Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part III: A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.

Burton Weltman

The Gold Standard versus the Golden Rule.

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.  You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”  William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

In what is generally considered the greatest political convention speech in American history, William Jennings Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech to an ecstatic Democratic Party National Convention in 1896 and secured for himself the party’s presidential nomination.  Although Bryan lost that presidential election and two more after that, his words dramatized a recurring theme in American social and political thinking that still resonates today: That the Golden Rule should not mean that Gold Rules.

Conventional histories of that election generally focus on the specific issue that Bryan addressed in the speech, which was whether the United States should remain on the gold standard for its currency.  The gold standard was favored by bankers and creditors generally, and resulted in tighter credit and higher interest rates for farmers, workers and small businessmen.  The alternative promoted by Bryan was a bi-metal gold and silver standard, which would help debtors, farmers, small businessmen and the working classes.  But this was only part of his message.  The speech was rooted in a much broader debate that has recurred throughout American history between those who propound individualism and favor the hierarchical society of winners and losers that inevitably results, and those like Bryan who promote communalism and a more egalitarian society.  That was Bryan’s deeper message.

This debate has many different aspects and ramifications.  It can be encapsulated in the question of what comes first “We” or “I?”  It  can be characterized ontologically and psychologically in  the difference between Descartes’ formulation of “I think, therefore I am” and the alternative formulation that I have been promoting of “I think, therefore we are.”

The debate has ethical dimensions that can be seen in the difference  between “measure for measure” ethics, or “what you do unto me, I can do unto you,” and  “reciprocity” ethics, or “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  The former is based on a contractual model of ethics.  Contracts are agreements between individuals in which each pledges to do something that the other wants.  Failure to fulfill the terms of a contract can result in retribution.  This retribution can be either compensatory — you pay damages that make me whole — or punitive — I take the Biblical “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.”  It is an impersonal and individualistic ethics that treats others as means towards a person’s own ends.

Reciprocity ethics are based on the Golden Rule in which others are treated as an extension of ourselves.  “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” in Biblical terms.  It is a communal ethics of personal relationships and caring for others both in the here-and-now and in the future.  The closer the connection of the other to you, the more intense your care and caring will likely be.  But every interaction is based on an assumption of care.  Bryan spoke on behalf of reciprocity ethics.

The debate can be exemplified in legal terms by the question of who gets to keep stolen property sold by a thief to an innocent third party.  Under community law principles, the innocent buyer gets to keep the property because the goal is to promote trust among people.  If an innocent buyer was to lose the benefit of his/her good faith bargain with an apparently legitimate seller, it would breed mistrust among people and undermine the community. The right of the innocent buyer was supported by Medieval Canon Law and in many early American jurisdictions.

Under modern American property law principles, the stolen property goes back to the original owner because the goal is to uphold the sacred rights of individual property.  Contract law in the nineteenth century operated almost entirely on the principle of “buyer beware,” which was consistent with the predominant individualism of the society, and had the effect of promoting distrust and disunity among people.  This was especially the case in the late nineteenth century.  Bryan spoke for the rights of people as a community over the rights of property owners..

Bryan was an imposing figure with a leonine mane of hair and a powerful voice.  The Golden Rule was his standard.  The Gold Standard was for him one of the ways in which the laissez-faire individualistic economic principles that characterized the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century had led to the oppression of ordinary people and the ascension of the fortunate few — the 1% we might say today — to positions of Midas-like wealth and Ozymandias-like power.

Bryan warned the Democratic Convention that a war was being waged in this country, “a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country.”  And he challenged the delegates to declare which side they were on, “upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses?” Democrats chose him and his side in that war three times, as did some 46% , 45% and 43% of the voters in his three presidential runs.  This was a substantial showing on behalf of the Golden Rule, albeit not enough to get him elected.

Bryan’s presidential runs coincided with two major reform movements in this country, the Populist Movement of the late nineteenth century and the Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century.  Both movements were primarily cooperative and anti-individualist in their main thrust, although both  also had their individualist wings.  Although Bryan was not literally either a Populist or a Progressive, he was widely seen as a spokesperson for the communitarian side of both movements.  Bryan was a devout Christian and derived many of his communal political principles from his roots in the liberal Social Gospel religious movement of that period.

With the demise in the 1920’s of both Bryan’s political career and the social movements that had defined his career, he turned to defending Biblical creationism against the theory of evolution.  Political conservatives since the late nineteenth century had been using the evolutionary theory as a rationalization of laissez-faire capitalism and rule by the rich.  They extolled dog-eat-dog competition and celebrated rich people as deserving winners in the evolutionary struggle, as the fittest in the evolutionary “survival of the fittest.” Conservatives had scorned the poor as deserving hardship and opposed any efforts to help the working classes  In the famous Scopes Trial and other forums, Bryan waged a battle between this so-called Social Darwinism and the doctrine of the Golden Rule.  It was for him the same struggle he had proclaimed in 1896.

Following the Golden Rule along the Yellow Brick Road.

