Tom Holland: Dominion

For me, Tom Holland’s Dominion was the book to look forward to in 2019. The reason was that I had had an epiphany similar to the one that moved him to begin a work focused on Christianity. Holland, known for his highly-readable books on ancient and medieval topics, had long thought of himself as a product of ancient Greece and Rome, but came in time to feel their brutality repellent: “the values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.” Clearly he was not simply a product of antiquity, but also of something else. The piece in which he describes the realisation that Christianity represented an immense and crucial part of his own formation – and more generally of the formation of the world we live in today – is recommended reading in its own right. (This five-minute video gives a compact overview of some of the central ideas.)

Holland’s insights in that piece were particularly important to me because I had recently had a realisation along the same lines. The beneficiary of an entirely secular upbringing, I had almost literally not read a single page of the Bible, but a passing comment from a friend one day caused me to feel an absence in my education: he mentioned his ‘favourite book’ of the Bible. Although his upbringing was no less secular than my own, I was so far from having a favourite book of the Bible I couldn’t even give you the most basic account of any of them. Surely I, aspiring to be an educated person, at least ought to have some idea what was in there. So before long I was turning the pages of the New Testament, and reading this: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy… Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The effect was rather like a lightning bolt. Why? Well, like Holland, I have spent a certain amount of time studying the ancient world, and the lines above brought one thought home to me with considerable force: you won’t read that in Thucydides’ History or in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. What I was reading presented a fundamentally different ethos: such sentiments are in a very real way alien to ancient Greece and Rome. It’s not the case that thoughts along these lines were absolutely absent from the ancient world – one thinks, for example, of Socrates’ arguments in the Gorgias that it is better to suffer than to perform an injustice – but such talk was peculiar and unusual, fundamentally antinomian: recall the exasperation of Socrates’ opponents as he makes those arguments, and how his own ideas are said to be characteristic of someone whispering in a corner with a few boys. The idea that all people, even the weakest and lowliest, have an inherent dignity and worth, is not one you come across often – if at all – when reading the ancient classics.

I think that helps explain, for example, why we read in Aristotle of people who argued against slavery, but we don’t read anywhere of a successful abolitionist movement – and certainly not of a civil war fought by non-slaves over the question! (That Christianity played such an explicit role in 17th-19th century abolition movements, as well as in the civil rights movement in the 60’s – and don’t forget Nelson Mandela, who appears towards the end of Holland’s book – does not suggest its irrelevance in this regard.) Another conspicuous feature of our own time also seems to be best explained by means of Christianity: the guilt over past empires that forms a cornerstone of the contemporary Western Zeitgeist. I can’t think of anything similar in antiquity.

I thought about writing a blog post about all this, but I soon learned of Holland’s impending book, and I knew he would do a better job than I ever would. He did not disappoint.

The central theme of Dominion is this: a very great part of what has formed our world – of what makes us us – is Christianity. More than that, much of what makes our world good in the way that we think it is good, is Christianity.

The book was not at all what I had expected. I had thought that Holland would confine himself to the ancient world, bringing out in detail the foreignness, the otherness, of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, so as to bring out whatever the unique contribution of Christianity might be. What I found was quite different: Holland has written a narrative history of Western Christianity, or more specifically an episodic history of its influence upon us, starting with its ancient pre-Christian roots in Judaism and Greece, and reaching all the way to the protests that followed the election of Donald Trump. The result is more effective than anything I had imagined, because it allows him to show in real detail how certain aspects of the modern era that one might think novel are in fact only the more recent form of impulses whose roots go back two millennia (and which, as I think it through, are often not to be found at all in pre-Christian antiquity; I discuss a few examples below). The cumulative effect is utterly convincing. It has also given me a great deal to think about: this is not likely to be a book I read only once.

A work as rich and wide-ranging as Dominion cannot be properly discussed in a few thousand words, but I want to treat the points that struck me as particularly important. One aspect of Christianity that has been lost to us is a sense of its initial strangeness, the way in which it inverted conceptions that defined the world in which it emerged. Nothing would seem less god-like to the Greeks or Romans than getting crucified, nor anything more bizarre than undergoing this for the sake of others. The gods were supposed to be overpoweringly strong, and were so far from being inclined to sacrifice themselves for others that there were numerous tales of the rapes certain of them had committed. Of course, it wasn’t just the crucifixion, but the teachings that preceded it that were a departure from contemporary sensibilities: “Woe to you who are rich!” “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Such words carry within them the basis for revolution, so that each Christian order carried within itself the seeds of its own overthrow. That is, whatever order comes to hold sway, however revolutionary it might have seemed at first, will eventually come to be associated with the rich, with those who are ‘first,’ simply by virtue of its success. It thus finds itself in danger, if it is a Christian order, of running afoul of its own first principles, of inviting revolution, or at least reform. The most remarkable such instance involves the behaviour of people who believe themselves to be entirely beyond Christianity in the West, who proceed in a manner that is deeply Christian: those who claim to be ‘woke’ (the name itself suggests an awakening of the sort long associated with a certain religion) focus on those who they believe most oppressed, such as women or homosexuals or trans-people, and create a reverse-hierarchy, in which the last are first, and the first last. This instinct to raise up those at the bottom would have seemed bizarre to an ancient Greek or Roman, to such a degree that I can’t think of any precursor to it in those ancient societies (if anyone can help me out here, do let me know).

In Dominion we encounter numerous examples of other revolutions that occur as the dominant state of affairs in each era come to be seen as falling short of the ideals to which the whole society, being Christian, has long professed. Perhaps the most eye-opening for me came in chapter nine, in the case of the 11th century ‘reformation’ (i.e., reformatio). I had not previously been aware of this episode, but Holland sees in it the birth of the secular as a realm distinct from the religious. A drive for the renewed purity of the Church – for example by demanding celibacy of priests, and by driving out the influence of temporal monarchs upon the papacy – as well as a power-grab on the part of that same papacy, produced a significant result: “for too long the rival dimensions of earthly appetites and commitment to Christ, of corruption and purity, of saecularia and religio, had been intermixed. Such pollution could not be permitted to continue.” Of course such a development does not come out of thin air. It can legitimately claim to be a further development of earlier Christian thought (e.g., Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man), and also to have a basis in scripture (“give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”).

It also lays a foundation for what is to come. Although Martin Luther denounced Gregory VII, author of that 11th century reformatio, still, one result of the 16th century Reformation was, as Holland tells us, “not to dissolve the great division between the realms of the profane and the sacred that had characterised Christendom since the age of Gregory VII, but to entrench it.” I happen to have been doing a little reading on the Reformation lately, and it seems to me that Holland could have pressed his case at this point rather more strongly than he does: that we find here the conceptual basis of modern democratic freedom seems to me rather difficult to deny. Sweeping away the institutional authorities who had long claimed to be necessary to salvation, Luther points instead to the inner relationship of each individual with God, with a concomitant emphasis on freedom and individual conscience. This soon leads to one of history’s great statements of individual conscience, as Luther defies both pope and emperor – “here I stand, I can do nothing else!” – and also to Calvin’s view that people should be free to both join and leave the church. It also produces Luther’s famous statement on rights and duties: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Certainly these word pose a threat to the medieval conception of society, according to which people have quite different rights and duties according to their station, but they also point to the future, for they suggest a society of formal equals, without room for the many exceptions to that equality that had characterised the ancient republics.

It is certainly not self-evident that all men are created equal – except, perhaps, for those who have grown up in a society that has been marinated in such ideas for a couple centuries. Accordingly, in the lands which accepted some form of the Reformation, after a few generations have passed, we start to see experiments in democracy in various forms. What a coincidence! (Those who accept the Steven Pinker history of the Enlightenment, according to which it springs forth full-formed, like Athena from Zeus’ thigh, with very little debt indeed to the preceding millennium, need to come up with something to say about this astonishing coincidence.)

And of course, even as he is a founding figure of the modern protestant world – i.e., northern Europe and the English-speaking world – Luther is also trying to clear away what he considers the medieval deformations of his faith, going back past them to Augustine, and through Augustine, to St. Paul. That is, by going back to the Christian basics, he laid the conceptual basis of modern liberal democratic republics, whose character has proved very different from ancient republics like Rome or Athens. (As an aside, one thought I had while reading Holland was of the towering importance of Augustine, not simply as an important church father, but also as a keystone in the foundation of modern freedom.)

As I suggested above, one great merit of Holland’s grand-narrative approach is that he can bring earlier chapters to bear on later history, bringing home to the reader just how deeply based in Christian precedent certain later episodes are. So, for example, when he arrives at the sans-culottes in the French Revolution, he reminds us, “they were certainly not the first to call for the poor to inherit the earth. So too had the radicals among the Pelagians, who had dreamed of a world in which every man and woman would be equal; so too had the Taborites, who had built a town on communist principles, and mockingly crowned the corpse of a king with straw; so too had the Diggers, who had denounced property as an offence against God.” Anyone who has followed Holland to this point has read about the Pelagians, Taborites and Diggers in some detail, and can accordingly appreciate that an old pattern is recurring. Or consider Holland on Robespierre’s belief that human rights were eternal and universal, without any debt to Christian history: “there hung over this a familiar irony. The ambition of eliminating hereditary crimes and absurdities, of purifying humanity, of bringing them from vice to virtue, was redolent not just of Luther, but of Gregory VII. The vision of a universal sovereignty, one founded amid the humbling of kings and the marshalling of lawyers, stood recognisably in a line of descent from that of Europe’s primal revolutionaries.”

It may seem, on the basis of my account so far, that Dominion is a triumphal work, which seeks to whitewash the various forms of barbarity that Christians have perpetrated over and over again in the course of history. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Holland does not shy away from such realities, drawing attention repeatedly to the darker things done in the name of Christianity. He even notes that although the Nazis represented an utterly anti-Christian movement, they were nevertheless moved also by impulses that had first appeared long before: “the dream of a new order planted on the ruins of the old; of a reign of the saints that would last for a thousand years; of a day of judgement, when the unjust would be sorted from the just, and condemned to a lake of fire: this, from the earliest days of the Church, had always haunted the imaginings of the faithful.”

