The Age of Invisible Virtue
This essay was first published in Capitalism Magazine on February 6, 2003, a month before the United States invaded Iraq, and is posted here in remembrance of September 12, 2001.
Historians have always been fascinated by the falls of great civilizations such as ancient Greece and Rome. But no fall contains more important lessons for mankind than the fall of the United States of America, which ended the Age of Invisible Virtue and plunged the entire Earth into the Second Dark Ages.
The philosophical forces that eventually destroyed America had been unleashed even before the nation’s birth. In his 1748 work of philosophical skepticism, An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, David Hume writes: “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood.”[i] Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, in which he writes, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith,”[ii] was published in 1781, five years after the United States’ founding.
These two philosophers, the most widely accepted philosophers in Western academia, led a two-century-long attack on the Western idea that man is capable of knowing reality by the use of reason. By the beginning of the 21st century, confidence in reason had so withered that Americans could not see that rationality was the essential virtue distinguishing America from its enemies. These enemies were mystics of all kinds, from “post-modern” professors to Islamic and Christian fundamentalists to “follow-your-heart-not-your-head” liberals to “we-are-all-one” collectivists to animistic environmentalists, who followed not reason but rather blind, unthinking, faith in some fantasized spirit that allegedly knew more, and mattered more, than they did.
As the end of America approached, the mystics’ ideas were being espoused by virtually all of America’s political leaders. “I pray for guidance. I do not pray for earthly things but for heavenly things, for wisdom and patience and understanding,”[iii] said George W. Bush, the penultimate American President (succeeded only by the notorious Hillary Clinton, who surrendered American sovereignty by merging America into the short-lived “United Nations” chaired by her husband “Bill”).
Al Gore, liberal-environmentalist Vice President (under “Bill” Clinton) who narrowly lost to Bush in the 2000 Presidential election, wrote this argument for environmentalism on the final page of his best-selling book entitled, with presumably unintended irony, Earth in the Balance: “[M]y own faith is rooted in the unshakeable belief in God as creator and sustainer, a deeply personal interpretation of and relationship with Christ, and an awareness of a constant and holy spiritual presence in all people, all life, and all things.”[iv]
There were of course strong pro-reason forces in America. The Founding Fathers’ idea of individual rights, from the philosophy of John Locke, was based explicitly on the premise that individuals are capable of running their own lives by their own use of reason. “Fix reason firmly in her seat,” writes Thomas Jefferson, “and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”[v]
In this conflict between reason and faith, Americans could have chosen reason. In the end, not enough Americans did. Why not? Ultimately, the answer cannot be reduced any further than to the fact that men have free will. They simply chose.
But historians can ask: When had the choice to renounce reason been taken so far that it was too late to reverse that choice? When had it become too late to save America? Was there some event that was America’s death knell?
Most historians cite September 12, 2001, when America, after having seen 3,000 of its inhabitants murdered the preceding day in terrorist attacks that demolished New York City’s two tallest skyscrapers, failed to declare war against the foreign governments — such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia — known to have supported many similar acts of evil. Instead of using its overwhelming military superiority, including its vast nuclear arsenal, to destroy the known enemies of freedom, the United States set about to restrict further the freedom of its own people in the name of “security.”
Thomas Jefferson, in America’s Declaration of Independence, writes of “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” In other words, the kind of “security” of concern to America’s government at its founding was the security of rights, the security of political freedom. But by America’s end, the reasoning power of most Americans had so diminished that most held the ideas of “freedom” and “security” from the range-of-the-moment, non-conceptual perspective of juvenile delinquents.
“Security” no longer meant security of an abstract principle such as individual rights, but rather the apparent security in the concretes of one’s immediate surroundings. “Social Security” did not mean the government’s guarantee that one would be free to pursue a career and invest one’s earnings according to one’s own long-range, rational judgment, but rather the government’s guarantee that food would be put on one’s table, as food is put in a dog’s bowl. “Homeland Security” did not mean the government’s guarantee to destroy known killers at home and abroad, but rather the guarantee that guards would be placed three feet before and behind one.
