A Painful but Necessary Digression

In doing my final rewrite of the first part of Properties of Blood, subtitled The Reign of Love, I have been wrestling with the last chapter,  which discusses the revolutionary destruction of kinship.  I have been doing my best to avoid the intellectual history with which The Morality of Everyday Life was peppered, but in tracing the decline of primogeniture, entailment, and the whole notion of a family estate, I find I have to say something favorable about Montesquieu, whose social position and possession of an estate--when joined with his method of historical comparison--led him away from Locke, though his thinking was overturned by a wretched commentator, Destutt Tracy, whose distortions powerfully influenced Jefferson.  This led me to waste much of a morning writing the following excursus which may or may not go into the chapter.

I have tried to avoid any extensive descent into the much of what goes by the name “intellectual history.”  However, in reflecting on the revolutionary shift in the way people think about marriage, family, and kinship, private property, the household, and inheritance, I have  had to come to grips with the writers who sounded the trumpets of revolution.  I spent a good deal of time, while writing The Morality of Everyday Life, mulling over the contributions made by the architects of the revolutionary movement, beginning with Bacon and Descartes, developing in Hobbes, Locke, and Voltaire, and culminating in Rousseau and Marx.  This purpose of this brief excursus is to summarize, not the systems proposed by these various ideologues, but to offer a few brief observations on the more general question of political thought.

My first observation is simple but perhaps not entirely obvious.  From my limited perspective, there are two styles of reasoning about political life, which can be characterized as deductive and inductive.  I am using these words in their ordinary sense:  Inductive reasoning begins by collecting evidence and examples and then by proceeding to drawing up general description, making classifications, and drawing conclusions.  Deductive reasoning proceeds along the lines of logic and mathematics by stating hypotheses from which one draws particular conclusions.

Either style, if used judiciously, can produce useful conclusions, and each is subject to certain temptations and danger.  A political thinker who relies on the inductive method exclusively may easily get lost in a mass of unconnected details and fail to see the forest for the trees.  If he is of an anthropological bent, he may become distracted by exotic societies that are the very opposite of normative and, after studying the rare cases of polyandry or so-called group marriage, he can end up proposing strange models of social and political evolution.  Sir Robert Filmer, for example, relied uncritically on his very limited knowledge of the Old Testament, while Montesquieu, a far more erudite and comprehensive thinker, was too apt to revere the legal history of ancient Rome.  

On the other hand, an exclusively deductive political theorist will, with Rousseau, “begin by setting aside the facts” and quickly racing over one pons asinorum after another, declare that all property is theft and marriage, along with private property and “the state,” historical inventions made by tyrannical male capitalists plotting to subjugate the human race.  If inductive political thinkers, e.g. Edward A. Freeman and perhaps the sociologist Westermarck,  run the risk of dulness and inconsequence, they may at least provide information that can be used by a more creative intelligences, but those who begin with airy speculations on false principles—Rousseau and Marx, for example—offer the rest of use a take-it-or-leave-it view of alternate reality that is less useful than the bizarre inventions of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick.

An oversimplified schema of this type cannot do justice to genuinely original thinkers such as David Hume or Friedrich Nietzsche.  Both proposed brilliant hypotheses, but Hume was a careful student of British history, and Nietzsche a creative, if irresponsible Hellenist.  In the ancient world, we can see this dichotomy clearly in the case of Plato and Aristotle, but also between historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus, and both Epicureans and early Greek Stoics.  The followers of Zeno and Epicurus quarreled about everything under the sun, both each school based its account of human life on self-evident principles as absurd and counter-factual as any of Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths.  For the Epicureans, it was the reduction of life into the interaction of atoms in the void and human life to avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure, while for the Stoics, it was the order in the universe they called the logos, which was reflected in universal principles of justice that transcended and superseded all the laws of particular nations and established a brotherhood of “world-citizens.”

The great triumph of political thought since at least Descartes has been to displace the inductive method of Aristotle with logical, even and geometrical deduction.  The dichotomy I have been suggesting is not necessarily a distinction between true and untrue philosophies or even between left and right.  Plato makes many true and significant observations on the nature of politics, while Montesquieu, whose method of historical analysis and comparison might have led him away from the mistakes of the Enlightenment, could not help falling (in, for example, the Persian Letters, into the contemptuous sneers of Montaigne and Voltaire against Catholic Europe.

So, the distinction between deductive and inductive thought cannot explain more than a part of revolutionary thought that has destroyed the old world that valued hearth and home, church and nation, but it can help to clarify the nature of most so-called political philosophy, which is nothing more than an ideology in the sense that Marx used in his early writings.  Restated simply by me, an ideology is a set of ideas used either to justify the powers-that-be in maintaining their power, wealth, and position, or as a to promote the interests of a revolutionary class seeking to displace the current elite.  

Theories of capitalism, as Marx saw clearly, were designed to facilitate the revolution launched by bourgeois  business interests against feudalism, and they were subsequently used to maintain the power of bourgeois capitalists.  Theoretical Marxism began as an ideology to promote the overthrow of Capitalist rule and facilitate the rise to power of an ideological party ruled by disciplined intellectuals.

If this dichotomy is kept in mind, it is possible to derive some benefit from Marx or Rousseau while detecting much of the unjustified speculations that disfigure the thought of Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, and all their little movements they have spawned.  We might in this way gain a clearer perspective on man who can only be known through history and falsified by ideology.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Raymond Olson says:

    One of the many favors you have done me is to prod me into reading The Persian Letters. It is considerably more entertaining than a cavalcade of sneers could be, for all the while our Persian prince in Paris is belittling the infidels, it is quite plain from his chief eunuch’s replies to him that his realm at home is disintegrating. Does the prince’s ironic predicament imply an endorsement of nihilism? Or Montesquieu’s long look down his nose at most everything?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for reminding me of my unkindness to Monteaquieu. The Persain Letters is an early work, bubbling over with the rotten new wisdom, but it is quite funny and displays a talent one would not suspect after reading The Spirit of the Laws. In that work, for which he is best known, his Enlightenment arrogance is balanced, even overbalanced by his pride as the noble proprietor of an estate and by his strong conviction that there is no one perfect system of law and government and that in cases of property and succession positive legal traditions outweigh theories of natural law or natural right.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    It would be interesting to see just how the bourgeois overthrew the feudal powers. In other words, we know they did it, but the nuts and bolts of just how it was done is not well known. The destruction of the notion of divinely sanctioned rule must have been one stone from the catapult. Of course all that is outside the scope of this article.

    Would it be accurate to say that earlier thinkers like Aquinas would have made a more balanced use of inductive and deductive reasoning when it came to political thinking, not to mention that they would have had a higher perspective informed by Christianity? Presumably their theological and doctrinal understanding would have prevented them from making deductions based on false princip0les?

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It was a broad-based attack–though mostly not conscious-involving ideology, religion, economic power, legal change, etc. Much of it could be expressed in the more general terms of Sir H.S. Maine as the change from status to contract. In the case of property succession, the Medieval view, roughly speaking, was that an estate passed from father to son(s) according to an established principle of succession designed to preserve and expand the estate and thus the wealth and power of the family. A similar view was taken of marriage. By the 18th century, entail and primogeniture laws had been undermined and eliminated, the early Liberals had preached individual fulfillment, government by consent, marriage as fulfillment of individual needs and desires. It culminates in Jefferson’s grand declaration that “the land belongs to the living”–a position that would have horrified all the Greeks except Plato and the Stoics, Romans like Cicero, Thomas Aquinas. This is the subject I am wrestling with in the last chapter of POB I.