George H. Smith

Reason, Superstition, and Enthusiasm

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I am not a political fan of the Federalist Noah Webster (1758-1842), who is best known for his speller books and An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), a forerunner of Merriam-Webster dictionaries. (In 1843, George and Charles Merriam secured the rights to Webster's dictionary. They published a revised version in 1847.)

I dislike Webster for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he was an early and ardent advocate of state schooling in America. Nevertheless, Webster was a highly interesting thinker and not your run-of-the-mill Federalist. For example, his tract on the French Revolution (1794)is a reasonable analysis that does not exhibit the hysteria that typified many Federalist critiques from that period.

The passage below is part of Webster's explanation of how the respect for "reason" during the Enlightenment was transformed by Jacobins into a destructive force. Webster's intriguing analysis is set against the background of two concepts that were widely discussed by Enlightenment philosophers, viz., "superstition" and "enthusiasm."

"Superstition" was typically associated by Enlightenment philosophers with Catholicism, whereas "enthusiasm" -- which during this period still carried its original meaning of excessive religious emotion exhibited by those who believe they have been divinely inspired or possessed by God -- typically referred to evangelical Protestants, such as Methodists and (some) Baptists.

Webster argues that superstition and enthusiasm, however they may appear to differ, are rooted in the same cause. He then attempts to explain how the veneration for reason, which begins by repudiating both superstition and enthusiasm, can easily end up, as it did during the French Revolution, as a different manifestation of the same problem.

I am posting Webster's analysis because I find it interesting and worthy of consideration, not because I necessarily agree with it. The application to some features of Orthodox Objectivism should be obvious. I have highlighted the most crucial part.

It is the remark of a great philosopher [Hume], whose opinions I am sure you will respect, that the mind of man is subject to certain unaccountable terrors and apprehensions, proceeding from an unhappy situation of affairs, from ill health, or a melancholy disposition. This is the origin of superstition and priestcraft. The mind of man is also susceptible of an unaccountable elevation and presumption, arising from success, luxuriant health, strong spirits, or a bold confident disposition. This is the source of enthusiasm. Hume’s Essays, Vol. I. 75.

I will not controvert this explanation of the two most remarkable principles in the mind. Nor will I wholly deny the conclusion he draws, that superstition is most favorable to slavery, and enthusiasm, to liberty. But I will go farther in this question than he did, and farther than you will at first admit to be just—but it is a position warranted by all history and perpetual observation, that if superstition and enthusiasm are not essentially the same thing, they at least produce effects, in many respects, exactly similar. They always lead men into error.

Superstition and enthusiasm operate by different means and direct the mind to different objects; but they agree in this respect, they imply or produce an excessive improper attachment to certain objects, usually objects of little real consequence. They are equally the humble votaries of some deity, tho each has a different one and worships him in her own peculiar mode. From the only regular body of deists in the universe, as Mr. Hume calls the disciples of Confucius; from the exalted philosophers of Greece and Rome, Plato, Pythagoras and Cicero: or from the still more refined philosophers, the noble disciples of reason, the members of the National Convention of France, down to the lowest bigot that drones out a lifeless existence over his beads and his crucifix in some dark monastic cell, there is one single principle of the human mind operating steadily to produce these different characters: this principle is a strong, universal and irresistable disposition to attach itself to some object or some system of belief which shall be a kind of idol to be worshipped in preference to all others. The object only is varied; the principle eternally the same. The principle springs from the passions of the mind, and cannot be annihilated without extinguishing the passions; which is impossible. When a gloomy mind clings to its priest or its altars, it is called superstition. When a bold mind, and ardent spirits rise above grovelling objects, and embrace spiritual delights, with raptures and transports, it is called enthusiasm or fanaticism. When a long series of reflection and reasoning has cooled or moderated the passions, the mind is governed less by feeling and more by argument; the errors of superstition and enthusiasm are perceived and despised; the mind fixes itself upon a theory of imaginary truth, between the extremes of error; and this is pronounced reason and philosophy. That this reason is not truth itself nor an infallible standard of truth, is obvious: for no two men agree what it is, what its nature, extent or limits. No matter; superstition and enthusiasm are beat down; reason is exalted upon a throne, temples are erected to the goddess, and festivals instituted to celebrate her coronation. Then begins the reign of passion; the moment reason is seated upon her throne; the passions are called in to support her. Pride says[:] I have trampled down superstition, that foe to truth and happiness—I have exalted reason to the throne; I am right—every thing else is wrong. Obey the goddess reason, is the great command: and woe to the man that rejects her authority. Reason is indeed the nominal prince, but the passions are her ministers, and dictate her decrees. Thus what begins in calm philosophy, ends in a most superstitious attachment to a particular object of its own creation. The goddess reason is at last maintained by pride, obstinacy, bigotry and to use a correct phrase, a blind superstitious enthusiasm.

