Wednesday, June 21, 2006

'Rationalizing Conscience' & the Stoic links of self and society


“we labour, and toyle, and plod to fill the memorie, and leave both understanding and conscience empty.” --Montaigne

The rhetoric and logic of stoicism, as appropriated by early moderns, became encapsulated in a new cultural reflexive dynamic. As a result, neostoicism departed from its antiquarian origin as a philosophy and became a principle rationalizing apparatus for strengthening the relationship between individual and public conscience. This deviation—from a stoicism of self as departure to a neostoicism linking self and society—was instrumental in informing cultural expectations for personal, social, and economic development.

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With the emergence of the disembedded self in English society, the problem of egoism became pressing. As Adriana McCrea argues, “the self-seeking arts come to predominate over that once reigning reciprocity.” On the one hand, the works of stoics were accused of a vulgar individualism associated with a pagan circumscription of ‘necessity,’ on the other hand, stoicism widely influenced an ethos of self-mastery that came to connote a sociable individualism characterized by impersonal market interactions. A radical example of this line of thinking is found in Hobbes’ notion that self-interest motivates individuals to form ‘covenants.’ For Hobbes, social covenants, (which form the basic terms for thinking about a ‘civilized’ social body) ultimately promote and instruct one in self-preservation.

Most English thinkers departed from Hobbes and were optimistic in their celebration of the liberal subject who by his/her use of self-interest would naturally promote the public good. Bernard Mandeville is one figure whose work upholds this view. Mandeville’s forthrightness in proclaiming this fact was radical for his time, but nonetheless he articulated a sentiment that was fast becoming a public vision for social organization. Ultimately, Mandeville’s argument for private vice as public virtue in Fable of the Bees forms the basis for the decriminalization of self-interest found in utilitarian theories of economic activity.

Mandeville’s thought was largely influenced by Pierre Nicole (1625-1695), a Jansenist who effectively brought morality in conjunction with a practical knowledge of human nature. Nicole’s Essais de morale argues that self-love (the principle governing human nature) is the principle that allows for moral activity. As he writes:

It cannot possibly be imagined how there can be formed societies, commonwealths, and kingdoms out of this multitude of people full of passions, so contrary to union, and who only endeavor the ruin of one another. But self-love which is the cause of war, will easily tell the way how to make them live in peace. It loves domination, it loves to enslave all the world to it, but it loves yet more life and conveniences and an easy life more than domination.

Although self-love has the propensity for domination it also privileges and desires constancy and ‘conveniences.’ Furthermore, Nicole’s notion that self-love brings about knowledge of constancy—that self-love ‘tells’ people how to ‘live in peace’—suggests that this ‘passion’ brings one into a mediation on self-knowledge, whereby reason directs self-love towards an ethos that upholds public constancy. In this way, self-interest is understood as naturally coming from a concern with public order.

While in Jansenist thought, religion was effectively “made practical,” this transformation in England was dependent on religion’s circumvention from governing individual actions. Initially, religious rhetoric was used to codify civil actions (e.g. vice as self-interest), but for the most part, a Deistic and Newtonian outlook postured the civil world as incompatible with and distant from religion. In this way, civic and public culture came to see evocations of providential cause as deleterious to the common good. Providence was only permitted as an inscrutable phenomena that was achieved as a collective result of individual rational action. This sense of providence effectively rationalizes individual reason-utilizing-self-interest as an ethos that will allow for God’s providence (as networked outcomes of “reasonable” activity). This idea is made possible by the identification of ‘reason’ with God’s will.

The Cambridge Platonists (1633-1688) were among those who helped to normalize the idea that reason and God’s will were intertwined. For the Cambridge Platonists religion and reason were always in harmony and reality consisted of intelligible forms existing behind perception. For these thinkers, reason was the ‘candle of the Lord.’ In this way, divine will was inscrutable, but could be followed by acting in conjunction with one’s reason. As a result, as reason-over-the-passions developed into a governing dictate of self-interest, the result of individuals pursuing their reasonable ends was God’s providential care over markets. Adam Smith’s notion of ‘spontaneous order,’ whereby markets have an orderly function without direct oversight by human agency dates back to a belief in God’s providence. The idea that reason bequeathed providence provided a religious groundwork for many contemporary notions of utilitarianism and certainly for Mandeville’s notion of vice as public benefit.

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