While reading, I found myself thinking about the negative side, and I now wonder if Christian moral universalism isn’t a sort of double-edged sword. This goes to the heart of what is so good about Christianity and what makes it so dangerous. One way to grasp what is unique here is to consider Luther’s two sentences about the freedom and duties of a Christian (above) in relation to the ancient world. As I try to think of parallels in antiquity, I’m inclined to think that strictly speaking, there are none: the Greeks and Romans don’t seem to have been as inclined as the moderns to hold forth on the universal rights of man. Still, perhaps Pericles’ lofty claims in the Funeral Oration about the justice and equality between Athenian citizens will do: what Pericles says applies to male Athenian citizens, not to women, not to slaves, not to subjects of the empire, and so on. There is no subsequent history in Athens (or in Rome) in which the implied exclusions are gradually included, and take their place alongside the original Athenian citizens as equals. In the modern era, the matter is different. The obvious example is the US Declaration of Independence, with its claim that all men are created equal: notoriously, the slave-holding signatories must have intended an implicit exclusion of at least some black men, women didn’t have the vote, etc. In this case, however, subsequent history did gradually involve the inclusion of those who had been left out, realising the full potential of the original universal claim about equality. I think something similar is true of Luther’s words about the freedom of a Christian: these are radically universal statements with immense potential implications that could easily lead to places he wasn’t planning to go (e.g., the Declaration of Independence itself, which inter alia founds a republic). Subsequent events burst the banks of his intentions, driving towards an ever more universal form of equality and dignity for all. So that’s the good side of what I’m calling Christian moral universalism.

There’s another side, however: once you have what you believe to be right for all people, you can’t leave other people alone, even in other countries (or perhaps in more recent decades: you can’t grasp that not everybody believes the same thing as you). There was a sort of tolerance in the ancient polytheistic world: it was understood that different states had different gods and different customs, and these were not the focus of inter-state relations or of conflicts between states. In the 19th century, however, if your local customs included slavery, you might soon find that the British were prepared to expend considerable effort and money to change your customs (Holland tells of the bewilderment of the Ottomans in 1840 as the British did just this). What lay behind this was a universal moral imperative that applied to all people; the ancient world knew nothing at all like it. The desire to eliminate slavery was also a significant motivation for the expansion of the British Empire into Africa. This universal moral imperative also finds expression as the imperative to convert others to Christianity becomes part of the story in times of conquest in the Christian era (e.g., the Spanish in the New World, or the Teutonic Knights in eastern Europe), something unheard of in the ancient world. Towards the end of the book, Holland also looks at the Iraq war, in which many in the West simply took for granted that their own values really were universal, and thus held by all. (This proved not to be entirely true.) These, at any rate, are my preliminary thoughts on all this.

I found the sections on Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and the 20th century to be particularly interesting because they caused me to see thinkers and episodes that I had encountered before in a new light. The Christian basis of Marxism is not anything new, but Holland’s pages on Marx really are wonderful; only with great effort have I refrained from quoting them at length. And in the end, he does provide what for me was a major new insight: “the measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.” The treatment of Darwin showed me that I really need to spend time thinking about the horrible challenge posed by Darwinism to ethical life: whereas on the earlier understanding man was made in God’s image, giving an inherent dignity even to the lowest and the weakest, on a Darwinian understanding, the weak have to die, and it is good (for the species) if they do (Darwin himself noticed this). And Nietzsche is fascinating all over again for the light he sheds on Christianity: he is a determined anti-Christian who understands the religion well, and does not pretend that nothing bad will happen as it is abandoned. I was reading Walter Kaufmann a little while ago, who does a good job of rehabilitating Nietzsche from the connections often made between him and the Nazis; I think Holland has pushed the pendulum back somewhat in the other direction for me.

Dominion was not my first book by Tom Holland, but my estimation of him increased immeasurably as I read it. Yes, he can still write history that reads like fiction, yes, he can make you almost feel like you’re present at certain key historical moments, but in comparison with what I’d read before, this book is an achievement of a different order. This is history of a genuinely intellectual kind, with deeply-considered reflections on the development of ideas in history of the sort that can seem at first to admit of superficial objections, but which prove upon consideration to be fully thought-through (in keeping with the book’s focus, I have decided to be charitable and to refrain from going through any examples of such objections). Holland describes himself as a “popular historian,” and while it is true that he is often not working from primary sources in this book, still what he has produced is of greater value than so much of what comes out of academia today, with its endless proliferation of minute inquiries. The fact that Holland has presented thought of this standard in such an accessible form is an important part of the achievement here: because his prose is such a pleasure to read, his thoughts will have maximum reach.

It took me until the fourth-last sentence to find something which seems to me really to strike the wrong note. Christians have often behaved badly, Holland says, “yet the standards by which the stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change.” Certainly Holland has convincingly shown that even the most cutting-edge left-wing activity today is deeply informed by an unconscious Christian understanding – the same pattern of raising up the weak is playing out again – and the word ‘quickly’ ensures that he is strictly correct in what he says here. Still, the last part of that sentence is something I’ve begun to think about in recent months: as the West becomes dechristianised, it may be running on fumes, so to speak, as far as its most fundamental values are concerned. The moral universe of the future could be a very different place, a much more brutal place.

Sometimes I wonder if I see hints of what is to come. Consider, for example, the manner in which it has become acceptable in some left-wing circles to talk of ‘whiteness’ and white people. This constitutes an absolute abandonment of the legacy of Martin Luther King – or rather, the Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King – whose approach to the issue of racial justice, being thoroughly and consciously Christian, appealed to a universal morality, a common humanity, and accordingly did not invite or allow the denigration of anyone on account of their race. ‘Whiteness,’ or rather, the readiness of certain people to speak of it as they do, could contain the seed of great future evils. Or maybe the appearance of sexual slavery in eastern Europe in recent decades gives us a glimpse of a more brutal future. I also think of Les Kolakowski’s suggestion that the fact that the Enlightenment and Christianity are going down together shows that the hope of a building an ethical order on reason alone was always futile. These, however, are large matters, for another time.

Whatever the future may hold, I have become convinced in recent years that an immense, objective change in the moral landscape began two millennia ago: the differences between ancient Greece and Rome, and what follows them, are too great to deny (which is not, of course, to say that those differences have a divine origin). Holland’s shows just how deeply this change continues to affect us. Given how little so many of us know about these things today, Dominion is likely greatly to deepen the understanding of most of its readers.

Finally, for those too lazy to read a book, there are now a few YouTube videos available which feature Holland talking about the substance of his book. These are well worth your time, insightful whether you read the book or not. For example, watch about three and a half minutes of this from 22:15 on the subject of the development of the notion of conscience in Christianity, of the notion that God’s law is written on the human heart, and how helpful this is for the possibility of progress, of recognising that things can be improved. This one is also good, as is this one (scroll to the bottom for the podcast). This podcast as well. The last 15 minutes or so of this is also on topic. [Oct. 20th] This is also worth a listen.

Merkel and Migrants: A Critique

I think that Angela Merkel did a bad job of handling the refugee crisis of late 2015. In addition to its other failings, her approach seems to me to have been about the worst way possible to help Syrians in need of refuge from the ongoing war in their home country. My reasons for thinking these things is based on facts that still seem to be entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, and that do not seem to have made any impression on the narrative concerning these events. The result is that Merkel’s advocates continually make unchallenged claims that are false – and I blame these advocates for a move towards extremism on both sides of the political spectrum throughout the West. Time, then, for a blog post.

Let us begin with some facts. Having followed the issue in major news media, what proportion of applicants for asylum in Germany do you suppose have been Syrian since 2015? 94%? 90%? Or perhaps only 80%?

Taken month-by-month, Syrians have always made up less than 55% of initial asylum applicants in Germany. In fact, they have usually accounted for a still smaller proportion than this: taken year-by-year, Syrians have never made up as much as 37% of initial asylum applications in Germany.

In case you doubt me on this point (and in case I have misread the data), allow me to provide links to my source, which is Germany’s Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees). Be warned: these links will each download a PDF. In November 2015, there were 55,950 initial asylum applications in Germany, of which 30,398 (54.3%) were from Syrians (see page three). This was the high point. During the migration crisis of 2015-2016, the other relevant months were as follows: in August 2015 initial asylum applicants were 30.2% Syrian; in September 40.9%; in October 53.5%; in December 54.0%; in January 2016 53.7%; February 50.6%; and in March 47.8%.

For each individual year since 2015, the numbers are lower. Here (again) is the link for the data for December 2015. On page two there is an overview for the year. There we learn that in 2015 there were 441,899 initial applications for asylum in Germany. Of these, 158,657 (35.9%) were made by Syrians. In 2016 36.9% of initial asylum applications were made by Syrians. In 2017, 24.7%. In 2018 to the end of November, 27.2%.

As you review the data, you may be struck by an initial thought: this is not the story of the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 as it was told in our major media. According to that story, the migrants during that crisis were overwhelmingly Syrian. Here’s an altogether typical sentence from the Atlantic in early 2016 (I was able to track it down because it stuck in my mind): “more than 1 million people entered Germany last year, the vast majority of them Syrian.” I remembered this sentence because it contains a use of “vast majority” with which I am unfamiliar: we have just seen that Syrians represented 35.9% of asylum applicants in the preceding year, with a high of 54.3% in one month. The information was available at the time (though I only knew about it because I was following the news in German).

There is a more important question than the narrative followed by our media concerning the refugee crisis. The facts about the makeup of asylum claims in Germany seem to me to be heavily laden with consequences for our thinking about the policy followed by the German government. First of all, Germany does not have infinite resources. Every bed that is filled by, say, a migrant from Serbia or Algeria must be unavailable to a refugee from Syria. Every meal consumed, every euro spent, every minute of a volunteer’s or bureaucrat’s time expended on a non-Syrian migrant cannot be given to a Syrian refugee. If our goal is to help Syrians as they flee their country’s civil war, we must find a way to help Syrians preferentially, to bring Syrians in at the expense of other possible migrants. As the numbers show, the Merkel approach – i.e., a general opening of the borders – is a very poor way to achieve this. Having read about the appalling conditions that obtained for some months in many German refugee shelters, which were utterly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people arriving, or about great battles that broke out within certain shelters between people of different national origin/religion/etc., requiring intervention by the police on a significant scale – as I think about this sort of thing, it seems to me it would have been more compassionate to Syrians to allow them in, and to keep many others out.

And look at the matter from another angle: in 2015, four Balkan countries – Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia – accounted for fully one-quarter (113,015 or 25.6%) of all initial asylum applicants in Germany. What war were they fleeing? Were they really as deserving of German resources as Syrians were? A look at the data (page 7 of the December 2015 PDF linked above) shows that 35,235 decisions were made by the German government on asylum applications from Albanians in 2015, of which seven (7) were recognised as refugees. It seems to me that it would have been more compassionate to Syrian refugees to avoid making them wait while the bureaucracy spent its time rejecting 30,000 or so applications from Albanians, who never had much chance of being accepted anyway. (In 2015 there were also 26,801 decisions made on Kosovan applications, of whom thirteen (13) were deemed refugees, 14,451 decisions on Serbian applications, of whom four (4) were refugees, etc.)

