The Philosophical Basis of the Conflict Between Liberty and Statism

Arthur Schopenhauer

Americans are fighting a culture war against statism. Our country, founded as a limited constitutional government that derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” is under attack by people who seek to transform it into a totalitarian state. There is a philosophical basis for this conflict, which is worth examining. It can be helpful to the defenders of liberty and freedom that are fighting this war.

There are basically two kinds of philosophers. On the one hand philosophers, beginning with Plato (427—327 BC), go beyond the world of human experience and construct abstract explanations, which they impose on experience. For them, as one philosopher (Bryan Magee) puts it, “The world of human experience is not what is permanent or permanently important, and we should try to transcend it with our minds, or at the very least to think our way to the boundary between our world and what is of ultimate significance and see what we can know about it.” Then there are philosophers, beginning with Aristotle (384—322 BC), who take the approach that even if the empirical world is not all there is, it is all we can experience and know, and if we try to go beyond it we end up talking nonsense.

Plato was the first statist. He offers his vision of the ideal state in the Republic. An elite group of philosopher-rulers run it. They are wise and all knowing. The rulers are not accountable to the public, and they require absolute individual devotion and submission to the good of the state. In Plato’s republic only philosophers can have access to objective knowledge, philosophers being, as he puts it, people “who are capable of apprehending what is eternal and unchanging” — those few individuals who can sit down in a quiet place and think clearly. Everyone else, the rest of us, he describes as “those who are incapable of this [and] lose themselves and wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things.”

According to Aristotle and subsequent empiricist philosophers, knowledge is a public process of critical exchange that is derived from, and tested by, human experience. Aristotle studied plants, animals, ethics, and different forms of political organization, all in an encyclopedic way. He worked inside experience and did not try to impose abstract explanations on it from the outside.

Then we come to Immanuel Kant (1724—1804). The greatness of Kant rests on his being able to integrate these two lines of philosophical thought, which he did in his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781. He plays a pivotal role in the conflict between liberty and modern statism.

Kant demonstrated that the world we experience is not the real world. That world does not embody our species’ concepts of space, time, and causality. We perceive things through a scaffolding of three-dimensional space, in a tense of past-present-future, and within a framework of casual connections. As an 18th century philosopher would not have known, but 20th century physics has confirmed, these constructs are not even a component of the world that we can describe mathematically and measure with special instruments. Newtonian concepts of space and time do not apply to the macro world of special and general relativity or to the micro world of quantum mechanics. The real world is something altogether different from what we human beings experience and measure. Kant concludes that the deepest level of reality is inaccessible to human thought and knowledge. He terms the ultimate, rock bottom reality — of “things as they are in themselves” — that underlies the perceived world the Noumenon.

Kant’s two main successors were G.F.W. Hegel (1770—1831) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788—1860). They did not entirely agree with Kant’s vision of the Noumenon and explored what, if anything can be known about it. Hegel and his followers, most notably Karl Marx (1818—1883), took one approach, which is the philosophical basis for modern-day statism. Schopenhauer took a different route.

Hegel views reality as a process. This process, or dialectic, as he terms it, is one of perpetual, ordered change that proceeds in an historical time frame. Dialectical change continues unceasingly until the point is reached where Mind/Spirit recognizes itself as being the Ultimate Reality. For Hegel, this is self-knowledge of Absolute Spirit/Idea (Geist). The dialectic contains elements that are constantly in conflict with each other. An action (“thesis”) invokes an opposing action (“antithesis’) that resolves into a third state of affairs (“synthesis”), which bringing its own antithesis into being becomes the thesis of a new triad. Through this kind of abstract reasoning (which in real life, one must agree, does not really make all that much sense) Hegel believed that he had reconciled the unknowable noumenal sphere of things-in-themselves with everyday reality. More importantly, however, particularly in light of the economic and human devastation that Marxism wrought in the last century, Hegel’s idea of dialectical change includes the concept of alienation, which figures prominently in Marx’s Dialectical Materialism and concept of class struggle.

In Hegel’s system, dialectical change proceeds historically from individuals — to groups — to the state. The group has primacy over the individual and the state has primacy over the group. Individuals represent a lower level of reality. The state, being closer to the Absolute Spirit/Idea in the dialectical process, is more real. It is the highest order of humanity, to which individuals owe their obedience and subservience. The state is not subject to ordinary moral laws. Rights are socially defined. The state decides who should be the rights holders who are given special legal privileges and entitlements, and who are to be obligations bearers. In this schema, truth follows theory — not, as empiricists would say, the other way around, where truth corresponds with the facts of reality.

This, of course, is a recipe for political absolutism. Such a worldview does not tolerate an individualistic mindset that permits freedom of thought and conscience, private property, and free markets. It is an anti-business, anti-technology, anti-science ideology. The Hegelian statist does not like capitalism because it frees individuals from restraints, breeds entrepreneurs, and begets non-conforming behavior.

