In these talks, I’ve had to say a good deal about prayer. And before going on to my main subject tonight, I’d like to deal with a difficulty some people find about the whole idea of prayer. Somebody put it to me by saying: “I can believe in God alright, but what I can’t swallow is this idea of Him listening to several hundred million human beings who are all addressing Him at the same moment.”
And I find quite a lot of people feel that difficulty.
Well, the first thing to notice is that the whole sting of it comes in the words “at the same moment.” Most of us can imagine a God attending to any number of claimants if only they come one by one and He has an endless time to do it in. So what’s really at the back of the difficulty is this idea of God having to fit too many things into one moment of time.
Well that, of course, is what happens to us. Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along, and there’s room for precious little in each. That’s what Time is like. And, of course, you and I tend to take it for granted that this Time series — this arrangement of past, present and future — isn’t simply the way life comes to us but is the way all things really exist. We tend to assume that the whole universe and God Himself are always moving on from a past to a future just as we are. But many learned men don’t agree with that. I think it was the Theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in Time at all. Later, the Philosophers took it over. And now some of the scientists are doing the same.
Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life doesn’t consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He hasn’t got to listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call “ten-thirty.” Ten-thirty, and every other moment from the beginning to the end of the world, is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has infinity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.
That’s difficult, I know. Can I try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I’m writing a novel. I write “Mary laid down her book; next moment came a knock at the door.” For Mary, who’s got to live in the imaginary time of the story, there’s no interval between putting down the book and hearing the knock. But I, her creator, between writing the first part of that sentence and the second, may have gone out for an hour’s walk and spent the whole hour thinking about Mary. I know that’s not a perfect example, but it may just give a glimpse of what I mean. The point I want to drive home is that God has infinite attention, infinite leisure to spare for each one of us. He doesn’t have to take us in the line. You’re as much alone with Him as if you were the only thing He’d ever created.
When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you’d been the only man in the world.
Now, I’ll get back to my main subject.
I was pointing out last time that the Christian life is simply a process of having your natural self changed into a Christ self, and that this process goes on very far inside. One’s most private wishes, one’s point of view, are the things that have to be changed. That’s why unbelievers complain that Christianity’s a very selfish religion. “Isn’t it very selfish, even morbid,” they say, “to be always bothering about the inside of your own soul instead of thinking of humanity?”
Now, what would an NCO say to a soldier who had a dirty rifle and when told to clean it replied, “But sergeant, isn’t it very selfish, even morbid, to be always bothering about the inside of your own rifle instead of thinking of the United Nations?” Well, we needn’t bother about what the NCO would actually say. You see the point. The man is not going to be of much use to the United Nations if his rifle isn’t fit to shoot quickly. In the same way, people who are still acting from their old natural selves won’t do much real permanent good to other people.
Let me explain that.
History isn’t just the story of bad people doing bad things. It’s quite as much a story of people trying to do good things. But somehow, something goes wrong. Take the common expression: “cold as charity.” How’d we come to say that? From experience. We’ve learned how unsympathetic and patronizing and conceited charitable people often are. And yet hundreds and thousands of them started out really anxious to do good, and when they’d done it, somehow it just wasn’t as good as it ought to have been.
The old story: What you are comes out in what you do. A crabapple tree can’t produce eating apples. As long as the old self is there its taint will be over all we do. We try to be religious and become Pharisees. We try to be kind and become patronizing. Social service ends in red tape of officialdom. Unselfishness becomes a form of showing off.
I don’t mean of course that we’re to stop trying to be good. We’ve got to do the best we can. If the soul’s just fool enough to go into battle with a dirty rifle he mustn’t run away. But I do mean that the real cure lies far deeper. Out of our self and into Christ we must go.
The change won’t for most of us happen suddenly. And I must admit that for most Christians it will only be beginning to the very end of our present lives. But there are some in whom it goes further, even before death, far enough for you to see it. There very faces and voices are different. When you meet them, you know you’re up against something which, so to speak, begins where you leave off; something stronger, quieter, happier, more alive than ordinary humanity.
Now that’s just where Christianity, as I think, has the real answer to a question a lot of modern people are asking. Everyone’s heard of evolution, how man evolved from lower types of life. And people often ask, “What’s the next step?” “When is the thing beyond man going to appear?” Some imaginative writers even try to picture what the next step will be like, but they usually end in nonsense about men with six arms or wings or something of that type.
But the Christians think those people are on the wrong tack. The next step has already appeared. The next step is from being mere creatures to being sons of God. The new kind of man appeared in Christ, and other new men, little “christs,” already to be found sorted here and there about the earth.
We Christians don’t call it “evolution” because we believe it isn’t something coming up out of blind Nature but something coming down from the world of light and power and knowledge beyond all Nature. But if you like to call it “evolution,” do. The next step is here. You can become one of the new men in Christ if you like. Or, if you prefer, you can refuse the step and sink back.
Now if we take the step, it involves losing what we now call our “selves.” That doesn’t mean that all people who accept Christ are going to be exactly like one another. I know it sounds as if it did. If there’s one Christ, and He’s to be in us all, actually replacing our personalities with His own, what difference will there be between us?
Now here I’ve got a rather difficult thing to say. On the one hand, it isn’t true that we shall lose our personal differences by letting Christ take us over. On the other hand, I don’t think Christ can take us over as long as we’re bothering about what will happen to our personality. Let’s take the first point first.
If a person didn’t know about salt, wouldn’t he think that anything with such a strong taste would kill the taste of all the other things in any dish you put it into? We know, as a matter of fact, it brings out the real taste.
Well, it’s rather like that with Christ. When you’ve completely given up your-self to His personality you will then, for the first time in your life, be developing into a real person. He made the whole world. He invented it as an author invents characters in a book, all different men that you and I were intended to be.
Our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him. What I call my “self” now is hardly a person at all. It’s mainly a meeting place for various natural forces, desires, and fears, etcetera, some of which come from my ancestors, and some from my education, some perhaps from devils. The self you were really intended to be is something that lives not from nature but from God.
At the beginning of these talks, I said there were personalities in God. Well, I go further now: There are no real personalities anywhere else — I mean no full, complete personalities. It’s only when you allow yourself to be drawn into His life that you turn into a true person.
But on the other hand, it’s just no good at all going to Christ for the sake of divinity or for a personality. As long as that’s what you’re bothering about you haven’t begun, because the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only if you’re looking for something else. That holds, you know, even for earthly matters: Even in literature or art, no man who cares about originality will ever be original. It’s the man who’s only thinking about doing a good job or telling the truth who becomes really original — and doesn’t notice it. Even in social life you’ll never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking what sort of impression you make.
That principle runs all through life from the top to the bottom: Give up yourself and you’ll find your real self. Lose your life and you’ll save it. Submit to death, submit with every fiber of your Being and you’ll find eternal life. Look for Christ and you’ll get Him, and with Him, everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you’ll get only hatred, loneliness, despair, and ruin.
BBC Home Service Radio Broadcast, March 21, 1944. The New Men is the last episode in Beyond Personality, the third series. The transcripts of all 3 series were later published in modified form in Mere Christianity
ძმობა, ერთობა, თავისუფლება. ამ სიტყვებით გაიჟღენთა არა მარტო ადამიანთა ყურები, არამედ ქვებიც კი; არა დროს ჩვენის ქვეყნის დაარსების შემდეგ, არა გვგონია ასე მძლავრად და საყოველთაოდ როდისმე ჰსმენოდეს საქართველოს ეს სამი სიტყვა, როგორც ესმა მას ამ წარსულ 1904-5 წლებში და დღესაც ესმის და მომავალ წლებშიც გაიგონებს.
მაშასადამე, უნდა ვიცოდეთ, გვესმოდეს თუ რაა ერთი, მეორე ან მესამე. ორს ტერმინს რომ სულაც თავი დავანებოთ და მხოლოდ მესამის ძალა, ე.ი. რას ჰქვიან თავისუფლება, ის შევიგნოთ, ესეც კმარა, რადგან ძმობა, ერთობა მარტოოდენ შტოებია იმ ხისა, რომელსაც თავისუფლება ჰქვიან. საცა არ არის თავისუფლება, იქ ვერ იპოვნით ძმობა-ერთობას, იქ შეჰხვდებით მხოლოდ მტრობას, ქიშპობას, ჭამა-გლეჯას და მგლობას.
მგლების ბანაკი ერთის მხრით, ხოლო მეორეს მხრით ცხვრის ფარა, საცა ნავარდობენ მგლები… საცა მგლები ბუდობენ, იქ ცხვრები რას იხეირებენ? ან რა ძმობა შეიძლება მათ შორის?… თუ შეუძლებელია, მოუთავსებელი და მოუხერხებელი მგლებისა და ცხვრების შაერთება, რადღა ვყვირით, რად ვიძახით ამ ძმობა-ერთობას? ვიძახით და უნდა ვიძახოთ, მაგრამ მგლებს ხომ არ ვეძახით, არამედ დაქსაქსულ-დაფანტულს, დაწიოკებულს ცხვრებს, რომ მოუყარონ თავითავს, შაერთდენ, მოიფიქრონ როგორ მოუარონ თავისთავს, რათა მგლების საჭმელ ლუკმად აღარა ხდებოდნენ, უნდა გამოძებნონ საფარი და გზა სავალი…
მგლებს ამ დროს იქ რა ესაქმებათ? ამ დაძახილზე ისინი თითქოს ყურსაც იყრუებენ, არც მოვლენ, ხოლო თავისიანებს, გაგიმარჯოსთ, რომ მგლებიც კი ძმობა-ერთობას უქადაგებენ. თუ ასე არ მოიქცნენ, ხომ დაეკარგათ ძალა და ცხვრებმა სათითაოდ, თუმც ამ უკანასკნელთ არა აქვთ გაალმასებული კბილები, გაათავეს რქებით და ჩლიქებით?! ძმობა ხომ იმას მოასწავებს, როცა ერთს მგელს გაუჭირდება, მეორე უნდა მიეშველოს. ეგრეთვე თუ ცხვარი-ცხვარს.
მაგრამ, მაგარი ის არის, რომ მგლებს ისე არ ესაჭიროებათ ერთობა, როგორც ცხვრებს, რადგან თვითეულს მგელს საკმაო ძალა აქვს ცხვრებთან საბრძოლველად, – ძალა, რასაკვირველია, ფიზიკური, რომელსაც ისინი ხმარობენ ცხვრებზე. ცხვრების ძლიერება კი ერთადერთი ზნეობრივი ძალაა…
დღესნამდის ჩვენ ცხვრები ვიყავით და ვართ კიდევაც, ხოლო ვინც მგლები არიან, ეს თქვენც კარგად იცით. ჩვენ ვიტანჯებოდით, ვირბეოდით და ამ რბევა-ცარცვამ გვაფიქრებინა მიგვემართნა ერთობისათვის, ერთი პირი, ერთი ფიქრი მოგვეპოვა და ამით შაგვეძინა ძალა… ჩვენ მოვისურვეთ თავისუფლება: განუკითხავად არ ეჭამა და ეპარსა ჩვენი თანამოძმენი მოსისხლე მხეცებს… ჯერჯერობით ამაში გამოიხატება ჩვენი წადილი თავისუფალი სიცოცხლისა, რომ ძალმომრეობას გზა მოვტაცოთ და თანდათან სრულიადაც მოვსპოთ იგი.
თავისუფლება ცოცხლებისთვისაა ხელსაყრელი და არა მკვდრებისთვის. იგი გამოიხატება ადამიანის ნდომა-მისწრაფებაში; თავისუფლება მოქმედებაა, განხორციელებაა ნებისა, აზრისა, გრძნობისა და არა განსვენება, უქმად ყოფნა. თავისუფლება პიროვნებისა და ერისა ერთიერთმანეთთან მჭიდროდ არის დაკავშირებული. სადაც არაა პიროვნება თავისუფალი, იქ ერი დამონებულია და დამონებულ ერში, რა თქმა უნდა, პიროვნებაც მონაა, უთავისუფლო, სხვის ხელში სათამაშო ნივთი.
იქ რა უნდა თავისუფლებას, საცა ჩემი ნაშრომ-ნაღვაწი სხვას მიაქვს? ჩემი ნაშრომის ნაყოფს ჩემდა უნებურად, ჩემ მიერ ნებადაურთველად სხვა ისაკუთრებს? მე ვტირი, ის იცინის და ჩემში მტაცებლის მიმართ მხოლოდ ზიზღი და გრძნობა შურისძიებისა სდუღს და გადმოდის. მინდა ვისწავლო და ნება არ მეძლევა; მინდა ჩემი საკუთარის ხარჯით დავაარსო უნივერსიტეტი და უარს მეუბნებიან; და სხვ. და სხვ…
არ მინდა ვილოცო ის მშვენივრად მორთულ-მოკაზმული კერპი, რომელსაც შენ ჰლოცულობ.
იქ ვინ ნახა თავისუფლება, საცა მე ჩემს დედაენაზე ლაპარაკს მიშლიან: არც მასწავლიან, არც მაუბნებენ, არც მამღერებენ, არც მაგალობებენ?! რა გული უნდა მქონდეს მაშინ? რას უნდა ვგრძნობდეთ?! – სხვას არაფერს, გარდა ზიზღისა, მძულვარებისა. მოწამლულ-მოშხამულია ჩემი სიცოცხლე, ვგრძნობ მხოლოდ უსიამოვნებას, სიძულვილს და ვწყევლი იმ ძალებს, იმ მგლებს, რომელნიც ყველა ზემორე აღნიშნულ საქმეში ხელს მიშლიან, წინ მეღობებიან და ვუცდი მარჯვე შემთხვევას შევმუსრო ისინი… როცა ეს დრო დგება და მეც მოქმედებას ვიწყებ ამ ძალთა შესამუსრავად, დასათრგუნად, მაშინვე იწყება ჩემი თავისუფალი ცხოვრება; აქ არის დასაწყისი თავისუფლებისა.
და უკეთუ ვითმენ, ხმას არ ვიღებ, არაფერს ვამბობ, მაშინ ვარ მონა, არა მძულს ჩემი მჩაგვრელი ძალა; იქნება მძულს კიდეც, მაგრამ ამ მძულვარებას გულში ვმალავ; მაშინ ვარ ლაჩარი, უფრო საზიზღარი, ვიდრე მონაა. არა, მძულვარება როცა უკიდურესობამდეს მიდის, მაშინ ლაჩრული გრძნობა ისპობა, მაშინ ამბობს ადამიანი: ან მოვკვდები, ან ვძლევ ჩემს მტანჯველთ!..არ იძლევა, არ დამარცხდება მჩაგვრელი ძალა, არ დაფრთხება მგლის ჯოგი, ვიდრე ამას არ იტყვის უმრავლესობა.
იტყვის კი როდისმე ერი გადაჭრით, თავ-გამოდებით „სიკვდილი ან სიცოცხლე“ (ე.ი. თავისუფლება)?! – იტყვის და ამბობს კიდევაც, ამას ჩვენის თვალით ვხედავთ. აშკარად ვგრძნობთ ყველანი… მაშასადამე, სჩანს მისმა მძულვარებამ მგლებისადმი უკიდურესობამდე მიაღწია. თუ ეს ფაქტია, ნამდვილი მოვლენა, მაშინ იცოდეთ, სიკვდილი აღარ შეგვაშინებს, მაშინ ყველა მზად იქნება თავი დასდოს თავისუფლებისათვის და გამარჯვებაც უსათუოა.
ამიტომ, ვიმეორებ. ვისაც თავისუფლება უყვარს და უნდა მისი დამყარება ქვეყნად, ჯერ უპირველეს ყოვლისა, უნდა შეიძულოს მთელის თავის არსებით, გულით და გონებით მტარვალნი და მტარვალობა. ეს არის მხოლოდ საშუალება, რომლის წყალობით ადამიანს შეუძლიან მედგრად იბრძოლოს და არ დაზოგოს სიცოცხლე თავისუფლების მოსაპოვებლად.
და რა არის ეს თავისუფლება, რატომ არ იკითხავთ? უკაცრავად ნუ ვიქნები, რომ მე ჩემებურად განვმარტო ეს სიტყვა: თავისუფლება ხალხისთვის მტარვალთაგან წართმეული ბედნიერებაა. ბედნიერება-წართმეულს რა ჰრჩება უბედურების მეტი? – არაფერი. კიდეც იმიტომ არის, რომ უბედურად ჰგრძნობს თავის თავს ყველა დამონებული, თავისუფლებას მოკლებული ერი და პიროვნება. წამრთმეველნი სარგებლობენ ამ ნაყაჩაღარის ბედნიერებით მხოლოდ ცოტახანს, რადგან ცხოვრების ლოღიკის წყალობით ეს ნადავლი, მოპარული ბედნიერება მტაცებელთათვის უბედურებად ხდება.
გადაავლეთ თვალი მთელს რუსეთს და ჩვენს ქვეყანას, აშკარად დაინახავთ, რომ ეს ასეა. დღეს ხალხი იბრუნებს იმას, რაც წაართვეს და წართმეული გახლავთ, მოკლედ რომ ვსთქვათ, ბედნიერება-წამრთმეველი დღეს ტირის, ხოლო გაცარცული მღერის, მხიარულობს, რადგან დანაკარგს პოულობს. წართმეულს იბრუნებს. თავისუფლების ქურდები ბოლო ჟამს მუდამ დასჯილან.
როდისა დგება ეს ბოლო ჟამი? – სწორედ მაშინ, როცა ხალხი თვალებს ახელს, როცა თავის ყოფა-მდგომარეობის აუტანლობასა ჰგრძნობს და ჰხედავს, გაიცნობს იმ შავ ძალებს, რომელთაც წაართვეს ბედნიერება, – სძულს ისინი უსაზღვროდ; სწორედ მაშინ ცდილობს შემუსროს თავის დამმონებელნი…
რას თხოულობს თავისუფლება ადამიანისაგან? როგორ უნდა იქცეოდეს თავისუფალი ადამიანი? – თავისუფალი ადამიანი უნდა იქცეოდეს ისე, რომ თავის ყოფაქცევით სხვას არ ჰვნებდეს, მით უმეტეს საზოგადოებას, არამედ მისი მოქმედება უნდა იყოს მიმართული ქვეყნის საბედნიეროდ. თუ ეს პირობა არ იქნება ადამიანისაგან დაცული, მაშინ მისი მოქმედება იქნება ავაზაკური, ვინაიდგან ყოველი ავაზაკი თავისუფლად იქცევა მხოლოდ პირადი სარგებლობისათვის.
მაშასადამე, მხოლოდ იმაში არ გამოიხატება თავისუფლება, რაც გნებავს ის ილაპარაკო, სწერო, აკეთო, – არა! უნდა ყოველს სიტყვას და მოქმედებას საერთო, საზოგადო ბედნიერება ედვას სარჩულად, ქვეყნის თუ სასარგებლო არა, სამავნებლო, საზარალო მაინც არ უნდა იყოს ქვეყნისათვის. ყველა ჩვენგანი ხალხისათვის.
მოტაცებული თავისუფლება მტაცებელთა ხელში როდია თავისუფლება, იგი იქცევა მტარვალობად. ამ თავისუფლებისას მტარვალნი ათასნაირს ჯაჭვ-ბორკილებს სჭედენ, ხაფანგებს, გაზებს, თავში სცემენ კვერებს და საღრჩობელის ბოძებს სდგამენ… ხალხს ამ თავისუფლებისაგან შეზავებულს შხამ-ნაღველს, საწამლავს უმზადებენ და იმას აწვდიან. ბოლოს კი თითონ რჩებიან მოწამლულნი. ისტორია ამის მაგალითებს უხვად იძლევა. ხალხი იტანს ამ საწამლავს, იგი ისევ ხალხად რჩება, იმარჯვებს, ხოლო მტარვალთა გული მიწაზე ერთხობა.
ამიტომ, უპირველეს ყოვლისა, თავისუფლების წართმევა უფრო იმათ ჰვნებს, ვინც თავისუფლებას ჰპარავს, ართმევს ხალხს და ჰსურს იმით მარტო თავად ისარგებლოს. თავისუფლების მტაცებლებზეა სწორედ ზედ გამოჭრილი ქართული ანდაზა: „ვირმა პალო მოაძრო და იმდენი სხვას არა ჰკრა, რამდენიც თითონ იკრაო“.
ხალხის მმართველნი, რომელნიც ამ უაღრესს უგუნურებას ჰშვებიან და ხალხის მონებად გადაქცევას ცდილობენ, გარდა იმისა, რომ თავიანთ წოდებას ჰხრწნიან ზნეობრივ და ფიზიკურად, ხალხსაც აფუჭებენ. დამონებული ერი მუდამ ბეჩავია შინაურობაში და რა თქმა უნდა ბეჩავი და სუსტი გარეშე მტერთან საბრძოლველად. ამის დამამტკიცებელი მაგალითი დღევანდელი რუსეთია, რომელიც პატარა იაპონიას დაეტაკა და რქები შემოიმტვრია.
მაშასადამე, თავისუფალი უნდა იყოს არა რომელიმე ერთი წოდება, არამედ მთელი ერი. ქვეყანაც მხოლოდ მაშინ იქნება ბედნიერი, როცა მოისპობა წოდებრივი უპირატესობანი, ყველა წოდება იქნება თავისუფალი, ე.ი. ბედნიერი… თავისუფლება და ბედნიერება სინონიმებია.
ნუ ეძებთ იქ თავისუფლებას, სადაც ცხოვრებას ისევ საფუძვლად წოდებრივი განსხვავება აქვს დადებული, საცა ყველას განურჩევლად წოდებისა და გვარიშვილობისა, არ ეძლევა საშუალება პატიოსანი შრომით მოიპოვოს პური არსებობისა, საცა შრომა ღირსეულად არ ფასდება, საცა არ არის თანასწორად განაწილებული ცოდნა, ქონება.
მარტო ქონებრივი უზრუნველყოფა არ არის გარანტია, ერმა შეინარჩუნოს თავისუფლება, უკეთუ მას თან არ ახლავს ერის საერთო გონებრივი სიმწიფე, განათლება და ცოდნა.
Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book I, Distinction 44, Question 2, Article 2
The procedure in discussing this problem is this: It seems that they are not bound to obey secular powers, especially tyrants.
1. Matthew 17:25 says: “Therefore the sons are free.” If then in any kingdom the sons of its king are free, then the sons of the king to whom all kingdoms are subject ought to be free in any kingdom. But Christians have been made sons of God —Romans 8:16: “The Spirit bears testimony to our spirit that we are sons of God.” Therefore they are free everywhere, and are not held to obey secular powers.
2.Besides, slavery is the result of sin, as was shown above, q. 1, a. 1. But by Baptism people are cleansed from sin. Therefore they are liberated from slavery, and the same conclusion follows.