“We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded.  We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.”  William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 and made into a movie in 1939, the heroine Dorothy finds herself stranded in the magical land of Oz and seeks a way to get back home.  She is advised by the inhabitants to follow a yellow brick road which will lead her to a wizard who will magically solve her problem.  Along the way, she makes three friends and finds a fellowship in their company that ultimately solves her problem and theirs as well.

The story has been interpreted by some readers as an allegory representing the struggles of the Populists against exploitive Eastern bankers, represented by the Wicked Witch of the East, and Western railroad interests, represented by the Wicked Witch of the West.  Dorothy’s three friends are a scarecrow, representing a farmer stuck in a spiral of debt that he cannot figure out how to end; a tin man, representing a worker laboring in a heartless mechanical factory system; and a cowardly lion, representing William Jennings Bryan who critics said roared like a lion but acted like a mouse when confronting the powers-that-be. Dorothy represented the American public caught up in the social and economic storm of that time and just wanting things to get back to normal.  Dorothy and her friends hope that the wizard, who represents a transcendent authority or all-powerful leader, will send Dorothy home and give the scarecrow brains, the tin man a heart, and the lion some courage.

The yellow brick road, which represents the gold standard, leads the four comrades to a so-called Emerald City which is emerald only because people are required to wear glasses with tinted green lenses.  It is a fake.  And the wizard turns out to be a fraud who has no magic.  But the four companions are able to solve their problems and to become their hoped for best selves through helping each other, one for all and all for one, without any need of a transcendent authority.  That is, by seeing each other as extensions of themselves and treating each other as they would want to be treated if they were in the other’s situation, they are able to achieve their goals.  It is a story of the power of ordinary people acting as a community and following the Golden Rule.

The moral of the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that the Golden Rule is a sufficient ground for establishing our existential being, and for deriving ethical principles and enforcing them. A transcendent authority — a god, guru, wizard, or absolutist government — is not necessary to establish our identities as individuals, and to prescribe and enforce ethical rules.  Dostoevsky claimed that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted and nihilism prevails.  Voltaire said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent Him.  Not so, I would argue.  God may be sufficient for these purposes but He is not necessary.

The key to my argument is the contention that the Golden Rule is not merely an ethical adjuration to do better but is a statement of psychological and social fact.  We, in fact, live according to the principles of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It is part of our human condition.  As I contended in Part I of this essay, we cannot know ourselves without knowing others.  “I think, therefore we are” is an existential fact of life.  I know myself through knowing others and their knowing me.

The way we think of ourselves, therefore, depends on how we think of others.  If we think of the well-being of others as connected with our own well-being, loving our neighbors as though they are extensions of ourselves, then we are likely to think well of ourselves.  If we disregard others’ well-being, we are likely to think poorly of ourselves.  In turn, the way we expect others to treat us depends on how we treat them, on doing unto them as we would have them do unto us if we were in their situation.  If we treat others poorly, we are likely to expect them to treat us poorly, and they probably will.  Hostility breeds hostility.  If we treat others well, we are likely to expect the same from them and are more likely to be treated that way.

The Golden Rule is contained in one form or another within virtually every major existential and ethical philosophy and religion in the history of the world.  Many philosophical schools and religions around the world since ancient times have also contended that humans are happiest and healthiest when they are in close communal and cooperative relations with others and when they follow the Golden Rule.  Anthropologists have provided support for this contention in examining societies past and present.  Evolutionary biologists have contended that the ability of humans to cooperate is a key to our evolutionary success.  And research on human brains has recently supported this contention.  Humans are apparently hardwired to feel best when helping others and living in close communal relations with family, neighbors and co-workers.  The philosophy of ethics, which is often ridiculed as soft and fuzzy, is being supported by hard science.

That the Golden Rule is a psychological reality and possibly even a biological fact of human life does not mean that we do not need government or laws or means of enforcing those laws.  Although the Golden Rule explicitly describes how one individual person should treat another individual person — “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” for example — it implicitly requires a cooperative community and a government to fulfill its purposes.  Treating others as an extension of oneself requires institutions greater than oneself to fulfill their needs, which ultimately means government.  The Golden Rule points, however, toward a government of, by and for the people instead of a government that rules as a transcendent authority over people.  Ironically, it is individualism and anti-government libertarianism that almost inevitably lead to authoritarian government.  In the absence of communal ties and cooperative ethics, government must impose itself on isolated individuals in order to establish law and order.  Communalism can, instead, lead to the sort of participatory government that the Founders of our country intended.

Individualism, Individuality and Death.

“We do not come as individuals.”  William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

The Founding Fathers were not wallflowers.  They were men with large egos who openly sought lasting fame.  That they promoted communalism does not mean that they did not also seek to assert their own individuality.  Individuality and communalism are complementary, not contradictory, values.  It is important in this regard to distinguish between individualism and individuality.  Individualism is an ideology that promotes a cult of self-development by the self-sufficient individual.  It places “I” before “We” and relates everything in the world to “Me.”  It also invariably places each individual in competition with other individuals, and leaves him/her in a perpetually precarious position facing potential attack from other individuals.  While stressing personal independence, individualism effectively makes a person dependent upon the willingness of others to leave that person alone.  With individualism as one’s starting point, the Golden Rule can seem silly, a pious ideal and ritual wish that one might recite on Sundays but that one knows is an impossible dream.

