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Totalitarians & CNN

October 19, 2020

Our cable media barons batter President Donald Trump with criticism of ignoring “science” and failure to use the full powers of the national government to constrain the Coronavirus Pandemic.

CNN tends to be Trump’s worst critic and CNN’s chief executive, Jeff Zucker is motivated by insights that can only be described as “totalitarian.”

What are the intellectual origins of the zeal?

Certainly, President Trump’s personal attacks on CNN play a role, but Zucker is a modern “intellectual” conditioned by the very idea of “the modern” which rejects past concepts of political order.

Enlightenment intellectuals and, especially, Rousseau, shape the “contrarian” impulse in modern intellectuals and our ill-educated class of “journalists.”

Take Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example.

In the political philosophy that shaped the Christian West after the fall of the Roman Empire, a political constitution was understood to be better or worse to the degree that its laws manifested reason. That insight was traced as far back as Plato and Aristotle by Thomas Aquinas and the framers of the American Constitution had read deeply in the works of Cicero that shaped their understanding of natural law (lex naturalis).

The dominant intellectual, of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saw “will” as the factor that legitimizes public order. Whereas for students of Aristotle what is good is a matter of rational public debate by men who have reason (nous), Rousseau’s concept of the General Will thrusts public debate along the lines of a search for the generality of will.

Because “will” lacks specificity, understanding “General Will” preclude the philosophic search for the good. The more removed from the specific, the historical, the concrete, the more general or abstract it becomes, the less claim to rightness does any moral or political judgment have. And yet, for Rousseau, it is the moral legitimacy of a community which actualizes the General Will and gives it importance or justice for Rousseau.

Clearly we are dealing in Rousseau with a new type of political theory, not a mere adjustment of Classical concepts to the problems of the modern era. And that is what Rousseau sets forth his Social Contract: a totally new, modern, view of political order.

Encapsulated in the Enlightenment are indications of a revolutionary political potential, what can be called the experience of “revolt,” of a new view of human nature that sees man as a maker of his own moral nature by collective action, and a new emphasis on procedures and participation in government as the means by which to resolve substantive problems of political order.

In Rousseau’s concept of General Will we see a displacement of an ontologically oriented view of order which judges public policy on the basis of whether or not it serves a knowable common good or interest. Public policy analysis in the tradition from Aristotle to St. Thomas, which is nothing more than an ethical analysis of public action, assumes the need for governors who seek the good in community life. Political community is something natural. It exists not by the will of human beings but because human beings experience it as existing in tension or openness to a good beyond itself.

Rousseau, however, argues that a community is defined only by its own self‑willing. The limits upon political community are immanent in the community. Like Augustine’s concept of the city of man, guided only by immanent, this‑worldly ends, Rousseau’s civil society is a wholly self‑contained polity guided by immanent ends which are discoverable in the General Will, not in the structure of being, of nature, and community.

We have then a dynamic, aggressive, constantly self‑aggrandizing sense of political community, the proto‑type of CNN’s vision of a “Great Society,” but very little that would yield a view of a “Good Society” or the “best” political community.

You can read about the Enlightenment in my Development of Political Theory which is being revised for publication in 2021 or 2022.

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