Revel and Popper on a “Way of Being for Man in the World”
The first chapter of Jean-François Revel’s incisive 1983 book How Democracies Perish is entitled “The End of an Accident.” The accident in question is no less than the future of the democratic process, more specifically, Western democracies. Revel’s telling contention is simply that modern democracy is a historically innovative and experimental social-political organization of humanity. However, this experiment, he goes on to argue, is ongoing, thus fluid. Viewed as such, democracy is a dynamic process that must be continually nourished and strengthened with the growth of institutions and attitudes that understand and respect its complex and fragile inner core.
The idea of democracy as a humane experiment in social-political agglomeration, Revel contends, is a notable improvement over other tyrannical political systems that have appeared throughout history. This is sound advice for postmodernity, a time that is deprived of historical memory. The civilizing pathos of the democratic process is quite a significant accomplishment because the open society is susceptible to attack by the corruption of the very autonomous internal structure that defines it. This experiment is always in peril due to the great number of enemies that democracies must contend with – especially from within.
Let us compare democracy’s susceptibility to internal subversion with what another seminal twentieth century political thinker, Karl Popper, has called the “tribal instinct” in his 1945 work The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper views democracy as being a system of values that is diametrically opposed to collectivism. This is the case because democracy strives toward autonomy for the individual and away from man’s deep-seated collective tribal longing. This means that for Revel and Popper democracy signals ontologically a way of being for man in the world.
For instance, Popper argues that the lure of some intellectuals toward the totalitarian impulse is a return to a tribal and communistic social set-up. This coerced collectivization is the negation of man’s differentiated existential existence. By collectivizing human existence, we become prey to the fallacy that only under these conditions can man defeat the material and physical forces that dominate the human condition. Revel and Popper suggest the latter forces in question must be understood as metaphysical-existential in nature, and not merely social-political. The totalitarian impulse is incommensurate with the humanizing values that democracy promotes. This is the case because the totalitarian impulse’s main object of attack is human life itself. This is a significant analysis of the plight of democracy as an historical process, given Revel’s and Popper’s idea that the open society humanizes the social-political process.
These two thinkers point out that anti-humanistic ideology is perhaps the strongest threat to the virtues of the open society. Ironically, the greatest and simplest demand that the open society makes of its citizens is the exercise of good will.
The Role of Intellectuals in the Open Society
What role should thinkers play in an open society? There are still conscientious thinkers in this technological and ideologically expedient age who pose this question. This is the case because the responsibility of honest thinkers ought to be to respect and protect human dignity and preserve individual autonomy. This should translate into protecting social-political systems that best safeguard individual self-rule. This is the central question that must be asked of thinkers and intellectuals. Perhaps this question has never been as important as it is in postmodernity. While the average citizen goes about dispersing their vital energy in ways that may or may not be political, many postmodern thinkers and intellectuals make it their raison d’être to politicize all aspects of human life. This is particularly the case in democratic, open societies. Revel’s poignant criticism of the latter is insightful because he was a socialist in his youth.
This question is also important because politicization of human life often culminates in mass murder – the moral and logical outcome of tyrannical Dystopias. For example, the hope of some social engineers in the 1920s and 1930s was to fulfill this vision with a society run by technocrats. That is, by scientists and engineers, and technology as its central rallying point. Technocracy it was called. The Soviets opted for the clinical precision of alleged scientific dialectical materialism; every man, woman and child were accounted for, not for their intrinsic value as persons, but as temporary units that formed the collectivization of mankind.
This colossal social-engineering manipulation of mankind was emulated in the West by sociologists and psychologists, B. F. Skinner for instance, who were – and continue to be – ecstatic about the promise of social engineering. Yet today perhaps more than ever before, given the vast amount of data collected in the last hundred years, we are still left with the pressing question: what ought to be the role and responsibility of thinkers in an open society?
Public intellectuals, scientists and philosophers, I will suggest, should keep an objective and disinterested distance from identity and radical ideology. Instead, prudence in private affairs ought to serve as the strongest guidepost of moderation in the summum bonum of public ends. Discretion has always been the moral imperative and duty of the wise. It is not that the world of politics ought to be shunned by the truly civic minded. However, we can undertake our civic duty in a varied manner of ways. This is what prudence mandates. Prudence does not politicize all aspects of the human condition.
To educate, care for and sacrifice for our children is not only a moral obligation, but in doing so, our moral behavior embraces a form of civic pride that has its origin in honor. To take care of one’s aging parents is not only to do the work of conscience, but is central to understanding our role in promoting civic responsibility. A strong rule of thumb is that intellectuals should mind their own lives with a degree of dignity and sincerity that serves as a model of the common good. The most egregious staple of hypocrisy in this respect is the call for a form of collective, make-work social justice that many people are unwilling to practice in private life. This is what Adam Smith means by affectation for the common good.
The Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, has eloquently argued that disagreement at the social-political level is always indicative of a greater confusion at the metaphysical and moral level. My contention here is two-fold: First, not all solutions to human problems can be construed as political in scope. Secondly, radical ideologies run counter to true humanistic values. In one way or other, we all participate in the democratic process. Even volatile malcontents who deface democracy by defending the indefensible reap great benefits from the democratic process. In the anti-democratic systems of government that radical ideologues promote there is no place for sophomoric malcontentment. This is the strength of the open society. We celebrate democracy when we recognize the delicate value of our ennobling freedom.
For this reason, we must remain vigilant of the destructive attitude that radical ideology poses for the open society. The totalitarian impulse works incessantly for the establishment of societies, where alleged equality stunts personal freedom. This is the nature of totalitarianism. Thus, in the twenty-first century we find ourselves discussing the nature of totalitarianism – cajoled by the language of utopia – much as the elephant in the room.
Reason and Democracy
We must also ask, are conditions that inhere in reason as a logical and self-regulating process equal in kind to those performed by mere intellectual craftiness? The former is the purview of truth; the latter the hallmark of radical ideologues. As an enlightening human modality, reason defends good will, which is a fundamental component of democratic values.
On the other hand, we have witnessed how intelligence, when not guided by a self-regulating principle of checks and balances, can be destructive and infrahuman, as is evidenced in blind devotion to radical ideology. Radical ideology is a form of social engineering that encompasses the human condition. Radical ideology is all-consuming. Sweeping through aspects of life that have nothing to do with the political arena, radical ideology coerces man into the delusion that everything is political in nature, thus necessitating political solutions. This is the legacy of the Frankfurt School.
As long as reason remains grounded in conscience as good will – an ethos that makes reason a solitary wayfarer – it also remains disinterested. Understanding and wisdom are the result of reflective thought. This is what Socrates exemplifies by the notion of a private daimon, or voice that guided him into always taking the right and virtuous path, even though often by simply avoiding falsehood.
The gravitas of private reflection is incomparable with social-political action-for-its-own-sake, which is the distinguishing mark of radical ideologues. Postmodernity is a disquiet and insipid time when, more often than not, the loudest and most disingenuous politically correct clamor gains an audience. For this reason, it is important not to confuse reason with politically expedient craftiness that censors righteousness and virtue.
Reason, by its very make-up is universal and disinterested, and leads man to embrace the logical outcome of self-evident truths. It is also self-motivated and contemplative. Reason enables man to embrace virtue, discipline and self-understanding as amor fati – that is, willingness to love our own fate. To care about our destiny means to take the necessary steps to secure the conditions that, whether in the social-political or moral-spiritual realm, enable man to cultivate personal autonomy. Reason dictates that the longest route taken is the hardest won. Reason is a tool that contributes to the transmission of knowledge and values – especially conscience and good will.
Reason concerns itself with a virtuous catharsis, a kind of spiritual purification that strengthens virtue. Is this not the same autonomous solemnity for which democracy provides the impetus? The irrefutable truth remains that democracy allows us to become ennobled regardless of our inability to become noticed by society at large. This is the incessant gripe of intellectuals. In totalitarian countries intellectuals who are committed to the party-line are handed control of ministries and cultural institutions. In democracies, intellectuals must carry their own weight in talent, vocation and toil.
Democracy enables people to live dignified lives. An honest examination of the role that reason plays in creating and upholding civilization makes everyone responsible in such an enterprise. Reason guides man in the pursuit of truth, just as truth exists as a central cog in the development of man. Reason and democracy are partners in the development of morally and spiritually well-adjusted persons. Democracy does not have a moral obligation to make us happy, but it does go further than any other system of government in enabling man to be content.
Intellectuals and Democracy
Many rational and conscientious intellectuals have participated in the political realm, often admirably and nobly. The list of these noble of spirit intellectuals, especially prior to WWII, is vast. The enlightened level of knowledge and culture they bestowed on the general public is indicative of the Socratic dictum that to improve the world, one must first improve oneself. However, this moral sense began to wane as the twentieth century began to produce what Robert Musil called “the man without qualities” – who lives life in a pseudo social-political confusion that prevails over reason and morality.¹
Many intellectuals have been shielded from human reality by an ideological fog that makes them serve tyranny as useful idiots, as Lenin aptly referred to them. In the twentieth century, these intellectuals played a central role in establishing and protecting tyranny. In the first two decades of the twenty first century, we are witnessing the proliferation of this intellectual dishonesty.
