Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Darwinian Liberalism Promoted Freedom of Thought in the Reason/Revelation Debate in Victorian England

There is a fundamental contradiction in the Straussian account of the reason/revelation debate and the need for philosophers to be esoteric in their speaking and writing about this debate.  Leo Strauss presented the irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation as part of the irreconcilable conflict between philosophy and politics, because the philosopher's pursuit of truth about the whole clashes with society's need for unquestioned belief in the divine law that supports the social order; and consequently philosophers must speak and write esoterically to protect themselves from persecution and to protect society from being subverted by philosophic atheism.  At the same time, however, we see that Strauss spoke and wrote openly about the conflict between reason and revelation, apparently thinking he had no need to hide this disturbing teaching from public view by engaging in esoteric speaking and writing.  Moreover, Strauss argued that since every stable society must be a closed society that prohibits public questioning of the authoritative opinions supporting the social order, modern liberalism must fail in its attempt to establish an open society with freedom of thought and speech, so that even the most authoritative opinions can be questioned in public debate.  Oddly, Strauss said this while he himself enjoyed the freedom secured by the American liberal regime that allowed him to speak and write publicly about the conflict between reason and revelation and between philosophy and politics with no fear of persecution.

This is part of the most persistent and prominent theme in Strauss's teaching--his interpretation of Plato's metaphor of human beings living in a cave.  Most human beings are chained to the floor of the cave, and they can only see shadows cast on a cave wall, which symbolizes their mental confinement to common opinions about the world that they never question.  Only a very few human beings are capable of turning around to see the fire behind them and the objects carried before the fire that create the shadows on the wall.  These few can climb out of the cave to see the Sun outside.  This symbolizes the philosophic life of those few--like Socrates--who question everything in their pursuit of knowledge--in their quest to replace mere opinions with truth known by one's own reason.  The shadows on the wall of the cave include authoritative religious beliefs that the multitude of human beings accept without any rational proof.  Only the philosophic few can doubt those religious beliefs in demanding that all beliefs about the world be subject to rational examination, and so only these few can see the conflict between reason and revelation.  These philosophic few cannot speak about this openly in public without creating scandals that would harm themselves and others.  Strauss indicated that the failure of modern liberalism comes from the liberal attempt to establish open societies through popular enlightenment so that everyone can climb out of the cave to see the Sun, or at least question the shadowy opinions on the wall of the cave.

But then Strauss contradicted this teaching in his own words and deeds by publicly explaining the reason/revelation debate and then telling his audience (in "Progress or Return?"):
". . . No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian, or, for that matter, some possibility which transcends the conflict between philosophy and theology, or pretends to be a synthesis of both.  But every one of us can be and ought to be either one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy." (116-117)
How can "every one of us" be free to make this choice between reason and revelation, philosophy and theology?  Doesn't that assume that "we"--those in Strauss's audiences at the University of Chicago and those who have read his published writings--live in modern liberal societies like the United States where it is possible for philosophers like Strauss to speak openly to a popular audience about the reason/revelation debate?  If so, doesn't that mean that modern liberalism has succeeded in creating largely open societies with freedom of thought and speech where "every one of us" can choose between reason and revelation, and where it is no longer necessary for philosophers like Strauss to speak and write esoterically, so that this choice is hidden from public view?  Wouldn't we therefore have to say that for Strauss to escape self-contradiction, he needed to be a "Midwest Straussian" who saw that modernity is good, and the modern liberal social order is the best regime, because it gives human beings the freedom to live the best human lives, including the religious life and the philosophic life?  (I have written about "Midwest Straussianism" here and here, and about esoteric writing here and here.)

The modern liberal promotion of the debate over reason and revelation could be seen as beginning in the 17th century (as in the controversy stirred by Spinoza's writings) or in the 18th century (as in the controversy stirred by Hume's writings).  But this became a fully free and public debate for the first time in the 19th century in Victorian England, where it arose in response to the new evolutionary science of nature and the intellectual culture created by Darwinian liberalism.  It was during this time that the public culture of Great Britain moved from "confessional values" to "liberal values" (see William C. Lubenow, Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815-1914: Making Words Flesh [Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010].)

