Philosophical Liberalism (Bertrand Russell 1945)

Philosophical Liberalism

By Bertrand Russell

(This is Chapter XII of Part I, Book Three of History of Western Philosophy, 1945. Transcribed by Jeffrey Ketland, May 2005.)

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The rise of liberalism, in politics and philosophy, provides material for the study of a very general and very important question, namely: What has been the general influence of political and social circumstances upon the thoughts of eminent and original thinkers, and, conversely, what has been the influence of these men upon subsequent political and social developments?

Two opposite errors, both common are to be guarded against. On the one hand, men who are more familiar with books than with affairs are apt to over-estimate the influence of philosophers. When they see some political party proclaiming itself inspired by So-and-so’s teaching, they think its actions are attributable to So-and-So, whereas, not infrequently, the philosopher is only acclaimed because he recommends what the party would have done in any case. Writers of books, until very recently, almost all exaggerated the effects of their predecessors in the same trade. But conversely, a new error has arisen by reaction against the old one, and this new error consists regarding theorists as almost passive products of their circumstances, and as having hardly any influence at all upon the course of events. Ideas, according to this view, are the froth on the surface e of deep currents, which are determined by material and technical causes: social changes are no more caused by thought than the flow of a river is caused by the bubbles that reveal its direction to the onlooker. For my part, I believe that the truth lies between these two extremes. Between ideas and practical life, as everywhere else, there is reciprocal interaction; to ask which is cause and which effect is as futile as the problem of the hen and the egg. I shall not waste time upon a discussion of this question in the abstract, but shall consider historically one important case of the general question, namely the development of liberalism and its offshoots from the end of the seventeenth century to the present day.

Early liberalism was the product of England and Holland, and had certain well-marked characteristics. It stood for religious toleration; it was Protestant, but of a latitudinarian rather than a fanatical kind; it regarded the wars of religion as silly. It valued commerce and industry, and favoured the rising middle class rather than the monarchy and the aristocracy; it has immense respect for the rights of property, especially when accumulated by the labours of the individual possessor. The hereditary principle, though not rejected, was restricted in scope more than it previously had been; in particular, the divine right of kings was rejected in favour of the view that every community has a right, at any rate initially, to choose its own form of government. Implicitly, the tendency of early liberalism was towards democracy tempered by the rights of property. There was a belief–not at first wholly explicit–that all men are born equal, and that their subsequent inequality is a product of circumstances. This led to a great emphasis upon the importance of education as opposed to congenital characteristics. There was a certain bias against government, because governments almost everywhere were in the hands of kings or aristocracies, who seldom either understood or respected the needs of merchants, but this bias was held in check by the hope that the necessary understanding and respect would be won before long.

Early liberalism was optimistic, energetic and philosophic, because it represented growing forces which appeared likely to become victorious without great difficulty, and to bring by their victory great benefits to mankind. It was opposed to everything medieval, both in philosophy and in politics, because medieval theories had been used to sanction the powers of the Church and king, to justify persecution, and to obstruct the rise of science; but it was opposed equally to the then modern fanaticism of Calvinists and Anabaptists. It wanted an end to political and theological strife, in order to liberate energies for the exciting enterprises of commerce and science, such as the East India Company and the Bank of England, the theory of gravitation and the discovery of the circulation of the blood. Throughout the Western world bigotry was giving place to enlightenment, the fear of Spanish power was ending, all classes were increasing in prosperity, and the highest hopes appeared to be warranted by the most sober judgment. For a hundred years, nothing occurred to dim these hopes; then, at last, they themselves generated the French Revolution, which led directly to Napoleon and thence to the Holy Alliance. After these events, liberalism had to acquire its second wind before the renewed optimism of the nineteenth century became possible.

Before embarking on any detail, it will be well to consider the general pattern of the liberal movements from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. This pattern is at first simple, but grows gradually more and more complex. The distinctive character of the whole movement is, in a certain wide sense, individualism; but this is a vague term until further defined. The philosophers of Greece down to and including Aristotle, were not individualists in the sense in which I wish to use the term. They thought of man as essentially a member of a community; Plato’s Republic, for example, is concerned to define the good community, not the good individual. With the loss of political liberty from the time of Alexander onwards, individualism developed, and was represented by the Cynics and Stoics. According to the Stoic philosophy, a man could live a good life in no matter what social circumstances. This was also the view of Christianity, especially before it acquired control of the State. But in the Middle Ages, while mystics kept alive the original individualistic trends in Christian ethics, the outlook of most men, including the majority of philosophers, was dominated by a firm synthesis of dogma, law and custom, which caused men’s theoretical beliefs and practical morality to be controlled by a social institution, namely the Catholic Church: what was true and what was good was to be ascertained, not by solitary thought, but by the collective wisdom of the Councils.