Just as “Social Security” turned out to be no security, so it was with “Homeland Security,” a “goal-line stand” strategy: Americans stood at their own goal line, letting their enemies launch attack after attack, and hoped to repel every single one of them. Americans’ success rate, owing to the heroism of American law enforcement agencies and to the irrationality and resulting incompetence of America’s enemies, was better than 99%. Of course, the other fraction of a per cent was enough to destroy America physically, as America had been destroyed intellectually.
To the end, many Americans continued to proclaim freedom as the political ideal. But they did not really understand the nature of freedom. Freedom is a selfish idea. Freedom is a virtue because selfishness is a virtue. Freedom is the right of an individual to his own life, his own liberty, in the pursuit of his own happiness. And only by following his own, rational judgment can an individual achieve the happiness — happiness here on Earth, not in some “after-life” — that he pursues. But Kant and his followers had discredited not only rationality, but also the other underpinning of freedom: self-interest.
According to Kant, only actions done from duty, rather than from any self-interest or “inclination,” have moral worth. Even helping others is not of moral worth if the helper gets any personal satisfaction from helping. Kant writes,
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth … For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.[vi]
Kant’s advice for America’s foreign policy can readily be inferred from this ensuing statement of his:
It is in this manner, undoubtedly, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture also in which we are commanded to love our neighbor, even our enemy. For love, as an affection, cannot be commanded, but beneficence for duty’s sake may; even though we are not impelled to it by any inclination — nay, are even repelled by a natural and unconquerable aversion.[vii]
The virtue of America would seem to us today to have been in plain view. One could see the unprecedented abundance, health, and happiness created by individuals free to practice the virtue of rationality in pursuit of their self-interest. But, to a society that still considered blind faith and selfless duty as moral ideals, and that still viewed rationality and self-interest as of no moral worth or even as downright evil, the virtue of America was invisible.
If Americans did not see the virtue of America, what virtue did they think they did see? They thought they saw virtue in the ideas of Kant, embodied best in America’s enemies. A graduating senior, in his speech at a Harvard University commencement, said: “Jihad [i.e., “holy war”], in its truest and purest form, the form to which all Muslims aspire, is the determination to do right, to do justice even against your own interests.”[viii]
This statement was quoted in an essay by historian Daniel Pipes, a vehement and popular defender of America, and a scathing critic of America’s academic apologists for the Islamic dictatorships. In the same essay, Pipes writes:
Charles Kimball, chairman of the department of religion at Wake Forest, puts it succinctly: jihad “means struggling or striving on behalf of God. The great jihad for most is a struggle against oneself. …” …
Roxanne Euben of Wellesley College, the author of The Road to Kandahar: A Genealogy of Jihad in Modern Islamist Political Thought, asserts that “For many Muslims, jihad means to resist temptation and become a better person.” John Parcels, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Georgia Southern University, defines jihad as a struggle “over the appetites and your own will.”[ix]
Does Pipes cite these statements as revealing the evil of the idea of jihad, which is consistent with Kant’s ethics of duty? Quite the contrary. He cites these statements as attempts to “whitewash” or “sanitize” the idea of jihad (by evading the militarist aspect of the idea), as if “a struggle ‘over the appetites and your own will’” were a sanitary thing. Pipes writes:
It is an intellectual scandal that, since September 11, 2001, scholars at American universities have repeatedly and all but unanimously issued public statements that avoid or whitewash the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic law and Muslim history. …
Among today’s academic specialists who have undertaken to sanitize this key Islamic concept, many are no doubt acting out of the impulses of political correctness and the multiculturalist urge to protect a non-Western civilization from criticism by making it appear just like our own.[x]
To Pipes, as well as to the academics he criticizes, a society whose people struggle on behalf of God and against themselves is just like good old America. Thus even America’s defenders, such as Pipes, were Kantians whether they knew it or not.