3. Besides, a greater bond frees one from a lesser one, as the new law frees from observance of the old law. But by baptism a man comes under obligation to God, which is a greater bond that that of man to man by slavery. Therefore by baptism he is freed from slavery.
4. It is legitimate for anyone, who can do so, to re-take what has been taken away from him unjustly. Now many secular princes unjustly usurped the dominion of Christian lands. Since, therefore, in such cases rebellion is legitimate, Christians have no obligation to obey these princes.
5. If it is a legitimate and even a praiseworthy deed to kill a person, then no obligation of obedience exists toward that person. Now in the Book on Duties [ De Officiis I, 8, 26] Cicero justifies Julius Caesar’s assassins. Although Caesar was a close friend of his, yet by usurping the empire he proved himself to be a tyrant. Therefore toward such powers there is no obligation of obedience.
Sed C. 1.On the other hand, however, there are the following arguments proving the contrary position: First, it is said: Servants, be in subjection to your masters (1 Pet. 2:18.)
Sed C. 2. Second, it is also said: He who resists the power, withstands the ordinance of God (Rom. xiii, 2.) Now it is not legitimate to withstand the ordinance of God. Hence it is not legitimate either to withstand secular power.
Solution and determination. Obedience, by keeping a commandment, has for its [formal] object the obligation, involved in the commandment, that it be kept. Now this obligation originates in that the commanding authority has the power to impose an obligation binding not only to external but also to internal and spiritual obedience —“for conscience sake”, as the Apostle says (Rom. xiii, 5.) For power (authority) comes from God, as the Apostle implies in the same place. Hence, Christians are bound to obey the authorities inasmuch as they are from God; and they are not bound to obey inasmuch as the authority is not from God.
Now, this not being from God may be the case, first, as to the mode in which authority is acquired, and, second, as to the use which is made of authority.
Concerning the first case we must again distinguish two defects: There may be a defect of the person acquiring authority inasmuch as this person is unworthy of it. There may also be a defect in the mode of acquiring authority, namely, if it is obtained by violence, or simony, or other illegitimate means.
As to the first of these defects, we say that it does not constitute an obstacle against acquiring lawful authority. Since, then, as such, authority is always from God (and this is what causes the obligation of obedience), the subjects are bound to render obedience to these authorities, unworthy as they may be.
As to the second of those defects, we say that in such a case there is no lawful authority at all. He who seizes power by violence does not become a true holder of power. Hence, when it is possible to do so, anybody may repel this domination, unless, of course, the usurper should later on have become a true ruler by the consent of the subjects or by a recognition being extended to him by a higher authority.
The abuse of power might take on two forms. First, a commandment emanating from the authority might be contrary to the very end in view of which authority is instituted, i.e., to be an educator to, and a preserver of, virtue. Should therefore the authority command an act of sin contrary to virtue, we not only are not obliged to obey but we are also obliged not to obey, according to the example of the holy martyrs who preferred death to obeying those ungodly tyrants.
The second form of abusing power is for the authority to go beyond the bounds of its legal rights, for instance, when a master exacts duties which the servant is not bound to pay, or the like. In this case the subject is not obliged to obey, but neither is he obliged not to obey.
Ad 1. In answer to the first, authority which is instituted for the utility of the subjects does not take away their liberty. Therefore there is no problem in being subject to such authority for those who have become sons of God by the Holy Spirit. Or another answer could be: Christ is speaking about himself and his disciples, who were not of servile condition, nor did they have temporal property by which they would be obliged to pay tax to their lords. Therefore it does not follow that every Christian shares in this liberty, but only those who follow the apostolic life, owning nothing in this world, and unaffected by servile state.
Ad 2. In answer to the second, baptism does not delete all the penalties arising from the sin of the first parent, such as the necessity to die, or blindness, or the like, but it gives rebirth into a living hope of that life in which all those things are taken away. So someone just baptized need not be immediately liberated from a servile state, even though that is a penalty of sin.
Ad 3. In answer to the third, the greater bond does not free from the lesser unless it is incompatible with it; thus shadow and truth cannot coexist, because when the truth of the Gospel came, the shadow of the old law ceased. But the bond taken on by baptism is compatible with servitude, and therefore it does not dissolve it.
Ad 4. To the fourth argument the answer is this: An authority acquired by violence is not a true authority, and there is no obligation of obedience, as we said above.
Ad 5. To the fifth argument the answer is that Cicero speaks of domination obtained by violence and ruse, the subjects being unwilling or even forced to accept it and there being no recourse open to a superior who might pronounce judgment upon the usurper. In this case he that kills the tyrant for the liberation of the country, is praised and rewarded.
Summa Theologica, II Part of the II Part, Question 42
Whether sedition is a special sin distinct from other sins?
Objection 1: It would seem that sedition is not a special sin distinct from other sins. For, according to Isidore (Etym. x), “a seditious man is one who sows dissent among minds, and begets discord.” Now, by provoking the commission of a sin, a man sins by no other kind of sin than that which he provoked. Therefore it seems that sedition is not a special sin distinct from discord.
Objection 2: Further, sedition denotes a kind of division. Now schism takes its name from scission, as stated above (ST, Question 39, Article 1). Therefore, seemingly, the sin of sedition is not distinct from that of schism.
Objection 3: Further, every special sin that is distinct from other sins, is either a capital vice, or arises from some capital vice. Now sedition is reckoned neither among the capital vices, nor among those vices which arise from them, as appears from Moral. xxxi, 45, where both kinds of vice are enumerated. Therefore sedition is not a special sin, distinct from other sins.
On the contrary, Seditions are mentioned as distinct from other sins (2 Cor. 12:20).
I answer that, Sedition is a special sin, having something in common with war and strife, and differing somewhat from them. It has something in common with them, in so far as it implies a certain antagonism, and it differs from them in two points. First, because war and strife denote actual aggression on either side, whereas sedition may be said to denote either actual aggression, or the preparation for such aggression. Hence a gloss on 2 Cor. 12:20 says that “seditions are tumults tending to fight,” when, to wit, a number of people make preparations with the intention of fighting. Secondly, they differ in that war is, properly speaking, carried on against external foes, being as it were between one people and another, whereas strife is between one individual and another, or between few people on one side and few on the other side, while sedition, in its proper sense, is between mutually dissentient parts of one people, as when one part of the state rises in tumult against another part. Wherefore, since sedition is opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peace of a people, it is a special kind of sin.
Reply to Objection 1: A seditious man is one who incites others to sedition, and since sedition denotes a kind of discord, it follows that a seditious man is one who creates discord, not of any kind, but between the parts of a multitude. And the sin of sedition is not only in him who sows discord, but also in those who dissent from one another inordinately.
Reply to Objection 2: Sedition differs from schism in two respects. First, because schism is opposed to the spiritual unity of the multitude, viz. ecclesiastical unity, whereas sedition is contrary to the temporal or secular unity of the multitude, for instance of a city or kingdom. Secondly, schism does not imply any preparation for a material fight as sedition does, but only for a spiritual dissent.
Reply to Objection 3: Sedition, like schism, is contained under discord, since each is a kind of discord, not between individuals, but between the parts of a multitude.
Whether sedition is always a mortal sin?
Objection 1: It would seem that sedition is not always a mortal sin. For sedition denotes “a tumult tending to fight,” according to the gloss quoted above (Article 1). But fighting is not always a mortal sin, indeed it is sometimes just and lawful, as stated above (ST, Question 40, Article 1). Much more, therefore, can sedition be without a mortal sin.
Objection 2: Further, sedition is a kind of discord, as stated above (Article 1, Reply to Objection 3). Now discord can be without mortal sin, and sometimes without any sin at all. Therefore sedition can be also.
Objection 3: Further, it is praiseworthy to deliver a multitude from a tyrannical rule. Yet this cannot easily be done without some dissension in the multitude, if one part of the multitude seeks to retain the tyrant, while the rest strive to dethrone him. Therefore there can be sedition without mortal sin.
On the contrary, The Apostle forbids seditions together with other things that are mortal sins (2 Cor. 12:20).
I answer that, As stated above (Article 1, Reply to Objection 2), sedition is contrary to the unity of the multitude, viz. the people of a city or kingdom. Now Augustine says (De Civ. Dei ii, 21) that “wise men understand the word people to designate not any crowd of persons, but the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law and for the common good.” Wherefore it is evident that the unity to which sedition is opposed is the unity of law and common good: whence it follows manifestly that sedition is opposed to justice and the common good. Therefore by reason of its genus it is a mortal sin, and its gravity will be all the greater according as the common good which it assails surpasses the private good which is assailed by strife.
Accordingly the sin of sedition is first and chiefly in its authors, who sin most grievously; and secondly it is in those who are led by them to disturb the common good. Those, however, who defend the common good, and withstand the seditious party, are not themselves seditious, even as neither is a man to be called quarrelsome because he defends himself, as stated above (ST, Question 41, Article 1).
Reply to Objection 1: It is lawful to fight, provided it be for the common good, as stated above (ST, Question 40, Article 1). But sedition runs counter to the common good of the multitude, so that it is always a mortal sin.
Reply to Objection 2: Discord from what is not evidently good, may be without sin, but discord from what is evidently good, cannot be without sin: and sedition is discord of this kind, for it is contrary to the unity of the multitude, which is a manifest good.
Reply to Objection 3: A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.
The Power of Human Law
Summa Theologica, I Part of the II Part, Question 96, Articles 4, 5, 6.
Article 4. Whether human law binds a man in conscience?
Objection 1. It would seem that humanlaw does not bind man in conscience. For an inferior power has no jurisdiction in a court of higher power. But the power of man, which frames humanlaw, is beneath the Divine power. Therefore humanlaw cannot impose its precept in a Divine court, such as is the court of conscience.
Objection 2. Further, the judgment of conscience depends chiefly on the commandments of God. But sometimes God’s commandments are made void by human laws, according to Matthew 15:6: “You have made void the commandment of God for your tradition.” Therefore humanlaw does not bind a man in conscience.
On the contrary, It is written (1 Peter 2:19): “This is thankworthy, if for conscience . . . a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully.”
I answer that, Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternallaw whence they are derived, according to Proverbs 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.
On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to humangood, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Matthew 5:40-41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”
Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”
Reply to Objection 1. As the Apostle says (Romans 13:1-2), all human power is from God . . . “therefore he that resisteth the power,” in matters that are within its scope, “resisteth the ordinance of God“; so that he becomes guilty according to his conscience.
Reply to Objection 2. This argument is true of laws that are contrary to the commandments of God, which is beyond the scope of (human) power. Wherefore in such matters humanlaw should not be obeyed.
Reply to Objection 3. This argument is true of a law that inflicts unjust hurt on its subjects. The power that man holds from God does not extend to this: wherefore neither in such matters is man bound to obey the law, provided he avoid giving scandal or inflicting a more grievous hurt.
Article 5. Whether all are subject to the law?
Objection 1. It would seem that not all are subject to the law. For those alone are subject to a law for whom a law is made. But the Apostle says (1 Timothy 1:9): “The law is not made for the just man.” Therefore the just are not subject to the law.
Objection 2. Further, Pope Urban says [Decretals. caus. xix, qu. 2]: “He that is guided by a private law need not for any reason be bound by the public law.” Now all spiritual men are led by the private law of the Holy Ghost, for they are the sons of God, of whom it is said (Romans 8:14): “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” Therefore not all men are subject to humanlaw.
Objection 3. Further, the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. i, ff., tit. 3, De Leg. et Senat.] that “the sovereign is exempt from the laws.” But he that is exempt from the law is not bound thereby. Therefore not all are subject to the law.
On the contrary, The Apostle says (Romans 13:1): “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.” But subjection to a power seems to imply subjection to the laws framed by that power. Therefore all men should be subject to humanlaw.
I answer that, As stated above (Question 90, Articles 1 and 2; Article 3, Reply to Objection 2), the notion of law contains two things: first, that it is a rule of human acts; secondly, that it has coercive power. Wherefore a man may be subject to law in two ways. First, as the regulated is subject to the regulator: and, in this way, whoever is subject to a power, is subject to the law framed by that power. But it may happen in two ways that one is not subject to a power. In one way, by being altogether free from its authority: hence the subjects of one city or kingdom are not bound by the laws of the sovereign of another city or kingdom, since they are not subject to his authority. In another way, by being under a yet higher law; thus the subject of a proconsul should be ruled by his command, but not in those matters in which the subject receives his orders from the emperor: for in these matters, he is not bound by the mandate of the lower authority, since he is directed by that of a higher. In this way, one who is simply subject to a law, may not be a subject thereto in certain matters, in respect of which he is ruled by a higher law.
Secondly, a man is said to be subject to a law as the coerced is subject to the coercer. In this way the virtuous and righteous are not subject to the law, but only the wicked. Because coercion and violence are contrary to the will: but the will of the good is in harmony with the law, whereas the will of the wicked is discordant from it. Wherefore in this sense the good are not subject to the law, but only the wicked.
Reply to Objection 1. This argument is true of subjection by way of coercion: for, in this way, “the law is not made for the just men”: because “they are a law to themselves,” since they “show the work of the law written in their hearts,” as the Apostle says (Romans 2:14-15). Consequently the law does not enforce itself upon them as it does on the wicked.
Reply to Objection 3. The sovereign is said to be “exempt from the law,” as to its coercive power; since, properly speaking, no man is coerced by himself, and law has no coercive power save from the authority of the sovereign. Thus then is the sovereign said to be exempt from the law, because none is competent to pass sentence on him, if he acts against the law. Wherefore on Psalm 50:6: “To Thee only have I sinned,” a gloss says that “there is no man who can judge the deeds of a king.” But as to the directive force of law, the sovereign is subject to the law by his own will, according to the statement (Extra, De Constit. cap. Cum omnes) that “whatever law a man makes for another, he should keep himself. And a wise authority [Dionysius Cato, Dist. de Moribus] says: ‘Obey the law that thou makest thyself.'” Moreover the Lord reproaches those who “say and do not”; and who “bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but with a finger of their own they will not move them” (Matthew 23:3-4). Hence, in the judgment of God, the sovereign is not exempt from the law, as to its directive force; but he should fulfil it to his own free-will and not of constraint. Again the sovereign is above the law, in so far as, when it is expedient, he can change the law, and dispense in it according to time and place.
Article 6. Whether he who is under a law may act beside the letter of the law?
Objection 1. It seems that he who is subject to a law may not act beside the letter of the law. For Augustine says (De Vera Relig. 31): “Although men judge about temporal laws when they make them, yet when once they are made they must pass judgment not on them, but according to them.” But if anyone disregard the letter of the law, saying that he observes the intention of the lawgiver, he seems to pass judgment on the law. Therefore it is not right for one who is under the law to disregard the letter of the law, in order to observe the intention of the lawgiver.
Objection 2. Further, he alone is competent to interpret the law who can make the law. But those who are subject to the law cannot make the law. Therefore they have no right to interpret the intention of the lawgiver, but should always act according to the letter of the law.
Objection 3. Further, every wise manknows how to explain his intention by words. But those who framed the laws should be reckoned wise: for Wisdom says (Proverbs 8:15): “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Therefore we should not judge of the intention of the lawgiver otherwise than by the words of the law.
On the contrary,Hilary says (De Trin. iv): “The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it: because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things.” Therefore we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than of his very words.
I answer that, As stated above (Article 4), every law is directed to the common weal of men, and derives the force and nature of law accordingly. Hence the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 3, De Leg. et Senat.]: “By no reason of law, or favor of equity, is it allowable for us to interpret harshly, and render burdensome, those useful measures which have been enacted for the welfare of man.” Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed. For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.
Nevertheless it must be noted, that if the observance of the law according to the letter does not involve any sudden risk needing instant remedy, it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful to the state: those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws. If, however, the peril be so sudden as not to allow of the delay involved by referring the matter to authority, the mere necessity brings with it a dispensation, since necessityknows no law.
Reply to Objection 1. He who in a case of necessity acts beside the letter of the law, does not judge the law; but of a particular case in which he sees that the letter of the law is not to be observed.
Reply to Objection 2. He who follows the intention of the lawgiver, does not interpret the law simply; but in a case in which it is evident, by reason of the manifest harm, that the lawgiver intended otherwise. For if it be a matter of doubt, he must either act according to the letter of the law, or consult those in power.
Reply to Objection 3.No man is so wise as to be able to take account of every single case; wherefore he is not able sufficiently to express in words all those things that are suitable for the end he has in view. And even if a lawgiver were able to take all the cases into consideration, he ought not to mention them all, in order to avoid confusion: but should frame the law according to that which is of most common occurrence.
The modern world gives proof at every point that it is far easier to destroy institutions than to create them. Nevertheless, few people seem to understand this truth. Britain’s Labor Party has embarked upon a series of “constitutional reforms” that can be relied upon to undermine the old authority of Parliament, but that will put no new authority in its place. The churches have initiated massive liturgical changes, so losing their old consolations, their old beliefs, and their old congregations without making converts among the young. From the curriculum reformers in schools to the gay activists in the military, people are engaged in revising inherited institutions in the interests of their present members, each of whom is supposed to have an equal stake in whatever church, school, brigade, or work force he belongs to. Yet no one has the faintest conception of what the long-term costs and benefits will be.
This process of revision seems eminently rational and just to those who have embarked on it. Who can stand in the way of reform, when the liberal idea requires it? Yet the fact remains that reform will easily destroy an institution, but will not reliably replace it with another one. We have seen this in the churches, in the schools, in the universities, and in government. And we shall go on seeing it for as long as the liberal consensus prevails. It is for this reason that it is always worthwhile to return to the first and greatest of the liberal reformers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose impact on modern culture and modern politics has been equalled by no other thinker of the Enlightenment. In the work of Rousseau, we discover what is really at stake in the contest between conservative and liberal in all the areas of social life where this contest can be witnessed. What is at stake is not freedom, equality, or power, but the inherited store of social knowledge.
Rousseau’s discussions of the social contract, the general will, the nature of sovereignty and citizenship, the origins of inequality, and the possibility of democratic choice are of great philosophical interest. But they should be seen in the context of his work as a whole. Rousseau was not only a great philosopher; he was also a philosopher who thought through feeling and felt through ideas. All that emerges from his pen bears the stamp of an inimitable life; and if any writer were to make liberalism plausible, it would be Rousseau, who felt his way to the moral and emotional heart of it. His view of life was also a form of life, and he expressed it not only in his philosophical works, but also in an immensely influential novel—Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse—which can be favorably compared with the only other indisputable work of art from the hand of a philosopher: Plato’s Symposium.
In his compositions and his writings on music, Rousseau gave voice in another way and through another—though, for him, connected—medium to his fundamental outlook. And of course he gave to posterity, in his Confessions, the first and perhaps the finest example of the romantic autobiography—the noble lie in its quintessentially modern form. Add to those achievements his brilliant anticipation of the distinction between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies; his insight into language and the depth of the scientific problem that it poses; and his profoundly original, profoundly influential, and profoundly dangerous views on education, and you quickly come to see that there is no way in which Rousseau can be adequately discussed, still less dismissed, in a single article. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be drawn from him, which can without distortion be given in fewer words than the philosopher would ever have bestowed on a subject so important as himself.
I have already used the term “liberalism” in its modern sense—or one of its modern senses. It is not a term that Rousseau would have used; nor would he have recognized his ideas in those thinkers whom we now describe as “classical liberals.” Liberalism is an intellectual tradition formed from the interplay of two political ideals: liberty and equality. Liberals differ according to whether liberty or equality is more important to them. Libertarians believe that liberty should be traded for nothing else save liberty, whereas the present-day American “liberal” tends to sacrifice liberty for equality when the two conflict. Both libertarians and egalitarians are hostile to vested authority, and this hostility often unites the two in practice, even if it is hard to reconcile them in theory. Rousseau cared passionately for both liberty and equality. But he also brought to the fore some of the deep tensions between them. He observed with disgust what people did with their freedom, and his disgust was proof of the deep inequality that set him apart from so many of his contemporaries.
True liberty, for Rousseau, is “moral liberty.” It does not consist merely in a lack of obstacles. Liberty involves autonomous choice. People are free only when they can bind themselves. From this thought stems another, inherent in Rousseau, and made explicit by Kant, namely that freedom is also a submission to law: “obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty,” as Rousseau wrote in Du contrat social. For Rousseau, a society can be free only if freely consented to, and obligations can be binding only if self-imposed. Hence, society must be founded in a contract: each person promises obedience in exchange for a like promise from everyone else. But there is a contradiction here, and Rousseau several times returns to it. The ability to promise, to commit oneself, to act autonomously—all these involve language, which in turn requires society. The autonomous agent does not exist in a state of nature: he is a social artifact. As Rousseau himself makes clear, our natural liberty is destroyed by the social contract, which puts “civil liberty” in the place of it. From civil liberty springs moral liberty, but it is only with the coming of moral liberty that we can bind ourselves by a contract. So, how can society be founded on a contract, when no contract can exist until society has been founded? Here is a potent paradox, and one which awakens in Rousseau the will to believe. We must live as if bound by a contract, while knowing this to be impossible.
Inequality is of two kinds—natural and artificial. Inequalities that arise in society, Rousseau believes, are limitations on freedom, both for those at the top and those at the bottom. The rich man becomes slave to luxury and dependent on others to serve and obey him; the poor man becomes slave to need and dependent on others to command and reward him. But again there is a paradox. In a free society, where each may pursue his projects, natural power translates into social power, and natural inequality into inequality of another kind. All social advantages stem from the interest that people have in each other. Looks, intelligence, strength, prowess, energy, liveliness, the very attachment to life—all these are unequally distributed. Yet, it is these qualities that we find most interesting, and that determine our chances in the world. To prevent social inequalities, therefore, we must ensure that people are not free to exploit their natural powers. Only a massive program of social engineering could succeed in bringing this about.
Rousseau was aware of the paradoxical nature of egalitarianism. His whole life was proof to him that natural talent leads to social distinction unless impeded by force. The human relations that most elicited his sympathy were fraught with inequality, both natural and social. The relations between Emile and his tutor, between Julie (La Nouvelle Héloïse) and her lover St. Preux (who is also her tutor), and between himself and the mother-figures who one by one take charge of him in the Confessions—all these offer living proof of the way in which social and natural inequalities feed each other. He observed how inequality is accepted and endorsed by love; and he observed the compassion that people feel, when permitted to look down on—and up at—their neighbors. Hence, the only equality that is ever dwelt upon in Rousseau’s writings is that which arises when power and authority go on holiday. Such equality is, as the Swiss philosopher Jean Starobinski has written in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Transparency and Obstruction (1988)—a “holiday affair,” typified by the idyll of the grape harvest in La Nouvelle Héloïse, when all classes, released from toil by sudden abundance, gather round for a common feast.