There is a way to reduce such inefficiencies to a very considerable degree: borders. Controlled borders allow us to keep some people out while letting other people in. In this case, by keeping control of her borders, Germany could have allowed far more Syrian refugees in, and would have been able to offer each of them greater resources, and thus better treatment, while keeping other, less deserving people, out.

Nor is this the only advantage offered by controlled borders. It is no secret that the great majority of those who arrived during the great migration of 2015-2016 were young men. This is, of course, because young men are most able to endure the rigours of travel required to reach Germany on foot. But consider what this involves: Merkel’s policy produced a situation in which the strongest people, those least in need of help, were given aid, while the weakest were left to themselves. Women, children, the sick, the injured – these were the people least able to make the journey to Germany, and Merkel’s approach tended to do little or nothing for such people. Surely a better approach would have directed aid to those most in need of it, rather than to the strongest (and also the richest: the trip to Europe seems usually to have cost thousands of dollars per person). This could have been achieved by transporting people directly from refugee camps around Syria, which could only have been thinkable if the borders were under control.

So here is an initial point: if all you care about in this whole situation is helping Syrians, Angela Merkel’s policy was quite a bad way to achieve this. In fact, if you begin from the premise that we ought to help Syrians during their country’s civil war, I have a hard time thinking of a worse way to accomplish this aim than the path Merkel took.

A second point concerns the quality of the coverage and commentary provided by our media. For me it is a matter of concern not only that the facts listed above seem to be known almost nowhere in the English-speaking world, but still more that I have never read in English an elementary critique of Merkel’s policy of the sort I just gave in the preceding five paragraphs. Instead, coverage and commentary followed a straightforward narrative: Angela Merkel was a Great Humanitarian trying to help Syrians. I can remember almost no attempt to distinguish genuine refugees from economic migrants (here is a rare exception from Nick Cohen). On the contrary, all those trying to migrate into Germany or Europe were described as ‘refugees’ and were assumed to be mostly Syrian (for good measure, the pictures used tended to be of mothers carrying small children, an image generally at odds with the reality of a migration consisting mostly of young men). We have seen, however, that the arrivals were rarely even as much as 50% Syrian, and this suggests a criticism of Merkel’s policy that I haven’t yet mentioned: why does a civil war in Syria require that Germans allow into their country tens of thousands of young men from Egypt or Pakistan? (or Algeria, or Eritrea, etc.) For it is this that is effectively being asserted by anyone who justifies Merkel’s open-border policy on the basis of the civil war in Syria – and it was just that justification that I encountered again and again on TV and in the papers.

Having criticised Angela Merkel, I want to draw attention to what I think is a mitigating consideration – although the facts here do suggest that she was not a visionary humanitarian pursuing a deliberate policy towards refugees, but instead stumbled unwittingly into that characterisation. Robin Alexander, in his book Die Getriebenen, provides a day-by-day, and sometimes minute-by-minute, look at the actions of the major players in German politics during the six or so months of the Flüchtlingskrise (“refugee crisis”) of late 2015 and early 2016. There are a number of things in the book that might interest English-speaking readers, but I will confine myself to one central incident. Late on September 4th, 2015, Angela Merkel made the decision to open Germany’s borders to a large group of migrants who were effectively stranded in Budapest, having been held back by the Hungarian government. In itself, this decision seems to me to have been humane, and the right thing to do – or rather, would have been, if it had been restricted to a very few days, an emergency exception to the rules of the sort an executive can reasonably make on occasion. The problem is that the border remained open, and this initial group of migrants soon became a vast and continuous flow. Watching events unfold at the time, I can remember reading that after a few days, the German government announced that the border would presently be closed. As Alexander tells it, the order was drawn up for this to happen at 6pm on September 13th, and the German police had the men and materials in place to carry it out, having even brought officers down from the north of the country for the purpose.

And yet… the order was never actually given. Alexander describes the meeting in which the crucial decision to close the border, which has already been taken, is untaken. Civil servants begin to come up with legalistic obstacles to closing the border. Certainly German law allows the government to turn away asylum applicants at the border, but what about the European rules? Is the Dublin Regulation still in effect? Has it not been temporarily suspended by the Chancellor nine days ago? In the meantime, a minister is making repeated calls to the Chancellor’s office, and the Chancellor is now proving indecisive. What would happen, she asks, if hundreds of migrants were to charge police lines at the border with children under their arms? What about the pictures that would result? Soon she gives the impression that she will give the order if Sigmar Gabriel, leader of Germany’s  second-largest party, will provide clear support for it. In fact, he has already agreed earlier in the day, but in the meantime, he has been made aware of concerns from his party about the legality of turning people away at the border. In the end, nobody takes responsibility for the difficult decision; the order to turn people away receives a change of wording that keeps Germany’s borders open for all who claim asylum. The result is that what was meant to be a brief opening of the borders, lasting a few days, lasts instead for six months (to March 9th, 2016). Thus Germany stumbles towards a new position as a humanitarian superpower less as a matter of deliberate decision than through a sort of deliberative incapacity.

I have described the crucial meeting at length because the extreme indecisiveness displayed in it seems to me to point to an underlying cultural reality. It was as though the decision to close the borders was a white-hot fire that nobody wanted to approach too closely. Repeatedly, at the crucial moment, those in the highest positions of responsibility shied away from responsibility, and as a result, a decision that had effectively been taken already was not taken at all. What explains this strange paralysis? Here I am inclined to see the weight of German history. The ghosts of the 20th century still loomed large. Of all the governments on earth, none would find it so difficult to close their country to people allegedly in need, to confront the resulting accusations of a heartlessness towards refugees, or even of xenophobia, as the German. I think Angela Merkel failed an important test of leadership on this occasion, but we do find here some reason to view her failings in a more forgiving light. I am inclined to view those who greeted the resulting mess with rapturous applause in a less forgiving manner, particularly those outside of Germany.

Of course there are plenty of good reasons for a country to maintain control of its borders and its immigration policy; I will not rehearse these here, with one exception: the effect that Merkel’s policy seems to me have had in creating a more extreme political environment throughout the West. I proceed now in a somewhat more speculative manner than above; still, if my thoughts below are even partly correct, they should concern even those who are otherwise inclined to lean toward openness and higher immigration.

The right and the left both have a somewhat irrational tendency to think that those who oppose them represent something more extreme than is in fact the case. So, for example, the left has a tendency to see bigotry and hatred in those on the other side even when it’s not there (which is not to deny that sometimes the left really is opposing true bigotry and hatred). One of the fears on the right, on the other hand, is that their opponents on immigration don’t just want a somewhat more open future, but rather want to abolish borders entirely and bring in an unlimited number of migrants. I once would have considered this fear unfounded, but Merkel and her cheerleaders proved it well-founded indeed. Her policy (if ‘policy’ is the word for a course one stumbles into as described above) was an extreme one, and to such a degree that it is almost a logical extreme: for six months, anyone from a poor country arriving on foot would be allowed into Germany, no questions asked. For such people there would simply be no borders. There would be no limit on the number of arrivals (Merkel was quite explicit about this). This policy could only really have been more extreme by a further extension in time. Here, then, was a major country acting out the absolute worst possible fear of immigration skeptics – and being cheered on by a very large section of the press indeed, as well as many celebrities and politicians. I’m inclined to think that this had an effect.

Imagine you’re someone who has concerns about mass immigration. You’re not necessarily against immigration per se, but you’re worried about the quantity of migrants your country is taking in, as well as the possible difficulties arising from cultural differences. The message Merkel and her supporters effectively sent was, “we don’t care at all about your concerns. We will ignore you as absolutely as we possibly can. Your views will not be represented in any way, shape or form in our policy – and further, we will frame the conversation [inaccurately, as we saw above] so as to represent your concerns as a heartless disregard for people in need.” What effect do you suppose a message along these lines might have?

In Germany, in the summer of 2015, the Alternative für Deutschland party seemed all but dead. If I recall correctly, it even had financial difficulties. Today it is the third largest party federally (polls sometimes put it in second place), with significant influence in a number of state legislatures as well. This is not the place to talk at length about the AfD; I will say only that it seems to be made up to a large degree of people I would not want to see play a major role in government, and that I don’t think it would be anywhere near as popular as it is if Merkel had pursued a more moderate course in 2015.

But I don’t think Merkel’s influence was confined to Germany. Many British voters, as they considered the Brexit referendum, will have been all too aware that such trifles as international treaties and German law had proved utterly incapable of inhibiting the unilateral action of the German state, which had invited vast numbers of people into Europe, all of whom would, in time, be able to move to Britain (i.e., once they had gotten German citizenship). Immigration, of course, was a matter of real concern in the years leading up to the campaign. “Take Back Control” said the campaign slogan, and Merkel’s policy had created the conditions within which such a slogan would have maximum impact.

In similar fashion, I wonder if Obama’s wholehearted and very public support for Merkel did not have an effect on people who soon found themselves considering whether they should cast a vote to make Donald Trump president. Certainly immigration was a significant issue in that campaign, and though the case of Angela Merkel did not break the surface, it surely provided the background music, framing the issue in many minds, and also framing the advocates of a more open immigration policy in those same minds. And something similar is surely the case across Europe, which has seen a surge of support for parties similar to the AfD since 2015, as well as an erosion of support for more mainstream parties. If you seek her monument, look around you.

In many ways I regard this surge as lamentable (I voted for Clinton in 2016), but I have to admit there is a certain logic to it. I now look at 2015 as a moment of fundamental change in political life throughout the West, for it made clear that a profound shift of the Overton window had taken place among a crucially important section of the populace, the intellectual elites. The need to maintain control over a country’s borders had long been accepted as self-evident by all, but now this view faded away among a very large proportion of those in charge of political parties, major media and the conversation in academia. The new view was one of limitless indulgence towards illegal immigrants, and some even moved towards the claim that all immigration was good, period. (A sign of the change is the jarring feel of those videos of Clinton in the 90’s, or Obama a decade ago, speaking in vehement terms about the need to crack down on illegal immigrants – sorry, I believe ‘undocumented’ is the new term.) Those who still held to the old consensus found themselves with no respectable place to register that view, and at the same time found themselves now cast as bigots. I am inclined to view the change as a major driver in the populist surge in much of the West in the past two years – but note that on my account it is the elites who have changed more than the populace.

