NL XXV: The Three Laws of Politics

Index to this series

A pervading theme of the New Leviathan is freedom of will. Whether we actually have it is only a pseudo-problem (13. 17). Some persons have been fooled into thinking it a problem, perhaps by the misleading myth that free will is a divine gift, like life itself, breathed into our nostrils when, in Genesis 2:7, God forms us of the dust of the ground. As Collingwood observes at the end of Chapter XXIII, “The Family As a Society,” we are born neither free nor in chains. We have to grow up. Growing up is becoming free.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb (New York: Norton, 2009)

How we grow up is something of a mystery. Maturation is allowed, but not enjoined, by the three laws of politics in the title of Chapter XXV. These laws are not the physical laws described by Einstein in the same birthday address for Planck that I quoted for Chapter XIX, the first of Part II, “Society.”

According to Einstein, the physicist “must content himself with describing the most simple events which can be brought within the domain of our experience.” Einstein asks, “Does the product of such a modest effort deserve to be called by the proud name of a theory of the universe?” I think it doesn’t, but Einstein does:

In my belief the name is justified; for the general laws on which the structure of theoretical physics is based claim to be valid for any natural phenomenon whatsoever. With them, it ought to be possible to arrive at the description, that is to say, the theory, of every natural process, including life, by means of pure deduction, if that process of deduction were not far beyond the capacity of the human intellect. The physicist’s renunciation of completeness for his cosmos is therefore not a matter of fundamental principle.

On the contrary, not every event is a natural phenomenon, but may be an act of will. We discussed this for Chapter XXI, “Society as Joint Will,” when we observed that the organization of a society as such is not natural. We recalled the distinction from Chapter I, “Body and Mind,” between natural science and science of mind. We can consider these sciences to have the same object of study, which is ultimately the whole universe or cosmos; but they study it quâ body and quâ mind, respectively.

For Einstein himself, a physical account of the universe may seem incomplete, because it cannot account for the discovery of physical laws in the first place.

The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.

Einstein seems to think there is a way around this problem, as if the world still necessitates its own theory. His paragraph continues as follows.

In this methodological uncertainty, one might suppose that there were any number of possible systems of theoretical physics all equally well justified; and this opinion is no doubt correct, theoretically. But the development of physics has shown that at any given moment, out of all conceivable constructions, a single one has always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest. Nobody who has really gone deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibnitz described so happily as a “pre-established harmony.” Physicists often accuse epistemologists of not paying sufficient attention to this fact. Here, it seems to me, lie the roots of the controversy carried on some years ago between Mach and Planck.

Collingwood himself had an issue with epistemologists who gave inadequate consideration to the actual pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps they had not really engaged in it, but had tried to be philosophers simply, and not also scientists or, like Collingwood, historians. Through his own pursuit of archeology,

I was only rediscovering for myself, in the practice of historical research, principles which Bacon and Descartes had stated, three hundred years earlier, in connexion with the natural sciences. Each of them had said very plainly that knowledge comes only by answering questions, and that these questions must be the right questions and asked in the right order. And I had often read the works in which they said it; but I did not understand them until I had found the same thing out for myself.

This is in An Autobiography (1939), where Collingwood describes his colleagues as having a more primitive view than his own.

The Oxford ‘realists’ talked as if knowing were a simple ‘intuiting’ or a simple ‘apprehending’ of some ‘reality’. At Cambridge, Moore expressed, as I thought, the same conception when he spoke of the ‘transparency’ of the act of knowing; so did Alexander, at Manchester, when he described knowing as the simple ‘compresence’ of two things, one of which was a mind…

This doctrine, which was rendered plausible by choosing as examples of knowledge statements like ‘this is a red rose’, ‘my hand is resting on the table’, where familiarity with the mental operations involved has bred not so much contempt as oblivion, was quite incompatible with what I had learned in my ‘laboratory’ of historical thought…

Collingwood’s laboratory was the archeological site, where you don’t do a lot of preliminary work and only then come to know something. The knowing comes about all along, as you raise questions and answer them.

I am not prepared to say that Collingwood’s concerns have anything to do with the debate between Mach and Planck to which Einstein refers. I know little of the debate itself and shall only pass along a quotation of Mach about Planck, given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

After exhorting the reader, with Christian charity, to respect his opponent, P. brands me, in the well-known biblical words, as a “false prophet.” It appears that the physicists are on the way to founding a church; they are already using a church’s traditional weapons. To this I answer simply: “If belief in the reality of atoms is so important to you, I cut myself off from the physicist’s mode of thinking, I do not wish to be a true physicist, I renounce all scientific respect—in short: I decline with thanks the communion of the faithful. I prefer freedom of thought.”

I started to talk about Collingwood’s three laws of politics. They are not like the Maxwell Equations, which some enthusiasts of physics have tattooed on their bodies.

