“The Spirit of Man has been a stumbling block for all systematic philosophers of science.”
- Louis Bredvold
Louis Bredvold, in his brief and masterful work The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, asks two fundamental questions: “What is Natural Law & what are its alternatives?”. Why does this question matter? Put simply, it addresses whether our lives are guided by a Universal Divine Truth or by the arbitrary laws of man. Bredvold eloquently answers this vital question in three thoughtful steps. First, he defines what Natural Law is. Second, he articulates the arguments made by the greatest Enlightenment thinkers against the concept of the Natural Law. Finally, he presents the sharp and grounded rebuttal to this Enlightenment thought by the eminent Irish thinker and politician, Edmund Burke.
So what, exactly, is Natural Law? As Bredvold describes it, we must start with the notion of the two Laws of Nature: the scientific law and the moral law. The scientific law, it has been argued, is robust in its demonstrability. Gravity, the tides, and weather patterns can be observed. Velocity, acceleration, and force can be demonstrated. The moral laws, likewise, can also be observed and demonstrated. Bredvold articulates,
“When men recognized injustice and judged it as such, they thereby committed themselves to the idea of justice; call it what you will, call it the moral law, the conscience of mankind, the sense of decency, the Law of Nature, we cannot escape it without reducing human beings to mere things. The law for man is different from the law for things; we live in a world of standards and values; every day we live is a day of judgment.”
Aristotle would invoke the “Law of Nature” as acceptable legal doctrine. The Roman orator, Cicero, in De Legibus would reason that the fundamental principles of law rest NOT in the statutes and edicts of empowered men (which are prone to be arbitrary, vulgar, and self-serving). Rather, the fundamental principles of law rest in “Right Reason” which apprehends and conforms itself to eternal moral and spiritual values. It is this Right Reason which guides us towards the true, good, and beautiful and away from the false, evil, and hideous. Bredvold elaborates,
“We must be granted that it is legitimate to inquire whether the justice being actually administered is just. We must therefore search for the origin of law and justice. [Cicero] says, not in the opinions of men, nor in the will of those in position to command, but in Nature. This Nature can be known by the reason of man when it is full-grown and so perfected that it can rightly be called wisdom.”
“The Law of Nature…[continues] to exist in spite of the actuality of bad laws and inequitable decrees because it is Right Reason, understandable by men, but existing in the divine mind as the source of law and justice.”
The concept of “The Law of Nature” would transmit through time and across cultures to find itself informing the Justinian Code (of Roman Law), further developed/revealed by the Church Fathers (and later Augustine and Aquinas), and finally landing with Shakespeare, Coke, the American Founders, and the tenets of international law. As Sir Edward Coke admonished,
“Reason is the life of the Law; nay, the common law is itself nothing but reason.”
While the idea of Natural Law and Right Reason had advanced so far and full, skeptics emerged on the scene, especially in the eighteenth century era of the Enlightenment. Whether Natural Law was dismissed as shackling man to superstition, custom, or prejudice, the ultimate intended message was the same: by eliminating the notion of the Natural Law man is emancipated from weary strictures of tradition, law and its “ethics” are subjective and arbitrary, and man can rethink and reinvent a more “enlightened and liberating” foundation for and system of law.
Unfortunately, the cavalier sundering of law and morality, of rules and Right Reason led to a cold, “scientific” positivism focused on the “is” of law instead of the “oughts”. With no moral or ethical standard to aspire toward, laws are unmoored except for the acknowledgment that if you are in power, you can make the laws. And the legitimacy of the law resides wholly and simply in the fact that you have the power and thus, cannot otherwise be wrong in the law you enact. So too, a successor could erect contrary laws and likewise have complete legitimacy. When power is the standard and morality eliminated, anything goes. Period. No one can ask whether the justice enforced is just. As Bredvold warns,
“Laws become the measure of justice and injustice, not justice the measure of law.”
“Law is law simply because it is the will of the sovereign power.”
And as philosopher Thomas Hobbes declared,
“Nothing the sovereign power can do to a subject, on what pretense soever, can properly be called injustice or injury.”