Prussia was the first modern state. It was the first government, in 1819, to implement compulsory public education, with the goal of producing obedient citizens who thought alike about major issues. Other components of the modern state initiated by Prussia include public pensions (like social security, making people dependent on government), disarmament of citizens (to prevent resistance to authority), universal state identification papers, and peacetime military conscription. Hegel taught philosophy at several Prussian universities as an employee of the government.

Schopenhauer was a citizen of Prussia and a contemporary of Hegel, but his political views and philosophy were diametrically opposed to those of Hegel. Unfortunately, the route Schopenhauer took is not well understood today, and he is not as listened to and as celebrated as he should be — and once was, before the advent of collectivism in the 20th century.

This is what Schopenhauer has to say about Hegel and his statist cohorts: “It is easy to see the ignorance and triviality of those philosophers who, in pompous phrases, represent the state as the supreme goal and greatest achievement of mankind and thereby achieve the apotheosis of philistinism.”

Schopenhauer viewed the role of the state from a classical liberal perspective. He writes, in The World as Will and Representation:

The State is nothing more than an institution of protection, rendered necessary by the manifold attacks to which man is exposed, and which he is not able to ward off as an individual, but only in alliance with others. [This] protection [includes] the safeguarding of private right. But, as is usual in things human, the removal of one evil generally opens the way to a fresh one, [which requires] protection against the protection… This seems most completely attainable by dividing and separating from one another the threefold unity of protective power, the legislative, the judicative, and the executive, so that each is managed by others, and independently of the rest.

Schopenhauer agreed with Kant that the ultimate reality of the world is impenetrable to analytic thought and descriptive language. And Schopenhauer’s successors, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951) and Henri Bergson (1859—1941) present more, convincing evidence that this is indeed the case. Philosophers like Hegel who construct systems that encompass the Noumenon do so with what are essentially meaningless abstract concepts, like “Absolute Spirit,” “The Good,” and “Perfection of Being.” Schopenhauer writes: “The greatest effrontery [to Kant] in serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses, finally appeared in Hegel.” (Hegel’s retort might be, “So what if I generate a lot of verbiage without really saying anything. Only power matters.”)

I majored in philosophy in college and had to take a painful course on Hegel. My professors ignored Schopenhauer, and I did not find out about him until years later when I was reading about Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. (Wagner discovered Schopenhauer in 1854, at the age of 41, writing “he has entered my lonely life like a gift from heaven.”) Schopenhauer is the needed antidote to Hegel and his collectivist offspring. Among other things, Schopenhauer’s philosophy provides a strong justification for individual liberty and freedom.

Schopenhauer studied the “carnival of life” in all its aspects, like Aristotle. He carried out an in-depth study of sex and our sexual urges, the first philosopher to do this, and he studied Hindu and Buddhist texts (that had been recently translated into German). He takes religion seriously and gives aesthetics a central place in his philosophy. A number of his insights foreshadowed discoveries that were later made in evolutionary biology, depth psychology, and physics. Schopenhauer focuses on real life and does not flinch from dealing with its dilemmas and tragedies. As Carl Jung puts it, “He was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil — all those things which [other philosophers] hardly seemed to notice and always tried to resolve into all-embracing harmony and comprehensibility.”

Schopenhauer’s philosophy supports the concept of Natural Rights — to life; liberty; the acquisition, owning and disposing of property; and the pursuit of health, happiness, personal interests, and avocations without outside interference (so long as these actions do not infringe on the rights of others). Commenting on health and freedom, he writes, “We do not become conscious of the three greatest blessings of life as such, namely health, youth, and freedom, as long as we possess them, but only after we have lost them.” His philosophy espouses a Western tradition of natural rights that began with the Twelve Tablets of the Roman Republic (450 BC); were enunciated by Cicero (108—43 BC); and further codified by the Magna Carta (1215), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274), Edward Coke (1552—1654), John Locke (1632—1704), William Blackstone (1723—1780), and the American Declaration of Independence (1776). Although not commonly viewed as a successor to these thinkers and philosophers, Schopenhauer quotes Cicero and Locke in his writings, and, like Locke, he believed that respect for the individual is the only viable basis for human relations.

Schopenhauer studied human action in a manner similar to that later done by Ludwig von Mises in economics. He observed that human behavior is directed by three principal motives, which exist in varying degrees in each individual. They are self-interest, compassion, and malice. Regarding the motive of self-interest, by far the most prominent one of the three, Schopenhauer writes:

The individual is filled with the unqualified desire of preserving his life, and of keeping it free from all pain, under which is included all want and privation. He wishes to have the greatest possible amount of pleasurable existence and every gratification he is capable of appreciating.

Efforts by Hegelians and Marxists to create a socialist utopia without incentives to work and produce, any private property, or possibility for profit are, by the nature of human action, doomed to failure. Schopenhauer sums up the matter from a praxeological standpoint this way: “Egoism [self-interest]… will never be argued out of a person, as little as a cat can be talked out of her inclination for mice.”