Individuality is the quality that distinguishes each individual from other people.  Individuality is a relative term that delineates how a person compares and contrasts with other persons. It is what makes a person unique.  Individuality can, as such, be developed only in communal relations with others and most securely in cooperation with them.  Individuality implies mutual interdependence rather than either independence or dependence, as each person makes his/her unique contribution to the communal whole.  The Golden Rule is a prescription for individuality and the quest for individuality leads to the Golden Rule.

But then there is death.  For advocates of individualism and advocates of a transcendent authority such as God, death is their strongest argument.  Humans are aware from an early age that they are going to die and each person dies his or her own death.  Exponents of individualism claim that both the contemplation of death and the experience of dying create an insuperable gulf that separates all of us and renders each of us an isolated individual.  In turn, religious advocates claim that awareness of death leads people to long for a transcendent authority such as God to whom they can attach themselves and who might grant them eternal life after death.  Without God, they say, life is short, mean and meaningless.  This is a powerful argument but many thinkers from David Hume to Thomas Mann have tried to counter it.

Thomas Mann, for example, turned the argument on its head and claimed that without death, life is mean and meaningless.  Through the character of Herr Settembrini in The Magic Mountain, Mann claimed that if life were eternal, then time would be valueless, effort would be worthless, and commitment would be silly.  Life would be profligate, something to squander because there would always be more to come.  And people would have no rhyme or reason to come together.  With or without God, eternal life would isolate individuals and render ethics meaningless.  With eternal life at stake, belief in God leads to the sort of cynical commitment represented by Pascal’s wager.  Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, said that even if God does not exist, you have nothing to lose by believing in Him.  And if God does exist, then you have everything to gain by believing in Him and everything to lose by not believing in Him.  So, he concluded, believing in God is the practical thing to do.  But where is the dignity in life or in God with such a bargain?

Death, according to Mann, gives life dignity.  Rather than being the enemy of life, death makes life worth living.  And rather than isolating individuals from each other, death makes life  a shared experience with others.  Death creates boundaries to life within which we are challenged to do our best and make a contribution to each other.  Commitment makes sense in this context because we have only so much time and we must make the best of it.  And since we are all in this together, and no one gets out alive, we have reason to see each other as an extension of ourselves and to cooperate with each other.  Rather than separating one from the other, death makes us part of a collective life in which the Golden Rule makes the best sense.  Following the Golden Rule allows one to live with dignity without God but can also help one to live with dignity with God.

Mann’s argument does not take the sting out of death.  But individualism, with its focus on “I” and the isolation of each individual, effectively focuses the individual on death and makes death a continual source of anxiety.  Communalism, with its focus on “We,” makes one part of something bigger than oneself without having to abjectly submit to a transcendent authority such as an absolute God or an authoritarian government.  It does not rule out the need for government or eliminate the desire in some to believe in God, but it places those attachments on a more dignified and secure footing.  Communalism provides better protection for individuality and relief of anxiety than individualism, and leaves one better able to pursue happiness in life.

John Locke versus Francis Hutcheson: Considering “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer.”           William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

Communalism has been a major part of social theory and practice throughout American history.  An important ingredient of most Native American societies, communalism was also integral to the first European American settlements.  The Puritans, for example, explicitly rejected individualism and sought to establish a communal society in Massachusetts during the early 1600’s.  They enacted maximum price and minimum wage laws so that no one could take advantage of another’s need for goods and services or for a sufficient income.  They established procedures for sharing and rotating land occupancy so that all would take turns farming the best land and no one could monopolize all of the best land.

Jonathan Winthrop, the Puritan leader, denounced the idea “That a man may sell as dear as he can and buy as cheap as he can” and “That a man may take advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may of another’s ignorance or necessity.”  The Reverend John Wise explained the Puritan theory of government saying that it must “Use and Apply the strength and riches of Private Persons towards maintaining the Common Peace, Security, and Well-being of All.”  All must share in the common wealth of the commonwealth.

Individualism developed, however, as a competing orientation in America during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.  The competition revolved in large part around differences between the philosophies of the Englishman John Locke and the Scotsman Francis Hutcheson.  Conventional American histories focus on the influence that Locke had on the colonists and often ignore Hutcheson completely.  But Hutcheson was extremely influential, especially with leading figures in the founding of the country such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin among many others.  Hutcheson is the originator of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” that is enshrined as an inalienable human right in the Declaration of Independence.

