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Truth, Nihilism, and the American Founding
This essay is the first in a projected multi-part series on the nature and meaning of a free society. More specifically, my goal is to recover, reclaim, refortify, and restore the principles and institutions of what I variously call Enlightenment liberalism, Lockean liberalism, classical liberalism, the founders’ liberalism, the old liberalism, or true liberalism. By “true” liberalism, I am obviously suggesting that there is a false liberalism masquerading for the real thing. This series will attempt to go beyond the stale and hackneyed slogans of the contemporary Left and Right, both of which have abandoned liberalism to one degree or another. But the status of true liberalism today is precarious at best. One could make a very strong case that liberalism rightly understood is in a state of rapid decline and fall. This essay and those that follow should not be understood, however, as an elegy for true liberalism. In the end, I am offering an exhortation and defense of the true liberal ideal. Most of all, however, the highest ambition of this series of essays is to improve and complete the project of the founders’ liberalism.
The founding of the United States is surely one of the greatest events in world history. It was what we might call a trans-historical moment. America is the first nation in history to be founded openly and explicitly on the basis of certain philosophic ideas. If the Old World invented and launched the Enlightenment, it was the Anglo-American New World that made it a living reality. Alexander Hamilton noted in the first essay of The Federalist that it had been reserved to the people of this country to found a new nation based not on accident or force but on the basis of reflection and choice, which means reason and free will. It was an unprecedented moment in the history of liberty, and America’s founders knew it. To paraphrase George Washington Plunkett, America’s founding fathers saw their opportunity and they took it!
Unlike their European counterparts, American revolutionaries did not have to overthrow ancient tyrannies from their soil or combat the tyranny of the canon and feudal law. Nor did they have to sweep away legal systems that entrenched wealth and privilege generation after generation. As Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in his monumental work Democracy in America, the Americans had one massive advantage over all other people’s hitherto: they were born free and equal without having to become so. (The obvious and massive exception is the American institution of chattel slavery, which I discuss at great length in chapter 5 of my recent book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It.)
In contrast to the monarchical and aristocratic societies of Europe, the founding fathers established governments, according to John Taylor of Caroline, “rooted in moral or intellectual principles” rather than in “orders, clans or [castes].” Tribalism, conquest, blood, and prejudice were no part of America’s founding. Nor was the American founding a demonic convulsion as was the French Revolution. Virtually nothing was destroyed, at least not in the way that life, liberty, and property were destroyed in France. There was no ancien régime to destroy, and there was no genocide as there was in revolutionary France. In the words of Enos Hitchcock, a chaplain for the Continental Army: “Justly may it be said, ‘The present is an age of philosophy, and America the empire of reason.’”
By the “age of philosophy” and the “empire of reason,” Hitchcock was referring, generally speaking, to the explosion of new ideas known as the Enlightenment. America was founded openly and explicitly on the philosophic ideas and methods associated with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Enlightenment. More specifically, the United States is, at the highest level of abstraction, the philosophic and existential embodiment and culmination of the moral and political ideas associated with John Locke’s philosophy. The Americans took Locke’s philosophic ideas and turned them into working constitutions, institutions, laws, and policies. They even built Locke’s ideas into their cultural manners and mores, including day-to-day activities such as child rearing. (See America’s Revolutionary Mind for more on Locke’s massive influence in America.) In its true and proper definition, the United States is the liberal nation par excellence.
What is quite possibly the most remarkable feature of the American founding is that the new nation’s revolutionary founders appealed to moral principles they considered to be true—absolutely, permanently, and universally true—in order to justify the perilous course of action upon which they were about to embark. The signers of the Declaration of Independence did not think its self-evident truths were limited to the American people living in 1776. They did not think these truths relative to time and place. The Declaration’s truths, they argued, were potentially knowable to all men because they were grounded in an objective moral reality that could be known by human reason.