The first important breach in this system was made by Protestantism, which asserted that General Councils may err. To determine the truth thus became no longer a social but an individual enterprise. Since different individuals reached different conclusions, the result was strife, and theological decisions were sought, no longer in assemblies of bishops, but on the battlefield. Since neither party was able to extirpate the other, it became evident, in the end, that a method must be found of reconciling intellectual and ethical individualism with ordered social life. This was one of the main problems which early liberalism attempted to solve.

Meanwhile individualism had penetrated into philosophy. Descartes’ fundamental certainty, ‘I think, therefore I am’, made the basis of knowledge different for each person, since for each the starting point was his own existence, not that of other individuals or of the community. His emphasis on the reliability of clear and distinct ideas tended in the same direction, since it is by introspection that we think we discover whether our ideas are clear and distinct. Most philosophy since Descartes has had this intellectually individualistic aspect in a greater or lesser degree.

There are, however, various forms of this general position, which have, in practice, very different consequences. The outlook of the typical scientific discoverer has perhaps the smallest dose of individualism. When he arrives at a new theory, he does so solely because it seems right to him; he does not bow to authority, for, if he did, he would continue to accept the theories of his predecessors. At the same time, his appeal is to the generally received canons of truth, and he hopes to persuade other men, not by his authority, but by arguments which are convincing to them as individuals. In science, any clash between the individual and society is in essence transitory, since men of science, broadly speaking, all accept the same intellectual standards, and therefore debate and investigation usually produce agreement in the end. This, however, is a modern development; in the time of Galileo, the authority of Aristotle and the Church was still considered at least as cogent as the evidence of the senses. This shows how the element of individualism in scientific method, though not prominent, is nevertheless essential.

Early liberalism was individualistic in intellectual matters, and also in economics, but was not emotionally or ethically self-assertive. This form of liberalism dominated the English eighteenth century, the founders of the American Constitution, and the French encyclopaedists. During the French Revolution, it was represented by the more moderate parties, including the Girondins, but with their extermination it disappeared for a generation from French politics. In England, after the Napoleonic wars, it again became influential with the rise of the Benthamites and the Manchester School. Its greatest success has been in America, where, unhampered by feudalism and a State Church, it has been dominant from 1776 to the present day, or at any rate to 1933.

A new movement, which has gradually developed into the anti-thesis of liberalism begins with Rousseau, and acquires strength from the romantic movement and the principle of nationality. In this movement, individualism is extended from the intellectual sphere to that of the passions and the anarchic aspects of individualism are made explicit. The cult of the hero, as developed by Carlyle and Nietzsche, is typical of this philosophy. Various elements were combined in it. There was a dislike of early industrialism, hatred of the ugliness that it produced, and revulsion against its cruelties. There was a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, which were idealized owing to hatred of the modern world. There was an attempt to combine championship of the fading privileges of Church and aristocracy with defence of wage-earners against the tyranny of manufacturers. There was vehement assertion of the right of rebellion in the name of nationalism, and of the splendour of war in defence of ‘liberty’. Byron was the poet of this movement; Fichte, Carlyle and Nietzsche were its philosophers.

But since we cannot all have the career of heroic leaders, and cannot all make our individual will prevail, this philosophy, like all other forms of anarchism inevitably leads, when adopted, to despotic government of the most respect ‘hero’. And when his tyranny is established, he will suppress in others the self-assertive ethics by which he has risen to power. This whole theory of life, therefore, is self-refuting, in the sense that its adoption in practice leads to the realization of something utterly different: a dictatorial State in which the individual is severely repressed.

There is yet another philosophy which, in the main, is an offshoot of liberalism, namely that of Marx. I shall consider him at a later stage, but for the moment he is merely to be borne in mind.

The first comprehensive statement of the liberal philosophy is to be found in Locke, the most influential though by no means the most profound of modern philosophers. In England, his views were so completely in harmony with those of most intelligent men that it is difficult to trace their influence except in theoretical philosophy; in France, on the other hand, where they led to an opposition to the existing regime in practice and to the prevailing Cartesianism in theory, they clearly had a significant effect in shaping the course of events. This is an example of a general principle: a philosophy developed in a politically and economically advanced country, which is, in its birthplace, little more than a clarification and systemization of prevalent opinion, may become elsewhere a source of revolutionary ardour, and ultimately of actual revolution. It is mainly through theorists that maxims regulating the policy of advanced countries become known to less advanced countries. In the advanced countries, practice inspires theory; in the others, theory inspires practice. This difference is one of the reasons why transplanted ideas are seldom so successful as they were in their native soil.

