All Commentary
Thursday, January 1, 1981

The Person and His Society

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education, a seminar lecturer, and author of the book, Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at The Center for Constructive Alternatives at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Every Person pursues his individual goals in the context of some society. The norms, customs, habits and fashions of that society seem at times to hinder him, but at the same time they are a sustaining presence. Likewise the laws of his nation. Man is said to be a political animal, in the sense that society is his native habitat. But he’s also a political animal in one further respect; people create governments in their own image. This is obvious in a democratic system.

It is self-evident that the politicians elected to public office are men who embody the consensus. The successful candidates are those who most persuasively promise what voters believe government should deliver; politicians operate on that slippery spectrum bounded, on the one hand, by what voters expect and demand of government, and by what they will put up with from government, on the other. A nation tends to get the government it deserves, in the sense that pressure groups will eventually organize to make wrongful demands upon government, unless the nation’s “aristocracy of virtue and talent”—men with the ability to teach what expectations and demands are legitimate—are heeded.

When educators, philosophers, and men of letters fail to properly nourish the intellect, the conscience and the imagination of significant segments of a society, they betray a sacred trust as teachers of mankind, and in the wake of their defection a secular religiousness becomes the popular faith. Leviathan—the omnipotent State—is the god of this faith. Men serve Leviathan in the confident expectation that he will provide his votaries with ease, comfort, security, and prosperity. The modern world does indeed provide more of these things for more people than earlier periods, but it also exacts a toll in the form of perpetual warfare, social unrest, hardening of the arteries, softening of the brain, and a troubled spirit.

We Are the Enemy

When we attempt to assess the modern malaise we are tempted to say: “An enemy hath done this thing.” But the truth of the matter is that we have done it to ourselves—the actively guilty, the passively guilty, the ignorant, the stupid, and all the innocent bystanders—we are all in this thing together.

Every society has its characteristic pecking order, and ours is no exception. Certain men, certain ideas, certain life styles are at the top of the pecking order; the masses admire and seek to emulate these men, ideas and life styles. If these ideas and styles are not life enhancing, there is frustration and thwarting at the deep levels of human nature and a whole society is sidetracked. The Remnant who keep the faith are superfluous; society has no use for their services. Such a society will necessarily get Leviathan—a government which matches its warped and ill-favored nature. Edmund Burke puts the matter plainly in a letter to constituents in Bristol:

Believe me, it is a great truth, that there never was, for any long time, a corrupt representative of a virtuous people; or a mean, sluggish, careless people that ever had a good government of any form.

Civilizations rise and fall, nations come and go. Why this occurs is the subject of learned speculation and debate. There is little unanimity among scholars, who disagree among themselves even as to the yardsticks by which decline and progress might be measured. But even though the overall movement of a civilization is difficult to detect, there are two trends in the modern world in all progressive countries, where the facts are clear; the first has to do with politics, the second with economics.

The thrust of eighteenth century Whiggery and of Classical Liberalism was to pry various sectors of life out from under the yoke of the State, to free them from political controls. The aim was to shrink government to a limited, constabulary function. The twentieth century has reversed this trend, with a vengeance. The theory of the free society has come under increasing attack, and totalitarian governments have emerged in nation after nation.

As Classical Liberalism expanded the voluntary sector of society the economic controls of the Mercantilist era were removed from business, industry, and agriculture. Adam Smith demonstrated that—within the framework of the Rule of Law, which Liberalism supplied—the economic order was subtly regulated by the buying habits of consumers; and the free economy began to emerge within western nations. Freedom in economic transactions was never fully achieved in any nation, but we made greater progress in that direction in the United States than elsewhere, and we paid lip service to the ideal of the market economy. But ideals change.

National Planning

The new freedom did not bring about utopia, or a paradise on earth, and in the aftermath of this disappointment, a new scheme captured the imagination of the intellectuals—nation-wide planning for the achievement of national purposes and goals. The New Deal marked a major change in the popular attitude toward the free economy; efforts to frame the rules necessary for attaining competition in the marketplace gave way to the urge to put the marketplace under bureaucratic regulation. The free economy was to be phased out, step by step.

I am a believer in the free society and in the free economy. The free society is to my taste because I like its variety, I like the diversity it encourages, I like the spontaneity it permits. I also like the free economy. I like it because it is more productive than any alternative; people eat better, have more things, are more secure in their possessions. Freedom works, and therefore I resist the collectivizing trends of the twentieth century which would transform people into creatures of the State. But my belief in freedom is grounded, ultimately, on my reading of the nature of the human person.

