“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness …”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of these words, which announced and effectively opened a chasm between the medieval world of the divine right of kings and our “modern” world, which takes individual freedom for granted, or used to. It’s true that, in England at least, monarchical power had been confronted by the rule of law at least as early as 1215, with the Magna Carta. It’s also true that history is populated by innumerable social and political rearrangements; the Peloponnesian War, the fall of Constantinople, and the War of English Succession, are just a few obvious examples. But the revolutionary eighteenth century is truly unique in that, for the first time, people rolled out political forms that proclaimed the end of any authority based on natural inequalities, like differences in physical strength; historical inequalities like inherited wealth; or theological inequalities like that of divine right.
In that sense, our world is still an eighteenth-world. We live in the immediate wake of events like the American and French Revolutions. The subsequent three centuries aside, our political sensibilities still respond strongly to what we find in the Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen; and what we find there is a prime example of what I wrote about in “Theses on Occupy Wall Street (Part II)”: a fundamental claim about what it means to be a human being. As I argued in that piece, every political formation eventually leads to a claim of this sort, which I’ve called “existential”—claims about the meaning, or character, of human existence.
My contention in last month’s piece was that “everyone is Don Quixote”. I meant that it’s not out of the ordinary, uncommon, or merely accidental that human beings try to actualize ideas that, by the light of their own time, may have all the appearance of madness. Existential claims, as I’ve called them, are just this type of idea. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like, as King George III or King Louis XVI, to have a group of people show up to tell you: We’ve discovered that the entirety of history up to now has been based on a gross misunderstanding about human nature; we now see that it is self-evidently true that all human beings are free and entitled by creation itself to act accordingly; we’ve just dropped by to invite you to participate in this discovery by helping us abolish these mistaken distinctions between us.
What is our present?
History tells us that the “self-evidence” of these ideas didn’t compel monarchs like George and Louis to play along. Rather, these important transitions happened largely because the ideas behind them captured peoples’ reason and desire. Politically, however, those ideas followed from nothing. By that I mean that they couldn’t have been realized through the resources of the establishment they swept away; Maximilien Robespierre’s lucid and unsettling 1792 argument against granting Louis XVI a trial captures this fact perfectly. How could the very target of the Revolution, the French monarchy, simply grant a new world without its own destruction? To put it another way: how can a political order which says “to be a human means x,” allow its replacement by another that says “to be a human means not-x,” as though that made no more difference than one or two lumps of sugar in your tea? What the revolutionaries realized was that a new world—that is, the true world—could only emerge through revolution. Today, we view the word “revolution” in a jaded way. It’s taken to be either the plaything of enthusiastic and misguided young people, or the process of going through a whole lot of trouble to wind up back where we are. But for the eighteenth century, “revolution” means coming home to human nature.
In any event, I just want to note the truly extraordinary character of these ideas, which were no less explosive than Galileo’s scientific discoveries, and which contributed no less to our present. I also want to highlight their “quixotic” character, as I’ve called it. The Declaration of Independence articulates “self-evident” truths. But what makes them “self-evident” is not self-evident itself: the existence of a Creator who makes us what we are. What separates the post-Revolutionary world from the one it wanted to replace isn’t the existence or non-existence of God. Interestingly, the existence or the non-existence of God can justify both absolute monarchy and the liberal democracy that we’ve inherited. Either way, however, the game of justifying one vision of the world over another hits a wall when we’re left with no claim left to make but existential claims like ones about God. It’s here that we’re all revealed to be more than a little like Don Quixote, whose belief that he should be a knight-errant can be called mad, although it can’t be “proven” or “refuted”. It can only be accepted or rejected.
This may be pertinent to your interests
So what does this have to do with us? I’ve struggled with how to say this, and I had a whole segment written up about the notion of the “end of history”, which is important for us and which I’d like to write about another time. But for now I’ll simply say this: when the USSR and East Germany collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that collapse was taken as a signal by many people that our particular political formation had been “proven” in the light of history. It became plausible to suggest that we had finally, correctly, completed what the eighteenth-century revolutionaries had initiated. In other words, it became plausible to suggest that we had finally made human nature converge with its proper political realization: in free markets, the concept of private property, universal suffrage, individual rights, and certain forms of political government. For reasons that require a thorough reading of historical archives, the collapse of Communism was somehow taken as evidence that we are in fact nothing like Don Quixote; that we can never have the kinds of fundamental objections put to us that King George and King Louis did.
And thus we experience the quixotic “core” of our present in a very odd way—by not experiencing it. For me, this avoidance is summed up in the disastrous political notion of “the center”, which signifies the political space legitimized by the so-called “end of history”: the management of free markets, the debate about private rights vs. public security, the “redistribution of wealth” (also known as the problem of job creation), and so on. Paradoxically, the “center” actually has an “apolitical” appearance: it’s no accident that outliers are denounced for “politicizing” issues when they threaten the status quo. It’s also no accident that we confusedly reduce the entire horizon of the political to the soul-crushing game show of elected personalities who we wish would represent us when we vote them in. All of these things are connected to the problem not of our ignorance that history consists in the truly radical transformations that we’ve seen again and again, but of our refusal to accept that this might apply to us. After all, we’ve received credible evidence that it can’t!
This disconnectedness, this obstinate rejection of the historical sense that should be more intimate to us than perhaps to any other human beings living anywhere on Earth, at any moment so far, is perhaps the most dangerously quixotic thing about us. I think it lies at the heart of so much of the frustration we see and feel today. We know that we can’t continue doing so much of what we’re doing, but we’re stymied by the “self-evidence” of the fact that things can’t be any other way. We actually hide from existence, because the feeling that we’ve figured it out has saturated the infrastructure of our political imagination. The effect is something like being caught in the event horizon of a black hole. The only way out is to retrieve what’s truly existential and quixotic in politics. But that means accepting the possibility of a future in which we can’t see ourselves. Ultimately, that means we need to re-invent our relationship to mortality. In a future article, therefore, I’d like to explore the notion of “a good death”. But next month, I think I’ll take it easy and write in praise of friendship. Over and out.