Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 6: 17th Century Schizoid Man


The King James Bible was published in 1611. This represented the single greatest act of empowerment ever and answers Jordan Peterson’s question (YouTube: 2015 Maps of Meaning 9: Mythology: The Great Father / Part 1, 42:05) about how societies can come about that aren’t corrupt the way most are and have been as far back as we can tell. Literacy and the intentional development of individual conscience disseminated widely, including to women and slaves, changed the world in short order. This invented classical liberalism in the modern age and made possible “nations of laws, not men.” To understand the history it matters not whether you believe that the good book is the literal word of God. This is what happened as a result of the government of Britain deciding to help as many souls as possible to move God-wards by picking up the book on their own, learning to read it without more government help or interpretation, and acting based on what they found there. It was in precisely this way that Milton believed Britain had a unique and transformative mission, and saying so was the purpose of his work. I submit that this would not likely have happened had the book been about something like how to get ahead in business or get sex by pretending to be something one is not, so the actual content does matter in that it promotes positive behavior at much better than random effect (Pragmatism).

Sadly, The Bible is like a gun, as the leaders of the Catholic Church long feared. In the hands of most people it puts food on the table, keeps monsters at bay and protects the innocents. In the hands of sociopaths it results in more tyranny, chaos and indiscriminate death. People must always decide both individually and as members of groups whether the risk of liberty and personal empowerment is worth it, and must be prepared to live with the consequences of deciding or letting others do it for them. The 17th century saw witch burnings and the torture of Catholics in Britain, on the continent and in the New World. It also saw genocide by the Holy Roman Empire and Catholic kings who tried to end Protestantism in Europe by the sword. At this time, elite big thinkers increasingly separated what they could say technically from what they believed in their hearts. Moreover, what they would say publicly could and did end their careers or result in prison, torture and death, so they tended to stay away from topics that were politically charged (sound familiar?). Increasingly, where not partisans for religious zealotry on either side, they focused on what could be stated by reason alone without relying on theology. This was true for those who were Catholics and Protestants and wanted to use new science in the best possible way to further the faith without getting caught at it, or secularists who wished a pox on both houses and wanted a better way forward. We can count Rene Descartes in the former camp and Thomas Hobbes in the latter. Unfortunately, whatever he meant to do, Descartes’ dualism marked the psychotic break in the mind of Western Man that had been happening slowly and in The Age of Reason proceeded quickly. We are still living with the outcome and may only just now be ready to put the pieces back together again. Right alongside what became the dominant strains of rationalism and empiricism, there continued to be Neo-Platonist strains of thought that sought integration without doing violence either to reason or spirit. One of these is in the work of Gottfried Leibniz, who interestingly got much closer to the post quantum theory model of the universe than did Isaac Newton or Francis Bacon (who was more of a campaigner for Scientism than a scientist). In addition, there was the humanism and historical sense of Montaigne, Vico and others who incorporated the best of classical intellectual honesty and stoic forbearance with Socratic contempt for the kind of casuistry or sophism that calls itself practical ethics. To put it in contemporary terms, Plato held that each person comes from the factory with the ability to discern truth and naturally seeks what is good. It is only by schooled ignorance, willful blindness or being led into error that this changes. Medieval and later Neo-Platonists would say this is mostly true but there is real evil in the world and to fight it requires both help and determination in addition to free will. Also, the soul of the individual is important and there is no calculus that validates tribalism or statism over against individuality. To put my cards on the table, while I have sympathy for and am stimulated by contradictory views, this writer finds himself in this last camp which makes me not a Rationalist like Spinoza, not an Empiricist like Locke, and not a mystic or Fideist like Pascal but with elements of all three in that they share common roots and I believe are heading back in a common direction.

Descartes formally split the universe in two and thereby set the stage for the psychotic break in the mind of Western Man in that it created dissonance between what one instinctively knows that allows one to have a feeling of place and peace, and what one is told about the nature of reality as a cold, mechanical thing over which neither he nor any benevolent force holds positive sway or ensures any kind of ultimate justice. Whereas in the short term, this permitted ways out of purely ideological struggles, in the long run it set up even worse ones as we will see when we get to the combined effects of Positivism and Collectivism in the 19th and 20th Centuries. For Descartes, the extended world is that which contains our bodies and all things that have shape and can be moved about. This is the world of things. The un-extended or spiritual world contains God and our souls, which are connected to our bodies at the pineal gland but do not directly interact with the world of things at all. This meant that it was convenient for other thinkers to adopt Descartes’ methodology and what he says about the material world while denying the existence of the spiritual world entirely. Alternatively, it opened Descartes to the criticism by believers that his rationalistic program is degraded, since for them all that matters comes directly from God. Descartes also denied free will and held that God decided what we would be like and what we would do in advance; making us spectators with our bodies as loci of viewing what unfolds. This resonated with the Cartesian notion that the universe was one geometric and crystalline whole that obeyed mathematical rules that could be discerned by human reason either through intuition or some other means. God in this cosmology essentially was a blind watchmaker who set things going and departed the scene or was never necessary in the first place. Descartes was a Catholic all his life who wanted to create a method to explain God’s working in the world from the ground up without reference to the usual authorities that would also support innovation. What he managed to do was justify and concretize the rift between what we understand as the real in purely material terms, and what we perceive as spiritual as either irrelevant to or an impediment to our understanding. From that point onward the worlds of science and faith were firmly separated in the minds of many. The hostility that had already been brewing between them became rationally justified on both sides.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was brilliant but faced Col. John Boyd’s challenge. To wit, one comes to a point as an adult when must decide whether to be somebody or do something. If you choose to be somebody then you need flexible values and have to work harder at politics than anything else. You also need to be able to avoid mistakes 100% of the time, which means being risk averse and adroitly shifting blame. If you choose to do something then you need to work like crazy with superhuman focus and be prepared for ostracism and solitude. Choosing both means betting long odds as the two paths tend to cancel each other out and success in one arena will make success in the other all but impossible (no matter what Jordan Peterson says in tradcon mode to shame slackers). This is why a nation or organization dominated by careerists is probably somnolent or dying unless it has a never ending supply of innovative smaller units that it vampirically vacuums and which it can then destroy. This sounds unsustainable but as Montaigne was wont to say, what do I know? Leibniz came down on the side of being a somebody. His philosophical bête noire was Spinoza, who chose to do something.