Seeing the autocratic risks to this, Enlightenment thinkers sought to creatively thread the needle: Deny the presence of a Natural Law with its antiquated, repressive morality and obligations, BUT champion the existence of “Natural Rights” with incontestable entitlements. The paradox is obvious: an absence of obligations and an abundance of rights. A denial of an Eternal Law and an ardent affirmation of an Eternal Right. From this emerges a softer Enlightenment alternative to Hobbes’ draconian Enlightenment state. But, as Bredvold illustrates so well, the effort to pay no heed to a Natural Law and, instead, craft a soft morality to supplant Hobbes’ Leviathan state becomes so strained as to be bordering on the ridiculous.
The stark nature of Hobbes’ power-driven state moved other Enlightenment thinkers to soften up Hobbes’ truths. If Natural Law was to be denied, order would have to emerge from somewhere else lest anarchy followed by oppression would prevail. Enlightenment thinkers believed that order would come from “Science”. Science, which could bring about feats of engineering and manufacturing, wonders of agriculture and medicine, SURELY could do the same with human nature. Couldn’t it? As Hobbes would dream,
“For were the nature of human actions as distinctly known as the nature of quantity in geometrical figures, the strength of avarice and ambition… would presently faint and languish; and mankind should enjoy such an immortal peace, that… there would hardly be left any pretense for war.”
Descartes, Leibnitz, Craig, and Hutcheson promised the literal geometric solution to man’s moral and ethical conundrums. Descartes promised,
“If controversies were to arise there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands, to sit down to their slates, and say to each other (with a friend to witness if they liked), ‘Let us calculate!’”
Locke introduced the notion of man as a blank slate written on by the combined forces of experience, education, and environment. If one perfects these influencing forces, one can perfect man. Helvetius introduced man as selfishly looking out for his own interests – to enhance pleasure and eliminate pain. Teachers and lawmakers have only to educate and control this self-interest to achieve man’s perfection. Draw man to virtue and away from vice, Helvetius said, and you perfect society. Rousseau disagreed, claiming man is naturally good – corruptible only by flawed institutions and best served by following his “feelings and instincts” derived from Nature, and not by following his conscience, “Right Reason”, or Natural Law.
Nature, according to the Enlightenment thinkers, is viewed differently from Natural Law. The preeminence of Man’s physiology and pathology, Man’s appetites and instincts, according to these thinkers, justify Man’s revolt against what are deemed “artificial” mores, customs, and norms. By relaxing (or eradicating) these traditional norms, Man is liberated to embrace his “naturally good” self. And if Man needs help achieving (or is found straying from) his “natural goodness”, then Society with the help of Modern Science can mold him. And this can be done through newly considered progressive education, governance, and social engineering. Interestingly, the men who have charged themselves with eliminating the traditional norms and innovating the new system to enhance humanity, are men themselves. They, apparently, are imbued with a keener intelligence and virtue than the flock of men to whom they are attending. Cicero’s notion of an Eternal Standard apprehended by “Right Reason” was replaced by a softly anti-civilizational positivist notion that describes man as he is (his feelings and appetites) devoid of judgment and standards. It was only a matter of time before a new standard – an arbitrary man-made standard – would be erected. And with this new standard would come power. The dreams of the Enlightenment thinkers were to, as Bredvold describes,
“Abolish the artificial man who is formed by customs, institutions, and prejudices, reeducate a generation or two, and the human race will enjoy the universal happiness for which it was intended by Nature. What causes the unfaithfulness of husband and wife? The institution of marriage; abolish marriage and there will be no unfaithfulness. Who wages wars? Kings do; let us abolish monarchy and wars will cease. The evil that humanity suffers from is somehow between men, not within them. It can be traced to the church, or to the government, or to the aristocracy, or to monogamy, or to the schools, or to eating meat, and so forth.”
In the midst of the enthusiasm to abolish traditional norms and standards, the new standard would be erected. And what would the appetite-driven Enlightenment worldview support as its new standard? “Growth” or “progress”. Growth or progress relative to what, away from what, and toward what is grossly unclear, but growth and progress must be achieved nonetheless. Eighteenth century thinker Gotthold Lessing illustrated this satisfaction with progress when he claimed he would choose the eternal search for truth over the eternal possession of truth.
