Just finished my first semester at Yale Divinity School! As exhausting as it was, I am apparently a glutton for punishment on three counts: first, I am signed up for five more semesters. Second, next semester I am planning to take an incredible looking class called History and Methods of Old Testament Interpretation which will involve reading Hebrew, which I do nominally, meaning over the break I need to do some serious brushing up on said nominal skills… Third, the other project I have for myself this break is reading through an anthology of Continental Philosophy, a subject that has interested me for a long time but that I have not taken the time to really intently study before now. That last point is tangentially related to this post… In reading a short little essay by Friedrich Holderlin I came upon a passage that I think helps work through some musings I have had lately on political philosophy.
So right up front I need to say here that I am not a political philosopher. Which is not to say that I am totally ignorant of political philosophy, I have read a decent amount of Locke and Mill and Rousseau and a smattering of other documents. I have spent a lot of time studying the related field of economic philosophy and a decent amount of time looking at actual government structures around the world. But all that gives me is a limited knowledge of the classical political liberalism which got the US started and a somewhat cynical view of how that has played out since then. So I am admitting now that I am almost completely ignorant of developments in political philosophy proper since the framing of the Constitution. So take these comments for what they are worth, which may not be much at all.
However, in my limited knowledge, I am deeply suspicious of the social contract theory behind classical political liberalism. The idea of the nation as a collection of individuals who voluntarily form themselves into a political entity seems to me inescapably destined toward political instability. The voluntary creation of a social contract assumes the existence of common interests between the members who form this contract. The persistence of that contract seems dependent on the continued existence of those interests, a situation that cannot be guaranteed when the contract is formed. Thus, inherent in the idea of this contract is the logic of the Declaration of Independence- that when this condition- the promotion of shared interests- is no longer met the contract can be dissolved and a new one formed. This idea seems incredibly problematic- first, what government will willingly be dissolved to form other governments? This can only happen through some sort of revolution, and revolutions are usually bloody, horrifying affairs. Second, there is a persistent question at least in my reading of any social contract theory: what constitutes an interest that warrants separation? For the American colonies it was decidedly economic. For many states it has been ethnic or religious. For some it has just been the principle of self-determination, a conspicuously Western, Liberal principle. At any rate, that decision likewise seems to be one that is bound to change with time, and then what? Another revolution? We are quickly here creating a world where more and more revolutions produce more and more small states that can barely stand on their own. To me it seems that social contract theory pushes us farther and farther and farther in the direction of anarchy.
More or less this is what seemed to happen in American history under the Articles of Confederation. The resulting instability was nearly paralyzing for the young nation, and so a new Constitution was formed that actually gave the state some teeth. In doing so, it began a necessary shift away from the idea of a social contract. That move was complete the second that President Lincoln declared the Southern States in rebellion and in need of being put down. The logic of the Declaration of Independence had, at that point, been effectively discarded.
Now, I am inclined to say that Lincoln was right to discard this logic. If the voluntary union can be dissolved whenever members feel as though their interests are not being met then the Union was a hoax that would soon be uncovered, and my counter-factual suggestion is that there would be no United States today. Some might argue that would be for the better. I am inclined to think that at least for those living in the present day United States it is far, far better to have a strong, effective central government in place than whatever alternative might exist. But the question that exists for those in the Modern, Liberal West is how a state can function, or even come into existence, without this idea of a social contract?
My suggestion is based on the Greek word from which we get the term “monarchy.” In Greek, this is a combination of “mono”- meaning “one”- and “arche”- meaning “source.” In theological terms, this was used in earlier Trinitarian debates to refer to the Monarchy of the Father- the Father as the “one source” of the Godhead, the idea being there is not in the Trinity some “fourth thing” called “divine essence” which the three persons participate in, but the divine essence has its source in the person of the Father and the other two persons are generated from this source. I think this idea can carry over into political philosophy- a state is not brought into existence by a social contract that might meet the needs of its members at the time of its conception but be worthless ten years later (a situation France seems to regularly grapple with…). A state exists because of a sense of shared identity between people- it stems from a common or single source of identity which unites them. That identity is then attached to some institution or document which “defines” the nation and its continued existence. In Britain, this takes the literal form of a monarchy. In America, I would content, this has taken the form of the Constitution. It is around the Constitution that the people of America form their identity and it is to the Constitution that all the various sides appeal whenever a major dispute arises in American political discourse.
Now, the liberal, Western criticism of this model of national identity as I have sketched it is that there is no need for the highly valued freedoms of a Western Democracy. We can share in a common identity without having freedom of religion or of the press or even the right to vote. For most of history this was likely the case, in fact. Yet we inherently want to say that these freedoms are good. In my own writings I have struggled with a bit of tension on this point. In an earlier post I have said that true freedom is not freedom to choose whatever we want to do but responsibility for the kind of person that we are and the kind of society we create, a freedom that cannot be denied by any political or economic system. Yet, I say in that same post that many of the freedoms of choice we enjoy in the West are good things. How do I make sense of this? Here is where Holderlin comes in. Holderlin is exploring the idea of consciousness, and as he draws to his conclusion, he makes a very interesting statement:
“how is self-consciousness possible? In opposing myself to myself, separating myself from myself, yet in recognizing myself as the same in the opposed regardless of this separation.”
We recognize ourselves by separating ourselves from ourselves, as it were, to critically examine ourselves. To move beyond what Holderlin says, though he may not have any disagreement with the direction we are going, we could say that this self-examination, this separation from ourselves to examine ourselves, is how we approach moral improvement. And it is in that idea that I think we find a role for the freedoms we are concerned with in the West. Freedom of speech or of the press or the freedom to vote in a free election is not so much an outgrowth of a social contract as it is of the people who identify themselves as a nation separating themselves from that identity to critically evaluate it and by so doing push it toward moral improvement. A nation who lacks these freedoms is not lacking a basis for its state-hood so much as it is denying itself a mechanism for self-improvement.