Friday, June 16, 2017

Gordon Wood on Conspiratorial mindsets

From: The Idea of America
Hofstadter said his use of “paranoid style” was not intended to suggest any medical or clinical significance; he meant only to use the term metaphorically to describe “a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself.” Medically, as he pointed out, paranoia is defined as a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution. However overly suspicious and apocalyptical in expression American paranoid spokesmen may have been, said Hofstadter, they could not be described as “certifiable lunatics.” Yet-and it was a very big, drawn-out yet-this style was not quite normal; it was, Hofstadter wrote, “a distorted style” and thus “a possible signal that may alert us to a distorted judgment.” It indicated that some kind of “political pathology” was at work; it was a recurrent mode of expression in American public life “which has frequently been linked with movements of suspicious discontent.” Although believers in conspiracy may not have been crazy, they were persons, Hofstadter suggested, who had perverse and fanciful views of reality and were thus fit subjects for the application of some sort of “depth psychology.”

Other historians, sharing Hofstadter’s assumption that politics was often “a projective arena for feelings and impulses that are only marginally related to the manifest issues,” also sought to relate Americans. recurring fears of conspiracy to some underlying social or psychological process.‘ Some thought “that fear of conspiracy characterizes periods when traditional social and moral values are undergoing change” and therefore focused on the unusual fluidity of American society. People who were unsure of their identity and status, socially disrupted or alienated in some way, were, it seemed, especially susceptible to conspiratorial interpretations of events. Possibly, suggested David Brion Davis, who has most meticulously uncovered the conspiratorial fears of nineteenth” century Americans, various groups, from Anti-Masons to opponents of the Slave Power, found in the paranoid style a common means of expressing their different torments and troubles. Obviously, historians were careful to note, the great numbers of people who relied on such imagery of subversion--from Abraham Lincoln to Justice Robert H. Jackson-could not be dismissed as “Charlatans, crackpots, and the disaffected.” Davis in particular warned against any facile assumption “that the fear of subversion is always generated by internal, psychological needs." Despite such qualifications and cautions, however, the implications of these historical accounts of the paranoid style were clear: Americans seemed prone to fears of subversion, and these fears were symptomatic of severe social and psychological strains. 

Once America’s paranoid style was revealed to be so prevalent, its connection with the ideology of the Revolution became inevitable. Not only was Bailyn’s account of the colonists’ fears of conspiracy widely reprinted, but historians now suggested that the Revolution had set “the basic pattern” of the paranoid style. “Is it possible,” asked Davis, “that the circumstances of the Revolution conditioned Americans to think of resistance to a dark subversive force as the essential ingredient of their national identity. With the paranoid style associated with the ideology of the Revolution in this way, historians were quick to find traces of it everywhere in their sources. Although Bailyn had stressed in his Ideological Origins the rational basis of the colonists’ fears, the term “paranoia” soon proliferated in historical writings on the Revolution. “The insurgent Whig ideology,” it now seemed clear, “had a frenzied, even paranoid cast to it,” and leaders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were even accused of suffering from some form of paranoia. The mounting evidence could lead to only one conclusion: “The era of the American Revolution was a period of political paranoia” in which “visions of conspiracy were endemic.”
In many cases these references to paranoia were clearly metaphorical, But given the current interest in psychohistory, it is not surprising that other references to paranoia have taken on an authentically psychological character, presuming a close connection between paranoid thinking and particular psychic sensibilities. Some historians, while acknowledging that the American Whigs’ belief in a ministerial design against their liberties may have had some rational and conscious sources, have emphasized that “the fear of conspiracy also had roots buried deeply in the innermost recesses of the psyches of numerous Americans.” Certain types of colonists unconsciously experienced tensions and anxieties over their personal autonomy and sexual identities that may very well have shaped their public fears and fostered their sense of conspiracies endangering them.

Other writers, taking Bailyn’s argument as a “point of departure,” have attempted a stark and quite literal “psychological interpretation of the coming of the Revolution,” even going so far as to suggest that the Revolutionary leaders were clinically paranoiac-that is, that they were suffering from actual delusions of persecution and were unable to assess reality in a rational fashion. Far from being profoundly reasonable men, they were “prone to emotional instability, predisposed to psychological problems, vulnerable to them under the goad of an appropriate precipitant,” like the Stamp Act, which left “in its wake the paranoid delusions that Britain was conspiring to enslave Americans.”


