The Lie of the Open Society
by John P. East
The related problems of “the public orthodoxy” and “the open society” were major concerns of Willmoore Kendall throughout his professional career. In his reappraisal of John Locke in 1941, Kendall’s Locke emerged as an exponent of the public orthodoxy asexpressed through the majority. As Kendall sees it, in Lockean thought, “In consenting to be a member of a commonwealth, therefore, he [the individual] consents beforehand to the acceptance of obligations which he does not approve, and it is right that he should do so because such an obligation is implicit in the nature of community life.” Throughout John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, the reader can discern Kendall’s deep skepticism about constructing an on-going political system on the foundations of abstract-natural-rights individualism; that to attempt to do so would be unnatural, and contrary to the realities of human nature and the human condition.In Kendall’s political science, the public orthodoxy is a “way of life,” and is identical to the Greek politeia, which refers to “the ‘character’ or tone of a community.” More particularly, the public orthodoxy is:
[T]hat matrix of convictions, usually enshrined in custom and ‘folkways,’ often articulated formally and solemnly in charter and constitution, occasionally summed up in the creed of a church or the testament of a philosopher, that makes a society The Thing it is and that divides it from other societies as, in human thought, one thing is divided always from another.
That is why we may (and do) speak intelligibly of a Greek, a Roman, or an American ‘way of life.'From Kendall’s perspective, “the existence of the politeia [i.e., the public orthodoxy] is the unquestioned point of departure for political philosophy,” for it is the primordial fact of social and political existence. The public orthodoxy is antecedent to all other political matters:
Not only can society not avoid having a public orthodoxy; even when it rejects an old orthodoxy in the name of ‘enlightenment,’ ‘progress,’ ‘the pluralist society,’ ‘the open society,’ and the like, it invents, however subtly, a neworthodoxy with which to replace the old one. As Aristotle is always at hand to remind us, only gods and beasts can live alone—man, by nature, is a political animal—whose very political life demands a politeia that involves an at least implicit code of manners and a tacit agreement on the meaning of man within the total economy of existence. Without this political orthodoxy…the state withers; contracts lose their efficacy; the moral bond between citizens is loosened; the State opens itself to enemies from abroad; and the politeia sheds the sacral character without which it cannot long endure.As the state is founded upon the public orthodoxy, if the orthodoxy decays and disintegrates, the state itself will inevitably falter. It is an unyielding reality: The good order and health of the political state are dependent upon the vitality and character of the public orthodoxy. In Kendall’s political theory, not only is the public orthodoxy inescapably rooted in the order of being, but it is a positive good, for without it there is no society, no state, and civilized man, as we have traditionally known him, is destroyed.