Back in 2014, I wrote and self-published a short book called “Honest Common Sense.” In it, I sought to explicate “a brief, radical Philosophy, starting from first principles and aimed at non-academic people.” I diagnosed what I saw as the root of the problems we good people face today: “that we are in a war of the political means versus the economic, the dishonest versus the honest, the state versus Civilization.” And I made some suggestions as to how we might set ourselves to win that war.
But as a friendly thinker, who calls himself Jason Alexander, has told us: “Ideas that are alive, grow and change.” And my ideas are certainly no exception to that rule. Ten months ago, I determined to re-visit my philosophical thinking, and to put it in context with the ideas of others from whom I have drawn material; including Jason Alexander himself. The task has been long and hard. So much so, that this essay introduces a set of no less than six. And all six are long; representing, as they do, the product of ten whole months of hard mental labour.
But I have found the work worthwhile; for in the process, I have found several new insights. New to me, at least. And I’ve gained a clearer grasp of some areas I had thought I already understood. The major new and clarified ideas are all in the areas of ethics and politics; and particularly around the dividing line between them. Happily, these are good areas for thinking people to be looking into in the current, parlous state of human civilization. I hope that these ideas may, perhaps, help to suggest some fresh possibilities for how we humans might go about re-claiming our rights and freedoms, and bringing to the enemies of humanity the justice they deserve.
One observation before I begin. We are living in a strange time, in which virtually the entire intellectual class in Western countries has become corrupted. The reason is not far to seek. Academics and other intellectuals are, with only a few exceptions (and most of those are in their 70s or older), all bought and paid for by the state. So, we cannot expect today’s professional thinkers to do anything to help human civilization or human freedom; for they cannot, or will not, go against their paymasters. That means that amateurs like me have to step up to the plate.
In this, the first essay of the set, I’ll review some of the ideas of six thinkers who have influenced me. In chronological order of their births: Aristotle, John Locke, Franz Oppenheimer, Ayn Rand, Jason Alexander and Frank van Dun. In the second part, I’ll seek to put our situation today into historical context, and to draw out some rhythms of human history. I shall be making particular use of the ideas of Jason Alexander in that exercise.
In the third part, I’ll give a broad outline of my updated philosophical framework, which I’m provisionally labelling “Honest Common Sense 2.0.” I’ll also compare and contrast my approach with the philosophy of our enemies; the political classes and their hangers-on, that collectively I label the “Downers.”
In the fourth and fifth parts, I’ll describe my system in more detail. And I’ll sketch out a possible future system of minimal government. I call it “just governance,” and I describe its remit as: “to enable people to live together in an environment of peace and tranquillity, common-sense justice, and maximum rights and freedom for every individual.” Finally, in the sixth part, I’ll offer some thoughts on how we might seek to move from where we are today towards a better world.
So, to the ideas of my six thinkers.
It’s hard to write much about philosophy without mentioning Aristotle. Though I almost achieved that with “Honest Common Sense,” citing only his description of Man as “a political animal.” Today, I’ll repair my oversight.
Aristotle lived in the 4th century BC, the high tide of classical Athens. He was born in 384 BC, and he died in the year, 322 BC, that Athenian democracy was suppressed by the Macedonians. He wrote on many subjects; and a considerable body of his work survived, even though much more did not. As well as works on nature, including tracts presaging physics and biology, he wrote substantial works on philosophical topics: metaphysics, logic, ethics and politics. He also wrote on drama and rhetoric. And he, or one of his school, wrote a treatise on economics.
His Metaphysics is regarded as difficult. Though it did, in time, influence many thinkers; not only other Greeks, but the Muslim philosophers of the 10th to 12th centuries, and the later Scholastics too. His works on logic are still studied today; and it’s said that the treatments of logic by mathematicians like George Boole and Gottlob Frege are in harmony with the Aristotelian tradition.
Now, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to read too deeply into what other people think about a topic. I prefer, like Richard Feynman, to read just enough to understand the basics, then to try to re-develop the subject in my own way. So, I approached Aristotle’s Ethics (in the excellent translation by W. D. Ross) in the spirit of “are we thinking along much the same lines?” To which, my answer was Yes.
Ethics is about how individuals ought best to live. And Aristotle was perhaps the first to tackle the subject from a practical point of view. I like his approach of starting from what would be roughly agreed on by ordinary people of good up-bringing and with extensive life experience. It mirrors my own attraction to the idea of honest common sense.
