Saturday, February 21, 2004

The Open Society and Tyranny

There are some who see the excellence of modern civilization in a tendency toward the "open society," that is a society in which the organic view of social life which makes for a "closed society," is overcome by a new individualism, which makes it possible for men to associate as equals, and having been freed from the older ties, to enter into free relationships of a more "spiritual" nature. Man, by a kind of "naked" reason, uncorrupted by the customs and traditions of his forebears, decides the quality of his life; he is, in this view, an end in himself, and recalls the old Protagorian expression that "man is the measure." Thanks to technology and education, man can free himself from nature, which he now sees as a hindrance to be dominated, and which no longer serves as a guide to his activities. He will now shape the world to his image, and anything which obscures his goal or directs his view to those things which should measure him in his activities must be eliminated as obstructions to his dignity, rooted as it is in the extension of his own proper personality. Marx, in fulminating against religion, sees it as "but the illusory sun which moves around man as long as he does not move around himself."

According to this view, all previous societies contained ways by which some men have dominated others, the remedy for which is a new society, which permits each man to choose his own kind of life, to exercise a myriad of ever-growing rights all severed from the trace of duties, which have become superfluous(for there are really no duties we owe ourselves).

The aim is to make possible the exercise of the tyrannical life for all men. Remember that the tyrant rules, not for the sake of the common good, but for his own private good. The state is merely an extension of himself, to be ordered peculiarly to him as to its end. He is not a part of it, and therefore subject to its laws and customs, but is rather beyond them, and his own appetites and desires have taken their place.

[...] man is superior because he is indeterminate, because he can choose his own way of life, and hence is not limited to any kind of existence. There is no consideration here that the man who is unformed is inferior to the good man, that the peccability of his liberty is a precarious "dignity," a lack to be overcome by the acquisition of the virtues which perfect his powers and their exercise. In short, man is considered perfect insofar as he is, not insofar as he is good(which entails, as we have seen that he order his life to things other than himself). What in fact Pico [della Mirandola] does is to speak of man much as if he were God. God, using St. Thomas again, is by his very being good and perfect, but man, insofar as he merely is, cannot by virtue of this be called good; the powers of his being, in fact, are directed toward other things, and he will be called good if he orders his soul the way it is created. God, on the other hand, is His own end: His liberty, the measure of all things, is impeccable; all its consequences good.

But if man were as God is, he in his own being would be his own end, anything he desires would be good by the fact of his desiring it, and the distinction between the good man and bad man would vanish.

-"Tyranny, A Private Good" by Ronald P. McArthur, Intercollegiate Review January-February 1966

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