The modern age is sometimes said to have begun with the founding of the Royal Society in 1670. The motto of that society, nullius in verba, is usually translated as “take nobody’s word for it” This insolent attitude of skepticism and free enquiry drove the Liberal revolution that transformed our material, political, social and spiritual worlds.
A little more than a century later, Immanuel Kant gave the Liberal revolution another slogan when he challenged men to “sapere aude,” by which he meant they should have the audacity to think for themselves.
“Have courage to make use of thy own understanding!”*
It is therefore ironic, if not surprising, that the Liberal revolution produced our world, in which we are slaves to credentialed experts, and sapere aude is not so much a challenge as a dare.
“Have courage to make use of thy own understanding.
You are going to need it!”
Serious thinkers always understood that this would happen. In every great revolution, the initial, critical phase gives way to a “legislative” phase in which an ever-widening domain of public doctrine is placed “beyond discussion.” More and more science is “settled,” more and more history is “ended,” more and more dissent is outlawed as “superstition,” “prejudice” and “hate.”
This is why it nowadays takes more and more courage to follow Kant’s dictum and make use of one’s own understanding.
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The trick for the Liberal revolution is that it must allow thoughtful men and women to feel they are following Kant’s dictum, and making use of their own understandings, while the judgements delivered by that understanding are in fact “legislated.” It does this by legislating approved methods of understanding. It calls these approved methods, “reason,” “rationality,” “science,” and “critical thinking.”
Liberal totalitarianism is methodological rather than dogmatic.**
The difference between telling us what to think and telling us how to think is, in fact, no difference at all. The intellectual freedom afforded by Liberalism therefore resembles the freedom Henry Ford gave his customers when he said they could purchase a model T in any color they liked, so long as it was black. We are likewise free to think anything we like, so long our thinking follows the methods that Liberal thinking approves.
For the many who would prefer to do no thinking at all, Liberalism of course publishes the answers produced by its methods; and many are, indeed, happy to accept these answers without doing the math.
This is how Liberal public doctrine is “legislated” without apparent coercion or control. The multitude thinks what it is told to think; the intellectual minority thinks how it is told to think; and a decisive majority ends up thinking more or less alike.
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You have likely read the quote of Amschel Rothschild saying,
“Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws!”
This neatly expresses the idea that the real seat of power is very often hidden—and nowhere more completely hidden than in a “free” society. To adapt Rothchild’s dictum to the world of thought:
“Permit me to issue and control the methods of thought, and I care not who does the thinking.”
*) Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightening” (1784).
**) Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism, second edition (1990).