Was the founding of America a devilish event? D. C. Schindler, a philosopher and theologian at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, does not quite say so in his latest book, but the implication is unavoidable. I think it is also wrong.
Schindler takes aim at the modern idea of liberty in its paradigmatic articulation by John Locke, whose works were the main intellectual inspiration of the Founding. Schindler’s sophisticated argument radiates from a critique of Locke’s analysis of the will as self-determining power, which contrasts with the classical understanding of the will as receiving its determination from the good.
Locke struggled in successive editions of his epochal Essay Concerning Human Understanding to accommodate the notion of freedom within a naturalistic framework. His final view was that circumstances always eventually determine the will to prefer one possible alternative to others, but that we nonetheless have the power to suspend acting on our will’s preference until we have given due consideration to the alternatives. Hence “free will” is a confused locution: What is free is the agent, and his freedom consists in his power to execute or suspend execution of the will’s preference. I imagine this as if we were driving a car: We will proceed in one direction or another, and we cannot create the road and the landscape as we wish, but it’s up to us how and when to turn the wheel.
For Schindler, this view has two important implications. The first arises from Locke’s doctrine that what determines our will is unease. The good that our will prefers is not present yet; rather its very absence, and the attendant uneasiness of the desire we feel for it, makes us will to seek it. As Schindler observes, this implies that we are not yet connected to the good, an implication that departs from the classical and especially the Aristotelian account of agency, according to which a form is shared by the agent and the sought-after good even before the agent begins seeking the good — the presence of the form in his soul is, on this understanding, what determines the agent to seek what he seeks.
Second, even if we do not actually exercise the power of suspension — even if we let the car continue on its current course — we nonetheless are accountable for all we do, because we always could have exercised the power and turned the wheel.
Schindler finds corresponding implications in Locke’s social-contract theory as elaborated in the also epochal Second Treatise of Government. Much as we always can suspend the execution of our will, the people always retain the right to overthrow their government if it destroys life and property. And much as we are accountable for our actions even when we don’t suspend our will, the people tacitly give their consent to the government by not overthrowing it.
From these implications, Schindler paints a highly abstract picture of what he takes to be the hellscape of modern liberty in both the personal and political spheres.
In the personal sphere, Schindler thinks, if we understand the will as self-determining power unconnected to the good, we take the good to be effectively subjective: It becomes simply that which I find to be good. Locke himself gives the example of a man whose drinking harms his vision but who nonetheless keeps drinking: “’Twas a right answer of the physician to his patient, that had sore eyes,” that, “if you have more pleasure in the taste of wine, than in the use of your sight, wine is good for you.” I write “effectively subjective” because, as Schindler acknowledges, Locke believed that the prospect of salvation or damnation established an objective truth about which actions bring us happiness or misery over the eschatological long run. But since the final weal or woe lies beyond the grave, its objective character is “superadded” by God rather than inhering in ourselves and the world around us. The very absence of this good makes it easy for us to disregard it — or, alternatively, to strive restlessly for a life beyond life rather than rest contentedly in the good of the here and now.
In the political sphere, in Schindler’s view, the imputation of tacit consent to the people renders them nearly powerless to resist abuses of authority (the world-historical counterexample of 1776 somehow notwithstanding). The people retain a nominal right to overthrow the government if it becomes destructive of life and property, but there is no objective standard by which to say when such a course of action is justified, just as there is no objective standard by which to say what is good or bad in personal conduct. Additionally, the protection of life and property is achieved not by enabling us to belong together in the good, which Plato took to be the meaning of freedom, but rather by relentlessly separating us: for if freedom is simply power to do as we wish, then everyone is a threat to everyone else’s freedom, and the task of politics is to build a fence separating my life and property from yours.
Why is all of this “diabolical”? Schindler explains: “The Greek verb sym-ballō means ‘to join together’; symbols . . . were originally the tesserae hospitales, pieces of bone or pottery broken apart and distributed to members of a bond formed in an act of hospitality, able to be rejoined by those members or their descendants in a future act, which is both a remembrance of the original generosity and a new event itself.” One sees the connection here both to the Aristotelian notion that a form is shared by the agent and the good he seeks, and to the Platonic idea of individuals’ belonging together in the good. “By contrast,” Schindler writes, “dia-ballō means ‘to divide,’ ‘to set apart or at odds’” — as in the separation of the agent from the good whose absence produces Lockean unease, as well as the fence-building of politics and the never-resolved antagonism between citizenry and government. Borrowing a phrase of Kant’s, Schindler pronounces us “a society of devils.”