Locke was the most important philosopher of individualism during this time.  Echoing Descartes’ Cogito, Locke claimed that each human is born as a “tabula rasa,” that is, as a blank slate devoid of knowledge or personality.  Intellectual development consists of amassing facts to fill up the brain.  Personal development consists of amassing private property as a means of establishing one’s identity and one’s relations with others.  In Locke’s formula, you are what you own and the people you control through that ownership.  In Locke’s view, the primary purpose of government is to protect “life, liberty and property,” since life depended on owning property, and liberty consisted of being able to own and operate property.  His was a philosophy that stressed the self, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement.

Hutcheson was a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and a primary originator of the Common Sense moral and social theories that were held by most of the American Founding Fathers.  Hutcheson developed theories of benevolence in explicit opposition to Locke’s theories of selfishness.  Contrary to Locke, Hutcheson claimed that the primary purpose of life was to make oneself happy by making others happy, and that the primary purpose of government was to protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  This meant that government should encourage cooperation because that’s how people achieved happiness.

Hutcheson rejected Locke’s “tabula rasa” theory of personality and contended that each human is born with a common sense intellectual faculty, that is, a capacity for higher level thinking of the sort that we today would call critical thinking.  Critical thinking involves comparing and contrasting viewpoints.  It cannot be done in isolation because it requires others’ viewpoints for purposes of analysis. For Hutcheson, intellectual development consists of pursuing knowledge through critical thinking with others, not, as Locke would have it, through amassing facts and experiences by oneself.  Hutcheson also contended that humans are born with a common sense moral faculty, what we might call a conscience.  A person’s social development consists in exercising the person’s moral faculty in helping others, and pursuing happiness for oneself by bringing happiness to others.  A person gains an identity and develops his or her individuality not by controlling property and other people, but by working with others.

Although the Founders later injected Locke’s formula of “life, liberty and property” into the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution in defining one of the primary purposes of government, that did not mean they were abandoning the “pursuit of happiness” delineated earlier in the Declaration.  Nor, in protecting individual rights in the Bill of Rights, were they opting for individualism or so-called libertarianism.  Despite the unhistorical and hysterical contentions of libertarians and others on the political right wing, the Constitution is on the whole a communal document that was adopted by “We the People” in order to “promote the general Welfare” and that endows a government of the people with “Power… to make all laws necessary and proper” toward that end.

Libertarianism is essentially an anti-government version of Hobbes’ war of each against all.  Libertarians do not trust anyone and especially do not trust anyone in power in the government.  For them, government merely provides an opportunity for selfish individuals (like themselves) to get over on the rest of us.  So, they claim, government must be crippled and everyone must protect himself and his property as best he can, essentially on his own.  As with Locke, they believe that what you own defines who you are.  Consistent with this ideology, libertarians strongly support an unhistorical and illogical interpretation of the Second Amendment that allows everyone to have whatever guns and other weapons they might want and think they need to protect themselves and their property against each other and against the government.  Libertarians have thereby slid down a slippery slope of individualism from caution to paranoia.

In this context, it might be useful to compare and contrast libertarianism with anarchism.  Anarchism is essentially a utopian extension of the Golden Rule.  Like libertarians, anarchists distrust government and worry that power corrupts.  But whereas libertarians worry that government supports the unworthy masses against the deserving few, anarchists claim that government inevitably supports the rich and powerful against everyone else.  Anarchists want a world without government but they base their hopes on a belief that people are essentially good and that if we only got rid of private property, we could  also get rid of government and happily live communally ever after in peace and harmony.  Libertarians may be described as utopian or, maybe, dystopian capitalists, anarchists as utopian socialists.

Herbert Spencer versus Lester Frank Ward: Reconsidering “Survival of the Fittest.”

“There are two ideas of government.  There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that then their prosperity will leak through on those below.  The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” 

William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

Native American, African American, and European American social theories and practices were predominantly communal from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century.  During the so-called Jacksonian era of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the social paradigm among European Americans flipped so that individualism became the dominant ideology for them and communalism became a secondary principle.  And laissez-faire capitalism became the predominant economic theory in the United States, even if it was not uniformly the practice.

Even as laissez-faire capitalism was being trumpeted as the American way of life during the nineteenth century, and the courts regularly struck down regulations of big business and support for small farmers and workers as unconstitutional, state and federal governments routinely provided economic support for big business enterprises.  And the courts supported this disparate treatment on the grounds of protecting the sacred rights of property.  The Supreme Court, led by Justice Stephen Field, read laissez-faire principles into the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, claiming that almost any regulation of business, as opposed to support for business — including child labor laws, minimum wage laws, health and safety laws — was an unconstitutional taking of property under those Amendments.  It was in this context that the Supreme Court first ruled that corporations were “persons” under the Constitution.  Since the protections of property under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments applied only to persons, if corporations were not deemed persons, then state and federal governments could completely regulate them.  Such an outcome did not fit with the Court’s theory of individualism in which winners were supposed to form a ruling hierarchy of wealth over lower class losers.

