Victor Nuovo: Moral pessimism and the liberal state
Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a series of essays looking at the foundations of conservatism and liberalism.
Moral pessimism is a state of mind rooted in the unhappy belief that the human species is deeply flawed, and that it is incapable of achieving moral goodness. In a previous essay, I asked whether this is a quality either of the conservative or of the liberal mind and concluded that it properly belonged to neither, for conservatives and liberals are advocates of constructive social programs, and it would be inconsistent for anyone to promote such a program and also doubt that it can be achieved. Nevertheless, the writings of liberals and conservatives — and of many political philosophers who move back and forth between their camps — are filled with places that are undeniably pessimistic. Why is this so?
In January 1795 the German philosopher, poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) began the serial publication of a work titled “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” It answers my question. Like Burke and Wollstonecraft, Schiller was moved to write his book by the French Revolution. Like Burke, he doubted that the revolution would have a happy ending, or that its declared goals, universal freedom and equality, and lasting peace would be achieved. The spontaneous outbreaks of mob violence concerned him — this was natural, he thought, for once the working poor were released from all ancient feudal laws, they had only themselves to rely on to provide for their basic needs; and once they realized their power, they could not resist getting even with their former oppressors. What worried Schiller more was “the betrayal of the intellectuals.” The vanguard of the revolution, all of them highly cultivated and learned; they had failed to provide the moral leadership needed to bring the revolution to its proper goal. Rather, they had become divided among themselves, each advocating his own favorite program, dictatorial and cruel in their manner of promoting them, dismissive and even hostile to others, and ultimately, because their particular programs had no lasting universal value, bored and disillusioned, their achievements were of little value even to themselves. And all this occurred in what was believed to be a most enlightened age and in a nation that was regarded, even by other nations, as the most enlightened of all.
Likewise, the chief domains of the enlightenment, the arts and sciences, had become infected with this intellectual malady. To be sure, in themselves, the arts and sciences are immune from such arbitrariness, for truth and beauty are by their very nature inviolable; but the intellectuals who labored in them had no such immunity, and they sold their souls in exchange for recognition and wealth. All culture — political, artistic, and intellectual, became degraded, commodified, commercialized, and cheap. This was a culture very much like our own. Rousseau would say, “I told you so!”
This is a serious matter, for if among the educated elite of our age this malady prevails, a retrograde culture of vain ambition, cheap goods, and eventual ennui, what hope can there be for our future?
Schiller believed there was an antidote, “the aesthetic education of man”. Like Wollstonecraft, he believed that universal education was the only remedy. But he warned, that his remedy, if applied, required a long period of time to take effect, at least a century.
What did he propose? Just what is aesthetic education? Schiller believed that art rather than science or philosophy is the most effective means of opening the human mind and making it free. For art, whether visual or aural, be it poetry or fine art, is creative, and in this creative endeavor, artists discover that although the products of their labor may be imitative of nature, they are above mere nature by being semblances or appearances, hence free, subject to their own rules or the rules of their creator. This discovery liberates the imagination, unleashes the creative spirit, and is the proper basis on which science and morality depend. Without it, the scientists would be unable to fashion hypotheses and extend the scope of knowledge, and moralists would be unable to rise above the necessities of their situations in life and imagine laws and institutions that are inclusive, non-discriminatory, expansive, and just. He described the intellectual process as a form of play, a capacity to create ideas, a sort of secular transcendence.
Aesthetic education is grounded in the free play of the imagination. Children learn to think by learning how to play, which is all the more reason for public day schools, and all the more reason to begin public education at the earliest possible age, when the mind first awakes from its prenatal slumber, or even, as Plato prescribed, for pre-natal care. From pre-school through primary and secondary school, through university education, play is the synthesizing power mediating between material reality and the most abstract and most morally serious ideas. All of this should take place in the public domain and be accessible to all, free of special privilege.
Is it achievable? Schiller wasn’t sure, but he was certain that it is the only constructive way forward and that all liberal minded persons should support it. I see no reason to disagree with him. What makes it unsure, are the conflicts that arise from human vanity, competing ambitions, and folly. In the light of this folly, the weight of moral pessimism increases and the scales tilt toward conservatism.
Postscript: After further reflection, I’ve come to believe that pessimism represents a third tradition of our political heritage. I will elaborate on this in subsequent essays.
The expression, “the betrayal of the intellectuals” is the title of an English translation of a book by the French philosopher Julien Benda, first published in 1927, “La Trahison de clercs.” This was time of the growth of nationalism, of fascist ideology, of rumors of and political murder. Benda blames intellectuals for the dysfunctions of this period, without knowing the horror that would follow. It is curious that the book which had been earlier hailed by liberals, is now a favorite among conservatives; further evidence of why it is difficult to distinguish between them.
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