“One age cannot be completely understood if all others are not understood. The song of history can only be sung as a whole.”
—Ortega y Gasset
In The Politics of Human Nature, Thomas Fleming has boldly undertaken to delineate a system of natural politics. A classicist by training, Fleming believes that “the collapse of Roman authority in the West created a crisis from which political thinking has never quite recovered.” Since that collapse, the vision of the lost unity of Rome’s dominion has haunted political thinking, much as the vision of a lost Eden has haunted Christianity. In our own time, the destructive forces of modern technology have transformed that unrealizable, universalist dream into a nightmare that threatens our very survival. Yet the dream persists, according to Fleming, largely because of the natural—and not inherently evil—human propensity to seek simple solutions to complex questions. Evoking Aristotle, his main intellectual hero, Fleming reminds us that we are by nature eager to know. The trouble arises when our eagerness to know—to create some comprehensible order out of the apparent disorder of life—leads us into abstractions that ride roughshod over the reality of our nature and relations.
Beginning with Thomas Hobbes (one of Fleming’s leading villains), political theorists have increasingly grounded the dream of unity in an apparently contradictory commitment to the primacy of the individual, whom they have taken to constitute the basic unit of society, and have viewed as the fundamental unit or embodiment of rights. Fleming perceptively allows that the emphasis on individuality has not been entirely a bad thing, if only because it has fostered that insistence upon the moral responsibility of the individual upon which modern civilization depends. But, on the whole, he views the grounding of political and social philosophy on individual rights as a disaster. Systematic (bourgeois, even if he does not use the term) individualism reduces human beings to abstractions and accounts for much of the woeful disarray of our own times.
For Fleming, our overriding problems concern the price of the progress we enjoy: high rates of family dissolution, ethical confusion and disintegration, sensationalist and homogenized mass culture, “and perhaps worst of all an apparent inability to agree on social priorities.” He admires the Athenians for their sense of unity and family continuity—blessings that no modern society has known. This sense of unity, emanating as it did from the strength of family and community, permitted them to accept the state as a natural articulation of their basic social relations, not as an alien power. We moderns, in contrast, have invariably perceived the relations between the individual and the state as antagonistic. For us, in the manner of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the fundamental problem of political philosophy has been the balance between freedom and order: what rights must the individual relinquish for the good of the collectivity?
Fleming himself is too much a modern for that dilemma not to haunt his work, but he proposes to resolve it by denying the legitimacy of its premises. For him, the struggle between the claims of freedom and those of order derives not from nature but from our misguided history as a species. They are not—as Freud, for example, assumed—the very essence of the human condition, but rather the results of our deviation from the laws of nature. The quest to understand both human nature and human beings’ denial of it leads Fleming from political theory to sociobiology, from the record of how we have imagined ourselves and our communities to the evidence of what we really are. Admitting that there are few universals in the record of human societies, he nonetheless insists that we have paid too little attention to those there are. The modern view, that human societies obey the laws of cultural rather than biological evolution, has blinded us to our inescapable biological roots. Rather than constantly struggling to escape nature, we should harken to its fundamental law, which must be sought not in “a set of ethical precepts derived from reason or revelation,” but in “the actual behavior and conditions of human life.” The records of human societies do, in fact, contain the data of natural law in those customs and institutions that appear universal, notably male dominance and the incest taboo.
Fleming continually insists that the record of actual human behavior far outweighs any abstract models of the state of nature and, on this basis, categorically rejects the myth so dear to bourgeois political theorists, that man was born free. Evoking Joseph de Maistre with approval he maintains that ‘man has never been free.'” If man has any “natural rights,” they assuredly do not derive from some original state of independence. “Our rights come not from nature but from our nature, human nature, and that natural law is the behavioral code of the human species.” All evidence suggests that the human species has never been composed of solitary beings, but of families that are frequently part of larger collectives and that are invariably dominated by men. In effect, male-dominated households constitute the building blocks of any social system, and relations among men constitute the principles of social relations. Fleming finds ample evidence that the relations among men are naturally characterized by both competition and cooperation. Almost from the beginning of human societies, he argues, “rivalry and competition for power and authority play an important role in establishing and maintaining social order.” Yet cooperation is no less important: exchange of all forms—not merely the economic exchange of profit and loss—also binds humans together, frequently for altruistic reasons.
These and related arguments build to Fleming’s central assertion: “Society is natural”; “our social nature” is not a matter of choice, “it is a given.” The essence of that given lies in men’s obligation to take care of women and children, for that obligation derives from the special relations of marriage and the family that lie at the root of all social order. “Without these primary, natural obligations, no other form of rights or duties makes any sense.” In Fleming’s thought, the family persists—or should persist—throughout history as the fundamental social unit. Families cohere in communities, communities in towns, towns in states, and so forth. But under no circumstances should the coherence be permitted to undermine the internal relations of the aggregate units. Following Tönnies, Fleming emphasizes the decisive difference between community and society, and insists that our social and political health require the protection of communitas in all its forms. On this basis, natural male aggression can safely and appropriately be channeled into the ritualized political and military contests characteristic of society.
