Western Philosophy: How to be Smart and Happy at the Same Time (pt.3)

Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller
Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller

So Why Should We Care?

If I can’t answer that question, then I’ve wasted your time with the last couple of articles, so I will tell you why you should care. Because philosophy shapes your life.

Here’s the thing: it was philosophers who designed our system of government.  They designed our legal system.  They co-wrote our constitutions.  They invented schools and decided what they should do.  Even more than religion, they have determined what we consider right and wrong.  They shape what we consider worth talking about, and how we should talk about it.  Even the thoughts in your head are often echoes of the ideas of philosophers.

When the dominant philosophy of our culture changes, everything else follows.

Three Philosophers That Shaped Us Today

Let me give you a really important example of how three philosophers made it possible for people to completely change the way Europe worked in just few hundred years:

Thomas Hobbes was an Englishman and gifted logician.  He was born the night the Spanish Armada attacked England in 1588, and lived in a time when England was going through serious religious turmoil, civil wars, regime changes, and the rise of puritanism.

In his book Leviathan, Hobbes did something unheard of in political philosophy – he argued that it didn’t matter what God wanted or whose side he was on… that some ideas about God being just like us aren’t even useful.  That ideas about miracles and magic have no place in a sensible man’s thought, and that they had to face the social realities of the world right in front of them.

He argued that we couldn’t know how God wanted society to be shaped, but we did know that people didn’t have to obey the rules – that being a social being is optional.  That we could, and probably at times did live in a “state of war” of everyone clubbing everyone else over the head for resources – that without society life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” He also argued that it didn’t matter how tough you were, how smart you were, or how rich you were – we are all more-or-less equals – there will always be someone else who is bigger, smarter, faster, or with more friends who could put you down.

Clubbing each other over the head doesn’t let us live happy lives, and so we learned pretty quickly that it was better to give up on violence and all agree to follow some rules.  That living together in harmony, and giving up a few of the freedoms that being outside of culture gives us a better life.  He called this the social contract.  It is the contract – not  God – not a natural order, or blood, that makes a government legitimate.  And, just like in Plato’s rules from The Republic, it had to stay a good deal to be worth people’s time.

Now, Hobbes argued that unless the government was murdering people en masse, letting folks starve, or failing to make sure everyone else honoured the “let’s make up and follow some rules so we don’t go back to clubbing each other over the head.” contract, any government was better than no government.

Hobbes made people stop thinking about whether a government was the one God wanted in power, and started asking – was this government doing it’s job?  Is it keeping up it’s part of the contract?  While Hobbes was pretty good at protecting the idea of kings, he suddenly made it possible for people to start asking – but is this king doing a good job? Because thanks to Hobbes, we stopped thinking “he’s king because God put him there.”

Another Englishman a generation later, John Locke, took what Hobbes started and ran with it.  He suggested first and foremost that religion had no place in government at all.  No Earthly person could possibly know what God wanted, and no judge could possibly speak authoritatively for God.  Thus, any argument about government coming from a religious position was at best guesswork.  This also meant that people had to become tolerant of each other’s beliefs and ideas; if an Earthly man has no idea what God wants, then we have to leave it up to each individual to decide their own relationship with God.

Locke also took a real interest in just how far the government could really go. Unlike Hobbes, he reasoned that there were some things that a government could do that would be worse than a violent, anarchist, state without a social contract would be preferable.

For one, he believed that a man had to be assured that his property and his person would be safe.  Whatever you created with your hard work, or through the hard work of people under contract to you was your property.  If anyone else could just take it, then you could never feel safe that you could eat the crops that you grew, you could never be sure that the tools you built would be there to help you, and that the home you built was a safe place to live… at which point there would be no reason to bother.  You might as well be living in a place where people get to club each other over the head, because you are no safer if people can kick you out of your home, eat all of your food, and steal the clothes off your back with no consequences.

Locke proposed that the government had to acknowledge that you own yourself and the fruits of your labour – they cannot make you do things that you do not want to do, and they cannot take things from you that your worked on or made with your own two hands, or bought using the money that your work brought you.  Accordingly, the government had to have limited powers to tax and to force others to do things that they choose not to do.

People, Locke argued must be free to choose the work they want, to benefit from that work, and to otherwise live in the way they choose, as long as they aren’t out there stealing, hurting, or threatening others.  And if a government oversteps and starts forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, or taking a person’s property, then the social contract with them is a bad deal, and they have the right to start a revolution: to throw that government out and start a new one.