From Karen Burnham, Spiral Galaxy Musings

Collingwood’s laws are:

  1. “a body politic is divided into a ruling class and a ruled class” (25. 7),
  2. “the barrier between the two classes is permeable in an upward sense” (25. 8),
  3. “there is a correspondence between the ruler and the ruled” (25. 9).

In high school, a physics teacher showed me an advanced textbook that began with Newton’s Second Law, perhaps in the symbolic form F = ; everything was to be derived from this. Collingwood’s laws come at the end of the sixth chapter of Part II, as a summary of what he has already said. Collingwood is opinionated about his order of presentation; at least he was in writing his second book, Speculum Mentis (1924), in whose Preface he says,

The conventional limitations to the size of books have more effect upon the choice of their contents than readers are apt to imagine; and the internal capacity of his expected guest imposes an absolute limit on the hospitality of any host. I would venture to dwell on the parallel. The reader is partaking of a meal set before him by the writer, and is bound to him by the tie of hospitality given and received. Let him be content to eat what is set before him in the order in which it appears, and not call for the cheese when the fish is being served, or complain of not being given three different entrées instead of the joint…

Collingwood does not want to state his laws first, then explain them; he prefers to build up to them. We have seen what they mean.

  1. If a community is “closed under familial relations,” as we might say in mathematics,—if the community contains the family members of all of its members—then it must have a ruling class that is smaller than the whole community, since there will be children in the community. These, at least, cannot rule themselves.
  2. Children normally grow up to become fully members of their families, in the sense of being in their ruling class. Likewise, the ruling class of a body politic needs to take in new members, if only because the existing members retire and die.
  3. Slave-masters become slavish themselves (21. 76).

In the present Chapter XXV, Collingwood expands on some of these points before formalizing them into the Three Laws.

In a body politic, call the ruling class the council; the ruled class, the nursery (25. 17). The constitutional problem arises, “of determining a way of life for the council; of determining a way of life for the nursery; and of determining the relation between the two” (25. 26).

25. 28. Because the composition of a body politic is always changing the constitutional problem can never be solved once for all; there must always be a ‘state’ ready to solve it. The ‘state’, therefore, is a permanent society.

The distinction between permanent and temporary societies was made at the end of Chapter XXI. The permanence of the state is inferred from the persistence with which people keep having babies. We previewed this for Chapter XXIII. Collingwood has a rhetorical aim. He is doing his part in a war against Fascists and Nazis, whom he will call “specialists in obsolete ideas” (25. 35), though allowing their nonsense to be intended not as sense, but as threat (25. 37).

Historians have pushed too far the analogy between the family and the state. Collingwood affirmed Bacon’s idea of knowledge, in the quotation above from An Autobiography; now he disputes Bacon’s idea of the state.

25. 31. Bacon was repeating a commonplace of the time when he wrote that ‘In the youth of a state, arms do flourish; in the middle age of a state, learning; and then both of them together for a time; in the declining age of a state, mechanical arts and merchandize’ (Essay lvii, Of the Vicissitude of Things).

This cannot be right, because a state has no youth, middle age, or declining age. The state is eternal, because new children are always being born, and they cannot rule themselves, and so the constitutional problem of how to rule them is always being solved anew; there can be no “final solution” (25. 34).

25. 35. The error was already ancient when Bacon repeated it. In our own time it has been revived, like many other long-exploded errors, by those specialists in obsolete ideas, the Fascists of Italy and the Nazis of Germany.

25. 36. Mistakenly thinking that the histories of Italy and Germany begin respectively with Cavour and Bismarck or thereabouts, or even later, they boast of their own political youth and declare France or England, whose history is notoriously longer than that, to be senile.

25. 37. This is nonsense, and nonsense many centuries out of date. However, to do them justice, they do not mean it for sense. They mean it for a threat, and their meaning is well enough understood: ‘Thinking you richer and weaker than ourselves, we propose to attack you and steal your wealth.’

One may object that Collingwood has forgotten another distinction in Chapter XXI, between the universal society and the particular society. Being coeval with humanity, the universal society is permanent; but what about a particular society, such as France or Italy? In reviewing the first edition of Collingwood’s Idea of History (1946), edited postumously by Knox, Leo Strauss is critical of the kind of fuzziness that Collingwood displays on such points. This is from page 563 of The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. V, No. 4, June 1952:

There is a tension between the idea of universal history and the view that in history “the mind of the present day apprehends the process by which this mind itself has come into existence through the mental development of the past” (169). If the modern Western historian studies Greek civilization, he may be said to re-enact the genesis of his own civilization, which has formed itself “by reconstructing within its own mind the mind of the Hellenic world” and thus to enter upon the possession of his inheritance (163, 226–27); he may be said to attempt to understand himself as modern Western man, or to mind his own business. But the case of the modern Western historian who studies Chinese or Inca civilization is obviously different. Collingwood did not reflect on this difference. He justly rejected Spengler’s view that “there is no possible relation whatever between one culture and another.” But he failed to consider the fact that there are cultures which have no actual relations with one another, and the implications of this fact: he dogmatically denied the possibility of “separate, discrete” cultures because it would destroy the dogmatically assumed “continuity of history” as universal history (161–64, 183).

