When I was born my father, an NCO in the U.S. Army, was in the midst of battle on the Korean peninsula. During the whole of my lifetime the confrontation of “isms” has dominated political discussion: capitalism vs communism, liberalism vs. totalitarianism, “progressivism vs conservatism, and so on. But guided by several great teachers still dedicated to helping their students see beyond the horizon of their time (like Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, and their teacher Leo Strauss), and impelled by Christian faith to respect the timeless quality of truth, I became familiar with some of the seminal works about politics produced in the course of the millennia of mankind’s literate existence.
One conviction emerged from this familiarity: There is only one divide that characterizes human political life. It is the repeated confrontation between the many and the few. In various forms it transcends each individual’s place in time. For several decades I have pursued the appealing temptation to review this conviction in light of new facts derived from experience. It has been affirmed by repeated trials, none more convincing than the present contest over the demise of republican liberty in the United States.
This is confirmed whenever one is willing to delve a little into the actual results of any of the “isms.” The communist totalitarians purport to stand tall on the firm ground of “dialectical materialism” riding the wave of history toward the shore on which massive equality puts an end to political division. Yet nothing has been more starkly evident, or more ruthlessly destructive in its human consequences, than the great divide between powerless masses confounded in oppression by the all-powerful Party cadres who time and again subdued their will in ruthless campaigns of regimentation and extermination.
What do communism (totalitarian socialism), Nazism (corporate socialism), capitalism (proprietary socialism) and “progressivism” (legalistic socialism, a.k.a., liberalism) all have in common? In their conduct of human affairs they all of them rely, in practice, on some species of unchecked dictatorship. Dictatorship is sometimes spoken of carelessly as “one man rule.” But in practice the dictator is not the ruler, but the lens or focal point through which the power of a relative few imposes their will upon the rest. In one way or another it is deployed to conform the activity of the whole society to their brand, burning away all who do not conform.
When he looked into the political life of the United States in the 1830’s, Tocqueville saw it in terms of the fundamental divide between the many and the few. Unlike the deceitful purveyors of specious “unity” in our times, Tocqueville did not pretend that America’s democratic republic (or, for that matter, any other merely human form of government) could end the division. But he saw the impetus of an egalitarian principle rising to mitigate it, on account of moral premises that would give rise to respectful commerce between the many and the few by populating the divide between them, with a middle class of individuals, their fortunes flowing incessantly between the two poles, forming as it were energetic threads constantly re-stitching the wound reopened by age-old ambitions or resentful passions.
I revisited Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in an article on my blog at the beginning of last year, during the 2014 election cycle. I was more than ever impressed with the importance he ascribed to the effects of the Christian religion as an active agent in the process for generating the potential energy sustain the middle class of individuals. Like Montesquieu before him, Tocqueville appreciated the importance of the enterprising but disciplined spirit (characterized by the moral sensibility America’s founder alluded to as “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”) that informs the difference between transient outbreaks of angry freedom and the assertion of sustainable republican liberty.
The key to sustaining this decency is the observance of a transcendent standard of right. This is a moral, not a material understanding of right, which makes sense of what must otherwise be an absurd and ultimately fatally self-destructive assertion of human equality. For without regard to some such standard, the assertion of human equality has been and forever will be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of human experience. Those harsh realities impose the conclusion that human beings are not equal. Some are, in one way or another, material stronger and more powerful than others, who must therefore always live either in fear or subservience to them.
This harsh conclusion leads people to a common sense that they will not survive but by collaborating with their superiors on terms that respect and preserve the inequality of power that secures the survival benefits derived from their superior capacity. The result is some form of feudalism in which the services of the most capable are secured by the loyal subservience of the rest, so that all may have a better chance to survive.
For a long time human conflicts were decided by battles like those in Homer’s Iliad, consisting of a multitude of one on one encounters dependent largely dependent on individual prowess. But once great empires developed, capable of amassing huge armies, their massive power worked to isolate and overwhelm individuals. But the confrontation between the cohorts of the ancient Greek city states and the great Persian Empire introduced a variable of organization, which combined with advances in technology and then (with Alexander the Great and Hannibal) tactical skill. The terms of prowess were extended beyond individual or massive strength to encompass elements of mind, intelligence and will.
Of course, these elements were always in play, but early human societies were simply more susceptible to the rude assertion of physical strength. However, even so the tactical element of surprise may have been part of the equation. Naturally timid, human beings were probably accustomed to approach one another with diffidence. But the confidence engendered by the outcomes of their greater physical strength (tested, for example against wild animals, as certain Biblical accounts suggest) emboldened those of superior strength to act more readily against other human beings, contrary to expectation. These individual encounters doubtless prefigured the experience of peaceful villages, unprepared by their experience to expect or withstand premeditated violent assaults from others of their own kind.
Once the results of their strength effectively neutralized their natural diffidence, did the strong come to rely on successful violence as the source of their livelihood (i.e., the wherewithal for physical survival), preferring it to more tedious labors? Did they revel in the vainglorious pleasures Shakespeare epitomizes in Macbeth, who was “Nothing afeard of what thyself didst make, strange images of death”? The bigotry of scientistic materialism leads people to see physical tools as the catalyst for violence. But the godlike exhilaration of killing, of being the arbiter of life and death, at least in consequence, is far more likely to have been its root. It has also been the source of a certain mutual self-recognition among those who have experienced it. It makes for a spiritual and psychological bond among people of decisive superior prowess, a bond that redefines human community in ways that go beyond the preconceived relations, boundaries and limits of natural family life.
To be continued…