In fact, Locke noticed that governments tend naturally to claim more power and have less respect for people over time… they they naturally turn tyrannical, and so there should be a system in place to make revolution simple, easy, and non-violent. Namely, by creating a system of elections where at least a part of the government got thrown out and replaced with fresh rulers.

Locke’s ideas are the cornerstone of a type of philosophy called Classical Liberalism, the idea that people are free and equal, and that the government has to serve and protect them, or they are better off without it.  That the best system is one in which the people can throw out governments when they become tyrannical and choose a new one for themselves that they trust to serve them.  And that there are limits to what that government is allowed to do.

Locke’s ideas are the foundation of the American Constitution, and much of the wording of the Constitution is borrowed directly from his Two Treatises of Government.

Another incredibly important Liberal an escaped indentured servant from Geneva named Jean-Jaques Rousseau.  While a lot of people thought Hobbes’ and Locke’s work was mind-blowing, Rousseau turned it into something that shook the foundations of European Culture.  He argued that Hobbes had one thing wrong – that life free of rules wasn’t a bad one.  He suggested that human beings have all kinds of rights and liberties that let us be creative and happy.  When we sign a social contract, we have to give some of those up. Some rights, like the right to cub other people over the head, are perfectly fine to give up, but others, like the right to say what you thing – not so much.

Rousseau said that if you gave up too many rights, then the social contract didn’t just take some of your freedoms away, but also made it hard to be happy and healthy, and it suddenly became a bad deal.  In order for a social contract to be legitimate, it has to respect that you are giving up rights to be a part of that contract, and no try to take more than it had to.

In other words, for being a citizen of a country to be a good deal, then that country’s government has to respect as many rights and freedoms as it can.  If it tells you what to say, what to think, who you can spend time with, etc., it is not a legitimate government, and you might as well move away.

He also said that the only way that we could make sure a country respected people’s rights is if the people in the country had a say in what laws got passed and how it got run.  He suggested that people needed to be able to vote on laws and have public debate about them so that the people in charge couldn’t just walk all over people’s rights or change the deal.  He suggested that the best system for protecting rights is a system where there were no Kings or permanent government of any kind, but that people pick elected representatives who make the laws, and who are limited in what kind of laws and rules they can make, and that they have elections regularly to make sure the people in charge still represent what the people want.

He also argued that ignorant people make for bad government, and that if we are going to make sure that citizens make good choices in their representatives, that they had to be taught Logic, Rhetoric, Debate, History, Philosophy, and Mathematics – and that it would be the job of the government to provide that education.

Rousseau essentially suggested that a government has to respect its citizens.  That because everyone’s freedoms and happiness is at stake when a government makes a rule, everyone needs to have a say in how the government operates. Rousseau’s ideas started pulling down Kings, who just a century ago everybody thought were there because God put them there.  The French Revolution was possible because Rousseau taught people that irresponsible governments hurt them.

Their Impact

These three writers introduced ideas that we take for granted today:

  • Human beings are naturally equals to one another.
  • Society is a deal we make with each other, and it must be a good deal.
  • Tolerating other people’s beliefs is necessary if we want to build a worthwhile society.
  • People have natural born rights that no one can take away.
  • We own ourselves, no one else gets to tell us how to act or what to do.
  • People must be allowed to live the life they choose.
  • We need an educated population if we want a healthy culture.
  • Countries and governments are made up of people, not ordained by God, and members of government should be held to the same moral standards as they are in everyday life.
  • Our government has to treat us with respect as human beings.
  • The most important function of government is to protect our freedom and our property so that we can live good lives free of the fear of violence or starvation.
  • We should be allowed to pick who is in charge.
  • We have a right to kick out tyrants.
  • Elections help protect us from tyranny.

These ideas also made modern economics, trade, and business possible… and those made much of our modern technology like computers and the Internet possible in turn.  They have lifted us out of mass poverty, serfdom, and tribal violence.  These ideas are the reason why suddenly, en masse the Western world decided to end slavery both at home and across the world in the 19th century.

It’s easy to imagine what the world would look like without them.  Read up on the current state of affairs in war-torn developing countries, where the ideas of Liberalism never took root, like Uganda or Syria.

As a man, these ideas should matter to you, because they are what keeps you thriving.