The history of men is one tissue of facts, confirmatory of their observations. The Egyptians adored certain animals; and to injure a cat in Egypt, was a crime no less enormous than to pull down a liberty cap, to use the christian era, or wear abroad the robes of a priest in France; it was sacrilege. When we are told by credible historians that the Egyptians, when a house was on fire took more pains to save the cats, than the house, we stare and wonder how men could ever be so weak and stupid as to regard a cat, as a sacred animal. But is not the cap of liberty now regarded with a similar veneration? Would not an insult offered to it be resented and call down the vengeance of its votaries? How is this? Why the answer is easy—the Egyptians venerated a cat and a cow, and our modern idolaters venerate a liberty cap. The passion of the Egyptians will be called superstition perhaps; the passion of our people, enthusiasm. But it is the object that is changed, and not the principle. Our people are perpetually exclaiming “Liberty is the goddess we adore,” and a cap is the emblem of this goddess. Yet in fact there is no more connection between liberty and a cap, than between the Egyptian deity Isis, and just notions of God; nor is it less an act of superstition to dance round a cap or a pole in honor of liberty, than it was in Egypt to sacrifice a bullock to Isis....

[Noah Webster, The Revolution in France, Considered in Respect to Its Progress and Effects (1794). Go here to read the entire essay.

Ghs

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What a well educated and thoughtful man.

--Brant

I agree.

I read a lot by and about Webster c. 1980, while I was researching the history of state education. I grew to dislike him because of his argument that a system of national education in needed to "implant in the minds of the American youth...an inviolable attachment to their own country." As I recall, however, Webster never went as far as Benjamin Rush, the "father" of American psychiatry and another early champion of national education, who declared: "Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property."

It is difficult for many people to imagine that any "founding father" could ever say something like this (Rush was an early proponent of American Independence), but some did.

For Rush's essay in which the above quotation appears, see:

http://chronicles.dickinson.edu/resources/Rush/mode_of_education.html

Ghs

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I didn't like him before and I like him less now (I do admire Hume's thoughts here though). How would he apply his observations to his own self I wonder? Does he think he's reasonable, superstitious, or "enthusiastic"? Or is he above the fray?

Shayne

What is a "liberty cap"?

Edited by sjw

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I didn't like him before and I like him less now (I do admire Hume's thoughts here though). How would he apply his observations to his own self I wonder? Does he think he's reasonable, superstitious, or "enthusiastic"? Or is he above the fray?

Shayne

What is a "liberty cap"?

220px-Sansculottes.jpg magnify-clip.png The Phrygian cap is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward, associated in antiquity with the inhabitants of Phrygia, a region of central Anatolia. In the western provinces of the Roman Empire it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty, perhaps through a confusion with the pileus, the manumitted slave's felt cap of ancient Rome. Accordingly, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap; in artistic representations it signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty.

But with the way you refer to people you argue with I think you were eating:

Psilocybe semilanceata, commonly known as the liberty cap, is a psychedelic (or "magic") mushroom that contains the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and baeocystin.

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Webster argues that superstition and enthusiasm, however they may appear to differ, are rooted in the same cause. He then attempts to explain how the veneration for reason, which begins by repudiating both superstition and enthusiasm, can easily end up, as it did during the French Revolution, as a different manifestation of the same problem.

<...>

Obey the goddess reason, is the great command: and woe to the man that rejects her authority. Reason is indeed the nominal prince, but the passions are her ministers, and dictate her decrees. Thus what begins in calm philosophy, ends in a most superstitious attachment to a particular object of its own creation. The goddess reason is at last maintained by pride, obstinacy, bigotry and to use a correct phrase, a blind superstitious enthusiasm.

[Noah Webster, The Revolution in France, Considered in Respect to Its Progress and Effects (1794). Go here to read the entire essay.

It looks like God has undergone quite a few name changes ...

It also seems to be lot easier to get rid of specific gods than of the god principle.

No surprise, given the fact that man has been a homo religiosus for many millenia.

Then there's the hierarchical structures biologcally hardwired in humans as group beings prone to whorshiping superior, outstanding figures high up in the hierarchy.

