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The Power of Vague Things: A Cautionary Tale

The Power of Vague Things: A Cautionary Tale

Paul Valery contends that power is founded on belief (a “vague thing”). Harold J. Berman believes the rule of law relies more on moral force than a police force. Yet the modern positivist worldview emphasizes the practical rather than the moral dimension of power. What are some consequences of this positivist belief? 

Power has only the force we are willing to attribute to it; even the most brutal power is founded on belief. We credit it with the ability to act at all times and everywhere, whereas, in reality it can only act at one point and at a certain moment. In short, all power is exactly in the position of a bank whose existence depends on the sole probability (incidentally, very great) that all its clients will not come at once to draw out their deposits. If, either constantly or at a particular moment, a certain power were summoned to bring its real force to bear in its empire, its strength at each point would be about equal to zero.[1] (Paul Valéry, 1932) 

The medium of exchange in politics is power. It is the all-purpose lubricant for oiling the machinery of government and greasing the palms of public servants. Yet, for all that, it is often regarded as something imaginary. For who has ever beheld power or employed it in its original or pure state? All that we know of power is the reputation that precedes it and the results that follow. Like a catalyst, it cements alliances without entering into any. Only when we realize that “power . . . is essentially a spiritual value” do we “glimpse into the fiduciary life of the world, founded on confidence in man and in the future.”[2]

But we must be careful. Whether that confidence is well-placed or mistaken is not itself a political question. It is a philosophical and, even more, a theological one. The nature of our confidence is disclosed on the touchstone of our “idea of man.” 

All politics imply a certain idea of man. In vain do we limit political objectives, make them as simply or as crude as possible, all politics imply a certain idea of man and of the mind, and a conception of the world.[3] 

The political essays of Paul Valéry, the early twentieth century French poet, may be taken as an illustration. These essays are animated with an obvious affection for the life of the mind and the candor of an uneasy skepticism. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Valery sprinkled his transparent prose with elegant turns of phrase and sparkling epigrams, all the while diagnosing what appeared to him as the terminal condition of the modern intellect. He opened his 1919 essay, “The Crisis of the Mind,” with a somber pronouncement: “We later civilizations . . . we too now know that we are mortal.”[4] 

So many horrors could not have been possible without so many virtues. Doubtless, much science was needed to kill so many, to waste so much property, annihilate so many cities in so short a time; but moral qualities in like numbers were also needed. Are Knowledge and Duty, then, suspect?[5] 

The First World War had shattered faith in reason. It was with no little irony that Valéry wrote of his idol, the intellect: “All our language is composed of brief little dreams and the wonderful thing is that we sometimes make of them strangely accurate and marvelously reasonable thought.”[6] Like Francisco Goya, Valéry grew to believe that “the dream of reason produces monsters.” Or, as the Greeks expressed it: hubris begets nemesis. After the same fashion, Fyodor Dostoevsky speculated that out of the promethean optimism of western humanism modern man had built for himself crystal palaces too cold and sterile for human habitation. Valery similarly imagined “an intellectual Hamlet, meditating on the life and death of truths.”[7] 

By giving the name of progress to its own tendency to a fatal precision, the world is seeking to add to the benefits of life the advantages of death. A certain confusion still reigns; but in a little while all will be made clear, and we shall witness at last the miracle of an animal society, the perfect and ultimate anthill.[8] 

These words expressed Valéry’s judgment, if not yet history’s last final verdict, on the corrosive effects of the Cartesian worldview, a view to which Valéry subscribed. His aim was to show what the mind “has made of the world and how, in particular, it has produced modern society, in which order and disorder, equally and for the same reason, are its handiwork.”[9] René Descartes had begun with the premise, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Valéry carried this thought to its extreme and discovered a dilemma. Starting with the self, how does one arrive at society? Or vice versa? 

On the one hand, the mind is opposed to the mass: it wants to be itself, and even to extend, endlessly, the domain in which the self is master. On the other hand, it is forced to recognize society, a world of wills and human hopes all limiting one another; and sometimes it wants to perfect, at other times to destroy, the order it finds there.[10] 

This is the ancient dilemma of “the one and the many.” It is also, for the Christian, a consequence of the fall of man into sin. The typical response in western philosophy has been to reify, or materialize, the dialectic of propositional thought. Hence, we tend to think dualistically: mind and matter, grace and nature, realism and nominalism. But by choosing, we impale ourselves on one or another horn of the dilemma. 

