This article was published in the Spring 1999 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation

Myths for a Free Nation

by Roderick T. Long

  (to table of contents of FNF archives)  (to start of essay)

"Yes, We are All Different"
Stories for Libertarians
The Earliest Myths About Order
Order as Eternal: The Zoroastrian Innovation
Order as Fall from Grace: The Upanishadic Innovation
Self-Polishing Jade: The Mencian Alternative
Bourgeois and Bohemian Virtues

BRIAN: Look, you've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!

FOLLOWERS [in unison]: Yes, we are all individuals!

BRIAN: You're all different!

FOLLOWERS [in unison]: Yes, we are all different!

(Monty Python's Life of Brian)

(to top of page)  (to outline)

"Yes, We are All Different!"

A number of novels have been written about visitors from a statist society to a libertarian one. (Some examples are Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion, James Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear, and any number of novels by L. Neil Smith, such as The Probability Broach, Tom Paine Maru, and Contact and Commune.) One feature they seem to have in common is a thoroughgoing cultural uniformity; the citizens of these libertarian utopias agree about nearly all the basic questions of morality, religion, and even art. (A welcome exception is found in J. Neil Schulman's novels Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza.)

This kind of uniformity is implausible. Not even collectivist societies are characterized by that much agreement. And an individualist society is especially unlikely to be so, since it will be a refuge for idiosyncratic mavericks of all varieties.

Some libertarians (particularly, but not solely, Randians) think that a libertarian society cannot survive without a very specific cultural base. If this were true, then the prospects for libertarianism would be dismal indeed, since widespread cultural uniformity is hard to maintain without government intervention.

I think this scenario is too pessimistic. Even if there is just one set of ideas that correctly identifies the reason that libertarianism is the best political system, a libertarian society can still survive if there is widespread agreement that libertarianism is best; there need not be a consensus on why it is best. (Compare: contemporary statist society survives because most people think it best, though they too do not agree on why.)

I agree, then, that a free nation will prosper only in a favorable cultural context. But such a context can be a constellation of quite diverse and even incompatible sets of ideas; it need not be a single monolithic package.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Stories for Libertarians

If we do not need to ask, then, what one cultural form is necessary in order to preserve a free society, we can nevertheless ask what sorts of cultural forms might tend to reinforce liberty. I have touched on this question before, when I argued that the New Age movement represented a set of ideas and institutional practices favorable to a free nation.1 My present concern, however, is with mythology in the broad sense: what kinds of stories (muthoi) might it be advantageous for members of a free nation to tell themselves?

A culture's stories are an important repository of its values. The stories may or may not be literally believed. The Greek myths about the Olympian gods (Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and so forth) were probably accepted as literal truth in classical antiquity, whereas they were not so accepted during the 16th-19th centuries; yet the cultural and artistic impact of those myths was nearly as great during the latter period as during the former.

There are two kinds of beliefs that might need to be reinforced by myths or stories in a free nation. One is beliefs about the nature of order, and the other is beliefs about the virtues. Let's consider these in turn.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

The Earliest Myths About Order

Our earliest ancestors seemed to have shared some common views about the nature and origin of order. At any rate, the earliest (i.e., roughly pre-7th-century-BCE) myths of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Hindus, and Norsemen seem to have followed a common pattern. (The Norse sources are more recent than this period, but are generally thought to derive from early Indo-European material.) According to the common view, the universe in its earliest phase was a vast, amorphous, indeterminate mass described variously as Water or Chaos; this origin was conceptualized as disorderly and imperfect. Out of this indeterminate origin, the first gods emerged; these gods were forces of order, and turned back and imposed order and limit on their disorderly origin, thus creating the world we know. In the period that followed, the gods of order maintained our world in existence by fighting a ceaseless battle against the incursions of the forces of disorder (usually characterized as giants or demons) that were constantly trying to restore the earlier chaos.2

Significantly, the apparatus of the State was identified with the forces of order; and the struggle between order and chaos was often described in terms involving a comparison to the invading State-founders' initial conquest and ongoing subordination of the native populace.

