One of the several defining features of the twentieth century has been the utopian thrust of political and social movements worldwide. As far flung and widely ranged as the Boxers and, later, the Maoists in China, the Leninist-Stalinists in Russia, the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the National Socialists in Germany, the dominant theme has been the belief that by changing laws and structures a perfect society can be created, freed of the age-old problems of poverty and crime. This notion pervades even the less extreme segments of political thought, including most American twentieth century politics. In his 1924 Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt traces the genealogy of this idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s abandonment of the idea of sin in favor of the belief that the causes of evil lie in society.
Writing of Rousseau, Babbitt claims, “in general, his notion that evil is not in man himself, but in his institutions, has enjoyed immense popularity, not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” The thought that was “central to [Rousseau’s] world view,” according to philosopher Christopher Bertram is the idea “that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.” The causes of the evils that afflict human life, then, are not to be found in individuals, their actions, and motivations, but rather in society itself and its effects upon its members. Presumably, if one can alter the social structures which have produced these ills, one can alleviate, perhaps even altogether obviate, these ills.
Ultimately, what Rousseau accomplished was the overturning of the Christian doctrine of sin. Appealing to St. Paul’s use of the term “old man” to refer to the nature of human beings, inclined to sin, Babbitt argues that the Rousseauistic abandonment of this notion “undermine[s] moral responsibility.” Whereas one had previously been encouraged to look within oneself for the source of evil in the world, the responsibility could now be shifted away from himself and toward others. This is, of course, as Babbitt says, “flattering.” One need not admit one’s own flaws nor take responsibility for them; evil is external, rather than internal. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in the middle of the twentieth century.
Influenced by this supposition, the last two centuries, and the twentieth century in particular, have been rife with grand schemes to overturn existing social structures in the hopes of creating a perfected society free of the evils that have plagued earlier societies. Each, in succession, has, of course, been a tremendous failure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been a supporter of one of these movements, Marxism-Leninism in Russia, early in his life, later became one of its victims as a prisoner in the Soviet gulags. After being released from gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1974 three-volume work Gulag Archipelago,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The failure of the social revolutions of the twentieth century stems, as Babbitt presciently wrote even before most of these revolutions had fully taken shape, from the deadly flaw within their basic premises, their flattering assertion that man is good and it is his institutions that make him bad. “The hope of civilization,” however, “lies not in the divine average, but in the saving remnant.” Any attempt to eliminate evil through social engineering is doomed to fail. It is only through the small, but significant, individuals who are able to develop within themselves the discipline necessary to overcome the “old Adam” that any good may be accomplished.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of those thinkers that is both admirable and terrible. His work is admirable in its depth and range of thought as well as in its lasting significance through its tremendous influence. At the same time, however, it is also terrible in that I believe it embodies the most destructive and false aspects of Enlightenment thought.
For this brief post on the first two books of his The Social Contract, my most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I will confine my comments to only one aspect of that thought, an aspect which I believe is at the heart of the trouble. This is that Rousseau believes that human nature can be changed through the imposition of laws upon individuals and societies. This idea of Rousseau is, of course, a central component of modern liberal thought. Ultimately, it seems to me to be what separates the modern conservative from the modern liberal. The modern conservative is someone who believes that human nature is immutable; the modern liberal is someone who believes that human nature is mutable.
For historical antecedents, the modern conservative might look to those many thinkers, which include most of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment, who believed that the purpose of government and law was to keep a check on the worst aspects of human nature and to encourage the better aspects. It is not that human nature can be changed by the laws, say these thinkers (Plato, for instance, and Aristotle, as well as Aquinas come immediately to mind); it is, rather, that the laws serve to help humans, both as individuals and as societies, control their nature(s).
The modern liberal, drawing largely upon thought since the Enlightenment, believes that government and law can and should mold human nature, even that human beings are creatures without a nature, as the existentialist, surely a modern liberal, might assert. Sadly, out of this belief in the mutability of human nature have arisen all of the many experiments in utopianism of the last several centuries, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in the Holocaust and in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Each of these was, at its heart, an attempt to alter or to overcome human nature through the imposition of law and the power of government. And each proved itself to be a catastrophic failure.
These attempts at utopianism and at the molding of human nature into some desired form continue today, albeit largely in less genocidal forms. In the world of education, of which I am a denizen, one might point, for example, to the ubiquity of charter school management companies like UnCommon Schools, which present themselves as the Great White Hope which while finally bring about the much-desired perfect egalitarian society. Of course, their need to resort to underhanded manipulation of statistical data and their rote robotic approach to “instruction” (what a poor word for what used to be called “discipling” or just plain “teaching” and “mentoring”) betray the truth of their ineffectiveness and pitiful condescension. As it turns out, one cannot engineer human beings even if you get them while they’re young and mercilessly beat them into the desired shape.
I know that someone will accuse me here of the infamous argumentum ad Hitlerum. That is not, I must assert in my own defense, my intent, however. I do not mean to say that “liberals are like the Nazis because x.” On the contrary, I do not intend to make a political point at all. My intent is merely to discuss, with no doubt too much brevity, the historical development of a fascinating and quite influential, even if false and harmful, set of ideas.