Why was Rousseau so eager to embrace the paradoxes to which I have alluded? What in his intellectual and emotional project entailed such a credo quia absurdum? The question takes us to the heart of Rousseau’s thinking. “J’aime mieux être homme à paradoxes qu’homme à préjugés,” he wrote in Emile. Prejudices come from the desire to protect existing things; paradoxes from the attempt to question them. Paradox is the mark of a priori thinking—thinking from first principles in a situation where human nature has been encrusted by custom and habit. Man, in Rousseau’s account, has been corrupted by society. To rediscover our freedom, we must measure every activity against its “natural” counterpart. Not that we can return to our “natural” state; the very idea of a state of nature is a philosophical abstraction. Nevertheless, in everything there is another way, an as yet undiscovered route to authenticity, which will allow us to do freely what we now do only by constraint. No existing institution should be accepted, therefore, just because it is existing. All practices and customs should be questioned, measured against an a priori standard, and amended if they fail to come up to the mark.
This thought dictates the agenda of the Discourses and Du contrat social. It is also the evident premise of Emile. But to understand what exactly is wrong with it, I shall consider Rousseau’s views on music. For the cost of freedom and the value of tradition are most clearly visible in art.
Rousseau took a leading role in the querelle des bouffons—the dispute as to whether the comic opera of the Italians was preferable to the lyrical drama of Lully. And he famously ruled, in his Lettre sur la musique française, that there could be no such thing as French music—that the very nature of the French language poisoned the sources of melody and encouraged an artificial art, obedient to the rules of harmony alone. By this time, he had fallen out with the great composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau, upon whose treatise Rousseau had drawn when composing the Dictionnaire de musique. Rousseau had scored a success with Le Devin du village (“The Village Soothsayer”)—a short opera in the Italian style. He had also presented several versions of a new scheme for musical notation, which jettisons the graphic representation of musical movement and identifies notes and quantities numerically. There is something admirable in Rousseau’s reckless confrontation with the musical tradition, and also in his ability to crown his philosophical objections with musical works. Yet a closer examination reveals that his contribution to the debate is not merely negative, but also wedded to negation— determined to find corruption in the surrounding musical practice precisely because it is an established practice, a reservoir of social knowledge.
The system of musical notation that Rousseau attacked is still in use. It was not the work of any one person, but the outcome of a long process of problem solving, the very same process that had produced the tradition of harmony and counterpoint and risen to such astonishing heights in the music of Couperin, Handel, and Bach. Western music could never have reached these heights without its notation, which emancipated our music from the rule of monody and improvisation and organized it around the concept of the permanent and repeatable work.
Modern liberals tend to scoff at the idea of tradition. All traditions, they tell us, are “invented,” implying that they can therefore be replaced with impunity. This idea is plausible only if you take the trivial examples—Scottish country dancing, Highland dress, the Coronation ceremony, Christmas cards, and whatever else comes with a “heritage” label. A real tradition is not an invention; it is the unintended byproduct of invention, which also makes invention possible. Our musical tradition is one astounding example of this. No single person created it. Each contributor built on previous achievements, discovering problems and solving them through the steady expansion of the common syntax. Notation developed side by side with harmony and counterpoint. No single person could ever have discovered the knowledge of the human ear and the human heart that these practices contain, any more than a single person could discover a language. When Rameau came to write his Traité de l’harmonie (“Treatise on Harmony”), he was not inventing rules, nor recording the conventions of a game. He was attempting to summarize a body of implicit knowledge, which is in all our heads as listeners and performers, but which has no first principles, no definitions, no a priori system.
Rousseau’s impatience with Rameau reflects a profound antipathy to the very idea of tradition. For a tradition, precisely because it is not invented, has authority. “Unintended byproducts” of invention contain more knowledge than any person can discover unaided. By attacking graphic notation, Rousseau was attempting to undermine one of the indisputable sources of authority in our society. He was attempting to show that a tradition could be disinvented and begun again, and that it could be begun again by a single, freely choosing sensibility. The attack on French music was a rehearsal for the forthcoming drama: Rousseau against prejudice, and, behind that, another and deeper conflict—one that pitted the self against others, and selfhood against otherness.
Of course, the attack was a failure. Rousseau’s rival system of notation makes the sight-reading of counterpoint impossible; it gives no lucid account of harmonic sequence or voice-leading. It is a match for the old notation only when representing unison melodies. This objection was made by Rameau, and Rousseau, in Book 7 of the Confessions, concedes the point. In the event, however, Rousseau was deterred neither by Rameau’s arguments nor by his own recognition of their force. Instead he turned against Rameau and all that the composer stood for. He began to attack harmony and counterpoint as marks of corruption, and to praise unison melody as the pure voice of nature. At all costs it was necessary to show that inherited convention could be overthrown by the freely choosing spirit and that the result would be closer to nature, and morally purer, than the routines which govern others.
Of Le Devin du village, it should be said that its music, though not without charm, would have been rescued from triviality had the composer troubled more over harmony and counterpoint. The decorative use of parallel thirds and the plodding common chords make this music both easy to grasp and wearisome to hold. Its success at the time is no more difficult to credit than the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber today, and the score is clear proof, if proof be needed, that the tradition that Rousseau hoped to overthrow contained more knowledge than had entered his head.
Rousseau’s ventures into musicology illustrate his value as a thinker. If we wish to know where authority resides, then we should look first at Rousseau’s targets. He sought out real authority in order to dismiss it as a sham. Whatever institution he viewed as corrupting is likely to be a source of knowledge, and whatever he recommended in its place will be fraught with paradox. Rousseau’s attack on society in the name of “nature” exemplifies what to me is the root error of liberalism in all its forms, namely, the inability to accept, or even to perceive, the inherited forms of social knowledge.
By social knowledge, I mean the kind of knowledge embodied in the common law, in parliamentary procedures, in manners, costume, social convention, and, also, in morality. Such knowledge arises “by an invisible hand” from the open-ended business of society, from problems that have been confronted and solved, from agreements that have been perpetuated by custom, from conventions that coordinate our otherwise conflicting passions, and from the unending process of negotiation and compromise whereby we quieten the dogs of war.
It was such knowledge that Edmund Burke had in mind when he attacked the a priori thinking of the French revolutionaries in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). “We are afraid to put men to live and trade on their own private stock of reason,” he wrote, “because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” Burke’s imagery is in one respect misleading. Social knowledge does not accumulate as money does, nor does it grow in the manner of scientific knowledge, which can be stored in books. It exists only in and through its repeated exercise: it is social, tacit, practical, and can never be captured in a formula or plan. The best way to understand it, indeed, is through the failures of the planned economy.
The Austrian economists—for example, Ludwig von Mises in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (1951)—argued, plausibly enough, that prices in a market contain information that is indispensable to economic life. This information exists only in the free exchange of goods and services; it is information about the real pressure of human needs. Hence the attempt to encompass economic life in a rational plan, with prices controlled from the center, will destroy the information on which the plan must draw. Rationalism in economics is irrational. Indeed, it is a living instance of the self-contradictions discovered by Rousseau whenever he searched for the first principles of human society.
The Austrian theory parallels Michael Oakeshott’s attack on rationalism in politics in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1963). It can also be applied in other spheres where social knowledge is the foundation of rational conduct, as F. A. von Hayek has shown in Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1982). The common law, for example, contains information that could not be contained in a legislative program–information about conflicts and their resolution, about the sense of justice in action, and about human expectations, which is dispersed through the record of the law and is never available when legislation is the sole legal authority. Hence, the attempt to remake the legal order, through a legislative code that embodies all permissible solutions, is profoundly irrational. Such a code will destroy the source of legal knowledge, which is the judgment of the impartial judge as he confronts the unforeseeable course of human conflict. Rousseau’s social contract leads to an abstract and a priori code, established not by the attempt to rectify injustices as they one by one arise, but by the supreme act of a Legislator who, being not God but Jean-Jacques, is destined to fail. The Legislator is the unhappy Atlas on whom the unsustainable burden of humanity falls.
Another example of implied social knowledge—and one of supreme importance in our culture—is the tradition of Western music. The musical practices that irritated Rousseau contain practical knowledge that cannot be translated into his rational notation—knowledge of the inner relations of tones and harmonies that is dispersed through a tradition of polyphonic thinking. This knowledge becomes visible, though not verbal, in our musical notation, but it is lost in Rousseau’s numerical plan.
Social knowledge arises from the search over time for agreement. Even the common law, which leans on coercion, involves the attempt to find socially agreed solutions. Hence, the outcome of a case in common law is always clear: rights and liabilities are determined. But the principle—the ratio decidendi—may not be clear at all, and may emerge only later in the tradition of judicial reasoning. Law, custom, convention, ceremony, moral norms, and the market are the varying ways in which human beings attempt to live by agreement. The resulting social order will be marked by inequalities and constraints. How could it be otherwise? But it will arise, in the normal case, from transactions freely engaged in. If transactions are coerced, then the resulting conventions and norms will not contain the knowledge that is so important to us: the knowledge of what to do in order to live in harmony with our fellows.
Rousseau’s rejection of society in favor of free choice and uncorrupted nature should be seen in this context. It is not enough for Rousseau that institutions should arise from consent in the manner of the common law or the market; they must be the object of consent. We must stand outside our institutions and ask ourselves whether we would freely choose them from among alternatives. If the answer is yes, then this forms the basis of a social contract. In entering such a contract, we establish a legitimate order—but only then. For only then do our institutions reflect our own autonomous submission to government. Only then is authority bestowed upon government by the governed. Only then, in other words, does the self win against the others.
In Rousseau, of course, the contract does not amount to much. No sooner are we released from social burdens than we submit to a “general will” that brooks no opposition, and that adds to its commands the insolent assertion that, in obeying it, we are doing our own will. Freedom is no sooner obtained than thrown away. All who have studied Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty” will know how dangerous Rousseau’s paradoxes can be when their inner (that is to say, religious) meaning is brought to the surface.
Just as dangerous, however, is the assumption that we can jettison all institutions, traditions, and conventions and decide how to make them anew. This is the root assumption of liberalism, and it recurs in all versions of the social contract—even the hypothetical contract of the philosopher John Rawls. It implies that we can make rational choices, knowing what to do and how to do it, without the benefit of social knowledge—in other words, without the hard-earned legacy of consensual solutions.
It is not just that there is no reason to think that this is so. It is rather that there is every reason to think the opposite. We know what to do only when we have a sense of right and wrong, an implicit awareness of the unseen multitudes whom our actions affect, and the instinctive knowledge of what is admirable or despicable, that are percolated through the channels of tradition. Without traditions we have no “conception of the good,” as the philosopher John Rawls describes it. And, for all that Rawls says to the contrary, a social contract between creatures with no conception of the good is a parody of rational choice—the kind of parody that Rawls places before us, imagining that he has given a final proof, and not a refutation, of the liberal view of society.
Jean Starobinski attributes to Rousseau an emotional need to reject all mediation–every institution, custom, and practice that comes between the self and its desire. Whether in love, in religion, or in education, Rousseau’s goal is to remove the veil of “society” so that the individual can take immediate possession of the good that belongs to him by nature, and that has been withheld by the “others” who stand in his way. This perception of society, as a realm of “otherness” or alienation, has a religious meaning. For Rousseau, the self is naturally good and naturally free, living in a state of unmediated unity that is also a state of love: the amour de soi from which our life begins. Evil is to be explained by the sundering of this primal unity, the setting of the self against itself, which occurs when we live as others require. Society induces a fall from innocent amour de soi to guilt-ridden amour-propre. Only through the social contract, which remakes society as the expression of individual free choice, can we overcome our alienation. The contract therefore has a redemptive meaning and leads to a “civil religion,” imposing on every citizen the unmediated relation with the godhead that his nature requires.
The story is familiar in many later versions: Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Sartre to take but four examples. Rousseau led the way in describing the only available sources of moral knowledge as the instruments of our fall. Wherever the light of human goodness flickers, there Rousseau discerns the shadow of evil. He began what was soon to become a widespread habit of blaming “society” for the evil deeds of people, of calling for the reform of institutions rather than for the punishment of wrongdoers, and of perceiving in the worst of human crimes a paradisal innocence that the moral life itself had brought to nothing.
There is another way of seeing Rousseau’s social contract, not as the redemption of society through the sacrament of choice, but as the rejection of society as an obstacle to choice. This other way of seeing the matter underlies Burke’s criticism of the official doctrines of revolutionary France. Society, Burke pointed out, is an open-ended partnership (he even said “contract”) between generations. The dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. To dishonor the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built—the relation of obligation between generations. Those who have lost respect for their dead have ceased to be trustees of their inheritance. Inevitably, therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to future generations. The web of obligations shrinks to the present tense. Such, for Burke, was the lesson of the French Revolution.
It is undeniably true that the contractual view of society grants enormous privileges to the living, and disenfranchises the rest. If taken seriously, as the sole ground of legitimacy, the social contract licenses the continuous pillaging of all resources in obedience to the whims of their temporary trustees. That is exactly what we have witnessed since the Enlightenment. All customs and all institutions have been measured and remade against the standard of choice. The question of their authority has been replaced by another—do we the living want them? If we don’t, then they must go. The social knowledge that comes into existence not from my free choice, but as the byproduct of other people’s—dead people’s—choices, has been little by little depleted.
A striking illustration of this loss of knowledge is given by Rousseau himself in Emile, the work that has acquired a Dewey-eyed following in America, on account of its wondrous impracticality. It is perhaps ironic that something of the aristocratic view of life is preserved in Rousseau’s whole-hearted attack on it; indeed, if Rousseau’s prescriptions have any force, the only way to educate a child is through the vast expense of a private tutor and a country estate.
At the same time, however, this child who depends on an aristocratic budget must stop short of acquiring aristocratic ideas—or indeed any ideas, other than those that are prompted by the self-love and pity that are nature’s primeval gift to him. For Rousseau, the task of the educator is not to fill, but to open the mind of the child; not to inculcate a respect for authority, but to instill an attitude of questioning; not to tell the child what others have discovered, but to induce him to discover things for himself. Nothing short of a highly educated tutor, devoting himself full time to his ward, can substitute for the books and lessons that Emile is denied.
That only raises the questions of how the tutor is to obtain his knowledge, and how the process is to begin. In a curious episode, Rousseau describes the elaborate procedure whereby Emile is to discover the phenomenon of magnetism—a procedure that requires days of preparation and experiment, and that leads to less knowledge of the matter than could be gleaned from a single paragraph of writing. In order that Emile should discover truth for himself, truth must also be concealed from him. He is not allowed books, not allowed formal lessons, not allowed the normal means of class instruction, not really allowed childhood— since childhood exists only against the background of adult authority, where rites of passage are acknowledged and performed.
Even if it were possible to educate children in this way, one thing is certain: that each generation would know less than the one before. The labor of discovery would have to be endlessly repeated, and the process whereby knowledge accumulates would come to a halt. And that, of course, is Rousseau’s underlying intention—not to liberate the child, but to destroy all intellectual authority, apart from that which resides in the self. Emile is to be brought up as “un sauvage fait pour habiter les villes.” His natural freedom is to remain untainted by the amour-propre that is the poisoned gift of society. But he is the least free of children, hampered at every point in his search for information, deprived of all sources of socially engendered knowledge, and condemned to repeat the labors of past generations in his futile attempt to know as much as they did. We glimpse here what Burke had in mind: absent generations have been deleted from the picture, and freedom confined to the present tense.
Emile is a fascinating work, and by no means to be dismissed. The best parts are those that elicit the least sympathy from the book’s normal admirers—the parts dealing with sex education and the virtue of chastity. Here Rousseau was forced to admit that the method of experiment could not produce the desired result. Chastity comes about only when pleasures are forbidden, when the other sex is shrouded in mystery, and when an elaborate story is told, embellished and believed, concerning the beauty and remoteness of sexual union. Modern sex education is conceived as a “liberation” from fear, doubt, and disease—a “how to” manual for children, which is also a form of vicarious pedophilia for their teachers. But sex was the one matter in which Rousseau was prepared to acknowledge that the artificial, not the natural, is the source of moral knowledge, and that custom must win against choice.
The real message of Emile lies in the parts that have been most influential, and, in particular, in the idea that teaching is or ought to be “child-centered.” It is now orthodoxy among educationists that the purpose of education is to benefit the child. From the long-term point of view, however, it is not the child who is the measure of educational success, but the society that includes him. From the social point of view the purpose of education is to perpetuate an inheritance of learning. Knowledge is not a means of improving the child, the child is a means of enhancing knowledge.
The difference here is not merely a difference of attitude or style. It is a difference in philosophy. The “child-centered” teacher is in the business of helping children to “realize their potential.” The “knowledge-centered” teacher is in the business of passing on what he knows—ensuring, in other words, that his knowledge does not die with him. His first duty, therefore, is to find the pupil with the ability to learn what he has to teach; only then can he fulfill his goal as a teacher. If, having done so, he wishes to help other children to “realize their potential,” all well and good—provided he acknowledges that many of them can do this only by ceasing to learn.
The authority of a teacher stems from his knowledge. Children instantly recognize this kind of authority, and defer to the person who possesses it. In child-centered education, however, the only real authority is the child—the little Jean-Jacques who is busy “realizing his potential” in whatever messy way suggests itself.
Some might object to the use of the word “authority” here. Rousseau would not be one of them. He recognized that human beings are made to command and therefore to obey. It was not obedience that disturbed him, but obedience to others. Civil liberty is achieved by laying down laws for oneself; the child becomes fit for civil society by learning to obey his true (but socially occluded) nature. But this conception of obedience presents us with another Rousseauvian paradox, and one that lies at the heart of modern education and its failure: Rousseau asserts the tutor’s absolute right of property over Emile in order to make Emile absolutely free. Likewise modern educationists assume, in the name of the child and his freedom, an absolute right to compel school attendance, while ensuring that nothing will be learned in school that will serve to distinguish one pupil from another. The purpose of modern education is to remove advantages, to deprive children of the attributes that grace them above their peers. Look at a present-day class in “attitude training” and you will have a vivid picture of what it means to be “forced to be free.”
Of course, the element of compulsion is hidden behind a screen of agile rhetoric. It is to Rousseau that we owe the concept of education as a process of free exploration and self-development, in which the teacher plays the role not of expert or authority, but of adviser, playmate, and friend. By shifting attention from the teacher to the child; by suggesting that if children do not learn it is not because of a lack of discipline but because of an excess of it; and by urging an “individualized” teaching process in which the relation between teacher and pupil is rewritten as a kind of partnership whereby “active learning” and “learning by acquaintance” replace the traditional approach of “learning by description”—in these and many other ways modern educational theory has served to institutionalize ideas first voiced by Rousseau. (The inherent destructiveness of this shift has now been proven throughout the Western world.) Rousseau also anticipated the contemporary hostility toward memorization. “Emile,” he decreed, “will never learn anything by heart”—thus reversing at a stroke an educational tradition that began with Plato’s Academy, one that made possible the vast accumulation of knowledge in medieval society.
In another respect, too, Emile anticipated the depths of modern folly. To Rousseau, the child’s natural freedom is so precious a commodity that he should never be introduced to knowledge save through concepts and interests that he already has. Nothing alien to his nature must be imposed on him; hence all lessons must engage with his existing interests. When educational theory rose to prominence in the Sixties, and took upon itself the task of abolishing education, “relevance” was announced as the goal. As a result, the educational value of a subject began to be measured, not in terms of the knowledge that it imparted, but in terms of the interests of those who had yet to understand it.
“Life skills” looks fascinating to a child who comes for the first time to this bagful of banalities. But what difference is made by it to the child’s ultimate vision of himself and reality, and how “relevant” will it seem to him when he looks back on it from the adult perspective? Conversely, mathematics, history, literature, and grammar address themselves hardly at all to the interests of those who have no knowledge of them; only in the course of study can their “relevance” be perceived, and only then, under the influence of a transformation that they themselves engender, does a child begin to “need” their instruction. In the face of these, to my mind obvious, truths, the “relevance revolution” in education seems like a victory for ignorance, and it is a victory that owes as much to Rousseau as any other revolution that has shaken the modern world. Indeed, one can read Emile not as a treatise on education, but as a treatise against education. Such, it seems to me, is the real meaning of the statement that “one acquires clearer and more certain ideas of things, when one learns for oneself, than when instructed by another”—a statement that makes the conflict between self and other into the secret drama of the classroom.
Rousseau is often singled out as the originator of the cult of “sensibility,” the one who wished to place the emotions in the center of human life and at the same time to deprive reason of its former sovereignty. I don’t think this captures the real temper of his thought. Emotion and reason, for Rousseau, were inextricable, and our greatest emotions, he believed, derive from our predicament as rational beings—our predicament as freely choosing, self-committing agents, with a consciousness of self that sets us apart from nature. It is this apartness from nature that defines our condition and the bad effects that we must overcome. We overcome it not by giving free reign to passion—on the contrary, for Rousseau our emotions should be intensely focused, rather than promiscuously dispersed. Julie, in La Nouvelle Héloïse, owes her tragic fate not to chastity and fidelity, but to the fact that she allows a socially engendered sense of duty to take precedence over a self-engendered, but chaste and faithful, passion.
We overcome our alienation, Rousseau believed, not through passion but through rational choice. We must remake the world in the image of freedom; we must rescue human life from custom and recast it as a thing intended, a shrine for the liberated self. That is why, in the last analysis, a social contract is necessary: so that society should cease to be an external force, and become instead an expression of our inner freedom. By beginning everything anew, from procedures that conserve the sovereignty of the self, we find redemption—so Rousseau and many others have thought. But what if the self and its freedom, conceived in this ahistorical way, are myths? Where then do we look for legitimate government and the foundations of political order?
There is at the heart of Rousseau’s vision a culpable a priorism—a failure to take seriously the fact that the human being, in all his aspects, including his capacity for rational choice, is the product of a history that stretches before and after him. The search for origins is doomed to failure; at every point we encounter the historical contingency, the arbitrariness of human destiny. We are thrown together without reason or cause, and must make the best of circumstances that have been indelibly marked by a history that was not our doing. Hence, we should look for legitimacy not in origins but in procedures. Instead of asking whether the social order conforms to some abstract criterion of justice, we should ask whether, and if so how, a perceived injustice might be rectified; whether the individual can obtain redress for any injury; and whether crime is punished and loyalty rewarded. We should study the functioning of offices and roles and institutions, and ask whether they soften or heighten human conflicts. The quest for origins asks no such answerable questions. For it is a religious quest: an attempt to anchor society outside history, and to take a God’s-eye view of all our brief arrangements.