 Conspiracies like those of Charles II’s Cabal became less matters of fact and more matters of inference. Accounts of plots by court or government were no longer descriptions of actual events but interpretations of otherwise puzzling concatenations of events. By the eighteenth century conspiracy was not simply a means of explaining how rulers were deposed; it had become a common means of explaining how rulers and others directing political events really operated. It was a term used not so much by those intimate with the sources of political events as by those removed from the events and, like Farquhar’s Scrub, bewildered by them. 

Unlike the schemes of antiquity and the Renaissance, which flowed from the simplicity and limitedness of politics, the conspiratorial interpretations of the Augustan Age flowed from the expansion and increasing complexity of the political world. Unprecedented demographic and economic developments in early modern Europe were massively altering the nature of society and politics. There were more people more distanced from one another and from the apparent centers of political decision making. The conceptual worlds of many individuals were being broadened and transformed. The more people became strangers to one another and the less they knew of one another’s hearts, the more suspicious and mistrustful they became, ready as never before in Western history to see deceit and deception at work. Relationships between superiors and subordinates, rulers and ruled, formerly taken for granted, now became disturbingly problematical, and people became uncertain of who was who and who was doing what. Growing proportions of the population were more politically conscious and more concerned with what ‘seemed to be the abused power and privileges of ruling elites. Impassioned efforts were made everywhere to arouse “the vigilance of the public eye” against those few men “who cannot exist without a scheme in their heads,” those “turbulent, scheming, maliciously cunning, plotters of mischief.” The warnings against rulers grew more anxious and fearful, the expressions of suspicion more frenzied and strident, because assumptions about how public affairs operated became more and more separated from reality. It was easy for a fifteenth century nobleman, describing political events, to say that “it will be sufficient to speak of the high-ranking people, for it is through them that God’s power and justice are made known.” But by the eighteenth century this tracing of all events back to the ambitions and actions of only the high-ranking leaders was being stretched to the breaking point. Society was composed not simply of great men and their retainers but of numerous groups, interests, and “classes” whose actions could not be easily deciphered. Human affairs were more complicated, more interdependent, and more impersonal than they had ever been in Western history. 

Yet at this very moment when the world was outrunning man’s capacity to explain it in personal terms, in terms of the passions and schemes of individuals, the most enlightened of the age were priding themselves on their ability to do just that. The widespread resort to conspiratorial interpretations grew out of this contradiction. 

CONSPIRATORIAL INTERPRETATIONs- attributing events to the concerted designs of willful individuals-became a major means by which educated men in the early modern period ordered and gave meaning to their political world. Far from being symptomatic of irrationality, this conspiratorial mode of explanation represented an enlightened stage in Western man’s long struggle to comprehend his social reality. It flowed from the scientific promise of the Enlightenment and represented an effort, perhaps in retrospect a last desperate effort, to hold men personally and morally responsible for their actions. 

Personalistic explanations had, of course. long been characteristic of premodern European society and are still characteristic of primitive peoples. Premodern men lacked our modern repertory of explanations and could not rely on those impersonal forces such as industrialization, modernization, or the “stream of history’ that we so blithely invoke to account for complicated combinations of events. They were unable, as we say, to “rise to the conception of movements.” For that different, distant world the question asked of an event was not “How did it happen?” but “Who did it?” 