. . . In the modern world the difference between the idea of man proposed by science and philosophy and the idea of man implied in our legislation and all our political, moral, or social notions, is increasing. There is already an abyss between them. . . .[11] 

The difference persists. The crisis of the mind depicted by Valery was – and is – a crisis of confidence, which is to say, a crisis of faith. He conceded as much: “Let me first say that the whole social structure is founded on belief and trust. All power is based on these psychological traits. . . .”[12] But belief in what? Trust in whom? 

. . . The growth . . . of the positivist mentality is undermining the ancient foundations of society. It must be acknowledged that our ruin has been hastened by the greatest minds (Voltaire, for example). Even in the sciences the task of criticism has proved singularly necessary and fruitful. The greatest minds are always skeptical minds. Yet they do believe in something; they believe in whatever makes them greater. This was the case, for example, with Napoleon, who believed in his star, that is, himself. Now, not to believe in the common beliefs is obviously to believe in oneself, and often in oneself alone.[13] 

The idea of man implied by modern politics is a broken one. The God who created man in his own image man is replaced by a new idol, such as Valéry’s notion of the intellect. But the alter ego of the rationalist is the skeptic. By coveting a place on a pedestal or throne of its own making, the intellect risks being toppled by its own iconoclastic whims. The rebel will not abide any god, not even himself. If he despises a mere earthly domain and seeks dominion over all that his mind surveys, he is apt to end up chasing phantoms in a frenzied dialectic, as Henri Bergson recognized.[14] The modern skeptic, in denying his creaturehood, may fancy himself either a plaything of chance or a ward of the state, but very often adopts both views.[15]

But perhaps the claim to total freedom is a demand for total control.[16] In his treatise on natural law, Heinrich Rommen asserts: 

the doctrine of autonomy of human reason . . . led straight to an extravagance of syllogistic reasoning, of deductively constructed systems that served to regulate all legal institutions down to the minutest detail: the civil law governing debts, property, the family, and inheritances as well as constitutional and international law.[17] 

By the time of Valery, the dream of reason had become so convoluted in its dialectic that little remained besides its paradoxes. At each point in its empire its strength was about equal to zero.

Valéry could not see beyond this apparent chaos. His was a vision of the intellectually insolvent western civilization which characterized the two decades following the First World War: “. . . Our Hamlet of Europe is watching millions of ghosts.[18] His contemporary, William Butler Yeats, who was prone to mysticism, wrote: “Things fall apart: the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .” Many concluded that civilization had reached an impasse; the tree of knowledge had borne evil fruit. A general political and cultural “run on the bank” took place in those years.

The moral of the tale is summed up in the title of a book by Richard Weaver: “Ideas Have Consequences.”[19] Valéry’s idea involved a conflict between reason and the social order: 

Thought has to develop, and it has to be preserved. It can advance only by extremes, but it can endure only by means. Extreme order, which is automatism, would be its ruin; extreme disorder would bring it even more quickly to the abyss.[20] 

Elsewhere, Valery wrote that the ever tighter rational organization of the world is making “the vagueness of vague things . . . more and more obvious. . . .”[21] He believed that the social, judicial, and political worlds are essentially mythical worlds, the products of “a host of more or less venerable sentiments that all oddly intermingle and combine. . . .”[22] 

. . . If we tried to apply, in the realm of politics, the ideas about man which we find in the current doctrines of science, life would probably become unbearable for most of us. There would be a general revolt of feeling in the face of such strict application of perfectly rational data. For it would end, in fact, by classifying each individual, invading his personal life, sometimes killing or mutilating certain degenerate or inferior types. . . .[23] 

Valéry wanted to shut the gates against a diffusion of the intellectual capital of Europe throughout the world.[24] By contrast, a contemporary of his, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, welcomed a dawning of universal history: “The flag of humanity overshadows all the national flags. Mere distance no longer makes us act as foes and belligerents. . . .”[25] But Rosenstock also observed that, as a consequence, all wars were becoming civil wars or revolutions. The machinery of war was coming to be used more and more for internal purposes. “It is a great moment in the history of humankind when the energies of the race shift from martial laws to civil emergency laws. The armies enlisted against territorial enemies are superseded or outstripped by armies enlisting against nature. . . .”[26] Society now had to contend with a new reality that both divided and redefined it. “This is a stage of human growth in which common language and traditional values lose their grip on the individual. We see him falter.[27]

Ideas have consequences. Paul Valéry wrote as a person caught in the transition from one idea of man to another, who had to endure what he thought would be unbearable but to which later generations have become somewhat adjusted.[28] Richard Weaver’s observations bears directly on the checkered history of the subject at hand: the epistemological and ontological Battle of the Universals that beset the late medieval and modern church and state. Equally applicable is Valéry’s observation that all politics presupposes or implies a certain idea of man. Apart from what we may consider normal institutional rivalries, the historic issue between church and state, like the ideological battles of today, involves ultimate values, loyalties, and obligations: what Valéry, like positivist, considered vague things.

