The Battle of the Wills - Personal Thoughts on the Idea of Power in Philosophy

Materialism Turns Society into the Battle of the Wills

What is "society"? How did human beings move from a lawless state to societies bound together by a government and social contract? Such questions must be revisited today in the face of increasing nihilism and secularism. Many philosophers have offered their historical accounts of this process, the most famous of which being Socrates’ account of the development of his just city in Plato’s Republic. There have also been famous accounts which have shaped our own contemporary times; think of the attempts offered in Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, Hobbes' De Cive, Marx’ Communist Manifesto, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and so on.

What these works have in common is their postulation of humanity’s historical state of nature as the justification for some social contract to be formed. However the state of nature is conceived in their work is directly tied to the nature of the contract formed. In Hobbes' case, for example, he views the state of nature as being "a war of all against all" in which each individual is driven by selfish desire. Government exists to tame the violence of the state of nature in exchange for the freedom one previously had to commit violence. Rousseau's version, though less violent, is likewise driven by fear and selfishness as human beings are fundamentally individualistic, like animals who only socialize for needs of reproduction before returning to solitude. Any cooperation is ultimately selfish, and peace is attained by a desire to avoid mutual combat. 

Though Hobbes and Rousseau differ with regard to their optimism or pessimism about the state of nature, when you look a bit deeper, the story they put forth is really the same: Human beings are fundamentally individualistic and selfish. People only cooperate out of their mutual weakness. Society is a “battle of the wills” at its heart. Human interaction is always colored by the desire for power, whether that be through physical strength or some type of cunning. This idea that society is dominated by the battle of wills has been a common thread in secular histories. Think of Thrasymachus, the Sophist, making the argument in Plato's Republic that political justice is something like the strong doing what they want and the weak suffering the consequences. Think of The Prince, and Machiavelli’s vision of keeping power by any means necessary, whether you have to keep it as “the lion,” through physical strength, or as “the fox,” through psychological cunning and lies. Fundamental to Machiavelli’s justification of any means necessary for rulers is his similarly stated belief that humanity is corrupt and wicked and so rulers must be as well.

Closer to our time the fundamental narrative of power and selfish competition has not changed. There’s Marx’ conflict theory of history, Nietzsche’s will to power in the battle of master and slave morality, both of which are underpinned by a reductionist view of living things to Darwin's survival of the fittest. You have Jean Paul Sartre's famous line, "Hell is other people," reflecting his vision, too, of reality as malleable clay shaped by the powerful person who has won the battle of wills. The most extreme version of political corruption of recent memory being the experience of Totalitarian governments in the 20th century. They not only abused their citizens through physical force, but through brainwashing which sought to destroy the human person’s capacity for interpersonal communication altogether. Currently, American society is plagued by Postmodern identity warfare, likewise predicated on the belief that all that exists in society are groups and power dynamics.

It is here that as a Catholic I must intervene in this discussion and point out that the foundations of government based on a Materialist view of human nature are rotten. They simply do not work. Absent an adequate anthropology, and philosophy of human cooperation, man will always remain a prisoner of the Darwinian struggle for fitness and survival. It is only with a Christian philosophy of man that the individual and the group can be reconciled in a vision which is not a zero-sum game.

In response to Nazism and Communism’s perversion of man, an adequate anthropology is what Pope John Paul II gave the world. He talked about an authentic society as a communion of persons, not a battle of wills. Thus, the fundamental dichotomy between a healthy and sick society is experienced as either an authentic participation with others, or in the alienation of the individual from society. True participation of individuals in groups like the family, community, and country requires a vision in which individuals are drawn together through the sharing of a common good. 

The common good is the aim for which a unity exists and facilitates mutual good-will between the members only if the common good is of a spiritual nature (a good which is not subject to the limitations of physical resources) as the one and the many will not be at odds with one another but necessitate each other for their authenticity. The individual flourishes within the unity of the group acting together for something higher than themselves. And so a healthy society requires a pursuit of friendship, love, virtue, justice, beauty, goodness, and ultimately God. If there are cooperative pursuits for physical goods, they must always have the former as their framework and ultimate horizon, or they become corrupt.

Alienation reaches a fever pitch in society when the so-called "common good" around which the group is formed brings about the destruction of both the individual and the group, as materialistic pursuits necessitate that one can only act for one's own good at the expense of the others. Selfishness can never unite people; it only generates the battle of the wills for the limited resources. Again, when the individual is destroyed by an encounter with the group, and the group itself is threatened by every new individual, alienation is present. If we do not fight against a Materialist view of man, the battle of the wills ultimately will deconstruct the West back into chaos.