Yet despite this stress on persons rather than processes, premodern men always realized that much of what happened was beyond human agency and understanding. Even those classical and Renaissance writers who stressed that events were due to “the wisdoms and follies, the virtues and vices of individuals who made decisions” built their histories and tragic dramas around the extent to which such heroic individuals could prevail against unknown fortune. Ultimately the world seemed uncontrollable and unpredictable, ruled by mysterious forces of fate or chance foreshadowed in inscrutability. At the opening of the modern era, Protestant reformers invoked divine providence and the omnipotence of God in order to stamp out the traditional popular reliance on luck and magic and to renew a sense of design and moral purpose in the world. Life, they held, was not a lottery but the working out of God’s purpose and judgments, or “special providences.” Men were morally responsible for events; even natural catastrophes like earthquakes and floods were seen as divine punishments for human misbehavior. Still, it remained evident that life was uncertain and precarious and that God moved in very mysterious ways. As the Puritan Increase Mather observed as late as 1684, “Things many times come to pass contrary to humane probabilities and the rational Conjectures and expectations of men.” Nature itself was not always consistent, for things sometimes acted “otherwise than according to their natures and proper inclinations.” Humans might glimpse those parts of God’s design that he chose to reveal, but ultimately they could never “be able fullv to understand by what Rules the Holy and Wise God ordereth all events Prosperous and adverse which come to pass in the world.” If there was comfort in knowing that what seemed chaotic, fortuitous, or accidental was in reality directed by God, it nonetheless remained true that the “ways of Providence are unsearchable.” 

At the very time that Mather was writing, however, God was preparing to “let Newton be”: the treatise that was to be enlarged into the first book of the Princzpia was completed in 1684. Of course, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century-or, more accurately, the new Western consciousness of which that revolution was the most important expression-did not make all immediately light. Yet many people now had less fear of chaos and contingency and greater confidence in their ability to understand events, so much so that sophisticates like George Savile, marquis of Halifax, could even warn against “that common error of applying God's judgments upon particular occasions." The world lost some of its mystery and became more manipulatable. Although the new science tended to remove man from the center of the physical universe at the same time it brought him to the center of human affairs in ways that even classical and Renaissance thinkers had scarcely conceived of. It promised him the capacity to predict and control not only nature but his own society, and it proceeded to make him directly and consciously responsible for the course of human events. Ultimately the implications of this momentous shift created the cultural matrix out of which eighteenth-century conspiratorial interpretations developed. 

The new science assumed a world of mechanistic cause and effect in which what happens does so only because something else happened before. Philosophers since Aristotle had talked of causes but never before in terms of such machine-like regularity, of such chains of consequences. “When the world became a machine,” writes Jacob Bronowski, “ [cause] became the god within the machine.” Mechanistic causality became the paradigm in which the enlightened analysis of all behavior and events now had to take place. Cause was something that produced an effect; every effect had a cause; the cause and its effect were integrally related. Such thinking created a new world of laws, measurements, predictions and constancies or regularities of behavior-all dependent on the same causes producing the same effects. “The knowledge of particular phe- nomena may gratify a barren curiosity,” Samuel Stanhope Smith told a generation of Princeton students, “but they are of little real use, except, as they tend to establish some general law, which will enable the accurate observer to predict similar effects in all time to come, in similar circum~ stances, and to depend upon the result. Such general laws alone deserve the name of science.” 

The change in consciousness came slowly, confusedly, and reluctantly. Few were immediately willing to abandon belief in the directing providence of God. Newton himself endeavored to preserve God’s autonomy. “A God without dominion, providence, and final causes,” he said, “is nothing but Fate and Nature.” In fact, the Christian belief that nature was ordered by God’s will was an essential presupposition of early modern science. Yet despite the continued stress by Newton’s followers on God’s control over the workings of nature, many eighteenth-century philosophers gradually came to picture the deity as a clockmaker, and some even went so far as to deny that God had anything at all to do with the physical movement of the universe. The logic of the new science implied a world that ran itself.