Almost entirely forgotten or neglected today is an understanding of how the revolutionary generation understood the concept, “truth.” As Noah Webster—the dictionary man—put it: Truth is that which is in “conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.” Webster’s definition of “Truth” assumes a metaphysical reality defined by a certain view of nature, which is to be understood by reason rather than revelation. The revolutionary generation, following Sir Isaac Newton, believed that nature is governed by the laws of identity and causation. And they knew this by using Sir Francis Bacon’s observational-experimental-inductive method, which allowed America’s founding revolutionaries to induce certain truths and laws not only about the cosmos but about human nature and human action as well. In other words, American revolutionaries were not epistemological or moral relativists. They did not think that proper moral principles rest on majority opinion, government edict, or subjective whim.
Everything then and since depends upon whether the principles of the founders’ liberalism are true or not. At the deepest philosophic level, this is the most important question. But there was and is a serious problem. The Declaration of Independence announced to the world that the American people held certain truths to be “self-evident.” What exactly does this mean? The Declaration’s announced truths may have been “self-evident” to America’s founding fathers, but they were neither true nor self-evident to later generations of Americans, including proslavery thinkers in the antebellum South and Progressive thinkers in the postbellum North.
The truth status of the Declaration’s truths in twenty-first century America is even more tenuous. Today’s “intellectuals” like to remind us that we live in a “post-truth” world, thereby making the Declaration’s truths largely incomprehensible to contemporary Americans. We might even go so far as to suggest that the Declaration’s truths have been forgotten by many regular Americans, and they have certainly been rejected by America’s academic nabobs. Such “truths” might have been sincerely believed by eighteenth-century Americans, but they cannot be considered as simply true in the twenty-first century because our intellectuals tell us that truth is relative to time and place, which makes a belief in the Declaration’s truth claims little more than a form of mythos.
Maybe—just maybe—the founders’ mistake was to think such truths are self-evident. But what if the Declaration’s truths are true but not self-evident? Maybe—just maybe—the Declaration might have been improved had it read, “We hold these truths to be demonstrable” or “We hold these truths to be provable”! The philosophic burden of proof might then have been assumed by subsequent generations of American thinkers to complete the American Revolution by grounding it on irrefutable philosophic principles.
And related to this problem was a second.
A few of America’s founding fathers were high-minded, even philosophic statesmen, but it is also true to say that many were just ordinary politicians. The simple fact of the matter is that none of them were practicing philosophers; they were primarily men of action. American revolutionaries could not have been expected to write a systematic philosophic treatise in defense of the Declaration’s truths, particularly given the fact that they were about embark on a war with the world’s greatest military force on their own soil and were later confronted with the daunting task of drafting constitutions, creating governments, and building a new nation. They did what they could, and they did it brilliantly. The problem, however, is that they simply took for granted the truth and efficacy of the Enlightenment’s core philosophic principles—principles that had not been fully validated as objectively true.
As a result, the philosophic nation created by America’s revolutionary founders was neither perfect nor finished—and they knew it! The moral foundation on which its political structure and economic system were grounded was compromised by an admixture of inconsistent and contradictory moral principles. The great tragedy of American life is that succeeding generations did not take up the task of demonstrating philosophically the truth of the Declaration’s principles. So too with the new nation’s constitutions and governments, which were unprecedented in world history but likewise suffering from certain structural flaws.
Broadly speaking, America’s chief problem was twofold: first, its intellectual class in the first few decades after the founding did not establish an objectively grounded, demonstrable moral code to inspire Americans and to support its constitutional framework; and, second, the principles and institutions of the founding lacked adequate philosophic defenders during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, in the decades after the founding, several generations of European (and then American) philosophers launched an unremitting attack against the Enlightenment and liberal principles on which the United States was founded. The moral and political contradictions built into America’s founding could not withstand the withering philosophic assault it faced first from European thinkers and then from America’s homespun intellectuals. The result was inevitable: a nation divided against itself (philosophically) cannot stand.