Man, I believe, is a created being; there is a sacred essence in him. Man is on this planet in consequence of a mighty plan-of whose outlines we may gain faint intimations—and his life is used to further a vast purpose-of which we are given an occasional clue. If man is indeed a created being, and the members of a society act upon their belief that such is their nature, they will begin to frame political theories consonant with their convictions. They will erect political structures designed to safeguard the sacred essence in each person; the law will attempt to maximize each person’s opportunity to realize his earthly goals.

Believing that God wills men to be free, such a society will regard any trespass on the true liberty of even the lowliest individual to be a thwarting of some intent of the Creator. The deep conviction that each human being is a person and not a thing will generate ideas of equal, inherent rights; and this central dogma will exert pressure on personal attitude and conduct, on government and law, on every level of the free society, to bring all into harmony with the key belief that man is a created being.

But suppose man is not a created being. Suppose the human being is not a person, but a thing. If the universe is simply brute fact, mindless and meaningless; reducible in the final analysis to mass and motion—then man is a thing just like any other item in the catalogue of the planet’s inhabitants.

The Materialistic Concept of Human Beings

Suppose we assume—as do many of our contemporaries-that man is the chance product of the random movement of material particles. Man’s haphazard appearance on a fifth rate planet is, then, a fluke; he just happened to occur, as the accidental by-product of physical and chemical forces. He’s merely a part of nature, like every other species on the planet. Except that the human species is more foolish than the rest, loves to be bamboozled, and, has such a gift for make- believe that its continued existence is problematic!

When we confront a strange object we try to size it up, so we’ll know better how to deal with it. If it’s a person we get onto a person-to-per-son basis; but if it’s a thing we treat it like a thing. We make a crucial decision here, and the way we decide depends upon our basic philosophy, our understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe.

If we have embraced some variety of Materialism as our philosophy then we must eventually come to the logical conclusion that human beings are things, and once we conclude this we’ll begin to treat people as things. People then come to be regarded as units of the State, as objects to be manipulated, as pawns in a political game to be used up in some national plan, as guinea pigs for experiments in genetic engineering, as robots programmed for utopia. Shades of 1984!

I am prepared to argue that we get the free society only after the consensus has firm convictions about the sacredness of persons, and that we get the free economy only after we have the free society. Now, when we reflect on the nature of persons we involve ourselves in some pretty deep philosophical and theological questions, and some of our contemporaries are impatient with such speculation. They believe that the intellectual opponents of the free market can be devastated by straightforward economic arguments, and once we have the free market everybody will be doing his own thing and we’ll get the free society as a matter of course. Things are not this simple; if they were, freedom in human affairs would be the rule; voluntary transactions and ‘unhampered exchange would then mark the economic life of all nations. The reverse is true: freedom has always been in jeopardy, and the liberties which expanded during the Classical Liberal Era are now contracting everywhere.

The Conditions of Freedom

There is a deep-rooted urge in each person to be unhampered in the pursuit of his own life goals, but this individual instinct for freedom has only rarely in history been institutionalized as the free society. Likewise, each person has a deeply rooted desire to conserve his energy and improve his material well-being; trade and barter are as old as mankind. But despite the economizing urge the free economy seldom appears on this planet.

The free society and the free economy did emerge in the eighteenth century and freedom expanded during the nineteenth. An excellent literature came into being to expound and defend political and economic freedom, despite which freedom retreated during the twentieth century because there was a leak at the philosophical level, where we deal with the nature of personhood and the meaning of life.

The economizing spirit is concerned to save energy and resources; it strives ceaselessly to diminish inputs and maximize outputs. Which is to say that economics is the drive to get more for less. Now, unless this more-for-less impulse is counterbalanced by non-economic forces it de velops into a something-for-nothing mentality. And when the some-thing-for-nothing mentality takes over the free economy dies of autointoxication.

The advice to “do your own thing” has been repeated so often as to be an incantation, and if freedom could be had by casting a spell then the free society would be a shoo-in. But the free society cannot be sustained by magic, and lacking a philosophy of personhood, the advice to “do your own thing” is an invitation to disaster. The weak doing their thing are at the mercy of the strong doing theirs, and the unscrupulous have the upper hand over the rest.