Rather than aiming at that unattainable perspective, we should follow Hume and give the benefit of the doubt—and the subsequent benefit of doubting—to those activities for which “custom” is the comprehensive name. Customs are shared and gain their significance from the fact of being shared, but are not, in the normal case, compulsory. Customs are social constraints that you are free to defy. They include all the normal ways in which we confirm and celebrate our social membership, all the normal ways in which the finite store of knowledge is enhanced and passed on, and all the normal ways in which conflicts are discovered and resolved.
How customs arise is immaterial; that they arise is the sign that human beings are able, against the odds, to form the large and complex societies that are necessary for their survival, and that could never be the subject matter of a contract. It is in the nature of customs that they cannot be chosen: they arise by an invisible hand from our consensual dealings. Hence, no custom could feature among the terms of a social contract. If we look on customs as the objects of self-conscious choice, then they cease to be customs and become “lifestyles”—as inheritance becomes “heritage” when put on sale. But customs are an irreplaceable source of social and moral knowledge; we should therefore neither hastily uproot them nor deceive ourselves into thinking that we know how they might be replaced. We don’t know and we cannot know, since the relevant kind of knowledge is socially created and historically dispersed.
This is not to say that customs should be unquestioningly accepted. But the “benefit of doubting” comes only after the benefit of the doubt—only when we have conceded that the survival of a custom is one powerful proof of its authority. Even if we should question customs, enough of them must be held constant if our questions are to have a purpose. When everything is questioned, then nothing makes sense—including the question.
Of course, if we believe in the natural innocence of the human being, our imperfect social arrangements will seem to us to be the sign of some terrible mistake. We might then try to think our way back into the state of primeval innocence, in order to see what would have been chosen by people who had yet to succumb to “society.” But there never was such a state of innocence. The possibility of error is inherent in our condition. Custom, too, is the product of error, for it is the way in which error is overcome.
The virtue that the Romans described as pietas consisted not in a rejection of customs, institutions, and laws, but, on the contrary, in an underlying acceptance—a humble recognition that we are not the producers but the products of our world. We must strive to be worthy of an inheritance that we did not create, and to amend it only when we have first understood it. Piety is not confined to the temple and the altar. It is an attitude to life, based in a recognition of our frailty and a respect for the dead.
In place of this, Rousseau erected a God who is not in the world but impassibly removed from it, whose traces on earth lie in a past so distant that they are now indiscernible. All honor is owed to this “real absence”—and to the self as His vicar on earth. No custom or ceremony is worthy of devotion, since all human institutions are polluted until freely chosen. Henceforth, our religious energies are to be diverted from the labor of repairing and upholding traditions, and devoted instead to the task of destroying them. Only in this way will we regain the Paradise from which we were sundered by our human fault. This explains the extraordinary zeal with which the followers of Rousseau embarked upon their revolution. Theirs was a holy war, a war against superstition in the name of God. But God was no more than a name. The “Supreme Being” of Robespierre, the “Being that exists by himself” of Rousseau, the abstract deity of Voltaire—all these terms denote not God himself, but the God-shaped hole in the heart of things, which is henceforth to be filled by human sacrifice.
In the sixth part of La Nouvelle Héloïse, Julie, by then living on sublimated terms with her former lover, writes to him that “the country of chimaeras is the only one in this world that is worthy of habitation, and such is the nothingness (néant) of human things that, apart from the Being who exists by Himself, nothing is beautiful except that which is not.” This sentence captures some of the religious origin of Rousseau’s social philosophy, and also the immense negative energy behind his account of our condition. The nothingness that he perceived in human things he also brought to them. His description of God is really a description of himself—the self existing by itself in solitude, among chimaeras of its own creation. There are only two sources of authority, two legitimate powers, in this world of usurpation: God and self. And in a mysterious way these are not two things, but one, joined in an imagined Paradise that, paradoxically, is more real, because more free, than anything actual. As for the world of ordinary human things, it contains nothing beautiful. It was created not by God or Rousseau, but by “society,” which is the real presence of the Devil.
And perhaps, looking back at his great achievement across two centuries of ruin, this is how we should see Jean-Jacques Rousseau—as a religious thinker bent on destroying the old gods, but with only a void to put in place of them. That which he attacked as “society,” and as the instrument of our Fall, was really the fertile topsoil of culture, in which all that we value is rooted. Sacred and profane, virtue and vice, good and evil—all these compete in the undergrowth of custom. Clear custom away, and you take away much evil. But you also take away the knowledge of evil. Hence, you make way for evil of another kind, in which people—inoculated against remorse and assuming an absolute right to demolish whatever impedes their rational plan for human happiness—embark on vast social experiments. This happened at the French Revolution. It has happened many times in modern Europe. It has even happened in America in the revolution that has destroyed American schools. And it will happen wherever people try to reconcile equality and liberty, and to destroy custom as the enemy of both.
There is a lesson to be drawn from Rousseau that is of great importance today. Social contests and tensions have been conceptualized in a way that favors the liberal cause. Every conflict is seen in terms of power: who enjoys it and who suffers it— “who? whom?,” in Lenin’s summary. But the deep conflicts concern not power but knowledge. Which institutions, which procedures, and which customs preserve and enhance the store of social knowledge? Liberals attack the traditional curriculum, for example, on the grounds that it confers power on white males, and “disempowers” the remainder. Hence women’s studies, black studies, gay studies, and all the other mock subjects that will in time destroy our universities. But the question of the curriculum has been wrongly posed. The traditional curriculum existed not because it empowered people, but because it contained an accumulation of social knowledge— knowledge of the human mind, the human character, and the human heart—whose utility is obvious to those who have studied it, but inconceivable to those who have not. The modern Rousseau, obsessed with inequality and social power, will therefore never understand the institutions that most offend him, and his relentless efforts to undermine them will deprive both him and everyone else of the knowledge required to put the damage right.
Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life
In Gurrelieder, VerklärteNacht, and PelléasetMélisandes, Schoenberg showed total mastery of tonality and of late romantic harmony, and these great works entered the repertoire. But by the time of the Piano Pieces op. 11 Schoenberg was writing music which to many people no longer made sense, with melodic lines that began and ended nowhere, and harmonies that seemed to bear no relation to the principal voice. At the same time it was clear that Schoenberg’s atonal pieces were meticulously composed, according to schemes that involved the intricate relation of phrases and thematic ideas, and this was another reason for taking them seriously.
In due course meticulousness took over, leading to an obsession with structure and the quasi-mathematical idiom of twelve-tone serialism, in which the linear relations of tonal music were replaced by arcane permutations. The result, in Schoenberg’s hands, was always intriguing, and often (as in the unfinished opera Moses und Aron, and A Survivor from Warsaw) genuinely moving. Schoenberg’s pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern developed the idiom, the one in a romantic and quasi-tonal direction, the other towards a refined pointillist style that is uniquely evocative. For a while it looked as though a genuine school of twelve-tone serialism would emerge, and displace the old tonal grammar from its central place in the concert hall. Figures like Ernst Krenek in Austria, Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy and Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions in America were actively advocating twelve-tone composition, and also practising it. But somehow it never took off. A few works – Berg’s Violin Concerto, Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigionero, Krenek’s moving setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah – have entered the repertoire. But twelve-tone works remain, for the most part, more items of curiosity than objects of love, and audiences have begun to turn their backs on them.
It should be remembered that those experiments were begun at a time when Mahler was composing tonal symphonies, with great arched melodies in the high romantic tradition, and using modernist harmonies only as rhetorical gestures within a strongly diatonic frame. In England Vaughan Williams and Holst were working in a similar way, treating dissonances as by-ways within an all-inclusive tonal logic, while in America inputs from film music and jazz were beginning to inspire eclectic masterpieces like Roy Harris’s Third Symphony and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A concert-goer in the early 1930s would therefore have been faced with two completely different repertoires – one (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Sibelius, Walton, Strauss, Busoni, Gershwin) remaining within the bounds of the tonal language, the other (Schoenberg and his school) consciously departing from the old language, and often striking a deliberately defiant posture that made it hard to build their works into a concert program. Somewhere in between those two repertoires hovered the great eclectic geniuses, Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokoviev.
The contest between tonality and atonality continued throughout the 20th century. The first was popular, the second, on the whole, popular only with the elites. But it was the elites who controlled things, and who directed the state subsidies to the music that they preferred – or at least, that they pretended to prefer. From the time (1959) when the modernist critic Sir William Glock took over the musical direction of BBC’s Third Programme, only the second kind of contemporary music was broadcast over the airwaves in Britain. Composers like Vaughan Williams were marginalised, and experimental voices given an airing in proportion to their cacophony. During the 1950s there also grew up in Darmstadt a wholly new pedagogy of music, under the aegis of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Composition, as taught by Stockhausen, consisted in random outbursts that could be described, without too much strain, as groans wrapped in mathematics. The result makes little or no sense to the ear, but often fascinates the eye with its nests of black spiders, as in the scores for Stockhausen’s Gruppen or the 6th String Quartet by Brian Ferneyhough.
The trick was successful. Stockhausen’s works received and still receive extensive, usually state-subsidised performances all across the world. His older Austrian contemporary, Gottfried von Einem, who was at the time writing powerful operas in a tonal idiom influenced by Stravinsky and Prokoviev, was in comparison ignored, not because his music is trivial, but because he was perceived to be out of touch with the new musical culture and exhibiting dangerous vestiges of the romantic worldview.
Those days are past. It is now permissible to like Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, and to believe that they are superior – which they clearly are – to Stockhausen and Boulez. It is permissible to reject the notion that tonality was made irrelevant by the atonal school, and to recognise that some of the greatest works in the tonal tradition were composed in the middle of the 20th century: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for example, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Britten’s Peter Grimes, major symphonies by Shostakovitch and Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Appalachian Spring. Some of these – the Rachmaninoff and the Strauss – could be seen as extracting unexploited remainders from the tonal tradition. Others – Britten and Copland – were more actively engaged in renewing the tonal tradition, drawing out new kinds of melodic line and novel harmonic sequences.
In The Philosophy of Modern Music (1958) Theodor Adorno argued that tonality was nothing but the exhausted remainder of a dead tradition. But by the time he wrote it was atonality and not tonality that was exhausted. The radical modernist idiom was kept going by Darmstadt, by the system of official patronage and by the fact that real musical education, which used to be a household requirement, had been effectively destroyed by the invention of broadcasting and recording, so that few people felt confident in questioning the radical avant-garde. But the real experiments – those that drew freely on the tonal tradition and on the eclectic spirit of Western civilisation, like the Turangalila Symphony of Messiaen, the remarkable Star-Child oratorio by George Crumb, and the triple concerto of Michael Tippett – entered the repertoire without any need for the critical hype and institutional support enjoyed by Stockhausen and Boulez.
There is another reason for the brief ascendancy in those days of the avant-garde, and one that bears heavily on the future of Western music. During the course of the 20th century a wholly new kind of popular music emerged. Nobody can say, in retrospect, that the waltzes and polkas of Strauss or the operettas of Léhar and Offenbach belong to another language and another culture than the symphonies of Brahms or the music dramas of Wagner. Strauss (father and son), Léhar, Offenbach are now counted in the “classical” repertoire, just as much as Wagner, Brahms and the other Strauss. And the distinction between popular entertainment and high art is internal to their repertoire: the Overture to Die Fledermaus and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms surely stand side by side. They reach back across a century and a half to the dance suites of Bach and the ballets of Rameau – serious celebrations of joyful and light-hearted ways of being.
Only in the 20th century did popular and serious music finally divide, and the principal reason for this was jazz. The origin of this remarkable idiom is veiled in obscurity, though it is evident that it absorbed, along the way, both the syncopated rhythms of African drum music, the blues notes that come from attempting to unite the pentatonic and the diatonic scales, and the chord grammar of the Negro spirituals. The jazz idiom showed a remarkable ability to develop, so that an entirely new harmonic language grew from it, and soon became the foundation of a new kind of popular song and dance. It was this quintessentially American idiom that most got up the nose of Adorno during his time as an exile in Hollywood, and which served as his proof that tonality was destined to degenerate into short-breathed melodies and repetitious sequences.
It is true that improvisation around a “jazz standard” is a very different thing from the far-ranging musical thinking that we find in the concert-hall. A work that returns constantly to the same source for refreshment, and goes on “forever” precisely because it goes on only for a moment is a very different thing from the symphony that develops thematic material into a continuous musical narrative. But Ravel, Gershwin and Stravinsky showed how to incorporate jazz rhythm and melody and even jazz harmonic sequences into symphonic works that had some of the long-distance complexity of the classical tradition. Meanwhile there emerged a new form of popular music, on the edge of jazz, but reaching into the world of folk melody and light opera. This was the idiom of the Broadway Musical and the American Song Book. Brilliant musicians like Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Richard Rodgers became household names, with songs that our parents knew by heart, and which defined a new kind of taste. This was music to be sung around the house, which normalised the emotions of ordinary people as they endeavoured to cope with the new world of machines, gadgets, social mobility, fast romance, and easy divorce. Thus began the great fracture in the world of music between “pop” and “classical”, in which it became ever more important for the critics to side with the classical tradition, and to find something that distinguished modern composers in that tradition from the “easy listening” and “light music” that filled the suburban bathroom.
For a while, therefore, there was an added motive for composers to take the path of radical modernism, and so to give proof that they belonged to the great tradition of serious musical thinking. A composer like Boulez, ensconced in the madhouse of IRCAM in Paris, could be, as Hamlet put it, “bounded in a nutshell and count himself king of infinite space”. Insulated from the vulgar world of musical enjoyment, sending out musical spells into the electronic ether, the composer began to live in a world of his own. That it should be Boulez who received the accolades and not Maurice Duruflé or Henri Dutilleux is explained by the enormous publicity value of difficulty, when difficulty is subsidised by the state. The radical modernists had succeeded in persuading the official bodies that they were keeping alive the flame of high art in the face of an increasingly degenerate pop culture. And for a while, following the transformation of rhythm and blues into a universal idiom of song and dance by Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, it seemed as though they were right. What did this new popular music have to do even with the comparatively refined language and domestic charm of the Broadway musical, still less with the symphonic and operatic traditions?
But then the whole thing collapsed. Impassable divides have an ability to survive in the old hierarchical culture of Europe; but they don’t last for long in America. Composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass had no desire to separate from their hippy friends, or to lose the most important benefit that makes the life of a composer worthwhile, namely money, and the audience that provides it. There emerged the new idiom of minimalism, in which the harmonic complexities of the modernists and those of the great jazz musicians like Monk, Tatum, and Peterson were both rejected in favour of simple tonal triads, often repeated ad nauseam on mesmeric instruments like marimbas. The result, to my ear utterly empty and the best argument for Boulez that I have yet encountered, succeeded in entering the repertoire and gaining a young and enthusiastic audience. This music is written for the concert hall, but uses the devices of pop: mechanical rhythm, unceasing repetition, fragmented and constantly repeated melodic lines, and a small repertoire of chords constantly returning to the starting point. It has joined the world of “easy listening”.
Whether Reich and Glass entitle us to talk of a new and “postmodern” idiom in the world of serious music I doubt. For this is not serious music, but a kind of musical void. Listening to Glass’s opera Ekhnaton, for instance, you will be tempted to agree with Adorno, that the musical idiom (let’s not speak of the drama) is utterly exhausted. But then along came John Adams, whose mastery of orchestration and knowledge of real tonal harmony began to redeem the minimalist idiom, and to bring it properly into the concert hall. And other American composers followed suit – Torke, Del Tredici, Corigliano, Daugherty – writing “tonal music with attitude”, inserting advanced harmonic episodes into structures that make thematic and rhythmical sense. In Britain a new wave of tonal composers has also emerged, some of them – like James Macmillan, Oliver Knussen, and David Matthews beginning as radical modernists – but all moving along the path mapped out by the great Benjamin Britten, out of the modernist desert into an oasis where the birds still sing. Such composers learned the lesson taught (however clumsily) by Reich and Glass, which is that music is nothing without an audience, and that the audience must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues and sarabandes – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention. And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must.
One can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects
Important composers, from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Ligeti and Stockhausen, have been premiered in this place and before this audience. Along with Darmstadt, Donaueschingen has helped to restore Germany to the central place in European musical culture that it has occupied in the past and will always deserve. Now, in its latest and securest phase as the Musiktage, the Donaueschingen festival has become a symbol of musical modernism, and it is a great honour to be invited to speak from this podium to one of the most educated musical audiences in the world today. But in this short talk I will try to outline why I question the prominence in our musical culture of the experimental avant-garde.
In 1860 Wagner published a now famous pamphlet entitled The Music of the Future – Zukunftmusik. In it he expressed his view that it was not enough for music to be merely contemporary – zeitgenössisch; it had to be ahead of itself, summoning from the future the forms that already lay there in embryo. And of course Wagner was entitled to write in this way, given what he had achieved in Tristan und Isolde, which was finished the year before his essay appeared, and which introduced the chromatic syntax that was to change the course of musical history.
We should not forget, however, the wider context of Wagner’s argument. The obsession with the future comes from Ludwig Feuerbach, and ultimately from Hegel’s philosophy of history, which represents human events as motivated by the always-advancing logic of the dialectic. For Hegel history has a direction, and this direction is revealed in laws, institutions, and sciences, as well as in literature, art, and music. Each period is characterised by its Zeitgeist, shared among all the products of the culture.
In Feuerbach the Zeitgeist idea is allied to the belief in progress, understood in terms of the life and energy of human communities. The future, Feuerbach believed, is not merely a development of the past; it is better than the past. It marks an increase in knowledge and therefore in power over our own destiny and therefore in freedom. It is not easy now, after the communist and fascist experiments, to endorse the belief in progress that they both so vehemently shared. But somehow, in the arts, the belief survives. We spontaneously incline to the view that each artistic form and style must be superseded as soon as it appears, and that the true values of art require constant vigilance against the diseases of nostalgia and pastiche. Each composer faces the challenge: why should I listen to you? And each claims originality, authenticity, the plain fact of being me, as a vindication. Hence each tries to avoid repeating what has been done already or relying on formulae that, by dint of over-use, have become clichés. In everyday life clichés may be useful, since they evoke stock reactions and settled beliefs. In art, however, clichés are inherently meaningless, since they place mechanical reactions where real inspiration should be.
Wagner’s emphasis on the future of music was influenced by the Hegelian theory of history and Feuerbach’s use of it. But it was also rooted in a real sense of tradition and what tradition means. His innovations grew organically from the flow of Western music, and his harmonic discoveries were discoveries only because they also affirmed the basic chord-grammar of diatonic tonality. They were discoveries within the extended tonal language. Wagner was aware of this, and indeed dramatized the predicament of the modern composer in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is his own striking reflection on ‘tradition and the individual talent.’ In that opera the plodding C major tonality of the Mastersingers is brought to life, not by remaking it entirely, but by moving it onwards, through the use of chromatic voice-leading, altered chords and a new kind of melody in which boundaries are fluid and phrases can be repeated and varied at liberty within them. In the course of the opera the chorus brings the new melody and the old harmony into creative relation, and the work ends jubilantly, with the new incorporated and the old renewed. This is nothing like the radical avant-garde departures that have dominated music in more recent times.
Right up until Schoenberg’s experiments with serialism, musical innovation in the realm of ‘classical’ music proceeded in Wagner’s way. New harmonies, scales, and melodic ensembles were imported into the traditional musical grammar, new rhythms and time-signatures were adopted, and with Stravinsky and Bartók organisation was inspired more by dance than by the classical forms. Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s introduction of the octatonic scale led to music in which, while there was melodic and harmonic progression, there was often no clear tonic, or two competing tonics, as in much of the Rite of Spring. Schoenberg wrote of ‘floating tonality,’ others of atonality, meaning the loss of the sense of key, and the use of harmonies which, even if tied to each other by voice-leading, seemed to be unrelated and, by the old standards, ungrammatical.
None of that involved any rejection of the classical tradition: composers like Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky were renewing that tradition, and what they wrote was not merely recognizable to the ordinary educated listener, but also interesting and challenging on account of its new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmical devices. Both the continuous development of the romantic symphony in Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, and the incorporation of modernist devices into the tonal language, lay within the scope of the existing language: these were developments that issued naturally from the pattern of musical discovery that has characterised Western classical music from the Renaissance.
As things stand now, however, there is absolutely no guarantee that a new work of music will be recognized as such by the educated musical ear, or that it will be possible to hear it as an addition to the great tradition of symphonic sound. A radical break seems to have occurred, with two consequences that the listening public find difficult to absorb: first, modern works of music tend to be self-consciously part of an avant-garde, never content to belong to the tradition but always overtly and ostentatiously defying it; second, these works seem to be melodically impoverished, and even without melody entirely, relying on sound effects and acoustical experiments to fill the void where melody should be. I don’t say the emphasis on acoustics is necessarily a fault from the artistic point of view. I draw your attention to the example we heard yesterday, when Nathan Davies used live filtering to give the effect of resonators, extracting tones from white noise, and turning those tones towards music. The effect was undeniably striking, at times entrancing: as though the tones were being purified so that they can be used as though new. But until those tones are used, and used in melodic and harmonic structures, the result will remain at a distance from the audience, outside the reach of our musical affections. It is only the loved and repeated repertoire that will ensure the survival of music, and to be loved and repeated music requires a dedicated audience. Music exists in the ear of the listener, not on the page of the score, nor in the world of pure sound effects. And listeners, deterred by the avant-garde, are in ever-shorter supply: not in Donaueschingen, of course, but in the wider culture of our cities, where music will survive or die.
I identify four developments that have led to the place where we now are. Thanks to these developments a new kind of music has emerged which is less music than a reflection upon music, or perhaps even a reflection on the lack of music, or on the impossibility of music in the age in which we live.
The first development is, in many ways, the most interesting from the philosophical point of view, and this is the radical attack on tonality by Theodor Adorno and his immediate followers. Although Adorno linked his argument to his advocacy of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism, the force of the argument is largely negative. It concerned what he was against, rather than what he was for. And Adorno’s argument carried weight in the post-war period because he was an ardent critic of the culture of capitalism, one who had attempted to adapt the Marxist critique of bourgeois society to the new social and political realities. Adorno’s critique of tonality was part of a systematic theory of the death of bourgeois culture. Tonality had to die because the bourgeois order had to die. And the desire nevertheless to cling to tonality, in the manner of Sibelius or Copland, even in the manner of the neo-classical Stravinsky, is bound to lead, Adorno thought, to empty clichés or sterile kitsch. Such is the inevitable result of attempting to make use of an idiom that has died.
This argument of Adorno’s, which is an application of the Hegelian Zeitgeist theory, is not easily answered, even if it is easily doubted. All artistic people are aware that styles, idioms and forms are living things that can also die, and that there is a need, integral to the artistic enterprise as such, to ‘make it new.’ This does not mean being iconoclastic or radical in the manner of the modernist avant-garde. It means conveying a message and an inspiration of one’s own. The true work of art says something new, and is never a patchwork of things already said. This is the case even when the work employs an idiom already perfected by others, as when Mozart, in his string quartets, writes in the language of Haydn.
