Truths Sometimes Forgotten

Practical freedom is the best condition for the development of good men — but freedom itself is no guarantor that good men will indeed develop, any more than having a comfortable notebook and a smooth-flowing pen will inevitably produce good writing. More often than not, good writing tools have facilitated the production of mountains of sludge. What if good political conditions are analogous to this?

Greatness, unlike goodness, typically requires severe discomfort, large obstacles, the roughest terrain. With little to overcome, the soul overcomes little. It is likely, therefore, that nothing of ultimate importance has been achieved in comfort. The souls we remember are the ones that survived against great resistance and somehow found or manufactured a private haven — often a prison cell or other form of isolation chamber — for the germination and cultivation of the most beautiful gardens. The modern will to practical freedom — political liberty in our “natural rights” sense — is thus, perhaps, at least inadvertently, the will to level off the human peaks in favor of general well-being and virtuous living. Such, at any rate, appears to have been its effect. It is also apparent that the early modern thinkers who founded this model of political philosophy — great souls themselves — knew this would be the effect of their “enlightenment.” They were making a choice.

The intellect seems to have a natural urge to face and withstand crises, threats to its survival, and grave misgivings about its efficacy. When these conditions are largely removed, the soul reflexively substitutes artificial or simulated threats to the philosophic life to replace those which are no longer felt naturally. Hence the nineteenth century retreat into romanticism, the tragic sense of life, and idealism of the sort most commonly identified as Hegelian, as liberally imbibed by Hegel’s British and continental heirs; professorial or lecture-hall crises, if you will, produced entire fantasy worlds of “absolute knowing” (and accompanying rationalizations for real tyranny) in answer to imaginary problems. Hence also the “angst” and misanthropic self-loathing of the anti-idealists, from Marx to the progenitors of late modern nihilism and existentialism (typically neo-Marxists themselves, and likewise tending to rationalize tyranny).

The last great philosopher, Nietzsche, is so, in part, because he was forced by ill health and ill-suitedness to the German academic world to distance himself from the conditions of relative intellectual comfort that bred the anti-philosophical simulacra of German idealism or self-obsessed social angst. He also lived under real financial strain, in declining and often acutely distracting health, and in the kind of painful obscurity that causes a young man to wonder whether his efforts are worthwhile — and which somewhat distorts his thought with grandiose self-importance as a necessary protection against the dangers of paralyzing pessimism.

Philosophy in the deepest sense is rooted in a struggle with genuine pain, and fed on a desperate spiritual need — it could never spring from “social concern” or “a desire for change.” Any self-declared philosopher, political theorist, or intellectual who says he is motivated primarily by a wish to improve the human condition is either lying or a fake. If he is lying, you might ask why. (The answer might be interesting.) If he is not lying, then one ought to run away, fast, for this man intends to “improve the human condition” by destroying it.

The deterioration of practical freedom amplifies the soul’s need for the kinds of freedom that remain possible. Tyranny has its rewards, historically and psychologically.

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