Political theory, when it is interesting, deals with issues of human nature and how to organize it. A conservative will often point to the horrific failures of the most idealized systems, precisely because those polities refused to acknowledge human nature. But what happens when the people who make up the polity do change in some way? What happens to political philosophy? Reviewing Yuval Levin’s book, James Poulos approaches these questions (partially found here, too): “[S]cience, however banally, has become most popular as part of the positive, aspirational project of democratizing the full experience of individuality.” In other words, science’s achievements give us a new way of interacting with the world, and it actually makes us think differently about ourselves and what we can do. Historians recognize the 17th Century advances in science as preceding and enabling the Enlightenment. Likewise, as people’s abilities to effect their own wills are increased (through technology) or perhaps realized for the first time – this seems to fundamentally change in the kind of humans who are organizing politically.
Poulos continues: “… as Tocqueville recognized, in a democratic age technology becomes the means by which the many may possess the image of what once only the privileged few possessed in reality.”
Poulos’s, and Levin’s, discussion revolves around the relation of our scientific selves, or our scientific hopes, to our political lives. Similarly, if people’s lives changed with regard to what they were able to effect then their social needs and maybe even their social abilities will change. Their politics will transform, because they will begin to interact differently with the world around them.
So here is my contention: political philosophy had to change in Europe by the 17th Century, but this was unfortunately the same point at which the brutality of the wars of religion began to be too much, and politicians consciously began to accept religious plurality. Deism and then outright atheism began to have a political voice, and the rearticulation of political philosophy, necessary as it was, moved forward without Christian roots. Not that this was universal – as the Eminent Nathan points out, Johannes Althusius worked toward a theory of covenantal polity; also, Anglican divines struggled manfully all the way til the 19th Century with a successful version of their political theology. However, these voices were forgotten in the godless 19th Century, and only the irreligious Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc. were assumed to have taken up the project of a re-formed political philosophy.
One problem with our ideas of “modernity” is that needed changes were sometimes answered by regrettable circumstances … and the whole set of 17th and 18th Century changes were much later painted in the black and white strokes that we find so familiar. But there is no need to accept that version of history, and perhaps we can still try to answer the newer problems of political philosophy (how do individuals internalize political loyalty? how can freedom and order be balanced?), weeding out the negative answers we have received from the legitimate questions that still prod.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.