Thursday, March 17, 2011

Murray Rothbard on the Enlightenment and its Origins

He's always worth a read. Here, followed by a taste.

The Enlightenment was a general movement in European thought in the 18th century that stressed the power of human reason to discern truth. Generally, it was dedicated to natural law and natural rights, although in the later years of the century it began to shade off into utilitarianism. While scholasticism was compatible with an emphasis on natural law and natural rights, it was generally discarded and reviled as ignorant "superstition," along with revealed religion. In religion, therefore, Enlightenment thinkers tended to discard Christianity, attack the Christian Church, and adopt skepticism, deism, or even atheism.

In this atmosphere corrosive of Christian faith and values, it is remarkable that the Scottish Enlightenment was linked very closely with the Presbyterian Church. How did this happen?...

10 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I forgot to add that an important aspect to the question of understanding the human person is how is one to predict the interaction between past history, present experience and intpretive mind?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And the further question of the "is"/"ought" and "fact"/"value" questions...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rothbard's talking about Europe in general here. Hume was more popular than Locke. [Still is.] In America, they kept to, and frequently made, natural law arguments.

Another difference between the American Revolution and the French.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

I don't think so. MR discusses Enlightenment in Scotland. And America's Enlightenment was more Scotch-Anglo. Admittedly there are differences because America is A and everywhere else is not A. But Rothbard is speaking to the Enlightenment heritage that influenced America more than France.

Likewise, the French Enlightenment did have its own non-Humean natural law expositors (Rousseau? Voltaire?) I get only two MAJOR things from Hume that relates to natural law and the American Founding. 1. He noted (coined?) the is/ought gap. That is, whatever "reason" or "nature" discovers as an "is" is not binding in an "ought" sense. And 2. He disbelieved in the "state of nature," something btw, ROUSSEAU most certainly DID believe in. (I'm not sure where Voltaire comes down on "state of nature" but I think he believed it because he was a good Lockean).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hard to get Rothbard's context, then.

"The laws of nature and of nature's God" is pretty plain.

Jason_Pappas said...

I understand that Francis Hutcheson influenced Witherspoon who, of course, mentored Madison.

I’m not sure Hume had much influence before the Declaration. I read that Hume had an influence on Hamilton before the Constitutional Convention but perhaps mostly as an historian, economist, and advocate for a strong government.

Generally, the Scottish Enlightenment is seen as leaving natural law/rights behind and moving on to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism’s heyday would be in the 19th century. I doubt this change had much influence on the Founding--at least not enough to override the Lockean legacy.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Are you guys saying that the Founding was based on pragmatic needs to address concerns about social order? After all, the Founders knew that government had to have structure without continuing the belief in aristocratic right over government/law. These were elites, but they did not hinder others their right to work and attain. And this is the difference. Americans could make a better life for themselves apart from inheritance. Therefore, government was "by man and for man", while under "Providence". It was a human experiment that had never been tried!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The French Revolution was similar to the American Revolution in that it was a social resistance to tyranny. But, the clergy had to allign themselves with the political class in the French Revolution, while the American Revolution divided these powers.

The peasantry in the French Revolution were given less and less autonomy, while the nobles protected their positions and priviledges. I think we are seeing similar situations in our own political climate today. And this is why the Tea Party began.

The problem today is how to allow the religious a "place at the table" in the public square, while making sure that these very powers don't allign themselves with politial power such that happened during the French Revolution. Such empowerement of a religious class, just as with a political class, can become oppressive. Power, wealth, priviledge, and position blind people and make them feel invincable. Then, it is only a short while till that power is corrupted and encroaching upon the whole system. Then, we might be in danger of revolution again, because of the tyranny of the empowered. We must have a balance of power...and we can't have that if Americans are not given information that is needed to make good judgments about their politicians.

Daniel said...

Jason_Pappas said...
"I understand that Francis Hutcheson influenced Witherspoon who, of course, mentored Madison."

The other obvious example of Scottish Enlightenment influence is James Wilson. A bit more subtly, the term "self evidence" was key to the thought of the natural law wing of the Scottish Enlightenment. The term seems to be used in a slightly different sense in the Declaration of Independence, but the influence is probably there.

Daniel said...

There may be some historical accident involved in the amazing confluence of ideas in Scotland. The English Universities were not open to religious dissenters. The Scottish Universities, being populated by dissenters (Presbyterians) were open to dissenters. So there was an astounding cross-pollination between Enlightenment thought and Presbyterian Scholaticism.

Hume was the great adversary to the Natural Law wing of the Enlightenment. But when Hume needed to be defended, his adversaries rose to that task. It was a complex relationship that sharpened the theories and observations of all.