Federick Copleston, SJ wrote and continued to revise A History of Philosophy in eleven volumes from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. This is probably still the best single reference on the history of philosophy available in print, despite only covering the West from the Pre-Socratics to mid-twentieth century. Copleston was a Jesuit priest writing for Catholic seminarians to give them necessary background in the history of ideas. Most remarkable is the way he establishes context and makes difficult concepts understandable without dumbing anything down while still maintaining reasonable brevity, and all this with unparalleled objectivity. Vols. IV through VI cover the 17th and 18th centuries beginning with Descartes and ending with Kant. In Vol IV, chapter XV, Copleston reviews the contest between Leibniz and Spinoza. He paints the portrait of Leibniz, who was a man of affairs who had entrée into the major courts of Europe and who was a celebrity philosopher/scientist/mathematician for many years. Spinoza on the other hand was an apostate Jew who lived a modest life grinding lenses. Leibniz was hard on Spinoza and referred to him as an atheist because in his philosophy everything is part of God and there is no transcendent domain or personal God. This was pantheism, not atheism, but it didn’t square with what was an acceptable viewpoint for high status types and so Leibniz slammed Spinoza in ways that could have been very dangerous to the latter. Some think Leibniz did this cynically while all the while cribbing Spinoza’s ideas (see The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart). Copleston thought this viewpoint was unfair to Leibniz. For one thing, Leibniz’ philosophy was fully formed before he met Spinoza. What was true of him was that he was insatiably curious and liked to be challenged, which Spinoza certainly did. While there were certain rationalistic affinities between their philosophies, Leibniz was all about trying to get Europe’s Christian monarchs to abandon their quarrels. He wanted to see a Europe without borders, both physically and mentally, and dreamed of universal harmony. The musical motif for what is pleasing to God was not new. Kepler, who was a stickler for doing the math right and not spouting off, got this from Renaissance Magi and Leibniz certainly studied Kepler and Galileo. Others, like medieval scholar Ramon Lull, provided patterns and habits for analysis that Leibniz would incorporate in his thinking in both technical and over-arching ways. Leibniz was looking for a universal science and theory of everything and along the journey to find it he invented the calculus independently of Newton. But as a kind of Christian apologist and would-be unifier, Leibniz is less appealing to moderns from Voltaire on than Spinoza, who took Descartes’ ideas to what Leibniz thought was their logical conclusion and essentially wrote God out of the picture. Spinoza’s best known work is oddly called Ethics, but there is nothing in it that one would typically identify as such. For Spinoza, everything is predetermined in the Mind/Matter/God and all man can do us resign himself to it. While a Rationalist tour de force this is essentially a less accessible form of Stoicism, and Leibniz called it what it was. Leibniz also objected to Locke’s saying there are no innate ideas and all we can know comes from sense perceptions. Leibniz thought this was absurd and he said so. Interestingly, Chomsky and others in recent years have essentially supported what the Neo-Platonists, and we must count Leibniz as one, had been saying for many years. Namely, that we have a “deep structure,” or patterns that are products of millions of years of evolution. We are wired to do certain things and be certain ways and that includes the habit and preparation for language, dominance hierarchies and other features that point to a built in ethics. Whereas this shapes us, our individual agency (free will) is essential to our humanity. This fits in with a world that mathematicians and physicists describe as stochastic and open to possibility, with our wills and perceptions as co-determinants of hard to predict outcomes, and is therefore not rigidly predetermined. Jordan Peterson at his best is eloquent on this and is close to integrating what Leibniz would have wanted to.

The limitations of this format are at this point like Monty Python’s 16 ton weight, and I am no Copleston. My hope is that while neither aphoristic nor comprehensive, the material here and linked is both provocative and informative as regards what the amazing 17th century can tell us that would inform a framework for the ethics of information. At the very least it should be obvious that skipping over the thinkers and ideas of this period would be egregious.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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