The American Mind is happy to play host to the important debates raised in the below essay. We do not necessarily endorse one side or another, and will, of course, invite responses — Eds.
Clifford Humphrey (a recent Hillsdale College Ph.D. in Politics) has written a response to my “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” essay that is notable because it expresses some of the views of the Bronze Age generation. (I do wonder, however, if his views reflect those of his teachers at Hillsdale?)
Mr. Humphrey begins his response by reminding me, ironically enough, of John Adams’s oft-quoted statement to his wife, Abigail: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.”Humphrey uses Adams’s quotation to make the following point: “times defined by the former [i.e., politics and war]” must not be “times defined by the latter [i.e., mathematics and philosophy].” Humphrey goes on to inform The American Mind audience that “What Thompson misunderstands . . . is that ours are once again times of war and politics; no mere philosophy can save us now.”Now, I have no doubt that I misunderstand many things, but I’m pretty sure that John Adams is not one of them.
John Adams and the Battle of Ideas
Humphrey’s use of Adams is flawed in several respects: first, he doesn’t seem to know Adams’s biography very well; second, he misunderstands Adams’s quotation and then misapplies it to serve the needs of the present; third, he misunderstands the relationship between cause and effect and theory and practice; and, fourth, his misuse of Adams inadvertently adopts the corrosive principle of historicism.
Apparently, unbeknownst to me, John Adams was first and foremost a fighting man, a soldier-politician, who neither studied nor was motivated to fight for the cause of freedom by certain philosophic ideas. This is strange because John Adams was never a soldier, and he was one of the leading thinkers of the Revolution. He was the author of “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” the “Novanglus Letters” and “Thoughts on Government” before July 4, 1776, and he wrote America’s first great treatise of political philosophy, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (3 vols., 1787-88). In fact, the very sentence quoted by Humphrey is preceded by this one: “The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts.” The more fundamental point, however, is this: Adams was a man whose political involvement in the War for Independence was motivated entirely by his dedication to certain philosophic principles. My first book, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, makes this point very clear. I’d be happy to send Mr. Humphrey a signed copy if he’d care to learn more about the life and ideas of the “Sage of Braintree.”
Mr. Humphrey’s misguided use of Adams is compounded by the fact that Adams is also famous for saying that the “real” American Revolution was not the war but was actually a philosophic revolution in the “minds of the people” in the 15 years before shots were ever fired at Lexington and Concord. The simple truth is that from the time of the revolutionary-founding era, American views on politics and war have been profoundly influenced by philosophy. America is, after all, the propositional nation. Those men who dedicated their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of American independence did so because they were guided and motived by certain self-evident truths.
American revolutionaries permitted no dichotomy between words and deeds. Their declaration of independence and the philosophy that supported it played a pivotal role in motivating ordinary Americans to join General Washington’s volunteer army. Sometime after the signing of the document, an unknown farmer in Pennsylvania gave a speech to a meeting of his neighbors in Philadelphia County to explain why he was enlisting: “I am an American,” he declared, “and am determined to be free.” In fact, he had been “born free” and was not about to forfeit his birthright “for a mess of pottage” as Esau did in the Book of Genesis (25:29-34). This unknown but eloquent farmer went on to explain what the inescapable logic of his principles meant in practice: “We have no alternative left us, but to fight or die. If there be a medium, it is slavery; and ever cursed be the man who will submit to it! I will not.” He added bluntly: “I, therefore, conceive myself as having taken up arms in defence of innocence, justice, truth, honesty, honour, liberty, property, and life; and in opposition to guilt, injustice, falsehood, dishonesty, ignominy, slavery, poverty, and death.” Indeed, “I will part with my life sooner than with my liberty; for I prefer an honourable death to the miserable and despicable existence of slavery.” He concluded: “Blest be the spirit of American liberty, wisdom, and valour.” This is a stunning example of actions taken based on the motivation of clear principles.
The same is likewise true for many great and ordinary men, who fought as politicians or soldiers in the Civil War. In 1861, a week before he was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run, a thirty-two-year-old Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife, Sarah, and told her that he had “no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause” for which he was then engaged. That cause was freedom. Ballou also recognized “how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.” The government that Ballou vowed to defend was founded on philosophic principles, and the debt he owed was to those who fought and died in the War for Independence to defend the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence.
And so too with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which explains why young men like Ballou had given their lives for the cause of freedom. Lincoln reminded those who were gathered with him on that solemn day that the cause which animated their Revolutionary forefathers to fight and die was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln made it very clear that the Civil War was a test to determine whether the United States of America, “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The key point is this: American freedom fighters in 1776 and 1861 lived out and then fought and died for the philosophy of Americanism as consecrated by the Declaration of Independence.