In some cultures, such as the Egyptian, the struggle between order and chaos was seen as perpetual; in others, it was regarded as ending at some point. The Greeks, ever optimistic, thought it had already ended with the triumph of the Olympians over the Titans; the order of the world was now basically secure. The Norse, more pessimistic, thought that the forces of disorder, the Frost Giants, were destined to defeat the gods at Ragnarok, the great battle at the end of the world. (These differences may have had something to do with climate. Egyptian society was dependent on the Nile and subject to its annual flooding; a cyclical view of ongoing struggle may have seemed attractive. In the bleak and frozen north with its long dark winters, the prospects for conditions favorable to life may have seemed tenuous and fragile, whereas temperate Greece might have inspired a more hopeful outlook.)

But the common features of the myths were these: (a) the determinate and orderly is good; the indeterminate and disorderly, bad; (b) the indeterminate and disorderly needs to have order imposed upon it by conscious agents; yet (c) these agents themselves are the spontaneous products of the world's indeterminate and disorderly source.

One can see why, as intellectual speculation developed, this early view of order might have begun to seem unsatisfactory. If the indeterminate is a disorderly mess that needs to have order imposed upon it, how was it able to give rise spontaneously to the gods in the first place?

Now perhaps this is not such a problem. We think that some forms of order can emerge spontaneously, while others must be imposed by conscious intention; and it seems plausible to suppose that the second kind of order is the indirect result of the first kind of order. However, the early myths gave no great scope for the operation of spontaneous order beyond the initial act of giving birth to the gods. This birth, then, was the one inexplicable exception to the general rule that ungoverned nature was worthless and unproductive without the guiding hand of some ordering mind. How could the good (i.e., order) arise from the bad (i.e., disorder)?

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Order as Eternal: The Zoroastrian Innovation

Around the 7th century BCE, then, two new views of order arose. The first seems to have had its start with the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. The Zoroastrians too believed in a struggle between the benevolent forces of order and the recalcitrant forces of chaos, but they denied that the former could ever have arisen from the latter. Ahura-mazda, the god of light and order, was an independent, self-existent entity who had always existed and so needed no "origin story." All kinship between the determinate and the indeterminate was severed, and all scope for spontaneous order was eliminated.

As Nietzsche writes:

"Almost all the problems of philosophy once again pose the same form of question as they did two thousand years ago: how can something originate from its opposite, for example rationality from irrationality, the sentient in the dead, logic in unlogic, disinterested contemplation in covetous desire, living for others in egoism, truth in error? Metaphysical philosophy has hitherto surmounted this difficulty by denying that the one originated in the other and assuming for the more highly valued thing a miraculous source ...."3 This is exactly what the Zoroastrians did. Order and definition being good, they could not have originated in disorder and indeterminacy, and must therefore have had a distinct transcendent origin. (And it is no coincidence that Nietzsche chose the figure of Zarathustra, the legendary founder of Zoroastrianism, as the mouthpiece for his own philosophy. As he explains in his autobiography, he thought it was appropriate that the originator of the dualist myth should also be the agent of its destruction.)

This new Zoroastrian view in turn may have influenced (or been influenced by?) the Jewish conception of a self-existent God imposing order on an earth "without form and void"; certainly the Torah as we now know it is thought to have been assembled during the Persian occupation of Judea, under the supervision of the Hebrew prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, both of whom were ministers of the Persian Shah.

