Philosophical Scepticism and Political Conservatism
In his essay, Philosophy and Politics, Russell’s object is to consider the relationship of different philosophies to different political systems, and to inquire how far it is a valid relationship. Most philosophy, says Russell, has been a reaction against scepticism, though there have been exceptions.The most notable exceptions were Protagoras in antiquity and Hume in modern times. Both these men were sceptics, and, as a result of scepticism, were politically conservative. They believed that nothing should be done to weaken the popular force of tradition. Then there was Hobbes who, though less sceptical than Hume, was equally convinced that government was not of divine origin and who advocated the path of extreme conservatism.
Empiricists—DenWritus and Locke
But thorough-going sceptics, such as Protagoras and Hume, have never been influential. The really powerful opponents against whom Plato in ancient times and Hegel in modern times had to contend were not sceptics but empiricists. These empiricists were Democritus in ancient times and Locke in modern times.
Plato’s Political Philosophy: Totalitarianism, and Static Perfection
Plato was of the opinion that all the books of Democritus should be burnt. Democritus was a materialist, a determinist, a free thinker, a utilitarian who disliked all strong passions, a believer in evolution both astrbnomical and biological. He was also an ardent democrat. He was of the view that poverty in a democracy was better than prosperity under despotism. Plato, who opposed the ideas of Democritus, was a man of totalitarian views as we clearly see from his book, the Republic. This book is totalitarian in its political teaching and it advocates an ideal of static perfection. But this ideal of static perfection is now generally believed to be inapplicable to human affairs. Man is a restless animal, not content with the same state however satisfactory it might be. Man needs hope and enterprise and change. Among modern philosophers, the ideal of unending and unchanging happiness has been replaced by that of evolution. Evolution in this sense means an orderly progress towards a goal which is never quite attained. This change of outlook is part of the substitution of dynamics for statics which began with Galileo. The concept of dynamics has affected all modern thinking, whether scientific or political.
The Formulation of a Law of Progress
There is a certain kind of philosopher who believes in a formula of progress and thinks that the world is becoming gradually more and more to his liking. Such a philosopher first decides which are the features of the existing world that give him pleasure, and which are the features that give him pain. He, then, by a careful selection among facts, persuades himself that the universe is subject to a general law leading to an increase of what he finds pleasant and a decrease of what he finds unpleasant. Having formulated his law of progress, he next turns on the public and says: “It is fated that the world must develop as I say”. The man who first fully developed such a point of view was Hegel.
Hegel’s Philosophy and Its Political Implications
Hegel’s philosophy was so odd that we are surprised how it could have exercised so much influence upon the minds of a multitude of intellectuals even outside
. Hegel uses the phrase “the Absolute Idea” to convey his notion of real reality, and his definition of the Absolute Idea may thus be stated: “The Absolute Idea is pure thought thinking about pure thought”. Indeed, Hegel sets out his philosophy with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound though actually it is absurd. From this absurd philosophy Hegel derives equally absurd political views. From his philosophy Hegel draws the following inferences: (1) that true liberty consists in obedience to an arbitrary authority; (2) that free speech is an evil; (3) that absolute monarchy is good; and (4) that war is good, and an international organization for the peaceful settlement of disputes would be most undesirable. Hegel arrives at these conclusions through a line of reasoning which is far from rational. Germany
Hegel’s Influence on Karl Marx
Hegel’s philosophy produced a deep effect on Karl Marx who took over some of Hegel’s most fanciful tenets. More particularly, Marx took over the belief that history develops according to a logical plan and is concerned to find ways of avoiding self-contradiction. Thus both Hegel and Marx advocated an autocratic system, though the kind of autocracy in the two cases is different. It is only on the basis of unquestioned dogma that an autocratic system can theoretically be justified; it is only if we accept Hegel’s theory of history that we can justify an autocratic system such as was advocated by Hegel.
Locke’s Empiricist Philosophy and its Connection with the Liberal Theory of Politics
Democracy has its theoretical justification in another philosophy altogether; and that philosophy is empiricism. So far as the modern world is concerned, the founder of the philosophy of empiricism was John Locke. Locke makes it clear how closely his philosophy is connected with his views on liberty and toleration, and with his opposition to absolute monarchy. Locke constantly emphasizes the uncertainty of most of our knowledge. He tries to make us aware of the possibility that we may be mistaken in the views we hold and that we should therefore freely discuss our views with men holding different views. His philosophy of empiricism thus leads to the liberal theory of politics.