It had taken 200 years to complete the job, but Kant had succeeded. He had denied knowledge and made room for faith. He had made academia, the bastion of secularism, as religious as the clergy. The rest of America followed.
“Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives,” wrote George W. Bush the year before the September 11 attack. “That requires churches and synagogues and mosques and charities.”[xi] America’s President could understand the purpose and hope of a submissive Iranian Muslim praying — “I do not pray for earthly things but for heavenly things” — in a mosque, but not the purpose and hope of a thinking American businessman working — for personal wealth and happiness — in a skyscraper.
Though Americans could speak of faith and duty, they could never practice it consistently. In practice, Americans could never out-Kant the Middle-East Muslims. Consequently, according to Kant’s code, rational self-interested Americans were morally inferior to America’s enemies. Thus Americans accepted an unearned guilt.
In light of the influence of Hume and Kant, the seemingly inexplicable inaction by America is made explicable. America failed to retaliate against its enemies because Americans did not have the full rationality and moral conviction to know that America — the nation of rational, selfish freedom — was good, and that the nations against rational, selfish freedom were evil.
President George W. Bush sometimes spoke of waging war against some of America’s enemies, but his arguments were based on the ideas of Christian faith and sacrifice, and were therefore unconvincing; it is not convincing to condemn self-sacrificing, Muslim suicide bombers as evil while upholding Christian faith and sacrifice as good. Moreover, while Bush condemned some dictatorships, such as Iraq, he befriended and supported others, such as Saudi Arabia and Communist China. As every sunrise was a new and different case to Hume, so every dictatorship was a new and different case to Bush and his “advisors.” This unprincipled, range-of-the-moment “thinking” undercut the logical and moral credibility of America’s position. On a practical level, the policy of fighting one dictator by propping up others sowed the seeds of future crises in the very attempt to address the current one.
There was another aspect to the lack of principled thinking: President Bush was unable to formulate and present a rationally convincing long-term solution. For example, Americans asked, “Suppose we destroy the Iraqi regime. What then?” The government had no convincing answer. Consequently, Americans resisted any action, because any action seemed futile in the long run.
In the absence of a rational plan, there was faith. But Scripture does not prescribe a concrete course of action for America to take toward the Middle East. Therefore, America turned to another kind of faith, also expounded by Kant: faith in the group, in the consensus. Thus appeared the sordid spectacle of America, the most moral nation in the history of the world up until that time, seeking permission — and even guidance — from the “United Nations,” a collective that included the most evil nations in the world.
Even when America did take some military action, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the action was tentative and self-sacrificial. American soldiers were put at great and needless risk in order to limit “collateral damage” to inhabitants of the enemy countries. Instead of resolving to seize the enemies’ ill-gotten oil assets and use them to pay for America’s war expenses, America pledged to give these assets to the uncivilized “people” of these countries, as if having been born in a country justified owning what foreigners (Western oil companies) had produced there. And every regime that was deposed was replaced by another one that proved to be almost as despotic and inimical to America.
But worse than tentative action was no action. The usual pattern was: President Bush would threaten, but — lacking rationality and the proper morality — he would allow himself to be dissuaded by his advisors, by the news media, by “public opinion,” and by his own way of thinking, all of which had been poisoned by 200 years of Hume and Kant in academia.
In the popular 20th-century college textbook, A History of Western Philosophy, W.T. Jones writes:
[A]lmost all twentieth-century philosophers have been motivated by a desire to escape from the constructivism and relativism that was the nineteenth century’s inheritance from Kant. Twentieth-century philosophers have wanted, above all, to reaffirm the possibility of knowledge.[xii]
Only one philosopher succeeded. Tragically, America did not survive long enough for her ideas to take hold there.
