Against Transcendence

Deirdre McCloskey gave the inaugural James M. Buchanan Lecture last week, The Hobbes Problem: From Machiavelli to Buchanan.  It was a good start to the series, eloquent, learned, and heartfelt.  McCloskey argued that the Hobbesian programme of building the polis on prudence alone, a program to which the moderns, Rawls, Buchanan, Gauthier and others have contributed is barren.  A good polis must be built upon all 7 virtues, both the pagan and transcendent, these being courage, justice, temperance, and prudence but also faith, hope and love (agape).

In the lecture, McCloskey elided the difficult problems of the transcendent virtues especially as they apply to politics (I expect a more complete analysis in the forthcoming book).  Faith, hope, and love sound pleasant in theory but in practice there is little agreement on how these virtues are instantiated.  It was love for their eternal souls that motivated the inquisitors to torture their victims.   President Bush wants to save Iran…with nuclear bombs.  Faith in the absurd is absurd.  Thanks but no thanks.

Since we can’t agree on the transcendent virtues injecting them into politics means intolerance and division.  Personally, I’d be happy to see the transcendent virtues fade away but I know that’s
unrealistic.  The next best thing, therefore, is to insist that the transcendent virtues be reserved for civil society and at all costs be kept out of politics.  The pagan virtues alone provide room for agreement in a cosmpolitan society, a society of the hetereogeneous. 

Of course, in all this I follow Voltaire:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable
than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations
meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the
Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same
religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There
the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends
on the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free
assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass.
This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off,
whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled
over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the
inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would
very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would
cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all
live happy and in peace.


There is much in this I disagree with. Keep in mind Voltaire's Enlightenment was built upon a foundation of largely Christian societies; it was neither pagan nor stemming from a truly diverse religious mix. Christian societies have, among other things, been much more willing to accept the idea of individual rights; I am not dissuaded by the two-way direction of causation here. I know all about Jefferson's views but nonetheless it is hard to imagine the Founding Fathers as coming out of anything but a Christian society. In my view people will believe in the transcendent no matter what. An attempt to erect society without transcendence leads to the worship of the state. The U.S. has a formal separation of church and state but of course it is the most suffused with Christian ideas, including in the sphere of government. And I've been to pagan countries, few are to be envied!

It was love for their eternal souls that motivated the inquisitors to torture their victims.

Can you elaborate on and/or provide some support for this statement?

Quick response to Tyler. Without denying that they were largely Christian it's clear that the founders were the least Christian leaders America has ever had.

If you want to say that the enlightment was built upon Christian societies ok, but we should also acknowledge that this didn't happen before the enlightenment swept away all the surface buildings! Try telling the Church in France that they were the foundation of the enlightment! More accurately the enlightenment had a chance because Europe was sick of religious wars.

I give much more credit to the Greco-Roman heritage of democracy and respect for civil rights. What's good in the Christian heritage actually came from the Greeks.

Thanks Alex. I'm certainly familiar with the savagery of the inquisition and its purported aims.

I guess I just don't put any particular credence on their stated justification. Does the fact that people lie a lot mean that "truth" has no intrinsic meaning? Does the fact that people attribute all manner of barbarity to "love" mean that love has no intrinsic meaning?

Re: Christian vs. Greek origin of liberal values -- I would have to agree with Tyler and disagree with you. My reading of the Greco-Roman era is of philosophers which granted rights to certain groups but always considered others of no intrinsic value. Whereas the teachings of Jesus are quite clear on the intrinsic worth of every human being. This does not of course in any way provide cover for the abysmal record of the established Church and many of the nominally "Christian" civilizations. I say this as a non-Christian with a certain distaste for fundamentalism, but I give a fair amount of the credit here to the Christian faith.

Do you happen to know the source of the following quote that was quasi-attributed to McCloskey: "that no one was ever convinced by raw data of the truth of a proposition that he or she did not already hold to be true." This didn't make much sense to me; see here:
but I thought maybe there was more explanation in the original quote.