At least Zoroastrianism certainly influenced the Greek philosopher Pythagoras and his followers, who saw order as the product of "limiters" imposing order and definition on the "unlimited"; the Pythagoreans' preference for Persian dress, their association of order with light and fire, and their claim that only God deserved the title "wise" (mazda, in Persian) all suggest a Zoroastrian origin for their ideas. And these ideas in turn influenced later Greek philosophers like Anaxagoras and Plato. (Few thinkers have been more hostile to the idea of spontaneous order than Plato.) The Zoroastrian-Pythagorean outlook was also put into the service of male dominance; women were described as inherently disorderly and indeterminate, needing to have the male principle imposed on them.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Order as a Fall from Grace: The Upanishadic Innovation

The other new view of order took shape within Hinduism, in a series of religious scriptures known as the Upanishads. The authors of the Upanishads likewise took seriously the question: "How can order, if it is good, arise from disorder, if that is bad?" Unlike the Zoroastrians, however, the Upanishadic authors did not challenge the premise that order and limit had originally arisen from the indeterminate and amorphous. Instead, they reversed the evaluations. The foundation of all being and value was Brahman, a formless and indescribable something-or-other devoid of all definite qualities. While Brahman could be described as God, it was not a personal deity, but was compared to water or air or space or nothingness. But this lack of determinacy was now seen not as something negative (messiness, incoherence) but as something positive (infinite transcendence). The emergence of limit was now seen as a limitation rather than the introduction of precision and symmetry. We are mere aspects of Brahman, and our distinct separateness is a liability rather than a value; true happiness lies in loss of individual identity and reabsorption into Brahman. Selfishness, desiring to maintain one's own individual identity, is the ultimate vice and folly. (A similar idea is found in some forms of Buddhism, though Brahman there gets replaced with Nirvana, or pure nothingness.) In Nietzsche's or Spengler's terms, this preference for the unlimited represents a Dionysian or Faustian ideal, by contrast with the Apollonian celebration of the limit.

This idea too was put into the service of male dominance, though once again with the values reversed: now women were associated with limit and men with the unlimited. (I recall seeing the Jungian psychologist Joseph Campbell on television a decade ago talking about how Hindu thought was less sexist than Greek thought because the Hindus associated woman with limit rather than the unlimited. It was my realizing how he'd utterly missed the point that first got me started thinking about this issue.) Interestingly, the same evaluation shows up in 18th century Europe, in the idea that woman is "beautiful" (as flowers and calligraphy and dainty doilies are beautiful) while man is "sublime" (as waterfalls and mountains and Gothic cathedrals are sublime).

The metaphysical side of this idea also seems to have had influence in Greece, through the early Milesian philosophers who identified the basic principle of all existence as something indefinite but alive, calling it variously Water, Air, or the Unlimited. It is not clear whether the associated hostility toward individual identity accompanied the view in this case, though the Milesian Anaximander does say that coming into existence is an injustice for which losing one's existence is the appropriate penalty. In any case, the Milesian view eventually got superseded by the more influential Pythagorean view (though the two may have gotten strangely combined later on, in Neoplatonism, where God, the supreme principle of limit, is himself completely unlimited — an idea of which there are foreshadowings in Plato himself).

There is also the possibility of an influence on China, through Taoism, though this is controversial. Anyway, the Taoists challenged the dominant preference for form and limit and determinacy, singing the praises of water and nothingness and indescribability. In contrast to the Confucian doctrine that one should shape and polish oneself like jade, the Taoists upheld the ideal of indefinite original simplicity as symbolized by the "uncarved block." It's wrong to try to impose order on things rather than letting them be governed by their own natural impulses. (Interestingly, while celebrating the unlimited, the Taoists retain the Confucian association of the unlimited with the female, and thus end up celebrating the female. This fact doesn't seem to have translated into any actual support for the betterment of women's position, however.)

Taoists are often hailed as precursors of libertarianism because of their recognition of spontaneous order; this is true as far as it goes, but it's important to realize that the Taoists had no great attachment to order in any case. Lao-tzu (Laozi), for example, upholds as his social ideal a small village whose members have few possessions, cannot read or write, count on their fingers, and never dream of traveling even as far as the next village. That they also have no need of rulers is still not enough to make this a utopia in most libertarians' eyes.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Self-Polishing Jade: The Mencian Alternative

None of these conceptions of order is particularly conducive to the survival of a free nation. The Zoroastrian ideal eliminates what little scope the earlier conception had allotted to spontaneous order, instead seeing all order as the product of conscious effort to impose discipline on unruly forces. Translated into the political sphere, this conception tends to support statism. But the Upanishadic ideal, slighting as it does human individuality and the products of the human mind, is not very congenial to libertarian values either. (The Zoroastrian ideal is a Hayekian's nightmare, the Upanishadic ideal is a Randian's nightmare.)