The Meaning of Liberalism in Politics
The liberal creed, in practice, is one of “live and let live”, of toleration and freedom, of moderation and absence of fanaticism in political programmes. Even democracy, when it becomes fanatical, ceases to be liberal. Democracy became fanatical among the disciples of Rousseau in the French Revolution, and it became fanatical in Cromwell. The genuine liberal never holds any belief in a dogmatic manner. The genuine liberal holds his opinions tentatively, and with the feeling that new evidence may at any moment lead to his rejection of those opinions. This is the way in which opinions are held in science as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology. Science is empirical, tentative, undogmatic. If anyone clings to a belief in a dogmatic manner, his attitude is unscientific. The scientific outlook is thus the intellectual counterpart of what is, in the practical sphere, the outlook of liberalism.
Agreement through Discussion
As has been indicated above, Locke was the first to develop in detail the empiricist theory of knowledge. He preached also religious toleration, representative institutions, and the limitation of governmental power by the system of checks and balances. Few of his doctrines were new, but he developed them in a weighty manner at just the time when the English government was prepared to accept them. He stood for order without authority. In the intellectual world it involves adequate discussion and arriving at a measure of agreement among experts. In the practical world it involves submission to the majority after all parties have been allowed to state their case. The modern world is witnessing a conflict of ideologies. It is only through a rational outlook, through a revival of liberal tentativeness and tolerance, that the world can survive.
The Need of an Undogmatic Attitude in the Political Sphere
The empiricist’s theory of knowledge is half way between dogma and scepticism. Almost all knowledge, according to this theory, is in some degree doubtful. The modern theory of the atom has pragmatic truth, because it enables us to manufacture atomic bombs. But it is possible that quite a different theory may in time be found to give a better explanation of the observed facts. Scientific theories are accepted as useful hypotheses to suggest further research; they are never regarded as immutably perfect. In the sphere of practical politics, such an attitude has important consequences. If we could be certain that all mankind will be happy through the abolition of private capitalism, it would then be right to pursue this end by means of dictatorships, concentration camps, and world wars. But if we cannot be sure that mankind will become permanently happy through the abolition of private capitalism, then there is no justification for such cruelties as are perpetrated by dictators in concentration camps and through world wars. Thus an undogmatic and liberal attitude has to be advocated in the political sphere.
The Practical Benefits of Political Liberalism
It is wrong to say that in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win. In every important war since 1700, the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory. Also, it is wrong to say that dogmatic beliefs lead to a greater political and social unity in a country. During World War II, for instance, no country showed a greater solidarity than
which had a democratic system of government and which did not rely upon the kind of dogmas preached by the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Marxists. Britain
Empiricism Recommended on Ethical Grounds
Finally, Russell recommends empiricism not only on the ground of its greater truth but also on ethical grounds. Dogma demands authority, rather than intelligent thought, as the source of opinion. Dogma requires a prosecution of those who do not accept it. Dogma calls upon its followers to suppress natural kindness in favour of systematic hatred. Rival dogmas lead to war because they do not recognize the usefulness of free discussion; and war in our scientific age means universal death.
Thus, by sustained logical reasoning, Russell arrives at the conclusion that the modern world needs the philosophy of empiricist liberalism. The modern world is technically unified, but it is politically divided; and the world will not continue for long if beliefs are not held on the basis of this philosophy. Russell convincingly exposes the absurdity of Hegel’s philosophy and its disastrous political consequences. In the light of his exposition of Hegel’s philosophy, we really wonder how some of the best minds of
Europe fell under Hegel’s spell. Similarly, Russell exposes the absurdity of Plato’s political beliefs which deceived the world for ages. No right-thinking person can deny the value of empiricism and the liberalism to which it leads in the political sphere. The gist of Russell’s entire reasoning in this essay is that we should hold our political beliefs tentatively just as a scientist believes in his theories tentatively. Russell strongly disapproves of a dogmatic holding of beliefs, and this disapproval is fully justified. The dogmatist has a closed mind; he would pay no heed to the new evidence which may become available at any time. It is for this reason that communists are so stubborn and so aggressive. While democracy is tolerant towards its opponents, communism not only does not tolerate opposition but is always ready to persecute and liquidate its opponents. Russell shows himself to be a true liberal, a true democrat, a true lover of freedom, a true humanist. Even his advocacy of democracy is not fanatical; in fact, he gives us concrete historical examples of the evil consequences of a fanatical advocacy of democracy. What can be more broad-minded and large-hearted than the attitude of a strong believer in democracy who yet refuses to offer fanatical support to it ? Philosophy and Politics is an essay which should have a liberalizing effect on everyone who goes through it; at the same time it is an essay which greatly adds to our knowledge by revealing to us how political beliefs are derived from the theories of professional philosophers.