I belong to a bicycle club and have two friends with whom I ride. Joe is a weightlifter, a powerful man, and a “square.” Fred is a middle-aged retiree with strong affinities for the youthful life styles of today. We three were in a resort town for a bike rally, and in addition to cyclists there were many young people whose sartorial and tonsorial disarray proclaimed their devotion to individual liberty. The three of us stopped for refreshments at a soft drink stand and watched the passers-by. A pair of especially unkempt and unwashed young men strolled by, and Joe—the muscular “square”—muttered, half under his breath, “I’d like to wring their necks!” Fred, a gentle and sympathetic soul, said, “But, Joe, they’re only doing their thing.” To which my obvious retort was, “Yes, Fred, but Joe’s thing is wringing hippies’ necks!”

The Rule of Law

Classical Liberalism was built around the idea of the Rule of Law, equal justice for all, and thus it erected certain guidelines and standards, whose observation maximized each man’s liberty in society. And it framed these rules because each person is a sacrosanct individual, free in virtue of his very nature. When convictions about the sacredness and mystery of person-hood are energized, then men will seek to erect institutional safeguards around each individual, and we move toward the free society. But if the prevailing philosophy has a faulty doctrine of personhood, then people lose that sense of their true humanness which would lead them to strive for an ordered liberty, and we lapse into the closed society.

Modern thought, the ideology which has prevailed during the past two centuries, has many facets and some undeniable strengths. But it has one glaring defect, it has no adequate doctrine of personhood. This ideology is reductionist in tendency, whenever it contemplates the Self. It reduces men to animals and animals to machines. It defines thought as subvocal activity, dismisses reason as rationalization, explains mind as a mere reflex of activity among the brain cells, and invokes the conditioned reflex to account for every variety of behavior.

I am painting with a broad brush in order to highlight a drift or tendency in modern thought, “a mean, sluggish, careless” streak in the realm of ideas. When a thinker uses a finely tuned instrument his mind—to reach the conclusion that thought cannot be trusted, we have evidence of corruption in philosophy. Let me illustrate.

Philosopher Kings

There are philosophers of considerable and deserved reputation who have dreamed up world views in which human beings figure as creatures of a lesser stature than persons. Be it noted, however, that the philosopher guilty of devaluating personhood generously exempts himself from the strictures he applies to others! Given his blind spot, he concludes that it is only other people, the mass of mankind, who fall within the scheme of manipulable objects; the philosopher who regards us as unpersons finds another category for himself. He’s the philosopher king!

Bertrand Russell, in a celebrated essay entitled “A Free Man’s Worship,” declares that “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves, and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.” In short, we are—along with our beliefs—merely the end result of a chance arrangement of material particles.

It follows, on Lord Russell’s own showing, that his opinion that such is the case is itself only a reflex of an “accidental collocation of atoms.” What point is there in publishing this opinion unless its author regards it as being closer to the truth than alternative views? But can the designation true or false be applied to an “accidental collocation of atoms” or any product thereof? By the internal showing of Russell’s statement, his own beliefs are below the idea level; they are subreason. Furthermore, the publishing of these words bespeaks a wish on the author’s part to persuade other people of the validity of his position. But why bother to offer enlightenment to creatures whose beliefs are nothing but the chance result of blind forces?

Bertrand Russell was immensely gifted as a philosopher and mathematician, but his philosophy is deficient in its attempts to account for self-hood; it has no adequate place for persons. And if Russell is deficient here, how much more deficient are the lesser men who instruct us in the meaning of life!

Philosophical Entrapment

The widespread irrationalism of the present day represents the dead end of a philosophy which developed a world view wherein was no proper niche for the creator of that world view—the philosopher himself! It takes a brilliant and ingenious mind to arrive at such a paradoxical conclusion which so blatantly denied the obvious. Any fool knows that white is white and black, black; so does the wise man. But in between the fool and the wise man are those who are able to argue with perverse brilliance that white is a kind of black.

C. A. Campbell, emeritus professor of philosophy at Glasgow University, makes a sound observation: “As history amply testifies, it is from powerful, original and ingenious thinkers that the queerest aberrations of philosophic theory often emanate. Indeed it may be said to require a thinker exceptionally endowed in these respects if the more paradoxical type of theory is to be expounded in a way which will make it seem tenable even to its author—let alone to the general philosophic public.”

To be a man is to search for meaning. Philosophy begins in wonder, and we can’t help wondering what life is all about, and how human life fits into the total scheme of things. We try to decipher the mysteries of the universe, hoping to obtain a few clues to help us play our roles in life with zest and joy. We wonder if human values and ideals find reinforcement in the nature of things, and if the values that concern us most deeply—love and honor, truth, beauty and goodness—are realities. Or are they merely illusions we cling to for comfort in an otherwise cheerless existence?

