Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Enlightenment’s Evil Twin

Proponents of liberty cannot escape confronting the issue that came to full fruition in the Enlightenment: liberty and tyranny both found freedom as a result.  Classical liberals cannot just point to Locke and Jefferson as the offspring.  In this post I will examine the Enlightenment’s evil twin – as represented in Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Thomas Hobbes

His ideas…are especially challenging to any libertarian who would wish to see the state minimised or eliminated.  That said, there are elements of his thought that any liberal would welcome.

Casey offers that more than half of Leviathan is about religion, and some take this as the most important part of his work.  One can glean Hobbes’ view on religion by the following:

Hobbes’s overall thought was fundamentally materialist…. For Hobbes, all that ultimately exists is matter in motion. …even the extremely complex social and political world too was explicable in materialistic terms.

Hobbes treated all of nature – human nature as well as non-human nature – as a vast system of mechanical causes from which purpose was to be excluded.

No room for religion there; no man created in God’s image; no possibility of an afterlife; no reason to think beyond the immediacy of the moment; no reason to consider the means to an end; no reason to consider any ends other than he who dies with the most toys wins. 

Hobbes, like many thinkers of his time, was enamored with the logic of mathematics and applying this logic to human action and behavior.  We today would call this the axiomatic method: starting with as few axioms as possible – and using only pure reason – producing “a rich and complicated set of theorems (deductions), all interconnected and all derived, in a strict logical chain, from the basic axioms.”

Two things can go wrong: first, one can make a mistake in reasoning; second, one’s axioms might not be as axiomatic as one believes.  One cannot read this and not ask, “what about Austrian Economics?”  Casey addresses this:

This isn’t to deny that any given empirical science may have at its theoretical heart a core of conceptually interrelated elements as, for example, does Austrian economics; it is simply to reject the ultra-rationalist idea that the axiomatic method is the scientific method par excellence. 

I will leave it to those who are far more qualified in both understanding the conceptual underpinnings of Austrian Economics and Hobbes’ methodology to separate one from the other. On the surface, it seems clear to me that Austrians, unlike Hobbes, accept that not all values are material – a factor that will greatly reduce error by Austrians.  But this might explain the different conclusions, and not necessarily offer an explanation as to why such deductive reasoning is or is not a valid tool.  Perhaps it is not any more complicated than challenging the axioms….

Hobbes finds man to be “spontaneously self-seeking, acquisitive and aggressive.”  Although man is not only these things, it is on these things that Hobbes builds his philosophy.  Based on this, Hobbes offers that there is no such thing as right and wrong, no such thing as civic virtue, no such thing as justice or injustice.  No room for natural law here.

For this reason, the all-powerful state is necessary – to keep man from acting as he would in his natural condition.  Casey examines the significant contradiction in Hobbes’ thought: if this is man’s nature, from where will the man come who can rule properly?  More fundamentally: if this is man’s nature, how will man ever be able to come to agreement (contract) on bringing that man to power?

Casey summarizes Hobbes as follows:

Where we have Leviathan, we have no distinction between morals and law. …Hobbes rejects any robust conception of natural law or any idea that custom, tradition and habit have any normative force except insofar as the sovereign condescends to enforce it, either explicitly or tacitly. …there is no distinction between society and state.  Without Leviathan, there is no state; without Leviathan, there is no society.  Hobbes rejects the idea that sovereigns can be subject to the law.

Casey concludes that Hobbes’ philosophy has turned into today’s generally accepted reality.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As a human being, a real scumbag:

He was self-centered, vain, self-pitying, narcissistic, and he yoked all these unattractive traits to an irrepressible lust for self-publicity.

And this is before he abandoned each of his five children to an orphanage – where two-thirds of all babies died within the first year.  Is this relevant to his thought? 

In Rousseau’s vision, the State becomes father to all and all citizens become children in the State orphanage.

While this was the fate Rousseau desired for us, for himself Rousseau wanted a world that was fit for him, a heaven that was deserving of his presence and a God worthy of his love.  Further, Rousseau perhaps best demonstrated the progression from the medieval man to the progressive:

Whereas the medieval period had been an attempt to come to grips with our world by means of reason and revelation, and the early modern period had kept reason while ditching revelation, Rousseau’s romanticism went one better than the early moderns and ditched both revelation and reason, seeking and finding its home in sentiment and feeling.

To suggest that Rousseau’s writing was confused and confusing might be an understatement; yet one cannot underestimate his influence on all political thought since: Robespierre, Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Shelley, Mill, Marx, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida – each can be labeled a follower or admirer.

A child of the liberation of Enlightenment, Rousseau offered what can be described as an attack on the entire Enlightenment project – an attack on reason and science.  Preferring feeling to intellect, tradition to enlightenment, and faith to science, it all sounds so stereotypically traditional…missing only one ingredient: God.

Casey describes Rousseau’s notion of the General Will as “simply baffling…incoherent.”  It is what we each would will if we only knew what was good for us; the difference of what we think we want versus what we really (unknowingly) want.  Thus, Rousseau’s notion that man must be forced to be free makes perfect sense – it is just that we do not understand what being free means.