To posit the independence of the natural world was exciting enough; to conceive of a human world without God’s judgments and providences was simply breathtaking: it was in fact what centrally defined the Enlightenment. The work of John Locke and other philosophers opened reflective minds to the startling supposition that society, though no doubt ordained in principle by God, was man’s own creation-formed and sustained, and thus alterable, by human beings acting autonomously and purposefully. It came to seem that if men could understand the natural order that God had made, then perhaps they could eventually understand the social order that they themselves had made. From the successes of natural science, or what the eighteenth century termed natural philosophy, grew the conviction that moral laws-the chains of cause and effect in human behavior-could be discovered that would match those of the physical world. Thus was generated eighteenth-century moral philosophy-the search for the unifomities and regularities of man’s behavior that has proliferated into the various social sciences of our own time. Finding the laws of behavior became the consuming passion of the Enlightenment In such a liberal and learned world there could no longer be any place for miracles or the random happenings of chance. Chance, it was now said, was “only a name to cover our ignorance of the cause of any event.” God may have remained the primary cause of things, but in the minds of the enlightened he had left men to work out the causes and effects of their lives free from his special interventions. All that happened in society was to be reduced to the strictly human level of men’s motivations and goals. “Humanity,” said William Warburton in I727, “is the only cause of human vicissitudes.” The source of man’s calamities, wrote Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, in I791, lay not in “the distant heavens . . . it resides in man himself, he carries it with him in the inward recesses of his own heart.”Such beliefs worked their way through every variety of intellectual endeavor in the age. They produced not only a new genre of literature-the novel with its authorial control and design-but also a new kind of man-centered causal history, one based on the same assumptions as the age’s conspiratorial interpretations.” English history since the Revolution of 1688, as Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, saw it from the vantage point of the 1730s, was “not the effect of ignorance, mistakes, or what we call chance, but of design and scheme in those who had the sway at that time.” This could be proved by seeing “events that stand recorded in history . . . as they followed one another, or as they produced one another, causes or effects, immediate or remote.” “History supplies the defects of our own experience” and demonstrates that there are really no such things as accidents; “it shows us causes as in fact they were laid, with their immediate effects: and it enables us to guess at future events.” “History,” said Edward Gibbon simply, “is the science of causes and effects.” Extending this concept from the realm of natural phenomena into the moral world of human affairs was not an easy matter. Natural philosophers like Newton had sought to stave off the numbing necessitarianism implied in a starkly mechanistic conception of cause and effect by positing various God-inspired “active principles” as the causal agents of motion, gravity, heat, and the like. Even those later eighteenth-century scientists who saw nature as self-contained and requiring no divine intervention whatsoever still presumed various energizing powers in matter itself.” The need for some sort of active principle in human affairs was felt even more acutely, for the new mechanistic philosophy posed a threat to what Arthur O. Lovejoy has called the “intense ethical inwardness” of Western Christendom. The belief “that whatever moves and acts does so mechanically and necessarily” was ultimately incompatible with personalistic thinking and cast doubt on man’s moral responsibility for his actions.38 If human affairs were really the consequence of one thing repeatedly and predictably following upon another, the social world would become as determined as the physical world seemed to be. Theologians like Jonathan Edwards welcomed this logic and subtly used the new cause-and-effect philosophy to justify God’s sovereignty. But other moral philosophers had no desire to create a secular version of divine providence or to destroy the voluntarism of either God or man, and thus sought to find a place for free will in the operations of the machine. They did so not by repudiating the paradigm of cause and effect but by trying to identify causes in human affairs with the motives, mind, or will of individuals. Just as natural scientists like Cadwallader Colden, believing that in a mechanistic physical world "there must be some power or force, or principle of Action,” groped toward a modern concept of energy, so too did moral philosophers seek to discover the powers or principles of action that lay behind the sequences of human affairs-in effect, looking within the minds and hearts of men for the moral counterpart of Colden’s physical energy. 

Such efforts to reconcile the search for laws of human behavior with the commitment to moral capability lay behind the numerous controversies over free will that bedeviled the eighteenth century. To be enlightened, it seemed, was to try one’s hand at writing an essay on what David Hume called “the most contentious question of metaphysics”--the question of liberty and necessity. Despite all the bitter polemics between the libertarians and the necessitarians, however, both sides were caught up in the new thinking about causality. Both assumed, as Hume pointed out, that “the conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform, as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature.” Men’s motives or will thus became the starting point in the sequential chain of causes and effects in human affairs. All human actions and events could now be seen scientifically as the products of men’s intentions. If they were not, if men “are not necessarily determined by motives,” then, said the Scottish moralist Thomas Reid, “all their actions must be capricious.” Only by identifying causes with motives was any sort of human science and predictability possible, and only then could morality be preserved in the new, mechanistic causal world. 

