I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.
-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, "cleaving the air in her free flight," feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight "would be easier still in empty space." A fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure the dove would simply plummet to the ground.
How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent. And how often, like Kant's dove, we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.
Such fantasies are as perennial as they are vain. They insinuate themselves everywhere in the economy of human desire, not least in our political arrangements. Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.
What a cunning, devilish word, "might." For here as elsewhere, possibility is cheap. Scrap our current political accommodations and things might be better. Then again, they might be a whole lot worse. Vide the host of tyrannies inspired by that disciple of airy possibility, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "Man was born free," he declaimed, "but is everywhere in chains": two startling untruths in a single famous utterance. Rousseau was keen on "forcing men to be free," but we had to wait until his followers Robespierre and Saint-Just to discover that freedom in this sense is often indistinguishable from what Robespierre chillingly called "virtue and its emanation, terror." Something similar can be said about that other acolyte of possibility, Karl Marx. How much misery have his theories underwritten, promising paradise but delivering tyranny, oppression, poverty, and death?
It wasn't so long ago that I had hopes that the Marxist-socialist rot -- outside the insulated purlieus of humanities departments at Western universities, anyway --was on the fast track to oblivion. Has any "philosophy" ever been so graphically refuted by events (or number of corpses)?
Read the entire article on the New Criterion website (new window will open).