In the end, the pre-7th-century conception was perhaps the least wrongheaded: some kinds of order emerge spontaneously, others require conscious effort, and the latter kinds are produced by beings who are instances of the former kinds. But the pre-7th-century conception still allowed little scope for spontaneous order once the forces of consciously imposed order had arrived on the scene.

The conception of order most appropriate to a free nation may be the one put forward in the writings of Mencius (Meng-tzu, Mengzi), the maverick Confucian philosopher (4th century BCE) who tried to steer a middle way between the top-down control-freak ideals of Confucians like Hsün-tzu (Xunzi) and the hands-off quietism of Taoists like Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi). Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu regarded natural spontaneity and conscious effort as opposed; they favored the former and devalued the latter. One should adapt oneself to one's circumstances rather than trying to adapt one's circumstances to oneself. Go with the flow, let things be. Hsün-tzu was the opposite; he agreed that natural spontaneity and conscious effort were opposed, but he reversed the valuations. The natural tendency of things is toward evil, unless they have order imposed on them from without. This was true of human beings as well, he thought; people's natural tendencies are corrupt, and moral education runs against the natural grain. A virtuous person is as much an artificial product of a craftsman's skill as is a vase or a table—form and definition successfully imposed on recalcitrant material.

Mencius rejects both these approaches. For him they are opposite sides of the same coin: the mistaken assumption that natural spontaneity and conscious effort are opposed. Rather, conscious effort is precisely what human beings naturally, spontaneously, tend to do. Thus Mencius shares Hsün-tzu's preference for deliberate self-improvement—carving and polishing oneself like jade. But he believes, with the Taoists, that success lies in going with rather than against the natural grain of things, and he makes fun of those who "try to help their plants grow" by tugging impatiently on them and thus killing them. Where Hsün-tzu seeks to command nature, and the Taoists seek to obey it, Mencius embodies the Baconian dictum that "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." The movement from disorder to order is part of the natural tendency of things; we can help the process along, and in some cases direct it toward our favored kinds of order instead of some other, but always by cooperating with the natural tendencies of things (as one does when one waters plants) rather than imposing order from without.

The Mencian view of order is a myth. Maybe it is a true myth; maybe the material world really does have an inherent tendency toward greater order, as many New Age religions proclaim. Or maybe it is only a metaphor; raw materials, after all, have no inherent tendency to form themselves into girders and bridges without a lot of difficult human labor overcoming a lot of resistance. But the myth need not be believed as applying literally to all cases of order, for it to be a valuable way of conceptualizing an approach to order that could be useful for members of a free nation.

This fact could prove an unexpected bonus for a free nation, which may need to appeal to the cultural traditions of its immigrants. Nearly one fourth of the world's population lives in countries where Confucianism and Taoism are traditions of long standing, and Mencius is a respected figure. (This remains true despite Communist attempts in many of those countries to suppress such traditional ideas.) If a fledgling free nation could identify itself with Mencius' reconciliation of Confucianism and Taoism, this could serve as useful PR to counter the popular claim that individual liberty is inconsistent with "Asian values."

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Bourgeois and Bohemian Virtues

I set out to discuss both stories about order and stories about virtue. Much of what I've said about order, however, will apply to virtue as well; good libertarian stories about virtue might be ones that portray individuals with a Mencian approach to order. I do wish to conclude with some further reflections on virtue, however.

Most of the stories we tell ourselves about admirable conduct are stories that embody the warrior ethic. That is understandable enough; stories about danger and violent conduct are exciting and therefore enjoyable. Moreover, everyone needs to cultivate the ability to face their fears, and so such stories are an important part of moral education. But an exclusive focus on the warrior ethic is not an ideal characteristic of stories for a mercantile society (as I presume most libertarian societies will be).