Socialists do not like Schopenhauer. (No wonder he is not taught in government-financed schools.) The Marxist historian Franz Mehring describes Schopenhauer as “the philosopher of the terrified philistines… in his sneaking, selfish, and slandering way the spiritual image of the bourgeoisie which, frightened by the clash of arms, trembling like the aspen, retired to live on its revenues and foreswore the ideals of its epoch like the plague.” (Schopenhauer lived independently on an inheritance bequeathed by his father, a merchant.)

With regard to the battle that is being waged today between liberty and statism, one of the most important findings in his study of human action is that the keystone of morality lies within human nature itself. Educators in our state run schools teach moral relativism, and they forbid any mention of religious concepts of right and wrong. Schopenhauer’s ethics corroborate, on an empirical basis, religious morals. His insights validate traditional character education, which teaches specific virtues and character traits such as justice, self-control, honesty, responsibility, and courage. It invalidates statist “values clarification” and the decision-making model, where each student is charged with deciding de novo for himself/herself what is right and wrong.

In a praxeological fashion, Schopenhauer examined human behavior without any preconception about what one ought to do. He studied the choices and decisions people make and the actions that they take. Observing the facts and testimony of experience, he found that compassion underpins morally right behavior. Schopenhauer found that it is possible to establish an empirical, objectively based standard of morality, which, it turns out, is the same as that taught by the great religions, particularly Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This moral standard applies to all human beings, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or gender. Schopenhauer’s study of human action shows that Hegel’s successors, the cultural Marxists, led by Antonio Gramsci (1891—1937) and the Frankfurt School, are wrong. There is, indeed, a universal standard of morality.

The motive of compassion includes two cardinal virtues: natural justice and loving kindness. Schopenhauer writes:

Whoever is filled with compassion will assuredly injure no one, do harm to no one, encroach on no man’s rights; he will rather have regard for everyone, forgive everyone as far as he can, and all of his actions will bear the stamp of justice and loving kindness.

The fundamental principles of natural justice are do harm to no one and take from none his own. This kind of justice is an innate part of our makeup and distinct from the kind that is practiced in a self-interested way (to gain favor with one’s peers, etc.) or that is framed in laws and enforced by penalties. The fundamental principle of loving kindness is help all people as far as lies in your power. One suffers with another person in a selfless way, without expecting anything in return. Loving kindness/sympathy is a reflection of the deep-seated kinship that each of us has with all fellow creatures.

Natural justice, sympathy/loving kindness, and self-control underpin morally right behavior. Unrestrained self-interest (i.e., lack of self-control) and malice (the desire to harm someone simply for the pleasure of hurting them) define morally wrong behavior.

The Christian view of morally right and wrong behavior is not a dominant group, oppressor-applied means of controlling subordinate groups, as the cultural Marxists would have it. It mirrors the true reality of life. Moral codes are not products of a particular culture or historical epoch; they are an innate part of the human condition and thereby universal.

Compassion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy has both moral and metaphysical significance. He sees this spontaneous, irrational force as being a manifestation of the innermost reality of life. It provides an intuitive glimpse into the Noumenon (which he terms Will ) — the realm of ultimate reality that contains the essential truths of life and the world. While not accessible to knowledge and linguistic description, Schopenhauer discerned that one can nevertheless gain an intuitive perception of it. Experiencing compassion is one way into the castle of ultimate reality. And what it tells us is that at its deepest level, reality is an all-encompassing oneness. Schopenhauer identifies and considers thee other intuitive, nonrational keys to the castle of the Noumenon. They are music, mysticism, and the feeling of oneness we experience with sex.

Defenders of liberty and freedom will do well to read Schopenhauer. He is an ally. He debunks and thoroughly discredits the Hegelian dialectic. He provides a strong argument for there being a universal moral standard, which is not dependent on religious teachings, but does, in fact, corroborate them.

The 20th century followed the “ideals of its epoch,” as framed by Hegel and Marx, and tried socialism, fascism, and collectivism. One hopes that the 21st century will have the good sense to reject these philosophers and turn to Schopenhauer.

(Do not be put off by descriptions of Schopenhauer that say he is a pessimist and a misogynist. Remember, socialists don’t like him. Schopenhauer studied life in all its multifarious aspects. And he also addresses, in a very interesting way, the question, “What happens to us when we die?” Wagner was right. His philosophy is, indeed, a gift from heaven. I recommend that you start with his essays Wisdom of Life. Then go on to Volume 2 of The World as Will and Representation, which covers pretty much the same material as that in Volume I and is more readable. I then recommend The Basis of Morality, and, especially for its Preface with its vitriolic attack on Hegel, On the Will in Nature. For a discussion of his four keys to the castle of ultimate reality, see my book Heart in Hand, which one can download from my web site. The best analysis of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is Bryan Magee’s The Philosophy of Schopenhauer.)