John Locke

The related problems of “the public orthodoxy” and “the open societywere major concerns of  Willmoore Kendall throughout his professional career. In his reappraisal of John Locke in 1941, Kendall’s Locke emerged as an exponent of the public orthodoxy as expressed through the majority. As Kendall sees it, in Lockean thought, In consenting to be a member of a commonwealth, therefore, he [the individual] consents beforehand to the acceptance of obligations which he does not approve, and it is right that he should do so because such an obligation is implicit in the nature of community life.”[31] Throughout John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, the reader can discern Kendall’s deep skepticism about constructing an on-going political system on the foundations of abstract-natural-rights individualism; that to attempt to do so would be unnatural, and contrary to the realities of human nature and the human condition.In Kendall’s political science, the public orthodoxy is a “way of life,” and is identical to the Greek politeia, which refers to “the ‘character’ or tone of a community.”[32] More particularly, the public orthodoxy is:

[T]hat matrix of convictions, usually enshrined in custom and ‘folkways,’ often articulated formally and solemnly in charter and constitution, occasionally summed up in the creed of a church or the testament of a philosopher, that makes a society The Thing it is and that divides it from other societies as, in human thought, one thing is divided always from another.

That is why we may (and do) speak intelligibly of a Greek, a Roman, or an American ‘way of life.'[33]

From Kendall’s perspective, “the existence of the politeia [i.e., the public orthodoxy] is the unquestioned point of departure for political philosophy,” for it is the primordial fact of social and political existence.[34] The public orthodoxy is antecedent to all other political matters:

Not only can society not avoid having a public orthodoxy; even when it rejects an old orthodoxy in the name of ‘enlightenment,’ ‘progress,’ ‘the pluralist society,’ ‘the open society,’ and the like, it invents, however subtly, a new orthodoxy with which to replace the old one. As Aristotle is always at hand to remind us, only gods and beasts can live alone—man, by nature, is a political animal—whose very political life demands a politeia that involves an at least implicit code of manners and a tacit agreement on the meaning of man within the total economy of existence. Without this political orthodoxy…the state withers; contracts lose their efficacy; the moral bond between citizens is loosened; the State opens itself to enemies from abroad; and the politeia sheds the sacral character without which it cannot long endure.

As the state is founded upon the public orthodoxy, if the orthodoxy decays and disintegrates, the state itself will inevitably falter. It is an unyielding reality: The good order and health of the political state are dependent upon the vitality and character of the public orthodoxy. In Kendall’s political theory, not only is the public orthodoxy inescapably rooted in the order of being, but it is a positive good, for without it there is no society, no state, and civilized man, as we have traditionally known him, is destroyed.

John Stuart Mill

Kendall was strongly at odds with the dogmatic proponents of the “open society,” who seemed to be contending that all public orthodoxies are evil—except, of course, the public orthodoxy that there are no public orthodoxies. One of Kendall’s principal bete noires was John Stuart Mill, who was, as Kendall saw it, leading the attack of the open society proponents upon the concept of the public orthodoxy.[36] In his textual analysis of On Liberty, Kendall concluded that Mill was, in fact, an absolutist on the matter of freedom of expression. It is true that Mill made certain concessions on such matters as libel and slander, situations where children were involved, and incitement to crime; however, once these peripheral matters were conceded, Mill assumed an absolutist and dogmatic posture on the question of freedom of expression. Kendall considered the following representative quotations from On Liberty as dispelling any possible doubt on the matter:

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them. [In short, the prevailing public orthodoxy is by definition “tyranny” and must be displaced.]

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness, demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense, liberty of thought and feeling, absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological… No society… is completely free in which [these liberties] do not exist absolute and unqualified.

[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.

If the teachers of mankind are to be cognizant of all that they ought to know, everything must be free to be written and published without restraint.