For Chapter XXII, I observed that Collingwood’s concern was a civil war within Europe. Again, the societies of Europe are not natural organisms, but ongoing acts of will. As guidance for what to do next, anybody in Europe may draw on the example of Cavour, or Bismarck, or Robespierre, or Cromwell. There is no external necessity to follow a particular course. As Thoreau writes at the end of Walden,

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeen-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine.

The government of Britain may have been so framed, but need not go on being so. We can change more than our clothes.

If you think free will is an illusion, this thought is itself an illusion. Addicts of tobacco or video games are under the illusion that they cannot quit. They deny evidence to the contrary. Do other persons quit all the time? There must be some accidental reason for this. The illusion of powerlessness is attractive. Freedom is frightening. Thus some persons never grow up. Some parents do not allow their children to grow up. They keep them as pets, as in Chapter XXIII; they keep them as servants, particularly if they are girls, as I see in Turkey. Some parents do however raise children so that they may join the proper society of the family. This means becoming capable of independent life. This is gaining freedom of will.


Students under threat

If you say then that all adult animals should be considered as having free will, I might not deny this. At the end of his first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916), Collingwood himself concludes that every event is an act of will. I discussed this in “Freedom.” There are however gradations. For convenience, we now distinguish between the council and the nursery, where membership depends on whether one has free will; but the distinction is fuzzy.

25. 41. Will depends on freedom; and freedom is a matter of degree (21. 8). This complicates our simplest possible analysis of the body politic without, however, falsifying it.

Maybe you have the strength of will to carry on tedious business for eight hours a day, or to give up refined sugar, but not to quit smoking. Collingwood is more vague. As if it were a titled aristocracy, Collingwood’s ruling class is divided into subclasses; but membership is not by birth.

25. 47. The highest subclass will consist of those members who are able to resist the severest emotional strains and make a free decision about the hardest political problems in the hardest circumstances.

According to my memory, a Washington politician once needed to take a break from the strain of governing, in order to work on himself; an editorialist in the Washington Post wrote satirically as if Churchill had done the same thing, and this was now praised by scholars at a university in London with a German name.

The ruling class becomes a hierarchy, according to strength of will. Collingwood explains further while also turning to the ruled class, the “nursery.”

25. 5. Something of the same kind happens in the ruled class. Here, however, the subdivision rests not on differential strength of will, whether innate or produced by some kind of education; but on what I will call, borrowing a word from the theory of magnetism and electricity, ‘induction’.

In Collingwood’s example, if you are strong-willed, you may go into battle on your own (25. 54). If you have no will to do so, you may be forced by your commanding officer’s revolver. If you are only weak-willed, you may nonetheless follow your commanding officer’s example (25. 55): this is induction (25. 56).

25. 59. This ‘induction’ is not radically different from education. The inductive process often repeated is an important part of all education. Response to good leadership is part of becoming a good leader. And conversely a good leader is always teaching his followers to become leaders in their turn.

This reflects what good he sees in his own education, as he recalls it in An Autobiography:

If my five years at Rugby were mainly waste, the fault lies partly with the obvious faults of the English public-school system; partly with Rugby as a bad example of that system, though among its faults I do not reckon the institution of fagging or that of government by members of the sixth form, both of which I count as virtues; partly with my father, who gave me an adult scholar’s attitude towards learning while I was still a child, realizing, as I now think, what the results would be, but judging the game worth the candle; and partly with myself, for being a conceited puppy and an opinionated prig.

Education needs induction. I wrote, “All You Need Is Love.” Induction itself would seem to need something like what I called love.

Perhaps one would rather call it admiration or respect. Respect may be a good word, for recalling Chapter XIII, “Choice,” where it is argued that freedom is achieved by what is, positively, acceptance of unhappiness (13. 29), and negatively, self-denial (13. 3). What you gain by this is self-respect (13. 31), but this is not why you become free (13. 32), since this act itself is not voluntary. Collingwood considers a person like the soldier who can go to battle only under another’s leadership; now it is somebody who is mentally mature, but does not know it (13. 61). This person needs to have their self-respect aroused (13. 63).

13. 64. This arousing of self-respect is extremely important in the practice of government and education. Persons thus engaged constantly find themselves meeting men who are incapable of decision. The rule for overcoming this state is: ‘Arouse his self-respect.’

I try to do this in mathematics, where I want students to learn both their their power to decide for themselves what is correct, and their obligation to resolve disagreements peacefully, to the satisfaction of everybody who is interested. I discussed this in “The Point of Teaching Mathematics.”

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