D.C. Schindler on Plato, Locke and the Great Liberal Death Wish:  The Aug 2018 Meeting Address

Society members will no doubt remember a very entertaining talk by Rod Blackhirst about a year ago when he spoke about Neo-reaction, Mencius Moldbug and a new critique of the whole liberal democratic ethos from a very unlikely source.  In this talk, I wish to comment upon an important new book by Prof. D.C. Schindler, a young American academic, whose recent critique of liberalism comes from more of a Traditionalist perspective.  His approach is via metaphysics and, in parts, bears a remarkable similarity to the writings of René Guénon – a Traditionalist writer well-known to many Society members.

Perhaps a quick overview: Schindler’s approach is to consider the classical versus the modern notion of the term freedom and he takes the ideas of John Locke in this area as representing a sort of watershed in this respect. The classical approach, deriving from Plato and Aristotle (importantly, Schindler insists that Aristotle is a Platonist), regards freedom as being a quality, a sort of directed generosity, of The Good –which translates as a freedom to attain the Good. The modern approach, typified by Locke (though he is merely a representative and not the sole founder) is to regard freedom in terms of power – power to change. I should hardly need to say that the implications arising from these two different conceptions of human freedom are of huge importance to us today.

Roger Sworder could never understand why Locke was so dismissive of Plato.  This book explains why.  Roger would have loved it and disagreed with it at the same time.  I dedicate this talk to him.

Before I begin this rather hastily prepared talk, there are a few points I need to mention.  The first is that the book I will be discussing is a very difficult one to read – difficult for me at any rate.  I have no formal training in general philosophy, metaphysics or ontology.  In fact, by training, I am a rabbit poisoner. The little I do know in these areas, I gleaned from some limited reading and from conversations with Roger Sworder and other of my mentors at La Trobe University.

Secondly, though I will be using the term liberalism right throughout this presentation, it is important to understand that it has nothing to do with party politics – either with the Liberal party in Australia or similar parties in other Western democracies. Guenon and Schindler would, I am sure, point out that all political parties in the West today are liberal parties simply because they all share the same overarching concept of the nature of human freedom. I made this point in my last book, which explains why it fell stillborn from the presses.

Lastly, there is the obvious problem of perspective. As most of you know, I come from a science background and when scientists give papers, the question of their own position vis a vis the subject matter does not arise because there are shared standards concerning both the methodologies and the analyses of scientific data. This is not the case with philosophy. In philosophical discussions, each of us necessarily bring certain background assumptions to the debate – there is no set of objective standards beyond such things as the principle of non-contradiction and the internal integrity of arguments. Was it Aristotle who said that even to deny philosophy, one has to be a philosopher?  Now, while there is a bewildering array of philosophies floating about, they really fall into only two categories – those that accept some form of transcendent reality and those that don’t.  By transcendent reality, I simply mean some form of reality which stands above individual human subjectivity, and I don’t mean any more than that. Alternatively, you could simply denote the two categories as those who accept metaphysics and those that don’t. Broadly speaking, most modern philosophies fall into the non-transcendent category and are often lumped under the catch-all phrase, Broad Analytical Tradition. Continental Philosophy occupies a sort of no-mans-land between the transcendent and the non-transcendent. What about postmodern philosophy then? Well, I’m afraid I regard it not as a class of philosophy but as a disease of philosophy. This, of course, is my bias. In the Western tradition, philosophies holding to some form of transcendent reality dominated from the time of Parmenides up until the Enlightenment.  This, I will call traditional philosophy.

Now, I count myself as a Traditionalist in the broad sense that I have just given, and so my presentation is necessarily biased in favour of Schindler’s position. Like him, I regard myself as a Christian Platonist. Both he and I are Catholics with traditionalist sentiments – an increasingly rare species.  However, in my defence, I would argue that the position taken by Schindler is in general conformity with a wider Traditionalist perspective which involves important commentators from many different religions – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and others. There you are! That’s my bias.  I will not enquire as to yours.

There is one final bias I have, simply by virtue of now being an old man. In the Ars Poetica, Horace advises young actors and playwrights of the difficulties they will face in trying to amuse old people.  They are, he said, “testy and querulous and much given to praising the way things were when they were young. They love to act as the censor and critic of their age.”  How much of that describes my position, I do not know.  I do know that, without optimism, a civilisation will die.  But I know too, that even optimistic societies can go under.

