“Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only as far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.”
The founding documents of the United States and the underlying principles therein are possibly the finest and most impacting philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment era. Created as a crescendo of thinking that resulted from Natural Law, their impact is the catalyst for the largest expanse of liberty in the history of the world. The Declaration of Independence and its preamble is the quintessential example of Natural Law and the philosophies behind it.
Consider these words and their meanings: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
This statement assumes, what in philosophy has traditionally been labeled “essence.” This is the idea that humans are both created, and created for purpose. The Declaration assumes a human course; a destiny towards something. It assumes laws of nature and nature’s God; an implication that humanity has essence and existence beyond the pragmatic elements of living for life’s sake.
The Declaration goes on: “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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Self-evidence speaks to an idea of rationality and the presentation of Natural Law in the next statements, dismantle the idea that humanity is an entity to be molded by the will of superior humans (i.e. kings and oligarchs). The Declaration of Independence is the primary Enlightenment text about government that voices the ideology of Natural Law, an idea that laws exist outside of the mandates of class, station, and power brokering people. Laws are not mandated by humanity, they are in existence because they are inherent in the design of mankind. This radicalism turned the world upside down and ushered in the greatest expansion of liberty, to the largest number of people on the planet in the “course of human events.”
For most of the history of western civilization, the fundamental philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates claimed that humanity has an essence (or a pre-beginning).
This idea was accepted by most of western civilization as the baseline of our human existence. The historic moment that the founders of the United States found themselves in was one completely immersed in the continuous heritage of “essence.” Natural Law spoke of God and a moral authority outside of humanity. At the time of the founding, the writings that suggested an individual essence were so rebellious. It was heretical to think of both Ruler and their institutions (church and state) as equal to the common masses. But in the era of the Enlightenment this was the natural philosophical course of “essence.” They believed that they were created in God’s, or another similarly described deity’s, image and thus were destined to find their life’s purpose outside of the constraints of serfdom and the ruling class of people.
The next 100 years of the United States saw the expansion of liberty in the American culture. America transformed from a backwater of disease and slavery to a place of unparalleled innovation, wealth, and expansion of the human voice. No nation had ever given more people a seat at the table, with more voice than the United States in such an expedited period of time.
Enter the 20th century… the American Century. This period of time was the byproduct of entrepreneurial creativity, enlightenment thinking, and expansion of the franchise. Consider the limitations of who could vote in Virginia at the time of the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. Only white males, 21 years of age or older, who were debt free owners of fifty acres of vacant land, or twenty-fives acres of cultivated land, and a house twelve feet by twelve feet; or a town lot and a house twelve feet by twelve feet could pull the lever in elections. The property requirement was dropped nationally in 1856. The race requirement was dropped by the addition of the 15th amendment to the Constitution in 1870. The sex requirement was dropped starting in 1869 in the Wyoming Territory and fully removed by 1920 in the United States. In less than 150 years the expansion of the voices at the table was staggeringly larger. I would argue that this expansion was birthed from the fundamental philosophy of Natural Law. All people, regardless of sex, race, or opinion, are created equal. They are valued in this line of thinking simply because they exist, because they are of essence and filled from their design with purpose.
But as is often the case in the human experience, affluence and leisure in a culture leads to intellectual questioning of personal existence and societal systems. The expansion of liberty in the world gave a prosperity economically that had never been enjoyed by humans prior to the Enlightenment. The resulting political and economic systems that were spawned by that era of thinking were both robust and successful. It is also nearly as predictable that as subsistence ceases being the primary objective of living, that affluence has a profound impact on leisure time and the cultivation of luxury intellectualism. In this robust era of prosperity and liberty, nearly ever western culture moved from daily existence to industry. And thus, had ample time to consider ideas outside of surviving.
Consequently in this time period, many philosophers began to question the baseline thinking of essence as they witnessed the Industrial Revolution and some of its negative learning curve consequences. Thinkers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and others philosophized that humans were not designed into existence, but rather tossed into the world and then found their own meaning through what they did and how they did it. In other words, they said that existence is first and our living experience and industriousness defines us. This thinking is defined as existentialism. And while it was mostly in the fray of society, there were progressive thinkers that embraced these ideas and had influence on academics and government. The undoing of Enlightenment tenants about humans existence wouldn’t fully be unwound until the 1960’s but both tragic and demoralizing World War events accelerated the concept in academics and in the leaders of intellectual movements, that the world was simply in existence and humans were to find their way through it. After all, there simply could be no designer who could let such tragic events like chemical warfare or the Holocaust befall their designed.
The outcome of existential thinking tracks generally along these lines. If there is no designer to create essence, then it is up to us as humans to utilize our existence to define among other things, our morals, our purpose, our destiny. Moral relativism is the primary product of this line of thinking. If there is nothing that sets the world or my space in it in place, then morals should be defined by the individual. Ethics is purely personal and there isn’t room in the human experience for any moral code outside of the one I devise for myself. This line of thinking has crossed the entire spectrum of politics and thinkers in the last half of the 20th century. Anyone from Ayn Rand to Timothy Leary leaned into this idea that the individual experience in a meaningless world is primary. Because of its appeal and spectrum of embracing thought leaders, it is the dominant thinking and actuating way of life in today’s culture. Moral relativism and the other tenants of existentialism is accepted as the ethos of how we are to live. And as the unbeknownst existentialist might say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
So the pressing question as we watch some of the challenges unfold in real time, is how can a revolution, spawned by the inherent tenancy of Natural Law be reconciled to existential philosophical dominance in the culture? If the fundamental documents that govern our society are based on essence and reason, how can they be reconciled to a system of living that is completely based upon a non-essence philosophy?
