The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

Western Political Models and Their Metaphysics, Part I: The Two Political Philosophies of the West
Claude Polin - 05/19/10
Thomas Munzer

The basic difficulty with human societies is that they are made of men—meaning not stones, like a house, nor metal pieces, like a machine, nor even cells and organs, like any animal, but beings endowed with a specific gift, that of freedom of the will, a gift that can be a blessing, but also a curse, since finally it is at a bottom a freedom to do as they please. In other words, in every human society, as opposed for instance to ant societies, there is, whether conscious or not, immediate or developing later, an inescapable tension between the parts and the whole, the individual members and the body politic. But, one way or another, men are drawn to society, and the achievement of their own unity is, as it has always been, the constant riddle confronting them as they try to live together.


On these premises, it becomes clear there can be but three basic types of society between men.

The first embodies the belief in the natural goodness of all men, enabled by their own virtues spontaneously to cohabit in peace and friendship. The myth of a golden age has survived through the centuries, whether belonging to the past, as in most ancient mythologies, or expected to be attained through some kind of regeneration, thanks to the ministry of inspired and revolutionary leaders, whether they be bloodthirsty like Thomas Münzer or peaceful and bon vivant like Rabelais or coldly pseudo-scientific like Marx, all of them prophets of a conflict-free society. Unfortunately, whether they be natural brutes as Machiavelli or Hobbes had it, or corrupted by their intellectual frailty or their sin, which is the essence of Greco-Christian teaching, men have never behaved as if they had no other purpose in life than to be dedicated friends of their fellowmen. So I shall bypass the dreams and face reality.

Following the same rule of thumb, or the same logic, the principles underlying the second and third types of human societies are readily apparent, even though the dichotomy may describe a polarity with a range of intermediate stages, each bearing more toward one pole or the other. Men being what they are—that is, no saints—the tension between the members and the body may be eased in two ways. There are societies whose members tend to value their own association as well as themselves as individuals, if not more, and there are societies in which the individual is the dominant value, preempting even that of their partnership. Why, in each case, is one principle preferred over the other? The fundamental reason lies, I believe, in the common mentality of the citizens, meaning their conscious or unconscious philosophical frame of reference, the view they take of themselves, and therefore the society they may maintain among themselves. Men’s lives are governed not by the material conditions they live in but by their perception of these conditions, by the light under which they choose to see them, and ultimately by the view they take of themselves. Politics is rooted in metaphysics.

There are thus basically, I think, two types of metapolitical outlooks.


Let us turn first to what I call the classical or traditional one—the Greek, the Roman, the Christian one. No classic could see himself as a world unto himself, free to act as he pleased, but only as a part of a more self-sustaining whole, whether this be his closest entourage (the vaster circle of his tribe or nation) or the physical world around him, from the field he tilled to the circular mobility of the stars in the sky. Being aware of oneself was to be aware of a self inseparably linked to one’s fellow men, to the whole natural world and the mysterious forces that moved it. It was no utilitarian dependence; it was universal togetherness: man was a physical animal, a social animal, as well as a religious animal. He knew, from the moment he could think, he could not be anything of himself and by himself, and only a god or a brute could think otherwise. He knew that to fuse with the society of other men, to respect the everlasting might of nature, and to admire the blessed harmony of the skies was as necessary to him as air to his lungs. He knew he had to accommodate himself to the world, whether human or not, rather than mold it to his whims. So the gist of classical philosophy, the core of its essential wisdom and its primary lesson is this: man’s nature (which he can deny, but always at the expense of his well-being) is to be like an actor who has to play his part in a drama—that is, to fulfill his role in the life of the whole universe.

The other basic tenet of classical philosophy was that there was nothing degrading, neither servile nor mutilating, for a man to consider himself a mere part of a whole. Unintelligible as it is to modern individualism, the scrupulous performance of one’s role, whether exalted or humble, amounted for the classic mind to the completion of one’s own nature. The essence of the dignity of man was his innate ability to know of his need to participate, the essence of being human was to be able to perceive the most minute role as being vested with the dignity of a central one by understanding the necessity of each, and therefore the unique contribution of each, however small, to the life of the whole. A single note missing, and the symphony lacked its peculiar harmony.

