Anthony Grayling points out a great and central struggle of ideas:
[A]re individual human beings capable of overcoming such limitations of circumstance…to achieve by will and endeavour what they identify as good…? Or are people, or the vast majority of them, too weak, too fallible, too constrained by those circumstances, to be able to do this, meaning that they are essentially dependent, and need to be instructed and guided by the few who assume the role of leaders, teachers, those who know the right answers and possess the truth?
I would say we’re all more or less weak and fallible and constrained, but not so weak and fallible and constrained that we are essentially dependent. That’s perhaps a somewhat optimistic view, but I do think most people can change and learn and improve.
The monolithic ideologies require a dependent, submissive mass mind; in recovering the classical idea of individual potential for autonomy – the capacity of individuals to shape themselves according to their conception of such truly human goods as love, friendship, pleasure, kindness, knowledge and discovery, creativity and achievement – the modern western liberal and secular mind has fought to break itself free from that imposed dependency.
The fight is risky, because people are weak and fallible and they can always go toddling off towards fascism or jihadism or God hates fagsism or some other combination of ignorance with bullying. But the alternative – a dependent, submissive mass mind – is so awful (and anyway also risky) that the risk seems worth it.
This is not a merely abstract point…[T]he matter is so fundamental that it merits far more than blog-bitesize examination. That examination might show why there can be such passionate opposition to anything that requires the entrapment of the human mind in the cage of one big truth that demands submission, the yielding of the autonomy that is our central human potential – think of the Christian tenet of “dying to the self” and what is meant by the “sin of pride” (viz thinking one can get by without God), remember that “Islam” means “submission”, think of Stalinism: they are all about obedience, heteronomy, dependence, tutelage, amounting even to a prohibition against thinking for oneself; for the first sin in Eden was disobedience, and the disobedient act – all too significantly – was one of acquiring knowledge. And what is this submission and heteronomy but the condition of slavery…?
Exactly. And I suppose that’s one of my most bedrock beliefs or assumptions – my ‘religion’ if you insist – that thinking for oneself is of the essence of being human, and that if you give that up you miss what it is to be human; you miss the kernel of the experience; you might as well be a cat or a potato. ‘Be a Potato for Stalin/Allah/Jesus’ – no thank you.