Democracies today practice secular governments. The problem is that radical ideological secularism, that is, the transfer of worldly power from an ecclesiastical to a civil order has secularized all aspects of the human condition. In other words, we have squeezed the vitality, profundity and sublimity from human existence and institutions. This re-education process, which has been achieved on such a grand scale in postmodernity, has institutionalized the anti-humanistic and nihilistic axiological inversion that we witness today, beginning with the Frankfurt School. Radical ideology’s penchant for cultural and moral destruction has politicized aspects of human existence that are merely metaphysical-existential. This has turned Western democracies into a tasteless, morally bankrupt and vacuous cultural carapace – a mere semblance of profundity.
When intellectuals willingly embrace power-play and radical ideological expediency, reason can no longer recognize objectivity and the pursuit of truth. Intellectuals who participate – to become committed some have called it – in the social-political realm and party-politics – end by eagerly trivializing and politicizing all things human. The structure of social-political debate that ideologues propose in postmodernity is devoid of all semblance of a moral and axiological compass.
Because the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the totalitarian impulse is irredeemable, postmodern radical ideologues have been successful in usurping capital from capitalists in order to fund their social-engineering cultural war. Radical ideologues refuse to take account of the overwhelmingly available empirical evidence that refutes their Utopian social engineering. The atrocities motivated by the social-political praxis of theory do not lie. The imminent danger of these incessant cries for the establishment of hitherto tried and failed ideological Dystopias is that even thought and culture become collectivized in the name of alleged progressive liberation.
Radical Ideological Malcontents
Radical ideological collectivization excels in converting everything serious and sublime into spurious cynicism and make-work political propaganda. This particular form of malcontentment is a profound indication of pathological self-loathing. Soviet theorists understood that party-line political correctness had to be founded on doublespeak and false morality. It is a precariously dangerous state of reality that Western democracies have institutionalized the terror techniques of radical ideologues in holding trials for writers such as Salman Rushdie, Michel Houellebecq and the late Oriana Fallaci. These thinkers, to point out just a few, are deemed politically incorrect by radical ideologues. These types of trials are a legendary staple of Soviet-bloc countries, we ought not to forget.
Spontaneity, not radical ideology, is the staple characteristic of genuinely humanistic free thinkers. These individuals never auto-designate themselves as intellectuals. Humanists – Christian and secular – should be the practitioners of common sense and good will, where what matters most is a coherent appropriation of human existence. Humanism has historically signified a mode of reflection that augments the worth of individual persons. Radical ideology never achieves this end – even though it finds it necessary to disguise itself in such colors.
In 1960 Jean-Paul Sartre went to Cuba to witness firsthand the communist state that Castro’s revolution had brought about in that island nation. We can easily recognize Sartre’s self-imposed myopia and the crimes against humanity that such intellectual dishonesty foster. Why couldn’t he? The system that he hailed as the model of freedom was indeed a prison of the human spirit.² Radical ideological craftiness can never convert itself into self-reflective intelligence. According to ancient Greek philosophers, self-knowledge is a component of wisdom. This form of contemplation is found in Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism. In ancient Greek thinkers, we encounter speculative and practical reason being guided by self-reflection. This is a key component in the foundation of Western democracy.
We also witness these rational and moral virtues in the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, a thinker who was the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher-king ideal, and Epictetus, a freed slave. Ironic, isn’t it? Boethius proclaimed philosophy to be a lady in his masterpiece The Consolation of Philosophy. He was an instrumental figure in establishing music theory in Western culture. Boethius writes, “music is associated not only with speculation but with morality as well […] the soul of the universe was joined together according to musical concord.”³ This reflective temperament is important, considering that he was imprisoned and was going to be executed. This propensity for truth is also found in Saint Thomas Aquinas, who recognized the need to proclaim divinity and reason as equal partners in the search for truth.
Many conscientious intellectuals have participated in the political realm, often admirably and nobly. Yet many others have been shielded from reality by an incessant need to impose their maniacal egos on human reality. Lamentably, the latter kind acts as judge, jury and executioner of the totalitarian impulse in postmodernity.
— Pedro Blas González is Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in Philosophy at DePaul University in 1995. Dr. González has published extensively on leading Spanish philosophers, such as Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno. His books have included Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay (Floricanto Press, 2007), Ortega’s ‘Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man (Algora Publishing, 2007), Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy (Algora Press, 2005) and Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega’s Philosophy of Subjectivity (Paragon House). He also published a translation and introduction of José Ortega y Gasset’s last work to appear in English, “Medio siglo de Filosofia” (1951) in Philosophy Today Vol. 42 Issue 2 (Summer 1998).
- Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins. (New York: Vintage International, 1996).
- Nowhere is the totalitarian impulse felt stronger than in the romance of “revolutions” that take place in far off lands, where the natives will undoubtedly eventually show great gratitude to bourgeois intellectuals for their personal sacrifice.
- Daniel Boorstin, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. (New York: Random House, 1992) p. 238.