The goal of this series of essays is to first identify the flaws, weaknesses, and contradictions in America’s founding principles and institutions, and then to indicate how to correct and fix them.
Truth and the Founders’ Liberalism
The source, nature, and meaning of our ongoing cultural crisis is seen clearly by considering the fate of the Declaration of Independence in American culture. In 1776, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, they did so in the name of certain principles of justice they considered to be true, which means absolute, immutable, eternal, universal, and unalienable. As a result, for the first time in history, an authentic respect for individual rights, freedom, limited government, unlimited production, trade, and wealth accumulation became the symbol of an entire culture. Today, however, as we move through the twenty-first century, educated Americans no longer believe in such antiquated ideas—and most have not for a very long time.
Consider a few major examples among too many to mention.
American intellectuals turned against the principles of the Declaration of Independence in the five decades between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. During that period, two generations of young Americans went off to Europe to study primarily at German universities, where they were introduced to the ideas of the German Historical School and German philosophy. Within a few decades after the Civil War, American intellectuals came to reject not only the Declaration’s self-evident truths but the very idea of “truth” itself—truth as absolute, certain, universal, and permanent. Richard T. Ely, one of America’s best-known postbellum economists, recalled that during his graduate student days in Germany at the University of Heidelberg, he was first introduced to the “idea of relativity as opposed to absolutism.” The moral and political principles of the old liberalism or the founders’ liberalism disappeared almost overnight from American universities. Within a generation, the ideas of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and eventually Nietzsche replaced those of Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and Adam Smith on America’s college campuses. From the Germans, young American graduate students gained an increased respect for the role of the State in promoting social, political, and economic reform.
Take William James and John Dewey, for instance, America’s two most influential philosophers during the nineteenth century fin-de-siècle, who borrowed from the trendiest European ideas and translated them into an American-style philosophy known as Pragmatism. What was most unique and consequential about their philosophy was that it not only rejected the moral and political philosophy of the old liberalism but, more fundamentally, it rejected the eighteenth-century Enlightenment understanding of truth as knowable, certain, and absolute. In the Pragmatists’ world, there are no entities with fixed identities that can be known with certainty by the human mind, no laws of logic, no objectivity, no certainty, and, ultimately, no truth. James and Dewey rejected the traditional view accepted by American revolutionaries that truth recognizes and denotes a relationship between an idea or a proposition and the facts of reality. This means that the founders’ truths were true only to them—but to no one else.
The new conception of truth developed by James, Dewey, and other postbellum American philosophers was subsequently broadened in the early twentieth century and applied to various academic disciplines such as history, political science, philosophy, literary criticism, psychology, sociology, anthropology, jurisprudence, and economics. This new conception of truth was transfused into the bloodstream of American academic life first in the form of historicism, which says that all past ideas are imbedded within a context—be it a social, political, economic, religious, linguistic, or psychological context—and, in effect, dissolvable into circumstance, and then into moral relativism, which says that moral principles and judgment are relative to time, place, and, ultimately, to each and every person. This means that what might have been true in the eighteenth century was certainly now irrelevant and passé in the twentieth.
The “new” and false liberalism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (associated most especially with John Dewey) rejected all the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the classical-liberal tradition. Its proponents revolted against what they saw as the “quest for certainty,” the “formalism,” “the absolutism,” and the “rigidity” of the founders’ liberalism. They rejected the claim that nature is lawful and intelligible, that man’s reason is capable of discovering and knowing objective moral laws, that morally sovereign individuals have inalienable rights (particularly the right to property and to the pursuit of happiness), that the sole purpose of government is the protection of man’s rights, and that government should be strictly separated from religion, economics, education, and culture.