Finally, lest I be accused of pointing only to problems, and not at all to solutions, allow me to note the approach of the British government. This put quite considerable sums of money into supporting those who had found accommodation in one of the countries bordering Syria, and also flew a limited number to Britain. The British approach did not favour the strong and the rich, but rather those who were deemed most worthy of aid. It did not bring hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing whatever to do with the Syrian war into Britain. It did not unilaterally undo the Dublin Regulation, nor did it attempt to force upon other European countries a new migration policy, or any quantity of refugees. It did not involve the conflation of economic migrants with actual refugees. It did not confirm the worst fears of reasonable immigration skeptics. It did not provide any opportunity for sentimental posturing on the part of those who wish to show what good and compassionate people they are; it focused instead on the matter of actually providing aid. Sober, deliberate, quiet, unpretentious, the British approach was simply superior to the German.

Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I find myself being confronted repeatedly lately with the distinction between what we can prove (science) and what we just believe for no reason at all (religion). It seems there is a popular notion that we can either choose to look for a proof of a given belief, or just believe it. Reasonable people will presumably do the former; stupid or religious people (the suggestion is that there’s no a difference there) will do the latter.

I don’t think there’s much to be said for this picture – in fact, I think some very basic philosophy is enough to refute it. In this post I want to try to make this explicit, setting out some of what I think are the basics on faith and reason. My immediate motivation is the unconsidered nonsense I keep seeing on this subject from the militant atheist crowd, but I’m also trying to get my own thinking here clear. My basic claim is this: faith is everywhere, always. Everyone operates on the basis of things nobody can prove, and this is true all the time. Accordingly, the question is not whether we’re going to “just believe” or whether we’re going to develop a view of the world by demanding a reason for every claim. Rather, faith is built into every rational account of the world, and the question is how we’re going to decide where exactly to put our faith.

Perhaps I should say a word about myself. I’m not religious, and never have been; I had an utterly secular upbringing. But I’m also not anti-religious: I’ve never been atheist, but rather agnostic, and I’m ever less inclined to regard militant atheism as a reasonable position, for reasons that should become clear below.

I’m going to focus on two problems for knowledge: doubts about the existence of an ordered physical world, and doubts about the utility of reason. After that, I’m going to describe how I think we get past these two problems. The punchline is that it seems to me that the sort of faith we need to get going with science proceeds in the very same way as the foundation of religion.

Also, my aim here is not precision, but rather to give a general view; and if the topics I touch on here are vast, with ample room for additional considerations, still my basic point here seems to me difficult to dislodge (and please do let me know if you think you can do that).

(1) Doubting an Ordered Physical World

Back at the dawn of the scientific revolution, there was a fellow named Descartes, and he had some doubts that seemed to undermine the claim of science to knowledge. As modern science grew into an ever more impressive artifice, philosophers became ever more concerned by their inability to respond to the problem. Descartes’ doubts, of course, pointed to our difficultly in knowing that an objective physical world exists at all. This can be quickly explained as follows: you’re probably reading this piece on some computing device, say, a laptop. How do you know your laptop is actually there? You can see it, you can feel it, maybe you can even hear it – but how do you know your senses aren’t deceiving you? How do you know that your laptop isn’t an illusion? For that matter, how do you know that everything you see, hear and feel is not just an illusion? How you know that anything physical exists, even your own body?

Philosophers, then, became rather worried about this problem because it seemed to undermine any claim science has to produce knowledge. After all, the whole of empirical science rests on the assumption that there actually is a physical world, but if we can’t know that there actually is anything physical, then it might seem that science can’t really know anything. (Descartes’ answer to this problem involved God, so it’s not palatable to a lot of people today.)

Descartes, of course, pushed his doubts farther than this, going as far as to question his own existence. After all, how do you even know that you exist? At this point it seems to be possible to start giving answers: do you doubt that you exist? If so, then you’re thinking, and you can’t think if you don’t exist: “I think therefore I am.” Many have taken this to be the one certain starting point for further inquiry – we each know of our own existence – but in fact there are problems even here…

(2) Doubts about Reason

Antiquity had deeper sceptics than Descartes, sceptics who denied that you could affirm anything at all (many today call themselves ‘sceptics’ simply because they deny the existence of God, but real scepticism goes much farther than that). One way to this denial is to note that Descartes’ answer to his doubts about his own existence rely on reason. To him, this does not seem to have been a great problem, but it is possible to doubt whether we should accept reason – and if we don’t accept it, we might as well say, “I think, therefore I don’t exist.” In fact, the question of how we can come to accept reason is a difficult one: can we give a reason to accept reason? Surely if we do, we’re already assuming what we need to prove – and yet if we refuse to provide any kind of proof of reason, we seem to be behaving irrationally. These theoretical difficulties find an empirical counterpart in evolution: we’re evolved to survive, not to perceive or think about the world as accurately as possible. It could be that reason, as we have evolved to grasp it, doesn’t really tell us anything about reality.

One response to this sort of problem is to say we don’t believe in reason, rather we use reason (e.g., as Steven Pinker or Jerry Coyne have said). I want to say a word about this because I have come across it repeatedly recently. The idea is that reason seems to work, it seems to deliver results, and so we keep using it: our use of reason has a basis in a kind of ongoing experiment. We remain open to the possibility that reason might fail at some point, and the moment we discover that irrationality, or something quite different, offers better results than reason, we’ll start making use of that other approach.

I think this is an obfuscation rather than an answer to the problem. I don’t think the distinction between ‘use’ and ‘believe’ gets us anywhere. I use a spoon rather than a knife to eat soup because I believe a spoon is more useful for this than a knife – it seems to me that we believe in everything we use. Moreover, the sort of experimental approach implied by this ‘use-not-believe’ approach implies a faith that the world has a certain order and stability, so that things that have happened in the past can be a guide to what will happen in the future. In an utterly irrational world, everything would just be luck, so there would be no point in experimenting to see what works.

Perhaps the easiest way to get to the problem here is to consider the following scenario. Imagine I have one dollar, and I go into a casino and bet that dollar on red 23 on one of those roulette machine-things. Say I win, and now I have $100. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $10,000. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $1,000,000. Just as I’m getting ready to bet that on red 23, and friend suggests it’s not that wise to believe I’ll always win with red 23. To this I respond, “I don’t believe in red 23, I’m using red 23.”

Now how could you prove to me that reason, or anything else in the whole of experimental science, doesn’t stand on the same footing? How do we know that the whole of science isn’t just luck? (And before you appeal to statistics here, note that we have to confront the same problem there as well.)

I don’t think any scientist actually uses reason without believing it to be useful, and if we believe reason is useful in understanding the world, we are also committed to certain beliefs about the nature of the world. In particular, we believe that science enables us to make predictions. After all, we’ve got planes in the air, drugs being injected into people’s bodies, and nuclear power plants in operation. If you use reason without believing in it, then you are committed to the view that getting on a plane is no different than betting everything on red 23. I think there is a difference, because I think science tells us something about the world – and I think that because I believe that the world is sufficiently ordered that experimenting on it helps us understand it. The point is that the word ‘believe’ is crucial here: we take the leap of faith that the world is the sort of thing that is amenable to a rational approach, and that experimentation will therefore be an aid to our understanding.

Or here’s another thought: let’s say we have understood the world to a very considerable degree, that it actually is the sort of thing amenable to experiment – but all that is going to change next Tuesday at 3:17 pm, when logic, math, and all the laws of physics are going to go out of force. This might mean we all die (but only might, for reasons that should now be obvious). How do you prove to me that this won’t happen next Tuesday? Absent such a proof, we can only have faith that it won’t be the case.

(I’m no specialist in the epistemology of science, but last time I checked in there, the quest for simple certainty had not yet borne fruit.)

(3) Believe, That You May Understand

So here’s where we are: some faith is necessary to accept reason; on the basis of that faith, we say ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Some further faith is needed to believe that a physical world exists, and we need faith again to believe that world to be the sort of thing amenable to rational investigation, and thus to experiment. Only on the basis of all that faith can we get started with science – and note that these moments of faith are all constantly in operation. It’s not like we come back and prove them later. Every time you fly, you believe it’s not just luck that the plane will stay in the air. Every step you take is taken in the belief that the ground won’t explode like a landmine the moment you step on it; every breath you take is based in the faith you won’t inhale poison gas. Strictly speaking, if you eliminate faith entirely, you don’t know that things will go well in any of those situations.

If we were strictly rational creatures, in the sense of believing in nothing we can’t prove, we wouldn’t believe in a physical world, or that science tells us anything at all about that world. In light of this reality, consider the words of Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now, p. 30): “to take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” By this standard, the whole of modern science clashes with reason, for we’ve seen that science requires that we take a good deal on faith. So I don’t think the view he takes of faith and reason does a good job of explaining what’s going on.

Of course, I do believe in reason, in a physical world, and in the value of experimenting on that world. But what do we do about the fact that we apparently need blind faith to accept all this? How can that be reconciled to our desire to think as rigorously as possible about everything?

Here I think a change from a strictly logical to an existential register is helpful. What do I mean by that? Well, in point of actual fact, we don’t decide at birth to believe in an ordered physical world. Nobody imagines doubting the existence of that world until he’s lived in it for years: our belief in it is utterly arbitrary from the point of view of logic, from the point of view of what we can prove, but not from the point of view of the lives we have already lived. And by the time we get around to doubting the physical world, we have also found that we can trust it to an extraordinary degree: water always feels wet; when I drop a ball it falls; when I lick a metal pole in winter, my tongue gets stuck on it (actually, I don’t think many people do that more than once). We learn to take this world to be a radically ordered place: by interacting with it, we seem to be able to come to understand it better.

So we have what might be called a soft reason for believing in an ordered physical world. We can’t prove it exists – we have to believe in it – but we’ve already experienced that we seem to be able to interact with it in meaningful and consistent ways. Logically, we have no reason to believe; from the point of view of the lives we are already living, we do have a reason (i.e., with this particular faith, we can start to understand our lives). We believe, that we may understand.

I think the notion of trust is helpful here. As we go through life, we get to know many people, and discover that there are people we can trust, and people we can’t. In no case do we attain certain knowledge on this point, for that is the nature of trust: it always involves a certain amount of faith. I think it makes sense to think about the physical world in the same way. We don’t know it’s an ordered, objectively present thing, but we have a relationship of trust with it, in which our faith in it is constantly confirmed, and modern science deepens this trust immensely. If we refused to enter in to this relationship of trust, we would never get anywhere.

Now here’s what this is all building up to: the basis I’ve set out here for a scientific worldview could apply just as easily to religion. In fact, the phrase “believe, that you may understand” (crede, ut intellegas) comes from Saint Augustine, and he meant by it something along the lines of what I’ve just set out. He was focused on ancient scepticism, which, as I explained above, was rather more sceptical than Descartes, refusing as it did to affirm anything. Of course, scepticism stands at the doorway to philosophy: if you want to understand anything at all, you simply cannot get away from faith.

