Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” That lapidary observation from the Sermons (1726) of Joseph, Bishop Butler, is one of the most profound philosophical observations I have ever encountered. One of the simplest, too. In nine short words, it introduces a principle of mental hygiene that Marxists, Freudians, Hegelians, astrologers, sociobiologists, and other lovers of mystification ignore at their—or, more to the point, at our—peril.
Butler’s chief target was what we now call the selfish theory of human nature—the “strange affection in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise in self-love.” Butler zeros in on the fundamental confusion that nurtures this unflattering view of humanity. It is this: a (deliberate?) confusion between the proposition that we cannot knowingly act except from a desire or interest which is our own, and the proposition that all of our actions are self-interested.
The first is not only true, it is a necessary truth: it could not be otherwise. The second proposition— that all of our actions are self-interested—far from being self-evidently true, is a scandalous falsehood.
It is a tautology that any interest we have is an interest of our own: whose else could it be? But the objects of our interest are as varied as the world is wide.
No doubt much of what we do we do from motives of self-interest. But we might also do things for the sake of flag and country; for the love of a good woman; for the love of God; to discover a new country; to benefit a friend; to harm an enemy; to make a fortune; to spend a fortune.
“It is not,” Butler notes, “because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects, but because we have particular affections towards them.” How much wandering in mental thickets might have been avoided had Sigmund Freud acquainted himself with Butler’s Sermons?
Not, in truth, that I think it would have saved the world from the nonsense of Freudianism, any more than it would have saved the world from the monstrosity that is Hegel’s dialectic. Motives more powerful than the search for truth stand behind the erection of those mental bureaucracies, and it would be idle to think that mere logical cleanliness would rescue us from the egotism of intellectuals.
A Monolithic Wall of Noise
I begin with Bishop Butler’s incandescent observation because I am going to say a few words that might seem—but only seem—to contradict them. As we look around at American society today, what do we see? A confusing mélange that seems partly mindless, partly vicious. Our response to the latest Chinese import, the novel coronavirus—what was that? How long will we be in sorting out the petty and sometimes murderous tyrannies enacted by various state governors and other officials?
And what about the malignant nonsense that is Black Lives Matter? How did that happen? How is it that celebrities, major corporations, and tony schools and colleges experienced simultaneous multiple paroxysms of woke self-abasement because a lowlife career criminal with serious cardiac problems died in police custody? How do you go from an arrest in Minneapolis to the desecration of the Lincoln Memorial, the looting and burning of businesses across the country, and a regime of racially based (and racially biased) communal penance?
I do not believe I am violating the principle of Bishop Butler’s argument when I say that almost everything happening in our society—all the craziness, all the posturing, all the distracting noise, exaggeration, and downright mendacity—all of it is not about itself but about something else, and that something else is Donald Trump.