Ideas Have Consequences vs. The Will to Power
But all of this, of course, is just maudlin fluff for our steely-eyed Straussian BAPsters, who have abandoned not only the founders’ philosophy but philosophy per se. Even worse: they’ve abandoned reason for “instinct,” “intuitions,” and “will.” BAP’s ideal man will know “how to listen to the voice of the gods” and will be “possessed by a divine madness.” Their philosophic doyen, the BAPster himself, has publicly declared on his podcast, “Logocentrism must die” . . . “death to philosophy, death to intellectuals, death to legalism” (Caribbean Rhythms, episode 44). Apparently, the manly warriors being produced in various Straussian Ph.D programs are now beyond the concerns of philosophic good and evil.
Regrettably, Humphrey’s error goes even further up the intellectual food chain: he rejects one of the core methodological tenets held by virtually all conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals, namely, that “ideas have consequences.” He claims, “[mere] cerebral assent to an abstraction may be enough to inspire philosopher kings, but not human beings.” But again, this is false, and I’m disappointed that someone with a Hillsdale Ph.D. does not see or understand what Lincoln saw and understood. To his dying day, Lincoln believed that the announced moral and political principles of the Declaration were true—absolutely and permanently true—and he believed they were self-evidently true. He believed the Declaration’s moral truths were as true as “the simpler propositions of Euclid are true.” And this is why he also believed “it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.” Jefferson, the man on whom Lincoln bestowed “all honor,” had, during a moment of grave national crisis, “the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” And here’s the key point: that abstract truth inspired ordinary men to enlist in the Revolutionary army in 1776 and then in the Union army in 1861. It also inspired Abraham Lincoln to emerge from his political hibernation in order to challenge Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 for his Illinois senate seat. Mr. Humphrey’s forgetfulness dishonors those men who have fought and died to defend America’s abstract truths.
Not only does Humphrey reject the methodological maxim “Ideas Have Consequences,” he seemingly replaces it with a new way of thinking about political life. He claims that any “revitalization of the philosophy of the American Founding must follow—not precede—a new assertion of that political will, sine qua non.” Humphrey then invokes Bronze Age Pervert as an example of what it would mean to awaken “our languid political will” through BAP’s philosophy of “vitalism.” We might dub Humphrey’s operating premise—one might even say his philosophy—as “Will Has Consequences”! The new-model man promoted by BAP and Humphrey will be spurred to act by his “hormones” and “innate blood and desire,” the “true power of aion,” the “fire of Heraclitus,” the “demoniac and violent madness underlying things,” the “unquenchable lust for power,” the “instincts to conquer and expand the domain of his action,” the “wolfish and predatory instinct,” and the secret desire “to be worshipped as a god”—all of which “hold the key to the meaning of life in the most fundamental way.”
Humphrey’s claim is subject to many objections, but let’s consider two. First, the very idea that one goes into a political contest devoid of motivating ideas, principles, or philosophy is simply not true; it’s never been true. Such a claim, as I’ve already demonstrated, reverses the necessary cause and effect relationship between ideas and actions. Furthermore, Humphrey’s logic collapses on itself when he suggests that the goal of this reawakening is none other than the “revitalization of the philosophy of the American founding,” but surely a commitment to that revitalization is what spurs the “political will” in the first place. Second, there is no reason to think that the “new reassertion of political will” called for by Humphrey will lead to a revitalization of the founders’ philosophy rather than to something else. Once the “will” genie is let out of the bottle, it’s deuces wild.
The Will to Power and the New Caesarism
If “mere philosophy,” as Humphrey claims, can’t save us from those who seek to destroy America, with what weapons, then, do our manly Hillsdale BAPsters propose to fight the battle against America’s internal and external enemies? Young Humphrey wants none of the Con-Inc., Establishment, pussy-footing around with all that philosophy stuff. He wants a new kind of political ruler, a political strongman, who will declare political war against the Left and make things right. Humphrey (along with Erik Root) longs for a new generation of bold political leaders, those whom Lincoln once referred to as the “tribe of the eagle,” who are motivated by thumos, ambition, glory, and the will to power. In Bronze Age Mindset, BAP describes such men in his truncated syntax as elevated on a “perch from where they remain watchful over the state and of territory far outside it, and swoop down like eagle for the prize; in one swoop the kind of birds catches its bloody prey in fast talons (BAM, p.137).” BAP’s new-model man is a warrior, a pirate, or a conquistador, who is a “born beast of prey” and who seeks to “turn himself into a living work of art.”
History has, of course, known many such men, although Humphrey doesn’t seem to consider George Washington and America’s revolutionary founders or Lincoln as the kinds of leaders that he hopes to call forth. Washington and Lincoln were, after all, guided first and foremost by a certain philosophy and moral principles. In the American context, maybe Humphrey is calling on the spirit of Aaron Burr to save America.
