Sum, ergo cogito: “I am, therefore I think”

Ignorance in America regarding her basic economic and political principles—the vitality of free markets and limited government, for example—is ironic given their proven ability to raise standards of living and defend human rights. This disparity suggests that our hyper-successful democratic society is cursed by its own peculiar knowledge problem. On the one hand, as a beacon of wealth and freedom, the United States has more than tripled in size from 100M around 1920 to 330M in 2020. Much of this is attributable to poor and illiterate immigrants. We can expect that type of growth to strain any education system. But there’s a deeper cultural reason for our ignorance, one which paradoxically grows out of democracy itself.

Conservative pundits often lament the loss of theological and political principles. Naturally, age and experience increase our sense of such loss. Much of America’s social malaise, however, involves not so much a surrender of traditional values as a monstrous excess of them. If theology stresses the dignity of each soul, this reflects the universalizing nature of great religions; if our political principles stress the dignity of each citizen, this echoes our revolutionary rejection of primogeniture, privilege, and rank. Perversions occur when we start to believe that the souls of people with particular bodies or feelings somehow deserve more social respect and government largesse than the rest of us. This is more than hypocrisy; it’s the reassertion of ugly and unreasonable distinctions precisely at the site of their erasure by free-market democracy.

A culture overflows its banks when the egalitarian spirt of democracy becomes an unassailable virtue at all times and places, regardless of circumstance or goal. Faith in authority naturally decays in a democracy. The ignorant among us fill the vacuum, and their egalitarian emotion (pathos) further erodes the status of reason (logos). This gives hyper-democracy its carnivalesque character and makes it vulnerable to populist demagoguery. The Founders feared democracy’s tendency to create overdetermined egotistical unanimity; thus, we have a jury system, a Senate, an Electoral College, the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution, etc.

It so happens that democracy often perverts Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—by inverting it into sum, ergo cogito—“I am, therefore I think.” This inversion then devolves into sum with no need for cogito. This is a common yet often imperceptible delusion which exaggerates the values of our culture and its sociopolitical system. If we’re all equal, then I can relish the notion that I’m as good and valid as anyone else by mere virtue of the fact that I exist. While this is true in basic moral (Christian) and legal (democratic) senses, beyond these realms it’s often folly to think we’re equal.

[Related: “Thucydides on Commerce and Freedom”]

It’s the opportunity cost of knowledge that places limits on moral and legal equality. As long as we’re individuals, every citizen could be Einstein and we would still be knowledgeable about different things to different degrees. Even if we were genetic copies of each other, our finite and personalized experiences of knowledge and time would make us different. That, of course, remains apart from equality in a metaphysical or legal sense, before God and the law. But a form of fanatical utopian democracy confuses the idea of pure philosophical equality with the reality of the bodies and the universe we inhabit.

Democracy’s perversion of cogito, ergo sum into sum, ergo cogito parallels the trajectory of the second volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/40). Early in that book, Tocqueville uses Descartes to signal the modern ego as the philosophical grounds for equality and self-governance. The ultimate Cartesian social mode then confirms and reinforces individualism, ours especially:

… each American has but recourse to the individual effort of his own reason. America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied. We need not be surprised by that. Americans do not read the works of Descartes because the state of their society diverts them from speculative study and they follow his maxims because it is this very social state which naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.

But Tocqueville finishes his book on American democracy anticipating the totalitarian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley. He underscores the long-term risks of the self-righteousness of crowds which suppresses freedom of thought and distorts knowledge into ideology.

How does Tocqueville get from the logical liberation of the individual to the dilemma of the unruly mob? Again, it’s the curse of our success. Once the self is the measure of all things, the unbridled result is the mob. Mobs aggregate our culture’s sociopolitical instinct that both knowledge and righteousness are reducible to physical existence; numbers and force justify them with no further information or debate because their constituents are passionate about our glorified autonomy. As the crowd grows, we succumb to confirmation bias. We deem the egalitarian emotion that rules us to be the correct one, and voilà, American society is unjust, and we should burn it down.

Not only is radical egalitarianism our problem, then. We happen to suffer our own unique version of it. Due to the long-term success of our free society, the modern woke movement in the U.S. insists that any instance of inequality is attributable to injustice. Notions like “microaggressions” and policies like “implicit bias training” indicate the extremes of this peculiarly intense democratic anxiety. There is a problem when an ideology begins to surveille the soul rather than attempt to convince it.

Thankfully, the woke are in a growing contradiction. According to their own mantra of diversity, it’s not conformity to groups but the proliferation of individual uniqueness that is the index of a free and stable democratic social order. One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite philosophers, Eric Hoffer, dedicated significant portions of The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) to a range of “misfits,” “creative poor,” “undesirables,” “minorities,” and “bored.” Hoffer’s view is quintessentially liberal; American society thrives on outcasts. This is the sociological version of the notion that progress in activities like trade, political compromise, and scientific investigation is predicated on the existence of alternatives. It also allows that rebellious individualism can overcome its defects on two fronts: (1) we recognize our individual ignorance and (2) we resist conforming to the mob’s collective ignorance.

[Related: “Diversifying White Guilt”]

But civilized human beings are often like refugees who drink from the Lethe as they depart Hell. We forget the lessons of the past, especially in a democracy where respect for tradition is nil. Education in a free society must temper the heat of radical equality by civilization’s religious and legal commonsense. For that to happen, education must be considered a public good. And then there’s the question of how best to maximize it. Why not assume that local and individual educational choices now offer more diversity and social stability than federally mandated, monological answers fraught with constant attempts to assuage political grievances and imaginary injustices?

Revolutionary democracy is particularly adept at facilitating collusion between mobs and intellectuals. The ignorance of arrogance and the arrogance of ignorance are the reciprocating features of our special kind of tyranny. Why not moderate it with models of education that are more dialogical in nature? Otherwise, the worst intellectuals and the worst masses will continue to come together on the other side of the river and unleash the fire that rages within them both, as they do in the provincial town of Skvoreshniki at the end of Dostoevsky’s Devils (1871–72).

The woke sense that the only way to push back the excesses of equality is to cultivate distinction again, but they can only bring themselves to do so in the name of equality. We should turn Descartes’s liberating dictum further against itself into a morality of citizenship. In a civil society, I agree to listen to you up to a point, but I do not have to heed you. At the very least, you have to show me that you can reason. Having achieved universal suffrage in the U.S., we hold that children don’t vote, we don’t let the rest of the world vote, and we require knowledge of civics for citizenship in order to vote. Dead people can’t vote. People on life support can’t vote. These limits suggest that we already know we must think in order to remain a free society.

“I think, therefore I am” must be the goal of reasonable citizens. And if that is a goal of education generally, then a diverse portfolio of solutions makes sense. The answer is a free market in education. We need to stop using taxpayer money to fund factories of radical egalitarianism.

Image: Portrait of René Descartes, Frans Hals, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

One thought on “Sum, ergo cogito: “I am, therefore I think””

  1. Call me cynical, but I think “I can reproduce, therefore I am” is more appropriate — but maybe I’ve been amongst undergrads too long.

    The big issue is that we have drifted away from John Locke’s concept of a God-given individual right to life, liberty, and property.

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