Since it was “granted on all hands, that moral good and evil lie in the state of mind, or prevailing internal disposition of the agent,” searching out the causes of social events meant discovering in these agents the motives, the “voluntary choice and design,” that led them to act-the energizing principle, the inner springs of their behavior. “Every moral event must have an answerable cause. . . . Every such event must then have a moral cause?“ Moral deeds implied moral doers; when things happen in society, individuals with particular intentions, often called “designs,” must be at the bottom of them. All social processes could be reduced to specific individual passions and interests. “Ambition and avarice,” wrote the Revolutionary historian Mercy Otis Warren, “are the leading springs which generally actuate the restless mind. From these primary sources of corruption have arisen all the rapine and confusion, the depredation and ruin, that have spread distress over the face of the earth from the days of Nimrod to Cesar, and from Cesar to an arbitrary prince of the house of Brunswick.” This widespread belief that explanations of social phenomena must be sought in the moral nature of man himself ultimately reduced all eighteenth-century moral philosophy-its history and its social analysis-to what would come to be called psychology.

Once men’s designs were identified as the causes of human events, the new paradigm of causality worked to intensify and give a scientific gloss to the classic concern with the human heart and the ethical inwardness of Christian culture. Indeed, never before or since in Western history has man been held so directly and morally responsible for the events of his world. Because the new idea of causality presumed a homogeneous identity, an “indissoluble connection,” between causes and effects, it became difficult to think of social effects, however remote in time, that were not morally linked to particular causes-that is, to particular human designs. There could be no more in the effects than existed in the causes. “Outward actions being determined by the will,” they partook “of the nature of moral good or evil only with reference to their cause, viz. internal volition.”

It could now be taken for granted that the cause and the effect were so intimately related that they necessarily shared the same moral qualities. Whatever the particular moral character of the cause-that is, the motive or inclination of the actor-“the effect appears to be of the same kind.”44 Good intentions and beliefs would therefore result in good actions; evil motives caused evil actions. Of course, mistakes might happen, and occasionally actions “proceeded not from design.” But continued or regular moral actions could follow only from similar moral intentions. Only by assuming this close relationship between causes and effects-“this inference from motives to voluntary actions; from characters to conduct,” said Hume-was the eighteenth-century science of human behavior made possible.” 

This presumed moral identity between cause and effect, between motive and deed, accounts for the excited reaction of moralists to Bernard Mandeville’s satiric paradox of “private Vices, publick benefits.” MandeVille was unusual for his time in grasping the complexity of public events and the ways in which political effects could outrun and differ from their causes. “We ought,” he wrote, “to forebear judging rashly of ministers and their actions, especially when we are unacquainted with every circumstance of an affair. Measures may be rightly concerted, and such casualties intervene. as mav make the best design miscarry. . . . Humane Understanding is too shallow to foresee the result of what is subject to many variations.”“’ Such skepticism could not be easily tolerated by that enlightened and moral age. Mandeville and all those who would ignore private intentions in favor of public results threatened to unhinge both man’s moral responsibility for his actions and the homogeneous relation that presumably existed between cause and effect. To break the necessary moral connection between cause and effect, to make evil the author of good and Vice versa, would be, it was said, “to confound all differences of character, to destroy all distinction between right and wrong, and to make the most malicious and the most benevolent being of precisely the same temper and disposition.” 

Mandeville clearly perceived that much of human activity had become an “incomprehensible Chain of Causes.” But he, like others of his time, had no better way of describing the multitude of complicated and criss-crossing causal chains he saw than to invoke the traditional Protestant concept of “providence.” For those who would be enlightened and scientific, this resort to the mysterious hand of God was no explanation of human affairs at all but rather a step backward into darkness. Things happened, as John Adams noted, by human volition, either “by Accident or Design.” Some confusing event or effect might be passed off as an accident-the result of somebody’s mistaken intention-but a series of events that seemed to form a pattern could be no accident. Having only the alternative of “providence” as an impersonal abstraction to describe systematic linkages of human actions, the most enlightened of the age could only conclude that regular patterns of behavior were the consequences of concerted human intentions-that is, the result of a number of people coming together to promote a collective design or conspiracy. The human mind, it seemed to Jonathan Edwards, had a natural disposition, “when it sees a thing begin to be,” not only “to conclude certainly, that there is a Cause of it,” but also, “if it sees a thing to be in a very orderly, regular and exact manner to conclude that some Design regulated and disposed it.” Although Edwards was arguing here for God’s “exact regulation of a very great multitude of particulars,” a similar leap from a particular cause to a general design was made by eighteenth-century theists who sought to account for the regularity of human actions by the coincident purposes not of God but of human beings” 