By this point, I hope it is clear that the terms ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ have come to point to something rather different from what people commonly suppose them to mean. Not all faith is entirely blind, nor is reason ever entirely separable from faith. It seems to me that those who claim to have left faith behind for reason are displaying either their ignorance or their dishonesty.

The question, then, is not whether we’re going to believe anything without proof, but what we’re going to believe without proof, and why. The answers to these questions are going to involve the sort of ‘soft’ reasoning I set out above, in which we try to make retroactive sense of the lives we’re already living. Here it seems to me there might be a good deal of room for religion to get going on exactly the same basis as science does. One might take the world to be so fundamentally ordered that God is necessary to explain it. Alternately, if we assume for the sake of argument that there is no proof of the existence of God in the empirical world, still it might be the case that religion is necessary to make full sense of normative life, that is, the ethical life that can sustain both an individual and a community. These are matters on which I remain agnostic (I need to do rather more work on them), but as I have begun to look at the state of the Western world in light of the second, normative, concern, I find myself wondering more and more if religion might be necessary after all.

That, however, is a large matter, for another time.

(And if anyone wants to say that science doesn’t assume the existence of the physical world, but just tells us how things would stand if there were such a world – well, the religious could take the same approach: “just in case God & the afterlife are a thing, we’re going to church.”)

Of Opiates and of Liberty: Thoughts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Recently I finished a book about the opioid crisis in the US: Dreamland by Sam Quinones. I found it pretty much unputdownable, and while it’s certainly essential reading for anyone interested in its subject matter, I also found that it provoked thoughts on larger matters, on which I have blogged recently. I’m going to try to give a brief account of those thoughts here.

First, an overview of the book. The problems with opiates started back in the 80’s, when a movement in medicine set out to turn back what was thought an irrational prejudice against prescribing painkillers. Before this, doctors had been taught that patients could easily become addicted to these drugs, and were accordingly quite reluctant to give them out. In the course of the 90’s, however, this reluctance was overcome, thanks not only to the genuine desire of many doctors to help people in pain, but also to a certain laziness in reading the research (more on this below) and funding from drug companies. The result was that doctors came to believe that the addiction risk was not so great as had previously been thought, and began to prescribe opiates on a considerable scale. Unfortunately, the pills actually were quite addictive. Worse yet, they turned out to be an ideal gateway to heroin – OxyContin, the prescription drug with the biggest role in this story, “contained a large whack of a drug virtually identical to heroin.”

Soon, thanks both to honest doctors and to those who ran “pill mills,” dolling out pain medication for a fee to anyone who asked for it, parts of America were awash in prescription pills, and thus in people addicted to painkillers (Quinones tells of how pain pills were so plentiful in Portsmouth Ohio that they actually became a currency with which anything could be bought). Enter the Mexicans. Families from a single town in Mexico called Xalisco began to develop novel heroin-delivery networks across America that brought small amounts of the drug virtually to customers’ doors in the manner of a pizza-delivery service. Eschewing violence, these new dealers avoided major cities where markets in illegal drugs were already controlled by gangs (they also avoided black people, for their prejudices had caused them to believe black people violent). Instead, they set out to develop new markets across the country in places where heroin had scarcely been seen, paying particular attention to those already caught up in the opioid crisis.

The result was an epidemic of addiction in places that had never seen such a thing, one that hit not only poor people in cities, but also rich – and largely white – people in rural settings. Quinones has many sad stories to tell, of the children of lawyers or police officers getting hooked and dying, of college students who can’t kick the habit, of people stealing from their children or even from their dying parents to maintain their addiction. But the epidemic is not only remarkable in claiming victims from such a wide variety of backgrounds, but also in its sheer scale: “the number of Ohioans dead from drug overdoses between 2003 and 2008 was 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the entire Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.”

This, then, is the shape of the story Quinones has to tell. There is a lot to think about here, but I found myself returning to one thought in particular: its connection with Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, which I wrote about a last month. In that post, I discussed the peculiar conception of freedom that defines what Deneen calls ‘liberalism,’ and this included (and implied) a notion of mastery in modern science, a mastery of the natural world. In that post, I reflected a bit on how this striving for mastery played itself out in environmental concerns (inter alia), but the very same concern with mastery seems to me to lie at the heart of the opioid crisis.

For consider: the decision in medical circles to start taking a different approach to opiates is clearly a decisive moment in the whole story. (At one point, we here of a doctor who suddenly found himself confronted by “what was unthinkable a few years before: rural, white heroin junkies. ‘I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.’”) But what was the motive force behind that decision? It might seem tempting to just hang the whole thing on the greed of drug companies – and that greed certainly is part of the story – but Quinones avoids such a simple and easy path, and tells a deeper story, one going back decades:

“World War I had … demonstrated to doctors the merciful painkilling benefits the morphine molecule provided. Fresh, too, in their memory were heroin’s first decades, which showed just as clearly that addiction too often bedeviled those who used opiates. Try as they might—with strategies as varied as farm work, group therapy, or prison—rehabilitation specialists never graduated much more than 10 percent of their addicts to true opiate freedom. The rest relapsed, slaves, it appeared, to the morphine molecule. This seemed a shame to scientists and physicians. Was mankind really doomed to not have it all? Couldn’t it have heaven without hell? Couldn’t the best scientists find a way of extracting the painkilling attributes from the molecule while discarding its miserable addictiveness?”

That is, the dream is of being able simply to escape pain, with no side-effects. This dream is a form of the striving after mastery I discussed in my post on Deneen, the aim of simply liberating ourselves from our natural limits. The story of the opioid crisis is a story of how the pursuit of this goal without sufficient attention to its risks leads to a new sort of hell: as Quinones says, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.” This idea is not at all new, for one repeatedly encounters talk of enslavement to pleasure (or the appetites) in ancient philosophy. What is new is that in a premodern context, such talk can often seem counterintuitive, and usually needs some explanation or thought before it seems an appropriate way to speak; modern science, however, has produced drugs that make it immediately obvious that it is correct to speak of ‘enslavement.’ On this basis, Quinones makes a more general point about human nature: “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain and the deprivation that temper his behaviour.” This would not be news to the ancients, and it is part of the problem that Deneen sees in certain ideas that have helped drive the West in the last 500 years or so.

Think about what Quinones says about “man’s decay” for a moment, in the context of pain. What is being said is that we need pain. Certainly this is true in a superficial sense – e.g., pain tells us when something is going wrong with our body, and without that we might easily die of internal injuries or by failing to learn to avoid excessive risks, etc. But there is a deeper point here: Quinones speaks of man’s decay and debasement: human dignity disappears as people become enslaved to the escape from pain. That is, the need for pain is not simply instrumental. Our nature as creatures with a certain dignity does not seem to endure a total release from pain. To the extent that we’re capable of liberating ourselves from pain, we seem to become reduced to that attempt at liberation. In describing the search for a non-addictive painkiller, Quinones repeatedly speaks of the “Holy Grail,” a deeply appropriate term in that it suggests a quest for something beyond what is possible for humans.

Of course, the striving after the Holy Grail, the attempt to push beyond what is possible, is remarkable not only for the harm that it directly produces, but also for the humbler, less dangerous pursuit it discourages: Quinones explains how a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to pain, one that would not have produced an opiate crisis, was pushed aside and abandoned for decades because people thought these pills were a straightforward fix.

In the context of all this, I found myself seeing a wisdom in the old “just say no” slogan: not many of us are likely to be stronger than heroin – anyone who uses it a few times is likely to find himself unable to stop, enslaved to it [ed. I’m told it takes more like a month]. However, there is one way that anyone can attain a sort of mastery over heroin, simply by realising that here is something stronger than one’s will, and that one should therefore avoid it. Heroin has no power over such a person: real mastery, real freedom, involves recognising one’s limits and acting within them.

Quinones’ account includes a simply magnificent example of a sort of motivated reasoning (or at least motivated intellectual sloth), which I mention here because it seems to be driven by the striving towards mastery I described above. Those who led the movement to make prescribing painkillers more permissible beginning in the 80’s didn’t have as much evidence as they thought they did. One particularly influential piece of work was known as ‘Porter & Jick,’ which was cited and re-cited in papers and presentations until it seems to have attained a sort of legendary status, in which it bore considerable weight as an argument against the addictive potential of opiates. “Medical professionals,” Quinones tells us, “assumed everyone else had read it,” and it was referred to as “an extensive study” or “a landmark report.” In fact, it was a single paragraph letter to a medical journal, published in 1980; it seems that scarcely anyone had actually bothered to read it. One can imagine that if it had said something unpopular, something that people didn’t want to believe, many would have found time to read it, and read it critically. But of course, everyone wanted to believe that the Holy Grail had been found, that a simple liberation from pain was at hand with no side-effects to worry about – and so Porter and Jick remained unread even as its authority grew.

From the opiate crisis, then, we have another perspective from which to contemplate a truth introduced in my post on Deneen: the striving for a mastery of nature can be a very dangerous matter indeed. There is a need for a moment of acceptance, or perhaps of resignation, a recognition that we are not entirely in control. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now at the moment (a review will follow in some weeks/months as time permits), and one of my main problems with the book is that it seems to lack precisely this moment of acceptance.

And finally, since my last post was about the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, here’s a short piece of his from a few days ago on the opioid crisis.

Theodore Dalrymple: An Appreciation

It is impossible to know what writing from our own time will survive hundreds of years from now, to take its place among the representative artifacts by which later eras get to know us. No doubt some work of real quality survives by accident (as several books of Livy survived only in one southern Italian monastery for nine centuries), while other work never receives the fame it deserves. Still, if I were allowed to choose what writing from our time would be saved and read far into the future, shining a light for posterity upon our contemporary situation, I would have to include many essays by Theodore Dalrymple.

A former doctor at a prison and an inner-city hospital, his original claim to fame seems to have been the essays he published anonymously (“Theodore Dalrymple” is in fact a pen name; his real name is Anthony Daniels), describing the situation of those living in what he calls the ‘underclass’ of England. These give a view of the sort of life led by so many of the poorest people in English society. Dalrymple’s perspective here is unusual: his theme is the devastating impact that left-wing policies and thinking have had on the poor. The point is not that left-wing policies fail to provide the poorest people with enough to eat or with adequate shelter, but rather that the culture created by left-wing thinking has dissolved restraints upon individual whim, and that this creates a uniquely brutal and miserable world. Having spent years working in Africa (inter alia), Dalrymple is able to compare conditions in England to his experiences there: “nothing I saw – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England… the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

This is one central idea that runs through a portion of his work, and I have begun with it because it brought about a shift in my thinking of a sort I have only known on one other occasion (in the course of my undergraduate education). Before reading Dalrymple, I was inclined towards the same view of the motivations behind conservatism as many on the left: it was a matter of not caring about other people, for example, by supporting right-wing economic policies as the result of greed. Such ad hominem arguments are difficult to apply to Dalrymple, since he has devoted more time and energy to the poor that most people, and as a doctor could easily have made more money in more pleasant circumstances. But more importantly, Dalrymple shows in a particularly vivid manner that there are reasons behind many conservative positions, reasons that I (like most of those on the left) had never imagined before reading his work.

