“Conservatives are chastened by their principle of IMPERFECTABILITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
The title to this series—If Men Were Angels—comes from James Madison’s Federalist Paper #51:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Perhaps you may be thinking—thank you Captain Obvious. Yet Madison’s words are far more insightful than first meets the eye. For Madison recognized a blind spot in many a political theory: we might all intuitively understand the idea that humans are imperfect, but we also have the capacity to both yearn for and imagine perfection. As such, we’re constantly sneaking some perfectible political savior or saving event into our thinking. If we could just elect the right person, if we could just restructure society, if only our ideology were fully implemented, all would be well.
One moment we’re complaining about the incompetence or untrustworthiness or laziness or cowardice or wickedness of our fellow humans and the next moment we’re devising political schemes that envision society being run by humans, or one specific human, who’s perfectly competent, trustworthy, industrious, courageous, and righteous. Madison’s political scheme was less ambitious as it included an elaborate set of checks and balances to restrain the various factions within a nation. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Why must so much control be exerted over both the governors and the governed? Madison continues: “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Herein lies the problem: men are not angels because, by our very nature, we are imperfect. In fact, we are imperfectible. Asking humans to run society in perfection is like asking chimpanzees to run NASA. Madison wasn’t designing a government for angels; he was designing a government for actual human beings.
British philosophy Roger Scruton observed how this practical approach isn’t necessarily the most alluring: “There is a temptation, felt most strongly by left-wing intellectuals, to replace the imperfect individual with the pure abstraction, to rewrite the human world as though it were composed of forces, movements, classes, and ideas, all moving in a stratosphere of historical necessity from which the messy realities have been excluded.” In other words, there is a grave temptation to pretend as if humans were perfect or perfectible and build a political worldview aiming at utopia.
Drawing Perfectly Straight Lines
What then are we to make of our capacity to envision utopias? The conservative has long held that this means utopia is only realizable outside of political ideologies and this present world, and that, within politics, they are only useful in developing political thought, not political means and ends. “Utopias existed to produce better political philosophers, not better politics,” wrote journalist Irving Kristol, “true, the existence of better political philosophers might, at some point, have a benevolent effect upon the society in which they lived. But the odds were overwhelmingly against it, and in his practical conduct of life the supreme virtue for the philosopher, as for everyone else, was prudence.” Prudence in politics means that we deal with reality and people as they are and not as we’d like them to be.
If you were asked to sketch a line freehand that was perfectly straight to the finest microscopic detail, you couldn’t do it. Through practice and effort you would get better and better, to the point where your line could hardly be distinguished from a perfectly straight line. And yet, even still, you couldn’t achieve a perfectly straight line. But how would we know that your line wasn’t perfectly straight, unless we had some concept—some ideal—to measure the straightness of lines against? We can’t have a concept of crooked without first understanding what it means for something to be straight.
When our political philosophies incorporate the ideal they give us some sense of what a perfect utopia might look like. But when our practical politics seeks after utopia as if it were the goal all along, the results are as futile as asking humans to draw perfectly straight lines—and far more destructive.
The Good Kind and Bad Kind of Optimism
Recognizing that perfection is not possible in this life is essentially admitting that imperfect—sometimes horrifyingly imperfect—things are bound to happen. Many of our ancestors recognized this universal truth and incorporated it into their belief systems. We, on the other hand, struggle with this concept. “In all premodern societies, a mood of stoicism permeated the public and private spheres,” continued Kristol, “Life is hard, fortune is fickle, bad luck is more likely than good luck and a better life is more probable after death than before. Such stoicism does not easily cohabit with the progressive spirit, which anticipates that things naturally will and ought to get better. When they don’t—when you are defeated in a war, or when you experience a major malfunctioning of your economic system—then you are completely disoriented. Bourgeois society is morally and intellectually unprepared for calamity.”
The point here isn’t that optimism is bad. But we must be able to distinguish between a positive outlook on life and a religiously-dogmatic belief that things ought to get better. When we believe things are naturally going to get better and they don’t, we’re left looking around for someone or something to blame.