This is not because the warrior ethic underemphasizes such values as compassion. On the contrary, compassion is often seen as one of the warrior's principal motivations. What the warrior ethic generally does not allow for is the kind of reciprocity involved in market transactions:

"It is interesting to observe that the code of chivalry assumes the helplessness of others. The knight in shining armor is a hero just to the extent that he extricates others from circumstances that they are unable to transcend. He slays the dragon that threatens the frightened and frail peasants; he subdues the tyrannical usurper lord; he protects the innocent against the heathen invader. In all cases, the knight is able to succeed as a knight where, and because, others fail. He is their last hope, and they will be eternally grateful to him, their benefactor and their savior.

In contrast, the entrepreneur must find a way to appeal to others. He cannot assume that he will be welcome; he expects to be subject to evaluation and critical review; he must proceed in his dealings with others by recognizing their autonomy, as they are free to go elsewhere and will certainly do so if they believe they are being poorly dealt with. In short, whereas the code of chivalry elevates the knight and demeans others, commerce strives to gain the respect of others and can do so only by extending respect."4

It is therefore not surprising that some libertarians (e.g., Deirdre McCloskey and David Kelley)5 have called for a renewed emphasis on the bourgeois virtues of production and trade associated with Benjamin Franklin, either to replace the warrior ethic (McCloskey) or to supplement it (Kelley). Stories celebrating the bourgeois virtues would thus be useful in a free nation. Yet there are few such stories, apart from the preachy uninspiring moralistic twaddle purveyed in so much "improving literature" of the late 19th century, and the heroic alienated individualists of Ayn Rand's novels (who would all make terrible salesmen). A more promising literary approach to mercantile virtues might take its start from Robert C. Solomon's "Corporate Roles, Personal Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach to Business Ethics."6

But bourgeois virtues are not enough. If a free nation is to survive, it must also possess a healthy admixture of bohemian virtues—virtues involving skepticism toward and rebellion against established authority. Otherwise it could become all too easy for a society of dutiful worker bees to acquiesce in the emergence of some new form of oppression. (What if a consortium of powerful corporations decided to try to become a government?)

One of my favorite libertarian heroes in popular culture is Bugs Bunny. Unlike, say, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny does not sow chaos in other people's lives for the hell of it. He peacefully minds his own business. But if someone invades his territory, he strikes back—with brains, not brawn—subjecting the oppressor to ingeniously fiendish pranks and turning their own strength against them with Mencian/Taoist subtlety. (It is no accident that Bugs Bunny is based, via Brer Rabbit, on the trickster-hero rabbit of African folklore.) Bugs defends liberty, not like a chivalrous warrior or armored knight, but like a hacker.

Now we see the ideal hero of libertarian fiction: Ben Franklin with a monkeywrench. D

(to top of page)  (to outline)


1 "Religious Influence on Political Structure:  Lessons from the Past, Prospects for the Future," Formulations, Vol. 2, No. 3  (Spring 1995).

2 For details, see The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man by Henri Frankfort et al., and Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come by Norman Cohn.

3 Human, All-Too-Human I. 1.

4 James E. Chesher, "Business:  Myth and Morality," p. 53; in Robert W. McGee, ed., Business Ethics and Common Sense (Westport:  Quorum  Books, 1992), pp. 45–65.

5 Deirdre McCloskey, "Bourgeois Virtue" American Scholar, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Spring 1994); David Kelley, The Fountainhead:  50th Anniversary Celebration, Institute for Objectivist Studies, 1993

6 In Daniel Statman, ed., Virtue Ethics (Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 205-226.

Roderick T. Long teaches philosophy at Auburn University in Alabama. He prefers order to chaos, though you wouldn't know it to look at his office. He can be contacted at:


(to table of contents of FNF archives)  (to top of page)  (to outline)