] Sidney Hook, Marx and Feuerbach (April 1936) https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/hook/1936/04/feuerbach.htm (downloaded February 2, 2022).

[5] This idea was suggested to me by James E. Loder in his book The Transforming Moment (rev. ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989) wherein he develops imilar notions of “Eiconic Inflation,” “Eiconic Collapse,” and “Eiconic Reductionism”. I feel that the terms “Idealistic Inflation” and “Materialistic Collapse” are easier for lay persons to understand.

[6] See as an introduction to this facet of post-modernity, Werner Heisenberg Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York, NY: Harper Perenial, 1962).

[7] This is not the point to discuss this phenomena, but it is a fact that Marxist societies are not classless. What does happen is that a bureaucratic class emerges as the elite. As in Russia and China, this new elite eventually takes control of all of society, including the means of production and commerce. In both situations, what has emerged is a kind of “national socialism,” in which the elite transfer control of business and commerce to themselves and their families and associates. In the West, this has taken the form of what is often called, “Crony Capitalism.” In neither case is the working and middle class benefited.

[8] Id, at 35.

Mill on Liberty 3: Application and Evaluation

The final Chapter of Mill’s On Liberty concerns the application of its principles to society at large and deserves close analysis. First, however, I want to return to the end of his defense of individual liberty, where he says:

A civilisation that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it. If this be so, the sooner such a civilisation receives notice to quit, the better. It can only go on from bad to worse, until destroyed and regenerated (like the Western Empire) by energetic barbarians. [1]

A free nation can only remain free where its leadership, including religious leadership, and its educational systems provide the necessary leadership and education upon which freedom depends. It is often said that democracy cannot be defeated from without until it has degenerated from within. This is a sentiment with which Mill would have agreed. While freedom of thought, opinion and action are to be reasonably protected, these freedoms are worth nothing if those who have that freedom do not use their freedom in ways that support and undergird the society and legal system that makes possible freedom of thought, speech and action. This is a point to which we will return at the end of this week’s blog.

Fundamental Principles

Mill begins his final chapter on application of the principle of liberty of thought, opinion, speech and action by restating the fundamental principles that underlie his work:

  1. Freedom. Individuals are not accountable to society for actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but themselves.
  2. Restraint. As to actions that are prejudicial to the interests of others, individuals can be held accountable, and may be subjected to social and/or to legal reprimand, in order for the public interest to be protected. [2]

In the case of actions that do not impact others, society may and should give advice, instruction, and engage in persuasion. A person may be avoided by others if thought necessary for their own good or the good of the public. These are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of conduct that does not significantly impact other people.

As simple and straight forward as these principles may be in the abstract, they are not easily applied in concrete situations, as we shall see in the discussion that follows.

Extensions of the Principle of Liberty

First, there are situations where an action may be prejudicial to the interests of others but still society should not permit such action to be rested, two of which are described by Mill as follows:

  1. The Competition Extension. Where people engage in competition to secure some advantage or honor, the party who is disappointed cannot complain or restrain the competition because of their personal disappointment. For example, if a society grants a prize for the best poet and 100 poets enter a competition, the mere fact that they have lost the competition does not entitle them to complain about the success of the winner.
  2. The Commerce Extension. Similarly, a person may not complain that they were unsuccessful in a business simply because another competitor was more successful. Again, it is in the nature of economic competition in a free society that some competitors are unsuccessful or less successful than others. Some may fail completely. This lack of success is not grounds for restrictions on the rights of their competitors.

In these situations, of course, the exemption is not absolute. Restrictions on fraud, deceit, unfair trade practices, abuse of monopoly, and a host of other behaviors may be justified, especially in the case of economic competition. Quality control standards, applicable to all competitors equally, are not restrictions on competition, rather they are ground rules for the functioning of a free enterprise system. The same may be said for environmental, worker safety, and a host of other restrictions that are not restraints on competition but simply rules applicable to all participants. [3]