Now, something about the book and its author.    The cover (and title) has to be one of the best I have come across in terms of representing the subject matter. Why choose Locke? Well, in America he is considered as a sort of Godfather for the Founders of the Constitution and of the modern notion of liberty. The founding fathers were hugely influenced by the philosophy of Locke. For Schindler though, Locke’s philosophy is simply a representative of a much wider change in perspective as the Enlightenment cast aside that which had come before.  Note that Locke is looking both ways at once – a marvellous touch.  Part of his face is in monochrome, part in full colour – potential versus act – a very Aristotelian touch.

Schindler is only a relatively young bloke.  His father, also a Professor, is still teaching.  Young Schindler received his PhD in 2001.  His degree course was at Notre Dame University. He now lectures at the Catholic University of America. He has already written several books, including one on Plato. He is, as far as I know, editor of a very high-powered journal called Communio and has also contributed to a journal called the Owl of Minerva, which is very fitting because Athene is our Society emblem.  He is fluent in German and French as well as in classical Greek and Latin.

Now, perhaps the best place to start is not with Schindler’s book, but rather with the general social and political situation we find ourselves in today. A philosophy – any philosophy – ultimately engenders or presupposes a sociology and a political content. Marxist philosophy is the obvious example.  Those of you who take an interest in the broader issues of modern society will have noticed a very strong surge in anti-liberal sentiment in recent years.  Mencius Moldbug and his associates are just one example.  There are many others. For instance, about a year ago, a prominent Polish politician and member of the European Parliament, Ryzard Legutko, published a widely cited book entitled “The Demon in Democracy’.   Remember that Legutko is a Pole. He has very good reason to defend rather than criticise democracy, because he has experienced totalitarianism. There have been many other such books.  Why are more and more people taking this stance?  Well, there are a variety of reasons and I hope to cover some of them later.  For the moment, we might just consider the prodigious increase in laws, regulations, permits etc., all supposedly designed to protect our freedom, but in fact, we find that we are ceding more and more of our freedom to the State all the time.

In my wallet I have the following permits: Licence to drive a vehicle, licence to drive a boat licence to own a firearm, licence to work with children, licence to use agricultural chemicals, licence to go fishing (now covered by my State issued seniors card – which is a licence to be old). When fishing, of course, I must obey size limit rules, bag catch rules, rules concerning methods of catch, etc.

Somewhere or other I have a birth certificate, a marriage licence and, one day, I will have a death certificate. If Bond was licenced to kill, I must be licenced to live and to die.

My car must be registered, my boat must be registered, I must wear a seat belt, I must wear a lifejacket, I must register my firearm, my house must have a certificate of occupancy, and any building alterations at my house must have a compliance certificate issued. I must register a dog, if I have one. The dog must be microchipped. Before long, all of us will be microchipped – not forcibly, of course, but just in the interest of efficiency and ease of getting around. We will happily follow the bellwether to the slaughterhouse. If the NBN comes past my house, I must connect. If I ride a bicycle, I must wear a helmet. My front fence must be less than 1.2m high.  I must not remove any trees from my property without authorisation. If I wish to burn off fallen leaves and twigs, I must notify the fire brigade.  I must not use town water to wash my car. Once a month, on a Sunday morning, I read part of the Scriptures to about 20 octogenarians at my Church. For this I now have to sign a special three-page document which states that I am a low risk as a paedophile. I must not smoke in a public closed space or within so many metres of a building. Soon, I suspect, I must not smoke at all.   If I drive into Bendigo and walk around the streets, I am recorded by speed cameras and by strategically placed surveillance cameras – just in case I try to improve the Mall by blowing the bloody thing up. Which I should do as a public duty. It reminds me of John Betjeman and the industrial town of Slough: “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now”.  The internet has a vast compendium of information about me – where I live, what I buy, what books I read, and who knows what else.  Who has access to it? – I have absolutely no idea.

There are other aspects of modern life too, which seem to be self-defeating, in a sense. They are beyond our focus tonight, but I will just mention one.  We live in an age in which we enjoy unparalleled standards of living and good health.  The average lifespan has increased enormously. And yet, the incidence of serious depression has risen to alarming levels. I read that one in five Australians suffer some sort of mental problem and one in six will, at some point, suffer from depression.  Suicide rates, too, are alarmingly high.