In my view, that shrill conclusion is possible only because Schindler is misinterpreting Locke in crucial respects — and demanding things of philosophy that it cannot deliver.
I think that how we are free in our actions, and how that freedom relates to the natural order, is a hopeless question. That I am free to act or not act in the ways possible to me — that I can drive the car where I will — is an irreducible element of human experience. So is it that I can scarcely help preferring a certain direction. These things are constitutive of human experience. And yet not only are they at odds with each other, but both seem to vanish from a naturalistic description of my body. Schindler finds that Locke ultimately set aside the problem of the will rather than resolved it. I agree, and I think he did well. His project, for all its ambition, was modest in scope: He did not want to give an ontological account of reality — he wanted to analyze the workings of our minds as we experience them.
Part of that analysis, as we have seen, is Locke’s belief that the agent’s preference is determined by the perception of absent good. Schindler is faulting him, at root, not for denying that we have reasons for what we do and that these reasons become effective in us, but for declining to provide an ontological meta-commentary on them. If I tell you that I want water because I am thirsty, you will understand me. If I tell you that this desire involves a distribution of form between the water and my soul, is it sufficiently clear what form is that you now understand how water and my soul connect to it and so to each other? And if I then tell you that the form determines me to act on my desire for water, will I not have abandoned the notion of freedom: that is, the absence of determination? I can indeed choose to get thirstier. I can even choose to die of thirst.
Schindler is also wrong to allege that, absent divine judgment and eternal consequences, good and bad and right and wrong must become subjective, or that Locke held any such view. Locke did say that the good at this moment is as I perceive it — wine rather than clear vision. But he also maintained that what is good is not merely what brings happiness now but what will bring it in the future, and the future need not be restricted to the end of times. There are clear indications throughout his philosophy that, though denying that human beings are born with innate ideas, Locke believed in the reality of human nature: and human nature can be understood as establishing a genuine fact of the matter about what conduces to long-term earthly happiness (in this case, retaining one’s vision). Schindler acknowledges this trans-temporal dimension of Locke’s thinking without really grappling with it.
Locke’s theory of the commonwealth again presupposes a certain view of human nature. Locke wrote: “God having made man such a creature, that in his own judgment it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination to drive him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy it.” So it is the purpose of government to protect a web of pre-political human relationships, which are the preconditions of life and property — not to enforce some kind of atomistic separation of individuals, each fenced into his own loneliness.
As for the relationship between government and governed, I think the classical understanding is, to borrow Eric Voegelin’s famous phrase, an exercise in “immanentizing the eschaton.” I cannot think of a better recipe for oppression than to get people to believe that a particular kind of political order is right or wrong not in virtue of its observable impact but because it partakes of nothing less than ontological truth. The state then becomes “an entity surcharged with value,” to borrow a phrase from Frank Meyer, and in comparison with it not simply the individual but the whole world of pre-political community has secondary importance at best: Plato’s Republic has rightly been seen as the ur-manual of totalitarianism. Even at its most innocuous, Schindler’s theory of politics would justify an establishment of religion.
This is hardly to say that modernity, and the modern idea of liberty, are without flaw. For one thing, while everyday considerations are usually sufficient to say what will bring us happiness or misery, they do not explain why we should seek happiness rather than misery or avoid inflicting misery on ourselves or others. For that, I believe some kind of faith (or unconditional commitment) is needed — Locke suggestively spoke of “reason confirmed by inspiration” — but the absurdly reductive scientistic spirit of the age has made it unnecessarily difficult for people to have faith. More mundanely, we see that the liberalism of Locke has gotten warped into the progressive desire not to protect people’s right to pursue happiness as well as they can in a community of respect with others, but rather to impose on them narrow orthodoxies regarding such matters as gender and sexual relations. This has often taken the practical form of an attack on religion, which compounds the difficulty of having faith.
So there is a lot of political-philosophical maintenance to do. John Locke can help us do it, and I thank Schindler for this backfiring book that left me overwhelmed by Locke’s brilliance. I would not discourage people from reading it, provided they read the relevant Locke concurrently. It is nonetheless a book that, in its effort to explode the intellectual foundations of the American political tradition, could be labeled, in the sense of the definition quoted above, “diabolical.”