The Attack on the Western Tradition
[This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at the Reno Mises Circle in Reno, Nevada. on May 20, 2023.]
We are faced today with a concentrated attack on the great thinkers of the Western tradition, who are dismissed as “dead white European males.” Robert Nozick used to say that what offended him most in this phrase was the word “dead.” It’s not nice to beat up on people who can’t fight back because they are no longer here! But the attack I’m talking about is no joke. A free society depends on certain principles, and Western thinkers played a major role in their development, though they have counterparts in other civilizations as well. And there is something even more essential. In order to find out about the principles of a free society, we need to think. We must use our reason. But reason is under attack by the “woke” crowd, who dismiss rational thought as just the expression of class prejudice. The ideas of those who shaped the Western tradition are dismissed because they come from a “privileged” class or sex. There is no attempt to examine these ideas analytically.
Ludwig von Mises describes the phenomenon I’ve just been talking about in Human Action:
In the eyes of the Marxians the Ricardian theory of comparative cost is spurious because Ricardo was a bourgeois. The German racists condemn the same theory because Ricardo was a Jew, and the German nationalists because he was an Englishman. Some German professors advanced all these three arguments together against the validity of Ricardo's teachings. However, it is not enough to reject a theory wholesale by unmasking the background of its author.
In this talk, I’m going to give examples of Western thinkers who supported reason and concepts vital to a free society and show how they have been attacked for doing so. As we all know, Aristotle was the founder of logic. Without the tools which he developed, it would be impossible for us to think in a self-consciously rational way. As Robin Smith notes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Aristotle’s logical works contain the earliest formal study of logic that we have. It is therefore all the more remarkable that together they comprise a highly developed logical theory, one that was able to command immense respect for many centuries: Kant, who was ten times more distant from Aristotle than we are from him, even held that nothing significant had been added to Aristotle’s views in the intervening two millennia.
In natural-law philosophy, then, reason is not bound, as it is in modern post-Humean philosophy, to be a mere slave to the passions, confined to cranking out the means to arbitrarily chosen ends. For the ends themselves are selected by the use of reason; and “right reason” dictates to man his proper ends as well as the means to their attainment.
I don’t suggest that there has been no progress in logic or ethics beyond Aristotle. But his ideas deserve to be treated with respect. But here is what Agnes Callard, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, has to say about him. To be fair to her, she does not want to cancel him:
The Greek philosopher Aristotle did not merely condone slavery, he defended it; he did not merely defend it, but defended it as beneficial to the slave. His view was that some people are, by nature, unable to pursue their own good, and best suited to be ‘living tools’ for use by other people: “The slave is a part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame.”
Aristotle’s anti-liberalism does not stop there. He believed that women were incapable of authoritative decision making. And he decreed that manual laborers, despite being neither slaves nor women, were nonetheless prohibited from citizenship or education in his ideal city. . . . His inegalitarianism runs deep.
Aristotle thought that the value or worth of a human being — his virtue — was something that he acquired in growing up. It follows that people who can’t (women, slaves) or simply don’t (manual laborers) acquire that virtue have no grounds for demanding equal respect or recognition with those who do.
As I read him, Aristotle not only did not believe in the conception of intrinsic human dignity that grounds our modern commitment to human rights, he has a philosophy that cannot be squared with it. Aristotle’s inegalitarianism is less like Kant and Hume’s racism and more like Descartes’s views on nonhuman animals: The fact that Descartes characterizes nonhuman animals as soulless automata is a direct consequence of his rationalist dualism. His comments on animals cannot be treated as “stray remarks.”
If cancellation is removal from a position of prominence on the basis of an ideological crime, it might appear that there is a case to be made for canceling Aristotle. He has much prominence: Thousands of years after his death, his ethical works continue to be taught as part of the basic philosophy curriculum offered in colleges and universities around the world.
And Aristotle’s mistake was serious enough that he comes off badly even when compared to the various “bad guys” of history who sought to justify the exclusion of certain groups — women, Black people, Jews, gays, atheists — from the sheltering umbrella of human dignity. Because Aristotle went so far as to think there was no umbrella.
The reason she doesn’t want to cancel Aristotle is that we can learn something from him if we take what he says literally and try to grasp an alien pattern of thought. The idea that he was substantially right is not one she is prepared to entertain. And then are many who go further, and downgrade the classical world altogether.
The philosopher Lewis R. Gordon is one of these. He wants to get rid of the notion of the Greeks as the founders of philosophy. In Decolonizing Philosophy, he says,
“Ancient Greeks,” for instance, is a construction that gained much currency in the French and German Enlightenment to refer to ancient Greek-speaking peoples of the Mediterranean. Those people included northern Africans, western Asians, and southern peoples of what later became known as Europe. As the presumption is that the earliest practice of philosophy was among the ancient peoples of Miletus (today in western Turkey) and Athens, the term acquired a near sacred association with the ancient city-states of Greek-speaking peoples, a group of whom referred to themselves as Hellenic. Understanding that the Hellens [sic] were but one set among other Greek-speaking peoples to have emerged in antiquity reveals the fallacy. It is as if to call English-speaking peoples of the present "English." The confusion should be evident. A product of Euromodern imagination, with a series of empires laying claim to the coveted metonymic intellectual identity for posterity, Ancient Greeks stand as a supposed "miracle" from which a hitherto dark and presumably intellectually limited humanity fell sway to what eventually became, through Latin, "civilization."