[H]uman beings should be free to form opinions and to express their opinions without reserve.[37]

Mill was unequivocal that his call for “absolute freedom of opinion” included freedom of thought, speaking, and writing.[38] Moreover, in his blistering attack upon the public orthodoxy, Mill argued that the existence of any orthodoxy impaired human happiness and impeded progress: “Where not the person’s own character but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.”[39] Finally, Mill lamented, “In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world.“[40] It was Mill’s unrelenting disdain for the public orthodoxy or, as he called it, “the despotism of custom” that led him to make his best-known remark: “If all mankind were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing all mankind.”[41]

Kendall rejected categorically Mill’s absolutist position on the “open society,” and he repudiated its theoretical underpinnings:

Not only had no one ever before taught his doctrine concerning freedom of speech. No one had ever taught a doctrine even remotely like his. No one, indeed, had ever discussed such a doctrine even as a matter of speculative fancy. Hardly less than Machiavelli, and more than Hobbes, Mill is in full rebellion against both religion and philosophy, and so in full rebellion also against the traditional society that embodies them…. To reverse a famous phrase, Mill thinks of himself as standing not upon the shoulders of giants but of pygmies. He appeals to no earlier teacher, identifies himself with nothing out of the past; and his doctrine of freedom of speech is, as I have intimated already, the unavoidable logical consequence of the denials from which his thought moves. [42]

Kendall charged that Mill’s position is at odds with elementary facts of the human condition. It is unnatural and perverse to ask mortal men to accept a posture of absolute relativism, for in fact men do have values, in fact, they do think some questions are settled, and they do not accept the position that all points of view are relative and equal in value. Kendall contended Mill erred in proposing that any society should and would make absolute freedom of expression its supreme and only value:

Mill’s proposals have, as one of their tacit premises a false conception of the nature of society, and are, therefore, unrealistic on their face. They assume that society is, so to speak, a debating club devoted above all to the pursuit of truth, and capable therefore of subordinating itself—and all other considerations, goods, and goals—to that pursuit…. But we know only too well that society is not a debating club—all our experience of society drives the point home—and that, even if it were one…the chances of its adopting the pursuit of truth as its supreme good are negligible. Societies…cherish a whole series of goods—among others, their own self-preservation, the living of the truth they believe themselves to embody already, and the communication of that truth (pretty much intact, moreover) to future generations, their religion, etc.—which they are not only likely to value as much as or more than the pursuit of truth, but ought to value as much as or more than the pursuit of truth, because these are preconditions of the pursuit of truth.[43]

As Kendall viewed it, Mill failed to understand that the politeia is the condition precedent to society, and that it is only within the frame of reference or consensus established by the politeia that debate, or discussion as Kendall would prefer to call it, can take place. To deny the politeia, and to ask for unlimited debate in the abstract as Mill does, is to request that which is not only impossible of achievement—human nature and the human condition dictate otherwise—but indeed, even if attainable, would be undesirable. It would be undesirable:

For the essence of Mill’s freedom of speech is the divorce of the right to speak from the duties correlative to the right; the right to speak is a right to speak ad nauseam, and with impunity. It is shot through and through with the egalitarian overtones of the French Revolution, which are as different from the measured aristocratic overtones of the pursuit of truth by discussion, as understood by the tradition Mill was attacking, as philosophy is different from phosphorus.[44]

If the regnant doctrine of Mill is the right to speak ad nauseam, without any correlative duties or obligations, we are installing the cult of individual eccentricity as our supreme value; if this is followed to its logical and final conclusion, society will be brought to the brink of disintegration. Mill was an advocate of the cult of individual eccentricity. He wrote,

In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.[45]

In Mill’s “open society,” the individual with his absolute right of expression is then instructed that eccentricity is a positive good, and there is a duty to pursue it. That is, there emerges a public orthodoxy of eccentricity, and in Kendall’s critique, this will drive individuals to the making of exorbitant and impossible demands upon society. This, in turn, will lead to confrontation and the disintegration of society, for there is no center that can hold; more importantly, there is no obligation or duty on anybody to hold, for all things political are conceived wholly in terms of individual rights and demands. Into the vacuum created by disintegration will move force and coercion—in a word, tyranny. As Kendall succinctly put it,