And so, we are forced to ask ourselves: how is it that we got to such a point?  How can it be that our modern notion of freedom in a liberal democracy is so self-subverting? This is what Schindler wants to investigate and he thinks that the only way it can be adequately explained is by going back to the bedrock of ontology and metaphysics.  For this reason, the book is hard going and I will not pretend that I have an adequate grip of it, even though I have read many chapters two or three times. So, unless you have read the book yourself, you must put up with my rather halting account of the whole business.

Let me now try to explain the traditional concept of human freedom as Schindler sees it. In the Meno, Plato famously said that you cannot look for something unless, in some sense, you have already found it. So what would this ur-concept of freedom look like? Surely the ability to achieve something or some state, otherwise why would we even consider it?  In other words, it has to be a positive sense of freedom – a freedom FOR not a freedom FROM. If it was simply a freedom from some perceived restraint, what would be the point of it unless, in some sense, the offending restraint prevented us from attaining something positive?

And here we come to the nub of Schindler’s thesis.  That positive sense of freedom implies that we have some goal or desired outcome.  For Plato, it was the apprehension of the Good, for Aristotle the achievement of some proper telos or end state. Schindler supposes both to be essentially the same. They boil down, in fact, to an apprehension of the REAL. The REAL is THE GOOD. This ought to be obvious in Plato, for when he talks of the ‘Really Real”, he obviously means the world of perfect forms.

Now, for Aristotle, this perfection is equated with Actuality or pure Act as against Potentiality. To put it another way, any being aspires towards full actuality – i.e. the full realisation of its potential. The Good is the fully real. So then, the freedom we require is none other than the freedom to attain or strive towards pure act.  When people say that someone or thing has attained its full potential, they really mean it has converted all its potentiality into act – which is full reality.

At this point, we must introduce Locke.  In his first edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke deals with the question of human freedom but is notoriously difficult to pin down.  To this day scholars are divided as to whether Locke was a compatibilist or a libertarian.  In other words, did he think that our freedom is not pure, but partially determined by outside influences, or did he think that in the matter of freedom we were entirely unconstrained i.e. with no blueprints or suggested paths? In this first edition he seems to suppose that while our actions are free, our volitions are determined to some extent. This, I suppose we might call the Tao as C.S. Lewis did – a sort of universal natural disposition toward the Good. He came under criticism for this stance – especially from certain clerics. One of the reasons was what the Greeks called akrasia – the ever-present possibility of going against your better judgement. This is only possible, they argued, if your will is totally free. And so, in the second edition of the work, he made subtle but important changes. Now, he seems to construe human freedom in terms of power – the power to overrule each and every inclination coming from a source other than the individual will itself. That, at any rate is my understanding but I ought to point out that Schindler devotes a whole chapter to it.

In the next move, Schindler applies some metaphysical principles to these two conceptions of freedom. Power can be equated to potentiality. A thing that has the potential to move to some other state has a certain power.  So, in positing freedom as a power, Locke gives it precedence over Act. In traditional metaphysics, act always takes precedence over potentiality because, when you think about it, there must be something for the potentiality to move towards.  For Plato, Aristotle and the scholastics, that movement was towards the Good, construed of course in different ways, whether it be full actuality, the Good, or God.

Freedom (as potentiality), in Locke, is now cut loose, as it were, and is cast adrift on what Plato calls ‘the vast sea of infinite dissimilarity’. However, as soon as it determines on some specific course or puts down an anchor in some port or sheltered cove, it is no longer totally free and, therefore, at the very heart of this new notion of freedom is a principle of self-subversion.  Freedom as power constantly undermines itself.

This self-subversion Schindler calls the diabolical.  He is not talking about a cloven-hooved creature with horns and a pitchfork.  He is using the term diabolic as the opposite of symbolic. The words have a Greek origin:  sym-ballō means ‘to join together: ‘dia-ballō’ means to divide.   In further fleshing out the meaning of the term’symbolical’, Schindler turns to the thoughts of two heavyweight 20th C philosophers in the Continental tradition, Hans-Georg Gadamer (German) and Paul Ricouer (French). Symbols, in the Roman world, were originally the tesserae hospitales – pieces of bone or pottery broken apart and distributed to members of a bond, to be re-joined by those members or their descendants in a future act which is both one of remembrance of the original and a new event in itself.  Enlarging on this Paul Ricouer describes the pre-modern cosmos as one in which all things are tokens of the good that stands at the origin as first cause and so, they have a certain aptness or natural inclination towards what Schindler calls a “generous and generative unity”.

