Saturday, September 12, 2020

Allan Bloom on States of Nature

I'm continuing the discussion from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and how it dealt with the founders of liberalism. What they deem modern politics. Politically, Bloom traces it to the English, American and French Revolutions, in that order. 

But here is where the analysis gets interesting in a very provocative and contentious way.  From pages 162-63:

What was acted out in the American and French Revolutions had been thought out beforehand in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, the scenarists for the drama of modern politics. These Columbuses of the mind—Thomas Hobbes led the way, but Locke and Rousseau followed and were considered more reliable reporters—explored the newly discovered territory called the state of nature, where our forefathers all once dwelled, and brought the important news that by nature all men are free and equal, and that they have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of property. This is the kind of information that causes revolutions because it pulls the magic carpet out from under the feet of kings and nobles. Locke and Rousseau agreed on these basics, which became the firm foundation of modern politics. Where they disagreed, the major conflicts within modernity were to occur. Locke was the great practical success; the new English and American regimes founded themselves according to his instructions. Rousseau, probably the greatest literary success of all time, inspired all the later attempts in thought and deed, private and public, to alter, correct or escape from the fatality of Locke's complete victory. 

It is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature. We are like aristocrats who do not care to know that our ancestors were once savages who, motivated only by fear of death and scarcity, killed one another in quarrels over acorns. But we continue to live off the capital passed on to us by these rejected predecessors. Everyone believes in freedom and equality and the rights consequent to them. These were, however, brought to civil society from the state of nature; in the absence of any other ground for them, they must be just as mythical as the tale of the state of nature told by the unreliable travelers. Instructed by the new natural science that provided their compass, they went to the origin and not to the end, as did the older political philosophers. Socrates imagined a shining city in speech; Hobbes discovered an isolated individual whose life was "mean, nasty, brutish and short." This opens up a very different perspective on what one wants and hopes for from politics. Prudence points not toward regimes dedicated to the cultivation of rare and difficult, if not impossible, virtues, but toward a good police force to protect men from one another and allow them to preserve themselves as well as possible. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all found that one way or another nature led men to war, and that civil society's purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature's imperfection causes war. 

The reports from the state of nature mixed bad news and good news. Perhaps the most important discovery was that there was no Garden of Eden; the Eldorado of the spirit turned out to be both desert and jungle. Man was not provided for at the beginning, and his current state is not a result of his sin, but of nature's miserliness. He is on his own. God neither looks after him nor punishes him. Nature's indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must care for himself without the hope that good men have always had: that there is a price to be paid for crime, that the wicked will suffer. But it is also a great liberation—from God's tutelage, from the claims of kings, nobles and priests, and from guilt or bad conscience. The greatest hopes are dashed, but some of the worst terrors and inner enslavements are dispelled. 

Unprotectedness, nakedness, unsuccored suffering and the awfulness of death are the prospects that man without illusions must face. But, looking at things from the point of view of already established society, man can be proud of himself. He has progressed, and by his own efforts. He can think well of himself. And now, possessing the truth, he can be even freer to be himself and improve his situation. He can freely make governments that, untrammeled by mythical duties and titles to rule, serve his interests. The explorations of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau of the origins made possible a new beginning in theory, a project for the reconstruction of politics, just as the exploration and discovery of the New World promised a new beginning in practice. The two new beginnings coincided and produced, among other wonders, the United States.  

Much can be said about the above passage, but I will keep my comments brief. Bloom assumes that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were the architects of the English, American and French Revolutions.  I won't dispute that, but some do. He also assumes they were either atheists or strict deists and the political philosophy that undergirds their thought, either atheistic or deistic. I am not convinced. 

In order to draw this conclusion one must read those three philosophers esoterically and, to be honest, it's not possible to know for sure; we can only speculate.  So we must draw more modest conclusions. All three philosophers claimed to be "Christians" of some sort. This was in an era when not publicly affirming such could get you at worst executed. They all posited novel ideas, in particular their common ground of "the state of nature." 

And each had his own different view of "the state of nature." Straussians like Bloom believe, and I agree, that the "state of nature" was intended to replace the biblical creation story. Or at least offer a parallel. Is it an either/or? Years ago discussing this with interlocutors, we agreed that the "state of nature" was analogous to Darwin's theory of evolution. Some folks believe evolution contradicts the Christian faith; other reconcile them.

Interestingly, Locke's "state of nature" teachings were featured in revolutionary pulpits. America's founders attempted to reconcile different ideologies that supposedly contradict one another. Well, the preachers that were on their side and vice versa did the same when they tried to Christianize the "state of nature." 

Also interesting is Bloom's observance that "[i]t is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature." Bloom was an atheist who believed in Darwin's evolution. Even though the "state of nature" offered a competing creation narrative with the biblical creation story, taken literally, as detailed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the "state of nature" is as unlikely to have actually occurred as the literal details of the Garden of Eden.

So perhaps the state of nature was meant to be understood metaphorically. Likewise, with the Garden of Eden. Science tells us that Darwin's evolution likely best explains the origin of life. And as noted above, some believe the Christian faith can be reconciled with evolution; others not. If we wished to reconcile the aforementioned Enlightenment "state of nature" teachings with evolution, Hobbes' account (alas) comes closest to what life actually was like there. 

3 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Unlike Hobbes' Leviathan and Rousseau's "general will" of the people, Locke's "State of Nature" is bound by the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God and thus so is government.

Since they reject "natural law," Strauss and Bloom are not helpful on this issue. They are philosophers, not historians.

Tom Van Dyke said...

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0057


As we see the Founders rejected Hobbes' view of the "state of nature" and saw Locke opposed as well.


"I shall, for the present, pass over to that part of your pamphlet, in which you endeavour to establish the supremacy of the British Parliament over America. After a proper eclaircissement of this point, I shall draw such inferences, as will sap the foundation of every thing you have offered.
The first thing that presents itself is a wish, that “I had, explicitly, declared to the public my ideas of the natural rights of mankind. Man, in a state of nature (you say) may be considered, as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, and, then, the weak must submit to the strong.”

I shall, henceforth, begin to make some allowance for that enmity, you have discovered to the natural rights of mankind. For, though ignorance of them in this enlightened age cannot be admitted, as a sufficient excuse for you; yet, it ought, in some measure, to extenuate your guilt. If you will follow my advice, there still may be hopes of your reformation. Apply yourself, without delay, to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius. Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject; but if you attend, diligently, to these, you will not require any others.

There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. [Hobbes'] opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe."---A Hamilton 1775

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