Conservative revolutionaries

The true revolutionaries in history lived in one world and stepped into a new one. We, born into some of the preconceptions and views that they established, often find baffling the assumptions of the society into which they were born and bred and which they usually had to respect to some extent even in making a conscious break with elements of it. This perhaps accounts for one of the seemingly obvious and yet curious characteristics of history, which is that the revolutionaries of our past often seem more conservative than radical in their attitudes. A correlary but not not identical observation is that the more influential they were the more conventional they are likely to appear, since they helped to establish a new orthodoxy. Hence the old saw about Shakepeare’s plays being full of clichés. Locke’s views on education and human rights are one of the preeminent examples of this.

But even beyond this, as radical as a person’s ideas may be, they are likely to retain some elements of their intellectual heritage. So Francis Bacon, whom I am reading right now, is known as in some sense the initiator of the theory of the scientific method and hence perhaps the closest thing to a founder of modern science as we are likely to find. And of course science is often viewed as the pre-eminent intellectual challenge to religion and supernaturalism in general. And yet Bacon’s own religious views were more orthodoxally Christian than probably the vast majority of people living today. Many people today think they are to some extent following Karl Marx when they denigrate materialism or the value of material goods in society. But Marx was probably one of the biggest worshipers of the value of material goods in history. Marxism is not more formally known as dialectical materialism for nothing. He wasn’t interested in transcending the craving for goods, just in distributing them in his view more fairly. It was precisely their value that made this endeavor worthwhile. Or, to take yet another example, Charles Darwin famously resisted applying his theories of natural selection to human society, notably the now-notorious Social Darwinism. He was a Christian and no innovator in the field of ethics, and not inclined to believe that morality just sort of sprang up from the ground, even if life did, nor that it mainly existed just to further the drive for survival and reprouduction.

What often seems to be the case is that when a concept like natural selection proves capable of explaining enough phenomena it at some point becomes a self-sufficient worldview, at least for some people. But the originator of the idea, knowing the process of assumption-making and inference that went into creating the theory, is not likely, so long as he is of a somewhat sober and rational disposition, to be able to see it as just a given, a fact of life, as the subsequent more superficial-minded students brought up with the theory do, even if he does live long enough to see all the predictive claims of the theory thoroughly vindicated, which does not often happen. Marx’s case seems a bit different; since Marxist theories, at least in America, have become more or less the province of muddle-headed English professors who think they are being thoroughly Marxist whenever they “interrogate” the assigning of value and hierarchical relations in capitalistic society, it is probably more a matter of falsely identifying oneself with a philosophy that shares a common enemy.

Lastly, it should not be assumed a priori that the caution of the originators of big ideas is necessarily more justified than the grandiosity of their disciples. Social Darwinism may have been premature and even repugnant, but the notion of applying evolutionary thinking to behavior and human society has been rather spectacularly vindicated through the growth of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the rest. Bacon’s careful distinctions between the proximate natural causes of things and the ultimate divine causes are likely to seem rather Panglossian and greatly unnecessary to most people today. Einstein’s insistence that the concept of relativity did not apply outside physics was no doubt justified as it pertained to the bastardized and ill-digested notions of relativity that infected the humanities and popular culture.  But it nevertheless seems like an overly comparmentalized view of the world in the sense that a physical theory so fundamental is bound to have some implications on the universe as a whole and everything inside it, the problem being more that so few people really understand relativity that almost no one is in a position to say exactly what those are.  But Einstein’s disastrous verdict against quantum theory on grounds apparently as much philosophical as empirical showed that he was not always particularly forward-looking in his views. So perhaps we should view the innovators as particularly imperfectly assimilated the societal worldview of any era, or at least especially adept at convincingly making a transition from one to another.

2 Responses to “Conservative revolutionaries”

  1. John Sabotta Says:

    Social Darwinism may have been premature and even repugnant, but the notion of applying evolutionary thinking to behavior and human society has been rather spectacularly vindicated through the growth of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the rest.

    Wait a second – the growth of a theory is its vindication? Now there’s evolutionary thinking!

  2. Curt Says:

    Well, it depends what you mean by growth. If you only have in mind growth in the popularity or complexity of a theory, I can understand the skeptical view. But by “growth” I meant primarily the growth of its intellectual validity, particularly the growth of explanatory power and empirical support.

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