Now, at this point, those of you who were students of Harry will recall the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign merely points to something else and shares nothing with that other thing. A symbol, by contrast has a sort of share in that which it represents. What I have been talking about above should ring some bells.

If we now turn back to the diabolical as the very opposite of the symbolical, it represents a radical sort of disjunction or tearing away from the Good or the One or the Absolute or, for Aristotelians, the Real. Schindler characterises it as having the following features:

  1. It presents a deceptive image that substitutes for reality. I take it that he means by this some sort of potentiality masquerading as act.
  2. It is essentially negative. Here I want you to think about the modern notion of freedom. It is essentially a negative freedom – a freedom from.  Freedom consist of annihilating anything that stands in its way in terms of a perceived constraint, but of course it has no way.  If it had a way it would immediately perceive itself to be shackled in some sense, so as no longer to be free.
  3. And so this brings us to the third point which is that it is self-destructive. I tried to explain this earlier on it the talk in relation to our modern notion of freedom. The more freedom we suppose that we have, the more, in fact, we surrender to the State.
  4. It renders appearance more decisive than reality. Here of course we are back into the familiar territory of Plato’s cave and, indeed, Schindler devotes a chapter to the cave.
  5. Not only is appearance more decisive than reality, it is better than reality, because it is more convenient and more efficient. We can all relate to this in our modern world and I hardly need to give examples. If I did, I would choose modern advertising, which is the perfect case of appearance being more effective than reality.

In his discussion of the diabolical Schindler has a few very important sentences which relate directly to Guenon’s Reign of Quantity.  Now, curiously, Schindler never mentions Guenon but then he is only a young bloke, perhaps exposed to a more narrow conception of the Traditionalist oevre. Remember that he is a Catholic like me, and schooled in Catholic universities. Here are the sentences in question:

The reduction of actuality to potency is a subsumption of reality into what can be calculatively determined [Quantity]. From this perspective, potency reduces at least in one respect to the power possessed by a subject. If we know how effects are produced, we can control those effects and so if we identify what something is with the effects it produces, that is, with its functionality, then what things are lies in a certain sense within our power. In the diabolical order, then, reality becomes little more than what we want to see, as it were.

This is a perfect description of scientific reductionism as we see it all about us today.

In the next section of his book, Schindler goes on to consider the operation of the diabolical in a whole raft of so-called modern rights or freedoms – choice, self-determination, autonomy, privacy, equality, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, power to vote, and so on.  Now there is no way in the time available that I can demonstrate the self-subverting nature of each of these.  For this, you will need to read the book.

I might just pick a couple and deal with them briefly.  Let us begin with the notion of the free market and see where Schindler takes us.  Here, he relies heavily on the famous work of Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation.  According to Adam Smith our propensity to barter, trade and exchange is an entirely natural thing, there from the very beginning. We were always interested in gain. Now, as Polyani points out this is nonsense.  Before the modern era the economic system was based on exchange, not gain, and the exchange was always in the service of social and human ends. The word economy simply meant household management.  It was almost entirely unconnected with money.

Consider now the modern free market. It is essentially self-regulating and operates from internal necessities alone. There were always markets and always market scams (those of you who took ancient Greek with John Penwill will remember a text dealing with an early ‘bottom of the harbour’ scam designed to collect insurance). However, early markets were always embedded in some larger order and so, had some external regulation. With the emergence of the modern market, we see the transformation of three things in particular – land, labour and money. They now become commodities, pure and simple. But of course, they are not commodities.  Labour is another name for human activity, which goes with life itself and land is the natural surroundings in which that activity exists. Money, for its part, was simply a token of purchasing power.  Strictly speaking, it is not a commodity since it is not produced but rather comes into being through the mechanism of banking.

Schindler then goes on to deal with the consequences of this change and of the pathologies it has produced.  I cannot delve into those in any detail because of time constraints. I might just mention the stock market by way of example.  It essentially has a life of its own and we cannot either predict its actions in the future or take substantial measures to prevent booms and busts.  Each night, the stock market report takes precedence in news bulletins and we anxiously await reports of its health or otherwise.  It controls us, we do not control it. This is why economics is called the dismal science. This is the diabolical in Schindler’s terminology.