I next contend that such a society as Mill prescribed will descend inevitably into ever-deepening differences of opinion, into progressive breakdown of those common premises upon which alone a society can conduct its affairs by discussion, and so into the abandonment of the discussion process and the arbitrament of public questions by violence and civil war.[46] 

Kendall queried, “[I]s there any surer prescription for arriving, willy nilly, in spite of ourselves, at the closed society, than is involved in current pleas for the open society?”[47] He answered, “By asking for all, even assuming that all to be desirable, we imperil our chances of getting that little we might have got had we asked only for that little.”[48]

Inexorably then, Kendall argued, Mill’s position of dogmatic relativism leads to the emergence of the coercive state. Kendall reasoned, “The proposition that all opinions are equally—and hence infinitely—valuable, said to be the unavoidable inference from the proposition that all opinions are equal, is only—and perhaps the less likely of two possible inferences, the other being: all opinions are equally—and hence infinitely—without value, so what difference does it make if one, particularly one not our own, gets suppressed?”[49] Kendall concluded with this admonition: “We have no experience of unlimited freedom of speech as Mill defines it, of the open society as [Karl] Popper defines it, unless, after a fashion and for a brief moment, in Weimer Germany—an experience no organized society will be eager to repeat!”[50]

Kendall accused the “open society” proponents, such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Popper, of presenting us with false choices. That is, they force us to choose between the “closed” or the “open” society. As Karl Popper stated it, “We can return to the beasts [meaning the closed society]. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society.”[51] Kendall challenged that assumption:

Mill would have us choose between never silencing and declaring ourselves infallible, as Popper would have us believe that a society cannot be a little bit closed, any more than a woman can be a little bit pregnant. All our knowledge of politics bids us not to fall into that trap. Nobody wants all out thought control or the closed society; and nobody has any business pretending that somebody else wants them. For the real question is, how open can a society be and still remain open at all?[52]

To Kendall, the “open society” versus “closed society” choices are false choices, for, in fact, they are not our only alternatives. In the real world of being, there is “an infinite range of possibilities.” Indeed, the great irony is that by offering these false choices, the open society proponents actually nudge us closer to the closed society. As the attaining of a completely open society is impossible, and undesirable to boot, the advocates of the open society, by their own process of elimination, leave us with no other alternative than that of the closed society, which unfortunately is attainable. It was Kendall’s contention that political philosophers should be seeking realistic and moderate solutions in that “infinite range of possibilities” lying between those purist concepts of the open and closed societies, which political ideologists have been wrongly informing us are our only options.

As political philosopher, Kendall was always pushing to deeper levels of meaning and understanding. One of the most impressive illustrations of this is his carefully honed and brilliantly argued article, “The  People Versus Socrates Revisited.”[53] Kendall contended that the advocates of the open society had converted Socrates-before-the-Assembly into their fundamental symbol. For example, in On Liberty Mill wrote:

Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates, between whom and the legal authorities and public opinion of his time there took place a memorable collision…. This acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived—whose fame, still growing after more  than two thousand years….[54]

Similarly, throughout The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper spoke glowingly of Socrates, and he concluded, “The new faith of the open society, the faith in man, in equalitarian justice, and in human reason, was…beginning to take shape….The greatest contribution to this faith was to be made by Socrates, who died for it.”[55]

Regarding the Mill-Popper symbol of Socrates-arrayed-against-the-Assembly, Kendall wrote:

What symbol? The symbol, of course, of Socrates the Bearer of the Word standing with unbowed head in the presence of his accusers and judges, who hold the Word in contempt of the Servant of Truth being punished, murdered rather, for the truth that is in him; that of the Wise Man being sacrificed by fools who, had they but listened to him, would have been rescued from their folly. That symbol, I contend, lies at the root of the simon-pure doctrine [of the open society]…of the Mill-Popper position.[56]