After the publication late in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the first reviews of the book in the Westminster Review, where he said that "every philosophical thinker" would hail Darwin's book "as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism."  The Whitworth rifle was considered the most accurate rifle of its time, and so Huxley saw Darwin's book as a powerful weapon in the warfare of liberalism against its opponents, in which the "philosophical thinkers" were on the side of liberalism and scientific naturalism, and the anti-philosophical thinkers were on the side of the theological dogmas of supernatural religion.  Some years later, in a letter to his wife, Huxley described this as part of a centuries-long battle between "free thought and traditional authority" (letter to Nettie Huxley, August 8, 1873).

In this battle, the liberal science of Darwin and Huxley had an alliance with liberal theology, which questioned traditional Christian doctrines and thus subordinated revelation to reason.  This was clear in the controversy over the publication in March of 1860 of a collection of seven essays--entitled Essays and Reviews--arguing that a rational study of nature and history proved that the Bible could not be literally true and could not be a miraculous revelation from God, and therefore it should be read like any other ancient book.  One author claimed that modern natural science showed that miracles were impossible because the causal uniformity of nature does not allow for supernatural interventions violating the order of nature.  The general argument of the book was that traditional Christian doctrines would have to be changed to conform to what was known by natural science.  The religious public was shocked by this, especially because most of the authors were ordained clergy of the Church of England.  Some of the bishops of the Church wanted the essayists to be charged with heresy.

John Lubbock, Huxley, and other scientists close to Darwin signed a public memorial lending scientific support to the essayists.  In persuading scientists to sign this, Lubbock insisted that in "the battle of freedom," "the great Liberal Party should stand by their guns and their friends," supporting the "liberal and thoughtful" clergy (letter to Joseph Hooker, March 2, 1861).

Against this, however, another group of scientists wanted to defend Christian orthodoxy as compatible with natural science, and they signed a "Declaration of the Students of the Natural Sciences," which affirmed that it was impossible for the Word of God as written in the book of nature to contradict the Word of God as written in the Bible.  Therefore, they argued, scientists should "rest in faith" that any apparent conflicts between natural science and the Bible would eventually be reconciled to confirm the truth of Scripture (Brock and MacLeod 1976).  Darwin and his friends saw that this attempt at a synthesis of reason and revelation would actually require the subordination of reason to revelation, just as Strauss would later argue.

Many of the leading defenders of Darwinian liberal science against traditional orthodox theology were informally organized as overlapping networks of friends.  On November 3, 1864, nine of these friends decided to form a dining club--the X Club--that would meet in London for dinner and discussion on the first Thursday of each month from October to June.  After their dinner, they would attend the regular meetings of the Royal Society of London.  Their meetings continued into the mid-1880s.  The nine members were George Busk (1807-1886), Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1822-1893), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Hirst (1830-1892), and John Lubbock (1834-1913).  Although Darwin was not a member, because he preferred a reclusive life at his house in Down, much of the work of the X Club was devoted to defending Darwin's science and advancing the cause of Darwinian scientific naturalism against traditional theology.  Members of the X Club were responsible for persuading the Royal Society to award Darwin the Copley Medal, the highest honor they bestowed.  They were also responsible for having Darwin buried in Westminster Cathedral.  Even more importantly, they took control of the leading scientific organizations, such as the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and many of the leading journals.  Perhaps the most important lesson from the history of the X Club is the importance of philosophic friendships in forming social groups in liberal societies for the advancement of the philosophic life.  (The best history of the X Club was published last year--Ruth Barton, The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science.)

At the first meeting of the X Club, Hirst took notes and reported: "Besides personal friendship, the bond that united us was devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogmas.  Amongst ourselves there is perfect outspokenness, and no doubt opportunities will arise where concerted action on our part may be of service.  The first meeting was very pleasant and 'jolly'" (Barton, 13).  So they were committed to "science, pure and free."  By "pure science," they meant a science of relentless inquiry into nature for its own sake--for the Socratic pleasure of living a philosophic life--without regard for any practical utility, money making, or technological advancement.  This counters Strauss's claim that modern scientific philosophy denigrated the contemplative life of philosophy in favor of Francis Bacon's project for an effective knowledge directed to the mastery of nature for the relief of the human estate.  Actually, Huxley criticized Bacon for attaching "an undue value to the practical advantages which he foresaw"--in pleading for science as the "gathering of fruit."  Huxley thought this ignored the fact that the great steps in the progress of knowledge "have been made, are made, and will be made, by men who seek knowledge simply because they crave for it" ("The Progress of Science," 47, 56).

