Eisenhower identified more than one threat to the republic.
By Patrick J. Deneen
The Farewell Address is a short but profound masterpiece. Direct, compact, and riveting, in an economy of words it drives to the heart of America’s modern crisis: our loss of republican liberty in the name of power and liberation. Although Eisenhower’s admonitions about the rise of the military-industrial complex attract the most attention, equally worthy of note is his second theme, the dangers of the “technological revolution.”
America might be called the technological republic—born, nurtured, and raised to its mighty stature by its close affiliation with the modern scientific project. Befitting its creation during the Age of Reason, America’s heroes have often been its inventors and scientists, from Benjamin Franklin to Carl Sagan. If other nations can claim great theoreticians—the Darwins and Mendels and Heisenbergs—the reputation of American science lies more in its applications. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “the more democratic, enlightened, and free a nation is, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer on their authors gain, fame, and even power.”
The United States was self-consciously founded as a polity based upon technical knowledge. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton attributed the proposed Constitution’s inspiration to “the new science of politics,” premised upon “reflection and choice” and no longer relying upon the unconscious accumulation of ancient practice, prejudice, and tradition, which he equated with “accident and force.” Reflecting this modern faith, the Constitution has been described as “the machine that would go of itself,” and the colonial physician Benjamin Rush characterized its citizenry as “republican machines.”
Later, John Dewey would argue that democracy and science were effectively indistinguishable, both predicated upon unending experimentation and progress, both devoted to the expansion of human power. Today Americans have an overwhelmingly favorable attitude toward science and scientists, with 84 percent stating their view to be “mostly positive,” according to a 2009 Pew Research Center poll.
Yet American confidence in scientific progress is met by equally longstanding misgivings about the costs of technology upon nature, community, and the human soul. Early voices such as Nathaniel Hawthorne warned of the deforming aspects of “the machine in the garden,” and a steady line of critics have expressed deep reservations in the varying refrains of religion, naturalism, and literature. Defenders of the natural order from Henry David Thoreau to Aldo Leopold to Wendell Berry have argued against the role of modern science in the decimation of the natural world and in fostering an ethic of plunder.
At the heart of this internal division is a disagreement over the nature of liberty, that permanent if contested American aspiration. According to the originators of the modern scientific project—especially Francis Bacon, considered by Thomas Jefferson to be one of the three greatest minds in human history—science would liberate humanity from the limits imposed by nature. Bacon said, “knowledge is power,”and modern science is the means to that empowering knowledge. This Baconian confidence is given official sanction in Article 1 of the Constitution, requiring Congress to support “the progress of Science and useful Arts.”
The voices cautioning against America’s embrace of science invoke an ancient idea of liberty as self-government. In this tradition, slavery is seen not primarily as subordination to another—a condition in which one’s soul could be free—but rather as submission to one’s unrestrained appetite. These Cassandras warned that the scientific project would lead not to thoroughgoing freedom, but instead to a more profound bondage, including the prospect that we would cease to possess the inclination or ability to control the very creations of science itself. They admonished against the tendency of liberty badly-defined to treat all relations—whether with the world or with other humans—in purely utilitarian terms, making the world and its living inhabitants fodder for our pleasure.
What makes the Farewell Address so extraordinary is that Eisenhower acknowledges that liberty depends not only on America’s ability to develop appropriate scientific and technological responses to great international threats, but also on America’s capacity to govern the consequences of the scientific imperative itself. Eisenhower saw clearly that America’s resistance to the temptations of power was giving way to the demands of a permanent garrison state. The project of defending American liberty would require a massive expansion of government—particularly the executive—and the extensive influence of military players in the political process would increase the need for “secrecy and dispatch.” But more, the dependence upon science would decisively tip the scale toward liberty conceived as the overcoming of nature, premised upon an unrelenting expansion of power.
No section of Eisenhower’s address gives more compelling witness to this fear than his warning that the military-industrial-scientific complex’s demands would require the transformation of the university. His prophecy—which has become history—not only portended the death knell of “free ideas,” but the demise of the university’s historic role in providing reflective cautions about the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. Instead, the academy has given itself over to forms of inquiry with the ultimate aim of overcoming human nature.
Today every research university measures itself against its peers by calculating comparative amounts of federal grant funds; meanwhile, the un-useful liberal arts decline in esteem, size, even presence. This demotion overturns a tradition that located liberty’s source not in the untrammeled expansion of scientific knowledge, but in the liberal (and civic) arts—those subjects that educated free citizens in the discipline of self-goverment.
Tocqueville discerned over 125 years before Eisenhower that the utilitarian pursuit of scientific knowledge would imperil democracy, above all by leading men to live and think in the short term. “To minds thus predisposed, every new method that leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine that spares labor, every instrument that diminishes the cost of production, every discovery that facilitates pleasures or augments them, seems to be the grandest effort of the human intellect. It is chiefly from these motives that a democratic people addicts itself to scientific pursuits.” In a brief but telling section of his address, Eisenhower warns against the tendency to “live only for today,” urging his fellow citizens to think in terms of generational debts and obligations lest democracy become “the insolvent phantasm of tomorrow.”
We now tend to think our various forms of insolvency—economic, certainly; in natural resources, as gathering evidence suggests; and morally, at the root of our bankruptcy—can be answered by the application of better scientific technique. What America’s second voice has warned all along, and what Eisenhower powerfully articulated 50 years ago, was that our faith in science will not save us, but may in fact be the very source of our insolvency. What is needed instead is a sounder idea of liberty—in which (to paraphrase the forgotten second verse of “America the Beautiful”) we confirm our soul in self-control and find liberty in law.
Patrick J. Deneen is the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University, where he is director of the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.
This article is part of a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and the military-industrial complex.
How–and why–Ike’s farewell was written.
The Other Eisenhowers
|.||The Liberal Complex
Michael C. Desch
Idealism, not economics, drives U.S. militarism.
I Don’t Like Ike
This special symposium would not be possible without the support of our donors and print subscribers. Please make a donation or subscribe today!