In sum, while the predominant theory in this country as Bryan spoke in 1896 was laissez-faire individualism, the predominant practice was cutthroat competition for ordinary people but corporate monopolies for the rich.  This situation was often described as capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.  The social ideas of Thomas Malthus, the evolutionary theory of Social Darwinism, and a Hobbesian interpretation of the mantra “survival of the fittest” were widely used to justify this disparate treatment of economic winners and losers.  The use of these ideas for those purposes was decried by Darwin as well as Bryan.

Thomas Malthus was an early nineteenth century Protestant English clergyman who claimed that in the absence of strictly enforced population control measures, population inevitably outruns the supply of food and other necessities of life, and the result is famine and social dislocation.  The problem is the lower classes who have no self-control and tend to breed like rabbits.  Malthus claimed that without strict controls on the behavior of the lower classes, periodic famines, deadly epidemic diseases, and wars were necessary to rid the world of the excess lower class population.  He was particularly opposed to any sort of charity for the poor because that would encourage the poor to have more children.  The lower classes must essentially be starved into birth control.

Charles Darwin admitted to using Malthus’ population theories in developing his evolutionary theory of “natural selection,” according to which those species that are best adapted to a given environment will survive while others will perish.  But Darwin did not apply natural selection to the internal operations of human society.  That is, natural selection applied to competition among species and did not necessarily imply competition within species.  To the contrary, some species might thrive and survive on the basis of cooperation among its members rather than competition, and that, according to Darwin, includes humans.

It was Herbert Spencer who jumped on Darwinism as a justification for laissez-faire capitalist individualism.  He coined the slogan “survival of the fittest” and promoted the rule of the rich as an example of that principle.  Spencer is essentially the founder of the Social Darwinism that Bryan found so offensive.  But there was an alternative version of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century that took its cue from Darwin himself and that emphasized the inherently cooperative nature of human existence.  Lester Frank Ward, one of the pioneers of sociology, argued that “fittest” did not mean strongest, richest or most powerful.  Fitness is a function of adaptation to the environment and especially to changing environments.  The fitness of humans, said Ward, is a result of our adaptability and our ability to work together.  It is social cooperation and not laissez-faire competition that makes humans fit and has historically enabled humans to survive and thrive.  Laissez-faire individualism is a prescription for human catastrophe.

Ward’s message was overwhelmed in its time by support for Spencer’s version of Social Darwinism by Andrew Carnegie and other wealthy and powerful people, all of whom preached competitive individualism for the masses while building huge monopolistic corporate empires for themselves.  It is ironic that opposition to evolutionary theory was led in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by political and religious liberals such as Bryan who feared the conservative message of Social Darwinism while opposition to evolutionary theory has in recent years been promoted by political and religious conservatives whose social views are essentially similar to those of the Social Darwinians whom Bryan opposed.

The essence of Ward’s liberal Social Darwinian message survived, however, in the theories of many of the Progressives, New Dealers, Great Society proponents, and other liberals of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.  America’s major contribution to world philosophy — the school of thought embodied in the pragmaticism of Charles Sanders Peirce, pragmatism of William James, and experimentalism of John Dewey — is rooted in evolutionary theory and in Golden Rule ethics.  It is the message of “I think, therefore we are,” and the idea of seeing others as extensions of ourselves in the here-and-now and in the future.

We see examples of this message all around us.  The teacher who sows seeds of learning  in the hope they will grow in future ways and times the teacher may not see.  The grandparents who try to provide for grandchildren they may never see or see grow up.  The politician who enacts long-term policies that may not succeed until after the next election.  Caring for others now and in the future.  This sort of thinking flies in the face of the predominant selfish individualism fostered by our society, a society in which a right wing majority of the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations — legal fictions defined solely by money — have the same rights as humans and that under the free speech guarantees of the Constitution, money literally talks.  These are fantasies worthy of L. Frank Baum that would be comical if they were not so harmful.  But hope remains in the staying power and underlying reality of the cooperative message, a human and humane message that is increasingly being supported by science.

Egoism and its attendant evils will never completely go away but maybe they can become the exception rather than the ruling ideal.  We can see every day the increasingly destructive effects on the environment of our current ways of thinking and acting.  We may be in the process of destroying the environment in which humans have survived and creating an environment in which we may no longer fit.  In the competition among species for survival of the fittest, cockroaches, just as one example, may be a better fit than humans for the new environment we are creating and they may outlast us.  What we need is a paradigm change of the sort demanded by William Jennings Bryan so that the Golden Rule, instead of the rule of gold, becomes the norm in our society and  no longer an ideal exception, and so that we no longer stumble and fall  on a fool’s gold errand down the yellow brick road.


Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part II: The World According to Calvin and Hobbes.

Burton Weltman

I think, therefore I laugh… Parody as Reality.

Calvin: “Do you believe in the Devil?  You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption and destruction of man?”

Hobbes: “I’m not sure man needs help.”

This is a sample colloquy between the main characters of Calvin and Hobbes, a popular nationally syndicated comic strip produced by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995.  Calvin was a little boy.  Hobbes was his toy stuffed tiger who became a full-sized talking tiger whenever no one else was around.  The comic strip featured Calvin’s and Hobbes’ sardonic observations about the foibles and foolishness of adult humans and the hypocrisies and atrocities of human society.