For example, before reading Dalrymple, I had never seen the interest or urgency in studying the family as an institution. However, as one reads about how the family has effectively evaporated at the bottom of society, and discovers what this means for children growing up there – well, the importance of the family as an institution begins to look rather more important. Perhaps the best way to express the view is by analogy to the left, for both left and right are focused on the adverse consequences of new forms of freedom (a theme I considered in a post a couple weeks ago on a new book by Patrick Deneen). People on the left are concerned with the effects that free markets can have upon the poor; those on the right are concerned with the effects that a freedom from social norms can have upon the poor. In the nineteenth century, Engels and Mayhew brought attention to the former problem, and Dalrymple has made implicit comparisons between these two and himself: just as they drew attention to the reality of the condition of the poor – a reality of which very many were no doubt aware, but which was kept out of public discussion partly because of a reluctance to acknowledge what was going on – so too does Dalrymple do something similar.

Adequate deliberation requires that people speak frankly about even the most difficult or distasteful matters. One of the many virtues of Dalrymple’s writing – and not only on poverty – is his readiness to bring clearly into focus realities that many would prefer not to see, and not to think about, at all. This is not a man to be restrained by the pieties of our age, and as a result, one finds repeatedly that he has had his eye on important issues long before most others. Some example of his bracing frankness can be found in this piece on the homeless, or this piece on Paris, which certainly accords with some of what I saw in my months in that city, though pretty much nobody else seems to have written about it back then, or this piece on the elder Le Pen, or this piece on the Ray Honeyford affair, or these reflections on Islam – and if you want an example of Dalrymple’s ability to drive a point home, read this piece on the case of Anna Climbie.

The place to start with Dalrymple is with Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays. Three other collections are the logical next step: Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Not With a Bang But a Whimper, and Anything Goes (many – perhaps all – of the essays in these volumes are available for free online, but these books are so good, you’ll want to own them); there are many other excellent titles, including Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, a full length book whose conclusion is alone worth the price. The collections of essays do include many pieces in which Dalrymple describes the condition of the English underclass, using examples from his practice as a doctor, but they include a great deal more. I would summarise Dalrymple’s work not as a chronicle of underclass life, but rather as a defense of the life of the mind. The failures of the intellectuals, he thinks, are a crucial cause of the grim lives of his lower-class patients, and with this view goes a focus on the importance of ideas in determining the course of human life. Accordingly, when we find Dalrymple writing about literature or architecture or art, it is not as complete a departure from his other subject matter as it might at first seem to be.

A number of his essays on high culture serve as a sort of appetizer, introductions that whet the appetite for more. Before reading this essay on Doctor Johnson, I had certainly heard of the man, but had little idea of what he was about, and certainly had never felt moved to read him, as I did after reading Dalrymple. Another essay introduces the Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who in 1843 wrote a work of real insight on Russia that Dalrymple compares to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Another compares the painting of Mary Cassatt to that of Joan Miro, and in doing so, seems to me to point to the heart of what happened to the West in the 20th century. Yet another is a sort of eulogy to his friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who was hanged by the Nigerian government.

Not all of Dalrymple’s essay are appreciative, however. Sometimes he turns a critical eye upon certain of the best-regarded intellectuals of our time, and the criticism tends to be devastating. A favourite of mine is a piece in which Dalrymple brings his experience as a prison doctor to bear on Stephen Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. We are not only given good reason to deny the truth of the book’s central theory (why doesn’t Pinker practise what he preaches in his own book?), but we are also presented with a criticism on another, perhaps deeper, level, for Dalrymple considers a likely reason for the popularity of Pinker’s theory: it provides for its adherents a feel-good solidarity with the downtrodden. This, too, Dalrymple undermines, for he shows how the consequences of Pinker in practice are regressive, keeping those at the bottom in their place – indeed, imprisoning them in the world into which they were born. (Pinker has apparently tried to answer Dalrymple, though I can’t seem to find this answer online. Anyone?) Dalrymple’s criticism of Virginia Woolf is also well worth reading, as is his piece on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a devastating essay written two years before criticising Coates suddenly became cool. Also excellent is Dalrymple’s take on the New Atheists – though not himself religious, he nevertheless writes with sympathy about religion (Sam Harris wrote a brief response to Dalrymple, though it seems to me ineffective as regards the main issue). And speaking of religion, I found this book review by Dalrymple particularly thought-provoking in its reflection on the enthusiasm of so many left-wing intellectuals for murderous dictators.

Dalrymple has also written a number of travel books. The best of these, in my opinion, impinges on politics: in The Wilder Shores of Marx, Dalrymple travels to Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is a valuable series of pictures of, and reflections on, life under Marxism, including a number of memorable (and chilling) scenes. Dalrymple’s father was a Marxist, but it seems that the son failed to inherit from his father an enthusiasm for that most notorious philosopher of the left. From time to time, Marx pops up elsewhere in Dalrymple’s writing, as this or that aspect of Marxist dogma is shown to founder on the rocks of real life. Apart from the travel book, this essay is perhaps his most sustained reflection on Marx.

Dalrymple’s other travel books include Zanzibar to Timbuktu, in which he travels across Africa using only transport available to the locals; Coups and Cocaine, his first book, which covers travels in South America (I’m still reading this one as I write); Fool or Physician, a memoir of his early career in such places as Rhodesia, South Africa, London and the Gilbert Islands; and Monrovia, Mon Amour, about Liberia. This last book contains a scene that sticks out in my memory, when Dalrymple visits the local warlord Prince Johnson. He takes care to do so in the morning, for in the morning Johnson tends not to be so drunk as later on, and is thus less likely to kill people. (“The weekend before I visited him, I was told he had killed seven people; I met someone whose brother had been killed by him on a night when he shot sixteen others; and I heard about his biggest bag, as it were, thirty-two in a night. He was an insomniac, and prowled the darkness with his AK-47.”) All these books are well worth a read, sometimes for the insight one view one gets on some aspect of, say, Africa, or of life on remote Pacific islands, and sometimes for the simple pleasure of reading Dalrymple.

For however great may be the insight he gives on this matter or that, still he writes so well, and so often with such sparkling humour, that I often find myself returning to essays I digested long ago, simply for the pleasure of reading them again. Dalrymple is a master of that ironic wit that seems to be peculiar to England; my favourite examples come when he plays on the well-known words of others. I believe it is in The Wilder Shores of Marx that he observes that in the late 80’s, a spectre was haunting Eastern Europe – the spectre of liberty. Elsewhere, we find a piece titled “Nasty, British and Short,” and I never forgot his comments on Tony Blair’s resignation speech: “he asked his audience to believe that he had always done what he thought was right. He would have been nearer the mark had he said that he always thought that what was right was whatever he had done.”

Dalrymple’s writing can also be magnificently concise. Go read this three-paragraph blog post on Jeremy Corbyn from two-and-a-half years ago. Not a sentence is wasted – scarcely a word – and we repeatedly find thought-provoking, double-edged formulations. For example: “he is a man of grinding and unnerving integrity;” “I think that he is a man of such probity that he would let the heavens fall so long as his version of social justice was done. Unfortunately, the heavens could fall, and they would fall on all of us…;” “he does not appear to be a man of erudition, culture or literary talent. That, of course, is a point in his favour, electorally-speaking…” I find more insight into the Corbyn situation in these brief paragraphs than in most much longer editorials (and note that back then Dalrymple was already denying that Corbyn was unelectable, a position held by few others at the time, though today few would say with confidence today that Corbyn will not be the next Prime Minister).

I have linked to many excellent essays in this post, but there are so many more, and at a certain point, one simply has to stop. However, I cannot resist including a few Dalrymple quotes, some to showcase his humour, some, his insight – and a couple just because he writes so well. I have limited myself to nine:

  • “I appear on Q & A with, inter alia, Germaine Greer. She is now notorious for having said that transsexual women are not the same as women, which seems to me a fairly innocuous proposition, but in our peculiar times the self-evident is dynamite in the way that satire is prophecy. ” (In “Diary” in the Spectator)
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it: For the greater political correctness’ violation of common sense, the better—at least if its goal is power over men’s minds and conduct. In this sense it is like Communist propaganda of old: The greater the disparity between the claims of that propaganda and the everyday experience of those at whom it was directed, the greater the humiliation suffered by the latter, especially when they were obliged to repeat it, thus destroying their ability to resist, even in the secret corners of their heart.” (In “Two Forms of Mass Hysteria”)
  • “I caught an early flight recently and therefore stayed overnight at the airport hotel. Catching the lift to leave in the morning, the doors opened to reveal two beached human whales within. They gave the lie to the lift’s warning notice that it could fit eight people…. Across the male whale’s T-shirt was emblazoned a single word, ENGLAND, a superfluous message if ever there were one.” (In “Beached Whales in Bermuda Shorts”)
  • “The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose.“ (In “The Specters Haunting Dresden” – as someone who has spent years in Germany, I can say what an insightful essay this is, in which Dalrymple’s eye for the telling detail or anecdote is on display)
  • “The sceptical, it turns out, are certainly not immune from the siren song of credulity. It is as if, exhausted by the mental effort of taking nothing on trust, they suddenly throw in the sponge and believe the most implausible nonsense that would not take in someone half as educated as they.” (In “Don’t Believe In Miracles”)
  • “Such is the fragility of the modern ego… of countless people brought up in our modern culture of ineffable self-importance, in which an insult is understood not as an inevitable human annoyance but as a wound that outweighs all the rest of one’s experience.” (In “The Suicide Bombers Among Us”)
  • “Nadine Gordimer had a voice whose timbre would have penetrated the best artillery-proof armor plating. On one occasion at the conference she condescendingly addressed a Ghanaian lady as ‘my sister Susan.’ ‘Actually, my name’s Gloria,’ said her sister Susan, but the great writer ignored this manifestation of pedantry and continued with what she was saying.” (In “The African Scene”)
  • “the rule of law requires a common cultural understanding, not -merely the means of repression to enforce a legal code. Once that basic cultural understanding is lost, all that remains is repression, effective or ineffective as the case may be, and experienced by many as alien and unjust. Nothing remains but conflict or surrender.” (In “Why Borders Matter”)
  • “I have talked to a lot of young Muslim critics of Western society, living in the West, and few of them were aware of the philosophical basis of Western achievement, which they believed to be merely materialist and founded on crude plunder, never having heard any other viewpoint.” (In “The Terrorists Among Us”)

Whether you’re on the left and want a better understanding of conservatism, or want better to understand the world we live in, or just want a good read, the essays of Theodore Dalrymple are indispensable – and they’re often not even 20 pages long. It is a rare writer who is willing to bring before his readers so much that others pass over in pious silence, and rarer still is the writer who can also provide the sort of original insight that we find in so many of Dalrymple’s essays. But someone who can do all this at the same time as producing writing that is a pleasure in itself to read – and often hilarious to boot – must be accounted a truly great writer. Dalrymple is certainly among the greatest essayists in the English language today, perhaps the very greatest.