It was Kendall’s position that a close reading of the Apology and the Crito will reveal this to be a spurious symbol. The political theory of the Crito does not yield up a limitless open society of the Mill-Popper version; rather, argued Kendall, it offers a society in which the individual is accorded a reasonable opportunity to convince society of the failings and errors of its public orthodoxy. When that reasonable opportunity has been exhausted, and society chooses not to alter its values or orthodoxy, the individual is expected to desist or emigrate. Furthermore, after his hearing the dissenter may encounter punishment for ideas or methods found by society to be utterly repugnant to those things it treasures as fundamental. In short, the teaching of the Crito is not that offered by the open society advocates, for it does not propose a society in which the individual has the absolute and unlimited right to talk ad nauseam until society converts itself to the preachments of the dissenter. According to Kendall, this latter theory is, as has been previously noted, unworkable, unattainable, and undesirable; it is a political theory which has its roots in On Liberty, not in the Crito.

In addition, Kendall charged the open society advocates with misunderstanding the political lessons of the  Apology. The lesson is not that Socrates has been denied the opportunity for a reasonable hearing as required by the Crito. Indeed, the Athenians had been listening to Socrates for several decades. Nor was the major issue raised between Socrates and the Assembly a demand by Socrates that the Athenians keep all questions open questions and modify the public orthodoxy here or enlarge it there. The heart of the matter was that Socrates wished the Athenians to upend and reorder their entire public orthodoxy and to bring it into conformity with his own. Moreover, this radical demand from Socrates resulted not from the partial truths learned in the marketplace of ideas of the open society proponents; rather, it is rooted in an ultimate religious Truth. It is to be remembered, warned Kendall, that Socrates spoke of “the greatest improvement of the soul” (to which Socrates has the key, of course), of “the command of God,” and Socrates informed the Athenians that “I shall obey God rather than you.”[57] In pressing his case, Socrates is instructing the Athenians that their present way of life is “not worth living.” Not only is their way of life foolish and frivolous; it is base and immoral, and Socrates will settle for nothing less than a total rejection of the Athenian public orthodoxy, and its replacement by the religious Truth, as perceived and expounded by Socrates. As Kendall summed it up, “There is the model…the situation of every society over against every revolutionary agitator; nor could there be better evidence of the poverty of post-Platonic political theory than the fact that it has received so little attention.”[58]

It was Kendall’s contention that students of political philosophy in their understanding of the forces inherent in human society will recognize the unyielding realities which leave the Athenians and the Assembly no choice:

The Athenians are running a society, which is the embodiment of a way of life, which in turn is the embodiment of the goods they cherish and the beliefs to which they stand committed…. The most we can possibly ask of them…is that they shall keep their minds a little open to proposals for this or that improvement, this or that refinement… To ask of them, by contrast, that they jettison their way of life, that they carry out the revolution, demanded of them by the revolutionary agitator, is to demand that they shall deliberately do that which they can only regard as irresponsible and immoral—something, moreover, that they will seriously consider doing only to the extent that their society has ceased, or is about to cease, to be a society.[59]

As laudable as the thought might seem in certain situations, to ask a society to condemn and repudiate itself is unnatural and contrary to what political philosophy has learned about the politeia, that condition antecedent to society and government. In fine, a being, be it an individual or a society, cannot be asked to repudiate itself and to declare its nothingness, for that is unnatural, perverse, and contrary to elementary first principles on the nature of being which we have culled out of our accumulated experience and wisdom. It was Kendall’s lesson that we had best understand those unrelenting realities, and thereby be better able to develop the realistic open society, the society of the Crito. To ignore those realities, and to attempt to construct the perfected, limitless, and utopian open society of the Mill-Popper school, is to build on infirm foundations and to court society’s disintegration with the resulting potential of the closed societies of the authoritarian or totalitarian stripe. In their fervor to obtain everything, the exponents of the open society will end up getting nothing. It is that disastrous end which Kendall wished to avoid. As Kendall viewed it, the Mill-Popper school has read its own de novo theories, spun out of wholly new cloth, into the works of the ancients—such as the Crito and the Apology, and they deceive themselves in contending that they are extracting their theories out of a proper reading of these classics.