Edited by Xray

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I didn't like him before and I like him less now (I do admire Hume's thoughts here though). How would he apply his observations to his own self I wonder? Does he think he's reasonable, superstitious, or "enthusiastic"? Or is he above the fray?

Shayne

What is a "liberty cap"?

We need to keep in mind that Webster was not criticizing "reason" per se. Rather he was analyzing the "Cult of Reason" that had become the quasi-official policy of the French revolutionary government. As the Wiki article says:

Adherence to the Cult of Reason became a defining attribute of the Hébertist faction. It was also pervasive among the ranks of the sans-culottes. Numerous political factions, anti-clerical groups and events only loosely connected to the cult have come to be amalgamated with its name.[3] The earliest atheistic public demonstrations ranged from "wild masquerades" redolent of earlier spring festivals to outright persecutions, including ransackings of churches and synagogues[4] in which religious and royal images were defaced....

The official nationwide Fête de la Raison, supervised by Hébert and Momoro on 20 Brumaire, Year II (10 November 1793) came to epitomize the new republican way of religion. In ceremonies devised and organised by Chaumette, churches across France were transformed into modern Temples of Reason. At Notre Dame in Paris was the largest ceremony of them all. The Christian altar was dismantled and an altar to Liberty was installed; the inscription "To Philosophy" was carved in stone over the cathedral's doors. The proceedings took several hours and concluded with the appearance of a Goddess of Reason who, to avoid idolatry, was portrayed by a living woman.[7]

Webster's tract was published in 1794. Ironically perhaps, this was the same year that Robespierre, who by this time had obtained dictatorial powers, replaced the Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being, thereby establishing Deism as the official state religion of France.

Ghs

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A few more words about Noah Webster...

Like many Americans, Webster initially supported the French Revolution, seeing it as the overthrow of despotism and a serious blow to "popery." With the onset of the Reign of Terror in September 1793, however, many Americans changed their minds.

Webster's 1794 tract expresses a transitory phase in Webster's thinking about the French Revolution. He was no longer an ardent supporter, but neither was he willing to condemn it outright. Here is how Webster put it in the Preface:

In the progress of the French Revolution, candid men find much to praise, and much to censure. It is a novel event in the history of nations, and furnishes new subjects of reflection. The end in view is noble; but whether the spirit of party and faction, which divided the National Assembly, sacrificed one part, and gave to the other the sovereign power over the nation, will not deprive the present generation of the blessings of freedom and good government, the objects contended for, is a very interesting question. Equally interesting is it to enquire what will be the effects of the revolution on the agriculture, commerce, and moral character of the French nation. The field of speculation is new, and the subject curious.

The writer of the following remarks came into society, during the late war with Great-Britain; his heart was very early warmed with a love of liberty; his pen has often advocated her cause. When the revolution in France was announced in America, his heart exulted with joy; he felt nearly the same interest in its success, as he did in the establishment of American independence. This joy has been much allayed by the sanguinary procedings of the Jacobins, their atheistical attacks on christianity, and their despicable attention to trifles. He is however candid enough to believe much of the violence of their measures may be attributed to the combination of powers, formed for the most unwarrantable purpose of dictating to an independent nation its form of government. Perhaps other circumstances, not known in this country, may serve to palliate the apparent cruelty of the ruling faction. But there are some proceedings of the present convention, which admit of no excuse but a political insanity; a wild enthusiasm, violent and irregular, which magnifies a mole-hill into a mountain; and mistakes a shadow for a giant.

A just estimate of things, their causes and effects, is always desireable; and it is of infinite consequence to this country, to ascertain the point where our admiration of the French measures should end, and our censure, begin; the point, beyond which an introduction of their principles and practice into this country, will prove dangerous to government, religion and morals.

With this view, the following strictures are offered to the American public. Freedom of discussion is a privilege enjoyed by every citizen; and it is presumed that some degree of severity will be pardoned, when it has truth for its support, and public utility for its object.

As the French Revolution continued to degenerate, Webster became increasingly conservative. He even denounced various pro-Revolution libertarians whom he had previously admired, such as the Englishmen Richard Price and Joseph Priestley.

This reactionary response to the "excesses" of the French Revolution was widespread throughout America, England, and Europe. Whether fairly or unfairly, no event did more to damage the Lockean ideals of natural rights, government by consent, and the right of revolution than the French Revolution.