As Enlightenment thinking would be further challenged beyond its aspiration toward growth and progress, it would advocate four pillars of philosophical thought:
1) The absence of a Divine Natural Law apprehended by Right Reason
2) The natural goodness and perfectibility of man corrupted only by flawed institutions, standards, and norms.
3) The need for man to grow and progress by listening to his own appetites.
4) The ability of elite leaders to educate, govern, and reform man and society through the successful application of Science.
It was this intellectual program which led Enlightenment thinkers to believe that dramatic changes to man and society were possible to the point of achieving utopia. Paraphrasing Helvetius, Bredvold said,
“Change the environment in which children grow up and in a generation or two all the evils will wither and blow away. Let but reason prevail. Adopt the new ideas propounded by the scientific moralist, the scientific psychologist, the scientific economist and political philosopher, and man will discover that he has unlimited power to change and direct his destiny – nay, even that his nature may become completely perfected.”
The thinkers argued that man is in no need of exorcism, because he himself is not evil – his environment is. Eradicate the evil in the environment, and you can make man perfect. As Holbach said,
“[The scientific moralists and lawgivers, the educators, the statesmen are all] gardeners who by varying systems of cultivation alter the character of men as they would alter the form of trees.”
The damnation of “corrupting institutions and norms” led the Enlightenment thinkers to greater degrees of antagonism towards civilization as we know it. With the rage toward the institutional villains (religion, aristocracy, monarchy, private property) impeding man’s perfection, and the promise of new institutions ushering man to perfection, the end would justify the means. If need be, violence, oppression, and ruthlessness would be a small price to pay to achieve utopia. Or so it was thought…
The Irish Whig politician, Edmund Burke, would beg to differ. Burke, the brilliant and earnest member of parliament in the British House of Commons, found himself consistently serving as the prized voice in a minority party advocating unpopular causes. He set his eyes and his acerbic tongue against the greatest moral threats of his day: slavery, bigoted anti-Catholicism, a power-drunk governor, a capricious king, and an untethered French mob. While his passionate entreaties changed little in the immediate circumstances, his historical reach has been immeasurable. Edmund Burke found himself arguing in direct opposition to the intellectual zeitgeist of the day. His inspiration? The Natural Law.
To the pillars of Enlightenment philosophical thought, Burke firmly rebutted:
1) There, indeed, IS an eternal Natural Law interpretable by Right Reason.
On the viciousness of Warren Hastings, British East India Company’s Governor-General of India, Burke blisters:
“[Hastings] makes the corrupt practice of mankind the principles of his government; he collects together the vicious examples of all the robbers and plunderers of Asia, forms the mass of their abuses into a code, and calls it the duty of a British governor… I believe so audacious a thing has never before [been] attempted by man. ‘He had arbitrary power!’ My Lords, the East India Company has no arbitrary power to give him. The king has no arbitrary power to give. Neither your Lordships, nor the Commons, nor the whole Legislature, have arbitrary power to give. Arbitrary power is a thing which no man can give. My Lords, no man can govern himself by his own will; much less can he be governed by the will of others. We are all born – high as well as low – governors as well as governed – in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, a law prior to all our devices and all or conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal frame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir. This great law does not arise from our combinations and compacts; on the contrary, it gives them all the sanction they can have. Every good and perfect gift is of God; all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer it to be corrupted.”
2) Man, while good, is NOT perfectible and his traditional institutions are not innately or irredeemably corrupt. Burke said,
“[We need institutions] to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason.”
“We, in England, are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages.”
3) Man’s unharnessed appetites lead not to greater freedom, but to undisciplined disorder and tragedy. Burke again,
“The liberty, the only liberty, I mean is a liberty connected with order: that not only exists with order and virtue, but which cannot exist without them.”
(as Bredvold observes)
“Such a social order [as found in the English Constitution], the condition of a true and manly freedom… [could be brought about] only by the perseverance and effort of many generations, by the concurrence of many men and many tempers and many events, by embodying in institutions the wisdom of a whole people accumulated through many years; but such a social order, Burke lamented, can be demolished in a moment by the rashness and fury of very ordinary man. And the new revolutionary philosophy was tearing up the whole vast fabric of the social inheritance of Europe, and replacing it with untried innovations.”