For Aristotle, the highest good is what he called eudaimonia; often translated as well-being, happiness or flourishing. I’d use “fulfilment” myself, but we’re on the same path. I can also agree with his advocacy of self-sufficiency. Not of the hermit’s kind, but as someone who fully contributes to his friends and associates; who, in my terms, gives as good as he gets.
I liked his respect for reasoning things through, for articulate speech, and for being open to persuasion through reason. I agreed with him that humans naturally have the potential to be good. Though I would go further, and say that humans are naturally good; even though, obviously, some among us fail to achieve that natural goodness. I agreed, too, that “virtue also is in our own power, and so too vice.” And that everyone ought to have an innate vision of what is good. “One must be born with an eye, as it were, by which to judge rightly and choose what is truly good, and he is well endowed by nature who is well endowed with this.” Today, we might use the word conscience to describe this eye.
Further, in his Rhetoric he talks of a universal law. He says: “Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.” And, quoting Sophocles: “Not of to-day or yesterday it is, but lives eternal: none can date its birth.”
I didn’t, however, find Aristotle’s discussion of justice in the Ethics so enlightening. The distinction between lawful/unlawful on one hand, and fair/unfair (or just/unjust, or equal/unequal) on the other, is good. But trying to follow it through is a mind-bending exercise. Even today, it would be hard to find two people who agree on the precise meanings of the words equality, fairness and justice.
Much as I liked many of Aristotle’s ethical ideas, I tended to dislike his political ideas. Right at the start of the Politics (in Benjamin Jowett’s translation), he says: “If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.” Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, considered the city-state to be more important than the individuals and families who comprised it.
As to the (in-)famous “political animal,” here’s the quote: “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” I can’t agree; though I won’t criticize Aristotle for using the top-down word political. For in his time there would not yet have been a word like “civilized” – or the one I prefer, “convivial” – to convey the meaning of good people simply living together for mutual benefit.
A little later, he says: “A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature.” Correct. And: “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals.” Double plus good! But then: “If he has not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony.” Maybe he dimly anticipated what would happen when the most unholy, savage, inhuman animals – like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot – and their soulmates take over a state, and run it for their own ends. But he still thought of the state as the highest of all.
To be fair to Aristotle, in his Politics he does survey many different political structures of his time, and points out some of the things that were wrong with them. He lists what he sees as three true forms of government – kingly rule, aristocracy and constitutional government – and three perversions: tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. And he says: “Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.” He surely was right on that last point!
Near the end, he paints a picture of his ideal state. As to how many people it should contain, he says: “If the citizens of a state are to judge and to distribute offices according to merit, then they must know each other’s characters.” And: “Clearly then the best limit of the population of a state is the largest number which suffices for the purposes of life, and can be taken in at a single view.” Aristotle’s ideal community is big enough to be economically self-sufficient, yet small enough that people can know each other fairly well. I concur with that.
John Locke’s contribution
John Locke (1632-1704) is one of my heroes. For far more reasons than just our similar surnames. I have many times been asked whether I am descended from him. To which I have to reply, no; for it is fairly well established that he had no children.
Locke was born in Somerset, and educated at Westminster School and Christ Church college, Oxford. He became a fellow of the college (then known as a “student”) in 1658; where he taught Greek, rhetoric and moral philosophy. He had many other interests, too: notably medicine, experimental science, and the ideas of progressive philosophers like Descartes.
After Oxford, he took on a second career as personal physician to an eminent politician of the day, Lord Shaftesbury. He also found time to pursue a third career as a government bureaucrat; being secretary of several commissions, and in his last years Commissioner of Excise Appeals. In 1683, he had to flee for six years to Holland, due to his connections with Shaftesbury, and having been involved with some of the perpetrators of the Rye House Plot.
His philosophical interests were wide. He wrote a number of works on religion, in which he promoted tolerance. He ventured into epistemology, with his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” While his ideas were not accepted by all, they proved useful to several later thinkers, including David Hume. He wrote on money and economics, and wrote manuals on educating children and on rational thought. He also, as you might expect, wrote on ethics; but those writings were not collected and published in his time. Scholars say that he combined a natural-law view based on the supremacy of God, with an, apparently contradictory, view that what causes pleasure is good, and what causes pain is bad.