Before considering the philosophy of Locke, let us review some of the circumstances in seventeenth century England that were influential in forming his opinions.

The conflict between King and Parliament in the Civil War gave Englishmen, once for all, a love of compromise and moderation, and a fear of pushing any theory to its logical conclusion, which has dominated them down to the present time. The principles for which the Long Parliament contended had, at first, the support of a large majority. They wished to abolish the king’s right to grant trade monopolies, and to make him acknowledge the exclusive right of Parliament to impose taxes. They desired liberty within the Church of England for opinions and practices which were persecuted by Archbishop Laud. They held that Parliament should meet at stated intervals, and should not be convoked only on rare occasions when the king found its collaboration indispensable. They objected to arbitrary arrest and to the subservience of the judges to the royal wishes. But many, while prepared to agitate for these ends, were not prepared to levy war against the king, which appeared to them an act of treason and impiety. As soon as actual war broke out, the division of forces became more nearly equal.

The political development from the outbreak of the Civil War to the establishment of Cromwell as Lord Protector followed the course which has now become familiar but was then unprecedented. The Parliamentary party consisted of two factions, the Presbyterians and the Independents; the Presbyterians desired to preserve a State Church, but to abolish bishops; the Independents agreed with them about bishops, but held that each congregation should be free to choose its own theology, without the interference of any central ecclesiastical government. The Presbyterians, in the main, were of a higher social class than the Independents, and their political opinions were more moderate. They wished to come to terms with the king as soon as defeat made him conciliatory. Their policy, however, was rendered impossible by two circumstances: first, the king developed a martyr’s stubbornness about bishops; second, the defeat of the king proved difficult, and was only achieved by Cromwell’s New Model Army, which consisted of Independents. Consequently, when the king’s military resistance was broken, he could still not be induced to make a treaty, and the Presbyterians had lost the preponderance of armed force in the Parliamentary armies. The defence of democracy had thrown power into the hands of a minority, and it used its power with a complete disregard for democracy and parliamentary government. When Charles I had attempted to arrest the five members, there had been a universal outcry, and his failure had made him ridiculous. But Cromwell had no such difficulties. By Brides’s Purge, he dismissed about a hundred Presbyterian members, and obtained for a time a subservient majority. When, finally, he decided to dismiss Parliament altogether, ‘not a dog barked’—war had made only military force seem important, and had produced a contempt for constitutional forms. For the rest of Cromwell’s life, the government of England was a military tyranny, hated by an increasing majority of the nation, but impossible to shake off while his partisans alone were armed.

Charles II, after hiding in oak trees and living as a refugee in Holland, determined, at the Restoration, that he would not again set out on his travels. This imposed a certain moderation. He claimed no power to impose taxes not sanctioned by Parliament. He assented to the Habeas Corpus Act, which deprived the Crown of the power of arbitrary arrest. On occasion, he could flout the fiscal power of Parliament by means of subsidies from Louis XIV, but in the main he was a constitutional monarch. Most of the limitations of royal power originally desired by the opponents of Charles I were conceded at the Restoration, and were respected by Charles II because it been shown that kings could be made to suffer at the hands of their subjects.

James II, unlike his brother, was totally destitute of subtlety and finesse. By his bigoted Catholicism he united against himself the Anglicans and Nonconformists, in spite of his attempts to conciliate the latter by granting them toleration in defiance of Parliament. Foreign policy also played a part. The Stuarts, in order to avoid the taxation required in war-time, which would have made them dependent upon Parliament, pursued a policy of subservience, first to Spain and then to France. The growing power of France roused the invariable English hostility to the leading Continental State, and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes made Protestant feeling bitterly opposed to Louis XIV. In the end, almost everybody in England wished to be rid of James. But almost everybody was equally determined to avoid a return to the days of the Civil War and Cromwell’s dictatorship. Since there was no constitutional way of getting rid of James, there must be a revolution, but it must be quickly ended, so as to give no opportunity for disruptive forces. The rights of Parliament must be secured once for all. The king must go, but monarchy must be preserved; it should be, however, not a monarchy of Divine Right, but one dependent upon legislative sanction, and so upon Parliament. By a combination of aristocracy and big business, this was all achieved in a moment, without the necessity of firing a shot. Compromise and moderation had succeeded, after every form of intransigence had been tried and had failed.

The new king, being Dutch, brought with him the commercial and theological wisdom for which his country was noted. The Bank of England was created; the national debt was made into a secure investment, no longer liable to repudiation at the caprice of the monarch. The Act of Toleration, while leaving Catholics and Non-conformists subject to various disabilities, put an end to actual persecution. Foreign policy became resolutely anti-French, and remained so, with brief intermissions, until the defeat of Napoleon.

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