Currently, however the West is in the middle of a shift – we are changing philosophies again, and the Classical Liberals’ ideas are being lost.Some of the new ideas that are coming into place in exchange are the same ones that are causing the greatest harm to our health, our families, and our safety today.  If we don’t want to find ourselves resisting a toxic police state tomorrow, we need to reject toxic, totalitarian ideas today.

In Part Four, I will talk about the philosophies that we are moving to, and then in Part Five, I will talk about what learning a little Philosophy can do for you, not just to make you smarter, but to make you happier as a person.

11 thoughts on “Western Philosophy: How to be Smart and Happy at the Same Time (pt.3)

  1. “…They shape what we consider worth talking about, and how we should talk about it…”
    They designed the WEATHER as well? Wow!

    Sorry Brian, I couldn’t resist!

    1. No, but they certainly recognized its relevance.

      Much of modern mathematics and physics are derivative of the Ancient Greek quest to develop a reliable calendar by which you could guess the patterns of weather for planting and growing.

      The word “Planet” means “Wanderer” in ancient Greek, because they knew that the stars could be used to predict weather (in general terms), but some of them just seemed to move without rhyme or reason… as capricious as the gods of their religion.

      Modern meteorology is a long-separated bastard child of the work of classical philosophers in that sense. And we usually talk about the forecast and how the weather still refuses to play along with it. So I think it is still fair to say they determined a lot about how we talk about the weather.

  2. More seriously:

    “People have natural born rights that no one can take away.”

    A fairly cursory examination would seem to suggest that these rights can be taken away, whether by individuals or by governments.

      1. That sounds like a bit like semantics to me. There might be a difference you can define/codify, but to those who are affected, the difference between “taken” and “violated” is too small to be of any real significance. Also, in many cases, it appears that when these rights are taken/violated, society has limited scope to do anything about it that will help the victim. Once someone has been injured/abused/killed, no matter what sanction it applies, society can’t “un-injure/un-abuse/un-kill” the victim.

      2. It is a question of legitimacy.

        Aright that is taken suggests that it is the governments to hand out or return as they please. Violation, on th other hand connotes that this was not the correct or real role of the state to perform, and has done harm to the person. And in turn, that the aggrieved part has legitimate cause to leave or rebel.

  3. But the end result isn’t different, is it? It’s a bit like the old “what’s the difference between a price increase and a surcharge”? Answer: it doesn’t matter, they both come out of your wallet.

    1. But it isn’t at all!

      If someone violates your right you still have it, and they are in the wrong!

      If someone can take it away, you never really had it in the first place.

      1. So if I’m robbed (i.e. something is taken from me), I never actually owned that thing in the first place? Because it was stolen, it wasn’t actually mine? That’s a paradigm shift for me.

      2. The money metaphor is both inapt, but very useful. The money itself is a thing that can be taken. However, you were still – as you state – robbed. That money was a product of your effort and ergo, belonged to you. It is not the robber’s money just because he could take it.

        It we did say that if the robber now owns the money because he could take it, then the very idea of robbery itself becomes absurd. After all, he owns it now. As does the idea of property – if a man can only own property so long as he is in direct possession with it, and there is no ownership outside of this – no ownership based on labour or right through trade, then no one has an incentive to work or create beyond the needs of sustenance and preparedness for self-defense in the event of violence.

        If we want a society that functions and remains a good deal for those within it we must thus accept the idea of property – and therefore of at least some rights. Rights are, at the very least, a necessary fiction,to create a functional human society that is not dependent purely on compliance through brute force.

        Of course, you can argue, as Marx does that the narrative of property rights really is nothing but a deceptive smokescreen used to distract people from the fact that they are being forced into compliance through brute force, if you like. Down that road is a pile of about 200 million corpses, and a culture that must necessarily see violence as acceptable behavior.

  4. I see what you mean. The robbery/money thing was a bad analogy. Say somebody is killed/permanently injured, that person’s health/life is gone. They have/had a right to life. It was theirs, but it was taken away, and nobody can restore it to them. Money/property could be given back, but in a case like that, if that right is abused/violated/taken, it cannot be made good. Society can decide that it will administer punitive action upon the perpetrator, even up to capital punishment, but those who have lost their rights cannot get them back.

    I wonder if this is another question of semantics: whether when someone is killed, their life has been taken, or their rights were violated. In the final analysis, if someone has a right to life and their life it taken, it was their life (arguably their only one!), and it can’t be restored by society.

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