The French Revolution had a lot to do with the rise of utilitarianism and its supposed triumph over natural rights thinking in the classical liberal tradition. For years after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, few British philosophers had the courage to defend Lockean natural right liberalism, for to do so was to brand oneself as a despised revolutionary "Jacobin." It was during these postwar years that Bentham's utilitarianism, which repudiated the right of revolution as "nonsense," became popular among free market types. Utilitarianism provided a way for liberals to defend various freedoms while avoiding the radical edge of the earlier natural right liberalism, in which the rights of resistance and revolution played crucial roles.

Ghs

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OK George, if he meant to leave room for actual reason then I take my remarks back. When I read that bit I took him to be talking about the inescapable human condition and saying that we think we think but we don't really.

Shayne

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I hadn'd realized that damage from the French Revolution.

--Brant

Another factor was relevant here, namely, the many prosecutions of libertarians by the British government for seditious libel and treason. Here is a summary: :

The period 1792–4 witnessed the emergence of the first genuinely popular radical movement in Britain. After the phenomenal success of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–2), the government moved swiftly to prevent French republican ideas taking hold in Britain , beginning with the prosecution of Paine himself in absentia. There followed a spate of trials for seditious libel, often against booksellers in London who were selling cheap copies of Paine’s book. Finally, in May 1794, the government took the step of accusing the movement of treason, arresting its leaders, among them Thomas Hardy, Secretary of the London Corresponding Society, John Horne Tooke, the veteran gentleman radical, and the lecturer and poet John Thelwall. In particular, the movement was accused of conspiring to set up a convention that – as the government argued – was aimed at usurping the authority of Parliament. Their acquittal at the end of 1794 was regarded as a triumph for the jury system and gave new hope to the radical movement. In response, the government introduced a series of draconian new treason laws which effectively stamped out radical and populist movements until the Reform bills of the 1830s.

Ghs

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From a libertarian perspective, the philosophical debates occasioned by the French Revolution are the most fascinating and significant in the history of political theory.

Imagine if some country today, one that libertarians regarded as despotic, experienced a revolution led by sincere limited government libertarians, including O'ists. And suppose that this revolution, after the violence had ceased, got off to a promising start, even adopting a Constitution and Bill of Rights based on the American model. The "right" people are in office for the first few years, but, being good libertarians, they enact term limits, so they are eventually replaced by paranoid libertarians who see conspiracies around every corner.

Libertarian legislators debate whether the former dictator should be executed, from fear that he will seek to regain his power. Despite the pleas of some libertarians that this would degrade their revolution based on principles to a crude act of vengeance against a single man (this was Paine's argument against killing Louis XVI), the radicals win out, and the old dictator is killed. Counter-revolutionaries, both real and imagined, are then rounded up and executed by the thousands as enemies of freedom. The victims include some of the prominent libertarians who spearheaded the original revolution, as the revolution devours its own children. Then, as things get progressively worse with invasions by foreign powers who see easy pickings in their neighbor, a military dictator emerges who promises to restore law and order to this troubled land, and to save it from from certain destruction by foreign powers.

How would we analyze these events? Would we blame our own philosophy and rethink it from the ground up? Would we blame those individuals who, though sincere libertarians in theory, adopted drastic methods to prevent the occurrence of a counter-revolution? Would we blame the military threats posed by other nations? Would we blame sociological factors that, in the final analysis, were beyond anyone's control? Or would we stand firm and say, with Thomas Jefferson, that we support the struggle for human freedom, even if it means that only an Adam and Eve would remain on the face of the earth?

All these explanations and more were debated by 18th century Americans and Europeans in regard to the French Revolution.

Ghs

Addendum: One more problem with obvious parallels to the French Revolution. Suppose the original dictator in our imaginary country had given one-third of the land to his cronies, family members, and other supporters of the Old Regime. So what, if anything, should post-revolutionary libertarians do about this situation? Should they allow this old guard to retain ownership of one-third of the country in the name of private property rights, even though it was acquired by illicit means? Or should the new libertarian government confiscate all this land and then offer it for sale to others?

Redistribution of property, even in a just cause, is always a tricky matter.

Ghs

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But with the way you refer to people you argue with I think you were eating:

Just a few days ago you were attacking my book as being filled with empty pages (for the record, it isn't, except for the few at the end required by the printer) and mention something about it being written with Crayons, and now you expect me to be nice to you? I think you're the one doing drugs.

Shayne

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But with the way you refer to people you argue with I think you were eating:

Just a few days ago you were attacking my book as being filled with empty pages (for the record, it isn't, except for the few at the end required by the printer) and mention something about it being written with Crayons, and now you expect me to be nice to you? I think you're the one doing drugs.

