The Magazine

Is That All There Is?

Then let’s keep dancing, and watch history float by.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The 1980s ended in a flood of optimism that’s hardly been seen since. Nearly a half-century of cold war all but ended in a single year as the revolutions of 1989 swept through the Eastern bloc, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the swift execution of the Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day. The United States was about to become the world’s undisputed superpower. The Red Army left Afghanistan that year, and the Soviet Union itself would last only another two years. Francis Fukuyama famously asked if this was the “end of history?”—and answered his own question three years later, when he turned his essay into a book and removed the question mark.

Sign that says, "No admittance. Private property"

One thinker, however, was immune to the spirit of the age: Professor David Stove had taken early retirement from the University of Sydney, spending his last days watching cricket, listening to baroque music, gardening in his rural Australian suburb—and writing short but devastating works of philosophy and polemics.

Most conservative writers spent 1989 cheering the triumph of freedom and the free market; Stove, who died in 1994, spent much of that year composing an essay that soberly, and quite seriously, concluded that lovers of liberty should emulate the fabled Indian who, on realizing that his hours of effort had been for nought and his boat was about to go over Niagara Falls, threw away his oar and lit one last pipe. Now published posthumously, his treatise has been retitled, from the darkly opaque That Monstrous Steep, Niagara to the clear-cut What’s Wrong with Benevolence.

There’s no mistaking Stove’s stand. And who, after all, turned out to be correct: the optimists or the pessimist? East and West Germany are united, and Stasi files have been opened and turned into questioning works of art. Poland is the only European Union member to have escaped this latest recession. Even China has had to capitulate, creating its own brand of capitalism. But China is not free: 1989 also saw the massacre in Tiananmen Square, not the last time Chinese officials killed enemies of the state. The Russian empire has collapsed, but Russia itself has merely shifted from a Communist state to a fascist one, ruled by one man unwilling to give up his grip on power. Even “first-world” democracies are facing crises that threaten to overwhelm them, as citizens give up autonomy in return for a security that is now slipping away.

All this is not to argue that Stove was right to give up on freedom just when others celebrated its rebirth. The point is that Stove’s brief disquisition—the last of his major unpublished essays to be printed—is just as material now as it was when he wrote it, five years before his death.

And it is thanks to Roger Kimball, publisher of Encounter Books and editor of the New Criterion, that more Americans now know David Stove’s name. As Andrew Irvine writes in his introduction here, “David Stove is a confirming instance of the adage that philosophers are not much accustomed to attention until after they’re dead.” While he was alive, Stove was mostly known only to philosophers familiar with his work on David Hume and the philosophy of science, and to Australians interested in the culture wars as they were fought in academia. “The most thrilling intellectual discovery of my adult life came in 1996 when I chanced upon the work of the Australian philosopher David Stove,” Kimball relates in the foreword.

In his introduction, Irvine, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia (who studied under Stove at Sydney and edited this work), compares Stove’s unknown essay to two classics: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. And Irvine believes Stove accomplishes something the other two did not, noting that “while Mill and Hayek are content to defend the classic liberal imperative, Stove goes a step further, asking whether liberalism and conservatism are in any important sense compatible.”

Stove responds with an emphatic yes—and explains himself in a way that should appeal to partisans on both sides of the philosophical aisle. As Irvine writes,

According to Stove, when people are free to live their lives as they see fit, they naturally choose to enter into relationships with one another that allow families, friendships, business and other non-governmental institutions to flourish.

There’s no need for conservatives to oppose liberals and attempt to use the strong hand of government to make way for civil society, and there’s no need for liberals to be suspicious of conservatives. People recognize responsibilities and authorities by their own free choice.