#5 Regime Change: Rationalism in politics
Where it came from. Its errors & dangers. Rationalist morality: 'the desiccated relic of what was once the unselfconscious moral tradition of an aristocracy'. PS. The Elon Affair...
In short, one may say anything about the history of the world - anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one cannot say is that it is rational. The very word sticks in one's throat... After all, there are continually turning up in life moral and rational people, sages, and lovers of humanity, who make it their goal for life to live as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbours, simply in order to show them that it is really possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And so what? We all know that those very people sooner or later toward the end of their lives have been false to themselves, playing some trick, often a most indecent one. Now I ask you: What can one expect from man since he is a creature endowed with such strange qualities?
Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in bliss so that nothing but bubbles would dance on the surface of his bliss, as on a sea; give him such economic prosperity that he would have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with ensuring the continuation of world history and even then man, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer libel, would play you some loathsome trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly, that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself (as though that were so necessary) that men still are men and not piano keys, which even if played by the laws of nature themselves threaten to be controlled so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And … even if man really were nothing but a piano key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of sheer ingratitude, simply to have his own way. And if he does not find any means he will devise destruction and chaos, will devise sufferings of all sorts, and will thereby have his own way. He will launch a curse upon the world, and, as only man can curse … then, after all, perhaps only by his curse will he attain his object, that is, really convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated, chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself - then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and have his own way! I believe in that, I vouch for it, because, after all, the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop. It may be at the cost of his skin! But he has proved it... (Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky)
The world revolves around the inventors of new values, it revolves invisibly. But the people and fame revolve around actors… Far from the marketplace and from fame happens all that is great, far from the marketplace and from fame the inventors of new values have always dwelt. (Nietzsche)
In democratic societies each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself. (Tocqueville)
State socialism is on the march and there is no stopping it. Whoever embraces this idea will come to power. (Bismarck)
Vronsky, meanwhile, notwithstanding the complete fulfilment of what he had so long desired, was not entirely happy. He soon began to feel that the realisation of his desires brought him no more than a grain of sand out of the mountain of bliss he had expected. It showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that happiness consists in the realisation of their desires. (Anna Karenina, Tolstoy)
For progress there is no cure. (Von Neumann)
τέχυη δάυάγκης άσθєυєστέρα μακρώ.
[Knowing, however, is far weaker than necessity. Prometheus, 514]
The philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote Rationalism in politics and essays on similar themes including Political education, The masses in representative democracy, and On Being Conservative. Oakeshott was unusual for an academic philosopher in having also served in an unconventional wartime unit, Phantom.
I’ll summarise Oakeshott’s arguments and make a few observations.
The SBF collapse, reflection among the Effective Altruist movement, and the particularly hysterical establishment response to Obama-voting-Elon supporting old Berkeley’s ‘free speech’ over new Berkeley’s censor ‘misinformation’ make it a good moment to consider ‘rationalism in politics’, where it emerged, and how it evolved.
In 2023 I’ll write more on philosophy as I re-read some Plato and Nietzsche, especially Beyond Good and Evil, the non-fiction book I think is best for understanding our culture and its politics. When you watch the latest craziness from the left and the attempts to fight it from the ‘conservative movement’, the most important dynamics were foretold by Nietzsche in the 1880s.
A deep irony of modern culture is the way in which the atheist far Left, via the dregs of post-war French philosophy interbred with Heidegger*, have tried to appropriate Nietzsche — a man who despised, to the depths of his German and Greek soul, Bismarck, anti-semites and the new (1870s) German nationalism, and who despised the atheist Left above all. Nietzsche declared ‘God is dead’ and thought of Christianity (‘Platonism for the people’) as a disaster for western civilisation, but he also thought that its replacement by newspaper-reading atheist democrats and socialists was even worse and his most savage attacks and mockery were aimed at the liberals, democrats and socialists who think of themselves as a higher type than the religious peasant who bows his head and takes off his slippers in church.
The way in which reverence for the Bible has hitherto been generally maintained in Europe is perhaps the best piece of discipline and refinement of manners that Europe owes to Christianity: such books of profundity and ultimate significance require for their protection an external tyranny of authority, in order that they may achieve those millennia of continued existence which are needed if they are to be exhausted and unriddled. Much has been gained when the feeling has at last been instilled into the masses … that there are things they must not touch; that there are holy experiences before which they have to take off their shoes and keep their unclean hands away – it is almost their highest advance towards humanity.
