Metaphysics as Politics?: D.C. Schindler on Locke and Liberalism

Of parsing John Locke, there is no end. The same is true concerning his significance. In large part, this interest stems from his connection to America. A while back, Merle Curti wrote of “The Great Mr. Locke.” To some imponderable extent, one’s understanding of America, and one’s judgment on America, depend upon one’s understanding and judgment of Locke.

Of course, America is now big and complex, with a complex history. It stretches credulity to ascribe determinate causality to a single thinker. Still, Locke is in the mix and conversation for most influential. Donald S. Lutz’s well-known citations article made that case for the revolutionary era.

Something similar (“big and complex”) could be said about Locke’s oeuvre and, correspondingly, the history of Locke interpretation. The former is remarkably wide-ranging, going from writings on economics and education to religion, with, of course, politics importantly in-between. And that doesn’t even mention the work of epistemology that made his name, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, or his important Letters on Toleration. As the interpretive night follows the textual day, the variety of interpretations of Locke’s thought is perhaps even more diverse.

The Esoteric Mr. Locke?

A watershed in the modern history of interpretation seems to be Leo Strauss, with his discovery or argument that Locke wrote esoterically. Even those who disagree with Strauss, and with those who have developed his argument, have been challenged or emboldened to more candidly recognize the ambiguities, tensions, and even contradictions in Locke’s works.

Thus the range of interpretations today runs from those for whom the core of Locke’s teaching is a distinctively modern notion of human self-ownership (Michael Zuckert), sometimes eventuating in a more or less libertarian reading of Locke (Eric Mack, Jerome Huyler) to those who see in Locke something of a Christian (Lee Ward), or at least appealing to certain Christian tenets for crucial premises in his argument (Steven Forde, Sara Henary). Ward has Locke retain a Christian residue with his notion of the person as transcending city and nature, while Henary and Forde would have Locke appealing to Christian tenets of human equality and divine command to provide necessary moral heft to his natural rights argument. And there are even a couple of scholars who would have us believe that Locke is a modern day Aristotle or St. Thomas (Harry V. Jaffa, Thomas G. West).

Into the welter enters David C. Schindler, professor of metaphysics and anthropology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D. C., with his Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty. The title and subtitle of his fine study indicate his thesis and suggest where he would situate himself in the company of Locke scholars. The freedom that he studies is “freedom from reality,” which is not just an arresting, but an ominous formulation, an apprehension he furthers by speaking of “the diabolical character of modern liberty.” The arresting term, “diabolical,” does double duty. Etymologically, diabolical means “to divide,” “to set apart or at odds,” hence it echoes and reinforces the title: modern freedom severs itself from and sets itself at odds with reality. But its connotation also includes the demonical, the preternaturally malign. The overtone is intended as well, and becomes explicit about half way through the study.

Schindler’s institute of affiliation indicates his creedal commitments, while his professional disciplines indicate his philosophical interests and approach. The last two chapters of the book, dealing with Plato and Aristotle respectively, similarly shed light on his philosophical commitments. In short, he is a Christian philosopher, with a decided preference for pre-modern forms of thought. He primarily looks at man, but through metaphysical lenses, while also interested in the politics and society advocated and brought about by philosophical thinkers and thoughts.

As such, we glimpse something of the philosophical drama at work in his book. Those who formerly were the targets of modern philosophy and philosophers, the Catholic Church, scholasticism, and, more broadly, pre-modern thought and faith, now return the favor, targeting their erstwhile critics. Turnabout is fair play, especially now that the real world consequences of long ago philosophical debates are increasingly visible.

Diabolical Liberty

Two proleptic passages from his Introduction convey these philosophical commitments and this philosophical contest.

For classical thought, actuality is perfection or, in other words, it is what the good is. Moreover, being itself is understood in terms of actuality, though this interpretation recognizes an analogical diversity. Aristotle makes a distinction between first actuality, substance, which is defined by form, and second actuality, which is, as it were, the being’s self-enactment through the achievement of its end. The end is precisely an achievement, and so represents more than what is simply given already in the form of the substance considered in itself. In this respect, man’s full actuality, the free self-enactment of his nature, is necessarily also a self-transcendence – that is, it is an engagement with his other. Actuality thus brings together being, the good, and the other in a unified whole.