In their commitment to a "free science" that is "untrammeled by religious dogma," the X Club members took the side of reason and natural philosophy against revelation and theological doctrine.  As Strauss indicated, philosophers have made this choice for thousands of years, but they have hidden their argument for reason over revelation from public view by conveying it to only a few philosophic readers through esoteric writing.  What was new about the position of the Darwinian liberal scientists is that they defended their choice of reason over revelation openly in public debate before large audiences that included the great multitude of people in their society.

For example, the X Club members were active in the Sunday lecture societies, which was an anti-Sabbatarian movement that sponsored lectures at "Sunday Evenings for the People," as an alternative to attending church on Sundays and hearing sermons, and thus a challenge to Sabbatarian legislation that restricted secular activities on Sundays.  These lectures were attended by people of all classes, including workingmen and many women.

The first Sunday lecture in this series early in 1866 was Huxley's "On the Desirableness of Improving Natural Knowledge."  Thousands of people filled the lecture hall to capacity, and thousands more were turned away.  Newspapers published reports about the lecture.  A week later, the lecture was published as an article in the Fortnightly Review, and later it was published as a chapter in Huxley's Essays.  This was the common way to reach a large audience--lecturing and then publishing the lecture as an article in a journal and finally in a book.  Here we see one of the crucial elements of the Liberal Enlightenment: rising literacy and printing technology allowed for the general spread of knowledge through reading.  In Great Britain in 1600, only about 20% of the people were literate; by 1860, over 80% were literate.  And with improvements in printing techniques, newspapers, journals, and books were cheap enough to be purchased even by common working people.  (See James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000].)

In his lecture, Huxley traced the modern movement for improving knowledge of nature to the founding of the "Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge," which began in 1660 with a royal charter from Charles II, and which became the oldest national scientific institution in the world.  And yet, Huxley observed, the true origin of the pursuit of natural knowledge is in the ancient history of humanity, at that point at which human reason first discovered nature:
"I cannot but think that the foundations of all natural knowledge were laid when the reason of man first came face to face with the facts of Nature; when the savage first learned that the fingers of one hand are fewer than those of both; that it is shorter to cross a stream than to head it; that a stone stops where it is unless it be moved, and that it drops from the hand which lets it go; that light and heat come and go with the sun; that sticks burn away in a fire; that plants and animals grow and die; that if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return, while if he offered him a fruit he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange.  When men had acquired this much knowledge, the outlines, rude though they were, of mathematics, of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of moral, economical, and political science, were sketched.  Nor did the germ of religion fail when science began to bud. . . . the little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and unknowable seems so insufficient to do more than illuminate the imperfections that cannot be remedied, the aspirations that cannot be realized, of man's own nature.  But in this sadness, this consciousness of the limitation of man, this sense of an open secret which he cannot penetrate, lies the essence of all religion; and the attempt to embody it in the forms furnished by the intellect is the origin of the higher theologies" (32-33).
Strauss thought that nature was discovered about 2,600 years ago by some Greek philosopher.  But Huxley thought that the philosophic concept of nature had already been implicit inchoately in the mental experience of primitive human beings who saw regular patterns in the physical and living world around them.  The natural knowledge gained by philosophic science is the systematic and rigorous working out of human common sense experience of the natural world.

This natural knowledge includes the moral and political knowledge of human nature that Strauss called natural right.  Primitive human beings discovered that there was a natural punishment for attacking or threatening other human beings, because they had a natural propensity to punish those who injured them: "if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return."  This is what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural inclination of every individual to punish those who harm him.  Primitive human beings also discovered the natural gains from cooperative trade: "if he offered him a fruit, he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange."  Here is the ground for Darwinian natural right in the natural punishment of injustice and the natural benefits of cooperative exchange.