But it is on his political philosophy that his fame rests. In particular, on his Two Treatises of Government, written in the early 1680s and first published at the end of 1689. In the First Treatise, he utterly demolishes the idea that kings have a “divine right” to rule. (It’s well worth a read, for the way he does it). In the Second, he lays the foundations for Enlightenment political philosophy, and for a more individual-friendly idea of government. This one is even more worth the read. These works have led to Locke being called the father of liberalism.
Locke saw the natural condition for human beings as: “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” Moreover: “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one. And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” And, he says, natural law is “plain and intelligible to all rational creatures.”
Locke saw the necessity of some kind of government. “The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of Nature there are many things wanting.” But he also knew that, in reality, governments often don’t deliver what they ought to. Many of the “municipal laws of countries,” he said, were no more than “the fancies and intricate contrivances of men, following contrary and hidden interests put into words.” Such laws are “only so far right as they are founded on the law of Nature.” And: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”
Moreover, there must be limits on government power. “Their power in the utmost bounds of it is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.” And the public good is: “the good of every particular member of that society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for.”
He also said that humans, bound together by the natural law common to them all, “are one community, make up one society distinct from all other creatures.” And “were it not for the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men, there would be… no necessity that men should separate from this great and natural community, and associate into lesser combinations.”
Franz Oppenheimer’s contribution
Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), a German Jewish thinker, is mainly remembered for his analysis of the political state in his best-known book, The State (1908). But his varied career has parallels with that of John Locke. His first field of study was medicine, and he practised as a doctor for almost a decade. After this, he became a magazine editor. At 45 years old, his doctoral thesis was on the subject of economics; and for the rest of his working life, he was an academic. He managed to get out of nazi Germany in 1938, and made his way via Shanghai to Los Angeles, where he died in 1943.
Oppenheimer considered himself a liberal socialist. He was no lover of “capitalism.” He regarded it as exploitation, often equating it with slavery. But he was also no lover of the state, which he defined as: “an organisation of one class dominating over the other classes.”
For me, by far his greatest insight is his famous distinction between the economic means and the political means. “There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one's own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others… I propose in the following discussion to call one's own labor and the equivalent exchange of one's own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’” Further: “All world history, from primitive times up to our own civilization, presents a single phase, a contest namely between the economic and the political means.” And: “The state is an organization of the political means.”
Oppenheimer ended his book on an optimistic note. He foresaw a new political system, which he called a “freemen’s citizenship,” taking over the world. This system, he predicted, “will have changed its vital element by the disappearance of the economic exploitation of one class by another.” Such optimism was understandable in 1908, after half a century or more of peace and progress in most of Europe. But just a few years later, I expect, he would have been far less optimistic.
Moreover, he did not foresee that the state’s abuses would spread far beyond the economic sphere. He did not foresee the rise of political ideologies and agendas – such as communism, fascism, and later environmentalism – that would provide excuses for states to rule over ordinary people without any concern at all for their rights or freedoms. He did not foresee the state apparatus becoming bigger and bigger, and more and more intrusive. And he did not foresee that, 30 years later, he himself would have to flee Germany to avoid becoming a victim of genocide.
Ayn Rand’s contribution
I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as an Ayn Rand groupie. And I don’t much like the way her intellectual heirs have sought, since her death, to close off the philosophy that she called Objectivism, and to set it in stone. It has far too much smell of church for me. But in my time in the freedom movement, I have known many Randians, and even some fully fledged Objectivists. Since Jason Alexander, whom I mentioned above, has a Randian background, I thought it might be useful, before going on to his ideas, to take a look at a few of Rand’s.
For those who don’t know of her, Ayn Rand (as she was later to call herself) was born into a Russian Jewish family in St. Petersburg in 1905. While in Russia, she studied history and literature, and set herself to work towards a career as a screenwriter. The primary influence on her philosophical thinking was the work of Aristotle.
In 1926 she was allowed to go to the USA, and she decided to stay, taking US citizenship in 1931. With time, she became more and more strongly anti-communist and pro-free-market. She had Broadway success with a courtroom drama, albeit with many difficulties on the way. After this, she concentrated more on writing novels. Her two most successful novels were The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), both of which have acquired cult status among her followers. But she was never accepted by the intellectual establishment. In the 1960s she switched to promoting her philosophical system, which she called Objectivism, through writing non-fiction and giving lectures. She died in 1982.
The central idea of Rand’s system is that five of the branches of ancient Greek philosophy – Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics – form a hierarchy or stack. Or, as I like to put it, they fit together like a layer cake, in which each layer builds on the ones below it. I’m told this idea pre-dated Rand. But she (rightly) seized on it, and used it as a corner-stone of her philosophy. I have diagrammed below the five branches, with the questions addressed by each level, as given on an Objectivist “Importance of Philosophy” website.