Shayne

Shayne:

Not only was that a generic AND sarcastic remark, but it was not specific to your book which I have read excerpts of and find quite worthwhile.

That statement, which was generic, was in response to the particular thread where where you clearly and consciously stated that Carol [Daunce] had called you a liar.

First, she not call you a liar.

Second, it is completely out of character for her to use that type of broadsword attack, since she is quite skilled linguistically. She would use a rapier.

Finally, the blank pages generic remark AND the fact that it was clearly sarcastic does not permit you to infer that it was about your book.

Therefore, and this is merely a suggestion to you, lose the thin skin and count to one hundred and ten (110) before you engage your personal attack reflex.

Adam

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That statement, which was generic, was in response to the particular thread where where you clearly and consciously stated that Carol [Daunce] had called you a liar.

First, she not call you a liar.

Second, it is completely out of character for her to use that type of broadsword attack, since she is quite skilled linguistically. She would use a rapier.

Daunce wanted to leave the impression that she was bumbling around with words, but I think she was just backpedaling -- that she knew exactly what she was saying when she said it but didn't have the courage to either own up or apologize. But it is no surprise that even though her words directly implied that I was a liar, you would claim they didn't. Pull out a dictionary. See what the word "evasive" means.

Shayne

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From a libertarian perspective, the philosophical debates occasioned by the French Revolution are the most fascinating and significant in the history of political theory.

Imagine if some country today, one that libertarians regarded as despotic, experienced a revolution led by sincere limited government libertarians, including O'ists. And suppose that this revolution, after the violence had ceased, got off to a promising start, even adopting a Constitution and Bill of Rights based on the American model. The "right" people are in office for the first few years, but, being good libertarians, they enact term limits, so they are eventually replaced by paranoid libertarians who see conspiracies around every corner.

Libertarian legislators debate whether the former dictator should be executed, from fear that he will seek to regain his power. Despite the pleas of some libertarians that this would degrade their revolution based on principles to a crude act of vengeance against a single man (this was Paine's argument against killing Louis XVI), the radicals win out, and the old dictator is killed. Counter-revolutionaries, both real and imagined, are then rounded up and executed by the thousands as enemies of freedom. The victims include some of the prominent libertarians who spearheaded the original revolution, as the revolution devours its own children. Then, as things get progressively worse with invasions by foreign powers who see easy pickings in their neighbor, a military dictator emerges who promises to restore law and order to this troubled land, and to save it from from certain destruction by foreign powers.

How would we analyze these events? Would we blame our own philosophy and rethink it from the ground up? Would we blame those individuals who, though sincere libertarians in theory, adopted drastic methods to prevent the occurrence of a counter-revolution? Would we blame the military threats posed by other nations? Would we blame sociological factors that, in the final analysis, were beyond anyone's control? Or would we stand firm and say, with Thomas Jefferson, that we support the struggle for human freedom, even if it means that only an Adam and Eve would remain on the face of the earth?

All these explanations and more were debated by 18th century Americans and Europeans in regard to the French Revolution.

Ghs

Addendum: One more problem with obvious parallels to the French Revolution. Suppose the original dictator in our imaginary country had given one-third of the land to his cronies, family members, and other supporters of the Old Regime. So what, if anything, should post-revolutionary libertarians do about this situation? Should they allow this old guard to retain ownership of one-third of the country in the name of private property rights, even though it was acquired by illicit means? Or should the new libertarian government confiscate all this land and then offer it for sale to others?

Redistribution of property, even in a just cause, is always a tricky matter.

Ghs

Ghs,

A highly useful allegory that instantly enlarged my understanding of the FR. The complexities had previously defeated me.

Great overview.

Tony

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Ghs,

A highly useful allegory that instantly enlarged my understanding of the FR. The complexities had previously defeated me.

Great overview.

Tony

I agree, excellent analysis and wise thoughts by George. It is too bad that these thoughts are not on anyone's radar in (say) the Tea Party movement. It is too bad that we have no intellectual vanguard that includes this kind of thoughtfulness at the forefront of popular movements. It is too bad that Objectivism itself devoured its own children and thus made it impossible to become such a vanguard.

Shayne

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The best known debate over the French Revolution took place between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. If Burke had been a reactionary Tory, his condemnation of the French Revolution would not have surprised anyone. But Burke was no such thing; on the contrary, he was a good classical liberal who ardently defended the free trade principles of Adam Smith, who savagely criticized British imperialism in Ireland and India, who defended Americans in their struggles with Britain, and who was quite strong on civil liberties -- even calling for the legalization of homosexuality.