As Strauss said, the philosopher seeks a natural knowledge of the whole, but that can never be fully attained because human knowledge will always be limited, and consequently the whole will always be mysterious, which leaves an opening for the possibility of revelation from a mysterious God.  Huxley agreed: the sense of "the abyss of the unknown and unknowable" is "the essence of all religion."  He also claimed that a scientific theology could be based on "the noblest and most human of man's emotions, . . . worship . . . at the altar of the Unknown" (38).  But notice that this "Unknown" has none of the features of the personal, providential, and miracle-working God of the Bible.

Despite the fact that natural knowledge is always incomplete--and thus a Socratic knowledge of ignorance--those human beings who are most moved by the natural desire for intellectual understanding will devote their lives to improving their natural knowledge.  To live such a philosophic life, Huxley observed in his lecture, philosophers must overcome two obstacles.

The first obstacle is the moral conviction common among human beings that authority must be obeyed--"that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to a readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and skepticism a sin; that when good authority has pronounced what is to be believed, and faith accepted it, reason has no further duty."  Against this, Huxley argued: "The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such.  For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. . . . The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification" (40-41).  Strauss expressed this same thought by saying that philosophy rejects the authority of the ancestral and recognizes that "nature is the authority" (NRH, 92).

The second obstacle to improving natural knowledge is the natural tendency of human beings to anthropomorphic projection of their own mental experience onto the universe, so that they imagine that the whole world is ruled by a divine Mind or an Intelligent Designer that demands love and obedience.  This is the idea developed by Darwin and some recent evolutionary psychologists for explaining religious belief through an evolved "hyperactive agency-detection device," which has been the subject for some posts herehere, and here.

In his lecture, Huxley explained:
"But, with respect to all the less familiar occurrences which present themselves, uncultured man, no doubt, has always taken himself as the standard of comparison, as the eentre and measure of the world; nor could we well avoid doing so.  And finding that his apparently uncaused will has a powerful effect in giving rise to many occurrences, he naturally enough ascribed other and greater events to other and greater volitions, and came to look upon the world and all that therein is, as the product of the volitions of persons like himself, but stronger, and capable of being appeased or angered, as he himself might be soothed or irritated" (34).
This is an obstacle to improving natural knowledge because believing that the universe is governed by a divine Mind discourages us from rationally looking for the natural causes of cosmic order.  As natural philosophy increases our knowledge of those natural causes, Huxley suggested, we see that this is a better explanation of cosmic order than an anthropomorphic projection of mind onto the whole.

Strauss argued that the anthropomorphic analogy for explaining cosmic order as ruled by Mind is fallacious because it fails to distinguish that which is man-made and that which is not.  We have natural experience with how human beings make or design things with their minds, but we have no natural experience with how divine minds make or design things.  So there's a fallacy of equivocation in reasoning from human intelligent design to divine intelligent design.

But, still, Strauss argued, reason cannot demonstratively refute revelation, because reason cannot prove that it is impossible for any human being to have an experience of revelation from God.  Any supposed proof would have to beg the question at issue by assuming that nature is uniform, that there are no supernatural interventions in nature, and so miracles are impossible.

This irreconcilable debate over reason and revelation was carried on by the Darwinian liberals and their theological opponents in a remarkable series of discussions in The Metaphysical Society, which will be the topic for my next post.


Barton, Ruth. 2018. The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brock, W. H., and R. M. MacLeod.  1976. "The Scientists' Declaration: Reflections on Science and Belief in the Wake of Essays and Reviews, 1864-65." The British Journal for the History of Science 9: 39-66.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. 1896. Method and Results: Essays. New York: D. Appleton.

Strauss, Leo.  1997. "Progress or Return?" In Kenneth H. Green, ed., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity. Albany: SUNY Press.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Professor, five weeks ago, the shoe corporation Nike placed me on a path that led to this blog. Their pulling a pair of sneakers led me to go read about Thonas Jefferson, but I got sidetracked by Abraham Lincoln. Frankly, I find Lincoln more interesting. I read John McKee Barr's Loathing Lincoln last year and reread it again. This is where I learned of Harry Jaffa's philosophical defense of Lincoln. This time, I decided to seek out the works of Jaffa and read most of A New Birth of Freedom.

I liked Jaffa's arguments about natural law but wondered if there was any scientific basis on which they could stand and an essay that Barr wrote led me here.

I probably stayed up too late delving into the archives of this blog. I find it very stimulating.

Thank you,