This essay is the second of a four-part series; the first may be found here.

Republished with gracious permission from Political Science Reviewer (Fall 1973).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[31] Willmoore Kendall; John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, p.118. Italics added. For the earliest expression of Kendall’s interest in the public orthodoxy, see Nellie D. Kendall, ed., op. cit., pp.103-117.

[32] Frederick D. Wilhelmsen and Willmoore  Kendall, “Cicero and The Politics of The Public Orthodoxy,” The Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winter, 1968-69), p.85.

[33] Ibid., pp.85-86.

[34] Ibid., p.86.

[35] Ibid., p. 88.

[36] Kendall’s classic work on this matter is “The ‘Open Society’ and Its Fallacies,” American Political Science Review, Vol. LIV (1960), pp.972-979. (It is Kendall’s position that a careful reading of John Milton’s Areopagitica reveals a Milton not in support of the unlimited open society. See Nellie D. Kendall, ed., op. cit., pp.168-201.)

[37] John S. Mill, On Liberty, ed. Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1956), pp.7, 16, 20, 47, 67. Italics added.

[38] Ibid., p.18.

[39] Ibid., p.68.

[40] Ibid., p.80.

[41] Ibid., p.21. Kendall found Karl Popper the best contemporary expression of Mill’s philosophy as reflected in On Liberty. See Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 5th ed. rev., 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966). It is Popper who repudiates the “closed society” based upon “the claims of tribalism” and offers the “open society” as the only “enlightened” and “progressive” alternative.

[42] Willmoore Kendall, “The ‘Open Society’ and Its Fallacies,” p.976.

[43] Ibid., p.977.

[44] Ibid., p.979.

[45] Mill, op. cit., pp.81-82.

[46] Willmoore Kendall, “The ‘Open Society’ and Its Fallacies,” p.978.

[47]  Ibid., p.976.

[48]  Ibid., p.977.

[49] Ibid., p.978. On this point, Kendall expressly cited with approval Bertrand de Jouvenel. See Ibid., p.978, n.31.

[50] Ibid., p.977.

[51] Popper, op. cit., vol. 1, p.201. Italics added.

[52] Willmoore Kendall, “The ‘Open Society’ and Its Fallacies,” p.976.

[53] Nellie D. Kendall, ed., op. cit., pp.149-167.

[54] Mill, op. cit., pp.29-30.

[55] Popper, op. cit., vol. 1, p.189.

[56] Nellie D. Kendall, ed., op. cit., p.150.

[57] Ibid., p.161. Kendall noted the parallel between the position of Socrates and the story related in the Gospels; however, Kendall added, “Plato, who cannot know that the chasm between teacher and neighbor can be bridged by the Atonement, must—unlike the narrators of the Gospels—leave it at that.” Ibid., p.163. That is, the latter-day advocates of the open society are not claiming the divinity of Socrates. They are only offering him as the secular saint of perennial dissent, while the Christian is on wholly different grounds, for in fact he is claiming his symbol is divine; consequently, it deserves obeisance from all orthodoxies. In sum, the Christian political philosopher may consistently argue that Socrates is “wrong,and Christ is “right,” because the latter is divine; therefore, this one time on this one point all orthodoxies must yield. Of course, the secular defender of the Socratic symbol has no such firm foundation on which to build the faith in the open society.

[58] Ibid., p.164.

[59] Ibid., pp.165-166. As Publius stated it, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” From Federalist 55.

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