Because of Burke's earlier support of the American cause, his vehement attack on the French Revolution (in Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790) shocked many of his fellow liberals. Paine and others accused Burke of betraying their common cause, and some even accused Burke of selling out to the British government to obtain a pension. Both charges were wrong.

As Burke explained, he had indeed expressed sympathy for the American Revolution, but he never defended the abstract principles of natural rights, including the right of revolution, that most Americans embraced. Rather, Burke saw the American Revolution as a conservative revolution, i.e., a revolution that defended traditional American institutions and values against the innovations that the British government wished to impose. As he explained in his remarkable address to parliament, "Speech on American Taxation," in 1774:

Again, and again, revert to your own principles—Seek Peace, and ensue it—leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, not attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they antiently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. They and we, and their and our ancestors, have been happy under that system. Let the memory of all actions, in contradiction to that good old mode, on both sides, be extinguished for ever. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Let this be your reason for binding their trade. Do not burthen them by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are the arguments of states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety. But, if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government, by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question. When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. [155]No-body will be argued into slavery.

As Burke saw the matter, the French Revolution, in contrast to the American Revolution, was a truly radical revolution, because it sought to overthrow the traditional institutions of France and replace them with a completely new society based on abstract principles. Consequently, Burke predicted, three years before the Reign of Terror, that violence and turmoil would inevitably result, followed by the emergence of a dictator.

Burke's Reflections sparked dozens of replies, the first being that by Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Men -- a hastily written, mediocre performance, at best.

The most famous response to Burke was Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (in two parts, 1791 and 1792). Paine's defense of the French Revolution was very effective, but even better in some respects was that written by James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae (1791)

Ghs

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I hadn'd realized that damage from the French Revolution.

--Brant

Another factor was relevant here, namely, the many prosecutions of libertarians by the British government for seditious libel and treason. Here is a summary: :

The period 1792–4 witnessed the emergence of the first genuinely popular radical movement in Britain. After the phenomenal success of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791–2), the government moved swiftly to prevent French republican ideas taking hold in Britain , beginning with the prosecution of Paine himself in absentia. There followed a spate of trials for seditious libel, often against booksellers in London who were selling cheap copies of Paine's book. Finally, in May 1794, the government took the step of accusing the movement of treason, arresting its leaders, among them Thomas Hardy, Secretary of the London Corresponding Society, John Horne Tooke, the veteran gentleman radical, and the lecturer and poet John Thelwall. In particular, the movement was accused of conspiring to set up a convention that – as the government argued – was aimed at usurping the authority of Parliament. Their acquittal at the end of 1794 was regarded as a triumph for the jury system and gave new hope to the radical movement. In response, the government introduced a series of draconian new treason laws which effectively stamped out radical and populist movements until the Reform bills of the 1830s.

Ghs

They must have been scared shitless, first by what happened in America, then France.

--Brant

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That statement, which was generic, was in response to the particular thread where where you clearly and consciously stated that Carol [Daunce] had called you a liar.

First, she not call you a liar.

Second, it is completely out of character for her to use that type of broadsword attack, since she is quite skilled linguistically. She would use a rapier.

Daunce wanted to leave the impression that she was bumbling around with words, but I think she was just backpedaling -- that she knew exactly what she was saying when she said it but didn't have the courage to either own up or apologize. But it is no surprise that even though her words directly implied that I was a liar, you would claim they didn't. Pull out a dictionary. See what the word "evasive" means.

Shayne

"Evasive" is much less pejorative than "liar." You're using it to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to a position of high dudgeon. You are so quick to default an intellectual discussion--I'm not referring here to you and Carol--to a moral issue it tends to stick a stick in its wheel's spokes. Objectivism isn't fatally and morally flawed because of an article Rand wrote on patents nor did Objectivism devour its young. Leonard Peikoff is responsible for that because he didn't let Rand go and insisted he take her place as its Grand Poobah authority and position setter. Twenty-five years of continuing damage, and I don't think so highly of the Atlas Society either. It's far from radical enough for my taste.

--Brant

Edited by Brant Gaede

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I hadn'd realized that damage from the French Revolution.