Many enlightened thinkers of the eighteenth century could therefore no more accept the seeming chaos and contingency of events than could the Puritans. Like the Puritans, they presumed the existence of an ordering power lying beneath the apparently confused surface of events-not God’s concealed will, of course, but natural causes embodied in the bid den intentions and wills of men. Those who saw only random chance in events simply did not know enough about these hidden human wills. Just as devout Puritans believed that nothing occurred without God’s providence, so the liberal-minded believed that nothing occurred without some person willing it. Earlier, men had sought to decipher the concealed or partially revealed will of God; now they sought to understand the cone cealed or partially exposed wills of human beings. That, in a nutshell, was what being enlightened was all about. 


Such were the presuppositions and circumstances that explain the propensity of Anglo-Americans and others in the eighteenth century to resort to conspiratorial interpretations of events. The belief in plots Was not a symptom of disturbed minds but a rational attempt to explain human phenomena in terms of human intentions and to maintain moral coherence in the affairs of men. This mode of thinking was neither pathological nor uniquely American. Certainly, the American Revolution cannot serve as an adequate context for comprehending the obsession with conspiratorial beliefs. Perhaps we can perceive better their larger place in Western history by examining, however briefly, the newer modes of causal explanation that gradually came to replace them. 

Well before the close of the eighteenth century, even while conspiratorial interpretations were flourishing under the aegis of enlightened science, alternative ways of explaining events were taking form, prompted by dynamic social changes that were stretching and contorting any simple linkage between human intentions and actions, causes and effects. The expanding, interdependent economic order obviously relied on the activity of thousands upon thousands of insignificant producers and traders whose various and conflicting motives could hardly be deciphered, let alone judged. The growing number of persons and interests participating in politics made causal evaluations ever more difficult. Causes seemed farther and farther removed from their consequences, sometimes disappearing altogether into a distant murkiness. As a result, the inferences of plots and deceptions used to close the widening gap between events and the presumed designs of particular individuals became even more elaborate and contrived. Many were still sure that every social effect, every political event, had to have a purposive human agent as a cause. But men now distinguished more frequently between “remote” and “proximate” causes and between “immediate” and “permanent” effects. Although many continued to assume that the relationship between causes and their effects was intrinsic and morally homogeneous, some moralists noted bewilderingly and sometimes cynically how personal vices like self-love and self-interest could have contrary, indeed beneficial, consequences for society. Men everywhere wrestled with the demands the changing social reality was placing on their thought. Some suggested that self-love might even be a virtue; others complained of “a kind of mandevillian chemistry” that converted avarice into benevolence; still others questioned the presumed identity between private motives and public consequences.” Little of this was followed out in any systematic way in the Anglo-American world until the appearance in the latter half of the eighteenth century of that remarkable group of Scottish intellectuals who worked out, in an extraordinary series of writings, a new understanding of the relationship between individuals and events. These Scottish “social scientists" did not and could not by themselves create a new way of conceiving of human affairs, but their writings were an especially clear crystallization of the changes gradually taking place in Western consciousness during the last third of the eighteenth century. Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and John Millar sought to undermine what Duncan Forbes has called “a dominant characteristic of the historical thought of the age”' the “tendency to explain events in terms of conscious action by individuals.” These Scottish moral philosophers had come to realize more clearly than most eighteenth-century thinkers that men pursuing their own particular aims were led by an “invisible hand” into promoting an end that was no part of their intentions. Traditional historians, complained Ferguson in his History of Civil Society, had seen all events as the “effect of design. An author and a work, like cause and effect, are perpetually coupled together.” But reality was not so simple. Men, “in striving to remove inconveniencies, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate, . .. and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result 0: human action. but not the execution of any human design.” 