It’s hard to know exactly the kind of political leader that Humphrey hopes to see, but his description of such a leader’s qualities and characteristics makes one think more of Socrates’s boy-toy Alcibiades or Agathocles or Periander of Corinth or Caesar or Napoleon or Peron et al. BAP, whom Humphrey seems to be following, has publicly praised Benito Mussolini, Alfredo Stroessner, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. It’s hard to imagine that an American Hussein or Gaddafi would, after he’s completed his coup and killed his enemies and competitors, restore the founders’ philosophy of Americanism. Just sayin’.
The much more likely scenario is that America would get something very different from Washington or Lincoln. BAP summarized his vision of justice quite vividly in his book Bronze Age Mindset:
Here is my vision of the true justice, the justice of nature: the zoos opened, predators unleashed by the dozens, hundreds… four thousand hungry wolves rampaging on streets of these hive cities, elephants and bison stampeding, the buildings smashed to pieces, the cries of the human bug shearing through the streets as the lord of beasts returns.
Welcome to BAPdom, which is the twenty-first century version of Marlin Perkins’ Animal Kingdom! Yup, that’s pretty much what you’re left with. This is the “political philosophy” that a generation of Straussian graduate students and junior faculty are imbibing and promoting.
The New Straussian Historicists
Finally, in another inescapable irony, our Straussian BAPsters seem to have adopted the historicist “philosophy” of Carl Becker’s book on The Declaration of Independence—A Study in the History of Ideas (1922). Becker there wrote that to ask if the Declaration’s principles are true or not is a meaningless question. That is because Becker’s generation no longer believed that the Declaration’s self-evident truths were true.
And this is the position now taken by our young Straussian BAPsters, who think that the situation on the ground in 2020 is allergic to philosophic principles, particularly to the outdated philosophic principles of 1776. American culture in 1776 was, Mr. Humphrey informs us, morally healthy and could sustain a free society but not so in 2020. American culture today is so debased, he claims, that the founders’ retrograde philosophy is no longer relevant for the twenty-first century.
For Abraham Lincoln, however, unlike Becker and Humphrey, the question of the truth status of the Declaration’s principles was not a meaningless question. In fact, it was the only question that mattered. And on that very question, hundreds of thousands of men dedicated and ultimately gave their lives in a real war rather than fighting with pea-shooters on Twitter. This is why Lincoln implored his fellow citizens to reject John Pettit’s heresy—i.e., the claim the Declaration’s self-evident truths were actually “self-evident lies”—and to return to the secular sacraments of the old republic.
Even the philosophically incontinent Carl Becker realized in 1942 when he re-issued his book on the Declaration of Independence that, in the face of Nazi atrocities, he might have been wrong twenty years earlier. Interestingly, when Becker wrote a new introduction, in 1941, to his book on the Declaration, in the face of the “incredible cynicism and brutality of Adolph Hitler’s ambitions” and an advancing Nazi state, he was forced to rethink and “reappraise the validity of half-forgotten ideas” and to once again “entertain convictions as to the substance of things not evident to the senses.” As Hitler’s military was attacking and brutalizing the people of Europe and as his police state at home was committing genocide against its own citizens, Becker was forced to reconsider and to ultimately concede—at least for the moment—that there were and must be objective moral truths that are stateless and timeless and that such moral truths motivate men to die in their defense. During this dark period of human history, Becker gained a new appreciation for the doctrine of “‘the inalienable rights of men’”—“phrases, glittering or not, that denote realities the fundamental realities that men will always fight for rather than surrender.” Becker was now willing to suspend the “truth” of relativism for the truth of an objective moral reality, or at least the possibility of one. Invariably, there is always an eternal return from the Gospel of History to the Book of Nature.
I have no doubt that Clifford Humphrey and his Straussian BAPster compatriots are indeed patriots, but their patriotism has been seemingly corrupted by a perverse “philosophy” that would fundamentally change the nature of the United States of America were it ever implemented. The good news is, of course, that it won’t ever be adopted here or anywhere else. You are living in a fantasy world if you think it will be. Instead, BAPism is a sometimes-amusing fad that will inevitably go the way of the dodo bird. The “BAP thing” is a phase that virtually all of its young adherents will outgrow in the same way that fourteen-year-old boys outgrow Playboy magazine.
In the meantime, my advice to all the young Straussian BAPists out there is to finish your Ph.D.’s, get a job, get married, have kids and homeschool them, coach a little-league sport, be a model of manly virtue for your children, defend your rights and freedoms, and be a patriot.
Dr. C. Bradley Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.