Thomas Mann wrote a great novel about this, Doktor Faustus, meditating on the fate of Germany in the last century. Mann takes the tradition of tonal music as both a significant part of our civilisation, and a symbol of its ultimate meaning. Music is the Faustian art par excellence, the defiant assertion of the human voice in a cosmos of unknowable silence. Mann therefore connects the death of the old musical language with the death of European civilisation. And he re-imagines the invention of twelve-tone serialism as a kind of demonic response to the ensuing sense of loss. Music is to be annihilated, re-made as the negation of itself. The composer Adrian Leverkühn, in the grip of demonic possession, sets out to ‘take back the Ninth Symphony.’ Such is the task that Mann proposes to his devil-possessed composer, and one can be forgiven for thinking that there are composers around today who have made this task their own.
This brings me to the second development that has fed into the obsession with the avant-garde, and that is the invention of serialism. I call this an invention, rather than a discovery, in order to record the wholly a priori nature of the serial system. The new harmonies and chromatic melodies of Tristan were discoveries: musical events that came into being by experiment, and were adopted because they sounded right. In retrospect you can give quasi-mathematical accounts of what Wagner was doing in the first bars of Tristan. But you can be sure that you will not thereby be identifying Wagner’s own creative process, which was one of trying out new combinations and seeing where they lead.
By contrast, serial organisation was an invention – a set of a priori rules laid down by Schoenberg and adapted and varied by his successors. These rules were to provide a non-tonal grammar for music, determining what comes next independently of whether its coming next sounds right or wrong to the normal musical ear. It is not the tone or the scale but the maths that matters. There is no reason, of course, to think that serial organization should not also lead to sequences that do sound right, or come to sound right in time. But their sounding right is quite independent of the serial organisation.
One of the advantages of working with a framework of a priori rules is that you can say just why this note occurs in just this place: the series requires it. But in another sense you lack such an answer, since the series requires the note regardless of the heard relation to its predecessor. Moreover the grammar of serialism is not based on the scale or any other way of grouping tones dynamically, in terms of what leads to what. A series is the basis for permutations, not linear movements. In listening to music, however, we listen out for progression, prolongation, question and answer – all the many ways in which one tone summons another as its natural successor. Serialism asks us to hear in another way, with the brain rather than the ear in charge.
The result of this is that, while we can enjoy and be moved by serial compositions, this is largely because we hear them as organised as tonal music is organized, so that ‘next’ sounds ‘right.’ We may notice the serial structure; but it is the progressive, linear structure that we enjoy. In a great serial composition, such as the Berg Violin Concerto, we hear harmonies, melodies, sequences, and rhythmical regularities, just as in the great works of the tonal tradition, and we do so because we are hearing against the serial order. It is as though the composer, having bound himself in chains, is able nevertheless to dance in them, like a captive bear.
The third development, associated particularly with Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono, is the move towards total serialisation. Composers decided to serialise time values, unpitched sounds, and timbres, hoping thereby to exert total control over everything. Interestingly enough this development went hand in hand with the emergence of aleatoric scores, in which instrumentalists are handed bundles of notes that they could choose to assemble in any order, or scores which ask for indeterminate sounds. Randomisation had the same effect as serialisation, which was to deprive musical elements of their intrinsic ways of relating to each other. Whether we impose a dictatorial serial order, or present notes in unordered bundles, we undo the demands of melody, harmony and rhythm, which are inherent in the traditional grammar, and replace them with systematic requirements that can be explained intellectually but not, as a rule, heard musically.
In 1970 Stockhausen composed a two-piano piece, Mantra, for this festival. In a subsequent lecture delivered in Britain, which can be seen on YouTube, he sets out the twelve-tone series on which the piece is based. He plays the notes one after another, assigning an equal time-value to each, and tells us that this melody occurred to him at a certain point, and that he decided to work on it, composing flights of new notes around each of its elements, arranging the series in conjunction with its own retrograde, and so on. What was most striking to me about Stockhausen’s description of what he was doing was the word ‘melody,’ used of this sequence that is not a melody at all. Of course there are twelve-tone melodies – for example the beautiful melody that Berg assigns to his destructive heroine Lulu in the opera of that name. But all that makes sequences into melodies is absent from Stockhausen’s theme: it has no beginning, no end, no up-beat, no tension or release, no real contour apart from its pure geometrical outline. It is a musical object, but not a musical subject. And as he explains what is done with it you understand that it is treated as an object too – a piece of dead tissue to be cut up beneath the microscope. We understand the distinction between subject and object because we ourselves exemplify it. The true musical theme is a subject in something like the sense that I am a subject: it has a consciousness of itself, a meaning and a point of view. This is simply not true of the helpless dead sequence that Stockhausen presents us in his lecture.
The effect of such innovations was to replace the experience of music by the concept of music. The typical avant-garde work is designed as the concept of itself, and often given some portentous title by way of illustrating the point, like Stockhausen’s Gruppen: a work for three orchestras in which notes are amalgamated into groups according to their acoustical properties, and tempos are defined logarithmically. Much can be said, and has been said, about this momentous, not to say megalomaniac, composition, and indeed its great success, like that of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, is not independent of the fact that there is so much to say about it, some of which Stockhausen himself had anticipated in his article ‘wie die Zeit vergeht..’, published in the third issue of Die Reihe. The score is not a notation of musically organized sounds, but a mathematical proof, from which the sounds can be deduced as theorems.
The eclipse of art by the concept of art occurred at around the same time in the visual arts, and for a while the game was amusing and intriguing. However, this particular bid for originality has dated much more rapidly than any of the harmonic discoveries of the late romantics. Do it once, and you have done it for all time. This is certainly what we have seen in the realm of conceptual art in our museums and galleries. And it is what we have heard in the concert hall too. In conceptual music the creative act is always, from the musical point of view, the same, namely the act of putting an idea about music in the place where music should be.
This leads me to the fourth development, which is in many ways the most interesting, namely the replacement of tones by sounds, and musical by acoustical hearing. Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer and their immediate successors awoke composers and audiences to the many new sounds, some of them produced electronically, that could enter the space of music without destroying its intrinsic order. These experiments are not what I have in mind when referring to the replacement of tones by sounds and musical by acoustical hearing. I am thinking of a more general transition, from Tonkunst to Klangkunst, to use the German expressions – a transition of deep philosophical significance, between two ways of hearing, and two responses to what is heard.
Sounds are objects in the physical world, albeit objects of a special kind whose nature and identity is bound up with the way they are perceived. Tones are what we hear in sounds when we hear the sounds as music. They have features that no sound can possess – such as movement, gravitational attraction, weight, and position in a one-dimensional space. They exemplify a special kind of organisation – an organisation that we hear and which exists only for someone who can hear it. (Someone might be an expert at hearing pitched sounds, and may even be gifted with absolute pitch, but still be ‘tone deaf,’ since unable to hear the musical organisation. Sequences don’t sound right to such a person, because they never sound wrong.)
The object of musical hearing is organised by metaphors of space and movement that correspond to no material realities. Music goes up and down, it leads and follows; it is dense, translucent, heavy, light; it encounters obstacles and crashes through them, and sometimes it comes to an end which is the end of everything. Those metaphors, and the order derived from them, are shared by all musical people. The order that we hear is an order that we – the musical public – hear, when we hear these sounds as music. And although there is, at any moment, an indefinite number of ways in which a melodic line or a chord sequence can continue without sounding wrong, the ideal in our tradition has been of an uninterrupted sense of necessity – each melodic and harmonic step following as though by logic from its predecessor, and yet with complete freedom.
When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves.
Of course there are sound effects too: sounds from the real world intrude into music, like the unpitched sounds of the percussion section, or the recorded bird-song that intrudes into Respighi’s Pines of Rome. But when we hear these sounds as part of the music they change character. They are no long noises, no longer events in the ambient soundscape, like the coughs from the audience on a cold winter’s day. They are caught up in the musical movement, becoming one with it, and dependent on the forward propulsion of which they are now a part. Thus a single piece of music, with no repeats, may nevertheless contain multiply repeated sequences of sounds. As objects in the material world sounds are identified and counted in another way from the way in which melodies, which are intentional and not material objects, are counted.
The intrusion of acoustical ways of thinking into the practice and teaching of music is something we owe to Boulez and Stockhausen, and to the educational practises that they established. In Stockhausen sounds from everyday life are accorded exactly the same value as sounds within music – they are, as it were, invited in from the surrounding world, as in the work Momente, in which all kinds of sounds and speech-forms are brought together in a potpourri of fragments. As Stockhausen himself says, this work has no real beginning and no end: like all his works it starts without beginning and finishes without ending. For it lacks those elements of musical grammar that make beginnings and endings perceivable. It starts nowhere and stays at nowhere until ending nowhere. The same is true of Boulez’s Pli selon pli, in which the exotic instrumentation and serial organisation do not conceal the fact that no moment in this work has any intrinsic connection to the moment that comes next. The experience of ‘next,’ and the inevitability of the next, has been chased away. In a concert devoted to music of this kind the audience can know that the piece is ended only because the performers are putting down their instruments.
Music (music of our classical tradition included) has until now consisted of events that grow organically from each other, over a repeated measure and according to recognizable harmonic sequences. The ‘moving forward’ of melodic lines through musical space is the true origin of musical unity and of the dramatic power of traditional music. And it is this ‘moving forward’ that is the first casualty when pitches and tempi are organised serially, and when sounds are invited in from outside the music. Add the acoustical laboratory and the result is all too often heard as arbitrary – something to be deciphered, rather than something to be absorbed and enjoyed in the manner of a conversation.
This is not to say that acoustical processing may not have a part, and an important part, to play in bringing sounds into a musical structure. Joanna Bailie, to take just one example, has used the recorded and digitally processed sounds culled in public spaces as inputs into music for which instrumentalists and singers create the musical frame. The atmospheric effect of this was heard here in Donaueschingen a day ago. However, in the work of such composers we see the reassertion of the musical against the acoustical ear, and perhaps even a path back to the place where music reigns in a space of its own.
All those four developments are of the greatest musicological interest, and I do not deny that they can be used effectively, to produce works of real musical power. But it is also clear to my way of thinking that they are responsible for a growing gap between serious music and the audience on which it depends, not necessarily financially (since after all there is a massive machinery of subsidy that keeps the avant-garde in business), but at least spiritually. If avant-garde music is ever to step down from the world of concepts into the world of tones, then it will be because the audience exists in whose ears this transition can occur. Take away the audience and you take away the concrete reality of music as an art. You turn music into an arcane exercise in the acoustical laboratory, in which groups of patient instrumentalists pump out sounds according to formulae which mean nothing, since meaning lies in the ears that have fled from the scene. Of course, not here in Donaueschingen, where the distinctive physiognomy of the avant-garde ear is very apparent all around us.
It is not enough to say that, of course. Adorno may have been right that the old grammar was exhausted, that post-romantic harmony had taken tonality as far as it could go, and that music must therefore find another way into the future, whether or not led by the avant-garde. The great question that we must still confront is whether rhythm, melody, and harmony are still available to us, in whatever modified forms, as we endeavour to write music that will be not only interesting, as so much avant-garde music undeniably is, but also enjoyable and calling out for repetition. We all know Schoenberg’s remark, that there is plenty of music still to be written in C major. But where is that music? Or rather, where is that way of writing, downstream from C major, that will restore to C major its undeniable authority for all of us, as it was restored by the final chords of Die Meistersinger?
Two aspects of modern culture place obstacles in front of us, as we search for the new idiom that will renew our musical tradition. One is the insistent presence of easy music; the other is the dictatorship exerted on behalf of difficult music. By easy music I mean the ubiquitous products of pop and rock, which influence the ears and the attention-span of young people long before they can be captured by a teacher. The audience for new music must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord-grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues, and sarabands – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body, and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention. And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must.
Americans tend to accept popular music and the culture around it, as providing the raw material on which the serious composer gets to work. From Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the flat-footed dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen. There is a lesson to be taken from this, which is that music is tested in the ear of the listener and not in the laboratory, and the ear of the listener is plastic, moulded both by the surrounding culture and by the everyday sounds of life as it is now. In a way Stockhausen acknowledged this, with his works that snatch sounds from the surrounding world, and work them into his quasi-mathematical textures. But the textures are feeble, with no musical propulsion, no intrinsic ‘next’ to bind one event to its neighbours. Adams wished to provide that propulsion, into which the sounds of the modern world could be dropped and immediately reshaped as music. But maybe there is something mechanical here too – an ostinato that uses rhythmic pulse to carry us through whatever harmonic and melodic weaknesses we might otherwise hear in the score.
The contrary obstacle also lies before us: the dictatorship of the difficult. Bureaucrats charged with giving support to the arts are, today, frightened of being accused of being reactionary. I suspect that everyone in this room is frightened of being accused of being reactionary. The history of the French salons in the 19th century, and of the early reactions to musical and literary modernism, has made people aware of how easy it is to miss the true creative product, and to exalt the dead and the derivative in its stead. The safest procedure for the anxious bureaucrat is to subsidize music that is difficult, unlikely to be popular, even repugnant to the ordinary musical ear. Then one is sure to be praised for one’s advanced taste and up-to-date understanding. Besides, if a work of music is easy to assimilate and clearly destined to be popular it does not need a subsidy in any case.
It is surely in this way that Boulez rose to such an eminence in France. In a book published in 1995: Requiem pour une avant-garde, Benoît Duteurtre tells the story of the steady takeover by Boulez and his entourage of the channels of musical and cultural communication, and their way of establishing a dictatorship of the difficult at the heart of the subsidy machine. At the same time as vilifying his opponents and anathematising tonal music and its late offshoots in Duruflé and Dutilleux, Boulez achieved a cultural coup d’état, which was the founding of IRCAM. This institution, created by and for him at the request of President Pompidou in 1970 reveals in its name – Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique – that it does not distinguish between sound and tone, between Klangkunst and Tonkunst, and sees both as matters for ‘research.’ Maintained by government funds in the basement of its architectural equivalent, the Centre Pompidou, and absorbing a substantial proportion of a budget that might have been used to sustain the provincial orchestras of France, IRCAM has produced a stream of works without survival value. Despite all Boulez’s efforts, musical people still believe, and rightly, that the test of a work of music is how it sounds, not how it is theorized. But only if it sounds difficult, disturbing, ‘challenging,’ ‘transgressive’ could a bureaucrat dare to provide it with a subsidy.
And this is why it is good that this festival exists. Even if it depends on the support of state institutions, it is also addressed to the musical public: it is an invitation to people to make their feelings known, and to make judgments for themselves – which is what I have been doing. It has played a part in exposing the avant-garde to judgment, and also in giving opportunities to young musicians to wrestle with difficult music and to find what inspired it. This place is testimony to the crucial relation between the work of music and its audience. It is proof that there can be an avant-garde in music only if there is an avant-garde audience to listen to it. Whatever the results, you are that audience and far more practised at stretching your ears in new directions than I am. I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences, with a beginning, a middle and an end, sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that even if they never hear the piece again, they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning. It seems to me that, if there is, now, to be a music of the future it will, in that way, belong with the music of the past.
Two Greek words define my topic: nostos and oikos. The first—from which we have ‘nostalgia’—denotes return to the home, and it is the great theme of Homer’s Odyssey. The second—from which we have ‘economy’—denotes the home itself, conceived as a place of settlement, to be defended against marauders and also opened to friends and guests. The most basic social needs and sentiments are summoned by these words, and if we are now living in conditions of hyper-mobility, in which no one is settled deeply enough or for long enough to enjoy the sense of home, then it is not surprising that we are also living in a condition of intense nostalgia. We are constantly seeking for the place of rest, the refuge from change and stress and fleetingness, the condition in which we will be ‘restored to ourselves.’ Some seek this place in the past, believing that we must return to a simpler and more tranquil way of doing things. Others seek it in the future, believing that the stress of competition and mobility is something to be ‘overcome.’ Few if any find the place of refuge in the present.
When Wilhelm Röpke set out to write his defence of the ‘humane economy’ he had fallen under the spell of the Austrian school—of Mises and Hayek especially—whose defence of the market against state planning and socialist distribution had taken on a new credibility in the light of the tyranny and economic disorder of the Bolshevik experiment. At the same time Röpke was aware that markets are not enough. They do not guarantee the goal of economic activity, which is the oikos, the place of settlement and security where people are at home with each other and at peace with their neighbours. The market mechanism may not be sufficient for social order, but it is necessary, for all the reasons spelled out by the Austrians. Only in a market economy can prices serve as a guide to the scarcity of goods, or wages a guide to the supply of labour. Only in a market economy can individuals plan their own budgets and make rational choices for the deployment of their assets, their labour and their bargaining skills. The argument developed by Mises in his critique of socialism was, Röpke thought, demonstrative. The centrally planned economy destroyed the information on which rational economic decisions depend. This information is available in the form of prices and contracts in a free economy; but it is irretrievably dispersed by the attempt to dictate all economic factors from on high.
I don’t think that anyone who has followed the careful arguments of Mises and Hayek would doubt the point. Nor was it a point that Röpke wished to labour. Röpke’s interest was in the oikos, which he believed to be threatened from above by the state—something that he had seen at first hand with his experiences of the Nazis—and also threatened from below, by the anarchy of unbridled self-interest.
It is fairly normal, nowadays, for left-liberal thinkers to pay lip-service to the Hayekian theory of the market. Yes, they will say; the market is necessary as a transmitter of economic signals. And yes, without markets economies have no ready way to regain equilibrium in the wake of a disturbance. But markets have no respect for social order; they neither generate nor perpetuate the sense of community on which we all depend. They depend upon and encourage both self-interest and competition, and regard nothing as sacred, nothing as beyond the reach of buying and selling. Is it surprising, therefore, if capitalist societies today are witnessing social breakdown on a hitherto unimaginable scale, as the pursuit of self-interest drives all concern for the community from the thoughts and emotions of consumers? Isn’t the ‘consumer society’ precisely what we must expect, from a philosophy which makes ‘consumer sovereignty’ into the first principle of economic life?
Röpke would have endorsed some of that. But he was determined not to draw the conclusion that left-liberal thinkers draw, namely that we need to control the market through the state. Powers exercised by the state, he believed, inevitably end up in the hands of unanswerable bureaucrats, and can also never be recaptured by society, whatever the extent of their abuse. If the market needs to be constrained for the common good, then the constraint must come from below, not from above. It must be a social constraint, rather than a political constraint. And thus was born the idea of a ‘social market’ economy—an idea which was to influence German ministers of finance throughout the period of reconstruction following the end of the Second World War. Röpke, who had fled from Nazi Germany to Switzerland, believed that he had found a model for the social market, in the Swiss forms of local democracy. He was also (although of Protestant background) strongly influenced by the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular by the doctrine of ‘subsidiarity’ expounded in the encyclical Quadragesimo anno, which Pope Pius XI issued in 1931. Pius intended this as a description of the Church’s own organisation, through the episcopate, according to which decisions are always taken at the ‘subsidiary’ level—the lowest level compatible with unified government. But he also implied that economic and political life might be similarly organized, so that power was always passed up from the bottom and never imposed from above.
All that might seem like a call for the empowerment of civil society rather than the state, and so it was interpreted by Röpke, who took it as foundational for his doctrine of ‘decentrism.’ However, it should be noted that Quadragesimo anno marked the first intrusion of genuinely socialist ideas into the teachings of the Church. Economic freedom, the encyclical argued, does not lead of its own accord to the common good, but stands in need of a ‘true and effective directing principle,’ and that principle is ‘social justice.’ Behind that phrase there lurks the whole egalitarian agenda which, in search of an ‘equality of condition,’ looks eventually to the state to impose it. Interestingly enough the first draft of the encyclical was composed by Oswald von Nell-Breuning SJ, professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School in Frankfurt, and a thinker deeply influenced by Marx’s theory of exploitation. And in due course the term ‘subsidiarity’ was to enjoy a second life through the European Union, whose official documents declare that all decisions must be taken at the subsidiary level, while reserving to the unelected and largely unaccountable European Commission the privilege of deciding what level that might be.
It is not Röpke’s fault that he was thinking in a context in which socialist ideas had become common currency. But many of those whom he immediately influenced were unaware of the poisonous nature of the ‘weasel word “social”,’ as Hayek was later to call it—meaning a word that sucks the meaning from every term to which it is attached, ‘as a weasel sucks eggs.’ Social justice, as now understood, is no more a form of justice than fools’ gold is a form of gold. It is not what justice was for Aristotle and Ulpian—a matter of giving to each his due, taking account of rights, obligations, and deserts. Social justice, as commonly understood, means the reorganization of society, with the state in charge—there being no other agent with the requisite power or authority—and with equality as the ultimate goal. The social market economy is no more a market economy than social justice is a form of justice. As it has developed, in Germany and France, the social market has become a statist institution, heavily regulated from above, in the interests of powerful lobbies such as the trade unions and the welfare bureaucracy. It is suspicious of private property and free enterprise, is obsessively concerned with equal partnership, and is receptive to every kind of egalitarian dogma. Under the aegis of the social market the state has expanded to the point of controlling more than half of GDP in France and employing more than half of the working population. It has so stifled the economy of Germany that now some 20% of transactions in that once law-abiding country occur in the black economy. And it is steadily making Europe as a whole uncompetitive.
Maybe this story doesn’t need to be told to the present audience. But it is worth noting a few marginal details. Quadragesimo anno introduced two concepts that became critical in our time—social justice, and subsidiarity. Both purport to be about society, its rights, duties, and freedoms. But both are actually about the state. And their history shows how easily the concepts advanced to defend society against the state can be turned in the opposite direction, to empower the state against society. One important instance is provided by the European Union, a venture against which Röpke frequently warned, rightly seeing it as a move towards centralisation and a blow to the localism that he supported. (See A Humane Economy, p. 242, and his affirmation, in opposition to the Eurocrats, that ‘decentrism is the essence of the spirit of Europe,’ p. 244.)
The Eurocrats tolds us, when John Major weakly agreed to the Maastricht Treaty, that it was all OK, that national sovereignty would not be sacrificed, that the principle of subsidiarity applied, and that all decisions pertaining to the nation and its specific interests would be taken at the national level, by elected Parliaments. But then comes the catch: it is the European Commission, not the national parliament, which decides that a given issue pertains to the specific interests of a given nation state. National sovereignty is therefore delegated from above, by an unelected Commission which is in the hands of its permanent staff of bureaucrats rather than in those of the sheepish politicians who have been shunted there from parliaments where they are no longer wanted. The principle of ‘subsidiarity,’ which purports to grant powers to local and national bodies, in fact takes them away, ensuring that powers that were once exercised by right are now exercised on sufferance. ‘Subsidiarity’ confiscates sovereignty in the same way that ‘social justice’ confiscates justice, and the ‘social market’ confiscates the market.