The comic strip Calvin was named after John Calvin, a sixteenth century leader of the Protestant Reformation who founded a strict version of Protestantism. John Calvin and his followers focused on what they claimed is the lasting and pervasive effect of Adam’s Original Sin.  They insisted that humans are born in sin, inevitably live in sin whatever their best efforts to do good, and all deserve to be sent to Hell when they die.  That conclusion includes even newborn babies and children who have done little or nothing in their short lives.  Only God’s arbitrary forgiveness saves some few humans from the eternal damnation they all deserve.

John Calvin also insisted that it was up to each individual to read the Bible for him/herself, decide what it means, and determine at his/her peril how to lead a righteously God-dominated life.  This line of thought could sometimes lead to holier-than-thou competition among believers and vengeance-is-mine-on-behalf-of-the-Lord persecution of non-believers.  The comic strip Calvin often reflects the misanthropic John Calvin’s dark perspective.

The comic strip tiger was named Hobbes after Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth century philosopher and contemporary of Descartes, who believed that humans were voracious and vicious by nature, and that life without a dictatorial government to control people would consist of a “war of everyone against everyone.”  People would be in “continual fear and danger of violent death” and their lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Hobbes believed that people are inherently self-centered and selfish and that only an authoritarian government, “a common power to keep them in awe,” could save humans from themselves and society from chaos.  People were by nature free, independent and individualistic, but needed to be tightly leashed and dominated to survive.  Unlike Calvin, Hobbes did not believe in Divine Providence and insisted that only complete subservience to government, not God, could bring peace on earth.  The comic strip Hobbes often reflects the dour philosopher’s sour perspective.

In choosing to parody the perspectives of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes in his comic strip, Bill Watterson hit on two of the main tributaries to the mainstream of Western social thought over the past four hundred years.  As with most social thinkers during that time, including most conservatives, liberals and radicals, Calvin and Hobbes took individualism as the starting point of their theories and came to some form of authoritarianism as their conclusion — God domination for Calvin, government domination for Hobbes.  Descartes’ Cogito has been popularly understood to provide philosophical support for this line of thought.

 I think, therefore I am free…But not for long .

Hobbes: “Until you stalk and overrun, you cannot devour anyone.”

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” has been widely understood to demonstrate that each of us is an isolated individual and is the center of his/her own universe.  It has also been understood to establish that society is merely a conglomeration of independent individuals, and that without some transcendent authority to connect us to each other, dictate moral values to us, and enforce law and order on us, there is no feasible way for ethical human beings and ethical societies to survive.  Chaos, violence and a dog-eat-dog cycle of predatory behavior would prevail.

This intellectual transition from a premise of individual freedom to an authoritarian conclusion follows logically from Descartes’ Cogito and is reflected in the theories of Calvin, Hobbes and many others over the last four hundred years.  If each of us is an isolated individual then each of us is theoretically a law unto him/herself.  The  logical result of this sort of self-willed insularity would be chaos if it was allowed to play out.  While exceptional individuals might on their own behave morally and even heroically in accord with what they perceive as a  common ethic, we cannot trust that others will do so.  Therefore, a transcendent authority, which is generally taken to be God or government or both, is required to establish a code of ethics that would be accepted by everyone.  And a transcendent enforcer, which can punish transgressors in this life and/or the next, is necessary to ensure that law and order prevails and that everyone obeys the code.  Although one can try to limit the ways and means and the extent to which a transcendent authority can restrict individual freedoms and inflict punishments on transgressors — through constitutions, checks and balances, division of powers, and other vehicles — individualism is a theory and practice that cannot sustain itself and authoritarianism seems to emerge inevitably from individualism even as the two theories contradict each other.

Authoritarianism is, however, also a fragile system that almost invariably produces the chaos and violence it is intended to prevent.  The logic of this outcome was described by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave relationship.  Individualism generates a war of each against all for security and supremacy.  This war will invariably result in might making right and the stronger imposing their will as masters on the weaker.  Peace will be imposed on the populace but it will be a fragile peace.  Any victory in this war will be inherently precarious and fraught with peril for the masters because the self-esteem and the security of the masters depend on the slaves accepting their subordination.  If the slaves insist on their equality with the masters, either through outright rebellion or even just insubordination, then the masters’ self-esteem is undermined and their safety is threatened.  The pride of the masters goeth before their fall.  The result, says Hegel, is that masters are as much enslaved by their domination of their slaves as the slaves are by their masters, and masters are inevitably insecure.

Hegel’s conclusions were exemplified in the ante-bellum American South by the exaggerated fears of slave masters of slave rebellions.  Most slave owners lived in constant fear of slave uprisings and imposed all sorts of onerous restrictions on their own activities out of fear of their slaves.  Slave owners also frequently undertook preemptive violence against their slaves, thereby coarsening their own lives as a means of protecting themselves, and for the same reason often made their plantations less efficient and profitable than they otherwise would have been.