The question is simply this: what idea of man will prevail and who will set the cultural agenda? Despite the frequent vagueness of the ideological justifications offered by each side, a “fatal precision” often characterizes the points at issue so that otherwise minor considerations become major tests of will. There are no neutral corners in matters of faith and politics. Every choice is an act of faith and a commitment to a point of view. The way we address issues bears witness to where we place our confidence. This is just as true of institutional decisions. As Valéry recognized, even the most brutal power is founded on belief. Like the medieval nominalists and realist, today’s liberals and conservatives share a common language – the lingua franca of faith – and must appeal to sources and symbols of power that are often identical. The bone of contention between them hinges on the issue of sovereignty: Who makes the rules, when, where, and on what authority? The nature of the issue is well stated by R. J. Rushdoony: 

Most of the present concern about the trends of these times is literally wasted on useless effort because those who guide the activities cannot resolve, with the philosophical tools at hand to them, the problem of authority. This is at the heart of the problem of the proper function of government, the power to tax, to conscript, to execute for crimes, and to wage warfare. The question of authority is again basic to education, to religion, and to the family. Where does authority rest, in democracy or in an elite, in the church or in some secular institution, in God or in reason?[29] 

Lessons gleaned from a consideration of the historical relationship between church and state – as well as between national sovereignty and regional or global governance today – may direct us toward giving a more sympathetic scrutiny to some of the political conflicts generated by any institutional separation of independent spheres of authority. The American founders believed that a separation and balancing of powers within a federal system is a vital safeguard for preserving the rule of law within a constitutionally limited government. All other roads – whether those that undercut self-governing individuals, families, and communities, or those that concentrate power and thereby thrust Augustine’s libido dominandi into irresponsible or usurping hands – lead to tyranny. Here we may learn from Tacitus, who used the words of a captured Scottish chieftain to indict his fellow Romans at the end of chapter 30 of Agricola: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” 

Photo: “Genius of Water”. Sculpture by S. Zaniboni. Source:


[1]Paul Valéry, The Collected Works of Paul Valery, vol. 10: History and Politics, ed. Jackson Mathews, Bollingen Series 45 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962), 106-07. Valéry appears to consider chiefly the practical rather than the moral dimension of power: one of the “vague things” he discusses. Contrast Harold Berman, who used similar language to describe the consequences of losing this belief: “One who rules by law is not compelled to be everywhere with his police force. I think this point is proved today in a negative way by the fact that in our cities that branch of the law in which the sanctions are most severe, namely the criminal law, has been powerless to create fear when it has failed to create respect by other means.” Harold Berman, “The Interaction of Law and Religion," Mercer Law Review, 31 (1980): 409.

[2]Ibid. 106.

[3]Ibid. 103

[4]Ibid. 23.

[5]Ibid. 24.

[6]Ibid. 42.

[7]Ibid. 29.

[8]Ibid. 30.

[9]Ibid. 102.

[10]Ibid. 102.

[11]Ibid. 103.

[12]Ibid. 105.

[13]Ibid. 106.

[14]Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Law and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1935), 296.

[15]See, e.g., Roderick Seidenberg, Posthistoric Man: An Inquiry (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 91-107; Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962), 203-15, 264-69; Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 160-80.

[16]See Rousas John Rushdoony, Law and Liberty (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Pres, 1977), 11-15.

[17]Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, trans. Thomas R. Hanley (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Company, 1947), pp. 93-94, cited by James McClellan, Joseph Story and the American Constitution: A Study in Political and Legal Thought (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 13. By contrast, the Constitution of 1787 begins with the words: “We the People.” It was written in the name of a nation of self-governing individuals who embodied a civil society that submitted itself to the rule of law. John Adams, who had earlier served on the committee which prepared the Declaration of Independence, later stipulated: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

[18]Valéry, History and Politics, 29.

[19]Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[20]Valéry, History and Politics, 314.

[21]Ibid. 106.

[22]Ibid. 103.

[23]Ibid. 103.

[24]Ibid. 36.

[25]Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (New York: William Morrow, 1938), 18.

[26]Ibid. 21.

[27]Ibid. 20.

[28]Alexis de Tocqueville, Francis Lieber, and Hilaire Belloc were among those who took early notice that a new form of despotism, servility, and dependency was arising in an age of advancing science and technology.

[29]Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Fairfax, Va.: Thoburn Press, 1978), 1.




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OEconomica No. 1, 2016