And, the contest:

[I]nsofar as [the will] is isolated in itself, over against the actuality of the real, it becomes disordered, chaotic, and destructive, but for that very same reason meaningless and unreal. One could characterize modernity, in fact, precisely as a detachment of potency from act, which entails a tendency to subordinate the latter to the former in a way that is perfectly opposed to the classical understanding.

The last claim is more fully explicated by means of the titular term “diabolical”:

A philosophical interpretation of the “diabolical,” then, is offered in terms of six features, which are shown to bear a consistent inner logic: (1) the diabolical presents a deceptive image that substitutes for reality; (2) it is characterized by an essential negativity; (3) it renders appearance more decisive than reality, and indeed, better than reality according to the measure of convenience and efficiency; (4) it has a supra-individual dimension that is nonetheless impersonal: that is, it tends to take the form of an essentially self-referential system; (5) it is “soulless” in the sense of lacking an animating principle of unity; and (6) it is essentially self-destructive.

One is quite struck by the tallied claim, that the diabolical is parasitic and produces an ersatz reality, one that is chillingly encompassing, deeply impersonal and inhuman, and that – no surprise here – is bound to self-destruct. A parasite that claims to be the host, it draws what life it has from what it ignores and denies, yet apes. Eventually, though, it will collapse and die. Those of us of a certain age recognize in this description an incisive characterization of communist ideology. Schindler, however, has in mind another emancipatory thought and project, one closer to home: the liberal.

Having characterized the diabolical, Schindler is able to turn “to the basic pattern of modern liberty … and show[…] how the notion serves to bring its various aspects into an intelligible unity.” Modern liberty, we are told, again in summary form, maintains

(1) a view of freedom as a kind of active power; (2) a belief that freedom of this sort is incompatible with heteronomy, paradigmatically in the form of another will; (3) a reduction of political order to the preservation of natural rights through the regulation of external behavior; (4) a rejection of any a priori religious tradition; [and] (5) a tendency to allow freedom, in spite of its pure spontaneity, to collapse into various natural, ethical, and political determinisms.

Schindler takes two apparent opposites, Spinoza and Kant, and analyzes them along with Locke to justify this more general characterization.

Here one easily recognizes understandings of human liberty and free political order that are classically liberal, as well as being drawn up short, again, by the striking final claim, that both eventuate in their opposites.

In brief, therefore, Schindler aims to show “the intrinsic logic” of a particular view of human freedom, one first articulated by Locke, as well as “the form” of social order it entails and generates (“the form of liberalism”). Paradoxically, the term that best designates both, “diabolical,” evokes the deepest anti-humanism conceivable and designates an ultimately lethal putting-asunder. This is the attitude of non serviam communicated and extended ‘all the way down,’ but in a most seductive manner: thou shalt be as gods, because shalt be free to do as thou wilt.

American Liberty?

What remains is to connect all this with America. Schindler begins to do so by “connecting modern liberty, on the one hand, with a contemporary expression (a definition of liberty offered by the U. S. Supreme Court), and, on the other, with an ancient pair of myths (the garden of Eden and Plato’s cave).” The informed reader could easily guess the American juridical example, it involves Justice Anthony Kennedy, the poet-jurist of autonomy, of human dignity as sheer autonomy, and his famous (or infamous) “sweet mystery of life” passage in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992). The two “myths” in turn nicely recall the two sources of the pre-modern tradition that Schindler repairs to and applies, while also indicating what true poetry looks like, against Kennedy’s ersatz effusions. Remarkably, the ancient symbolic compositions have the virtue of critiquing avant la lêttre the subjectivist anthropology of Casey.

Of course, there is more to America than Justice Kennedy’s foray into philosophy (although he did intended it to be a fundamental statement of the common ground upon which we all stand, and it does have force of supreme law). Schindler accordingly surveys a wider range of “contemporary anthropological phenomena and cultural and political institutions.” “[O]n a personal level – choice, self-determination, and autonomy; on a political level – equality, freedom of the press, the power to vote, rights, and privacy; at the cultural level – power, technology, academic freedom, access to information, and the free market.”

The survey culminates with a summary topic: “The many facets of the modern notion of liberty can no doubt be summed up in a single word: power.” This culminating character of power, however, is affirmed from the point of modern liberty itself, not Schindler’s own. So, the survey ends with reflections on what happens to specifically Christian themes, God and the human body, in and under the liberal dispensation. The Incarnation, of course, joined the two.

The upshot of the survey is not hard to predict: it displays “patterns of fragmentation and contradiction.” Various human goods have been, if not replaced by, then distortingly subject to, modern freedom. And even in their form as freedoms, they are increasingly transforming into their opposites. Something is quite rotten in the state of liberty-espousing America.

