Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

The Medieval Hangover in our Civic Reasoning; The State as a Person and a System

I have spoken some time ago about how in Anglophone worlds in general there is a sort of tension to the point of schizophrenia about how people reason about civic affairs.

Ever since the British Enlightenment moral and political philosophers generally consider empathy/moral character and civics to be two distinct fields of analysis. Adam Smith epitomises this attitude in his two books, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “The Wealth of Nations”, which have little theoretical or systematic overlap. One could read one without the other without any lost of insight.

With regards civics, the dominant form of thought is that of rule consequentialism/utilitarianism or a form of proto-game theoretic and economic reasoning. This sort of reasoning is “objective” and highly rationalistic to do with social engineering and civic management. What matters are functions and effects and civic problems becomes more or less coordination problems.

When political power was still very much held by the intelligenstia or literati elite self-conscious of their position as mini-platonic kings over the unlearned rabble, they more or less could run the country like Chinese Legalist mandarins in a mechanical and often harsh objective manner. (It should not be forgotten that “liberals” back then were not at all supportive of universal suffrage for they recognised that a free and liberal society depended upon those who were Enlightened enough to exclude the prejudices of the unlearned rabbles.)

The advent of universal suffrage has more or less brought on a confusion of discourse as the language normally applied to moral character starts flowing seamlessly into language used to discuss civic issues. The British Enlightenment thinkers managed to keep the language of moral sentiments and empathy distinct from the language of civic philosophy. Empathy, compassion, love, fair dealing, etc, language used for everyday interactions amongst personal moral agents seldom entered civic discourse.

The Continental Enlightenment, when joined with Romanticism unfortunately fused personality and civics together. Locke and Hobbes’s “people” defined by a social contract never became a singular “will” or person-like. Hobbes was clear that the commonwealth was ever an “artificial” person constructed out of the agreement or actions of many particular individuals. Rousseau and Hegel turned what was merely a heuristic device into a romantic actual “person” or geist, complete with a general will and depth of personality usually identified with a living culture.


Naturally this fusion lead to a dramatic confusion of discourse. Governments starts needing to be “compassionate”, “have a conscience”, etc, etc. Whereas in the past civic policy were merely instruments with specifically stated ends, to be evaluated according to its reliability of attaining those ends as well as its side effects, today a civic policy has become an expression of moral character, as a way of exhibiting one’s compassion, empathy, even love, etc. Of *whose* moral character such civic policies are meant to exhibit is more or less a mystery. The argument confusedly flows from expressing one’s personal moral character to the moral character of the “nation” as a whole, as if the nation was an actual person which has a moral character.

It is quite clear that to attribute moral character properties to what is essentially a non-person, a bureaucratic system, is a basic form of anthropomorphism. Or perhaps in some ways this is just an atavistic resurgence of a very old instinct of seeing governors like medieval kings of old, who were not only law makers but persons as well, capable of exercising both mercy and justice as the coronation oath of the Queen goes.

Perhaps ironically in what we think of as an “enlightened” and progressive age, the Enlightenment has already been dead for sometime when romanticism infected it with a Hegelian synthesis. The sort of cold, harsh, and objective reasoning needed to govern a civic commonwealth in a rational manner, based on causes and effects rather than “human” qualities like empathy and compassion, requires a sort of iron will which is simply incompatible with the romantic emphasis upon the human qua human.

Perhaps East Asian societies as a whole still retains something of the long Chinese Legalist tradition of living with bureaucratic decrees flowing from the imperium. However it is also important to note that a pure Legalist state was often impossible in China and needs always be supplemented by a more “human face”, whether Confucianism or Christianity today. Many of the British Enlightenment thinkers have long admired the civic polity and “rationalistic” way in which Imperial China was run. In the West however, it seems that the attempt to combine the romantic to the point of barbaric spirit of the West with the rationalism of the East has collapsed.

Despite the collapse however my preferred system remains to this date 19th century Britain, King and Parliament, where the King is the human face of the government, and parliament, consisting of representatives voted in by responsible property owners only, objectively legislate rational laws to attain objective effects. For one is compelled to note that when they ran with it, they built one of the most glorious empire of all history: Pax Britannica.


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This entry was posted on September 8, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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