The Logic of a Lack of Conviction

One of Arnold Toynbee’s missions involved reacting against the Enlightenment-inspired Whig historian that saw progress as inevitable and assured.  For this school the advance of science and the decline of religion–the influence of priests or the Church over the state–served as ‘Exhibit A’ of this march towards continual progress.  Toynbee developed an overall pattern of history that worked against this notion.  In his critique he warned against the pollyanna idea of equating the decline of religious belief with improvements in civilization.  Rather, he cautioned, failure to believe in the God of the “higher religions” would not lead to a pleasant garden of pure reason, but rather encourage attachment to the “darker gods” of tribalism and paganism.

On Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen linked to an article by Shadi Hamid, in which he wrote that,

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

Cowen added that,

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed — we humans are not worthy of it in every regard.

Hamid comments later in the article that, “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Both President Obama and President Trump inspired strong reactions from their political opposition.  Republicans seemed for the most part to simply oppose whatever policy Obama supported, and Democrats now seem to be following suit.  However effectively this rallies their political base, it leads to a steep decline in democratic practice, a rise of tribal mentalities, and a resurgence of the “darker gods” mentioned by Toynbee.  In 2018 we can easily see that neither religion, nor social institutions, nor even a common social class unites us now.  Toynbee wrote in his An Historian’s Approach to Religion that,

The erosion of the west’s traditional institutions and common outlook . . . has been progressive.  The unity of the clergy in western Christendom was broken by the Reformation.  The unity of the Western “Republic of Letters” as it had existed down to the generation of Erasmus and St. Thomas More, was broken when Latin was ousted by the local vernaculars, and it was re-established only very imperfectly when Latin was partially replaced by French in the 17th century.  The unity of the West European aristocracy–a polygot social circle knit together by intermarriage–was broken by the French Revolution, by the smothering of the aristocracy in Britain in the 19th century in the embrace of the prolific middle class, and by the rise of the United States, where the West European aristocracy had never taken root.

He penned those words in 1956, and we  might follow this up by adding that post-modernism has contributed further to this erosion.  We no longer have a common belief in progress, and even our faith in democracy itself has declined.

Machiavelli wrote during a time of political upheaval in Italy, and understood the temptation to lash out and “fight fire with fire.”  But in his Discourses on Livy he advocated a different course in a chapter he titled “Temporize with Evil.”

In connection with this league against Rome we have first to note, that when a mischief which springs up either in or against a republic, and whether occasioned by internal or external causes, has grown to such proportions that it begins to fill the whole community with alarm, it is a far safer course to temporize with it than to attempt to quell it by violence. For commonly those who make this attempt only add fuel to the flame, and hasten the impending ruin. Such disorders arise in a republic more often from internal causes than external, either through some citizen being suffered to acquire undue influence, or from the corruption of some institution of that republic, which had once been the life and sinew of its freedom; and from this corruption being allowed to gain such head that the attempt to check it is more dangerous than to let it be. And it is all the harder to recognize these disorders in their beginning, because it seems natural to men to look with favour on the beginnings of things. Favour of this sort, more than by anything else, is attracted by those actions which seem to have in them a quality of greatness, or which are performed by the young. For when in a republic some young man is seen to come forward endowed with rare excellence, the eyes of all the citizens are at once turned upon him, and all, without distinction, concur to do him honour; so that if he have one spark of ambition, the advantages which he has from nature, together with those he takes from this favourable disposition of men’s minds, raise him to such a pitch of power, that when the citizens at last see their mistake it is almost impossible for them to correct it; and when they do what they can to oppose his influence the only result is to extend it. Of this I might cite numerous examples, but shall content myself with one relating to our own city.

Cosimo de’ Medici, to whom the house of the Medici in Florence owes the origin of its fortunes, acquired so great a name from the favour wherewith his own prudence and the blindness of others invested him, that coming to be held in awe by the government, his fellow-citizens deemed it dangerous to offend him, but still more dangerous to let him alone. Nicolò da Uzzano, his cotemporary, who was accounted well versed in all civil affairs, but who had made a first mistake in not discerning the dangers which might grow from the rising influence of Cosimo, would never while he lived, permit a second mistake to be made in attempting to crush him; judging that such an attempt would be the ruin of the State, as in truth it proved after his death. For some who survived him, disregarding his counsels, combined against Cosimo and banished him from Florence. And so it came about that the partisans of Cosimo, angry at the wrong done him, soon afterwards recalled him and made him prince of the republic, a dignity he never would have reached but for this open opposition. The very same thing happened in Rome in the case of Cæsar. For his services having gained him the good-will of Pompey and other citizens, their favour was presently turned to fear, as Cicero testifies where he says that “it was late that Pompey began to fear Cæsar.” This fear led men to think of remedies, and the remedies to which they resorted accelerated the destruction of the republic.

His advice is sound, but it requires conviction to heed.  We can’t “temporize” unless we know equally well what we want to happen as well as what we wish to prevent.


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