Just as the skepticism of the Sophists and the mysticism and self-renunciation of Plato had caused the fall of ancient Greece, so the skepticism of Hume and the mysticism and duty-ethic of Kant caused the fall of America. And just as the pro-reason philosophy of Aristotle, whose rediscovery caused the First Renaissance, had arrived too near the end of ancient Greece to save that great culture, so the pro-reason, pro-self-interest philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose rediscovery caused the Second Renaissance two thousand years after the fall of America, had come too late to save America. But history did not have to have turned out that way. Americans could have chosen differently.
America’s problem with Islamic fundamentalists began when Americans, failing to defend their rational self-interest, put the fruits of rationality in the hands of the irrational by letting Islamic savages nationalize Western oil properties in the Middle East. For centuries, Middle East Muslims had been killing each other, but were not a threat to anyone outside their region until the West enriched, emboldened, and empowered them by letting them rob this wealth and spend it on wider-range killing. America could have ended the problem any time before its fall if it simply had the moral self-confidence to use its military might, including its nuclear arsenal, to crush the evil governments, seize the oil properties that the savages were using to finance their military and terrorist operations, and make the territories of the Islamic Middle East into American colonies, thereby enabling American adventurers to exploit and civilize this new frontier just as American adventurers had exploited and civilized the American West in the 1800s.
A much bigger problem than the Islamic fundamentalists were Communist China and offshoots of the Soviet Union. Decades of appeasement and support by America had made it possible for these regimes to acquire formidable weapons, and America’s weakness toward the Muslims taught the communists how to wreak terrorist — as well as nuclear — havoc against America. But the communists, though evil, were not as evil and blood-thirsty as the Islamic fundamentalists. Therefore, even as late as perhaps 2005, America had a good chance to avoid most if not all of the horror simply by having the rationality and moral resolve to condemn and isolate the communist regimes until they collapsed.
This historian does not believe that September 12 was the death knell for America. There still was time, if enough Americans had chosen reason and self-interest, if enough voices — or the right voices — had issued reasoned cries proclaiming America’s moral superiority and its right to conquer or destroy the evil, enemy nations. On September 12, 2001, the condition of America — and with America all of Civilization — was terribly grave, but America had not yet died.
Ronald Pisaturo is the author of three books: The Merchant of Mars; Masculine Power, Feminine Beauty: The Volitional, Objective Basis for Heterosexuality in Romantic Love and Marriage; and The Longevity Argument: The Doomsday Argument is wrong, and logical induction has a philosophical basis. Ron has written on epistemology, esthetics, romantic love, politics, and the philosophy of mathematics. Part of Ron’s work on solving the centuries-old ‘problem of induction’ was published in Philosophy of Science, a leading peer-reviewed journal of philosophy. Articles by Ron have appeared in The Federalist, The Intellectual Activist, Barron’s, Capitalism Magazine, many newspapers, and his own blog.
[i] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, Sect. IV, Part I, subsection 21. Available on the Web site of The University of Oregon at http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/hume/hume4.html .
[ii] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martins Press, 1965), B (2nd edition) xxx.
[iii] Quoted in Richard N. Ostling, “Bush: Faith more than a Sunday formality” (The Associated Press, on the Web site of Cape Cod Times, July 9, 2000 available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/e98/e2248.htm http://www.capecodonline.com/cctimes/archives/2000/jul/9/bushsfaith9.htm).
[iv] Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Plume, 1993), p. 368.
[v] Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787.
[vi] Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles Of The Metaphysic Of Morals (1785), Translated By Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, First Section: Transition from the Common Rational Knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical (Bartleby.com, 2002, http://www.bartleby.com/32/602.html), paragraph 11.
[vii] Ibid., paragraph 13.
[viii] Zayed Yasin quoted in .Daniel Pipes, “Jihad and the Professors” (Commentary Magazine, November, 2002).
[ix] Pipes, “Jihad and the Professors.”
[xi] George W. Bush, in the Foreword to Marvin Olasky, Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America (New York: Free Press, 2000), p. xii.
[xii] W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, Second Edition, Revised (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975), pp. xix-xx.