It's been awhile since I posted the first part of this. Part I is here. This is Part Two of what I project to be four parts.
Modernity: The Relief of Man’s Estate
Modern political thought is marked, perhaps above all, by a growing confidence in human powers of understanding and the admonition to exert those powers in the control of nature – the natural world and human nature alike. Modernity was inaugurated by a transformation of scientific understanding – from the distinction of “science” as the observation of natural phenomena to the active effort to employ knowledge of natural operations in the active interference of those operations toward the goal of “the relief of the human estate.”
The move toward modernity was inaugurated initially in the effort to control chance, or “fortune.” Rejecting Stoic or Christian conceptions that commended a form of resignation to the vagaries of life and death – whether the result of pure chance or the will of God – modern thought began with the effort to exert control over those vagaries and, in effect, to put humans on the course of controlling otherwise inexplicable phenomena. As such, a new “faith” replaces an old faith – now, faith is directed at the explicability of otherwise incomprehensible effects. More than merely a search for causes, modern science begins with the belief that every effect has an explicable cause. By knowing the cause of effects, modern science opens the possibility of altering, adjusting, preventing or adjusting those causes, and thereby governing the effects. By anticipating the effects of causes, if not ultimately the causes themselves, modern natural science can begin to exert control over natural phenomena.
This hope and confidence was expressed in the famous metaphor articulated by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince. Machiavelli was speaking of the role of Fortune in the lives of humans. Longstanding metaphors referred to “Fortuna” in terms that reflected the dominion and mastery of Fortune over human affairs: for instance, for Boethius, fortune was a “wheel” which turned inexorably would stop wherever it pleased, portending consequences for humans over which they could exert no fundamental control. His counsel – in classic Stoic terms – was acceptance and resignation.
By contrast, Machiavelli famously spoke of fortune as “a woman” who must be “mastered, beaten and struck.” Machiavelli argued that, in order to defend human freedom, we must accept the view that “fortune determines one half of our actions, but that, even so, she leaves us to control the other half, or thereabouts.” In discussing that half of human affairs that Fortune governs, Machiavelli appears to echo the kind of resignation to the majesty and dominion of fortune – now compared to nature – that was expressed by such thinkers as Boethius. Machiavelli writes, “I compare her to one of those torrential rivers that, when they get angry, break their banks, knock down trees and buildings, strip the soil from one place and deposit it somewhere else. Everyone flees before them, everyone gives way in the face of their onrush, nobody can resist them at any point.”
However, this is only half the story – or “thereabouts.” Humans must come to recognize that they control half of fortune, and the half that they control, significantly, in fact renders the ravages of fortune almost wholly tractable, practically speaking. “But although [the torrents of Fortune] are so powerful, this does not mean men, when the waters recede, cannot make repairs and build banks and barriers so that, if the waters rise again, either they will be safely kept within the sluices or at least their onrush will not be so unregulated and destructive.”
Indeed, while Machiavelli – anticipating Madison’s efforts to “control the effects” of nature (in this case, human nature) – emphasizes the effort to exert influence or to minimize the damage resulting from the Fortune, he reveals that these efforts will in fact “discourage” the causes of those effects in the first instance: “The same happens with Fortune: She demonstrates her power were precautions have not been taken to resist her; she directs her attacks where she knows banks and barriers have not been built to hold her.” Reading this passage with some care, it appears that Machiavelli in fact suggests that by controlling half of fortune, humankind effectually controls the whole of fortune. Fortuna will only be able to wreak its havoc on those whom are ill-prepared, leaving those who have in advance altered the landscape in anticipation of Fortuna’s effects effectively immune to most if not all of her ravages.
Notably, Machiavelli speaks of the rule of the political leader in terms of a metaphor of controlling nature. This is an inaugural, but continuous theme, of modern political thought. In contrast to classical theory, in which humankind is a part of nature, and hence substantially subject to its dictates (“Man is by nature a political animal”), modern political thought poses nature as an obstacle to humanity’s endeavors. Nature must be altered or controlled in order that humankind can achieve a desired condition of freedom. Freedom is initially understood to be the absence of external obstacles and the overcoming of hazardous consequences associated with nature’s dominion.
Modernity also comes to understand liberty as well in a more “positive” form of the active harnessing of nature’s resources for the securing of human comfort and prosperity. Francis Bacon inaugurated the modern scientific tradition which aimed at the active investigation into nature for the ends of “the relief of the human estate.” Science was to be understood not as the contemplation and understanding of nature – science as “theoretical science,” in Aristotle’s terms - but as the active intervention and manipulation of natural forms for the ends of human comfort, dominion, and wealth. “Knowledge is power,” wrote Bacon, inaugurating a belief that knowledge was a weapon to be used against a recalcitrant and hostile nature. Writing in the New Atlantis about the final aim of the “Salomon’s House,” or “The College of Six Days,” Bacon wrote that “the End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and the secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” In this latter formulation one sees a characteristic call for “enlargement”: modernity understands human dominion as necessarily entailing the “enlargement of orbits,” of the expansion and extension of human dominion over all natural phenomena. This includes mastery over external nature, even beyond the bounds of earth itself; it also means the expansion and extension of human nature, including the overcoming of that most basic of human conditions, the fact of our mortality. Bacon new science aimed to point humankind toward the most sublime and final end of knowledge: by means of learning, “man ascendeth to the heavens” and achieves that to which “man’s nature doth most aspire, which is immortality or continuance.”