We consult the philosophers, and all too many of them are mired in the cults of unreason, meaninglessness, and absurdity. Man is a cosmic accident, they assure us; the universe is a moral and aesthetic blank, completely alien to us. We cannot trust our own thought processes, they say, as they simultaneously downgrade mind and insist that we accept their theories! Well, they can’t have it both ways! Of course, if matter is the ultimate reality, mind is discredited. But if this discredited instrument is all we have to rely on, how can we put any confidence in its findings? If untrustworthy reason tells us that we cannot trust reason, then we have no logical ground for accepting the conclusion that reason is untrustworthy!

Well, I don’t trust the reasoning of people who champion the irrational, and I do know that our reasoning powers may be—like anything else—misused. But when human thought is guided by the rules of logic, undertaken in good faith, and tested by experience and tradition, it is an instrument capable of expanding the domain of truth. Reason is not infallible, but it is infinitely more to be trusted than nonreason!

A Religious World View

Deep down within us we know with solid assurance that we really do belong on this planet; that we are the key component of the total richness. We know this, but we need reminding—as in these words from the gifted and unorthodox thinker, Anthony M. Ludovici:

The profound and cultivated man of wanton spirits, whose sense of self is the outcome of healthy impulses springing from the abundant energy and serenity of his being, not only affirms his own self and the universe with every breath he takes, but, by the intimate knowledge he acquires of life through the intensity of his own vitality, he feels deeply at one with everything else that lives. The intensity of his feeling of life helps him to perceive, behind the external differences of living phenomena, that quality and power which unites him to them. The luxuriant profligacy of nature finds a reflection in his soul, but it also finds an answering note in his feelings. Profound enough not to be deceived by surfaces, he feels the dark mystery behind himself and the rest of life, and what is more important, guesses at the truth that he himself cannot, any more than the daisy or the antelope, stand alone, or dispense with the power which is enveloped in that dark mystery. (Man: An Indictment, p. 204)

These are the authentic accents of a religious world view, and a citizenry in whom this vision lives will invest each person with a sacredness, a protected private domain, a body of rights and immunities. The law, then, is established to secure these prerogatives of the person, and government is limited to those functions which maximize liberty and justice for all. This is Jefferson’s “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion.” This is the free society, and it is not an autonomous social order, suspended in midair, it is based necessarily on a religious foundation.

Freedom in the Market when Options Are Open

Even less autonomous is the free market. Freedom of action in the economic sphere does not beget itself, but a society which maximizes liberty for all persons equally has freedom in economic transactions as well. The free economy, in other words, is simply the label attached to human behavior in the marketplace when our options are open, as they should be.

“The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre observe degree, priority and place.” Shakespeare was right; there is an over-arching Order and Pattern built into the nature of things. Everything has its rightful place in that Order, and each thing after its own kind manifests its peculiar nature—except man.

Man does not simply and naturally manifest his own nature; he is open-ended! Unlike the other orders of creation, man is not infallibly guided by instinct—he is free. Not being locked into a behavior pattern, he has to establish contact with his deeper self, and then properly interpret and carry out its mandates. Only then may he learn to express his true being by conforming himself and all his works to the universal Pattern.

Plato, in the Laws, refers to an ancient saying that God, who holds in his hands beginning, end and middle of all that is, moves through the cycle of nature, straight to His end. And Plato adds:

Justice always follows Him and punishes those who fall short of the divine law. To that Law, he who would be happy holds fast and follows it in all humility and order; but he who is lifted up with pride or money or honour or beauty, who has a soul hot with folly and youth and insolence, and thinks that he has no need of a guide or ruler, but is able of himself to be the guide of others, he, I say, is deserted of God; and being thus deserted he takes to himself others who are like him, and jumps about, throwing all things into confusion, and many think he is a great man. But in a short time he pays the penalty of justice and is utterly destroyed and his family and state with him. (Laws, IV, 716)

We are the architects of our own Leviathan. Whenever a people goes slack, whenever the mean, sluggish, and careless are moved up to the top of the pecking order, then we get an unlovely society to match our own ill nature. But this need not be. The way we express our nature is not fixed in one mode only; we are free to change the pattern of our lives. There is a right way, a way that is good for man, a way that meets the needs and demands of human nature and the human condition, a way that fulfills the law of our being. Walking in that way, men and women find their proper happiness in a free and prosperous commonwealth. []

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.