So what is the alternative? What was Röpke getting at, and how should we respond to the problems that he wished to address—the problems of social fragmentation and the loss of community feeling, in a world where the market is left to itself? There are those—Milton Friedman, for example, or Murray Rothbard—who have powerfully argued that a genuinely free market will ensure the good government of human communities, through the self-restraining impulse that comes naturally to us. But their arguments, however sophisticated, are addressed to Americans, who live among abundant resources, free from external threat, surrounded by opportunities and in communities where the volunteer spirit survives. And they do not confront the central question, which is how communities renew themselves, and how fundamental flaws in the human constitution, such as resentment, envy, and sexual predation, are to be overcome by something so abstract and neutral as consumer sovereignty and free economic choice.
Röpke’s own idea, if I understand him rightly, was that society is nurtured and perpetuated at the local level, through motives that are quite distinct from the pursuit of rational self-interest. There is the motive of charitable giving, the motives of love and friendship, and the motive of piety. All these grow naturally, and cause us to provide for each other and to shape our environment into a common home. The true oikos is not a cell shut off from the world, in which a solitary individualist enjoys his sovereignty as a consumer. The true oikos is a place of charity and gift, of love, affection, and prayer. Its doors are open to the neighbours, with whom its occupants join in acts of worship, in festivals and ceremonies, in weddings and funerals. Its occupants are not consumers, except obliquely, and by way of replenishing their supplies. They are members of society, and membership is a mutual relation, which cannot be captured in terms of the ‘enlightened self interest’ that is the subject matter of economic theory. For extreme individualists of the Rothbard kind life in society is simply one species of the ‘coordination problem,’ as the game theorists describe it—one area in which my rational self-interest needs to be harmonized with yours. And the market is the only reliable way that we humans know, or could know, of coordinating our goal-directed activities, not only with friends and neighbours, but with all the myriad strangers on whom we depend for the contents of our shopping bags. Membership, if it comes about, is simply another form of quasi-contractual agreement, whereby we freely bind ourselves to mutual rights and duties.
Who is right in this? Well, the position that I have attributed to Röpke is to me transparently obvious, whereas that which I have attributed (for the sake of argument) to Rothbard is to me profoundly mistaken. But two questions arise: how do we spell out, in terms appropriate to modern societies, the implications of the idea of membership that I have attributed to Röpke? And is the dispute here to be defined and fought out in economic terms? In referring to a social market economists leave a large hostage to fortune. For they express the view—endorsed by their socialist opponents—that the ‘social question’ demands an economic solution. And to some extent Röpke should be criticised on this score; he believed that a form of economic order could be developed which would deliver, as a benign by-product, the kind of social cohesion which he had found in the Swiss villages, and which he believed to express the communal heart of European society. This was already to accept one of the most damaging of Marx’s ideas, which is that social institutions are the by-product, rather than the foundation, of the economic order. For if Marx’s view is right, then the cure to social ills must be framed in economic terms. Specifically, if the free market delivers a fragmented society then the solution is to replace the free market with another economic system. And how is that to be done, if not by state action, directing the economy towards defined social goals? All this is contained in that troubling expression ‘a humane economy,’ seeming to imply that it is through economic organization that a society becomes humane, and not—for example—through love, friendship, and the moral law. Röpke intended no such implication; but his style everywhere conveys the tension in his thinking between decentrism, as a social movement, and economic policy. (See especially, pp 241–3.)
Let us return to the first of my questions: how to spell out the picture of social membership that is implied in Röpke’s argument. Röpke is advocating, I believe, a community of attachment, in which people take an altruistic interest in each other’s situation; in which distress summons help and success congratulation; in which primary bonds of love, desire, and friendship find an easy and socially endorsed pathway to fruition; and in which the pursuit of self-interest is circumscribed at every point by a concern for the common good. In so far as Röpke gives any indication of what a ‘humane’ society is, those are the kinds of considerations that he seems to be referring to. So understood social membership cannot be achieved without settlement, meaning a relation among neighbours, who are united less by shared ambitions or shared ways of earning a living, than by shared territory, and all the obligations that go with that. A small and localised community is able to guide people, through its own vigilance, towards honest dealing, both to prevent the exploitation of the weak by the strong and to direct the profits of the wealthy towards the relief of the poor. This happens not because the community is organized economically in some way other than the spontaneous way of the market. It happens because people know each other, share each other’s fortunes, and recognize the penalties of defection. They are subject to common moral pressures, often preached at them in church, mosque, or synagogue, and wish to see virtue rewarded and vice punished and cast out. Their self-perpetuating equilibrium occurs, when it occurs, because conflicts are resolved by the customs and laws which arise spontaneously among neighbours. If they also enjoy a market economy then this is a benefit which operates all the more effectively against such a background of shared moral order.
The Communist Manifesto contains many half-truths. But it also makes an important observation about capitalism, which is that it has an inherent tendency to set human communities in motion, to detach people from the place and status into which they are born, to dissolve all traditional arrangements and replace them with new relationships based in contract rather than inheritance, rendering transitory what had been permanent, and replacing destiny with choice. The picture that Marx and Engels drew was true to the experience of 19th century observers, who saw all around them the crumbling of traditional arrangements and the unsettling of previously settled communities. What was causing the disruption was not, as Marx and the socialists supposed, private property and the market economy—both of which had existed, if truth were told, from the beginning of history, slavery and feudalism being merely local warps in an unbroken continuum. The cause of the disruption was the very same factor that confronts us today, namely globalisation—one person’s ability to contract with another, regardless of all the physical, moral, and spiritual distance between them. Industrialisation was the first step in this direction, enabling rural workers to move to the towns and exchange their labour for a wage. Imperialism was a further step, enabling industries to outsource many of their inputs, and to distribute their goods among distant strangers. And the modern multinational corporations like Beneton, which outsources everything and owns nothing save a brand, is simply the latest move in the same direction—towards an economy in which everything exchanges in response to demand, and where locality and attachment are discounted.
Now I think we should be honest and recognize that we are not, on the whole, happy about this. The anonymity of the global economy goes hand in hand with a spectral quality—a sense that the agents behind every transaction are not creatures of flesh and blood who live in communities but unlocated corporations, who take no real responsibility for producing what they sell but who merely stick their brand on it, so claiming a rent on producer and consumer alike. It is difficult to articulate this complaint, though it has been made, with varying degrees of sarcasm, by Veblen (Theory of the Leisure Class), Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders), David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), J.K. Galbraith (The Affluent Society), and Naomi Klein (No Logo)—the argument advancing step by step in order to accommodate the latest move towards the global economy. This economy is not dislocated, as the 19th century socialists imagined, but unlocated. But it is for this very reason that it troubles us. Economic activity has become detached from the building of communities. We do not know the people who produce our goods; we do not know under what conditions they work, what they believe in or what they hope for. We do not know the people who distribute those goods to us, except as celebrity CEOs of Walmart, McDonalds, Calvin Klein—people who seem miraculously to escape all liability for the goods that they sell, so as to float on clouds of profit above the stock exchange. Local stores and local producers are successively bought up or driven out of business by the anonymous chains. And when a community tries to defend itself against the intruding giant it finds that all the cards are stacked against it, and that yet another anonymous agent, the abstract ‘consumer,’ has already declared a preference for a shopping mall on the doorstep.
And there is another complaint that people make, or which they feel in their hearts even if they haven’t the knowledge to make it, which is that the anonymous corporation, which invests all its capital in a brand, thereby escapes liability for the long term costs of its products. To put the point more exactly, the anonymous corporation can effectively externalize its costs. The cost of producing soya beans in Brazil—the cost in terms of environmental damage, devastation of the landscape, aesthetic pollution and so on—is not witnessed by consumers in the United States nor controlled by US legislation (itself responsive to lobbying from consumers). It is a cost that can be, as it were, left in Brazil—and left to the future generations who will have to bear it. This is a simple example of a practice that is in fact ubiquitous. The real cost of producing packaged food on the supermarket shelf includes the enormous long-term cost of non-bio-degradable packaging, which constitutes 25% by weight of the shopping bag. This cost is not borne by the supermarket or its suppliers. It is borne by all of us, and by our descendants over the next 1,000 years or so. You don’t have to travel far outside a city to know what this particular cost means, and you can read about it in any study of plastic pollution in the oceans. But it is a cost that has been externalized. The personal factors that would compel a trader, in local conditions, to behave properly in this matter are absent. There is no reward for good behaviour, and the costs of bad behaviour can be effectively passed on. It is surely no longer possible to doubt that this is a blatant feature of the global market economy, and one that is seemingly intrinsic to it.
If we take those complaints seriously, as we should, we will recognize the strength in Röpke’s intellectual starting point: which is the small local community, in which economic activity takes place under the vigilant guardianship of the moral sense. But we also recognize, I think, that we cannot return to that community through anything that resembles the ‘social market,’ as adopted by the post-war consensus in Europe. For what the social market amounts to in practice is the intrusion into the economy of another big anonymous entity—the state—which is quite as capable of externalizing its costs as any other. Not only that, but the state can silence its critics as no corporation can.
Thus the social market, as practised in Europe, requires the state to step in and provide for those without work, and to provide for the mothers of children who have no resident father. These are inevitable results of transferring the responsibility for charity from the community to the state, which is itself an inevitable result of the attempt to make a humane economy, rather than a humane society. Here are some of the costs: the growth of an underclass of people who do not work but who find every means to avoid work in order to enjoy the benefits provided by the state; the growth of illegitimacy, as women find an easy way to provide for themselves and their babies, and men an easy way to abandon the women they have impregnated; the growth of anti-social behaviour, as fatherless children are released from the dysfunctional households that produce them; and so on and on. The facts have been effectively documented by Charles Murray and others. And the result is clear: that Charles Murray and those like him could never hope to be employed in the state educational system in Europe, and would be subject to official condemnation by any politician called upon to consider the matter. The state has externalised the costs of its ‘social market’ policies onto society, and the greater the costs the more the state expands with fictitious plans to reduce them. Never has a better machine for expanding the rentier class of bureaucrats been devised than this one, which constantly amplifies the problem that it is established to solve. Hence, as educational achievement declines in Europe, state expenditure on education increases—to the point where, in Britain, there are nearly two bureaucrats for every teacher, appointed to deal with the social problems that they themselves make a living by producing.
These problems are not unknown in the United States, of course. But they have here led to a far-reaching scepticism towards statist solutions, and even, in the case of the Friedmanites, to a certain ‘free market fundamentalism,’ which insists that the market is the solution to these social ills, and not the cause of them. The least we can say is that, as things stand, the ‘social market,’ as practised, is very far from producing the ‘humane economy’ that Röpke hoped for. It may produce a more equal distribution of goods than a totally free economy; but it also produces its own brand of social disintegration, as the state, by expropriating the charitable motive, also extinguishes it. The world of the underclass, as described by Theodore Dalrymple and others, is a world with little in the way of attachment and compassion, and where the virtue of charity is unknown.
What, then, is the real solution to the market-induced disorders of modern society? How do we prevent the globalisation of everything, and the fragmentation of our loyalties and attachments? How do we recover the small platoon, which shapes the moral sense of its members? The answer to these deep questions, it seems to me, is not to be found in any new economic order, but in a restoration of the moral foundations of a market economy. This is something that Röpke saw, and it is why he viewed the emergence of mass society and the atheist norm as such a disaster. The disorders of the global market come about for the same reason as the disorders of the welfare state—because people seize every opportunity to externalize their costs. And they do this because there is no vigilant community which compels them to behave in any other way. We have an instance of this before us today, as the habit of consumer credit, which Röpke abhorred and which in earlier epochs would have been condemned as the most irresponsible form of indebtedness, has finally begun to deliver its inevitable consequences. Conduct which, in the still vigilant communities of Röpke’s days, would have been sufficient grounds for social ostracism, is now regarded as a kind of enviable cleverness—a successful way of putting the cost of your life entirely onto someone else’s shoulders and, if necessary, filing for bankruptcy when the going gets tough. There is no way forward for mankind that does not involve the restoration of that kind of vigilant community. And it can be restored only at the local level, by re-building the forms of social membership.
Can localisation become a policy? Does that suggestion not merely reproduce the problem, by giving a new and over-mastering project to the state? This, it seems to me, is the problem that we now face. We Europeans—victims of the ‘social market’—have no means to replace statist policies without involving the state. Rather than end on that gloomy note, however, I will make a positive observation. When the great rush to the global economy began, in the late 18th century, the state did not have the power or the will to help the victims. Instead they helped themselves. A thousand social initiatives began at the turn of the 19th century—friendly societies offering non-profit loans for house purchase, charitable hospitals and networks of doctors, Church schools and village schools funded by subscription, Mechanics Institutes (later to become universities), not to speak of the clubs and societies of enthusiasts devoted to communal leisure. The reality of this is known to us full well from 19th century novels. And here in America, in the heart of the global economy, these initiatives still exist. They exist because the state has not expropriated the charitable motive, because people can give freely what they freely earn, and because there are still local loyalties which are the foundation of social hope. These initiatives should be the model for the ‘humane economy,’ which will be humane not because of the economy, but in spite of it.
Once upon a time, there was an outlook called “humanism”. In one sense there still is: it is a name given these days to a movement of organized, sometimes militant, opposition to religious belief, in particular to Christianity. What was more or less the same movement used to go under a name equally inherited from the past of philosophy, which was “Rationalism.” In Britain atheist organizations under these different names have existed at the same time, and I believe that one man, who wrote indefatigably to the newspapers, may once have been secretary of them both.
It is not “humanism” in any such sense that I shall be concerned with, but I will make one point about it, because it is relevant to questions about our ethical outlook and the role played in it by the idea of humanity, which are the questions that I do want to discuss. Humanism in the sense of militant atheism encounters an immediate and very obvious paradox. Its speciality lies not just in being atheist—there are all sorts of ways of being that—but in its faith in humanity to flourish without religion; moreover, in the idea that religion itself is peculiarly the enemy of human flourishing. The general idea is that if the last remnants of religion could be abolished, humankind would be set free and would do a great deal better. But the outlook is stuck with the fact that on its own submission this evil, corrupting, and pervasive thing, religion, is itself a human invention: it certainly did not come from anywhere else. So humanists in this atheist sense should ask themselves: if humanity has invented something as awful as they take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?
However, that is not the subject. The time I have got in mind is that of the Renaissance. The term, at that time, applied in the first place to new schemes of education emphasising the Latin classics and the tradition of rhetoric, but it came to apply more broadly to a variety of philosophical movements. There was an increase in intensified interest in human nature. One form of this was a new tradition inaugurated perhaps by Petrarch; of writings about the dignity and excellence of human beings, or, as the tradition inevitably put it, of man. These ideas were certainly not original with the Renaissance. Many of the arguments were already familiar: for instance, the Christian argument that the superiority of man or human beings was shown by the choice of a human being to be the vehicle of the incarnation; or the older idea which goes back at least to Protagoras as he is presented by Plato that humans have fewer natural advantages, fewer defences, for instance, than other animals, but that they or more than compensated for this by the gift of reason and cognition.
Others, of course, took a gloomier view of human powers and potentialities. Montaigne wondered how peculiar human beings were and he was a lot less enthusiastic about the peculiarities they had. But whether the views were positive and celebratory, or more sceptical and pessimistic, there was one characteristic of almost all those views shared with each other, and they shared it too with traditional Christianity and this was hardly surprising, since virtually everyone in the Renaissance influenced by humanism was some sort of Christian”.
For a start, almost everyone believed that human beings were literally at the centre of the universe, with the exceptions perhaps of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno who thought there was no centre to the universe. Besides that purely topographical belief, however, there was a more basic assumption that in cosmic terms, human beings had a definite measure of importance. In most of these outlooks, the assumption was that that measure of human being’s importance was high, that humans were particularly important in relation to the scheme of things. Well, that is most obviously true of the more celebratory version of humanism according to which human beings are the most perfect beings in creation.
But it is also present in fact in outlooks that assign human beings a wretched and imperfect condition: Luther’s vision, for instance, in which man is hideously fallen and can do nothing about it simply by his own efforts. The assumption is still there. Indeed, it is hardly an assumption; it is a central belief in the structure that that fact itself is of absolute importance. The cosmos may not be looking at human beings with much admiration but it is certainly looking at them. The human condition is a central concern to God. So central in fact that it led to the incarnation, which in the Reformation context too plays its traditional role as signalling man’s special role in the scheme of things. If man’s fate is a special concern to God, there’s nothing more absolute than that. It is a central concern. Period.
Overtly anthropocentric views of the cosmos are certainly less common today than they were then. Leaving aside the distribution of concerns on earth itself, which I am going to come back to, people for a long time now have been impressed by the mere topographical rearrangement of the universe by which we are not in the centre of anything interesting. Our location in the galaxy, just for starters, seems almost extravagantly non-committal. Moreover, many people suppose that there are other living creatures on planets in this galaxy, in other galaxies, perhaps in other universes. It seems hubristic or merely silly to suppose that this enterprise has any special interest in us. Even Christians, or many of them, are less impressed by the idea that God must be more concerned with human beings than he is with any other creature, though I am afraid I don’t know what the current state of thought is about the incarnation. The idea of the absolute importance of human beings seems firmly dead or at least well on the way out.
However, we need to go a little carefully here. The assumption I am considering, as I put it, is that in cosmic terms, human beings have a definite measure of importance. The most common application of that idea naturally enough has been that they have a high degree of importance. And I suggested that that itself can take two different forms: the Petrarchan or celebratory form in which man is splendidly important, and what we may call the Lutheran form where what is of ultimate significance is the fact that man is wretchedly fallen. But there is another less obvious application of the same assumption: that human beings have a definite measure of importance in the scheme of things but that it is very low. On this view, the significance of human beings to the cosmos is vanishingly small. This may not be a very exciting truth about the cosmos as contrasted with those other outlooks I mentioned. But it is still meant to be a truth about the cosmos. Moreover, it is meant to be an exciting or at least a significant truth about human beings. I think this may have been what Bertrand Russell was thinking when for instance in an essay significantly called “A Free Man’s Worship”, he went on about the transitoriness of human beings, the tininess of the earth, the vast and pitiless expanses of the universe, and so on in the style of self-pitying and at the same time self-glorifying rhetoric that made Frank Ramsey remark that he himself was much less impressed than some of his friends were by the size of the universe, perhaps because he weighed 240 pounds!
Now this outlook can make people feel that human activities are absurd because we invest them with an importance which they don’t really possess. Now if someone who feels about human activities in this way, there is never much point, it must be said, in telling him that his feelings involve a muddle. Those feelings probably come from some place which that comment won’t reach. At the same time, they do involve a muddle. It is a muddle between thinking that our activities fail some test of cosmic significance and as contrasted with that, recognising that there is no test of cosmic significance. If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance. And perhaps in a way, that is what Russell wanted to say. But his journey through the pathos of loneliness and insignificance as experienced from a non-existent point of view could only generate the kind of muddle that is called sentimentality. Nietzsche, by contrast, got it right when he said something to the effect that once upon a time, there was a star in a certain corner of the universe and a planet circling that star and in it some clever animals who invented knowledge and then they died and then the star went out and it was as though nothing had happened.
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ”world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.
There is, in principle, a third possibility between a cosmic point of view on the one hand and our point of view on the other and that is a possibility familiar from science fiction: that one day we encounter other creatures who would have a point of view on our activities. A point of view which, it is quite vital to add, we could respect. But perhaps science fiction hasn’t made any interesting use of this fantasy but there is something to learn from it and I am going to come back at the end of these remarks.
Suppose we accept that there is no question of human beings and their activities being important or failing to be important from a cosmic point of view. That doesn’t mean that there is no point of view from which they are important. There is certainly one point of view from which they are important, namely ours. Unsurprisingly so, since the we in question, the we who raise this question and discuss it with others who we hope will listen and reply, are indeed human beings. It is just as unsurprising that this we often shows up within the content of our values. Whether a creature is a human being or not makes a large difference a lot of time to the ways in which we treat that creature or at least think that we should treat that creature.
Let us leave aside for the moment distinctions of this kind that are strongly contested by some people such as the matter of what we are prepared to eat. Less contentiously, we speak for instance of human rights. And that means rights that are possessed by certain creatures because they are human beings, in virtue of their being human. We speak of human values. Indeed you have here a distinguished university centre for human values. Of course, that phrase could mean no more than the fact that the values in question are possessed by human beings. But in that merely possessive sense, that term would hardly be adding much since on this planet at least, there isn’t any other creature that has values or certainly a centre to study and promote them! Human values aren’t just values that we have, but values that express our humanity and to study them as the centre does, is to study what we values in as much as we are what we are, that is to say, human beings.
There are some people who suppose that if in any way we privilege human beings in our ethical thought, if we think that what happens to human beings is more important that what happens to other creatures, if we think that human beings as such have a claim on our attention and care in all sorts of situations in which other animals have less or no claim on us, they think that we are implicitly reverting to a belief in the absolute importance of human beings. They suppose that we are in fact saying, when we exercise these distinctions between human beings and other creatures, that human beings are more important, period, than those other creatures. That objection is simply a mistake. We don’t have to saying anything of that sort at all. We don’t have to be referring to cosmic importance. These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us. And that fact is hardly surprising. That mistaken objection takes the form of claiming that in privileging human beings in our ethical thought, we are saying more than we should. We are claiming their absolute importance. That is the mistaken objection.
There is a different objection which might be put by claiming that we are saying less than we need to say. That is to say we need a reason for these preferences in favour of human beings. Without a reason, this objection goes, that preference for human beings would just be a prejudice. If we have given any reason at all so far for these preferences, it is simply the one we express by saying, “it’s a human being,” or “they’re human,” or “she is one of us”. And that, the objectors say, isn’t a reason. They will remind us of the paradigm prejudices: racism and sexism. “Because he is white” and “because he is male” are no good in themselves as reasons though they can be relevant in very special circumstances, for instance, gender in the case of employing a bathroom attendant. Though even that might be thought in some circles to involve a further prejudice. If the supposed reasons of race and gender are offered without support — “he is a man”, “he is white” — the answer they elicit is quite rightly, “what has that got to do with it?” Those supposed reasons are equally of the form, “he is one of us” for a narrower us. The objectors say the human privilege is itself just another prejudice like racism or sexism and they have a suitably unlovely name for it, speciesism.
