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We live in an age of ideologies, and yet we are ill equipped to judge the quality of their paeans. To borrow Ginsberg’s imagery, we stand before grand, hooded idols of Molochian grandeur, and cannot see their faces in either their sublime splendor nor squamous horror. We speak of great projects, of world views, of destinies and the will of peoples, yet we fall short of speaking a language of discernment or insight. In spite of the tragedies, battles, slaughters, and triumphs - the towering crescendos of modern edifices crowned in heady cacophony and brought low into horrible silences - we yet lack the measure of foresight needed to tell the roads best traveled from those best shunned.

In the modern world, modern humanity seems to find itself in great difficulty when it attempts to distinguish between the politically good and bad. The only measurement of political goodness that appears to be at hand is the simple accounting of those things material; the only measure of political comparison, the contrasting of one’s material goods with those of another. The final comparison? Political survival. Every political action is thus judged by its material results. Every government policy by its material benefits. Every political system by its ability to persist in a Darwinian environment of generation, competition, and expiation. The only guidepost? Historical afterthought. The only judges? The survivors.

It is so often only through this systematic, analytical rationale that 21st century modern man has confidently found the language and the intellectual confidence to denounce the totalitarian horrors of fascism, of Nazism, and Stalinism; in spite of our fundamental instincts on the matter, it is solely through such rational dissection that we find the will to judge. It is only in retrospect that we confidently determine what is evil, and we identify its faces by the clear marks of rigor mortis. Goodness, it is posited, is proven in triumph - and it is an almost eschatological faith in the triumph of the good over the bad that seemingly fills so many hearts with confidence and optimism.

Whatever the charms of this mode of thinking or justification, it should not be denied that judgement-in-retrospect is a poor substitute for prudential thinking and foresight. Whether or not the good will always triumph over the bad, one would undeniably be better served in making one’s political choices if it were possible to better identify their respective merits. Whatever other lessons may have been taught by the 20th century, it has clearly been indicated that human nature is not so easily and universally malleable as its great totalitarian dictators might have hoped; wherever their great projects were put into effect - whether in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Union of Socialist Soviet Republics - the great projects to remake humankind in the image of an ideological ideal always failed to capture some great number of dissidents, opponents, counter-revolutionaries, and assassins. Clearly, it would seem, women and men are not brought into the world in a state of moral emptiness, and do not prevail though life in an anchorless state of existence; it is a fact that should be readily apparent to any and all whom have ever raised children, and noted the dissimilarities in their respective characters and temperaments.

It would seem then that, in spite of the variations of the completeness and depth of morality and goodness that distinguish one person from another, there is a need to rediscover a language capable of describing what many of us might well know intrinsically, but be unable to properly express intellectually. Furthermore, it might very well prove necessary to find a language that is not deeply rooted in the theological or revelational symbols that have - as a rule - been rejected, neglected, or forgotten by modern societies. For users of the English language, the writings of persons such as the Second Earl of Shaftesbury might prove the most approachable path to such a goal. It might, furthermore, be interesting to examine how a person educated in his ethical language would describe the great ideological movements of the 20th century, and how well such a description matches both the gut instincts of those amongst us whom we judge to be be fundamentally virtuous.

To begin, it seems fairly obvious from the Earl’s writings that he would have a very poor opinion of the ideological movements of the modern age. This would seem at face value to be a preposterous and insupportable opinion though, seeing as the Earl himself lived, wrote, and expired roughly seventy years before the term “ideology” was in fact coined, and a nearly equal time before the first truly mass, ideological movement of the modern age: The French Revolution of 1789. At this juncture, we are thus already faced with two difficulties - explaining how the Earl could have objected to something with which he had no experience, and explaining how the Revolution of 1789 qualifies as an ideological movement.

To address these problems, it seems necessary to first define the symbol “ideology”. While there is very little consensus in usage on the exact thing that this symbol should be used to define, we might make use of the definition supplied by Willard A. Mullin, for it seems to adequately distinguish it from other, similar structures of conceptualization such as world views, religions, and so forth:

“In the foregoing analysis it is argued that ideology may be distinguished from other cultural forms by the combined presence of several elements -- historical consciousness, action-orientation, cognitive power, evaluative capacity and logical coherence. Hence I would define ideology as a logically coherent system of symbols which, within a more or less sophisticated conception of history, links the cognitive and evaluative perception of one’s social condition -- especially it prospects for the future -- to a program of collective action for the maintenance, alteration or transformation of society.” [Mullins, p.510]

To summarize Mullins’ overarching argument in another language, ideology -- as distinct from other systems of consciousness -- comprises an orthodoxic frame of of mind which informs a range of orthopraxic action which is itself orientated towards a political end which is often of a utopian nature. An ideology is furthermore dogmatic in the sense that non-adhereants to said dogma, in either action or thought, are by definition non-believers and outside the excepted boundaries of the norms of the ideological community. Lastly, the end of all orthopraxic action is fundamentally political, historical, and defined in terms of a political and historical reality outlined by the ideology itself. Thus, if we speak of Marxist thought, we might observe that it possesses an ‘historical consciousness’ (the progression of history through the successive stages of modes of production), an ‘action-orientation’ (the progression from one stage of history to the next), ‘cognitive power’ (a manner by which to separate the believers from the unbelievers; in the case of Marxism this would be the delineation between true and false consciousness), ‘evaluative capacity’ (does this society resemble a communist one?), and logical coherence.