This theme of human dominion in the form of expansion of control over ever greater sphere is reflected again in the youthful writings of John Milton. Scientific discovery would be the means of expanding human mastery to an ever-greater expanse. Milton predicted that “when the cycle of universal knowledge has been completed, still the spirit will be restless in our dark imprisonment here, and it will rove about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest…. Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself has surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler.” Echoing Bacon, human control of nature would come to resemble god-like power, the ability of creation and destruction, mankind as separate from, superior to, and master of all of nature. By implication, in extending human control of nature to such infinite extent, humanity would thereby change its own nature – from one of mere animal to one of divinity itself. Indeed, Francis Bacon argued that through scientific mastery of nature, human beings would make themselves into “mortal gods.”
This phrase found new definition in the thought of Bacon’s personal secretary, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes wrote of a similarly niggardly nature, one that deprived naturally acquisitive humans from achieving comfort and plenty. By means of a compact, humankind created an artificial person, a conventional entity called “Leviathan” which he called “a Mortall God.” This wholly contrived figure wielding expansive power allowed the full flourishing of human civilization; absent this figure, the natural human condition was one in which “there is no place for industry…, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such tings as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society….” Man’s natural condition is one in which nature rules and humans exert no power or control over an apparently arbitrary fortune; one can observe humans in their natural condition, those “savages” in “America” who live in a wholly “brutish manner.” By means of human science – now, “political science” – human beings are enabled to devise the means for the conquest and harnessing of a recalcitrant nature. Bringing out the implicit connections of Machiavelli’s metaphor, political science allows for the extension of human science into all spheres of life. The aim of life becomes mastery, now expressed in the form of “commodious living” – the increase of human comfort through the expansion of human power manifested as the control of natural forces and extraction of resources.
John Locke would expand considerably Hobbes’s commendation of “commodious living.” In his discussion “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke articulated the philosophical justification of an unlimited growth economy. Locke described a primitive world in which economic growth does not occur because of the existence of the “spoilage limit,” that is, natural limits to acquisition based upon current use. Only that amount of material needed for human subsistence could be justified under such primitive economic conditions. However, with the invention of money, Locke argued that the “spoilage limit” was superceded, and, moreover, that unlimited acquisition was not only possible, but justified. Unlimited acquisition, far from creating a “prejudice against the rest of mankind” – that is, depriving others of the benefit of one’s growing acquisition – in fact benefited one’s fellow citizens (and, playing out his argument to account for international trade, the whole of humanity). This benefit accrued due to an increasing standard of living shared by all persons living in a growth economy, regardless of whether one was “industrious and rational” or rather subject to “covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.” Even the least well-off member of a growth economy was better off than the wealthiest and most elite member of a static or subsistence economy: “a king of a large and fruitful territory there [in primitive America] feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-laborer in England.”
Locke describes an economy that does not rely upon ample resources, but rather, efficient and concentrated use of nature to increase its offerings – in effect, using nature rather than leaving it in its native condition. Thus, he argues, “this shews how much numbers of men are to be preferred to largeness of dominions; and that the increase of lands, and the right of employing of them, is the great art of government; and that the prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind … will quickly be too hard for his neighbors.” Again, evoking Machiavelli’s original formulation, politics becomes the art of increase, of growth and dominion over nature. Nature is worthless without active use, “employment,” and exploitation of its offerings. Politics becomes tantamount to the art of the use and employment of nature, its conquest for the sake of “increase,” growth without inherent or natural limit. Human convention and artifice, the science of politics and the science of technology, become the means of securing human comfort and above all, human liberty. Modern liberalism is a theory that rests fundamentally not only upon a theory of human rights, but the material conditions of plenty and growth that justify the growing material inequalities that such unleashing of human productivity naturally fosters. The “industrious and rational” can point to the increased wealth of the society at large, even to the quarrelsome and contentious. The growth of material wealth, in turn, leads humans away from their over-involvement in partisan public affairs, ensuring the rational and efficient governance by competent and impartial governors.
Modernity itself, and liberalism specifically, is a philosophy that rests upon a basic presupposition of the desirability, and necessity, of growth. It was a political philosophy that, on the one hand, laid the preconditions for a massive expansion of economic growth and an unparalleled extension of human dominion over nature. However, in turn, it was a political philosophy whose very success was premised upon the success of that undertaking. Liberalism was a wager that unlimited growth was a possibility, that human ingenuity, extended toward ever-greater control and exploitation of nature, could continue indefinitely until (in Milton’s words) “the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest.” That wager has been wildly successful, unimaginably compensated, and apparently worth every risk while liberals “let it ride.” However, if the gathering clouds of global warming, of wildlife depletion and extinction, of topsoil erosion and worldwide war and genocide over increasingly exhausted resources do not already indicate that this has not been a costless wager, its very viability is about to be tested with the realization that its fundamental underpinning – “increase,” growth, and control of nature – is about to end. Abundant cheap oil was the grease that allowed the wager to succeed for roughly 150 years during the oil age; its cessation forbodes revealing that the odds have been in favor of the “house” all along – that nature is not subject to one of her own creatures, and that this momentary period of “commodious living” has been an illusion whose soon-realized limits will unleash consequences will be fierce and dire upon the creature that dared to master her.