Conversely, there is perhaps nothing about the so-called cultured, the believers in ‘modern ideas’, that arouses so much disgust as their lack of shame, the self-satisfied insolence of eye and hand with which they touch, lick and fumble with everything; and it is possible that more relative nobility of taste and reverential tact is to be discovered today among the people, among the lower orders and especially among peasants, than among the newspaper-reading demi-monde of the spirit, the cultured…
Every age has its own divine kind of naivety for the invention of which other ages may envy it – and how much naivety, venerable, childlike and boundlessly stupid naivety there is in the scholar’s belief in his superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the simple unsuspecting certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as an inferior and lower type which he himself has grown beyond and above – he, the little presumptuous dwarf and man of the mob, the brisk and busy head- and handyman of ‘ideas’, of ‘modern ideas’!…
The claim to independence, to free development, to laisser aller, is advanced most heatedly by precisely those for whom no curb could be too strong – this applies in politics, it applies in art. But this is a symptom of décadence…
Three loud cheers for Nietzsche’s taste! The self-satisfied insolence of eye and hand… The presumptuous dwarfs for whom no curb could be too strong… You can find them today tweeting from commonroom and newsroom, with Ukraine flags and Mastodon handles in their biographies, about how the guy who built SpaceX is clueless about managing technology companies, how ‘Brexit enabled fascism’, denouncing each other for sexism and racism while banning Euripides in case women faint from shock. It’s been a long road since Haight-Ashbury 1967.
And you sometimes see them tweeting, sad and confused, about how their children seem to hold them in contempt. Poor old Strepsiades sent his son off to Socrates to learn the art of reasoning. The son returned with his PhD in rationalism, beat his father and threatened to beat his mother. Enraged, Strepsiades led a mob to torch Socrates’ academy.
Strep. Ah me, what madness! How mad, then, I was when I ejected the gods on account of Socrates!... For what has come into your heads that you acted insolently toward the gods, and pried into the seat of the moon? [The thinking shop is burned down]
The world’s first explosion of rationalism was a mixed blessing, as rationalism must always be. Perhaps we will also see enraged parents torch the English literary theory departments of Oxbridge and Ivy League, on the way to or from torching the ‘how to help your child prepare for their sex change and fight the fascism of the nuclear family’ information department. Perhaps the torches will be paid for by the entrepreneurs who liberate the maths and science departments from their old university homes and re-establish them, ‘far from the marketplace and fame’.
Fundamental to the first flowering of rationalism in the 5th century BC was the emergence of the individual, just as it was with modern rationalism after the emergence of the individual in medieval Italy. And the defining characteristic of that part of the left that now dominates elite university politics and the cultural perspective of all western parties of the left — and, therefore, almost all the mainstream media — is an all-consuming focus on oneself. Behind all the tragi-comic lunacy of the left’s daily screaming and campaigning lies the overpowering feeling that my emotions are of transcendental importance and deserve to be indulged. Everything that encourages emotional self-indulgence and forceful expression is encouraged. Anything that discourages emotional self-indulgence, that encourages self-control instead of self-expression and focus on others rather than oneself is seen as not just unhealthy but outrageous oppression. ‘There is nothing so completely timely as weakness of will,’ as Nietzsche said. Indeed, emotions are so important that if they conflict with basic biological facts such as millions of years of evolution, then biology itself must surrender. Inevitably, the family, the last source of pre-modern authority with any teeth left, must have those teeth pulled out — the rights of parents even to know what the state and its agencies are doing to your children are in the crosshairs and the would-be new Guardians will be happy only when, like in Plato’s police state, they are in total control of education and children.
I never use the word w*ke. It’s an error to use the term if you hate it, or merely find it laughable and/or contemptible. I’m very confident it won’t be beaten while it’s enemies use the term. I’m not sure of a better alternative but it’s something like ‘the me cult’ because this phenomenon is (A) the latest in a centuries-long trend of emphasising the individual as all-important and (B) it resembles a cult more than normal Anglo-American politics. Supposedly egalitarian, the cult is suffused with hierarchies. Supposedly liberal, the cult often resembles a lame echo of Stalinism, particularly when trying to destroy careers, though some of its upper hierarchies clearly have ambitions to be less lame and more dangerous. Supposedly modern, like Nazism and Communism it’s a weird hybrid of modernity and anti-modernity, part offspring of rationalism and the Enlightenment and part offspring of the counteraction to both, mobilising communal pressure against the individual. Like Scientology it can seem both somewhat alarming and totally ludicrous. Yet the old universities of Europe and America, supposedly the bastions of the Enlightenment, have tumbled into the dust, prostrate before this anti-Enlightenment force.
What will challenge it? A new politics can only come from a new, part-Straussian part-demotic, elite.
(All bold in quotes is added, italics as in original.)
(* Heidegger was both a true Nazi sympathiser and is seen as one of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century, certainly one of the most influential given his influence on the French left, which is not reassuring. In his infamous address to German universities in 1933, he said, ‘The much-lauded “academic freedom” will be expelled from the German university; for this freedom was not genuine because it was only negative.’ This concept is alive and well today among the BLM-trans-rights Left.)
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Dominic Cummings substack to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.