Many thanks to Alex Tabarrok for his kind words about my Buchanan lecture on Friday last. (I'll be glad to supply it electronically, by the way, to anyone who wants it; my web site will be down until I get back to Chicago in August, alas.) Yes, I do as he imagined talk a good deal in the new book The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce(out in June; reserve your multiple copies now on amazon!! cheap, cheap, cheap!) about the political as against the civil-society side of faith, hope, and transcendent love. I agree, and say so in the book, that the 18th century was an experiment in trying to get the transcendent out of politics, for which we are all thankful. It is correct to say that 18th-century folk such as Voltaire, Hume, Smith, Kant were trying to strip away from the state such transcendence as the divine right of kings and the defense of the one true faith (one prince, one confession). We owe our freedoms to their successes, something that my literary friends complaining about the Enlightenment Project do not appear to grasp.
The trouble was (as I say in the book and will detail in a volume 3 called The Treason of Clerisy: How the Transcendent Returned to Europe and Almost Killed Capitalism after 1848 [or some such title!])that hope and faith and transcendent love [let's call it 'agape'] came back into political thinking with great force in the 19th century---faith in the form of nationalism (as Tyler put it, without some other transcendent the state becomes God) and hope in the form of socialism. Thus from the left 1914 and from the right 1917, and all our woe. The worry is that if we so to speak lose track of faith and hope and agape, they are left to do mischief.
Come to think of it, it's the same point I make about rhetoric. If we don't recognize that we use arguments from authority, metaphors, stories, and so forth we will not as is usually supposed (it is philosophy's official position since Plato) enter a pristine world of fact and logic only. No, we will use the human rhetorical devices--because that is how humans are and must be---but we won't know, or will cynically deny, that we are using them. (By the way, to Alex Gelman, I didn't write that no one is convinced by raw data who wasn't already convinced. That way of talking does, though, sound like a somewhat crude formulation of what I just said: humans become convinced by rhetorical devices, including raw data and intellectual traditions and their faith in, hope for, and love of, say, economics.)
I like the way "jim" expressed the concluding theme of my talk (which was indeed meta-): "the reiterated application of a [prudence-only; no-other-human-virtues-in-sight] model outside areas where it's been successful [let us say, covered interest arbitrage; the market for wheat] coarsens public speech and hence public behavior." "Coarsen" is just the right word. I worry in the June book and will worry more in Vol. 2 half written that the rise in the rhetorical prestige of prudence, 1600-1800 in places like Amsterdam, London, Philadelphia had at last a coarsening effect on ethical talk and behavior.
I do not offer yet, as Jim notes, many examples of what happens to an economics that acknowledges that people are human (in my terms, exhibit all seven of the virtues, or fail to do so because of this or that vice). This is partly because my project is not primarily about economics or aimed at economists: it is about the goodness and badness of a bourgeois ideology. Mainly goodness, the four volumes being a full-scale apology for capitalism, aimed at non-believers. Further, some other economists---Albert Hirschman, Bob Frank, Arjo Klamer, Bruno Frey, George Akerlof---have given a more "complicated" set a motivations (as Hirschman put it once) a tentative try (not to speak of the blessed Adam Smith, who wrote the book).
But David Levy suggests that I redo my old textbook The Applied Theory of Price with this in mind. Oy vey. It gives me a headache to think of such a difficult project!

The leap to universality and relative tolerance in the ancient world was indeed an important one.
I believe the original credit must lie with the Stoics and Buddhists however, as the prime innovators. Christianity did an excellent job preserving this classical heritage.
Hinduism scores well on syncretic tolerance, but not so well on universalism... the, err, caste system and all that.

Further bits:
I'll look forward to your book, Prof. McCloskey.

I think the idea that societies can easily reach an internal understanding on the pagan virtues any more easily than the transcendant virtues is pretty far-fetched.
Is justice Rawlsian or Nozickian? How to balance deontological justice vs. consequentialist prudence? When we are prudent, what are we prudently maximizing? Utility? Power? Human Rights?
Finding an overlapping consensus on the pagan virtues is no easy task.

After reading the excellent McCloskey paper I can't help feeling depressed about the shallowness of modern thought at least since Hobbes. The intellectual problems McCloskey points to were made by modern thinkers, and it was all so unnecessary. Seems to me the ancients understood the relationship between ethics and politics that McCloskey wants to draw us back to. At the beginning of the Politics Aristotle says "the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state."

In the contest between Hobbes and Aristotle, there is no contest.

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