The so-called “new liberals” (aka the old socialists) reserved their greatest contempt for the moral philosophy that was implicit in the Declaration but which was never explicitly defended—namely, a moral philosophy of rational self-interest and individualism. The intellectual leaders of the new liberalism understood that to dismantle individualism, limited government, and capitalism, they first had to destroy the underlying epistemological and moral principles of the Declaration—principles to which ordinary Americans were dedicated as a symbol of their ancient faith. Specifically, the founders’ old-fashioned notions of “truth” and “rights” had to go. Then and only then could Progressives’ reconstruct America on a new philosophic foundation and build entirely new social, political, and economic institutions.
Ideas have consequences and the ideas of James and Dewey were bound to trickle down to other academic disciplines in the years that followed. By the early 1920s, America’s leading academic scholars believed that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were outdated and irrelevant in the context of the modern world.
In 1922, for instance, the Progressive historian Carl Becker published his classic The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Ideas, a book that summed up the sentiments of his age—and ours: “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” That is because Becker’s generation no longer believed that the Declaration’s self-evident truths were true. In an emerging relativistic world, the idea of truth—i.e., capital “T” truth—had lost its power. Early twentieth-century Progressives no longer accepted the traditional epistemic understanding of what truth is. The search by American revolutionaries for transhistorical truths was, according to Becker, nothing more than an attempt to rationalize underlying social, economic, and psychological needs. What Becker did not seem to understand, however, is that a world without truth is a meaningless place. (Interestingly, 20 years later, in the wake of Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Europe, Becker wrote in a new Preface to his book that maybe—just maybe—there are absolute moral truths by which to judge human choices and actions.)
So entrenched in our culture is this view that even a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Fred M. Vinson, could assure the American people that “Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes. . . . To those who would paralyze our Government in the face of impending threat by encasing it in a semantic straightjacket we must reply that all concepts are relative (Dennis v. United States, 1951).”
And so, what are we left with? How did these ideas cash-out in practice?
In the immediate aftermath of the mass murder of several thousand Americans on September 11, 2001, Stanley Fish, the well-known “public intellectual,” intoned in the New York Times that in response to the horror of 9-11, Americans—at least intellectually sophisticated Americans—should abandon “the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes” and not condemn Bin Laden as “evil.” Instead, he recommended that Americans adopt what he calls postmodernist relativism—i.e., the belief that “there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one.” This kind of relativism, he wrote, would allow Americans to walk in the shoes of Islamic terrorists and to understand why they hate the United States. Reality, truth, and the moral good are therefore subjective, according to Fish and most other serious thinkers. The moral universe of September 11, 2001 is radically different from that of July 4, 1776.
We should not be surprised, then, that many of today’s young people sit dazed and confused when their professors tell them one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Why should they know or care about the difference? Their professors have told them that they live in an age that is “beyond good and evil.” Nor should we be surprised that a shockingly high percentage of today’s college students claim that, despite being told that there is no absolute moral right and wrong, America is nonetheless systemically racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and Islamophobic, and therefore evil! Today’s Social Justice Warriors condemn systemic racism for its offenses against equality and freedom, philosophic concepts they insist are not objective moral principles. It’s all a charade and a fraud.
Nihilism and Truth
Fast forward to the present. It should not surprise us to learn, then, that the age in which we now live is said to be self-consciously “post-truth,” which means a post-fact, post-reality world. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its international word of the year, which it defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The Oxford English Dictionary certainly has come a long way from Noah Webster’s definition of truth.
Truth is not possible in a post-truth society because reason is said to be impotent to know what is true or false, right or wrong, good or evil, just or unjust, free or unfree. In other words, there is no basis in objective reality or in reason for moral truth claims qua truth. Reason cannot distinguish between the truth and falsity of different moral claims, which of course means that it cannot distinguish between freedom and slavery. This post-truth philosophy holds that moral values and moral judgment are simply social conventions derived from sub-rational or non-rational forces, whether historical, economic, cultural, or psychological.
