Ours is not an age in which we want to have much to do with those who pursue ideas for their own sake; rather, ours in an age that stresses the practical, the “cash value” of ideas that must result in immediate gratification of the pleasure principle. It is said, for example, that the young should avoid college courses in such things as philosophy, history, and literature because “what can you do with them?” They are impractical and don’t lead to a better job and, presumably, happiness ever after. This has not always been the case. There was a time when knowledge was pursued for its own sake and the practical was an after-thought. Moreover, as it happens, such things as philosophical ideas can have immense practical payoff. Take John Locke.
I am reading a remarkable book written by Richard Pipes entitled A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. In the early pages of that book, while trying to probe the causes of the revolution in Russia, and indeed the root causes of revolutions around the world, Pipes points out the immense influence of the English philosopher John Locke.
“In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] inadvertently fed a very different, liberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with ‘innate ideas,’ including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is.”
The implications of this radical change in the perception of human nature were picked up by such thinkers as Helvétius in France who expanded Locke’s thesis into a full-blown political theory that centered around the notion that human beings were imperfect and the political state was necessary in order for them to become fully human. This implied that government is justified in “far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.” As Karl Marx would have it, “The whole development of man . . . depends on education and environment.” Thus was born social science and close at its side materialism and with it capitalism with all its warts and imperfections. It no longer mattered that man was created in God’s image because God was effectively dead. As a result, man could become anything the governments and their agencies determined he could become. As Helvétius had noted:
“Man is totally molded by his environment. Thus a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings. . . . . Good government not only ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number but literally refashions man.”
The people do not know — parents do not know how to raise their children, for example. But the state knows and we need to simply follow the lead of those in power to realize our full human potential. Not only does this idea drive the social sciences, but strange as it may seem it has permeated our colleges and universities in our day as growing numbers of radical faculty members openly regard education as the indoctrination of the unformed young into the “correct” way of thinking and acting — namely how their professors themselves think and act. I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.
It was especially during the period from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth when this way of looking at things had the most powerful influence outside the academy. It was the intellectual background for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States which was founded on the hope that through civil laws, education, and social engineering citizens would develop civic virtue and ignore their own self-interest in order to realize the common good — through which they themselves could become better human beings. Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of John Locke in his study, be it noted.
In any event, this shows us that ideas written down in his closet by the unworldly philosopher can have immense impact on the real world in which most people dismiss such esoteric stuff as “irrelevant” and go about the business of doing business. And one might think also of the writings of Karl Marx, as mentioned, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These were “worldly philosophers.” For those who want practical results and are willing to think about why and how those results are to be brought about, it might pay to read what philosophers, historians, and novelists have had to say — and regarding the latter I am thinking about the immense impact of Charles Dickens’ novels in England in the midst of widespread poverty and a diffident Parliament that seemed to be heading the country toward another”Reign of Terror.”