Figure 1 – Overview of Ayn Rand’s system (Objectivism)
These look to me like some pretty good questions to be going on with (as long as you read them from the bottom up). Though I’m not sure about the wording of the politics question. Permissible for whom? Permissible by whom? I also wonder whether Aesthetics is the right branch to have up there at the top of the tree, and why Economics isn’t in the stack at all?
To Metaphysics first. Objectivism holds that the universe we live in is real; or, in Rand’s words, “existence exists.” That there is just one reality, the one in which we live. And that humans have free will, even if we don’t yet understand exactly how it works. I can agree with all of these. I can also agree with the idea that to exist is to be something; which Rand put in the famous John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged as “existence is identity.”
As to Epistemology, I agree with the thrust of her ideas; that we turn sense data into percepts or specific thoughts, then generalize them into more abstract concepts, then assemble them using logic into conclusions. Then we pass the conclusions through our bullshit meters; we check them against reality. To that last process, Rand gave the name Objectivity. Myself, I add one more layer. I place Science – the best methodology we have yet discovered for finding new knowledge – at the top of the epistemological tree.
I can’t, however, agree with Rand that the perception process is flawless. Rather, I prefer her advice to “Check your premises,” to avoid errors due to mis-perceiving or mis-remembering.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find how close my own ideas in this area – as I put them in “Honest Common Sense” – are to Rand’s. Particularly since this area was one of her greatest strengths. It may be because I had read about the epistemology of the Stoics, on which Rand grounded her thinking in this area. Or perhaps, years ago, I listened to someone expound Rand’s ideas; and took in an awful lot more than I appreciated at the time. Including, even, some of her terminology. It may also have something to do with the fact that, having been trained long ago as a mathematician, I tend to think in a bottom-up way, building new ideas on top of what I already know; just as Rand’s approach does.
On to Ethics. Here, something Rand wrote in a 1964 essay called “The Objectivist Ethics,” grabbed my attention. “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’” The point she was making was that different kinds of living entity need to behave in different ways in order to preserve, and to make good use of, their lives. Plants, for example, can obtain their food without effort, from the soil in which they grow. Animals, in contrast, need to act with purpose in order to obtain food; for example, by hunting. And humans must do more still; as rational beings, they have to think and to do productive work, in order to satisfy their needs.
But in my opinion, the words she used understated her case. I would have said: What a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. Meaning, the identity of a living being determines how it should behave. Otherwise put: Identity determines morality. What is right and wrong for a lion or a giraffe, say, comes from their natures. A lion by nature hunts and eats animals such as zebras; a giraffe picks leaves, fruits or flowers off tall trees. If they tried to exchange behaviours, the new behaviours would be wrong for both. And so, both would go hungry.
For humans, all this leads us back to Aristotle’s “eye, by which to judge rightly and choose what is truly good.” What is right and wrong for human beings to do, comes from human nature. Thus, it is the same for all human beings. It’s also not far away from John Locke’s “law of Nature,” or from the natural law of people like Thomas Aquinas.
Although I base my ethical views on rights ahead of virtues, I do like Rand’s list of virtues. Rationality: acting according to facts and reason. Independence: forming your own judgements, and living by your own efforts; like Aristotle’s self-sufficiency. Integrity: not sacrificing your convictions to the opinions or wishes of others. Honesty: which Rand defines as never attempting to fake reality. Justice: not seeking for yourself, or allowing to others, what is not deserved or earned. Productiveness: creating value for others. And Pride: a rational respect for yourself. Not the kind of pride that goes before a fall, but the kind that comes after deserved achievement.
Moreover, Rand recognizes that individual rights are key. Though her conception of rights isn’t as broad as mine. She, rightly, rejects the use or threat of initiatory force to violate life, property, or security of person. But she doesn’t extend that to violations of other fundamental rights such as privacy, or rights of non-impedance such as the freedom to distribute your ideas. And Objectivism says that rights are absolute; while for me, your rights are, in part at least, conditional on your respecting the equal rights of others.
I do, however, agree with Rand that property rights are a direct extension of the right to life. As are the rights both to self-defence, and to means of self-defence sufficient to deal with the level of threat that you are likely to meet.