How good is this objection? And how exactly does it work? I am afraid it will take a little while to answer those questions because they require us to try to get a bit clearer about the relations between our humanity on the one hand and our giving and understanding reasons on the other. And the route to that involves several stops. A good place to start I think is this: not many racist or sexists have actually supposed that a bare appeal to race or gender — merely saying “he’s black” or “she’s a woman” — did constitute a reason. They were, so to speak, at a stage either earlier or later than that. It was earlier if they simply had a barely articulated practice of discrimination. They just went on like that and they did not need to say anything to their like-minded companions in the way of justification of their practices.
Well, the day came when they did have to say something in justification. To those discriminated against if they couldn’t simply go on telling them to shut up, to outsiders or radicals, or to themselves in those moments when they started to wonder how defensible it might be. And then they had to say something more. Mere references to race or gender wouldn’t meet what was by then the need. Equally, references to supernatural sources which said the same thing wouldn’t hold up for long. Something which at least seemed relevant to the matter at hand — a job opportunity, the franchise, or whatever it might be — would have to be brought up about the supposed intellectual and moral weakness, say, of blacks or women. These were reasons in the sense that they are at least to some degree of the right shape to be reasons. But they were very bad reasons both because they were untrue and because they were the products of false consciousness working to hold up the system. And they didn’t need any very elaborate social or psychological theory to show that they were.
With the case of the supposed human prejudice, it doesn’t seem to be quite like this. On the one hand, it isn’t simply a matter of inarticulate or unexpressed discrimination. There is no secret that we are in favour of human rights, for instance. On the other hand, “it’s a human being” does seem to operate as a reason but it doesn’t seem to be helped out by some further reach of supposedly more relevant reasons of the kind which in the other cases of prejudices turned out to be rationalisations or false consciousness. We are all aware of some notable differences between human beings and other creatures on earth. There’s a whole range of cases in which we cite or rely on the fact that a certain creature is a human being but where those differences between us and other animals don’t seem to figure in our thought as justifications for going on as we do. In fact, in many cases, it is hard to see how they could. Uniquely on earth, human beings use highly articulated languages; they develop to an unparalleled extent non-genetic learning through culture; they possess literatures and historically cumulative technologies, and so on. Of course, there’s quite a lot of dispute about the exact nature and extent of these differences between our own and other species. There are discussions, for instance, of how far some other primates transmit learned skills and whether they have local traditions in this. But this isn’t the point. There is on any showing a sharp and spectacular behavioural gap between ourselves and our nearest primate relatives. And that is no doubt because other hominid species have disappeared, doubtless with our assistance.
But why should considerations about those differences — about culture and technology and language and all that — true as they are play any role at all in an argument about vegetarianism for instance? What’s all that stuff about language and culture and so on got to do with human beings eating some other animals but not human beings? It is hard to see any argument in that direction which won’t turn out to say something like this: it is simply better that culture, intelligence, and technology should flourish as opposed presumably to those other amazing things that are done by other species which are on the menu. Or consider, if you like, not the case of meat eating but of insecticides. If we have reason to use insecticide, must we claim that it is simply better that we should flourish at the expense of the insects. If any evolutionary development is spectacular and amazing, it is the proliferation and diversification of insects. Some of them are harmful to human beings, they are food, or they are artefacts, but they are truly wonderful.
What this last point shows is that even if we could get hold of the idea that it was just better that one sort of animal should flourish rather than another, it is not in the least clear why it should be us. But the basic point is that we can’t get hold of that idea at all. That is simply another recurrence of the notion we saw a little while ago: absolute importance, that last relic of the still enchanted world. We can say rightly that we are in favour of cultural development and so on and think it very important, but that itself is just another expression of the human prejudice we are supposed to be wrestling with. So, there is something obscure about the relations between the moral consideration, “it’s a human being”, and the characteristics that distinguish human beings and other creatures. If there is a human prejudice, it is structurally rather different from those other prejudices, racism and sexism.
This doesn’t necessarily show this isn’t a prejudice. Some critics will say on the contrary, it shows what a deep prejudice it is to the extent that we can’t even articulate reasons that are supposed to underly it! And if, as I said, we seem very ready to profess it, the critic will say, that it shows how shamelessly prejudiced we are, or that we can profess it, express it because very significantly we have no one to justify it to, except a few reformers that are fellow human beings. That certainly is a significant fact and we have to bear it in mind. Other animals on this planet are good at many things but not at asking for or understanding justification. Oppressed humans, women and minorities, come of age in the search for emancipation when they speak for themselves and no longer through reforming members of the oppressing group. But the other animals will never come of age. Human beings will always act as they are trustees. And that is connected to a point we shall come back to, that in relation to those other animals, the only moral question for us is how we should treat them.
Someone who speaks vigorously against speciesism and the human prejudice is of course Prof. Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in this very university. As you don’t need telling here, he holds his chair at the said University Centre for Human Values. And I have wondered, I must say, what he makes of that name. In the purely possessive or limp sense, it is probably alright. But in the richer sense of the expression, human values, which must surely be its intention, I’d have thought it would have sounded to him like the Centre for Aryan Values! Whatever exactly may be the structure of the human prejudice, if it is a prejudice, Singer’s work has brought out very clearly some important consequences of rejecting it, consequences which he has been prepared to advocate in a robust style.
A central idea involved in the supposed human prejudice is that there are certain respects in which creatures are treated in one way rather than another simply because they belong to a certain category, the human species. We don’t at this basic initial level need to know any more about them. Told that there are human beings trapped in a burning building, on the strength of that fact alone, we mobilise as many resources as we can to rescue them. When the human prejudice is rejected, two things follow, Singer has made clear. One is that some more substantial set of properties supposedly better fitted to give reasons are substituted. The second is that the criteria based on those properties, the criteria which determine what you can properly do to a creature are applied to examples one at a time. It is always a question whether a particular individual satisfies the criteria.
Let us consider the question not of protecting but of killing. Singer thinks that our reasons for being less ready to kill human beings than we are to kill other animals, the “greater seriousness” of killing them as he puts it, are based on
our superior mental powers, our self-awareness, our rationality, our moral sense, our moral autonomy, or some combination of these. They are the kinds of things which we are inclined to say which make us uniquely human. To be more precise they are the kind of things that make us persons. (Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics  by Peter Singer, edited by Helga Kuhse, p. 193)
Elsewhere, he cites with approval Michael Tooley’s definition of persons as “those beings who are capable of seeing themselves as continuing selves, i.e. as self-aware beings existing over time”. It is these characteristics that we should refer to when we are deciding what to do and in principle, we should refer to them on a case by case basis. “If we are considering whether it is wrong to destroy something, surely we need to look at its actual characteristics not just the species to which it belongs.” And “actual” here is taken in way that leaves no room for potentiality. You can’t say that an embryo gets special protection because it is potentially a person. It is not yet a person, therefore it is a non-person just as, in Tooley’s perhaps unlovely terminology, someone suffering from acute senile dementia is an ex-person.
As I have said, Singer brings out very clearly these two consequences of his view, namely, that we rely on some substantial properties — like those of personhood — other than belonging to the human race, and that we apply them case to case. And he relies on those consequences in arriving at various controversial conclusions. I am concerned with the view itself, the rejection of the human prejudice, rather than particular details of Singer’s own position. But there are a couple of points which I should mention in order to make clear what is at issue. First, what Singer rejects isn’t quite the form of prejudice to which I and many other people are attached. Singer considers the following syllogism.
Every human being has a right to life. A human embryo is a human being. Therefore, the human embryo has a right to life. (UHL, p. 192)
It is certainly a valid argument; we better agree that the conclusions follow from the premises. Those who oppose abortion and destructive embryo research, people who particularly in the United States are sometimes called pro-lifers, think both those premises are true and therefore they accept the conclusion. Those who defend abortion and embryo experiment under certain circumstances have to reject one of the premises. They typically deny the second premise, namely that the human embryo is a human being. But Singer denies the first premise, namely every human being has a right to life. More strictly, he thinks that the first premise is correct only if “human being” means “person”. In that sense, the second premise is false: the human embryo isn’t yet a person. There is a sense in which the second premise is true because the embryo belongs to the species but in that sense of human being, it is not true that every human being has a right to life.
I mention is perhaps rather fiddly consideration because it distinguishes Singer from those such as most moderate pro-choice campaigners who accept obviously enough that the embryo is human in the sense that it is a human embryo, but don’t yet accept that it is yet a human being, any more than a bovine embryo is a cow. My colleague Jonathan Glover once caused nearly terminal fury in a distinguished pro-life advocate in England by what seemed to me the entirely reasonable remark that if this gentleman had been promised a chicken dinner and was served served with an omelette made of fertilised eggs, he’d have a complaint! The point is an important one. The standard view, the view which Singer attacks, is that “human being” is a morally relevant notion, where “human being” indeed means an animal belonging to a particular species, our species. But those who hold that view are not committed to thinking that a fertilised ovum is already such an animal any more so than the case of any other species. Singer sets up then the principle that the idea relevant to these moral questions is not the species term, human being, but the term person, where that brings in notions of self-awareness over time and so on. It must be said, and this is the second point, that he notably fails to apply this principle in a very thoroughgoing way.
Singer has become notorious for defending infanticide in certain circumstances. He does so because, I quote, “new born infants are in most morally respects more like fetuses than like older children or adults”. As he cheerfully puts it, “neither a fetus nor an infant has the conceptual wherewithal to contemplate a future or to want or value that future”. He then argues a case for possible infanticide in the case of seriously disabled infants. But why the restriction to seriously disabled infants. If the objection to killing human beings is the objection to killing persons, and infants aren’t persons, what’s the objection to killing any infant if you do it painlessly and there aren’t other objections such as distress to parents. If, for instance, they are simply a nuisance! I think a lot of the peculiarities of Singer’s position come in part from his concern with one kind of controversy. He is trying to combat conservative policies based on a particular notion of the sanctity of human life. This helps to explain why his position on abortion and infanticide is the same as the pro-life position but the other way up. He and the pro-lifers both argue if abortion, then infanticide, but they take that as an objection and he takes it as an encouragement! Against all these, it is very important to say that one can believe, as I believe, that the notion of the human being as a member of the species is central to our moral thought without being committed to the entire set of rules that go under the label “the sanctity of human life”.
The most basic question however is that raised by the general structure of Singer’s position rather than these details and it is the same kind of question we have encountered already. Why are the fancy properties grouped under the label of personhood “morally relevant” to issues of destroying a certain kind of animal while the property of being a human being isn’t? One answer might be that we favour and esteem these properties, we encourage their development, we resent and hate it if they are frustrated. And that is hardly surprising since our whole life and not only our values but our having values at all involve our having these properties ourselves. That is a fine answer but that doesn’t answer this question, since we also and in complex relation to all that do what Singer complains of, namely use the idea of a human being in our moral thought and draw a line around the class of human beings with regard to various things that we are ethically prepared to do. A different answer would be that it is simply better that the world should contain instances of the fancy properties of personhood but it is not simply better that the world should contain human beings as such but that is once more our now familiar friend, absolute importance, that survivor from the enchanted world bringing with it the equally familiar and encouraging thought that the properties we possess — well, most of us, not counting the infants, the Alzheimer’s patients, and a few others — are being cheered on by the universe.
I should say at once that this isn’t Singer’s own answer to the question. He is a Utilitarian and he thinks, very roughly speaking, that the only thing that ultimately matters is how much suffering there is. To the extent that we should give special attention to persons, this is supposedly explained by the fact that persons are capable of suffering in some special ways that other animals can’t suffer because they can foresee the future and so on. I don’t want to argue over the familiar territory of whether that is a reasonable or helpful explanation of all the things that we care about in relation to persons, namely whether the only thing that makes a difference is the various ways in which they can suffer. I want to ask something else which leads us back to my central question — our moral conceptions of ourselves as human beings living among other creatures. My question is not, does the utilitarian view make sense of our other concerns in terms of our concern with suffering? My question is rather, how far does the utilitarian view make sense of our concern with suffering itself?
Many utilitarians, including Singer, are happy to use the model of an Ideal or Impartial Observer. The idea of the model of an imaginary figure who knows everything, is equally impartial about everything, can take on board as it were all the suffering in the world. A philosopher proposing one version of such a model fifty years ago memorably described this figure as “omniscient, disinterested, dispassionate, but otherwise normal”!
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE IDEAL OBSERVER 1. He is omniscient with respect to non-ethical facts. 2. He is omnipercipient. 4. He is dispassionate. 5. He is consistent. 6. In other respects he is normal.
The model comes in various versions in many of which the figure isn’t exactly dispassionate. Rather he is benevolent. That can mean several different things itself. But let’s concentrate on the simplest application of the idea that the ideal observer is against suffering and he wants there to be as little of it as possible. With his omniscience and impartiality, he so to speak takes on all suffering however we are to exactly conceive of that and he takes it all on equally. Now, he does begin to look a lot like a slimmed down surrogate of the Christian God and this might suggest that it represents yet another enactment of the cosmic point of the view. Suffering or its absence is what has absolute importance but I assume that utilitarians such as Singer hope that the model can be spelled out in more disenchanted terms.
They deploy the model against what they see as prejudice, in particular the human prejudice and the idea behind this is that there is a sentiment or disposition or conviction which we do have, namely compassion and sympathy or the belief that suffering is a bad thing, but, they claim, we express these sentiments in an irrationally restrictive way. The way in which our sentiments of sympathy or compassion for suffering work is governed by the notorious inverse square law. That is the further away the less you feel it roughly where the distances is involved can be of all kinds: spatial, they are on the other side of the world; familial; national, remember there’s always a headline in the Oxford paper when there is a vast earthquake somewhere in the other side of the world, “Oxford man injured in earthquake; racial, of course, notoriously governed by species membership. The model of the Ideal Observer is supposed to be a corrective. If we could take on all suffering, as he does, we wouldn’t be liable to these parochial biases and would feel and act in better ways. No doubt, the history of the device does lie in fact in the kind of secularised imatatio Christi and I suspect that some of the sentiments it mobilises are connected with that but the utilitarians hope to present it as independent of that as a device expressing an extensive rational correction of the kind of thing we indeed feel.
So, I want to take the model seriously in secular way, perhaps more seriously from a certain point of view than those who use it. I have got two problems with it. One is very familiar actually and concerns the relation between the model and human action. Even if we thought that the Ideal Observer’s outlook was a reliable guide to what would be a better state of affairs, how is that connected with what we each of us should be trying to do. With regard to animal suffering, a form of the problem that goes back to the 19th century, is the question of policing nature. Even though much suffering to animals is caused directly or indirectly by human beings. It is also true that an immense amount of it is caused by other animals. This suffering must form a significant part of what is on the Ideal Observer’s screen. While we are certainly in the business of reducing harm caused by other animals to ourselves, we seek in some degree to reduce the harm we cause to other animals. The question arises as to whether we should be in the business of reducing the harm that other animals cause to each other and generally in the business of reducing the suffering that goes on in nature. Utilitarians do offer some argument to suggest that we shouldn’t bother with that, arguments about saving our energy and time and so on but I have found it hard to avoid the feeling that those answers are pallid and unconvincing rationalisations of a more basic reaction that there is something altogether crazy about the idea, that it misrepresents our relation to nature. Some environmentalists of course think that we shouldn’t try to improve nature in this respect because nature is sacred and we should interfere with it as little as possible anyway. But they certainly aren’t governed simply by the model of Ideal Observer and his concern for suffering.
This leads to a more fundamental point. Those who see our selective sympathies as a biased and prejudiced filtering of the suffering of the world, who think in terms of our shadowing as far as we can the consciousness of the Ideal Observer and guiding our actions by reflection and what the Ideal Observer takes on, I wonder whether they consider what it would really be like to take on what the Ideal Observer supposedly takes on. Whatever exactly “takes on” may mean, it is supposed to imply this: that the sufferings of other people, of all other creatures should be as vividly present to us in some sense, as closely connected with our reasons for action, as our own suffering, of those of people we care for who are immediately at hand. That is how the model is supposed to correct for bias. But what would it conceivably be like for this to be so even for a few seconds. What would it be like to “take on” every piece of suffering that at a given moment any creature is undergoing. It would be an ultimate horror. An unendurable nightmare. And what would be the connection of that nightmare to our actions. In the model, the ideal observer is supposed just to be an observer. He can’t do anything. But our action, the idea is, is supposed to shadow or be guided by reflection on what he and his omniscience and impartiality is taking on. And if for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of what that is and really guided our actions by it, then surely we would annihilate the planet if we could. And if other planets containing conscious creatures are similar to ours in the suffering they contain, we would annihilate them as well.
This model has got things totally inside out. We indeed have reasons to listen to our sympathies and to extend them not only to wider groups of human beings but into a concern for other animals so far as they are in our power. That is already a human disposition. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “humane” reads
marked by sympathy with the consideration for the needs and distresses of others; feeling or showing compassion and tenderness towards human beings and the lower animals …
We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life. It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we can’t care about all the suffering in the world. It is a condition of our existence and our sanity. Equally it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns including our own by criteria including our own by criteria derived from nowhere. We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror. We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent. We can think about how this human estate or settlement should be run and about its impact on its surroundings. But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. It is an irony that this illusion, even when it takes the form of rejecting so-called speciesism and the human prejudice, actually shares a structure with older illusions about there being a cosmic scale of importance in terms of which human beings should understand themselves.
If we look at it in the light of those old illusions, this outlook — namely, the opposition to the human prejudice — will be closer in spirit to what I called the Lutheran version than to the celebratory version, in virtue of its insistence that human beings are twisted by their selfishness. It is unlike the Lutheran outlook, of course, precisely in its anti-humanism: Luther thought that it did matter to the universe what happened to mankind, but this view thinks that all that matters to the universe is, roughly speaking, how much suffering it contains. But there is another difference as well. Luther thought that human beings could not redeem themselves unaided, but the opponents of the human prejudice typically think that with the help of rationality and these theories, they may be able to do so.
I have said that it is itself part of a human, or humane, outlook to be concerned with how animals should be treated, and there is nothing in what I have said to suggest that we should not be concerned with that. But I do want to repeat something that I have said elsewhere, that, very significantly, the only question for us is how those animals should be treated. That is not true of our relations to other human beings, and that already shows that we are not dealing with a prejudice like racism or sexism. Some white male who thinks that the only question about the relations between “us,” as he puts it, “white males”, and other human beings, namely, women and people of colour is how “we” should treat “them” is already prejudiced, but in the case of other animals that is the only question there could be.
That is how it is here, on this planet, now; it is a consequence of the fact I mentioned earlier, that in terms of a range of abilities that control action, we happen to live on an evolutionary plateau. Human beings do not have to deal with any creature that in terms of argument, principle, worldview, or whatever, can answer back. But it might be otherwise; and it may be helpful, in closing, to imagine something different. Suppose that, in the well-known way of science fiction, creatures arrive with whom to some extent we can communicate, who are intelligent and technologically advanced (they got here, after all), who have relations with one another that are mediated by understood rules, and so on and so forth. Now there is an altogether new sort of question for the human prejudice. If these culturally ordered creatures arrived, a human being who thought that it was just a question of how we should treat them has seriously underestimated the problem, both ethically and, probably, prudentially.
The late Robert Nozick once gave it as an argument for vegetarianism that if we claimed the right to eat animals less smart than ourselves, we would have to concede the right to such visitors to eat us, if they were smarter than us to the degree that we are smarter than the animals we eat.
What about persons distinguishes them from animals, so that stringent constraints apply to how persons may be treated, yet not to how animals may be treated? Could beings from another galaxy stand to us as it is usually thought we do to animals, and if so, would they be justified in treating us as means à la utilitarianism? Are organisms arranged on some ascending scale, so that any may be sacrificed or caused to suffer to achieve a greater total benefit for those not lower on the scale?
In fact, I don’t think that it is an argument for vegetarianism, but rather an objection to one argument for meat eating, and I am not too sure how good it is even as that. But the main point is that if they proposed to eat us, it would be quite crazy to debate their rights at all! The nineteenth-century egoist philosopher Max Stirner said, “The tiger that assails me is in the right, and I who strike him down am also in the right. I defend against him not my right, but myself.”
But Stirner’s remark concerns a tiger, and it is a matter of life and death. Much science fiction, such as the puerile movie Independence Day, defines the issue in those terms from the beginning and so makes the issues fairly easy. It is fairly easy, too, if the aliens are just here to help, in terms that we can recognize as help. The standard codings of science fiction, particularly in movies, are designed to make such questions simple. The hostile and nasty tend to be either slimy and disgusting, or rigid and metallic — in one brilliant literary example, Wells’s The War of the Worlds, they are both at once. The nice and co-operative are furry like the co-pilot in Star Wars, or cute like ET, or ethereal fairies like those little things in the bright light at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, we can imagine situations in which things would be harder. The arrivals might be very disgusting indeed: their faces, for instance, if those are faces, are seething with what seem to be worms, but if we wait long enough to find out what they are at, we may gather that they are quite benevolent. They just want to live with us — rather closely with us! What should we make of that proposal? Some philosophers may be at hand to remind us about distinguishing between moral and non-moral values, and to tell us that their benevolence and helpfulness are morally significant whereas the fact that they are unforgettably disgusting is not. But suppose their aim, in their unaggressive way, is to make the world more, as we would put it, disgusting? And what if their disgustingness is really, truly, unforgettable?
Or we could turn things around in a different direction. The aliens are, in terms of our preferences, moderately good-looking, and they are, again, extremely benevolent and reasonable; but they have had much more successful experience than we have in running peaceable societies, and they have found that they do need to run them, and that too much species-self-assertion or indeed cultural autonomy proved to be destabilizing and destructive. So, painlessly, they will rid us, certainly of our prejudices, and, to the required extent, of some of our cultural and other peculiarities. What should we make of that? Would the opponents of speciesism want us to join them — join them, indeed, not on the ground that we could not beat them — which might be sensible if not very heroic — but on principle?
The situation that this fantasy presents is in some ways familiar. It is like that of a human group defending its cultural, possibly ethnic, identity against some other human group which claims to dominate or assimilate them, with this very large difference, however, that since we are dealing here with another and indeed non-terrestrial species, there is no question of cultural or ethnic variation being eroded by sexual fusion. Indeed, from the perspective of sex, it must be said, the idea that speciesism, racism, and yet again gender prejudice are all alike, does look extremely peculiar.
