I picked up “Nature’s God” by Matthew Stuart on a recent visit to the Dartmouth Bookstore, right next to the campus of Dartmouth college. For those of you who have never been to this part of New Hampshire, imagine being completely surrounded by the beauty of the mountains while also breathing in the heady intellectual air of an old Ivy League college, right after taking a free ride on the region’s socialized bus service.
And then seeing a huge banner over the street announcing a lecture series on “The Future of American Power” by some strategic think-tank.
And then over-hearing someone very affluent-looking in a cafe, saying “I’m always happy, but I just can’t figure out why I’m so happy lately!”
(I couldn’t shake the imaginary specter of a homeless person dying under the table during this conversation.)
Dartmouth and the surrounding area are a testament to the strange contradictions of American liberalism, and so is this interesting book about the intersections between religious heresy and political radicalism during the American Revolution. As a book about philosophy and its impact on history, Nature’s God is well-written, engaging and accessible. If you like reading about that sort of thing, I definitely recommend it. However, I am not buying what the author is selling.
The author aims to untangle the many influences on the Oracles of Reason, a 500-page rant on religion and politics by Vermont’s founding revolutionary Ethan Allen. Most scholars have assumed Allen couldn’t possibly have written the book himself, as he was really known more for acts of bluster and bombast than for reading all the books he would have to have read to have produced his unreadable masterpiece – known locally as “Ethan Allen’s Bible.”
Ethan Allen blustering and bombasting in statue form. Statue by Larkin Goldsmith Mead.
Stewart makes a convincing case that Allen actually did write the book, and a much less convincing case that the ideas contained in the book represent a liberal revolutionary heritage that justifies American exceptionalism and provides a model for future policy.
He shows – somewhat exhaustively – that radical political ideas were closely tied to heretical religious ideas in the years leading up to 1776. He manages to prove that the deism of several of the “founding fathers” was much more varied and complex than the “watchmaker God” theology we were told about in school.
In fact, it seems to have incorporated a wide range of ideas ranging from pantheism to – believe it or not – a form of polytheism. Benjamin Franklin himself is quoted as stating his belief in “many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to man,” each with command of its own solar system filled with intelligent life. So much for the “Christian nation” argument!
However, Stewart seems to think he has more insight into the real opinions of other people than they do themselves. According to Stewart, the self-described pantheists and deists of the eighteenth century were “really” atheists, no matter what they had to say on the topic. Plenty of people at the time did accuse deists of being closet atheists, but that doesn’t prove the accusation.
That isn’t my main quarrel with the book, though. My main quarrel with the book is in its uncritical admiration for the philosophy of liberalism, and its assertion that liberalism is “radical philosophy.” What does “radical” mean? In most cases, etymology is a poor guide to the “real” meaning of a word, but in the case of this particular word the etymology is instructive. To be “radical” originally meant to go to the root of a problem, to try to diagnose and cure the disease itself rather than merely treating the symptoms.
Classical liberalism was a philosophy based on personal liberty, and a philosophy of liberty can be considered “radical” compared to absolute monarchy or feudalism. However, the “liberty” of classical liberalism was based on property rights, and classical liberals were proponents of the free market and capitalism. The world of corporate domination we now live in was created by liberals at least as much as by conservatives.
Liberalism assumes the validity of the capitalist system and seeks to make it less destructive through carefully targeted and limited reforms. It assumes the superiority of progress and therefore justifies the conquest of other nations and people in order to reform and “civilize” them – bringing them into the capitalist world as new workers and consumers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberals were openly and unabashedly imperialist.
That includes the liberal philosophers Stewart idealizes and takes as his models. He’s particularly fond of John Locke. Locke is generally seen as the grandfather of liberalism because he defines the “right” of private property and the other rights that are seen to flow from that right. Yet Locke argued that the American Indians had no legitimate right to their own lands in North America because they had failed to make those lands “productive.” Locke grounds his theory of private property in the capitalist logic of “productivity” and then uses that argument to justify colonialism and conquest.
This doesn’t seem to bother Stewart at all. On page 402, he quotes the “freethinking” philosopher John Toland as saying that a deist and liberal England would become “the most happy, flourishing and potent Empire of the whole world, especially by the destruction of superstition and vice.” In other words, the “White Man’s Burden.”
Modern liberals in the United States refer to themselves as “progressives,” and their philosophy is based on reform and progress. They still believe in capitalism, but they want to reform its excesses through gradual, incremental change.
The thing that always strikes me as being so strange about this is that it seems to lack any sense of urgency, any awareness of the great peril facing human life on Earth. Capitalist enterprises are systematically plundering and poisoning the entire planet and subverting what little democracy we have in order to place themselves beyond accountability. A criminal organization with a more diverse workforce remains a criminal organization.
If we’re looking to cure the disease rather than merely treating the symptoms, we can start right here. Yes, there were some interesting ideas floating around during the American Revolution. Some of those ideas could be considered genuinely radical. I was particularly pleased to find a quote by revolutionary agitator Thomas Young (one of the Sons of Liberty) who said that he was fighting for “sedition, agrarian law, leveling scheme, anarchy, democratical power”. Quite right, Mr. Young!
Unfortunately, the revolutionaries of this era failed to be consistently and thoroughly radical. They had enough insight to question the power others had over them, but not enough to question the power they had over others. Instead, they used those ideas to rationalize and justify their crimes against others. I don’t say this to demonize them – the future will judge us just as we judge the past, and will almost certainly find flaws we can’t see in ourselves.
However, the consequences of their cognitive dissonance are all around us today, and if we want to do anything about those consequences we have to face up to their contradictions. Stewart seems to want to treat them as role models instead, and that’s where we part company.