But a third basic belief must be mentioned for both of these preceding conceptions to make complete and convincing sense, and this belief is, logically enough, of a religious nature. For a man to think of himself as endowed with a dignity of his own, even though this very dignity consists in being a mere part of a world over which he has no control, obviously cannot but mean that he attaches to this world some kind of quality worth his happy obedience to its laws. To put it in a nutshell, this world has to manifest in his eyes some kind of perfection in which, unless he is out of his mind, he cannot but wish to participate. But since, being a part of that world and not its maker, and happy to be so, he cannot even dream of being privy to all its secrets (something which only madmen or false prophets could claim to be), and notably its seeming evils, it is obvious that no such man could exist without some kind of faith in the ultimate intelligibility and goodness of the whole universe. A faith that should not be understood as essentially irrational and affective: philosophy and science (at least in their original meanings) would not have developed unless there existed in human minds the inner certainty that there was something to be understood in the universe, that it was no chaos. And this is precisely the essence of the Christian religion, which basically is faith looking forward to an understanding of the world as it is. In what is to me their primeval vision of the universe, men are those beings linked together by their common ability to believe it was a grace to be mysteriously linked to the rest of the world and to one another.

But if this creed is the ultimate foundation of any human society, it leads to one basic conclusion: men are social animals in direct proportion to their being religious animals.


Inasmuch as the above considerations circumscribe classical political philosophy, it can be said that such philosophy has been exposed in the recent past to an intellectual upheaval that for all practical purposes has erased it from the surface of the Western world. “Du passé faisons table rase” [Let’s make a blank slate of the past] has been the battle cry of a totally adverse philosophical or even metaphysical attitude. Just like the traditional philosophy, it may not be clearly or consciously conceived by the masses, but there is historical evidence of its overwhelming pregnancy in their souls.


I am referring to an extremely simple idea, which is to me the very matrix of what has become the modern Western spirit, the lens through which the modern Western man has chosen to perceive himself, the others, and the world, unless it may be conceived of as the Ariadnean thread of his multifaceted history. This idea corresponds to the second of the basic alternatives originally outlined: whereas the classical man thinks only a god or a brute can view himself as an independent part of a larger whole (or various concentric larger wholes), the new man views himself as a world unto himself, as a being who would be mutilated if reduced to the role assigned to him in a play someone else, be it eternal wisdom, had written for him. To be a man is for him to be free—that is, to be his own and only master, to acknowledge no authority but his own, or according to another sacred expression, to be autonomous. Contrary to the standard opinion there is considerable ambiguity in the concept—one which modern simplistic mentality completely ignores. For one could conceive of individual autonomy (or freedom) as being bound only by the law that the individual has himself written, or as freely abiding by a law which he has not written providing it was written for him (to be free is to know which law to obey). The moderns think man is free and must invent his own laws, whereas the classics thought man could be free while obeying the natural law (I do not deny that it remains to be seen what the latter may be). The rest follows.

And first of all the denial that there is either a nature of things or a nature of man—at least in the traditional meaning of the words, which, as I have pointed out above, is definitely religious. Not that modern man will deny there are natural phenomena, like earthquakes resulting from natural mechanisms, or that his body has natural requirements like oxygen. But he will definitely deny that there is evil in wishing to control earthquakes, or that human desires should be curbed or satisfied according to some natural law. Modern science requires that there be some laws in the universe, but the better to put them at man’s disposal rather than for man to contemplate them in respectful awe as the proof of an order that should not be extensively tampered with (which for instance genetic engineering definitely does). Man is no longer a mere part of the universe; his calling is to be its owner and master. And if anything deserves to be called natural, it is man’s ambition to accommodate the world to himself instead of having to accommodate himself to it. So much so that it is another unmistakable feature of modern man to conceive of himself as having no nature other than the one he creates or willingly assumes: there is nothing in him that he considers unnatural, and particularly not what his ancestors kept considering forbidden by nature itself. Nothing is as symbolic of this denial of nature as the ambition, professed ever since Rabelais and Descartes, for man to be able to repair himself indefinitely (to become immortal), or as the continuous effort nowadays to abolish all differences between the sexes. Eritis secut dei [You shall be like gods], and since men have become like gods, there is no room for an eternal and supreme God in their world—at best a vague moral rationality (e.g., all in all theft is not all that bad, but cannot be praised without reservation).


It is easy to multiply the empirical proofs that Western man’s essential characteristic nowadays is his bloated ego, his systematic spurning of any natural order around him or within him, both individually and collectively. His inflated and narcissistic self lurks behind the most trivial facts of everyday life, as lovingly described, ever since the paradigmatic Montaigne, by hosts of writers, poets (think of the Romantics), psychologists (think of Freud: mental disease stems from the repression of man’s natural instincts), or philosophers (just consider the existentialist notion that man is so free that his freedom ends up by being absurd), and so forth ad infinitum. After all, where does the somber Calvin’s foreboding teaching stem from, if not from the very conscience that man is an enthusiastic sinner?

What is art today? Even apart from purely mercantile fads, is it an homage to beauty, an attempt to reflect nature’s perfection, or a dedication to self-expression, to publicize whatever is most subjective in the individual self, whether it be palatable or repulsive?