Anyway, the fantasy situation with the aliens will resemble the familiar political situation in some ways. For one thing, there may well be a disagreement among the threatened group — in this case, human beings — in part an ethical disagreement, between those who think the invaders are right and we ought to side with them, let us call them the collaborationists, and others who are resisters. It looks as though the Utilitarians will be committed to joining the collaborationists. In this fantasy case, the resisters will be organizing under the banner “Defend humanity” or “Stand up for human beings.” That is an ethical appeal in an ethical dispute. Of course, this does not make “human being” into an ethical concept, any more than the cause of Basque separatism — an ethical cause, as Basque separatists see it — makes “Basque” into an ethical concept. The relevant ethical concept is something like: loyalty to, or identity with, one’s ethnic or cultural grouping; and in the fantasy case, the ethical concept is: loyalty to one’s species. Moreover — and this is the significant lesson of this fantasy — this is an ethical concept we have already. It is the one we are using implicitly all the time, when for instance, in the context of our ethical thought, we appeal to the fact that a creature is a human being. It is simply that as things are in real life — because we live on this evolutionary plateau — we don’t spell it out, because there is no other creature in our life who could use or be motivated by the same consideration but with a different application: that is to say, there is no creature belonging to some other species can articulate, reflect on, or be motivated by reasons appealing to their species membership.
So, the idea of there being an ethical concept that appeals to our species membership is entirely coherent. It is shown by the fantasy case and its actual case is familiar in the actual case. Of course, there may be ethical arguments about the merits or value of any such concept, namely, a concept that appeals to something like loyalty to group membership or identity with it. Some people, in the spirit of those who would be collaborationists in the fantasy case, are against such ideas. It is notable in the political morality in the present time, that some people seem to be opposed to such attitudes in dominant groups but very much in favour of them for subordinate groups. Others, again, may be respectful of the energizing power of such conceptions, and of the sense they can give of a life that has a rich and particular character, as contrasted, at the extreme, with the Utilitarian ideal of the itinerant welfare-worker who, with his bad line to the Ideal Observer, goes round turning on and off the taps of benevolence. At the same time, however, those who respect these conceptions of loyalty and identity may be rightly sceptical about the coercive rhetoric, the lies about differences, and the sheer violence that are often associated with such ideas and with the movements that express them. Some of those objections no doubt carry over to the ways in which we express species identity and loyalty as things actually are, and that is why the opponents of so-called speciesism and the human prejudice quite often have a point about particular policies toward other animals, even though they are mistaken about the framework of ideas within which they condemn those things.
Should we conclude that the human prejudice, if one wants to call it that, must ultimately be inescapable. Let us go back once more to the fantasy of the arrival of the benevolent managerial aliens, and the consequent debate among human beings between the collaborationists, who want to join them, and the resisters, who want to run the human independence movement. In that debate, even the collaborationists have to use a humanly intelligible discourse, arguments which their fellow human beings can recognize. If that meant that their arguments would have to be peculiar to human beings, then their situation would indeed be paradoxical. It would be as though, in the familiar political discussions about, say, the cultural identity of the Basques, even the assimilationists had to use only arguments peculiar to Basque culture. So, let us suppose that it does not mean that, that is, although they have to use arguments which are comprehensible to other human beings, they are not arguments peculiar to, as it were, the separatists or the resisters. The relevant alternative, I think, in the fantasy case is that the collaborationists use arguments which they share not only with their fellow human beings but with the aliens. Indeed, many moral philosophers think that the correct moral principles are ones that could be shared with any rational and reflective agents, whatever they were otherwise like.
But even if this were so, those principles would not necessarily tell us and these creatures how to share a life together. Maybe we and they would be too different in other respects for that to be possible. Remember the disgusting benevolent aliens. And the best we could do is to establish a non-aggression pact with them and co-exist at a distance. That would leave our prejudices where they were. But suppose that we are to live together. There is no reason to suppose that the universal principles we share with the aliens will justify our prejudices. We cannot even be sure that they will justify our being allowed to have our prejudices, as a matter of toleration; as I said in setting up the fantasy, the long experience and benevolent understanding possessed by the aliens may enable them to see that tolerating our kinds of prejudice leads to instability and injustice, so they will want to usher our prejudices out, and on these assumptions we should agree. The collaborationists must be right it seems, because their moral conceptions they share with the aliens transcend the local peculiarities.
But if this is so, doesn’t something even stronger follow? I said, in setting up these space-fiction fantasies, that the Independence Day scenario, in which the aliens are manifestly hostile and want to destroy us, is, for us, an ethically easy case: we try to defend ourselves. No doubt, we shall try. But should we try? Perhaps, the critics will say, this is just another irrational, visceral, human reaction to defend ourselves in this situation. The benevolent and fair-minded and far-sighted aliens may know a great deal about us and our history, and understand that our prejudices are unreformable: that things will never be better in this part of the universe until we are removed. I am not saying that this is necessarily what such aliens would think. I am not saying that the universal moralists, the potential collaborationists, would necessarily agree with them. But I don’t see that if they disagree, they could be certain that was just not another self-serving prejudice. This, it seems to me, is a place at which the project of trying to transcend altogether the ways in which human beings understand themselves and make sense of their practices could end up. And here I can only ask, we can only ask at this stage: what side are you on?
In many, more limited, connections, hopes for self-improvement lie very close to the risk of self-hatred. When the hope is to improve humanity to the point at which every aspect of its hold on the world can be justified before a higher court, the result is likely to be either self-deception, if you think you have succeeded, or misanthropy, when you recognize that you will always fail. Personally, while I think that there are many things to loathe about human beings, their sense of their ethical identity as a species is not one of them.
Welcome to this meeting which is taking place in the context of your National Study Congress dedicated to the theme: “The Secularization of the Laity”.
I address my cordial greeting to each one of you, starting with Prof. Francesco D’Agostino, President of your praiseworthy Association. I am also grateful to him for expressing your common sentiments and for briefly describing the aims of your social and apostolic action.
The Congress is addressing the lay state, a theme of great interest because it highlights how secularity in the contemporary world may be understood in various ways: there is not only one lay state but there are several or rather many ways of understanding and living secularity that are sometimes in opposition to one another and even contradictory.
Dedicating these days to the examination of secularity and the different ways in which it may be understood and put into practice has led you into the heart of the discussion under way, which is proving particularly useful to the legal profession.
In order to understand the authentic meaning of the lay state and to explain how it is understood in our day, it is essential to keep in mind the historical development of this concept.
In the Middle Ages, “secularity”, a term coined to describe the condition of the ordinary lay Christian who belonged neither to the clerical nor to the religious state, inferred opposition between the civil powers and the ecclesiastical hierarchies; in modern times, it has come to mean the exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the private sphere and to the individual conscience.
So it is that an ideological understanding has come to be attributed to the term “secularity”, which is the opposite of its original meaning.
Indeed, secularity is commonly perceived today as the exclusion of religion from social contexts and as the boundary of the individual conscience.
Secularity would be expressed in the total separation between the State and the Church, since the latter is in no way entitled to intervene in areas that concern the life and conduct of citizens; secularity would even entail the exclusion of religious symbols from public places designated for the proper functions of the political community: offices, schools, courts, hospitals, prisons, etc.
On the basis of these different ways of conceiving secularity, people today speak of secular thought, secular morals, secular knowledge and secular politics. Indeed, on the basis of such concepts, an a-religious vision of life, thought and morals exists: a vision in which there is no room for God, for a Mystery that transcends pure reason, for a moral law of absolute worth, in force in every time and every situation.
Only if we realize this can we assess the consequences of the problems inherent in a term such as “secularity”, which seems almost to have become the qualifying emblem of post-modernity and especially of modern democracy.
It is therefore the task of all believers, particularly believers in Christ, to help formulate a concept of secularity which, on the one hand, acknowledges the place that is due to God and his moral law, to Christ and to his Church in human life, both individual and social; and on the other, affirms and respects the “rightful autonomy of earthly affairs”, if by this phrase, as the Second Vatican Council reaffirms, is meant man’s “gradual discovery, exploitation and ordering of the laws and values of matter and society” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 36).
Such autonomy is “perfectly in order: it is at once the claim of modern man and the desire of the Creator. By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws. These man must respect as he recognizes the methods proper to every science and technique” (ibid.).
If, instead, the words “rightful autonomy of earthly affairs” mean that “material being does not depend on God and that man can use it as if it had no relation to its Creator”, then the fallacy of such a claim will be obvious to anyone who believes in Godand his transcendent presence in the world he created (cf. ibid.).
This conciliar assertion constitutes the doctrinal basis for that “healthy secularity” which involves the effective autonomy of earthly realities, not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere. Thus, the Church cannot point out the preferred political and social order; it is the people who must freely decide on the best and most suitable ways to organize political life.
Any direct intervention from the Church in this area would be undue interference. Moreover, “healthy secularism” implies that the State does not consider religion merely as an individual sentiment that may be confined to the private sphere alone.
On the contrary, since religion is also organized in visible structures, as is the case with the Church, it should be recognized as a form of public community presence. This also implies that every religious denomination (provided it is neither in opposition to the moral order nor a threat to public order) be guaranteed the free exercise of the activities of worship – spiritual, cultural, educational and charitable – of the believing community.
In the light of these considerations, this is certainly not an expression of secularity, but its degeneration into secularism, hostility to every important political and cultural form of religion; and especially to the presence of any religious symbol in public institutions.
Likewise, to refuse the Christian community and its legitimate representatives the right to speak on the moral problems that challenge all human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and jurists, is not a sign of a healthy secularity.
Thus, it is not a question of undue meddling by the Church in legislative activity that is proper and exclusive to the State but, rather, of the affirmation and defence of the important values that give meaning to the person’s life and safeguard his or her dignity. These values are human before being Christian, such that they cannot leave the Church silent and indifferent. It is her duty to firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny.
Dear jurists, we are living in an exalted historical period because of the breakthroughs that humanity has achieved in many areas of law, culture, communications, science and technology. In this same period, however, there are attempts by some people to exclude God from every sphere of life and present him as man’s enemy.
It is up to us as Christians to show, on the contrary, that God is love and wants the good and happiness of all human beings. It is our task to make people understand that the moral law given to us by him and manifested to us by the voice of our conscience does not aim to oppress us but rather to set us free from evil and make us happy.
It is a matter of showing that without God man is lost, and that the exclusion of religion from social life – and the marginalization of Christianity in particular – undermines the very foundations of human coexistence. Indeed, before being social and political, these foundations are of a moral order.
As I thank you once again, dear friends, for your visit today, I invoke the motherly protection of Mary upon you and upon your Association.
With these sentiments, I warmly impart to you all a special Apostolic Blessing that I willingly extend to your families and your loved ones.
Letter to the Bishops of France on Centennial anniversary of 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State
To Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux President of the Bishops’ Conference of France and to all the Bishops of France
1. Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, during your ad limina visits you informed me of your worries and joys as Pastors and emphasized your positive relations with the civil Authorities which is a cause for satisfaction. Our meetings gave me an opportunity to take up with you the subject of the relations with the civil Authorities in the context of the centenary of the law separating the Church and the State. Moreover, I directly recalled the issue of secularity in my Address to the Bishops of the Province of Besançon on 27 February 2004.
2. In 1905, the law of the separation of Church and State, which replaced the Concordat of 1804, was a painful and traumatizing event for the Church in France. The law regulated the way that the principle of secularity was to be lived in France. In this context the law provided for freedom of worship alone; at the same time it relegated the religious factor to the private sphere and failed to acknowledge the place of religious life and the Church institution in society. Thus, the religious journey of the human being was considered simply to be a personal sentiment, thereby overlooking the profound nature of the human being that is both personal and social in all its dimensions, including the spiritual. However, since 1920, we are grateful to the French Government itself for having recognized in a certain way the place of religion in social life, the personal and social religious dimension and the hierarchical composition of the Church that constitutes her unity.
Today, the centenary of this law affords us an opportunity to think about the religious history of France over the past century, reflecting on the efforts to maintain dialogue made by the different parties concerned; these efforts were crowned by the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the Agreement sealed by the Church in 1924 and signed by the Government of the Republic then described in the Encyclical Maximam Gravissimamqueof my Predecessor, Pope Pius XI, dated 18 February of that same year. In 1921, after difficult years, at the initiative of the French Government new relations between the French Republic and the Apostolic See came into being. They paved the way for negotiation and cooperation. In this context, it was possible to start a process of pacification with respect for the juridical order, both civil and canonical. This new spirit of mutual understanding subsequently led to finding a solution to a certain number of difficulties and to involving all the forces of the Country for the common good, each in its own province. In a certain way, one might say that a sort of understanding was reached from day to day, which prepared the ground for a consensual de facto agreement on institutional questions of fundamental importance to the life of the Church. This peace, acquired little by little, has already become a reality to which the French are deeply attached. It enables the Church in France to carry out her own mission calmly and confidently and to take a more and more active part in social life with respect for the competence of each one.
3. Correctly understood, the principle of laïcité (secularity), to which your Country is deeply attached, is also part of the social teaching of the Church. It recalls the need for a clear division of powers (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 571-572) that echoes Christ’s invitation to his disciples: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20: 25). For its part, just as the non-denominational status of the State implies the civil Authority’s abstention from interference in the life of the Church and of the various religions, in the spiritual realm it enables all society’s members to work together at the service of all and of the national community. Likewise, as the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council recalled, the management of temporal power is not the Church’s vocation for: “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community nor bound by ties to any political system” (Pastoral ConstitutionGaudium et Spes, n. 76 2; cf. n. 42). Yet, at the same time, it is important that all work in the general interest and for the common good. The Council also stated: “The political community and the Church… each serves the personal and social vocation of the same human beings. This service will redound the more effectively to the welfare of all insofar as both institutions practise better cooperation” (ibid. 3).
4. Among other things, the application of the principles of the social teaching of the Church has made new developments possible in relations between the Church and the State in France, to the point that in recent years a forum for dialogue has been created at the highest level. On the one hand this has made it possible to regulate unresolved issues or those difficulties that can crop up in various areas; and on the other, to achieve a certain amount of collaboration in social life, with a view to the common good. Thus, trusting relations can develop that make it possible to deal with institutional matters concerning people, activities and possessions in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. I also praise all the forms of collaboration that exist serenely and confidently in the municipalities, local groups and regions, thanks to the attention of those elected to positions of authority, of the clergy, faithful and men and women of good will. I know your high regard for the leaders of the Nation and your ties with them, always ready as you are to contribute to reflection in areas that involve the future of human beings and society, and to greater respect for people and their dignity. With you, I encourage the lay faithful in their desire to serve their brothers and sisters through ever more active participation in public life, for as the Second Vatican Council said, “Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 1). Because of their status as citizens, like their compatriots, it is the duty of French Catholics to take part, according to their abilities and with respect for their beliefs, in the different areas of public life.
5. Christianity has played and still plays an important role in French society in the political, philosophical, artistic and literary spheres. The Church in France in the 20th century also had numerous great Pastors and great theologians. One might say that this has been a particularly fruitful period for social life as well. Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Jacques et Raïssa Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Robert Schuman, Edmond Michelet, Madeleine Delbrêl, Gabriel Rosset, Georges Bernanos, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Jean Lacroix, Jean Guitton and Jérôme Lejeune are so many names that have marked French thought and experience and live on as great figures, recognized not only by the Ecclesial Community but also by the Nation. These men and women, as well as many other Catholics, have had a crucial influence on social life in your Country and some of them also on the construction of Europe. They all based their intellectual approach and action on Gospel principles. In loving Christ they also loved men and women and were eager to serve them. It is the duty of Catholics in your Country today to walk on the paths of their precursors. Nor can we forget the important place of Christian values in the construction of Europe and in the life of the peoples of the Continent. Christianity largely shaped the features of Europe. It is up to the people of our day to build European society on the values that prevailed when it was born and that are a part of its richness.
France cannot but rejoice to have in its midst men and women who draw anthropological principles and elements from the Gospel in their spiritual approach and in their Christian life, fostering a lofty ideal of man; these principles help them to fulfil their mission as citizens at all levels of social life, to serve their brothers and sisters in humanity, to share in the common good, to spread harmony, peace, justice, solidarity and good understanding among all and, eventually, to joyfully contribute their stone to the building of the social body. In this regard, today it would be right for you to take pains to develop further the formation of the faithful in the social teaching of the Church and in serious philosophical reflection. Especially important is the formation of young people who are training to take on important responsibilities in decision-making posts in society; they will thus have at heart to make Gospel values and reliable anthropological foundations reach the different areas of social life. In this way the Church in your Country will meet her commitment to history. Christians are aware that they have a mission to fulfil at the service of their brethren, as one of the oldest texts of Christian literature says: “The post that God has assigned to them is so noble that they are not permitted to desert it” (Epistle to Diognetus, VI, 10). For the faithful, this mission also entails a personal commitment because it implies witnessing with their words and deeds, while living the moral and spiritual values and proposing them to their fellow citizens with respect for the freedom of each.
6. The crisis of values and the lack of hope observed in France, and more generally in the West, are part of the identity crisis that is affecting modern societies today. These societies often propose only one sort of life, a life founded on material well-being, which is unable to indicate the meaning of life or provide the fundamental values necessary for making the free and responsible choices that are a source of joy and happiness. The Church is studying this situation and hopes that the religious, moral and spiritual values that are part of France’s patrimony will not fall into oblivion, for they have fashioned its identity and forged generations of people since the early centuries of Christianity. I therefore ask the faithful of your Country, in the follow-up to the Letter to the Catholics of France that you addressed to them a few years ago, to find in their spiritual and ecclesial life the strength to participate in the res publica and give a new impetus to social life and renewed hope to the men and women of our time. “One is entitled to think that the future of humanity is in the hands of those men who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and optimism” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 31). In this perspective, trusting relations and collaboration between Church and State cannot but have positive effects for building together what Pope Pius XII termed “legitimate and healthy secularity” (Alla vostra filiale, Address to Residents in Rome from The Marches, 23 March 1958: La Documentation Catholique 55 , col. 456), and, as I said in my Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, would not be “a type of ideological secularism or hostile separation between civil institutions and religious confessions” (n. 117). Instead of being antagonistic, therefore, the social forces will be more and more at the service of the entire population of France. I am confident that such an approach will make it possible to confront the new situations in French society today, particularly in the multiethnic, multicultural and multiconfessional context of recent years.
Recognizing the religious dimension of people and of the members of French society means seeking to coordinate this dimension with the other dimensions of national life so that it can contribute its own dynamism to building up society and prevent religions from the tendency to withdraw into sectarianism which could become a threat to the State itself. Society must be able to permit individuals, with respect for others and for the laws of the Republic, to state their religious membership. If it were not to do so, there would be a constant risk of sectarian withdrawal into their own identity and of an increase in intolerance that could not but damage friendly and harmonious coexistence in the Nation.
By virtue of your mission, you are called to intervene regularly in public debates on important social issues. Likewise, in the name of their faith, Christians, personally or in associations, must be able to speak in public to express their opinions and manifest their convictions, thereby making their own contribution to the democratic debates, challenging the State and their fellow citizens on their responsibilities as men and women, especially in the field of fundamental human rights and respect for human dignity, for the progress of humanity but not at any price, for justice and equity, as well as for the protection of our planet. These are some of the areas that involve the future of the individual and of humanity and the responsibility of each generation. In this context, secularity, far from being an area of confrontation, is the true place for constructive dialogue in the spirit of the values of freedom, equality and fraternity, to which the people of France are, justifiably, deeply attached.
7. I know that you are very attentive to the Church’s presence in places where the great and formidable questions on the meaning of human existence are being asked. I am thinking, to name but a few that are particularly significant, of the hospital context where spiritual assistance to the sick and to the staff is a priority, as well as in the educational sector where it is important to open young people to the moral and spiritual dimensions of their lives, to enable them to develop their whole personality. In fact, education cannot be limited to scientific and technical training but must always cater to the whole being of the young person. Catholic teaching, for which you are responsible in your Dioceses, works with this in mind. I know of its concern to be a partner in the educational process of which the civil Authorities are in charge; I am also aware of its desire to preserve its own specific character in the teaching body and in its teaching. It is the duty of the State, for its part, out of respect for the established rules, also to guarantee to the families who so desire the opportunity to give their children the catechesis they need, especially by planning convenient times for it. Moreover, without a moral dimension, young people can only be tempted by violence and by forms of conduct that do not do them justice, as is regularly seen. In this regard, I would like to pay a tribute to the many holy educators who have marked the history of your particular Churches and of French society. I would like to recall your two compatriots whom I recently had the opportunity to canonize: Marcellin Champagnat, who made a major contribution to the education of youth in the French countryside, and Léonie Aviat, who was eager to go to the aid of the poor and set up schools for young girls in towns. I know that you are taking pains to form priests, men and women religious and lay people to be witnesses and the companions of their brethren, attentive to their questions and able to accompany them in their human and spiritual progress. In this regard, I congratulate the teachers and educators on their courageous work with the young people in your Country, aware of the delicacy and importance of their mission.
8. I expressed the hope that 2005 would be a Year of the Eucharist for the whole Ecclesial Community. In the Apostolic Letter which I wrote on this topic, I recalled that “the “culture of the Eucharist’ promotes a culture of dialogue, which here finds strength and nourishment. It is a mistake to think that any public reference to faith will somehow undermine the rightful autonomy of the State and civil institutions, or that it can even encourage attitudes of intolerance” (Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine, n. 26; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, Insert, 13 October 2004, p. IV). I therefore invite all of you, dear Brothers in the Episcopate, as well as all the clergy and Catholics of France, to find in the Eucharist the strength to give a renewed witness to authentic moral and religious values, to pursue a trusting dialogue and serene collaboration with every member of civil society, and to put yourselves at the service of all.
At the end of this Letter, I would like to express to you and to all your compatriots my gratitude for all you have already done in the social field, and my confidence in the future of good understanding among all the members of French society, to which you are already witnessing. May all your fellow Countrymen know that the members of the Catholic community in France are hoping to live their faith among their brothers and sisters and to make their skills and talents available to all! May no one be afraid of the religious outlook of individuals and social groups! Lived with respect for healthy secularism it cannot but be a source of dynamism and human promotion. I encourage French Catholics to be present in all the domains of civil society, in the neighbourhoods of the large towns as well as in rural society, in the worlds of finance, culture and the arts, as well as in politics, in relief agencies, in the educational, health-care and social systems, with concern to maintain a calm and respectful dialogue with all. I hope that all the French are working, hand in hand, for the growth of society, so that all may benefit. I pray for the People of France: my thoughts go in particular to the persons and families affected by financial and social difficulties. May ever greater solidarity be built up so that no one is left out! May greater attention be paid in this period to the people who are homeless and hungry!
I cherish my memories of the various Visits I have had the joy of making to the beloved land of France, especially my unforgettable pilgrimage to Lourdes, a place particularly dear to the faithful of your Country and more generally, to all who desire to entrust themselves to the Virgin Mary. I was able to note the human and spiritual depth of the men, women and children who visit the Grotto of Massabielle. It bears witness to the pastoral work you carry out in your Dioceses with the priests, men and women religious and lay people committed to the Church’s mission.
As I entrust you to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, whom we honour especially on this day and who is venerated in many shrines in your Country, and to the intercession of all the saints of France, I impart an affectionate Apostolic Blessing to you and to all the faithful of your Dioceses.