What if the natural consequence of freedom is to venerate the individual so much that the premises that were “given” logic at the time of the founding no longer have enough weight to hold the substance of government together?
Before you stop reading and take a nap due to boredom, I want to try to express this in a different and more practical way. Let’s analyze the pandemic and the conversations surrounding masks and see if there is a more applicable way in which to illustrate how this philosophical shift matters to every day living.
In general masks are a neutral item. They are neither evil nor good, masks simply are. However in the current circumstance, they begin to take on an entirely different meaning. They are no longer simply about medicine, but they are about politics and values. How can that be? How can an inert, values-neutral piece of medical equipment, suddenly take on the weight of politics and ethics? I posit that it is because of this shift from Enlightenment thinking to existentialism. If we have removed the essence ethic that all life is valuable because it is created, then we can no longer view the world with values inherent to our living and the valuation of other people. The ethic must be decided collectively. And this ethic will inevitably run up against conflicting ethics that we have previously decided as a culture.
If we were truly honest about the founding statements and acknowledged that they are infused with the fundamentals of Enlightenment thinking, we would presuppose an ethic that it isn’t for government to decide these choices as edicts, but rather it would be the responsibility of the individual to care for others and thus lean into the decisions of wearing a mask based upon the ethics of essence. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is the most accepted, or at least most recognized, maxim of the essence ethic. If you didn’t want to wear a mask, you would have the basis of understanding that it would be your responsibility still as a human to protect others even if you disagreed with the purported facts. Conversely, in the philosophy of the existentialist, there can only be the ethic of the individual. What is correct for me? What shall I do to preserve my internal value system? In the pragmatic outcome of existential philosophy there are only my ethics and the ethics of others who are different than my own. It therefore becomes the imperative of existential culture to decide to which tribe one shall belong.
If someone’s ethics are different than my own, the most visible sign of it will be how they view and process the data that is given to a society through the various forms of media. In example, one particular person might say, “If they value their own individualism over my own, they will be demonstrating it by not wearing a mask.” Oppositely they might say, “If they are wearing a mask then they must be valuing the ideals that I hold as well.” Therefore they should either be welcomed into, or in the case of the non-mask wearer, excommunicated from my tribe based upon my own personal ethics about the information I have consumed. The discrimination of others is instantaneous based upon observation. However in the existential culture, we no longer admit that we discriminate with external observations such as race, sex, or sexual orientation. Instead we have found a new way to choose who has value and who does not simply by their behaviors politically or culturally. These discriminatory actions are all decided by the filter of personal ethics. In the existential mind, this act of discerning and judgement isn’t discrimination because the internal values I hold dictate that my ethics are pure. My ethics are the only ones that matter, and therefore if someone else falls outside of the parameters I have established for my own living, they are rightfully discriminated against because they do not adhere to the highest ethics—my own.
This then becomes a conundrum that we struggle to move past as a culture. If ethics are relative, and we have an institutional mechanism from the founding that has devolved over the lifetime of the country into “democracy” to help administer these choices, then the only way to decide what we can do as a society is to utilize that vehicle as a culture and let democracy and in effect, the government, decide what ethics are best. Rationally this is the only conclusion that this line of philosophy could lead us towards. We have governing documents that are based upon the idea that Natural Law and the larger ethics of an outside force are inherent to the decision making process. Certain ideas didn’t need to be debated because they were outside of the control of the individual. Murder wasn’t a fungible concept because it wasn’t an ethic humanity had any say in. Natural Law dictated that the wrong of murder was an undeniable ethic. Voting and engaging in politics was about the more pragmatic aspects of living as a society. How shall we trade as states gathered together as a country? What shall be the role of elected officials in taxation, defense, commerce, etc. There was a baseline of assumption in the founding era’s cultural ethics that didn’t require a dilemma or debate about basic assumptions.
In an existential culture, nothing is “given.” Everything should be questioned and ultimately judged upon the ethics I have decided are most valuable during my time here of existence. Because of this and the heritage of Americanism, politics becomes a cleaner vehicle than war to decide who’s tribe should survive. Instead of uniting around common language and geography to dictate our tribal belonging, we now collect the closest versions of ourselves and work to build a coalition of the willing to vote our ethics and will upon those that do not hold the same ethics as our own. Consensus building is not a part of the existential culture. What value is there to building a mutual place of agreement if my ethics are the governing system? My ethics are paramount and therefore if you don’t at least align 90 percent with me, you are a waste of time to build a coalition with because you will not advance my ethical position. For instance, a wealthy New York millennial aged woman sees no need to discuss her ethics with a middle aged cowboy from Wyoming. In her mind and actual way of life, her ethics are superior to his (as are his to hers) and so there isn’t anything to discuss. Moreover, he should be destroyed for his line of thinking, and she should be tossed into the sea with a millstone to expedite the drowning.
So if existentialism is how we live, how can we reconcile the Enlightenment principles of liberty and essence?
Is there still value to trying to approach our world and our neighbors with these principles as a kinder and more compassionate way to live? I believe there is. The inherency of liberty is still tremendously appealing. When people are given the choice to break free of the power of the state and coerced tribalism they intrinsically respond positively. Our responsibility as liberty loving people is not to hunker away and chastise people for a lack of understanding about Austrian economics or Natural Law principles. Instead we should be willing to view and understand the world through the existential lens it lives in, even if we disagree with the principles of it, and begin to have discussions again about these human characteristics that are internal to our being. There should be a suspension of frustration with the culture of our duopolistic politics and recognize it’s the only possible outcome in the existential experience. The existing political culture will only revise after we persuade people that hoping for anything different than what we have is a fools errand unless we can be persuasive in the place they operate their daily lives in and win over their innate and dormant understanding of the Natural Law that exists inside of them as beings with an essence.