You Say You Want a Revolution

Posted: June 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

–Lennon and McCartney

Though no doubt they were considered radical in their day, the essays by Kant and Montaigne strike me as examples of what we might today call “classical liberalism,” which is a liberalism that is so moderate by comparison with what we call “liberal” today that many on the political left would call it conservative.

Certainly, coming as they were on the heels of the middle ages and during a time when both Catholic and the newly emerged Protestant churches still yielded immense power, both politically and psychologically, the independence of thought modeled by Montaigne and proposed by Kant must have seemed bold, if not revolutionary.

Montaigne, who is the earlier of the two writers by more than a century, articulates a kind of cultural relevance that would test the tolerance of all but the most radical thinkers today. He writes with a sanguine equanimity of foreign practices ranging from orgiastic marriage ceremonies to the ritual eating of the dead to incest between parents and children, blithely observing that “Barbarians are no more a wonder to us than we are we are to them” (6).[1] He offers no moral judgment whatsoever on these practices, but, on the contrary, seems to assert that morality itself is entirely determined by culture.

“The laws of conscience,” he writes, “which we pretend to be derived of nature, proceed from custom” (9).

From such a vantage point, one cannot critique a culture where, for example, the eunuchs who guard the “sacred women” have their noses and lips cut off so they will not be attractive to their charges (7). From this point of view, one can neither argue that severe bodily mutilation nor ritual prostitution (“sacred women”) are “wrong.” It is simply a matter of custom.

This was, of course, a time in the world’s history when Europeans were “discovering” new countries and new cultures and were coming face to face with societies where practices such as cannibalism were ingrained or where Western notions of sexual modesty and propriety were turned upside down. But Montaigne could have chosen to see these cultures as “backwards” or “primitive”—or “barbaric” in the usual sense of the term, but instead, he seems simply to see them as different.

Kant, was also radical in his own way. His assertions that “Laziness and cowardice” are the reasons that people turn to books or pastors or physicians for guidance must have been challenging, if not outright offensive, to many people of his day. His injunction, “Have courage to use your own understanding!” is a kind of manifesto that might be seen as the starting point for a motto that has been popular in our own time, “Question Authority!”

Moreover, he articulates a bold political ideology: the notion that one generation cannot impose limitations on future generations, that attempts to do so would be justifiably considered “unauthorized and criminal” by the generations that followed. This means, in effect, that no law is universal across time and that no generation is obliged to follow the rules laid down by a previous one. Consider what this means for religious ideology. From this perspective, the Ten Commandments for example are actually an immoral and unlawful imposition of one generation upon another.


But it’s not just religion. Kant’s notion of the rights of subsequent generations even contravenes political ideologies of our own day. For example, the notion of “original intent” as it applies to the U.S. Constitution is utterly meaningless from a Kantian perspective, at least I am understanding it here. The founding fathers, in such a view, have no right, whatsoever, to impose limitations on people living more than two centuries after them. The fact that Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton may have thought one way about government should have no bearing whatsoever on how we run government today, if we come to different conclusions from them about what is right and what is wrong or even efficacious.[2]

And yet, for all their seemingly radical ideologies, both Montaigne and Kant back away from revolution and seem, on some level, to advocate the status quo.

Kant makes an important distinction between public and private thought. Public thought, for Kant, is the realm of the scholar, who must always be free to critique whatever it is he feels compelled to critique. But, he says, “private use of reason may, however, often be narrowly restricted without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment” (2).

This may be a little confusing to us because we tend to think of private thought as sacred and public displays as subject to regulation, but Kant isn’t so much writing about private thought as what we might call “contracted behavior.” In other words, when you work for someone or are part of an organization, you are obliged to follow its “private” laws.

If, for example, one is a soldier, one must obey one’s officer. If one is a priest, one must uphold Church dogma. “The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him,” Kant writes (2).

Kant, like, Montaigne, seems to approve of the Socratic notion, articulate in the Socratic dialogue “Crito,” that, while one may critique one’s culture, one is obliged to follow its laws to the letter. Socrates was so convinced of this idea that he allowed himself to be executed rather than escape prison and, thus, break a law of his country.

That is certainly a far cry from the rationalistic revolutionary fervor that overturned the French government at the end of the eighteenth century and even at odds with the notion of civil disobedience that Henry David Thoreau (who was jailed for not paying his taxes in protest of government policy) would articulate in the mid-nineteenth century and which would inspire Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It is a very great doubt, whether any so manifest benefit can accrue from the alteration of a law received, let it be what it will, as there is danger and inconvenience in altering it,” Montaigne writes (11). He quotes with approval one critic who suggests that anyone who is so arrogant as to institute a social innovation ought to keep a halter around his neck so that, in case his innovation proves to be pernicious, he may be hung.

This is a form of what might be called “classical liberalism,” which is a kind of free-thinking that, while it may encourage change and progress, works incrementally and through not against the system. Both Montaigne and Kant were aware of the terrible price that civil unrest, not to mention civil war, could bring about (Montaigne had lived through some four decades of religious wars), and so they were naturally cautious of advocating revolutionary behaviors, as opposed to revolutionary ideas.

Today, I think, such reticence to commit to social action and social change would be seen as conservative rather than liberal, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1960s, for example, John Lennon wrote a song called “Revolution” where he praised the desire to change the world, but said if that meant “destruction” you could “count him out.” Later that same year, however, he recorded that song saying you could “count him in,” thus moving from liberal to radical.

And, of course, maybe if Montaigne and Kant lived today, they would also see things differently and promote concrete, as well as philosophical, social change, would embrace a more revolutionary ethic. Almost assuredly they would be, in some fundamental sense, different men if you believe along with Montaigne that our values are determined not by nature but by our environment.

[1] Initially, Montaigne’s use of the term “barbarians” would seem to imply a bias toward non-Western cultures, but, in practice, as we will see, his radical moral equivalency undermines, if not eviscerates, notions of Western moral superiority.

[2] To some extent, I suppose, the system for amending the Constitution was set up to address this human right of future generations to self-determination, but what if future generations deem the system for amending the system to be too cumbersome and want to jettison it? From Kant’s perspective, it seems, they ought to be able to.


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