The Fallacy of Human Freedom

The Fallacy of Human Freedom

Mini Teaser: Faith in progress and the perfectibility of human nature are at the center of Western thought. What if this faith is misplaced?

by Author(s): Robert W. Merry

And yet he can’t quite give up his attachment to civilization or progress even as he ponders his predicament. “Progress was calling Kayerts from the river,” writes Conrad. “Progress and civilisation and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return from that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done”—justice administered by himself, in a final bow to the permanence of civilization and the myth of progress.

Gray notes that Conrad himself had traveled to the Congo in 1890 to take command of a river steamer. He arrived thinking he was a civilized human being but later thought differently: “Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal,” he wrote, referring to European humanity—which, as Gray notes, “caused the deaths of millions of human beings in the Congo.” Gray elaborates:

The idea that imperialism could be a force for human advance has long since fallen into disrepute. But the faith that was once attached to empire has not been renounced. Instead it has spread everywhere. Even those who nominally follow more traditional creeds rely on a belief in the future for their mental composure. History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but—everyone insists—the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair like that which unhinged Kayerts.

This perception leads Gray to a long passage of praise for Sigmund Freud, who “reformulated one of the central insights of religion: humans are cracked vessels.” Freud, writes Gray, saw the obstacles to human fulfillment as not only external but also within the human psyche itself. Unlike earlier therapies and those that came after, however, Freud’s approach did not seek to heal the soul. As Gray explains, psychotherapy generally has viewed the normal conflicts of the mind as ailments in need of remedy. “For Freud, on the other hand,” writes Gray, “it is the hope of a life without conflict that ails us.” Most philosophies and religions have begun with the assumption that humans are sickly animals, and Freud didn’t depart from this perception. “Where he was original,” says Gray, “was in also accepting that the human sickness has no cure.” Thus, he advocated a life based on the acceptance of perpetual unrest, a prerequisite to human assertion against fate and avoidance of the inner turmoil that led to Kayerts’s suicide.

This insight emerges as the underlying thesis of Gray’s book. As he sums up, “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.” In other words, we don’t need religion and we don’t need the idea of progress because we don’t need redemption, either divine or temporal. We simply need to accept our fate, as they did in the classical age, before the Socratic faith in knowledge and the Christian concept of redemption combined to form the modern idea of progress and the belief in the infinite malleability of human nature.

IN THE end, then, Gray’s message is largely for individual Westerners, adjudged by the author to be in need of a more stark and unblinking view of the realities of human existence. It’s a powerful message, and not without elements of profundity. And it is conveyed with eloquence of language and dignity of thought.

But this is a magazine about man as a political animal, about public policy and the ongoing drama of geopolitical force and competition. Thus, it would seem appropriate to seek to apply Gray’s view of progress and human nature to that external world. The idea of progress was a long time in gestation in Western thought, beginning perhaps with St. Augustine of Hippo, in the fifth century, who crystallized the concept of the unity of all mankind, a fundamental tenet of both Christian theology and the idea of progress. It drove Christianity toward its impulse of conversion and missionary zeal, which led later, in a more secular age, to impulses of humanitarianism and a desire to spread democracy around the world. And Gray is correct in suggesting that the theological idea of man’s immanent journey toward perfection and a golden age of happiness on earth would lead much later to utopian dreams, revolutionary prescriptions, socialist formulas, racialist theories and democratic crusades.

But it wasn’t until René Descartes (1596–1650) that Western thought began its turn toward humanism. He posited two fundamental axioms—the supremacy of reason and the invariability of the laws of nature. And he insisted his analytical methods were available to any ordinary seeker of truth willing to follow his rules of inquiry. No longer was knowledge the exclusive preserve of scholars, scientists, archivists and librarians. This was revolutionary—man declaring his independence in pursuit of knowledge and mastery of the universe. It unleashed a spree of intellectual ferment in Europe, and soon the Cartesian method was applied to new realms of thinking. The idea of progress took on a new, expanded outlook—humanism, the idea that man is the measure of all things. As J. B. Bury notes in his book The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Growth and Origin (1920), psychology, morals and the structure of society now riveted the attention of new thinkers bent on going beyond the larger “supra-human” inquiries (astronomy and physics, for example) that had preoccupied Bacon, Newton, Leibniz and even Descartes.

And that led inevitably to those eighteenth-century French Encyclopedists and the emergence of their intellectual offspring, Rousseau, who twisted the idea of progress into a call for the use of civic force on behalf of a culminating paradise on earth that Rousseau called a “reign of virtue.” Shortly thereafter, his adherents and intellectual heirs pulled France into what became known as the Reign of Terror.

Much of the human folly catalogued by Gray in The Silence of Animals makes a mockery of the earnest idealism of those who later shaped and molded and proselytized humanist thinking into today’s predominant Western civic philosophy. But other Western philosophers, particularly in the realm of Anglo-Saxon thought, viewed the idea of progress in much more limited terms. They rejected the idea that institutions could reshape mankind and usher in a golden era of peace and happiness. As Bury writes, “The general tendency of British thought was to see salvation in the stability of existing institutions, and to regard change with suspicion.” With John Locke, these thinkers restricted the proper role of government to the need to preserve order, protect life and property, and maintain conditions in which men might pursue their own legitimate aims. No zeal here to refashion human nature or remake society.

A leading light in this category of thinking was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the British statesman and philosopher who, writing in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, characterized the bloody events of the Terror as “the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.” He saw them, in other words, as reflecting an abstractionist outlook that lacked any true understanding of human nature. The same skepticism toward the French model was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, who believed with Burke that human nature isn’t malleable but rather potentially harmful to society. Hence, it needed to be checked. The central distinction between the American and French revolutions, in the view of conservative writer Russell Kirk, was that the Americans generally held a “biblical view of man and his bent toward sin,” whereas the French opted for “an optimistic doctrine of human goodness.” Thus, the American governing model emerged as a secular covenant “designed to restrain the human tendencies toward violence and fraud . . . [and] place checks upon will and appetite.”

Most of the American Founders rejected the French philosophes in favor of the thought and history of the Roman Republic, where there was no idea of progress akin to the current Western version. “Two thousand years later,” writes Kirk, “the reputation of the Roman constitution remained so high that the framers of the American constitution would emulate the Roman model as best they could.” They divided government powers among men and institutions and created various checks and balances. Even the American presidency was modeled generally on the Roman consular imperium, and the American Senate bears similarities to the Roman version. Thus did the American Founders deviate from the French abstractionists and craft governmental structures to fit humankind as it actually is—capable of great and noble acts, but also of slipping into vice and treachery when unchecked. That ultimately was the genius of the American system.

But, as the American success story unfolded, a new collection of Western intellectuals, theorists and utopians—including many Americans—continued to toy with the idea of progress. And an interesting development occurred. After centuries of intellectual effort aimed at developing the idea of progress as an ongoing chain of improvement with no perceived end into the future, this new breed of “Progress as Power” thinkers began to declare their own visions as the final end point of this long progression.

Pullquote: Progress is the idea that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment. Gray rejects it utterly.Image: Essay Types: Book Review