Illustrating the importance of metaphysics to politics, F. W. J. Schelling imagines a society governed by the following creed:
For if it were possible that a doctrine was to gain the upper hand, according to which the best and wisest things for humans should be leftover food, drink, and other goods of this type, a doctrine according to which everything metaphysical should be completely removed from human conviction…then of course the government could do nothing other than more or less look with folded arms, in impassive resignation at its downfall (The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, 106-107).
If an ideology became predominant according to which all respect for metaphysical ideals were lost and the prevailing philosophy became a form of extreme epicureanism, civic virtue would erode. It isn’t enough that people act according to the law; we should do so because we have respect for it. We should not only defend our country, but do it for the love of our country.
If one could extract all that is metaphysical from the state and public life, then they too would fall apart…True metaphysics is honor, it is virtue; true metaphysics is not only religion, but also respect for the law and love of one’s land…What would be the outcome and result of a philosophy such as the one described above (if one can call something of this type philosophy)? Answer: the moral of Falstaff in the well-known monologue before the start of battle…The true understanding of the world is provided by precisely the right metaphysics, which for this very reason has from time immemorial been called the royal science.
As an example of what would happen if metaphysics were lost, Schelling quotes Falstaff’s monologue from Henry IV:
Honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor price me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? No. Or to an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air; a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? T’is insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.
Thinking and acting are related. Metaphysical ideals are important both to set people going on correct reasoning and, based on the conclusions they draw from that reasoning, to guide their behavior. Because Falstaff doesn’t think honorably, he doesn’t act so. His sole concern is for his body. To that end, only practical as opposed to metaphysical knowledge counts. Honor hath no skill in surgery? Answering in the negative, Falstaff concludes that honor is therefore worthless, a mere emblem. This is the kind of thinking and acting that result when one loses all sense of principle.
I have to say, I’m struck by how much Schelling’s example of a bad social doctrine — “the best and wisest things for humans should be leftover food, drink, and other goods of this type” — resembles a certain trend today. This might be an indication that the process is already under way. It almost seems like the more knowledge of and mastery over the world humanity acquires, the more decadent it becomes — at least if pop culture is anything to judge by. Where do we go after twerking?