Two hundred and thirty-four years after Ben Franklin issued his warning on the occasion of its beginning, we couldn’t keep it.
The Republic is dead. To pretend otherwise after the government usurpations of authority during the COVID “emergency” is delusional and self-destructive. The end was visible shortly after September 11th, 2001, with the panicked passage of an unconstitutional Patriot Act during the erstwhile war on terror, which has since been so terribly lost.
True, much of the public remains unaware.“I didn’t even know it was sick,” they might say, preoccupied as they always are with earning a living and cleaning the gutters. But this is usually the case, until it isn’t.
A dark age of technologically enhanced authoritarian rule is descending—an age that I believe will not soon end. This brief time of passage must be taken as a last opportunity to recover our lost liberty. But what can the minority do? Certainly, any attempt at forcing the issue through violent revolution would only deepen the tragedy and coalesce support of the majority around the status quo. What then, can be done?
Going back to first principles would help. Reforming such an obviously corrupt system as ours is possible only if an alternative is evident. The general public might still be won over by a presentation of practical ideas that sound vaguely familiar (in that they are soundly based on the wisdom of the founders) if done with the kindness of friendly persuasion rather than with a gun.
I think it is easy to see, despite the burgeoning population of individuals who would prefer to have the state take care of them, that the ruling oligarchs have at best a minority of support for their own agenda. That they currently control the reins of power might be taken as unsurmountable, but in truth is a liability. They will screw things up. The power grid will fail. It is not necessary to sabotage the sources of our energy. As the cost of fuel becomes prohibitive, trucks will not roll, brown-outs and then black-outs will become common. And the medical profession, already under great strain, will be forced to triage patients. Older people like myself will be the first to go. Then the children.
Still, to understand just what has happened we will need a deeper look into the past. To answer the question, “What will we do?” we must first make clear, “What have we done?”
What is necessary now is a reconsideration of what has gone wrong, outside of the self-serving intellectuals who will make their excuses by candlelight, and why. Such an assessment must go to the root causes. How could these self-anointed intellects have so completely bought into the “suicide of the West,” as it has been well described? How did the authorities come by the idea that it was better to abolish man than to allow him freedom?
C. S. Lewis defined the “abolition of man” in his great three-part essay by that name. His particular religious affiliation is irrelevant to the truth of his observation. Of course, other great philosophers have engaged the problem of “natural philosophy” and “natural rights,” from Confucius to Roger Scruton, but, I think, none so well.
“Men without chests,” as Lewis explains in part one, are those who have dispensed with any “sentimental” ideas about good and bad, much less good and evil, while attempting to reason without regard to their own ignorance; those who call themselves “intellectuals” so that any disagreement with them is an attack on intelligence, much in the same way, more recently, some “scientists” accuse those who question their statements as being “anti-science.”
Part two, “The way,” illuminates the subtle means used by those hollowed-out men to subvert intellectual inquiry by dismissing traditional values through a careless skepticism based on a subversive ethical system of their own. Because their subjects must be “carefully taught,” public education is used to inculcate disrespect for tradition while developing contemporary obedience through social pressure. I was particularly reminded that Ernest Hemingway faced this exact conundrum in his most sentimental novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, when Robert Jordan must choose between dying for what he perceives as the “true,” or living for the unlikely love he has found in the midst of war.
In part three of the essay, I was struck by Lewis’ prescient assessment, in 1943, of contraception as the ultimate act of an historic arrogance dictating values to future generations. A very real and bloody war was raging about him, but he manages to focus on the elemental truths. I think it likely that he foresaw the time when abortion would be used by government to alter the balance of our humanity. “Science” has been given political motive and used as a goal instead of a tool—an excuse for extermination.
Please forgive any possible misinterpretation here. I am not a philosopher in any true sense. I am merely a user of philosophy. A consumer, not a creator. What I seek in philosophy is a predicate for the good, a reason to act for the good, but most certainly, a useful understanding of the good. In that way, I have attempted to use my own novels as an exploration of philosophy through narrative and I have always conducted my business as a bookseller as if philosophy mattered.