Such momentous insights would in time help to transform all social and historical thinking in the Western world. But it took more than the writings of philosophers-it took the experiencing of tumultuous events-to shake most European intellectuals out of their accustomed ways of thinking. The French Revolution, more than any other single event, changed the consciousness of Europe. The Revolution was simply too convulsive and too sprawling, involving the participation of too man), masses of people, to be easily confined within conventional personals. tie and rationalistic modes of explanation. For the most sensitive European intellectuals, the Revolution became the cataclysm that shattered once and for all the traditional moral affinity between cause and effect, motives and behavior. That the actions of liberal, enlightened, and well-intentioned men could produce such horror, terror, and chaos, that so much promise could result in so much tragedy, became, said Shelley, “tbs master theme of the epoch in which we live.” What the French Revolution revealed, wrote Wordsworth, speaking for a generation of disillusioned intellectuals, was “this awful truth” that “sin and crime are apt to start from their very opposite qualities?” Many European thinkers continued of course, to describe what happened as the deliberate consequence of the desires and ambitions of individuals. But the scale and complexity of the Revolution now required conspiratorial interpretations of an unprecedented sort, No small group of particular plotters could account for its tumult and mass movements; only elaborately organized secret societies, like the Illuminati or the Freemasons, involving thousands of individuals linked by sinister designs, could be behind the Europe-wide upheaval.” 

Although such conspiratorial interpretations of the Revolution were everywhere, the best minds-Hegel’s in particular-now knew that the jumble of events that made up the Revolution were so complex and overwhelming that they could no longer be explained simply as the products of personal intention. For these thinkers, history could no longer be a combination of individual events managed by particular persons, but had to become a complicated flow or process, a “stream,” that swept men along. 

THe story of this vast transformation in the way men explain events is central to the history of modern Western thought. Indeed, so huge and complicated is it that our easy generalizations are apt to miss its confused and agonized significance for individuals and to neglect the piecemeal ways in which it was worked out in the minds of people--~not great philosophers like Hegel or Adam Smith, but more ordinary people, clergymen, writers, and politicians caught up in the problems and polemics of the moment. 

Certainly late eighteenth-century Americans did not experience this transformation in consciousness as rapidly and to the same extent as Europeans, but it is evident that some were coming to realize that the social and moral order was not as intelligible as it once had been. 


Motives and intentions, Brown suggested, could no longer be crucial in judging moral responsibility, since “the causes that fashion men into instruments of happiness or misery, are numerous, complex, and operate upon a wide surface. . . . Every man is encompassed by numerous claims, and is the subject of intricate relations. . . . Human affairs are infinitely complicated.” 

These American explorations into the relationship between aims and consequences were only small and modest examples of what was taking place generally in Western thought during the late eighteenth century. Others elsewhere were also becoming more and more conscious of the 
complicatedness of human affairs. The growing awareness of the difficulty of delving into the human heart and the increasing unwillingness to esteem men simply for their aristocratic character were forcing moralists, sometimes imperceptibly, to shift the basis of judgment of human action from the motives and personal qualifications of the actors to the public consequences of their acts. The common practice of deducing motives from their effects in actions only furthered this transition and blurred what was happening. What counted now was less the beliefs and intentions or the “character,” of the actor and more the consequences of his actions or his contributions to human happiness. And any man, however much he lacked “character,” however ordinary and insignificant he may have been, could make such contributions. 
In just such shifts from motives to consequences was a democratic consciousness strengthened and what came to be called utilitarianism created. Naturally, for most people there remained no discrepancy between benevolent aims and good effects, and the familiar belief that private virtue was the obvious source of human happiness continued strong. But for Jeremy Bentham and other stark utilitarians, there could no longer be any such thing as good or bad motives: “If they are good or bad, it is only on account of their effects, good on account of their tendency to produce pleasure, or avert pain: bad, on account of their tendency to produce pain, or avert pleasure.” 

Many Americans were reluctant to separate motives from consequences, causes from effects, in this unequivocal utilitarian manner. But by the early nineteenth century there were some, usually those most eager to disparage “aristocratic” heroic individuals and to magnify the popular “masses,” who increasingly emphasized what Bishop had clumsily called the “system” of society. Now it was described as the “natural order” or the “aggregate result” of events formed out of the diverse and clashing motives of countless insignificant individuals. Men no doubt caused this "aggregate result,” but they did so in large numbers and unthinkingly by following their particular natural inclinations. 

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