We are far too likely to look about us for a villain or a scapegoat when societal problems emerge. We are far too likely to blame our leaders for the economic depressions or moral degradation. We expect perfection and are disappointed and angry when we get catastrophe instead. I don’t at all mean that there isn’t often some individual or group to hold responsible when things go wrong. But I do mean there isn’t some individual or group (or political system) that can ensure that things will always go perfectly right.
But “They” are to Blame!
And, while this idea might seem obvious, it is rarely observed when it comes time to elect our leaders. We naturally gravitate towards those promising the very utopian dreams we know in our gut aren’t achievable in this life. But perhaps some of us are so disillusioned as to have become convinced that perfectibility is within our grasps. In fact, many modern and postmodern political ideologies insist that perfection—or at least something darn close to it—is perfectly achievable, if not for “them.” Precisely who “they” are is hotly contested, but “they” hold all the cards, “they” pull all the strings, and “they” are the reason “we” can’t get on with things.
Ever since French Enlightenment thinker Rousseau taught that “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” the political Left has divined scheme upon scheme for overthrowing “them” so that we could naturally go on to be perfectible. The thinking—I’m OK, you’re OK, it’s the system that’s the problem—has locked horns with conservatives, who see themselves as defenders of societal order. This utopian thinking is incompatible with the conservative idea of the imperfectability of human nature. And the utopian apologist is constantly looking for some structure or institution to destroy in their quest to put a stop to “them.”
Notice here that we have two competing ideas of the nature of reality: both ideas acknowledge that there’s something not quite right with the way things are—whether that’s inequality or oppression or crime or that the rent is too damn high. But the similarities end there. One view—the conservative view—says that while there might be complex structural explanations for much of life’s ills, the fact remains, humans are tragic beasts, people are imperfect and imperfectible, our human nature is fallen, original sin is real, and men are not angels.
The other view—shared by much of The Left—takes the stance that, while people may be flawed, the main problem isn’t with people but with “them.” It’s the structure that’s to blame, or the elite few who are pulling the strings. This view is powerfully alluring in that it ultimately says to the individual the reason you can’t get ahead in life is because of the people you don’t like who are holding you down. Whereas the conservative view places an uncomfortably heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the individual. How are we to determine which of these views is the right view? The blog Philosophical Conservatism offers some insight:
“Societies all across the world and all across time have all displayed the same sort of maladies. To argue that something which is this universal is the result of accidental factors that are unique to each case is not plausible. ‘To fix things we need only remove the wrong people from positions of influence’ is what this outlook asserts. How many times has this been attempted, and how many times has it resulted in an even worse state of affairs?”
If “they” are truly to blame for our problems—if the reason we don’t have an ideal world is because of powerful oppressors—then “they” must truly be powerful, even omnipotent, to hold all peoples and nations and civilizations and eras of history at bay. If we can’t realize our full potential because of “them” then surely humans since the dawn of time across every corner of the globe, who’ve experienced the same (or worse) cases of warfare and economic instability and famine and want were likewise held back by “them.” Or, maybe, the main problem isn’t with a mythical “they” but an actual “we” and our imperfect human nature.
“Man is not perfectible, but he may achieve a tolerable degree of order, justice, and freedom,” wrote Russell Kirk in his masterpiece The Conservative Mind. “Both the ‘human sciences’ and the humane studies are means for ascertaining the norms of the civil social order, and for informing the statesman and the reflecting public of the possibilities and the limits of social measures.” By working within the reality of our human frailty—as James Madison aimed to do in advocating a limited government—we truly can improve our condition. But it’s when we try to work outside of our limitations that we not only fail to achieve terrestrial heaven, we often end up with terrestrial hell.
Why terrestrial hell? Why wouldn’t things progress no worse than usual? If our aim is too high, wouldn’t we just end up doing no more harm that failing to reach our true potential? In Part 3 we’ll turn to why it is that setting your sights on utopia and ignoring the limitations of our nature shows us that when you expect men to behave as angels, they often become demons instead.