Reflections Out of Season

Fast talk usually means weak thought. Speed, as a rule, is superficiality’s colorful mask. In rhetoric, whether political, legal, or academic, the fast talker hopes to mesmerize your senses with how many words he can spew forth without a pause, in lieu of engaging your reason with the profundity of his ideas. The incessant and rapid flow disrupts sober attention and evades hard questions. Speed is the pace of skimming along the surface. To move at depth demands the will to be slow — the courage and patience to accept the burden of oceans of resistance as essential to any journey worth making.

A civil society depends on the smooth operation and objective trustworthiness of its legal system. But both the processes of making law and the procedures of applying it are so hopelessly steeped in irrationality and vested interests that, whatever may be said on behalf of smoothness, the possibility of objective trustworthiness seems remote under the best of political circumstances — and all but impossible under current political circumstances.

Modern political philosophy was born of the idea that if philosophers could define, through the application of objective reasoning, what a government should (and should not) do, then men could (and would) set about gradually developing a society governed in that rationally defined way. The fatal errors in this project — a project inseparable from the Enlightenment — was the belief that men would accept this gift of reason, that they would want to be rational, and that they would see, in the “state of nature” argument, what those early modern philosophers thought they were proving. Already in Rousseau’s overhaul of state of nature theory, however, we see the beginnings of the shift, which is now complete, from the concrete and specific delineation of exactly what problems of Nature men would rationally institute a government to solve, to the abstract and general sensibility of government as the great problem-solving entity, where no problem, in theory, falls beyond the proper bounds of government agency.

In short, we are living through the final judgment in the great argument between the ancients and the moderns. The ancients have won, of course. Locke’s brilliant conception of a government that answers to natural needs and functions in accordance with natural rights now seems almost quaint, like a gifted teenager’s idealistic picture of the perfect society, at which one smiles approvingly while secretly thinking, “He’ll grow out of this, but it’s a sweet musing, appropriate to inexperienced youth.” Plato’s critique of democracy and its inevitable devolution into tyranny, by contrast, only grows more profound and sobering with each passing generation.

You may also like...