University Censorship, 16th Century Edition

In recent years I’ve found that I have ever greater cause to reflect on just how much our political culture has changed in the last decade or two. Things I read about years ago in history books – things that I assumed would stay in history books – are now to be found in the news. Here I want to present one example of this phenomenon, from one of my favourite books, Iberia by James Michener (a must-read for anyone interested in or travelling to Spain). The story he tells in the paragraphs below begins with a description of a place you can still visit at the University of Salamanca…

“…a stone-arched classroom left pretty much as it must have been on that day in December, 1578, when Fray Luis de Leon returned after an absence of some years. The rude benches without backs remain the same and the small windows in the outer walls. The lectern with its canopy is the same as the one at which the professor stood that eventful day. The room was crowded, not only because Fray Luis was the most famous of the Salamanca lecturers, a wise, gentle elderly man of sweet understanding and compassion, but because he had accomplished something that few men of his day could parallel.

In 1572, at the height of a brilliant career as Spain’s leading theologian and humanist, he was attacked by jealous persons in the university, who whispered to the Inquisition, ‘We all know that Fray Luis is half Jewish, so he’s suspect to begin with. But he has now translated King Solomon’s Song of Songs into the vernacular. He invites even the most ordinary man in Salamanca to read it. And that is heresy.’ Especially serious was the additional charge that often, after studying the original Hebrew version of the Bible, he would question the accuracy of the Latin. Fray Luis was apprehended and for several months was under interrogation, after which he was thrown into jail at Valladolid, where he heard only silence. At the end of a year he pleaded to be told what the charges against him were and who his accusers, but he heard nothing. His trial was intermittent and clandestine; all he knew was that he had committed some serious crime bordering on heresy, but its definition he never knew. Finally, after nearly five years of this, he was set free and, what was the more miraculous, allowed to return to his post in Salamanca…

This was the morning of his reappearance, and notable persons came to the university to hear his reaction to his long persecution. As he made his way from his rooms, his gown slightly askew in his usual careless manner, the university plaza was crowded with silent students. Fray Luis walked with his eyes straight forward, not daring to acknowledge the furtive glances of approbation which greeted him. As he entered the cloisters and elbowed his way through the crowd he came at last to the room in which he had taught for so many years, and when he saw its familiar outlines, with his friends perched on the narrow benches, and when he knew that among them must be those whose rumors had caused his imprisonment and who would surrender him again to the Inquisition within a few years (he was to die in disgrace at Madrigal de las Altas Torres), he must have wanted to lash out against the injustice he had suffered and would continue to suffer as a Jew and a humanist. Instead he stepped to the rostrum, took his place behind the lectern, grasped the lapels of his robe, and smiled at the crowd with the compassion that marked all he did, and said in a low, clear voice, ‘As we were saying yesterday…’ And he resumed his lecture at the precise point of its interruption five years before.”

I first read this passage in the 90’s, when it seemed to describe a past that had gone forever. In time I was able to visit the room at the University of Salamanca that Michener describes, and I thought of the story of Fray Luis with the same sense of peering into a long-disappeared world that I had felt looking at the forum in Rome or the cave paintings at Les Eyzies de Tayac. But twenty years later, the case of Fray Luis seems immediately relevant in a way I would not once have believed possible. Who today could possibly say that similar things cannot happen now? Who today could deny that they already do?

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

I found this a very exciting book. It provides nothing less than an interpretation and critique of modernity, and the account it gives commands assent in many respects. I found the book helpful because it helped me bring so much together: ideas of which I’ve had an intuition for some time, half thought-out, are set forth here, fully developed and placed in a broad historical context. In what follows, I’m not going to review the book so much as try to set out the logic of some of its main ideas in my own words, offering reflections of my own along the way (the TL;DR review: superb, thought-provoking, jargon-free and short, this is a must-read).

The title is no doubt intended to provoke, and many will assume this to be a reactionary tome, one that attacks left-wing politics, perhaps even aiming at the abolition of democracy. Though the author is clearly no left-wing radical, this is not the point: ‘liberalism’ here is understood in reference to the Latin liber – i.e., we’re focused here on a particular conception of freedom, that of liberating people from anything that might restrain them from fulfilling their desires. As Deneen shows, this conception has gradually attained a position of extraordinary dominance, such that it is generally assumed by those on both the right and the left: both sides of the political spectrum come in for criticism here. More than this, we find this conception of freedom driving modern science, as well as our economic, political and cultural life (or what’s left of them).

The notion of freedom as simply a liberation from restraint is to be distinguished from a different way of thinking about things that was decisively influential in antiquity and the middle ages. This older approach considered ethical matters in a broader context, seeking a stable basis from which the best overall life could be lived. Such an approach led naturally to a recognition of the need to discipline and direct natural desires as part of a natural order of things; it was thought that if we let our desires get out of hand, we could become enslaved to them, harming ourselves in the process. So, for example, many of us have adopted reasonably moderate habits with regard to our desire for food and drink; if we fail in this, obesity and/or ill-health are likely to result (an alcoholic is an example of someone enslaved to his appetites). Real freedom, from this older standpoint, is to be found in the attainment of character, in habits that lead of their nature to a good overall life (e.g., that will lead a person in possession of an immense wine cellar not to drink himself to death, but rather to enjoy his wine moderately in the course of a life which will no doubt be enriched by many other activities).

Deneen’s argument is that the modern conception of freedom, of liberating ourselves from external restraints, has not only become overwhelmingly dominant, but can now be said to have failed on its own terms. More specifically, he aims to show that as a consequence of the overwhelming success of this ‘liberalism,’ we not only find ourselves without much of the freedom that was promised, but we also find ourselves faced with new and imposing restraints on our freedom.

To give a better idea of what I think is at issue here, and to give an example of how this ‘liberalism’ has failed, I’m going to reflect a little on modern science and technology. A century ago, science was regarded as providing an unambiguous good: mastery over the natural world. This mastery included improved understanding, but was much more a practical matter, making life more comfortable, safer and longer. The new mastery over nature conquered distances and diseases, and even other civilisations (thus the rhyme that summed up a decisive advantage enjoyed by imperial armies: “Whatever happens/We have got/The Gatling gun/And they have not”). A century later, this unambiguous optimism has disappeared. The change began in the First World War, in which Europeans had to fight enemies who also had Gatling guns (i.e., machine guns), and the Second World War, culminating with the atom bomb, was even worse. Of course, it was precisely the new mastery over nature that made these two wars so terribly destructive. There followed the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, in which the conquest of distance meant that the enemy’s nuclear missiles could arrive very swiftly indeed from the other side of the world. As we emerged from the Cold War, environmental problems loomed ever larger, and some genuinely apocalyptic scenarios are now the subject of repeated expert warnings. In the meantime, we now read that antibiotics are proving less effective, and an antibiotic-resistant strain of some common malady – or a new superbug of some sort – is a real possibility. All these events have forced a retreat from that long-ago optimism: certainly science provides better understanding, but the mastery of the natural world that it provides has come to seem an ambiguous good indeed. Nothing could now be less surprising than an event causing death on the grand scale, and it is our mastery of nature through science that makes such an event possible. (Deneen sums the matter up succinctly: “among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.”)

All this, I hope, gives an idea of what it means to say that liberalism has failed. The sort of mastery aimed at by science, the idea of freeing ourselves from the limits of the natural world: these ideas now seem to have the capacity to produce real harm, and there is good reason to believe that our striving for mastery will culminate in a devastating reminder of our limits, in an utter helplessness. Deneen is able to tie the problem back to the very beginning of the modern scientific project: “Francis Bacon… compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.” The image points to a brutal, forceful compulsion, a relationship in which we do not try to live in accordance with nature, and do not seek any kind of compromise, but rather in which we seek her utter subjugation to our will. The whole project was conceived in this manner from the beginning – that is, as an assault on nature. Centuries after Bacon, we have succeeded in torturing out many secrets, but we find ourselves reminded ever more forcefully that we are part of nature, and nature is part of us: we should be careful about how exactly we relate to her, for if we get this wrong, it will hurt us. Everyone who has worried about the environment already has a basic grasp of this.

But does any of this really have anything to do with an idea of freedom? After all, science just provides improved understanding; the use we make of it is another problem entirely. But it is just here that the idea of freedom as a liberation from limits on our desires becomes relevant, for what the environmental consciousness of our time brings to light is precisely that we need to put a limit on our desires: the earth has finite resources, and so as our power to exploit them increases, so too does must our consumption find a limit. If our era has decided on a liberation from limit as one of its most fundamental principles, then we have a problem: our idea of freedom has run into its consequences, and these suggest the need for a quite different conception of freedom. We shall see that something similar is at work in other domains.

To get a better idea of what is at work in this notion of freedom, let us turn to Thomas Hobbes, who looms large over Deneen’s account of ‘liberalism.’ Before reading Deneen, I had not been cognizant of the radical break with the past that Hobbes’ theoretical conception of man in a state of nature represents, nor the immense influence it would wield over subsequent thought. In this putative natural state, the individual is imagined as an isolated entity, without commitments or natural attachments like a culture, a particular place, or the family. From this initial state, people proceed to choose various forms of commitment from which they hope to derive some benefit – e.g., we choose to accept the authority of the state because it provides the security and stability within which we can pursue good beyond mere survival. This represents a break with the sort of thinking that dominated antiquity and the middle ages, according to which people’s most fundamental attachments to one another were through nature, not choice. Thus Aristotle declared man to be a political animal; the basis of the city in Plato’s Republic is that people are not by nature self-sufficient, but need one another: the focus is on human nature, not on choice. Later Christian thinkers followed the Hellenic lead.

