rom “Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America” by Mary Grabar. This excerpt originally appeared at The College Fix and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
Monday, October 12, 2020
Friday, October 9, 2020
With this, I complete my series on Allan Bloom analysing the philosophical construct of the "state of nature" from which modern liberalism emerged. This passage is from pages 165-167 of "The Closing of the American Mind."
This scheme provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men's labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights, like the other terms discussed in this chapter, are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. Unlike the other terms, however, we understand rights perfectly and have immediate access to the thought underlying them. The others are alien, problematic; and to understand them requires a great effort that, I am arguing, we do not make. But rights are ours. They constitute our being; we live them; they are our common sense. Right is not the opposite of wrong, but of duty. It is a part of, or the essence of, freedom. It begins from man's cherished passion to live, and to live as painlessly as possible. An analysis of universal needs and their relation to nature as a whole demonstrates that this passion is not merely an imagination. It can be called a right and converted into a term of political relevance when a man is fully conscious of what he needs most, recognizes that he is threatened by others and that they are threatened by him. The spring that makes the social machinery tick is this recognition, which generates the calculation that, if he agrees to respect the life, liberty and property of others (for which he has no natural respect), they can be induced to reciprocate. This is the foundation of rights, a new kind of morality solidly grounded in self-interest.
To say, "I've got my rights," is as instinctive with Americans as breathing, so clear and evident is this way of looking at things. It signifies the rules of the game, within which men play peacefully, the necessity of which they see and accept, and the infringement of which arouses moral indignation. It is our only principle of justice. From our knowledge of our rights flows our acceptance of the duties to the community that protects them. Righteousness means for us respect for equal rights equally guaranteed by the force of government. Everyone in the world today speaks of rights, even the communists, the heirs of Marx, who ridiculed "bourgeois rights" as a sham and in whose thought there is no place for rights. But almost every thoughtful observer knows that it is in the United States that the idea of rights has penetrated most deeply into the bloodstream of its citizens and accounts for their unusual lack of servility. Without it we would have nothing, only chaotic selfishness; and it is the interested source of a certain disinterestedness. We feel people's interests should be respected.
This scheme represented a radical break with the old ways of looking at the political problem. In the past it was thought that man is a dual being, one part of him concerned with the common good, the other with private interests. To make politics work, man, it was thought, has to overcome the selfish part of himself, to tyrannize over the merely private, to be virtuous. Locke and his immediate predecessors taught that no part of man is naturally directed to the common good and that the old way was both excessively harsh and ineffective, that it went against the grain. They experimented with using private interest for public interest, putting natural freedom ahead of austere virtue. Self-interest is hostile to the common good, but enlightened self-interest is not. And this is the best key to the meaning of enlightenment. Man's reason can be made to see his vulnerability and to anticipate future scarcity. This rational awareness of the future and its dangers is enough to set the passions in motion. In the past men were members of communities by divine commandment and by attachments akin to the blood ties that constitute the family. They were, to use Rousseau's phrase, "denatured." Their loyalties were fanatic and repressive of their natures. Clear reasoning wiped that slate clean in order to inscribe on it contracts calmly made with expectation of profit involving the kinds of relations found in business. Calculated work is the sum of the whole affair. Thomas Watson said it all with the motto he placed on the walls of his offices and factories: "Think"; for he was addressing himself to men who were already working.
Americans are Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary (no longing for a nonexistent Eden), and will produce well-being; following their natural inclinations moderately, not because they possess the virtue of moderation but because their passions are balanced and they recognize the reasonableness of that; respecting the rights of others so that theirs will be respected; obeying the law because they made it in their own interest. From the point of view of God or heroes, all this is not very inspiring. But for the poor, the weak, the oppressed—the overwhelming majority of mankind—it is the promise of salvation. As Leo Strauss put it, the moderns "built on low but solid ground."
So I end this series with the one place in this book that Bloom cites his mentor Leo Strauss. I think, the next series I do will be on Strauss on modernity, putting that quotation into context.
And I do note this "report" given from Bloom and before him Strauss is disputed. Did they really properly understand Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau? And is it true that the "rights talk" that we take for granted is a product of modernity?