--Brant

Another factor was relevant here, namely, the many prosecutions of libertarians by the British government for seditious libel and treason. Here is a summary: :

The period 1792–4 witnessed the emergence of the first genuinely popular radical movement in Britain. After the phenomenal success of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791–2), the government moved swiftly to prevent French republican ideas taking hold in Britain , beginning with the prosecution of Paine himself in absentia. There followed a spate of trials for seditious libel, often against booksellers in London who were selling cheap copies of Paine's book. Finally, in May 1794, the government took the step of accusing the movement of treason, arresting its leaders, among them Thomas Hardy, Secretary of the London Corresponding Society, John Horne Tooke, the veteran gentleman radical, and the lecturer and poet John Thelwall. In particular, the movement was accused of conspiring to set up a convention that – as the government argued – was aimed at usurping the authority of Parliament. Their acquittal at the end of 1794 was regarded as a triumph for the jury system and gave new hope to the radical movement. In response, the government introduced a series of draconian new treason laws which effectively stamped out radical and populist movements until the Reform bills of the 1830s.

Ghs

They must have been scared shitless, first by what happened in America, then France.

--Brant

Despite the histrionics of Burke -- he once threw a knife on the floor while addressing parliament, declaring that it was part of a shipment sent by French revolutionaries to arm and encourage English revolutionaries -- there was never a serious threat of revolution in England. Most of the pro-French radicals in England called for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and other political reforms that Radical Whigs had been advocating for decades.

If you want to see what started all this, read Richard Price's A Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789). This was "delivered on Nov. 4, 1789, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, to the Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain."

The "revolution" referred to here was the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, a virtually bloodless revolution in government that most Englishmen, including Burke, praised with the same enthusiasm that Americans have traditionally praised the American Revolution.

According to Price -- and remember we are talking about the very early stage of the French Revolution -- the principles of the French Revolution were based on the American Revolution, and this revolution, in turn, was based on principles that had originated in England. Price (a dissenting minister) expressed his fervent hope that these selfsame principles would soon make a round trip and find their way back to England.

Burke went ballistic when he read Price's sermon, and this is what convinced him to write his Reflections. In doing so, however, he mispresented what Price had said, as Price himself notes in the Preface to the later edition of his Discourse that I linked above.

The hysteria drummed up by Burke (who was undoubtedly sincere) was exploited by conservative politicians for their own purposes. As Erskine May explained long ago in The Constitutional History of England (11th ed., 1896):

There is no longer room for doubt that the alarm of this period was exaggerated and excessive....The influential classes, more alarmed than the government, eargerly fomented the prevailing spirit of reaction. They had long been jealous of the growing influence of the press and popular opinion. Their own power had been disturbed by the political agitation of the last thirty years, and was further threatened by parliamentary reform. But the time had now come for recoverng their ascendancy.... (Vol II, pp. 284-5).

Ghs

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"Evasive" is much less pejorative than "liar."

No it's not.

You're using it to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to a position of high dudgeon. You are so quick to default an intellectual discussion--I'm not referring here to you and Carol--to a moral issue it tends to stick a stick in its wheel's spokes.

It's not my fault if my interlocutor is a pansy. Perhaps they should not be presumptuous, arrogant, and foolish. Perhaps they should not impute dishonesty where they have evidence of nothing but their own failure to comprehend.

Objectivism isn't fatally and morally flawed because of an article Rand wrote on patents

For the record, that is not my position.

nor did Objectivism devour its young.

So I guess it was my imagination that people are ostracized for dissenting?

Shayne

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Perhaps I should say a word in defense of Burke's histrionics, which I mentioned in my last post.

Burke clearly understood, long before most of his contemporaries, that the French Revolution represented something new in European history. Most previous revolutions had amounted to little more than political coups in which one ruling faction overthrew and replaced another, and this meant that the influence of such revolutions tended to be localized. But the French Revolution was grounded in universal abstract principles, and such principles cannot be confined within territorial boundaries. Indeed, according to Burke, the principles of the French Revolution, if consistently applied, would leave every European government, no matter how moderate, vulnerable to revolution. This is why Burke called on a coalition of European powers to invade France and crush the Revolution in its cradle.

Hence Burke feared that a successful revolution in France would encourage radicals throughout Europe, including those in England, to foment similar revolutions in their own countries. This was his principal concern.

It is interesting to observe that Paine agreed with Burke on at least one point, namely, that revolutions based on ideas cannot be contained within a given country. As Paine put it:

An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soliders cannot. It will succeed where diplomatic management would fail. It is neither the Rhine, the Channel, or the Ocean, that can arrest its progress. It will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.

Could that guy write inspiring prose, or what? :rolleyes:

Ghs

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The most famous response to Burke was Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (in two parts, 1791 and 1792). Paine's defense of the French Revolution was very effective, but even better in some respects is that written by James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae (1791)

Ghs

Here is one reason why I like the book by Mackintosh.

