Before coming to Wesleyan, I didn’t really know what my political beliefs were. I knew I was a Democrat on the left who wanted to stand up to Republican disdain for helping fight social injustices, military hawkishness, and obnoxious religiosity. I assumed I was essentially a moderate liberal, someone who was skeptical of Bernie Sanders but ultimately wanted to move toward a politically progressive future. I decided early in my time at Wesleyan that, for the sake of better understanding what my specific political beliefs were, I should seek out the voices and arguments of articulate people across the political spectrum, from right to left. So, I spent a decent amount of my free time listening to podcasts like “Intellegence2” and “The Rubin Report,” both dedicated to discussing politics and debating ideas with the hope that, by trying to understand the arguments I disagreed with, I’d come to some kind of conclusion about my own beliefs.
Oddly, the evolution of my political beliefs didn’t begin in a political science class; rather, it began in an English class last semester entitled “British Literature in the Enlightenment,” when we read Book IX of John Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost.” While I was initially skeptical of the work (after all, it’s only the tale of how God expelled two people from Paradise for the horrific crime of biting an apple), I was quickly struck by Milton’s breathtaking prose and the poem’s heartbreaking beauty. I was also completely baffled. Why would Milton, who claimed to be trying to “justify the ways of God to men,” choose to make Satan the most intelligent and logical character in the poem? He convinces Eve to bite the forbidden fruit with an impeccable critique of God: how can a fruit, which magically brings life to whoever eats it, bring death? How can God tempt Eve while preventing her from achieving a happier life and be a just ruler? According to Satan, God’s true intentions are simply to keep him and Eve ignorant, preventing them from reaching their true potential as human gods. It was an argument that I, admittedly an atheist, could not find any flaws with.
Confused and fascinated, I decided to read the full poem over the summer, only to believe, with more conviction, that Satan was, in fact, the true hero of the story and that God was irrationally evil. Going through Satan’s actions and speeches in my head over and over again, a thought occurred to me: This is probably how Republicans view everything the left says. Logical arguments in favor of helping people, according to the right, are all just Satanic power grabs and a desire for “big government.”
In my attempt to better understand the political right, I continued down this train of thought and thought about the language the left often uses as part of their political arguments. Far-left Bernie bros, for example, tend to say things like “We need to help people!” and “We can end income inequality!” But the “we” in question is never individual citizens doing the work: It’s activists fighting to elect politicians who will then, if we’re lucky, come close to living up to their lofty promises, assuming they don’t stall economic growth or increase poverty instead. In practice, “solving problems,” as the left passionately argues for, often leads to nothing more than the hiring of bureaucrats who spend taxpayer money paying their salaries and pushing paperwork. The pursuit of happiness and the American Dream are often spoken about as though they mean the outcome of dreams and happiness, rather than the opportunity to achieve them.
Time passed, with the political questions raised by “Paradise Lost” still ringing in my mind. Naturally, I countered my own representations of right-wing arguments with arguments based on utilitarianism, the political philosophy that all political policies should be designed to bring about the most happiness for the greatest amount of people, and this should be determined using mathematics and logic. Good governments could use the tools of mathematics and science to build a more ideal society. The right, then, remained a group of heartless, selfish morons who wanted to keep people in poverty and misery. Still, I went on thinking. What if Milton’s poem was actually a perfect repudiation of utilitarian thinking? After all, Satan’s logic was nearly impeccable, but when put into practice was also destructive and evil. What if the most problematic aspect of Satan’s argument wasn’t his logic against the justness of God, but his appealing point to Eve that she and Adam could live as gods themselves?
Albert Camus made the point rather brilliantly in his essay, “The Rebel,” that the problem with Marxist and Communist revolutions was that they attempted to treat humans as gods with absolute knowledge of morality. The problem was that, in practice, they had to tyrannize and violently destroy anyone who even remotely disagreed with them, as dissidents stood in the way of their holy mission. So, communist utopias of Lenin, Mao, and others became both bleak and violent, and it took decades for these countries to recover and rebuild.
In “Paradise Lost,” Adam and Eve biting an apple from the tree of good and evil leads to the total destruction of Eden, leaving the two lost outside of Eden. The angel Michael then warns them of their dark future, which will play out as the stories from the bible, post-Genesis, eventually leading to the humanity’s potential redemption through Christ. While the biblical stories seem mildly implausible, a fundamental idea remains: once a society is tricked into its own destruction, due to its leader’s desire to play God, a near endless struggle is necessary to rebuild it, if such a thing is even possible.
The problem with utilitarianism, then, is that to put it into practice requires both knowledge of the world that is beyond the understanding of any given individual, and granting politicians enormous, God-like powers over their citizens. No individual person, or even group of people, could ever understand how to build a perfect economy, how to bring about eternal peace on earth, or any of the idealized goals of the left. More importantly, even if politicians were capable of having such knowledge, putting utilitarian policies into practice requires giving them increased control over the lives of their citizens. As the old saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
There are no certainties in life, only uncertainties. It is therefore possible that any attempt to make the world a better place can actually make it worse. Throughout history, there has never been a more deadly combination than human ignorance and desire for power. That, above all else, is the most important lesson of “Paradise Lost.”
So, where exactly do I stand now, politically? I’d like to go with the term classical liberal (a fancier way of saying libertarian), as I remain socially liberal. The real change has come from my belief in what the role of government is, which is essentially to leave people alone. Power to the people shouldn’t mean having to give it to politicians first, who will then somehow regurgitate it back to the citizens they claim to support. Changing the world is a great thing, but it shouldn’t have to require surrendering freedom to the people who already control the NSA, drones, and Guantanamo bay. And the American Dream is something that should be fought for, but it’s not something that can purely be achieved through higher tax rates.
Now, I didn’t dramatically change my political beliefs based purely on an old poem. The arguments of economist Thomas Sowell provided empirical evidence to support my newly formed political philosophy.
However, don’t think for a second that this is some sneaky justification of Donald Trump. I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton this November, mostly because I think a vote for her is the best way to stop Cheeto-faced Mussolini from leading the collapse of civilization.
But, as it stands, the West (both America, with the rise of Trump, and Europe, with the rise of the far-right) is in a perilous position, in which authoritarians threaten democracy and freedom. Assuming the West survives the next four years, a renewed Age of Enlightenment is necessary. For the sake of humanity’s future, classical liberalism must prevail.