Ultimately, relativism says that the fundamental law of each system of cultural values is grounded in nothing more than arbitrary human will—the will to assert and uphold authority over all other wills. The logical consequence of this teaching is that there can be no meaningful difference between free and slave or just and unjust societies. And if truth is unknowable, then the freedom of thought and speech necessary to pursue truth are irrelevant and meaningless.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the crisis of our time. We are living in a post-Nietzschean world, where the reigning philosophic ethos of our time was best described by the nineteenth-century German philosopher himself, in his On the Genealogy of Morals (1887): “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Or, as the radical postmodernist philosopher, Michel Foucault, put it in Madness and Civilization (1960), echoing Carl Becker: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.” This is how we justify the cruelty of our age.
To reject the very idea of truth and with it the possibility of discovering and living out moral principles that are objectively, absolutely, permanently, and universally true is tantamount to claiming that all principles of right or justice are simply a function of what is declared so by the ruling elite or by the partisans of particular political parties. If truth has no other support than our desires or preferences, then surely every kind of thought or action must be tolerated as permissible. This is the path to nihilism—nay: this is nihilism.
The nihilist’s claim that man’s inability or unwillingness to acquire or ascend to objective truth about what is good or right leads him (and us) to be tolerant of or even to promote that which we know to be bad and unjust. But of course, none of us—including the nihilists—really think that such a view of truth and its nature can be sustained in real life. Even the nihilist demands that justice be done if he is assaulted or robbed, for instance. In a courtroom, he demands that reason and logic be used and that evidence be followed in order to achieve a just outcome. The nihilist always appeals to a standard (e.g., the truth) that is above or beyond the conventional laws of the legislator, judge, or public opinion. It is virtually impossible to live otherwise. In other words, the nihilist is really only a nihilist when the consequences of nihilism apply to other people or to society but not to him.
Nihilism is a form of self-hatred for cowards, and it is a dangerous fraud. But we are not concerned here with the nihilist’s hypocrisy. Our primary concern is with nihilism’s consequences. The nihilist’s rejection of truth necessarily leads to a kind of enervating doubt about not only one’s social, political, and economic institutions but also about one’s cultural manners and mores. Radical nihilism goes beyond skepticism and eventually seeks the destruction of all institutions and manners and mores. The repudiation of truth and with it the possibility of objective principles of justice and right conduct means that, in the simplest terms possible, civilized society is neither possible nor desirable for the nihilist.
Nihilism is fueled by the modern intellectual’s hatred of the good and it is manifested in the lives of ordinary Americans in the form of diminishing loyalty and patriotism. Today, we face the very real possibility that American civilization is coming apart at the seams, which means we can soon expect to experience the misfortunes of social chaos followed shortly thereafter by the return of brute force as the standard of political rule and civil association.
It is also important to note that nihilism is rarely, if ever, an end in itself. There are no perfectly consistent nihilists. If there were, suicide would be the ultimate end point of nihilism, but that is virtually never the case. Instead, it turns out that nihilism is not an end but a means. Nihilism is a tool. Postmodern (non-Nietzschean) nihilism is the cultural means by which the political goal of socialism is to be achieved. Antifa, for instance, is not an anarchist youth movement bent on nihilistic destruction; instead, it’s simply the brown-shirt wing of a larger pro-socialist movement. The nihilist wants to deconstruct society and the socialist wants to reconstruct society from the ground up. Nihilism and socialism have been working together in tandem since at least the 1960s.