Hegel’s master-slave analysis has been applied to other unequal relationships and winner/loser outcomes that result from individualistic struggles for supremacy and survival.  Winner/loser outcomes and have/have-not relationships almost inevitably generate self-fulfilling vicious cycles of fear and violence as the winners and the haves try to protect their dominant positions.  We can see this vicious cycle over the last one hundred years in the United States in the exaggerated fears of the upper classes of uprisings by workers, blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and other have-not groups.  These fears have led to preemptive repression and violence by ruling class winners against downtrodden losers, with the result that the rulers have often brought about the violence that they feared and also generated cycles of seemingly endless conflict with many of those they rule.

I think, therefore I cry: The Cogito and Social Theory

Calvin:”There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”

Individualism and its consequences have preoccupied Western thinkers since the sixteenth century, albeit with a tremendous amount of ambivalence and guilt built into the theory and practice of it.  Both in theory and in practice people have been whipsawed back and forth, for example, between commitment to absolute individual freedom and the necessity of law and order discipline, between belief in individual responsibility and belief in charity toward the have-nots, and between the integrity of the isolated individual and the warmth of a shared community.  Whichever way people have turned, they seem to experience loss and guilt.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and especially Calvinism, significantly changed the way in which believers related to each other and to their God.  The Catholic Church, which had dominated religious life during the European Middle Ages, portrayed the church as a community of believers and a society for mutual aid toward salvation.  In this view, the Church acted as an intermediary between people and God to help them get right with the Lord.

In contrast, Protestants promoted individual self-help toward salvation.  Protestants proclaimed the responsibility of each individual to get straight with God on his/her own.  Each person was free to do as he/she pleased but would be condemned to eternal torment in Hell if he/she did not strictly follow the dictates of God in the Bible.  Protestant ministers, except for a few preachers who occasionally claimed to be inspired by God or in some kind of direct contact with Him, did not provide the help that Catholic priests offered to mediate between people and God.

Protestantism has, however, been full of conflicts, contradictions and agonizing ambivalence that is a consequence of its individualistic premises.  Can, for example, someone who has had a salvation experience do whatever he/she wants without any of his/her acts being deemed sins, as Anne Hutchinson and other seventeenth century antinomian Protestants claimed?  Is absolute individual freedom the meaning of Jesus’ death for our sins and Paul’s repudiation of the Law?  Or must everyone still obey the letter of Biblical Law, and even then possibly be damned to Hell?  Are some of us innocent at least sometimes or are all of us always guilty?  Is it fair that newborn babies are considered sinners and are damned if they die without baptism?  The history of Protestantism has from its inception been replete with conflicts between individualism and authoritarianism, and recurring cycles of antinomian radicalism and orthodox conservatism.

Like Protestantism, most political philosophy over the last four hundred years has started with the isolated individual and then tried to explain and justify society, social control and government.  Most thinkers have come to some sort of unstable compromise between freedom and authority in which government is seen as a necessary evil.  This conclusion has been reached and preached by conservative theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, liberal theorists such as John Locke, who heavily influenced the American Founding Fathers, and more recent radical thinkers such as John Rawls.  It is a conclusion that inevitably breeds distrust of government as a repressive institution that threatens to swallow up individuals and their freedoms.

Political theorizing during this time has typically started with a “state of nature” (Hobbes and Locke) or an “original position” (Rawls) in which isolated individuals face each other and face a choice of how to establish social relations with each other.  This choice is typically accomplished through some sort of social contract in which individuals agree to relinquish some of their rights (Locke and Rawls) or all of their freedom (Hobbes) to the government in return for protection and social services.  This is a deal that tends to be portrayed as a devil’s bargain that makes government a constant threat to people.

Even most socialistic theories, such as those of the influential nineteenth century radicals Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, have been premised with individualism.  This is a starting point that puts cooperative and communitarian programs at a disadvantage, and led Owen and Fourier to make compromises with authoritarianism that contradicted many of their socialistic goals.

Mainstream economic theories in the modern era, such as those of David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and Milton Friedman, have similarly started with the individual producer and consumer who is then required to submit him/herself to domination by so-called market-place principles and to let the “invisible hand” of competition determine his/her life choices.  These theories insist that individuals be free to make their own decisions but also insist that people make those decisions according to the demands of the marketplace, thereby mixing freedom with submission.  The theories also generally insist as a matter of personal responsibility and economic rationality that the haves deserve to enjoy their wealth and the have-nots deserve to suffer their poverty.  Charity is often lauded in individual cases but discouraged as a general practice because it breeds sloth and it wastes resources that might otherwise be productively and profitably invested.  In these theories, government involvement in the economy is seen as at best an occasional necessary evil  and government is invariably blamed for anything that goes wrong.