What does religion teach more and more nowadays? Does it teach that man has chosen to be a very imperfect animal, that he has to work upon himself so as to fulfill his own nature, or that, God loving all men, men should learn to love men as they are, starting with themselves, while resting assured it is enough for them to love others as themselves to be saved by a God bent on saving them all anyway? How do more and more custom-made religious sects try to cater to the many if not by focusing upon the treasures hidden in the self? There being many ways to love oneself while pretending to love the others, there sprouts an indefinite number of associations based on the tacit consent of all members to be each given the right to be and to enjoy being what he feels like being.

What is today the more and more obviously supreme ethical law, the most sacred dogma of contemporary politics, if not the rights of man? But replacing the Christian teaching of brotherly love toward one’s neighbor with the annunciation of one’s rights would not make much sense if these rights amounted merely to the right of that neighbor to be loved. Obviously, claiming a right has nothing to do with inspiring love, and on the contrary one may surmise it is because no citizen trusts his fellow citizens to love him that each resorts to asserting his own rights. One is all the more bound to claim one’s right within an association as he knows there is no more to this association than a mutual insurance against the trespassing of one’s domain by the other. In other words, under the guise of a transcendent principle of all possible morals and all human society, there lies the doubt that men are sociable animals, because each needs to safeguard himself against the others by having his rights duly expressed, publicized, and as much as possible enforced.

Why are our societies industrial ones, and hailed to be so, if not because they are patently dedicated to the infinite bettering of the material conditions of living of supposedly all of their members (whether through a system of supposedly collective production and distribution, or through supposedly individual enterprise and acquisition of wealth according to the laws of exchange, or again through a combination of the two systems)? What is an industrial society if not a hedonistic society, at least in ultimate purpose if not in immediate actual fact (an unfortunate but it is hoped an essentially momentary happenstance). And, by the way, what is a commercial exchange—and aren’t our societies mercantile ones?—if not a relationship into which two parties enter because they each expect individually to benefit by it, without any regard for the benefit of the other: is there a commercial exchange in which each partner does not try to tip the scale in his favor, using bargaining power—that is, force—rather than justice as a standard of relative value?

The almost exclusive, and in any case predominant, self-centeredness of the average citizen in the modern Western city is of almost appalling evidence in his day-to-day life. The standards of human dignity are every day lowered so that the number of self-satisfied individuals can grow without having anything to prove. Necessary goods are getting cheaper to the detriment of quality so that more individuals can satisfy unnecessary whims, and without the exertion of saving. (Consumerism is just another term for obsession with one’s comfort.) Rudeness more and more replaces good manners, because one is too involved with oneself to care about one’s neighbor. Charity yields to solidarity, because there are more people who think they are owed something than people who feel indebted to their society, and anyway it is easier for the undeserving, who are nevertheless voters, to take turns demanding public subsidies than for them to ask the private citizen to contribute without reason to their support. Professional conscience is fading away as more and more workers become more concerned with their personal gain than with the quality of the work they are paid for. News is not selected by radio and television personalities for its intrinsic value but for its emotional effect on individuals who could not care less about what does not affect them personally.

The concern for truth can no longer exist when the only important thing is for each to be entitled to his own opinion and his right to express it. Education collapses when it is considered an insult to the pupil that he may be considered ignorant of what the master teaches him. In the rarefied atmosphere in which the Western intelligentsia lives, the cult of the ego has logically become maniacal, since truth and beauty are dangerous ideas threatening every self-loving thinker with a criterion of his achievements, prodding the reader not to confuse words with thought and obscurity with depth (so that the current narcissistic intellectual exists only as a member of a club of mutual admirers whose unwritten law is: everyone is a genius when everyone else says he is). It is worth noting the true nature of the apparent altruism which is so often appealed to in our societies: pity has seldom been so prevalent, which should be seen as natural enough, for pity has been excellently described (by Rousseau, of course!) as “a sensitivity to the miseries visited upon others, induced by the fear of not being immune to them”—that is, a provisional self-pity.

To sum up: if self-love is a passion as old as man, it has always been considered the very purpose of civilization to tame it, so as to allow the better part of the soul to prevail and with it human sociability. Our societies therefore may very well be the first ones in which (again explicitly or implicitly) self-love has ceased to be a vice and become natural, accepted common behavior. Western man is the first to have freed himself from the shackles of religious superstructure, moral prejudices, arbitrary social habits, artificial laws, illegitimate rulers, and so forth: Western man is henceforth a god to himself.

Click here to continue to Part II of this two-part essay.

Claude Polin is professor emeritus at the University of Paris–Sorbonne.

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