One example, briefly presented, will have to do. Academics would be interested in what he says about academic freedom’s vicissitudes these days, economists and entrepreneurs, the free market, Mark Zuckerberg, technology, Christians, God, fetuses, the body, and so forth. But Schindler himself, as we saw, makes “power” modern liberty’s emblem and quintessential category. The modern will is a certain kind of power, a power conceived as cut off from reality’s reality and authority, whole unto itself, a power of self-determination that knows only its own force and outside forces. Yet here too, it creates its own nemesis.

Liberty’s Self-Destruction

In the face of this voluntaristic Mexican stand-off, Power as political authority must needs be conceived as external coercive force. As such, it is the force majeure that ultimately determines the sphere of privacy, the number and content of rights, in short, the limits within which individual wills are to operate. Modern liberty is thus self-subverting, yielding to its own creation. Nor is the modern administrative state, the state that increasingly determines moral matters as well as property’s uses and distribution, the only consequence (and increasing enemy) of modern liberty’s dynamic.

In an enigmatic passage early on, Schindler seems to have the most strident contemporary partisans of human emancipation in mind, when he writes that

modern man … no longer advocates ‘unadulterated liberty’ with the same naïve enthusiasm … . Indeed, there are just as many instances of summary and unapologetic restraints placed on liberty, in a manner that can be described as specifically modern.

One thinks of assaults on free speech and increasing attacks on conscience and religious liberty. Thus does modern liberty devour itself, the ongoing freedom-revolution, its children. In this connection, however, one might want to ask Schindler for more of a case or genealogy connecting Locke with today’s assaulters of “privilege” and deniers of speech. His strictly “modern liberty” approach, however, prohibits that and points to an over-determination and an under-determination in his argument.

At the beginning of his survey of contemporary America, Schindler makes the important comment that “to describe the various values and institutions as diabolical is precisely not to argue for their simple elimination. Quite the contrary … the response to possession is not execution but exorcism, which is not a rejection but a reorientation, from the innermost depths, to the good” (italics in the original). A general feature of each of the subsections, that he highlights the liberal version by contrasting it with with a more substantial pre-modern version, provides some indications for an alternative “properly human order.”

However, Schindler does not follow-up in this vein, providing an alternative blueprint for a truly liberal order, one that is grounded in substantive goods and a substantive view of human nature and the human person. Rather, the last two chapters return to Plato and Aristotle and begin an excavation of the classical ideas of the Good and of freedom. This is a consequence of his methodology and an important issue in its own right. It concerns the distinctions, connections, and priority among metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy.

Putting Metaphysics First

According to Schindler, all three are required in order to understand human freedom and to order a free society. But metaphysics has priority, not only in the order of being but in the order of understanding and evaluation. However, today “we have tended increasingly to begin, so to speak, on the [political] surface in our reflections on the question of freedom. But one cannot even understand the [political] surface properly except from the perspective of the depths.” Metaphysics takes priority over political philosophy in the order of knowing.

This claim is at the antipode of Leo Strauss’s famous saying, that “the problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” And it doesn’t exactly square with Aristotle’s own mode of political and/or ethical analysis, which is more phenomenological, dialectical, and regime-oriented than metaphysical. Schindler’s own treatment of Aristotle follows what I would term “the scholastic way” of construing Aristotle. This flattens him out and ignores any and all rhetorical and pedagogical features of the texts. It also ignores puzzles that the Master strewed throughout his texts. Ronna Burger’s book, Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates, amply demonstrates what’s lost by such a ‘systematic’ reading.

To be sure, metaphysics make discreet, albeit significant, appearances in the Ethics and the Politics, but the phenomena of agency and political life are considered initially and for a good while on their own terms. And the description of peaks of excellence, whether of virtue or political order, are usually dialectical developments of authoritative opinions, not applications of metaphysical principles. Schindler, in contrast, has opted for (his understanding of) Plato’s Republic. But the same Strauss has rightly said, I believe, that this is the greatest critique of “political idealism” ever penned. Schindler’s “metaphysics-first” approach would fall under that stricture. His account of the goodness of being is so beautiful as to call into question its adequacy as the full truth of being and man. There’s no groaning of creation subject to sin (Romans 8: 22-24) in his picture, no constitutive darkness in the heart of man. It’s as though the only thing that needs to be overcome is modernity.