Gordon’s point is that the Hellenes were only one of the Greek-speaking peoples of the Mediterranean. But it doesn’t follow from this that the others were philosophers too, unless they engaged in rational argument. Gordon doesn’t show that they did. Instead, he says that deductive reasoning is overrated.
Let’s jump about two thousand years to another major thinker in the Western tradition, John Locke. He defended the self-ownership principle, which is basic to the Rothbardian brand of libertarianism. Self-owners, in Locke’s view, could acquire unowned resources by “mixing their labor” with it. Again, let’s see what Rothbard has to say about this:
One common confusion about Locke's systematic theory of property needs to be cleared up — Locke's theory of labor. Locke grounded his theory of natural property rights in each individual's right of self-ownership, of a “propriety” in his own person. What then establishes anyone's original right of material, or landed or natural resource property, apart from his own person? In Locke's brilliant and very sensible theory, property is brought out of the commons, or out of nonproperty, into one's private ownership in the same way that a man brings unused property into use — that is, by "mixing his self-owned labor," his personal energy, with a previously unused and unowned natural resource, thereby bringing that resource into productive use and hence into his private property.
Private property of a material resource is established by first use. These two axioms — self-ownership of each person, and the first use, or “homesteading,” of natural resources — establishes the “naturalness,” the morality, and the property rights underlying the entire free-market economy. For if a man justly owns material property he has settled in and worked on, he has the deduced right to exchange those property titles for the property someone else has settled in and worked on with his labor. For if someone owns property, he has a right to exchange it for someone else's property, or to give that property away to a willing recipient. This chain of deduction establishes the right of free exchange and free contract, and the right of bequest, and hence the entire property-rights structure of the market economy.
Whether you accept the Lockean view or not—and I hope you do accept it—you can’t deny that it’s an interesting theory, worthy of careful consideration. But in the opinion of Charles W. Mills, in his influential book The Racial Contract, Locke wasn’t really a defender of individual liberty. Locke’s purpose was to justify slavery, especially of black people.
Here is a good short account of Mills’s view:
“At its most basic, the social contract is an agreement pertaining to the political and moral obligations between the state and the individual. It grants the state both authority over the individual and responsibility for maintaining social order. At the same time, the individual is granted certain rights. However, despite being founded upon a discourse of universalism, Charles W. Mills contends that the social contract was in fact, from its very inception, inherently racialised.
Mills’ theory of the racial contract rests upon three claims: (1) that “white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years”; (2) “white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system”; and, (3) that "as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized based on a contract between whites, a Racial Contract."
Drawing on Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, Mills charts the way in which “society was created or crucially transformed, how individuals in that society were reconstituted, how the state was established, and how a particular moral code and a certain moral psychology were brought into existence.” In doing so, Mills draws our attention to the way in which the idea of race and racism fundamentally shaped how Western philosophical thinkers (e.g. Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Mill and Rousseau) conceived humanity, democracy and the political subject.
As Mills explains, key political philosophy thinkers constructed their theories and concepts using a racial classificatory schema that divided people into the categories of humans and sub-humans. In doing so, white Europeans were associated with spirit, mindfulness and rationality. In contrast, people racialised as non-white were deemed unsuitable, if not incapable, of “forming or fully entering into a body politic.” Associated with nature and the body, people racialised as non-white were deemed lacking in forms of the cognitive power required for reason, authority and governance.
These forms of racial thinking structured the key political developments that occurred during the Enlightenment period: namely the formation of the modern nation-state, European declarations of sovereignty, New World conquest, and the written contracts of slavery and indenture. So much so that the racial contract and the denial of personhood was constitutionally and juridically enshrined, thus establishing “a racial polity, a racial state, and racial juridical system, where the status of whites and non-whites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom” (As a result, for Mills, “proclamations of the equal rights, autonomy, and freedom for all men” went hand-in-hand “with the massacre, expropriation, and subjection to hereditary slavery of men at least apparently human.”
In recent years, Mills’ work has been used to expose the way which the racial contract continues to underpin the social and political world. In Britain, Nirmal Puwar highlights the way in which the racial contract operates in Westminster, the home of British politics, the senior civil service, academia, the art world and everyday life. From an Indigenous woman’s perspective, Debbie Bargallie unmasks the racial contract that exists in the Australian Public Service. In doing so, Puwar and Bargallie show that despite the rhetoric of equality, diversity, inclusion, meritocracy and reconciliation, these are spaces of institutional racism structured by “racialised somatic norms” which result in non-white bodies being considered “out of place.”
Mills’s argument, to the extent you can call it that, rests on a misunderstanding of social contract theory. As I wrote in a review that appeared twenty-five years ago,
Even if we take the social contract to be in part conjectural history, it still does not follow that the contract theorists erred in ignoring the alleged racial contract. Again, the question seems very much worth asking: how might a group of people (whether or not engaged in organized racial exploitation) have formed a state? The fact that an inquiry abstracts from a certain phenomenon does not render it useless. And Mills has also not shown that there is anything amiss in the later shift to an entirely normative framework.
The great thinkers of the Western tradition no doubt had their faults. But they shouldn’t be cast aside because various “woke” writers dismiss them. We should always strive for truth in philosophy, regardless of whom the truth offends. Mises liked to quote Spinoza: “Just as light is the measure both of itself and darkness, so is truth the measure of itself and falsity.”