My assumption is simply that man is not human without philosophy, which presumes the reality of the soul. Living as if there is no soul results in pain, degradation, and misery. We yet know very little about the universe and its contents, but we might know something of ourselves if we pay attention. Religion might offer solace to some, but which religion? Blind faith is so often deadly. I think achieving some appreciation of one belief or another requires philosophy.
Science is a process for discovery, but no more than that. To make science an end in itself is little more than making math an ultimate. It doesn’t add up. It won’t help you appreciate the beauty of a September day, or any other. And a sense of beauty is a part of the life of man. As Thoreau made clear, a philosophy can grow from a simple aesthetic appreciation of the moment, or a seed.
But, as we have seen, not all philosophy is good. Before the age of dogma, knowing what is “good,” or what has been judged to be the good, had generally been understood through a “common sense” derived from shared experience and passed down to each generation. In a world lit only by fire, guided by the seasons and measured by the stride, this understanding was sufficient. But with the momentum of the ages carried forward on the wheel, and the engine, and finally upon wings, a greater comprehension has become necessary.
Philosophy’s responsibility for establishing our natural rights is and always will be an essential task for a coherent and open society. Rights propounded, dispensed, and enforced by an ideology that is not shared, are a guarantee of disorder and disunion, strife, and failure. The Reign of Terror that was the French attempt to artificially impose an ideology was an example of that, as were the Russian Revolution and the Cultural Revolution in China.
Functionally, what we want is happiness. Our political founders of old attempted just this—as the Declaration of Independence makes clear. Where they failed is obvious, but where they succeeded, we should take note. We can honor them for that much, at the least.
I would let historians ponder the failures, as well as the successes. My own sense of it is that we may have come very close to the “city on the hill,” and might again if we make the effort. A city might be rebuilt upon the ruins. And the alternatives being bandied about by the nihilists, all of them dependent on more government and less individual autonomy, have been proven time and again to be worse.
We cannot stand still while other world powers are moving around us, and capitulation means disaster. Such a retreat would only condemn our children, those who survive, to the job we have failed to do. Whether from a virus or a nuclear holocaust, starvation or a bullet to the head, this horror is not inevitable and historically not so very different from the burdens accepted by past generations.
A positive philosophy for mankind might be derived from practical experiences, such as farming, or building, or repairing. For most individuals, a practical philosophy is existential in nature, and not studied for itself; but the study of philosophy can offer a larger framework upon which a society and its government can be based. Any political philosophy that inhibits or abolishes the individual right to discover and experience life, apart from the limitations of equal rights for other individuals, is a negative. We have seen this proved in microcosm during the recent COVID epidemic, not only in the incompetence of government, but in its inability to admit what it cannot do. As usual under an authoritarian regime, fear has been used as a whip. The last checks and balances of the old republic have been thwarted or ignored.
As fate would have it, the time for a rediscovery of man and the restatement of a philosophy of free men is now. The oligarchy of the power-hungry, the greedy, and the lazy who control our present government will not agree to go away. And let it be understood: a violent revolution in these times would be deadly for all concerned. It is clear from recent elections that most of the citizenry is unaware of their own peril (never mind the corruption of the election process itself). Until it is obvious to the majority, and an alternative is in the offing, nothing can be done to change the status quo.
But a virtual “Constitutional Convention” can be called, nonetheless, and a viable alternative can be fashioned. A viable system of term limits would be a good start. Professional politicians are a curse. And an enlargement of Congress to better represent the population would help. A limitation on the bureaucracy would be another boon, with an enforced turnover to the private sector. The cost of “knowing who to call” is simply too great.
The great project of our age, then, is to build upon our ruins before they are lost beneath the sands. The founders had their inspirations. Let the more recent work of Thomas Sowell, Isaiah Berlin, Roger Scruton, Milton Friedman, Frederick Hayek, Harry Jaffa, and their kin offer guidance. We must reinvent ourselves. We cannot abide as did Ozymandias. Failure is guaranteed to those who do not try.
Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.