Next, Politics. Like Rand and John Locke, I seek a minimalist form of governance. For I agree with Tom Paine that “government is a necessary evil.” It is, regrettably, necessary to organize ourselves to deliver justice, and to stop the bad guys and gals from harming us. But my idea of governance is some way from the Objectivist take. I don’t self-identify as an “anarchist,” but I have as much contempt for the state – which I see as a system that allows moral privileges to an élite, that enable them to rule over others – as any anarchist does.
In particular, I can’t agree with Rand that some group of people should be allowed a monopoly of force. For me, everyone has the right, at need, to use appropriate force in self-defence, in defence of others or in delivering justice. I also don’t accept that some particular person or clique of people should be privileged to invent new laws by which to bind others. For such laws are apt to become, in John Locke’s words, “the fancies and intricate contrivances of men, following contrary and hidden interests put into words.”
And then there’s capitalism, for which Rand had a very high regard. So much so, that Objectivists see laissez-faire capitalism not just as an economic system, but as the only moral social system. Now, I’m rather leery of this word, because it’s very often misunderstood. Franz Oppenheimer, for one, seems to have misunderstood it; for he saw in capitalism the exploitation that can arise when the dishonest run economic enterprises, but not the positive benefits to all parties which capitalism brings when done with honesty and integrity.
My own approach makes the distinction between true capitalism, an economic system founded on property rights in a free market, and crony capitalism, a system in which corporate recipients of state favour are able to make themselves rich. The first kind of capitalism is good; the second is bad. So, on this matter, I will agree with Rand’s sentiments, but not with her specific choice of word.
To the top of the tree: Aesthetics. Surely, Aesthetics is important; but I think it ought to have some companions in that box. Creativity, for one. For no-one can appreciate a work of art, or literature, or music until someone has created that work. And I’d put Economics in there, too. Because economic creativity and trade are what enable human beings to flourish sufficiently, to have resources and time to enjoy and appreciate the finer things in life.
Jason Alexander’s contribution
Of my six thinkers, Jason Alexander is the least well known. I met him only once, in San Francisco in 1990; and I corresponded with him on and off until about 2002. I’m not even sure whether he is still alive.
Jason Alexander likes to write short books. And his prose is often very pithy. It was he who told me: “Ideas that are alive, grow and change.” Another of my favourites among his aphorisms is: “In the world of ideas, employment is coin of the realm.” Here are some more: “Nature is an extraordinarily powerful ally.” “Given presumes no giver.” “Politics is passé.” “Scholars are paid to quarrel.” And his dismissal of our enemies as “the three P’s: Priests, Politicians and Professors.”
Only one of his books, a 1978 fable called “Why Johnny Can’t,” is still in print. His master-work, “Philoscience,” was published in 1991. But it was quickly removed from the bookshelves; I assume for lawsuit reasons. Luckily, I had already bought a copy. Which still sits in my bookcase, alongside two of his other books from the 1980s.
I have diagrammed Jason Alexander’s system as follows.
Figure 2 – Overview of Jason Alexander’s system (Philoscience)
Beyond Ayn Rand’s scheme which I discussed earlier, he brings some new and elevating ideas. First, he makes explicit the hierarchy of the five branches. He says: “Each more complex category is built upon and depends on the one below it.” He also gives names to the processes of moving up or down the stack. Understanding is movement up the stack, from the bottom upwards. Each layer stands under, or underpins, the ones above it; and the individual, whose thinking moves in this direction, acquires understanding. The top-down direction of movement, on the other hand, is Overstanding. Or, if you prefer a word from a Latin root, Superstition. I myself prefer to call these directions “bottom-up” and “top-down.”
Second, he has identified the subject matter, not as five branches, but as five dimensions. As you go up the stack, each dimension adds a new direction and a new richness to the whole. And he has given his own names to the dimensions; in English, rather than Greek. Identity is what things are. Identification is how we know it. The ethical dimension, he labels Choice. Though I give it a rather different moniker, conviviality; a word I have borrowed from Frank van Dun, and which I’ll explain a little later. The political dimension he calls Civilization. And the highest level, which he says (and I agree) corresponds to a lot more than just Aesthetics, he dubs Creativity.
I have found these ideas of Understanding and dimensions most helpful. Particularly in the fourth dimension, where they have enabled me clearly to distinguish Civilization (organizing community and social structures from the bottom up, fuelled by Understanding) from Politics (organizing them from the top down, fuelled by Overstanding).