Thus, Rousseau provides cover for Marxists – we are unknowing tools of a capitalist ideology – and devout feminists – believers in the sexist mind-control of the Patriarchy.  To Casey, Rousseau is both authoritarian and totalitarian:

Rousseau is a, if not the, source of the damaging regime of social engineering that has dominated liberal western thought, in particular since the middle of the twentieth century.


For Rousseau, man in the state of nature is neither social nor anti-social, neither moral nor immoral; he is, rather, asocial and amoral.

Man without God is this: little more than an animal in the wild.  Subtracting God from man: Hobbes and Rousseau finalized what the Renaissance began.  These two, perhaps more than any others, have influenced our age.

By their fruits we know them.


  1. My big question is what is it about Hobbes and Rousseau's philosophy that attracts people to believe in it? Is it the space it makes for narcissism for the believer? Is it simple hatred for God? It has to be more than that because it includes hatred for other people too.

    I read about these ideas and my gut reaction is disgust and dismissal. They sound like crazy people. I guess many are just as crazy?

    1. I think all of the above. I will also add: they helped give justification to the absolute, sovereign state. So those with power pushed these theories on the rest of us.

      The state will educate your children: one of the more evil ideas ever foisted on man.

    2. Hobbes appeals to those who live life strictly by virtue of what's in their head (reason), though their reason is often wrongheaded. They deny the appetites of the stomach (desire) and disregard the values of the chest (morality, faith). Vainglory is the primary sin of the Hobbesians.

      Rousseau similarly appeals to those who deny the values of the chest, but in contradistinction to Hobbesian head dwellers, the Rousseauns reside primarily in the realm of the stomach, giving their passions full reign, though their passions are often perverted. Intemperance is the primary sin of the Rousseans.

      Am I close?

      I'm speaking with reference to C.S. Lewis' excellent essay, "Men Without Chests".

      "“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” - C.S. Lewis

  2. I just wrote a comment yesterday on a different site talking about the two sides of the leftist totalitarian coin: the Yankee (the godless Puritan or Progressive) and the Gramsciite (the cultural nihilist socialist). I identified the modern roots of the former with Calvin and the later with Rousseau, but Hobbes is probably a more complete precursor of Yankee-ism, since he was not a Christian.

    As EvKL pointed out, both variants originated as Christian (or Catholic) heresies or off-shoots. Any worthy values in either one are from Christian origin, and its the hint of these values that attract so many to them. Of course, in these systems, the Christian virtues have become distorted and alienated from one another.

    "The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful." - G.K. Chesterton

    1. Society (or at least libertarians within society) wants the liberty born from Christian roots and values, without living within and integrating Christian roots and values.

      It isn't working out so well.

    2. I agree, and more to your point, I found this wonderful little article by Bradley Birzer on Russell Kirk and the Logos at the American Conservative.

      Quoting Kirk, Birzer says:

      "“Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily,” Kirk observed, “for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.” If one takes the Image properly, as intended by the Image maker, it will “raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream.” If soiled by the prideful ego, though, “it can draw us down to the abyss.” The Image offered by the Divine allows us not to create that which can and should never be, but to discover that which has always been there, but either forgotten, ignored, or mocked."

      I think "soiled by the prideful ego" pretty much sums up those who wish to have the liberty Christianity built without its Architect. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," a masterpiece in almost every respect, also explains along these lines why the liberal experiment failed to produce liberty when they took the reins of the state and rejected or dismissed the importance of God: they thought they could use the ring of power for good, like Saroman.

      They should have heeded Jesus' example in Matthew Chapter 4 when tempted in the wilderness with all the earthly kingdoms.

  3. ATL: "The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad."

    A wonderful quote!

    About Hobbes/Rousseau: I believe that philosophies/religions work as attractors in a chaotic system. When somebody changes so much in his mental department that he can no longer use the philosophy (or religion) of his parents to rationalise his pre-programmed procreation strategy, he must find a new philosophy. This is where the existing work comes in and they will adopt H or R (or something else). It is unlikely to provide a perfect match, but I also believe that there is a certain flexibility where the chosen philosophy may impact the procreation strategy to make the fit 'perfect'.

    What makes this tragic is that nurture plays an important role (see r/K strategy) and hence parents may 'drive' their children into other philosophies (or religions) without wanting to.

  4. BM, have you read Leviathan, By T. Hobbes?

    One big lesson I got out of it was that in agency, the principal is always above the agent. That is, as I understand it, why Hobbes had to flee England, because the monarchy understood Hobbes to be saying that the King was under law and subject to it. Leviathan really helped me understand agency and the nature of usurpation. Which in turn helped me to understand some Biblical passages.

    For years I read what others wrote about Hobbes, then, I read Leviathan. I read Leviathan a looong time ago. Maybe I should re-read to refresh my memory.

    1. I have not read it. I have also read that it is not so one-sided. I think this issue is well-captured in the opening cite from Casey, above.