4) The wisdom of intellectuals and the tools of Science are not infallible. Burke continues,
“Aristotle, the great master of reasoning, cautions, and with great weight and propriety, against this species of delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry.”
While Edmund Burke gave an impassioned and articulate defense of man against the misguided logicians and philosophers of his day, his voice would go largely unheeded. Burke lost one fight after another. And yet, perhaps the political battles he lost are overshadowed by the robust intellectual war he ultimately won. Burke’s quiet truth has endured. It is up to us to listen.
Louis Bredvold, in the conclusion of The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, makes one last crucial point. It is a point that simply makes sense. If a man is asked what law is, he may simply answer that it is a means by which conflicts are settled in the best interests of society. This could be defines as a “Utilitarian” answer. If he were to agree that the creation of additional laws could define human nature, morals, and metaphysics, he would be giving a “Positivist” answer. But, most importantly, if man finds himself righteously indignant about a “shortcoming of the law”, a law or an application of law that does NOT settle a conflict or provide a definition that is satisfactory… then man has said that law is in adequate. And it is inadequate because it fails to be Just. And Justice is a more perfect standard. We all know what it is like to understand that something may conform with the rules, but that it may simply not “be right or fair”. This extraordinary observation reinforces that the bedrock of Natural Law can be intellectually dismissed in the abstract, but we all hold it firm and fast in our everyday lives. It is real because we feel it deep in our bones.
To Louis Bredvold’s original questions, “What is Natural Law and what are its alternatives?”. Natural Law is an eternal, unchanging Truth. It’s alternatives are not. It is as simple as that.
“A spectre is haunting eastern Europe: the spectre of what in the West is called dissent.”
It was 1978 when these words were first penned. A forty-two year old Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, living in a ruthless Communist society felt he had little choice but to write. Havel, a man with suspect bourgeois roots and subversive political tendencies had previously proven himself to be an “uncooperative citizen” in Communist-run Czechoslovakia. In his youth, Havel had been denied various educational opportunities due to his family’s intellectual and bourgeois upbringing, so instead he would find himself writing internationally acclaimed plays. In spite of clear fears and frustrations, Havel was making a life for himself.
But in 1968, all of this would change. This year would see an eight month Czechoslovakian experiment of liberalization of travel, media, and speech (also known as the “Prague Spring”) crushed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. During that time, Vaclav Havel would lend his voice to the resistance on Radio Free Czechoslovakia further solidifying his reputation as an enemy of the state. Subsequently, a draconian enforcement of Communist ideology through police-state tactics and civil rights deprivation would lead to Havel’s plays being banned and his travel curtailed. Defiant, Havel would illegally publish and distribute new plays and, most famously, collaborate with 250 others on the composition of Charter 77, a blistering attack on the repressive nature of the Czech Communist regime. Dubbed renegades, traitors, and agents of imperialism, the Communist government escalated efforts to persecute any involved in this work of subversion. Vaclav Havel, having proved to be a bright, unbending leader of a group of “dissidents” in Communist Czech society, soon found himself pursued, harassed, and ultimately arrested and imprisoned. But just prior to his arrest, Havel found that the perilous life he was leading helped him in ways he hadn’t anticipated – it sharply concentrated his mind. As his (and his countrymen’s) freedoms became increasingly encroached upon, a paradoxical truth became apparent. In a militant and mighty system erected on a bedrock of lies, the greatest weapon to confront it came not in the form of armies and guns, but in something quite clear and simple: the truth. And so Vaclav Havel began to write.
The Power of the Powerless is perhaps the most famous essay Vaclav Havel would ever write. Furthermore, it is one of the most well-known and instrumental pieces of dissident literature in the Cold War. Passed initially through underground channels in Eastern Europe, it would provide hope and solidarity to dissident movements in numerous Communist-bloc countries. More importantly, it would provide an education to the “Free World” about life in a Communist despotism that would rival the works of Orwell, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn. The timing of this essay would also be fortuitous following Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s Harvard Commencement Address (A World Split Apart) by several months, and preceding Pope John Paul II‘s visit to Poland and the emergence of the Polish Solidarity movement by less than two years.