According to Burke, members of the French National Assembly neglected the practical political wisdom that comes from experience and were guided by abstract principles (natural rights, etc.) alone. Here, in a passage that merits a close and careful reading, is how Mackintosh dealt with this objection:

That guilt (if it be guilt) is imputable to the National Assembly of France. They are<111> accused of having rejected the guidance of experience, of having abandoned themselves to the illusion of theory, and of having sacrificed great and attainable good to the magnificent chimeras of ideal excellence. If this accusation be just, if they have indeed abandoned experience, the basis of human knowledge, as well as the guide of human action, their conduct deserves no longer any serious argument; and if (as Mr. Burke more than once insinuates) their contempt of it is avowed and ostentatious, it was surely unworthy of him to have expended so much genius against so preposterous an insanity. But the explanation of terms will diminish our wonder—Experience may, both in the arts and in the conduct of human life, be regarded in a double view, either as furnishing models, or principles. An artist who frames his machine in exact imitation of his predecessor, is in the first sense said to be guided by experience. In this sense all improvements<112> of human life, have been deviations from experience. The first visionary innovator was the savage who built a cabin, or covered himself with a rug. If this be experience, man is degraded to the unimproveable level of the instinctive animals—But in the second acceptation, an artist is said to be guided by experience, when the inspection of a machine discovers to him principles, which teach him to improve it, or when the comparison of many both with respect to their excellencies and defects, enables him to frame another more perfect machine, different from any he had examined. In this latter sense, the National Assembly have perpetually availed themselves of experience. History is an immense collection of experiments on the nature and effect of the various parts of various Governments. Some institutions are experimentally ascertained to be beneficial; some to be most indubitably destructive. A third class, which produces partial good, obviously possess<113> the capacity of improvement. What, on such a survey, was the dictate of enlightened experience?—Not surely to follow the model of any of those Governments, in which these institutions lay indiscriminately mingled; but, like the mechanic, to compare and generalize; and, guided equally by experience, to imitate and reject. The process is in both cases the same. The rights and the nature of man are to the Legislator what the general properties of matter are to the Mechanic, the first guide, because they are founded on the widest experience. In the second class are to be ranked observations on the excellencies and defects of those Governments which have existed, that teach the construction of a more perfect machine. But experience is the basis of all. Not the puny and trammelled experience of a Statesman by trade, who trembles at any change in the tricks which he has been taught, or the routine in which he has been accustomed to move, but an experience liberal<114> and enlightened, which hears the testimony of ages and nations, and collects from it the general principles which regulate the mechanism of society.

Legislators are under no obligation to retain a constitution, because it has been found “tolerably to answer the common purposes of Government.”26 It is absurd to expect, but it is not absurd to pursue perfection. It is absurd to acquiesce in evils, of which the remedy is obvious, because they are less grievous than those which are endured by others. To suppose the social order is not capable of improvement from the progress of the human understanding, is to betray the inconsistent absurdity of an arrogant confidence in our attainments, and an abject distrust of our powers. If indeed the sum of evil produced by political institutions, even in the least imperfect Governments, were small, there might be some pretence for this dread of innovation, this hor-<115>ror at remedy, which has raised such a clamour over Europe: But, on the contrary, in an estimate of the sources of human misery, after granting that one portion is to be attributed to disease, and another to private vices, it might perhaps be found that a third equal part arose from the oppressions and corruptions of Government, disguised under various forms. All the Governments that now exist in the world (except the United States of America) have been fortuitously formed. They are the produce of chance, not the work of art. They have been altered, impaired, improved and destroyed by accidental circumstances, beyond the foresight or controul of wisdom. Their parts thrown up against present emergencies formed no systematic whole. It was certainly not to have been presumed, that these fortuitous Governments should have surpassed the works of intellect, and precluded all nearer approaches to perfection. Their origin without doubt furnishes a strong presumption of an<116> opposite nature. It might teach us to expect in them many discordant principles, many jarring forms, much unmixed evil, and much imperfect good, many institutions which had long survived their motive, and many of which reason had never been the author, nor utility the object. Experience, even in the best of these Governments, accords with such expectations.

Burke's Reflections generated the distinction between French and English liberty -- an essentially useless distinction that was formalized in the 19th century by Francis Lieber in his article "Anglican and Gallican Liberty." . F.A. Hayek picked up this false dichotomy from Lieber and used it to muck up a good deal of the history of classical liberal thought.

As far as I am concerned, Mackintosh disposed of this nonsense in 1791, in his Vindiciae Gallicae.

Ghs

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