Governance, in Fleming’s view, is primarily a matter internal to families and communities. We live with a state that illegitimately intrudes itself into the affairs of families, intervening between parents and children, corroding the natural bonds of the family unit. In stark contrast to what we know, Fleming proposes a return to a genuine federalism of the kind advocated by Althusius at the dawn of the 16th century. In this model, society is organized into a pyramid of units, beginning with families, and proceeding through corporations, towns, and provinces, up to the state itself. The constituent members of the state are not individuals but these corporate political units. At every level, discrete units are represented by individuals who band together to form the next unit. Fathers, “the judges and foreign ministers of their families,” represent their households to the next larger unit, and so forth. Government, Fleming approvingly quotes Althusius, “is held together by sovereignty (imperium) [and] subjection.” But, and here lies the heart of the matter, the sovereignty and subjection should be exercised through a federated political structure along the lines of the great chain of being. Conflicts within families should be resolved within families, conflicts within neighborhoods within neighborhoods, and on up the scale. Never should the state be allowed to intervene in matters best settled by the direct participants. In our accelerating departure from the laws of our own nature, we are creating a monster that will level us all in the name of a chimerical and unnatural equality. By accepting the view of ourselves as atomized individuals, we are inviting the destruction of our very humanity.
Fleming’s vision has many attractive and compelling features, especially his insistence that we recognize the biological or material foundations of our humanity and his plea for a new federalism that tailors government to the measure of human communities. But there are problems. His sneering references to Marxists and radical feminists, which disfigure and demean an otherwise serious discussion, deserve no more than passing reference. He clearly betrays his lack of interest in either Marxism or feminism by confusing the Eighteenth with the Nineteenth Amendment and by citing Marx’s famous dictum that men make their own history without adding the qualification, “but not under conditions of their own choosing.” Nor are occasional errors the main problem. Fleming, doubtless suffering the intellectual ostracism of the academy, had to work for long stretches without benefit of a research library or research assistance. These situational liabilities unavoidably leave their mark on his sweeping foray through political theory, sociobiology, psychology, and contemporary life, occasionally giving his book the voice of one who has been instructing and talking to himself In this respect, his book resembles some of the great works of political thought that also bear the signs of their authors’ continuing self-education, as well as the consuming desire “to grasp the scheme of things entire.”
Like his aspiring forebears, Fleming also seeks imaginatively to reshape the sorry world we know closer to his heart’s desire. In this quest, he brilliantly seeks the salient causes of our most pressing woes in the corrosive and disintegrating tendencies of a radical individualism that abstracts from the specificity of human nature. But, in so doing, he risks falling into his own version of the utopianism that he reproaches in so many others. In attempting to sidestep political philosophy’s exercises in abstraction, Fleming turns directly to the evidence from sociobiology, thus effectively jumping over most of history between the ancient Athenians and our own time. To be sure, he locates the immediate origins of systematic individualism in the 17th century, but he does not associate it with any specific historical developments. Not for him the complications of the emergence of capitalism and the rise and triumph of the bourgeoisie. Presumably such questions detract from the elegant simplicity of the story he wishes to tell. Presumably also, from his perspective, they count for little, since the human species has maintained its basic attributes throughout the vicissitudes of historical events.
Fleming’s strategy serves his purposes well, but will not pass muster as a serious consideration of the issues that most concern him. To cast the debate, as he does, as one between biological evolution and cultural evolution is to pass in silence over precisely what is most central to our humanity—our history. The contemporary ills that Fleming so convincingly deplores cannot be attributed to biology, nor can they be attributed simply to the malicious theories of irresponsible philosophers. Fleming’s predecessors, like Fleming himself, developed their theories as commentaries upon their own societies. Modern individualism, which did accompany the rise and triumph of the bourgeoisie, did not begin with the fall of Rome. It began with the rise and expansion of capitalism which has, since its inception, been a self-revolutionizing system capable of penetrating the walls of even the best-governed households and the minds of even the best-reared children.
In Virginia, in the 19th century, George Fitzhugh took the measure of the problem. Recognizing the tendency of the capitalist market to level hierarchies, sever children from their parents, wives from their husbands, and servants from their masters, Fitzhugh unflinchingly proposed outright war on capitalism. Give no quarter, he admonished his fellow slaveholders, for if you fail to resist the least capitalist incursion upon the institutions you hold dear, you will live to see them crumble before you. The course we have pursued since Fitzhugh’s day justifies his warning, if not his proposed solution. In our own time, only the Soviets have been able to opt out of the capitalist market that is engulfing the world, and even they are having to rethink their position. The rest of us, for better or worse, remain condemned to deal with it directly or to succumb to its suffocating embrace.