One area of importance in freedom of commerce has to do with how far liberty should be extended where a product has an potential for damage or illegal use. For example, many agricultural chemicals could be used as a poison in a murder scheme. Perhaps more a matter of the public conscience today has to do with the sale of firearms, which in the United States are subject to a constitutional right of citizens to possess them. Laws that restrain children, previous offenders, and the incompetent from possessing dangerous chemicals or weapons might not be subject to challenge as restraints on freedom. (Though in the United States, this does not necessarily answer the constitutional arguments for possession of firearms.) In these cases, Mill is of the view that governments should indulge in the minimum restraint necessary to protect the public against crimes. In the case of medicines, poisons or firearms, no freedom is unduly restricted by laws requiring sellers of potentially dangerous products keeping lists of purchasers, their addresses, and the like. [4]

Restraints on “Victimless Crimes”

Certain crimes which involve behavior that society deems immoral or injurious to society are by their nature personal. For example, public drunkenness, certain drug use, prostitution, gambling, and the like are behaviors in which society may have a limited interest in condemning, restraining, or regulating, but which experience indicates are difficult to eliminate and sometimes not of significant social impact.

This does not mean that the public may have no interest in some forms of regulation. For example, while drunkenness of itself may not be regulatable, many violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. As a result, society is justified in restricting those who sell alcohol and the future behavior of those who have engaged in criminal behavior while under the influence of alcohol. This same principle is also be applicable to those who take legal drugs of any kind.

Prostitution is another such behavior. History testifies to the inability of governments to successfully prevent “the world’s oldest profession.” However, the inability to eliminate a behavior is different from regulating it in the public interest. Prostitution is associated with the spread of venereal diseases, crime, the breakdown of families, and a number of social ills. Therefore, while society might not be entitled on utilitarian principles to completely prohibit the behavior, restricting significant limitations on the activity, such as requiring registration, testing for disease, restricting brothels to certain areas which can be effectively policed for violent crimes, and the like are not prohibited on utilitarian principles.

In this particular instance, Mill has an interesting discussion on whether pimping could be held illegal even if prostitution were not illegal. Mill is inclined towards the principle that if a behavior cannot be restricted, then those who encourage or advise the behavior should not be restricted. However, he recognizes that there are reasons why this might not be the correct result. Those who encourage or advise the sale alcohol, drugs or sex do promote an “intemperance” and related social evils, which may in and of itself justify some kind of restrictions on behavior. In addition, those who encourage an undesirable behavior create social costs which must be borne by society. This may justify restrictions on what might be called “enabling behavior.”

Use of Taxation and Regulation as a Restraint

Mill is aware that taxation can be used to render uneconomic a behavior in which people would otherwise engage. Thus, gambling, alcohol, marijuana where legal, and other commodities are sometimes taxes in ways that restrict their use. In general, Mill is opposed to using taxation in ways that impinge of human freedom. Once again, his fundamental fairness inclines him to see another side to the argument. For example, where a social cost can be identified, taxing a product in order to pay the costs of, for example, addiction treatments, can be justified, and the utilitarian principle does not prevent such a tax, since the tax is associated with a feature of the freedom being exercised that has a social cost that can be identified and quantified to some degree.

The same can be said of regulations that may restrict entry to a business by some persons. Where a product has a potential danger to society, regulating who can engage in such commerce is a response to the danger not a restriction on liberty. For example that, preventing former violent offenders, or proclaimed terrorists from engaging in the business of selling weapons and explosives is a legitimate use of the power of regulating a dangerous activity. Restricting the ability of known alcoholics to own bars and liquor stores is another area in which some kind of restriction on entry might be permitted.

Divorce

From my perspective, one of the most important sections of On Liberty has to do with divorce, since it was important in creating a social climate favorable to divorce. Mill was a proponent of what in our day we would call “no fault divorce.” [5] In particular, he was of the view, common until recently, that divorce was actually good for the children involved for it freed them from an unhappy home.

In the 1960’s in America this particular defense was often used for creating liberal divorce laws. This has been questioned by many studies. [6] Divorce does have economic impacts on both partners and economic and emotional impacts on children. As I said in another venue:

The excessive individualism of our culture breeds a society in which children many times lack the kind of close emotional intimacy with their parents that breeds healthy, well-balanced children. Too often, parents are emotionally absent from children as they seek business success, affluence, personal satisfaction, and personal pleasure. It is possible that the individualism of our culture is a reaction to the excessive communitarian nature of pre-modern societies. What is needed is a balanced recovery of the importance of extended family and community within the life of children. This may be especially true in America where families and communities have become almost pathologically weak during the past century. [7]

It is worth recognizing that Mill was reacting against much more restrictive laws prevalent during the 19th Century in England. I am uncertain when society. will change to recognize the importance of the family to personal happiness and social stability, but I am very sure it must do so for our society to survive and prosper. As a pastor, I can testify to the emotional damage divorce can create for everyone concerned. In our society there has developed a personally unwise degree of individualism and self-seeking, that needs to be balanced by commitment to family, children, and marriage.