The enduring question to be asked, however, about The Power of the Powerless is what does this essay say and why does it matter? Vaclav Havel told people what it was really like living in a Communist system. In the tradition of Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kolakowski, and Kennan, Havel shined a bright light in the dark corners, physically shook the rotting edifice, weaved a compelling narrative so that all people – whether intellectual Communist fellow-travelers or worldly firebrand dissidents – would recognize the intellectual bankruptcy and moral turpitude of the Communist enterprise. And he did it brilliantly.
Havel described the Communist system as an anomalous dictatorship. Unlike most dictatorships which are local, lacking true historical roots, and legitimized largely by military power, the Communist dictatorship behaved like a “secularized religion”. It covered a broad area of diverse cultures, professed to be rooted in historical socialist movements with philosophical godfathers like Marx and Engels, and while conventional and nuclear weaponry posed as ultimate trump cards, it was often social pressures and indoctrination that enabled order to be maintained. As Havel would write:
“[Communism] offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediate available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life take on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.”
Undoubtedly, with control of civil and military power as well as the levers of economic production, the Communist system was clearly coercive. But an eerie complicity – a willingness of many to emotionally, spiritually, and ideologically “buy-in” or believe in the system – distinguishes Communist dictatorship from others where “buy-in” is simply cynically ingratiating oneself to the power structure in exchange for goods and services. This system was different. Havel writes,
“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them… It enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves… It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own ‘fallen existence’, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.”
The Communist system, while promising to serve the people, ruthlessly demands the people serve it. While professing to protect the collective dignity of the people, it casually destroys the dignity of the individual in the name of the collective. These lies, the bald-faced hypocrisies, are accompanied by so many others, as Havel recounts:
“Government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary use of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
It is here that Vaclav Havel makes one of his most compelling points about living within the Communist system:
“Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, ARE the system.”
Two points permeate Havel’s writing on the Communist system and its inhabitants. First, the regime is intent, at all costs, to craft a metaphysics, an ideology, a pseudo-reality to fill in any and all cracks of doubt or dissent by its subjects. If people are orderly because they are fearful, that is unstable and ultimately unsustainable because fear breeds resentment, and resentment breeds revolt. Instead, by crafting a world of lies, appearances, rituals, and philosophico-spiritual language, a regime can lull its underlings at worst and convert them at best to “the cause”. And what, is “the cause”? Power… indisputably and unflinchingly secure in the hands of the regime.
The second point Havel makes is the utter necessity for each individual’s complicity with the system – each individual’s willingness to “live within the lie.” For each citizen to comply – actively or passively – is to endorse the system, to contribute to the “pseudo-reality” of lies crafted by the regime, to pressure fellow citizens to fall in line, to push the frontiers of the dictatorship one person further against the truth of the “free world”. In doing so, the citizen has become both victim and accomplice. He loses his dignity. He has been used. He is empty and rendered less than human. That is, unless… he opts to “live within the truth.”
To “live within the truth” is to defy the unreality – in big ways, or in small. Havel’s example of the green-grocer organizing an underground group, or simply not putting the propaganda poster in his window is excellent. There is no shortage of fear under these regimes (or brutal consequence) and Havel admits this with sympathy. At the same time, he reinforces that fissures in the edifice of lies can come in big forms or small – and no small act of “living within the truth” is without its impact on the oppressive regime. Havel reinforces the threat of “living within the truth”:
“By breaking the rules of the game, [the citizen living within the truth] has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety…If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.”
In Havel’s eyes, to “live within the truth” requires a few things. First, a recognition of the “hidden sphere” within us and between us that will never be fed, fulfilled, or sustained by an external system, ideology, or abstraction. This “sphere” is a soul to be filled with faith, truth, and beauty. Second, a recognition that the edifice of society is the individual and the essence of the individual is a dignity that is inextinguishable. Finally, courage to object in ways big and small to a regime’s dehumanizing pseudo-realities that diminish human dignity in any way. To “live within the truth” is to empower the individual in even the most oppressive of circumstances. It is the power of the powerless.
Vaclav Havel and his fellow dissidents underwent withering trials to arrive at the wisdom evident in their lives and works. The lessons learned were hard-earned. Let us hope that these lessons are not easily forgotten.
Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)
Requiescat in pace