The problem, as Fleming would be the first to recognize, admits of no easy solution. If, as he so insightfully argues, modern individualism has bequeathed us, in addition to its innumerable miseries, the blessing of individual moral responsibility, so has capitalism, in addition to its miseries, afforded us the ability—should we choose to grasp it—to save the peoples of the world from starvation, to save women from death in childbirth and infants from premature death, to vanquish smallpox and syphilis, and more. Perhaps Fleming would prefer to forego these benefits in the interests of restoring the integrity of the family, but even he might blanch at a life without heating or air-conditioning, without braces and flouride and a polio vaccine. Whatever his preferences with respect to these and other matters, he cannot honestly duck the underlying problem. I should be the first to agree with him that our society has woefully failed to contain the worst effects of capitalism to the detriment of our families, our culture, our ethics; the first to agree that our intellectual elite has too eagerly swum with the current rather than erecting the necessary dams against it. But I cannot follow him in pretending that our political philosophers have written in a vacuum.
Political philosophy alone is not responsible for the large corporations that move employees from place to place, severing generations from each other, reducing communities to way stations in the frantic climb to the top. Political philosophy alone cannot be expected to withstand the proliferation of commodities, the need for two incomes to support most families, the explosion in numbers of divorces and single parents, the necessity for protracted and frequently technical education, the destruction of our environment, the wanton dissemination of pornography and drugs. Indeed, next to the power of the capitalist market, political philosophy looks less like a monster than a wimp. Ideas, as Richard Weaver insisted, do have consequences. And our own, as he also insisted, have moved too much in the direction of abstraction, too far from that rhetoric that would engage our history and our condition. But Fleming himself, for all the perspicacity and wisdom of his message, is in danger of abstracting from precisely’ that level of experience which most directly affects our prospects. To have valuable consequences, ideas must also have appropriate targets.
At the heart of Fleming’s discussion lies the natural family, the incubator of humanity. The findings of sociobiology confirm his instinctive commitment to the significance of the differences between men and women, and fuel his attack on contemporary feminists who recklessly disregard nature’s plan. For the world to function as it should women must embrace their natural roles as nurturing mothers, leaving to men the business of aggression and competition. But in our own time, the issue is not so much the biological differences between men and women as their appropriate social consequences. At his most insightful, Fleming fully recognizes that men’s natural aggression and competition has been molded and even displaced with the development of civilization. He is less willing to consider the ways in which civilization has molded women. To be sure, he draws upon the work of Carol Gilligan to argue the case for women’s discrete moral sense. But he, like Gilligan, never considers that that moral sense derives from the experience of contemporary white, middle-class women, not from nature.
Feminism—Gilligan’s as much as the versions Fleming deplores—is a symptom of our times, not an original cause of our ills. Feminism, whatever its intellectual failings and excesses, reflects women’s attempt to come to terms with their own situation in a world in which no father or brother can force a man to support a woman and her children. And feminism, even (as in Gilligan’s case) when it most forcefully insists upon the radical differences between men and women, reflects the individualism that Fleming so deplores. Capitalism has done more than undermine the integrity of families and push women into the labor force; it has radically reduced the social significance of the biological differences between women and men. Modem contraception permits women to limit their fertility; modern medicine permits them to live safely through and well beyond their childbearing years. Modern technology reduces the relevance of men’s physical strength to the business of earning a living and running the world. Fleming’s admirable attempt to link politics to nature passes too lightly over these changes, refusing to address their possible consequences.
Ironically, conservative thought in general and Fleming’s work in particular open new ways to explore these consequences. Fleming’s own vision of federalism designates the household as the fundamental social unit, as indeed it has been for most of Western history, since the time of Aristotle. That traditional household, as Fleming insists, embodied within itself the ideals of hierarchy and inequality that characterized Western thought as a whole. It also embodied a commitment to family and class that transcended the specific differences between women and men. Obviously sexual difference played an important role in delineating the expected roles of women and men, but it never ensured that women might not engage in any given activity, it never regarded a woman’s possibilities as coterminous with her biology. Traditional thought viewed what we call representation as delegation: the ability of a member of the household—or community—to speak or act in the name of the whole. And women were always, in the right circumstances, able to serve as delegates of their households, just as they were able to participate in their basic heavy labor and internal governance. It has taken modern individualistic thought to reduce the concept of membership and its attendant concept of delegation to simple identity. In this perspective, the unilateral emphasis on the social significance of biological difference can be recognized as every bit as reductive as the abstractions of individualism.
In this probing and thoughtful book, Thomas Fleming has begun to address the principal challenge to our society and polity. The individual freedom in the name of which our republic was launched has unleashed unimagined consequences that threaten to transform our polity from a federation of households and communities into a great mass of undifferentiated individuals presided over by a sinister leviathan. The capitalist market that, even in the 18th century, linked households to each other and the Atlantic world, has penetrated their interstices, dissolving natural and social bonds. The world of atomized individualism that Fleming seeks to counteract strongly resembles Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state of nature: the “warre of all against all.” More the product of history than of misguided philosophical speculation, that world must be reformed on its own terrain—that of our specific historical moment. Men—and women—do make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. The conditions that constrain us assuredly include biology and its attendant laws of human nature. They also include, as Fleming in another context so forcefully argues, the real lives that we live in the far from perfect world that we have inherited.
[The Politics of Human Nature, by Thomas Fleming (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books) 276 pp., $29.95]