Education

Near the end of On Liberty, Mill engages in a long discussion of the subject of education. In his day, it was a matter of dispute whether parents should be required to see to the education of their children. Mill is a supporter of requiring that parents or guardians educate their children. He feels that this requirement is necessary in order that the future economic and social potential of children not be harmed by parents who, for example, would put them to work in factories in order to supplement family income. (As a side-note, my wife and I have seen in mission work this phenomenon at work in underdeveloped countries, especially with intelligent and capable female children who are put to work in situations where there is little chance of advancement in order to help with family finances.)

Interestingly, Mill is not in favor of a governmental monopoly on education. At one point he makes the following comment:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. [8]

Mill believes that, while parents should be required to fulfill their duty to educate their children, the state should not have a monopoly on such education. In fact, it is undesirable that they do so. The means by which the state should enforce universal education is by providing and encouraging alternatives and testing for results and providing for exceptional testing, for example to prepare people for law, medicine or other professions requiring special capacity.[9]

Conclusion

Mill has such a fair and fertile mind that I could analyze and appreciate his work for many blogs to come, but I do not have time to do so within the constraints of the project in which I am engaged. It is fair to describe Mill as a classic political and economic liberal, who believes that the state should be restricted to those activities and laws that cannot reasonably be effectively done by individuals. In many cases, even if government could possibly do something more effectively, it should not do so where it would inhibit the full development of people. [10] Mill sees in Czarist Russia and in France the results of an excessively centralized and bureaucratic state, in which government tries to do too much at the expense of personal responsibility. The result is either ineffective despotism or destructive revolution. [11] He uses 19thCentury America as an example of the beneficial results of a nation populated by a free people accustomed to solving their own problems. Such a people, Mill believes, “will not let themselves be enslaved by any man or body of men.” [12]

We see signs that the centralization and bureaucratic growth in the United States may have reached an undesirable level and that people may have become too accustomed to feel that all social ills are to be solved by government intervention. Mill’s warning that the wise government allows individuals to solve as many of their own problems as possible remains good advice, whatever size or structure state, local, and national governments may take.

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968), at 113, hereinafter “On Liberty”.

[2] Id, at 114.

[3] Id, at 115-116. This is an area in which Mill seems to mistake all restrictions of any kind as restraints on freedom. He views restraints of any kind as an “evil”, rather than structural features of a competition. To take an example from a sport, the rule that all batters in baseball must stay within the batter’s box is not a restraint or restriction on the freedom of batters; it is a rule of the game. Similarly, were Congress to pass a rule that all makers of cell phones must arrange for the complete recycling of parts of the phones when no longer in use, that would not be a restraint on trade but a rule of the business of making cell phones.

[4] Id, at 118. Mill has an interesting argument in these situations from Bentham’s notion of “pre-appointed evidence.” Where certain information is required to be kept on sales and the like, it only becomes important if a crime is inf fact committed. So for example, if a certain chemical is used in farming and purchasers must supply information, that record may become evidence that a particular defendant had purchased the means of committing the alleged crime.

[5] Id, at 126ff. It is not an argument against a philosophical position that the person making a claim may have some personal prejudice, but in the case of Mill’s feelings on divorce, the long years that he and Harriet had to wait in order to marry may have a bearing on his views.

[6] See Whitehead, Barbara Defoe & Popenoe David, “The State of our Unions: Social Health of Marriage in America 2003” 10 Theology Matters No. 2 (March-April 2003), 1-8.

[7] G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 112. The subject of the importance of family life to developing wisdom is dealt with in Chapter 8.

[8] On Liberty, at 129.

[9] Id, at 130.

[10] Id, at 133.

[11] Id, at 136-137.

[12] Id, at 137.