But after Understanding and the five dimensions, the key element in Alexander’s thinking for me is his view of history, which he calls Ages and Stages. In this view, human history to date reflects the long battle of our species to open up our dimensions. At any time, Revolutionaries – whom he also calls Lovers of Knowledge – are battling to open up the next new dimension. That’s you and me, folks! And the times in which we succeed – when we open up, and start to explore, a new dimension – are Revolutions. But these are not necessarily political revolutions. As Alexander says: “Revolution need not be violent and Revolutionaries need not be revolting.” Against us, on the other hand, are arrayed the reactionaries, that he calls Lovers of Wisdom or LOWers. These are our enemies, seeking to prevent us progressing to the next level, or even to haul us back down towards where we started from.
I shall be covering Ages and Stages in some detail in the second essay in this set. In which, I will take the liberty of modifying Jason Alexander’s list of the five Revolutions somewhat, to align it more closely with my own perception of the rhythms of human history.
I’ll end this section with two Jason Alexander quotes. The first sums up where we are today. “The current surface fomentation against politicians is only symptomatic of a deeper revolution that is brewing. That deeper revolution is identification of ‘us and them.’ It is time to understand who ‘we’ are, and perhaps more effectively in the short run, who ‘they’ are.”
The second quote comes from a small booklet called “The Environment of Freedom,” which he prepared to accompany his speech for the occasion in 1990 on which I met him. He foresaw “a species separation on the order of the Neanderthal extinction.” Strong stuff!
Frank van Dun’s contribution
The last of my six thinkers is Frank van Dun (born 1947). He is a Belgian philosopher of law, and I have known him since 1995. His three main contributions to my philosophical thinking all come from a paper called “Concepts of Order,” written in 2006 as part of a tribute to Anthony de Jasay. The paper seems no longer to be available on his website, but Anthony Flood has preserved it at his site: [].
Van Dun’s first contribution is a single word: “convivial.” This he conceived as a translation of the Dutch samenleving, meaning living together. But for a native English speaker like me, the word has also a secondary meaning, of feasting in good company. Thus, I interpret “convivial” to mean living together well. So, using this word I can correct Aristotle’s “Man is by nature a political animal” to: Humans are by nature convivial animals. It is our nature, not just to live together, but to live together for mutual benefit.
His second contribution came when I noticed that he was using this word in two different contexts: one ethical, one political. He talks of “the laws of conviviality,” which “must be discovered; they need not be invented.” This is the ethical side. There is a code of conduct which, if adhered to, renders an individual convivial; or otherwise said, fit to be lived with.
On the other side, he also talks of the “convivial order.” This is an order in which “people live together regardless of their membership, status, position, role or function in any, let alone the same, society.” This is the political half. He describes the order as anarchical, and maintained by, among other things, a mixture of prudence and common decency.
I had an aha! after I linked the two together in one sentence: The convivial order is the order which results when everyone keeps to the laws of conviviality. Now, Aristotle said: “Law is order.” But no! I thought. Law and order are not the same thing! Order is political; law is ethical. Order is what results, when law – that is, a suitable ethical code – is obeyed. That aha! has enabled me greatly to clarify the boundary between ethics and politics within my updated system.
Frank van Dun’s third contribution, in the same paper, is to confirm for me that what is right and wrong for a human being to do comes from the nature of human beings. He says: “What natural persons can or cannot do is not defined by any set of legal rules. It is defined by their nature, which we have to accept as ‘a given’ and to study accordingly.”
To sum up
So, what have I learned from each of these six thinkers?
From Aristotle, I have gained a wide perspective, particularly on ethical matters; and a sense that my own ideas are not so far away from those of some of the great thinkers of the past. From John Locke, I have gained an understanding and appreciation of natural law, and of political philosophy. And Franz Oppenheimer has helped me to appreciate the vastness of the chasm between economic and political ways of doing things; and thus, between us human beings and our enemies.
From Ayn Rand, I have gained confidence that my thinking at the levels of metaphysics and epistemology is pointing in broadly the right direction. And it was her effort to bypass David Hume’s “is/ought problem” which first set me thinking about the relation between ethics and the nature of the species. From Jason Alexander, I have learned about the five dimensions of being human, about how they fit together, and about the revolutionary wars in which we have engaged in order to open them up. And Frank van Dun has not only given me the word convivial, but has also helped me find the dividing line between ethics and politics.
And I’ve learned two more things. One, I now feel that as a philosopher I have things to say, which go beyond any of my six. And two, now seems like a good time to say them.