The New Liberalism Versus the Old Liberalism
Before I bring this essay to a close, it is imperative that I briefly address an issue that seems to have confused a motley crew of dissident “conservative” intellectuals about the nature and meaning of the founders’ liberalism. Contrary to the views of some contemporary “conservatives” (e.g., the so-called TradCons, CathTrads, and neoconservatives), nihilism and socialism are not the logical culmination of philosophic ideas first developed by Enlightenment philosophers and summed up in the principles of the American founding. According to some of these “conservatives,” the principles of Enlightenment liberalism (e.g., freedom, equality, rights, individualism, the pursuit of happiness, limited self-government, and free markets) were filtered through the political lymph nodes of the American founding and then spread as a cultural cancer though the body politic over the course of the next two centuries. The founders’ principles supposedly then morphed into postmodern notions of autonomy, choice, viewpoint neutrality, selfishness, tolerance, proceduralism, pluralism, relativism, materialism, consumerism, hedonism, libertinism, multiculturalism, identitarianism, and, summing it all up in a word, nihilism.
The inner logic of the founders’ worldview necessarily leads, according to these reactionary conservatives, to the moral abomination that is modern America—to rainbow parties for middle-schoolers, Drag Queen Story Time, and sex changes for minors. For these TradCons, CathTrads, and neoconservatives, it is a straight line from the American revolution to the Transgender revolution, from the Declaration of Independence to the Port Huron Statement, from revolutionary Patriots to Antifa, and from July 4th celebrations to twerking “Pride” parades. Their hatred of the cultural Left has, ironically, driven them to a hatred of America. It is a strange world, indeed, when conservatives do not seek to conserve but to destroy.
This new reactionary Right, of course, has it all backward. The nihilistic, postmodern world in which we live today bears zero causal relationship to the principles of the American founding. Progressive “liberalism” is not the natural outgrowth of classical liberalism, nor is it even an unintended corruption of the founders’ liberalism; it represents a total rejection of the classical-liberal tradition. Progressive “liberalism” rejects down the line all of the fundamental principles and institutions of the founders’ liberalism—e.g., the moral laws and rights of nature, reason, truth, individualism, constitutionalism, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism. (For evidence and an argument that Progressivism is the antipode of the founders’ liberalism, see the Epilogue [“Has America Lost Its American Mind”] to America’s Revolutionary Mind.)
Classical and Progressive liberalism are not of the same ideological species. They are natural enemies. The difference between the old liberalism and the new liberalism is one of kind and not of degree, whereas the TradCon’s critique of the founders’ liberalism actually shares a great deal in common with the Progressive critique of classical liberalism. Like their Progressive and socialist allies, the CathTrads and neoconservatives are opposed to classical liberalism’s advocacy of individualism, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism. They are the new Robespierre’s of the Right!
Reasonable people might reasonably ask how it is that a nation once dedicated to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal—equal in their individual rights—no longer believes that truth to be true. They might also ask how it is that a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” could refuse to judge and condemn mass murder as evil, particularly the mass murder of is own citizens. They might reasonably ask how it is that we got to this place.
The answers to these big and important questions would require a separate volume all their own. It seems to me, though, that to ask whether the Declaration’s individual-rights philosophy is true or not is the most important question, certainly for Americans. It is a question that we cannot quite let go—and should not.
Robert Frost, in his poem “The Black Cottage,” captured the paradoxical nature of the Declaration of Independence and its meaning for Americans in lines that are simultaneously haunting and taunting:
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
And so it has and will. Frost captures the ambiguous philosophic status of the Declaration in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Over the course of the last century, however, America’s intellectual class has followed the lead of John Dewey, Carl Becker, Justice Fred Vinson, and Stanley Fish in denying the truth status of the Declaration’s principles (while the conservatives simply assert those principles as rhetorical truths)—and yet, the American people still cling in some vague, emotional way to these principles as though they just might be true.
What America needs most today is exposure to a philosophy that refortifies the founders’ original principles and gives them the proper philosophic defense they never had but so honorably deserve. Unlike most mainstream American conservatives who tend to speak in glittering generalities about America’s founding principles without sufficiently understanding or adequately defending them, I propose in the essays that will follow in this series to think through the logical implications of the founders’ principles for a free society. I should like to begin the process of reconsidering and rebuilding those principles and institutions in order to complete philosophically the political revolution of 1776. This is my goal.
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