Finally, ethical theories over the last four hundred years as diverse as those of Descartes, Kant, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, and Sartre have all started with isolated individuals and ended by either applauding or denouncing the imposition of moral and social codes on people.  The conclusions of Calvin and Hobbes that individualism requires repression has been reflected in most social and political theory and practice since his time, and the idea that people might willingly behave according to the Golden Rule or some other cooperative ethic has generally been rejected and even ridiculed.

I think, therefore I choose: Individualism in History

Calvin:”It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”

Conventional thought tends to portray individualism and individual freedom as the central issue in history, as though arguments and struggles for and against individualism were the most important thing for everyone.  This was not, however, the case in most societies and prior times in which Descartes’ Cogito and the idea of individualism would not have made sense to people.

In ancient Greece, for example, Aristotle  reflected the general sentiment when he claimed that man is a social animal who gains an identity from those around him not from himself.  The concept of “We” came before the idea of “I.”  For Aristotle and most other Greek thinkers, an isolated individual was literally an idiot.  Reality derives from society not from the individual.  While the Greeks recognized and focused on the problematic relationship of the one to the many, and the difficulty of integrating and interrelating individuals and society, the idea of “one for all and all for one” was for most Greeks not an ideal that was largely honored in the breach but a statement of  fact that explained how they saw themselves and justified their actions, even when they were not ideal.

Politics and participation in government were considered by Aristotle and most other Greeks to be the highest forms of activity.  Freedom was exercised through government, not against it, and government was the expression of freedom, not its enemy.  Exile and exclusion from society were widely considered fates worse than death, as exemplified by Socrates’ choice of death rather than escape from Athens when he was convicted of blasphemy.  Human sociability, the willingness and need of people to be with other people and to get along with them, rather than authoritarian imposition of law and order, was considered by most Greek thinkers to be the best source of ethics and ethical enforcement.

A similar communal emphasis permeated mainstream thought in the European Middle Ages, during which intellectual and ethical debate was dominated by the Catholic Church.  Reiterating the idea that man is a social animal, Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s preeminent philosopher, claimed that natural law was innate in humans and coexisted with divine law.  Even an atheist, he argued, was capable of ethical behavior in fulfillment of his/her best self and most enlightened self-interest.  Monastic communalism was the highest ideal of medieval society and the model for Thomas More’s critique in his Utopia of the emerging individualism in Western society during the 1500’s.  Exemplifying this communalism, artistic and architectural creations in medieval Europe were done anonymously and were considered collective creations of the community not the product of individuals. “We” came before “I.”

The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation changed this.  We know today who did most of the creative work during that time because Renaissance artists aggressively sought individual fame.  Reflecting the consequences of the emerging individualism in society, most Western societies starting in the 1500s developed both dictatorial churches and dictatorial governments, ruled by absolute monarchs, so-called divine right kings, in conjunction with government-controlled churches, pray my way or die institutions.

This too began to pass starting in the late eighteenth century.  Since then, most Western societies have gradually become less authoritarian in government, albeit with totalitarian spasms such as the fascist and Nazi regimes of the twentieth century, and most have also moved toward religious tolerance and even indifference.  In turn, most countries have replaced extreme forms of individualism with modest forms of social democracy and have been able to adopt cooperative ethical codes without resorting to religious coercion or political oppression.  The reasons for this change are complex but they include the collectivism that is inherent in the industrialization and urbanization that have characterized this period, and the labor unions and socialistic movements that emerged.

These changes have, nonetheless, been largely understood and undertaken as modifications of the individualistic logic that stems from Descartes’ Cogito rather than a rejection of individualism.  The continued prevalence of an individualist ethos has inhibited the more humane theory and practice that would be a consequence of recognizing that “We” precedes “I” and enacting the Golden Rule.  Individualism has been particularly persistent in the United States where the fear of the authoritarian consequences of their own laissez-faire individualism has led so-called libertarians such Ron and Rand Paul and other far-right wingers to resent and reject almost all government programs.  Projecting onto government the fears generated by the imagined consequences of their own individualistic premises, they warn that any and every government program is the beginning of authoritarianism and the end of freedom.  They are hoisted on their own petards and aim to hoist the rest of us in the same way.

I think, therefore what would the Founding Fathers do?

Calvin: Today at school I tried to decide whether to cheat on my test or not…I wondered whether it is better to do the right thing and fail…or is it better to do the wrong thing and succeed.

Hobbes: So what did you decide?

Calvin: Nothing.  I ran out of time and I had to turn in a blank paper.

Hobbes: Anyway, simply acknowledging the issue is a moral victory.

Calvin: Well, it just seemed wrong to cheat on an ethics test.


But it does not have to be this way and the American Founding Fathers knew it.  Most of the Founders were not adherents of individualism and they rejected both a dictatorial God and a dictatorial government as the guarantor of an ethical society.  Theirs was a social theory that was based on communalism and that incorporated an ethic based on the Golden Rule.  They believed that there can be worlds other than the world according to Calvin and Hobbes, and their belief still has validity.  I will discuss this contention in the third part of this essay: Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito:”I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part III:  A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.