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Monday, February 27, 2006

giving praise to a laissez faire crank

LI’s readers should go to the Online Liberty Library, if they have never been there, just for the pure beauty of the thing. This month they have done something pretty spectacular – they are putting up the 33 volumes of John Stuart Mill’s collected works. Wow. There are a few extraordinary sites on the Net, just in terms of sheer academic bibliophilia. I’m not talking about the general library thing that Gutenberg does. There’s the on-line publication of Simmel’s collected works. There’s the wonderful, polyglot Marxist library. But the OLL is ahead of all of these. I don’t know who is funding it – no doubt some laissez faire crank. But I don’t care.

So… I downloaded the classic essays on Bentham, Coleridge, Whewall, etc. The Coleridge essay is one of Mill’s great works – and tragically neglected. In it, Mill delineates the tension between the progressive and the conservative using Bentham as his emblematic lefty, and Coleridge as his emblematic righty.

“By Bentham, beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? and by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it? The one took his stand ‘outside’ the received opinion, and surveyed it as an entire stranger to it: the other looked at it from within, and endeavoured to see it with the eyes of a believer in it; to discover by what apparent facts it was at first suggested, and by what appearances it has ever since been rendered continually credible – has seemed, to a succession of persons, to be a faithful interpretation of their experience. Bentham judged a proposition true or false as it accorded or not with the result of his own inquiries; and did not search very curiously into what might be meant by the proposition, when it obviously did not mean what he thought true. With Coleridge, on the contrary, the very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men, and received by whole nations or generations of mankind, was part of the problem to be solved, was one of the phenomena to be accounted for. And as Bentham's short and easy method of referring all to the selfish interests of aristocracies, or priests, or lawyers, or some other species of impostors, could not satisfy a man who saw so much farther into the complexities of the human intellect and feelings--he considered the long or extensive prevalence of any opinion as a presumption that it was not altogether a fallacy; that, to its first authors at least, it was the result of a struggle to express in words something which had a reality to them, though perhaps not to many of those who have since received the doctrine by mere tradition. The long duration of a belief, he thought, is at least proof a of an adaptation in it to some portion or other of the human mind; and if, on digging down to the root, we do not find, as is generally the case, some truth, we shall find some natural want or requirement of human nature which the doctrine in question is fitted to satisfy: among which wants the instincts of selfishness and of credulity have a place, but by no means an exclusive one. From this difference in the points of view of the two philosophers, and from the too rigid adherence of each of his own, it was to be expected that Bentham should continually miss the truth which is in the traditional opinions, and Coleridge that which is out of them, and at variance with them. But it was also likely that each would find, or show the way to finding, much of what the other missed.”

It is a funny thing, but the Coleridgian presumption of meaning has, gradually, been grafted onto liberalism in the 20th century. Call it the anthropological effect – the realization that there are cultural values, the loss of which is a genuine loss, and the gain in dissolving them – the gain of Westernizing, liberalizing, and otherwise lye and dyeing whole cultures – not always an authentic gain. At the same time, the Benthamite instinct for attributing sordid motives to conservative policies is still fully functional.

I think that the hesitation of the old school conservatives before the warmongering of the current administration – the latest symptom of which is the defection of Buckley to, practically, the side of Michael Moore – comes from the Coleridgian impulse. But the way cultures are met is distinct – for the Coleridgian, what is most respectable about any culture is the elite. Automatic respect should be paid to hierarchy. Whereas for the liberal, the elite is an embarrassment – often, the anthropological effect leads to a ridiculous softening of the picture of a different culture, an erasure of those inequities and cruelties that may be at work in it. Perhaps – if I am be excused a Benthamite moment – that softening makes it easier to bond with the elite, to do business. Thus you get the marginal parody of liberal multi-culturalism. To get a real whiff of it, go to Santa Fe in August and watch perfectly white women and men pretend to be “native Americans” as they buy silver jewelry from the stands at the Governor’s Palace. It’s funny, in that Melville’s Confidence-Man-funny way. Not ha ha funny, but so funny I could throw up blood funny.

5 comments:

winn said...

Thanks for the link to the OLL, Roger.

I think that softening also disguises a sort of condescension, in that 'they don't know any better' way. A dash of Rousseau as well as noblesse oblige. It's the same way the intellectuals delight in fretting over how to reach 'the base' and 'the heartland' as if there were a county, perhaps near Tulsa, in which all the real red-blooded Americans live and by finding and subsequently appealing to the naivete of those stout yeoman the country can be won back to the ideals of the Democratic party, ideals which were incidentally sold twelve to the penny long ago.

Oh dear. I think I went on a rant.

Amerigo Sciurofascista said...

It sounds awfully like Mill is looking for a happy medium, or perhaps the best of both views, a synthesis, that avoids the flaws of each. But why posit Bentham on the left when there is William Godwin?

Today, Michael Moore is held to be on the populist left. But by word he's a plain vanilla social democrat, advising modest reforms, and by deed, ultimately, a Democrat. It's a little unnerving the way the mainstream figures all tend to homogenize towards the philosophical base of the power holder's staunchest supporters.

Brian Miller said...

Mr. Scruggs brings up an interesting point. The Vietnam War and paranoia aside, Richard Nixon was far more liberal (and Statist) than Bill Clinton (let alone W). It's interesting how many of the old Nixonistas are now abandoning ship.

roger said...

Winn, not a rant -- I think you are right, and there are mixed motives in the "softening" I was trying to talk about, among which condescenscion has to loom pretty large. And -- as happens, lately, with what I write -- I was a bit too venemous there at the end, which distorted my point. I'm having a real problem with sarcasm lately. Irritable male syndrome, you know...

I think the Coleridgian move is the right move for liberalism, I should say. To understand how meaning is constructed rather than imposed is, for instance, the difference between the way Iraq has been presented in the MSM and generally by the DC cliques and the way it is presented in the anti-war movement. I've tried to follow that rule at LI -- never thinking of the news from Iraq in terms simply of the American pov, but in terms of what we know about Iraq -- for instance, that it is a country with a 40 to 60 percent unemployment rate. That's a simple but devastating statistic, and it predicts that a lot of things the Americans want to believe about the place and that are reported about Iraq have to be either wrong or seriously distorted. Thus, it has been pretty easy to tell that, for the last three years, the American idea of the Iraqi "leadership", among which such as Allawi and Chalabi figure prominently, is light years away from the real Iraqi idea of Iraqi leadership, which must be driven, as all politics are driven to some extent, by the economic facts on the ground. And of course that song plays out in this country too -- the picture of the country we generally get is very upper middle class, on both sides. There's no prominent reporter anywhere who makes 30 to 60 thousand dollars -- they are all well into the upper middle or upper percentiles. And one's circumstances are absorbed, unconsciously, into one's p.o.v.

Which is how Bentham is converted into Coleridge in my feverish mind.

Mistah Scruggs, interestingly, I was thinking of UFO Breakfast when I wrote this post, and the recent debate on y'all's site about liberals (and my stalwart defense of those poor squirrels!). I'm returning to that topic soon.

Steve Sailer said...

Thanks. A most informative discussion of the conservative and progressive minds at their best.