The Calling of Classical Liberal Researchers: Remind Your Neighbor

Classical liberal researchers notice paradoxes and dilemmas in their work, and those dilemmas shape their sense of calling. Here I remark on one dilemma.

I draw on the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series. He says something about the work of Christians that parallels the work of classical liberal researchers.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: 

Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities; it is quacks and cranks who do that. As Dr. [Samuel] Johnson said, ‘People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.’

Lewis continues:

The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see; like bringing a horse back and back to the fence it has refused to jump or bringing a child back and back to the bit in its lesson that it wants to shirk.

Lewis had in mind Christian beliefs about the equality of souls, made in God’s image, or Imago Dei, and things like that.

For classical liberal researchers, it is truths such as: we humans are constituted as individual organisms, each with very limited knowledge of human affairs, very limited knowledge of what constitutes the good, and of the local particulars of how human betterment actually happens.

How does that relate to the work of classical liberal researchers? In spite of your very limited knowledge, your research reports, articles, and books need to seem knowledgeable.

Even if you say in your research report that government officials don’t know enough to intervene beneficially in social affairs, you need to convince the reader that you know enough to conclude that they don’t know enough.

The real job of every classical liberal researcher is to keep bringing their fellow citizens back, time after time, to the old simple principles which they are all so anxious not to see. People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.

Maybe you already knew that. But I thought I would remind you.

It is quite a predicament and a dilemma to found a classical liberal research institute, and build a great trajectory over decades. The dilemma is in producing a steady stream of research that seems to know, all the while really reminding people of old simple principles about how little we know, and how wickedly dangerous government power is in the hands of people who know so little, especially those who fancy themselves much more knowing than they are. We return to ancient teachings against hubris. 

As quoted above from C.S. Lewis, it is a matter of reminding people of principles “we are all so anxious not to see.”

But here and there, classical liberal research is sustained. My hat goes off to the rare individuals who provide real leadership as open exponents of classical liberalism. They find a way to sustain the calling of reminding as something fresh and inviting. As leaders, they need to persuade others of the value of reminding — as opposed to, for example, feeding an addiction to ephemera (touted as facts, information, findings, or new, supposed insights), and rarely recurring to the words of sages.

Classical liberals who lead research endeavors need to persuade not only fellow researchers, but the audience of the research, including the anti-liberal minefield of academia. They also need to address themselves to potential funders and supporters, to persuade them of the merit of reminding.

But for the few true leaders, where would things be today? Wisdom is vastly underproduced, not only because it is nonexcludable (in the sense that the provider of wisdom cannot exclude non-payers from partaking in it) but, even more importantly, because many people do not know that they should partake in it. People — “so anxious not to see” — do not know that it is good for them. And that brings us to another paradox of classical liberal research.

But what do I know?

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