I have to admit that I have an awful lot of sympathy for critiques of Hobbes’ view. Obviously it is false to suggest that we begin political life as isolated individuals who actively choose our commitments. On the contrary, we begin as children, and children have parents, so that we begin as part of a family. By the time we are old enough to think about political life or to make substantial choices about the way we are going to live, we have been through a prolonged period of dependence on others, in which we have been without any choice at all about a great many things – and this is true even for orphans. The result of this is that we also begin mature political life with a culture (i.e., whatever is communicated to us by those we encounter as we grow up). Accordingly, there is an immensely important role played by things that are not chosen, by things that we acquire passively and in a non-rational way. I consider Plato and Aristotle to be greater political philosophers than Hobbes partly because they begin from a recognition of realities such as these while he does not. Deneen gets to the heart of all this by quoting Bertrand de Jouvenel: social contractarianism was conceived by “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”

To say all this is nothing new. What is much more interesting is how Deneen can show what a tremendous – and often malignant – influence Hobbes’ ideas have had on subsequent political life. I want to bring out the logic behind this as best I can, so let us reflect a little farther on Hobbes. I have just characterised Plato and Aristotle as more realistic than Hobbes, but Hobbes would believe that he is the truly realistic one, for he takes as a most fundamental fact the reality that while people often pay lip service to lofty ideals, in fact they are moved by the basest impulses, and are deeply self-interested creatures. Thus the Hobbesian individual chooses to accept the authority of the state, but does so out of self-interest, and never gives up on this focus on self-interest (or on the basest impulses). Laws are compared by Hobbes to hedges of the sort you can still see on the side of country roads around England, “not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way.” That is, they are external constraints, without which human nature would drive people to behave in all sorts of chaotic and destructive ways; Hobbes’ project is not to reform that nature, but rather to provide something capable of restraining it to some degree: fear, provided by the overwhelming power of the state.

This sketch should be enough to give an idea of the logic behind some of Deneen’s central claims. Our consideration of Hobbes has left us with (1) individuals who make choices from their basest impulses in a self-interested manner, and (2) a state with overwhelming power, which is necessary to restrain those individuals from many of the choices they would otherwise tend to make. Intermediate loyalties, of the sort people often have to families, guilds, churches, a particular place, and so on – i.e., into predefined forms of life that would otherwise limit and thus reform an otherwise anarchic human nature – are of decidedly lesser importance (Deneen notes how the well-known cover of Leviathan shows only a giant (the state) made up of anonymous individuals – i.e., intermediate commitments are not represented). Deneen does not consider this view of things to be an eternal verity; rather, as it has become ever more widely accepted it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It naturally affects behaviour and corrodes the authority of all institutions other than the state. What we increasingly end up with is isolated individuals, deprived of the supports they once enjoyed through intermediate institutions like the family, and increasingly powerless in the face of the vast power of the state.

We can now begin to consider examples of the failure of ‘liberalism’ other than science & the environment. In Deneen’s view, the state of affairs brought about by this self-fulfilling Hobbesian prophecy explains the dire state of our political life today, in which individuals are liberated as never before, and yet feel alienated from their governments: “growing numbers of citizens regard the government as an entity separate from their own will and control, not their creature and creation as promised by liberal philosophy… The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect – individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech and self-governance – are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet this expansion continues…” This expansion of government is the Leviathan; it must expand to react to the anti-social tendencies of a populace that increasingly understands itself as Hobbesian individuals, who increasingly do not have characters formed by those institutions that once played a role between individual and state, but which now wither away to an ever-increasing degree.

A similar phenomenon is to be found in our free markets, and of course it also extends to various supra-national institutions, agents and creations of globalisation. I am not going to review these in detail here, although it does seem to me that the European Union provides an excellent example: its powers have been expanded at the expense of democratic national governments on the basis of narrow referendum victories in those nations, or even (in the cases of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and France) in the face of defeats. In the Brexit referendum, the most frequent (and perhaps the strongest) arguments on the Remain side took the form of necessity – i.e., that Britain could not escape from the EU without catastrophic economic consequences (these have yet to appear, but I am hardly alone in remaining worried about them). Many believe that the EU would like to see Britain fail after it leaves, so that other member states will be too afraid to take the same path: here again is the Leviathan, restraining the impulses of its citizens through fear.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its ability to give deep explanations of various malaises of our time – that is, to present many well-known problems of our recent history in the context of, and as the logical result of, a much wider historical development, one going back at least four centuries. Thus Deneen can show how ballooning national debts are a natural product of the narrow conception of time that follows from liberalism; so too can he show how the eclipse of (genuinely) liberal education by technical and practical studies is part of this development (I’m not going to try to explain those here). There is also a deeper view of political life here, one critical of both the left and the right as we know them today, for both are influenced by – and yet (interestingly) also critical of – ‘liberalism.’ The left is critical of the adverse effects that free markets can have on the poor, while it promotes maximum liberation for individuals from restrictive social norms; the right is critical of the effects that such a liberation from social norms can have on the poor, while it promotes free markets (if you don’t think a liberation from social norms can harm the poor, may I recommend Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple? I will be blogging about him in the next week or two). What is remarkable is that both sides have enjoyed success insofar as they accord with ‘liberalism’ – i.e., with the notion of freedom as a liberation from a restraint on our desires – and both sides have failed insofar as they have sought to withstand this same ‘liberalism.’ In fact, while writing this post, I happened across a blog post on the last few decades of British politics which pointed to the respective victories of left and right: “it was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts.”

Deneen does not quite say as much, but it strikes me that the intractability of our environmental problems is to be seen in the same way as this mutual failure of the political left and right: what environmentalism is bringing into focus is a need to make a limit to our consumption part of our way of life, but this conflicts with the deepest commitment we have concerning how people ought to live. That is, the idea that we ought to be free to choose how to live, that there ought to be no limits to our desires aside from the laws of the state – these are the most basic commitments of ‘liberalism,’ and they have come to seem self-evident truths to most people. The state can pass coercive laws all it likes to try to force people to live in an environmentally sound manner, but quite apart from the resentment and possible backlash these might provoke if coercion is taken too far, such measures are unlikely to succeed on their own. A successful environmental movement surely requires that we make limits on consumption (and thus on our desires) part of our choices: one chooses to turn off the light in an empty room; one chooses not only to ride a bike or take public transport instead of driving a car, but also to support urban landscapes that are conducive to such things; one chooses to compost and recycle, and to try to avoid producing too much waste; one chooses to support laws necessary to a sustainable environment; etc. Environmental problems are hard to solve not because they pose an insuperable technical problem for scientists, but because the solution to them conflicts with ‘liberalism,’ and as the successes and failures of the left and the right in politics suggest, ‘liberalism’ is so deeply fixed in our understanding of how to live that it carries all before it.

One other insight into recent history is particularly worthy of mention: Deneen can link his understanding of ‘liberalism’ in a particularly compelling way to the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century. I happen to have read a fair bit on this particular matter – might I suggest my post on the great Sebastian Haffner, who writes with particular insight on Hitler and Nazism? – but still I felt I was learning something here, discovering for the first time the full significance of points I had encountered before. It should be enough to quote Deneen here: “an earlier generation of philosophers and sociologists noted the psychological condition that led increasingly dislocated and disassociated selves to derive their basic identity from the state. These analyses – in landmark works such as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community – recognised, from various perspectives and disciplines, that a signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness. A population seeking to fill the void left by the weakening of more local memberships and associations was susceptible to a fanatical willingness to identify completely with a distant and abstract state.” This passage was a real moment of insight for me. It is, I hope, clear enough how this connects to what I said above about Hobbes and the gradual withering of institutions other than the state.

It would be wrong to fault Deneen for not stressing the positive achievements of liberalism. He is plainly aware of these, but his book is a critique, and no doubt one of the ways he was able to keep it so short was by maintaining a strict focus on his purpose. Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves of what is good in ‘liberalism,’ for it shows us just how uncomfortable the ground is to which Deneen has brought us.

It seems to me that there is no good that is characteristic of our own times that can be separated from the peculiar conception of freedom I set out at the start. We tend to look down on all previous ages because none of them could realise anything like the rights and opportunities that we can. We are not entirely wrong to do this, and yet all of these new rights and opportunities are a result of ‘liberalism.’ Consider: quite apart from the matter of material discomforts, few of us would want to live in the middle ages. Imagine being born the son of a blacksmith: the circumstances of your birth would be understood to determine your future to a considerable degree. You would probably be expected to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith; if you proved somehow unsuited to that, you could no doubt pursue some other menial occupation, but you could never become a member of government or a diplomat, and marriage or friendship outside of your class would be quite out of the question. The idea that all people can pursue any career they wish, or that anyone can become president – these are surely consequences of conceiving of individuals in the abstract Hobbesian manner, without the natural attachments that come through accidents of birth and upbringing. Still more is this true in the case of women, who once would have had but one path open to them as a result of their situation as determined by nature, the path of marriage and motherhood (if they did not become nuns). I am inclined to think something similar is true of slavery – i.e., that ‘liberalism’ plays a significant role in explaining why our own era had successful anti-slavery movements while antiquity did not. It is clear that there were people arguing against slavery in ancient Greece, for Aristotle attempts to answer them. But note the sort of argument he uses: there are people who by nature are slaves. This sort of argument is on a shakier footing once we have accepted Hobbes’ beginning point, for his state of nature emphasises how people are fundamentally the same, moved by the same basic drives (in the case of slavery, I think Christianity is also part of the story).

Thus it seems to me that Deneen leaves us in a very difficult position: I think his criticisms of ‘liberalism’ are fundamentally sound, and yet it should be clear that we want to be very careful indeed about how we move away from it. It might not be enough simply to say that we want to maintain the new rights and opportunities, the fuller realisation of human dignity, that liberalism has brought about. After all, our behaviour is deeply influenced by our theoretical commitments – this is a lesson of the connection between Hobbes and aspects of our current situation – and it might well turn out to be the case that if we simply go back to an older view of humanity, one that does acknowledge the reality that we are partly formed by our particular natures and circumstances, that political life might “snap back,” so to speak, to an earlier state of affairs to some degree, one in which many of our current freedoms have disappeared. That is, we might find that our revised principles drive us once again towards the notion that women should stay in the home, or something similarly reactionary. This seems to me all the more possible in light of the fact that, as the problems inherent in ‘liberalism’ impose themselves on everyday life, the possibility of a reaction looms into view, and reactions often go too far.

No doubt we can already see the outlines of what we need next. I focused so much on the matter of the environment above because it seems to me that in this one case we can see the appearance, even among the most progressive people, of a widespread recognition of a need for more than mere liberation from restraint, but of a need for virtue, for a formation of character that limits the desires from within. That is, environmentalists can see clearly that we need to be less free as ‘liberalism’ conceives of freedom. If environmentalists are starting to see this, it’s not so clear to me that the immediate facts of the case will lead people to a similar understanding in other areas. But the first thing to do is to recognise we have a very deep-seated problem, and Deneen’s book certainly does that.