If we accept this standard of definition of ‘ideology’, it then becomes somewhat clear that -- at the very least -- there was an ideological movement afoot during the French Revolution. But what of it? How, in fact, might this relate to Shaftesbury or his potential opinions of a class of political movements that proceeded his death by decades? The beginnings of an answer are supplied by the following passage, taken from the Vol.II of his “Conversations”:

"’Tis otherwise in what relates to Opinion, Belief, or Speculation. For as the Extravagance of Judgment or Belief is such, that in some Countrys even Monkeys, Cats, Crocodiles, and other vile or destructive Animals, have been esteem’d holy, and worship’d even as Deitys; shou’d it appear to any-one of the Religion or Belief of those Countrys, that to save such a Creature as a Cat, preferably to a Parent, was Right; and that other Men, who had not the same religious Opinion, were to be treated as Enemys, till converted; this wou’d be certainly Wrong, and wicked in the Believer: and every Action, grounded on this Belief, wou’d be an iniquous, wicked, and vitious Action. " -- [Shaftesbury, p.19]

What is clear from the very first line of this excerpt -- taken in the greater context of the section entitled “An Inquiry concerning Virtue and Merit” from which it is taken -- is that Shaftesbury gave a very poor grade to those persons whom were motivated by ‘Opinion, Belief, or Speculation’ to act against their natural affections or Virtue; the description of such acts as ‘wicked’ is unambiguous. What should thus be apparent is that any system of doctrine to whom adherence would result in such vitious action was, by his ken, wholly immoral; it stands to reason that vitious ideological action would not be exempt from this judgment, despite the fact that Shaftesbury himself was not confronted by such a thing within his lifetime. The French Revolution, and many other ideological movements besides, would likely serve as prime examples of what the Earl would consider ‘iniquous, wicked, and vitious Action’.

By all appearances then, the Earl has supplied English-speakers with an example of the sort of language necessary to converse upon and compare ideologies, and to determine whether they are good or bad. The category of Bad Ideologies would certainly be occupied by any that went against Virtue or human affections. Beyond ideology however, political actions in general might be ethically judged by the same criteria of being either in concert with, in conflict with, or neutral with respect to that same measure of goodness which is inherent in human nature.

The following might be asked however: what business do ethics have to do with politics? It is, after all, often taken to be a principle of fact that ethics and morality have no place in political decision making. How does this assertion jibe with the Earl’s reasoning? Not very well, and it would seem that, in his view, the former opinion is incomplete and unrealistic. By his estimation of humanity, a certain degree of nature sociability is ever present in the motivations of men, but that a natural moral sense exerts its influence over their coming togethers and befriendments. To say then that morality and ethics have no place in politics would therefor seem to be a spurious assertion that goes against the natural political nature of humankind; thus, any political policy, schema, or plan that is ignorant of this fundamental nature is ill conceived, and any implementation thereof will likely have results that are unimagined by the scheme-makers. If the chaos of the French and Russian Revolutions can be taken as any indication, such an extrapolation of Shaftesbury’s thoughts would appear to have some merit; by mere observation of the factions, counter-factions, alliances, and divisions of loyalties that arose in those conflicts, it could easily strike one as evident that the human heart is often not so easily convinced to ignore its natural affections and its immediate relationships, and to instead take up the standards of abstract principles. Given the choice, and given a conflict between the former and the latter, what can only be clear is that many amongst us will prefer loyalty to one’s friends over loyalty to an ideal.

It seems then that the Second Earl of Shaftesbury has unintentionally supplied an exit from the modern problem: when ideologies arise that would demand or create a division between ideational principles and the moral nature of mankind, one should recognize such schemes as bad, vitious, ill, and foolhardy. It’s a gift of some measure, and one might only hope that modern humanity accepts the wisdom in identifying mistakes before they’re made, rather than after.


Hutcheson, Francis; “An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue”, Treatise II, Section I, p.101-124, London: 1725

Mullins, Willard A.; “On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science”; The American Political Science Review, vol. 66, p.498-510

Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper,Earl of,1671-1713; “Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions,Times, Volume II”; Liberty Fund Inc.; Indianopolis, Indiana

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