Perhaps I will pick on one more aspect and try to deal with it in a little detail before I finish. This is Schindler’s treatment of technology.  At first glance, technology ought to enhance our freedom insofar as increases our capacity to effect change.   But we need to dig deeper and Schindler reminds us of Heidegger’s distinction between the pre-modern notion of technē and the modern.  In ancient technē, human activity is fundamentally responsive to what gives itself by nature.  In a sense there is a sort of gratitude built in to technē. To be sure, the human operation transforms nature in ways it might not change if left untouched. However this transformative activity recollects the natural reality at its root.  What comes to my mind are things like harvest festivals or even the thanksgiving ceremonies of tribal cultures after an animal is killed.  Another example is the work of a carver or cabinet maker in bringing out the natural beauty held in potential, as it were. To go back to metaphysical terms, the potency in technē is a participation in or a relatedness to the actuality.  And this, in a sense, is what makes the work symbolical – a direct connection to the real.

In modern technology, by contrast, “what gives itself naturally is not positively and integrally affirmed as a foundational part of the activity but is merely acknowledged to the extent necessary for use”. In other words, it is merely a raw material and the transformative activity is merely a process, sometimes not involving human input at all.

To further illustrate the contrast, Schindler gives us the example of a stone wall and a wall of concrete constructed from those same stones, now reduced to pebbles. In the former, the stones are used as stones, in the latter the stones are eliminated qua stones – their usefulness is derived from them in spite of their natural form rather than because of it. It is quite significant here to record the human experience upon looking at a stone wall as against a concrete one.  In looking at a stone wall we somehow feel our own humanity enhanced but this is not the case when faced with a concrete wall.

The human input too, must be considered.  Consider the difference in operating a sailboat as against a motor boat.  You connect rather directly and necessarily with the weather and natural conditions in a sailboat, and so you connect with nature – the actuality – simply, as it were. This is not the case with a motorboat where the actuality (wind, currents etc) is more or less irrelevant. In other words, in the contemporary world we have lost a great deal of that sense of encounter that occurs between man and reality in manual labour – an actual working on things with one’s hands. Perhaps I can give a personal example of such an encounter with reality. I was born at the end of the age of horse and plough.  My father was a soldier settler – a maimed survivor of Passchendaele.  When he ploughed with his horse there was first that direct encounter of resistance from the soil – tending to throw the plough offline as it were. There was an art in holding the plough.  There was an art in speaking to the horse – a direct communication between man and beast. The operation was more or less silent – what one heard was a gentle slicing sound, coming from the coulter, the ploughshare and the mouldboard itself as it turned the clod. There was the smell of freshly turned soil. Dozens of birds attended the process, darting in for worms and grubs. The paddock ran beside the road and neighbours might come by, stopping to talk of the weather, the price of lambs, the new arrivals in the district, and so on.  In other words, the work had a sort of social setting too. Now picture today’s farmer in his giant tractor, air conditioned and stereo-equipped with headphones so he can listen to Phillip Adams on a chat show. The tractor is guided by GPS – he does not even drive it.

These considerations, as Schindler says, may seem simply an exercise in romantic nostalgia, but they are not. The point about connecting with the real has profound implications for a human life and, once that connection is lost, certain pathologies arise. We are seeing them all around us today.

And remember too that while in ancient technology there is certainly some enhancement or amplification of human agency – a hammer is more effective in driving a nail than is a fist – in modern technology the effect is not so much an enhancement as it is a total removal of the human agent.

I must draw this to and end now, but before doing so, make one last reflection on the diabolical in technology.   When Silicon Valley jubilantly announced the World Wide Web and the massive benefits, resulting from infinite connectivity and access to information, we might have supposed that, for instance, millions of young people would then go online to improve their knowledge – read the classics for free, download poetry, enrol in language courses, philosophy courses, millions of neo-Reaction sites, perhaps.  Instead we have a sort of mass narcosis as the streets the trains, the trams are filled with young people thumbing their screens and exchanging pap or playing games. They are the lotophagoi – far more stupefied than Homer’s. Remember why Odysseus forbad his men to eat the fruit – Because they would forget their home – the telos. These are our displaced people, the digital orphans. No home, just the infinite sea if dissimilarity stretching out forever and a billion glowing screens, networked and Facebooked.  And so, I end with Tennyson and a world of pure potentiality: 

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem, 

Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave 

To each, but whoso did receive of them, 

And taste, to him the gushing of the wave 

Far far away did seem to mourn and rave 

On alien shores; and if his fellow spake, 

His voice was thin, as voices from the grave; 

And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake, 

And music in his ears his beating heart did make.