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.


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