Schindler, however, has a specific reason for starting with metaphysical analysis when it comes to the liberal regime, especially in its current advanced form. It is because he believes it necessarily hides its metaphysical commitments and underpinnings, it would have its members adopt “pragmatic or political concerns as finally determinative.” Here he is on to something and his metaphysical method leads him to overlook something important about the thinkers he treats, starting with Locke.

Speaking synecdochally, one can read Schindler’s book and never encounter the Thirty Years War; it’s as though bloody religious conflict never occurred and serious men did not have to address it, for good and for ill. His Locke is just arguing philosophy, not engaged in a world recently at war over first principles.

First, though, let’s turn to Schindler’s insight. In a liberal society, just about everything is publicly viewed and filtered through the prism of liberty in its various forms and versions (rights; choice; autonomy; etc.). But liberty’s grounds are hardly ever considered. And its goodness is simply taken-for-granted. In this sense, and to this extent, it (along with equality) is what Tocqueville called “the democratic dogma,” and Schindler is right to want to expose its metaphysical roots. Now, Tocqueville found them in an unsteady combination of Enlightenment nature and Protestant grace. Schindler finds it in Locke and his epigones.

But he goes beyond Tocqueville in arguing that the dogma, which Tocqueville did observe “envelops” democratic politics and society, was deliberately designed to mask both its metaphysical commitments and the need for metaphysics in politics. What Tocqueville thought was the necessary consequence of the limits of the human mind and societal needs, Schindler sees as by philosophical design. The good was severed from the will or human freedom, and freedom both replaced the good and was held to be the good in liberal societies tutored by the modern philosophers.

But as I indicated earlier, he never mentions, much less addresses, the motives of such a problematic, even counter-intuitive, move. While it’s not that he has the modern philosophers merely conducting a seminar on the human will, or freedom and authority, still his treatment of the world they addressed and the complex of motives that moved them is remarkably bloodless, remarkably underdeveloped. They had observed that “the Good,” instead of perfecting and uniting, had become a battle-cry. What to do?

Political Philosophy, After All?

For all their defects and disagreements, Leo Strauss and his followers are acutely aware of this, and their interpretations include more than the metaphysics and political thinking of the modern philosophers. This “more” is conveyed under the rubric of the well-known Straussian discovery, or claim, of “esoteric writing.” That form of writing was dictated by complex motives, a rhetoric appropriate to one’s audience, a concealment necessary for heterodox thoughts and thinkers, a puzzle for potential like-minded thinkers. Schindler has a rather ambivalent attitude towards Strauss and towards this feature of the Lockean texts he considers. On one hand, he doesn’t discount it, in fact, he finds evidence to support it. But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to really deal or engage with it. In the end, he does an end-run around it. He will read Locke metaphysically, including his political teaching. Period.

Now, as it happens, the results in many cases are illuminating. His treatment of Locke’s revolutionary, and ambiguous, notion of the human will is the single best treatment I have read. And he sheds new light on Locke’s political teaching, starting with his explanation of what Locke means when he says that “law” establishes a “fence” for — but also to — freedom. That’s all to the good.

But it’s not wholly convincing, fundamentally because of his two-fold decision, to ignore esotericism and to read metaphysically. This shows up, most importantly, in his discussion of Locke on the will and divine command and the next life. That is not surprising, given the fundamental importance of the issue and its intellectually challenging nature. For no cogent reason given by Schindler, the same Locke who severed the human will from any outside authority is said to have normatively linked the will to a legislating and rewarding God. A modicum of reserve in connection with this deus ex moralitate is in order.

Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. nicely put the interpretive task that I believe Locke set before his reader, at least the one who wants to read him as he himself wanted to be read: “Locke leaves one trail for the sceptical and one for the pious, the latter more plainly marked but leading in circles, so that eventually the pious will have to follow the sceptics’ trail if they wish to get anywhere.”

Of course, as I have said, this way of reading has no guarantees and many a pitfall. Of the parsing of Locke, there will be no end. Truth be told, David C. Schindler has made a signal contribution to our understanding of Locke. But work remains to be done.

I will leave with two questions for the metaphysically-minded Schindler, and a suggestion.

Why did Locke affix his name to the Essay, but publish the Two Treatises anonymously? Why the reserve? And what is the bearing of the distinction he makes in the Essay between the “civil uses” and the “philosophical use” of discourse?

The suggestion? That he continue his investigations into political philosophy.