In the introduction to his collection of writings, Socratic Puzzles, Robert Nozick writes that he never responded to the sizable literature on Anarchy, State and Utopia. His natural inclination would be to defend his views. As Nozick notes, “How could I learn that my views were mistaken if I thought about them always with defensive juices flowing.” Nozick’s confession raises a more general question for an individual as he thinks about society and his place in it. How can one pursue reason and virtue when “defensive juices” are continuously being triggered by politics and ideology?
The prospect of a de-politicized society seems remote. When individuals frame their interests as a function of collective choice, perpetual strife and division is born with it. The habit to look at society as a set of problems to be solved (whether through “piecemeal engineering” and tinkering or fanatical pursuit of grandiose ideas) instead of seeing it as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” (as John Rawls phrased it), cultivates and reinforces the political consequentialism that permeates contemporary opinion. Far from being the defining element of modern liberalism, this teleological perspective on society unites most modern political thinking as expressed in appeals to “Fairness,” “Growth,” “Freedom” as values that should guide public policy.
It seems counterintuitive for (classical) liberal thought not to propose the pursuit of liberty as a goal for society. But as Anthony de Jasay points out in Before Resorting to Politics,
The question of whether freedom is valuable or a free society is good ought not to enter at all into a properly thought-out political doctrine, liberal or other. It should be resolutely ignored. Whichever way the question were answered would, it seems to me, inevitably steer us in a teleological direction, and undermine the foundations on which the society that we could consider free might stand and survive.
In his book Natural Rights and History, the philosopher Leo Strauss identified Thomas Hobbes as a thinker within the Epicurean tradition that perceived man as an a-political animal. But according to Strauss, Hobbes
…gives that a-political view a political meaning. He tries to instill the spirit of political idealism into the hedonistic tradition. He thus became the creator of political hedonism, a doctrine which has revolutionized human life everywhere on a scale never yet approached by any other teaching.
But instead of following Strauss in his rejection of Hobbes’ mechanistic worldview, we only reject his “political hedonism” and restore Hobbes to its a-political Epicurean tradition by rejecting his identification of individual choice with collective choice.
The German philosopher of science Regard Radnitzky notes that “there is a striking analogy between (a) the dilemma of contractarianism in political philosophy and (b) the “justificationist” dilemma in German epistemology.” Whereas the traditional Hobbesian argument for the state does not come off the ground because of the lack of an enforcer to enforce the contract to create Leviathan, the quest for certainty leads to descriptive statements without ground or an infinite regress of arguments. If rational choice does not require political choice and the search for objective values to inform public policy will be recognized as an occult endeavor, the Aristotelian image of man as a political animal will collapse and Epicurean withdrawal from politics may take its place.
At the 2005 Austrian Scholars Conference, Martin Masse spoke favorably of Epicurus as a forerunner of libertarian philosophy:
Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, were all statists to various degrees, glorified political involvement, and devised political programs for their audiences of rich and well-connected aristocrats. Epicurus focused on the individual search for happiness, counseled not to get involved in politics because of the personal trouble it brings, and thought that politics was irrelevant….He had no political program to offer and one can find no concept of collective virtues or order or justice in his teachings….
The Epicurean wise man will keep the covenant and not harm others not because he wishes to comply with some moral injunction being imposed from above, but simply because that’s the best way to pursue his happiness and keep his tranquility of mind.
Epicurus believed that tranquility of mind could not be found in political involvement, that we can choose life without fearing death, and rejected superstition in favor of empiricism. His contractarian theory of justice anticipated a philosophical tradition that looks for the source of morals in agreement (”neither to harm nor be harmed”), but that treats politics with skepticism.
The 20th century witnessed a progressive decomposition of liberal thought and the celebration of a politicized society. No person, or according to some people, no atom, should be exempt from the special plans that are being made for this world. Although the 2008 financial meltdown could have given pause to those that see society as a means to an end, the emerging wisdom is that the current problems were caused by a lack of control instead of a lack of restraint.
During the final years of his life the reactionary thinker Julius Evola had to face the question of how a radical traditionalist was to act in a world that had evolved into the opposite of what he stood for. Evola recommended a detached life, or as the wisdom goes, “to be in the world, but not of it.” He advocated apolitea, the withdrawal from contemporary politics and abandonment of political activism. Instead of fighting the current age he recommended to “ride the tiger” until the tiger is exhausted. One does not have to follow Evola in his obscurantist philosophies to appreciate this perspective.
This is part 3 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.