Eunomia · philosophy

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Perhaps, but having a trio of “philosopher-bloggers” talk about the fortunes and future of the conservative intellectual movement is not blogging.  I will be at CPAC for an ISI-sponsored Friday panel from 1:00-3:00 in Congressional Room A.

P.S. It appears that the President will also be coming to CPAC on Friday.  That should be an interesting sight.

Related to the question of self-reliance are the paired concepts of self-restraint and self-indulgence.  You may remember that there was a lively debate about Crunchy Cons in the spring of 2006, and much of the argument was over patterns and types of consumption (or overconsumption, as we on the crunchy side saw it).  On one level, we were talking about an overconsumption of things, but this could be applied more narrowly to an overconsumption of food and of the unhealthiest–but frequently most convenient–kinds of food.  The debate was regularly sidetracked as we were chided for being snobbish foodies who were trying to impose our love of manchego on the masses.  We were pushing the ideal of enkrateia (I don’t think any of us used the word at the time, but this is broadly what we were talking about), and we were told that we were hypocritical busybodies, socialists-in-waiting and the like.  Overconsumption comes from disordered desire, or rather an excess of desire, and what the “crunchies” or neo-traditionalists were arguing for was moderation.  We were calling for cultivating self-restraint and constraining impulses towards gluttony.  (This in turn would tie into matters of land usage, such as how much land and how many resources are being devoted to raising livestock, and to questions of the treatment of animals in factory farming to provide the mass production of meat demanded by an overconsuming public–the kinds of questions that my green friends were putting to me years ago and which I, still in a rather unreflective libertarian phase, laughed off as unimportant.)   Accustomed to thinking of such arguments in terms of calls for government action, which we were not making, the critics presumably saw us as little better than pro-life Michael Bloombergs on a quest to eliminate transfats by edict.  They were, are, wrong.  

When Mike Huckabee started running for President (and was busily running, training for a marathon as part of his health kick), the prospect of having a weight-loss guru in the race was dispiriting for some of us, and his vague answers to health care questions indicated that he thought there was nothing wrong with the health care system that a good diet wouldn’t cure.  It has been easy to make light of Huckabee’s talk about preventive care and a national ”health crisis,” since he is usually heavy on quips and light on details, but I may be starting to see some value in what he’s talking about here.  Not as a matter of policy, but as a matter of pushing for changes in habits and making arguments that the good life entails moderation and that this must affect how we consume food.  This is not to move away from joie de vivre and festivity, which I believe are complements to a certain asceticism that a conservatism of virtue has to try to instill, but to encourage a return to proportion and limits and, above all, restraint.  The return of restraint would be a boon to conservatives in virtually all areas, whether we are talking about spending, foreign policy or conservation, but it can be applied more immediately in daily life.   

As Americans, our cultural responses to indulgence and restraint tend to veer towards extremes, and you find a generally humourless, puritanical lot crusading for various public health causes on one side and those who insist on their God-given right to kill themselves with smoke and fat if they so choose.  One area where cultural conservatives might make a valuable contribution is trying to bring these two views more into balance.  Promoting a sense of proportion, limits and restraint and encouraging the healthy enjoyment of food, and furthermore making the case that how and what a people eats is actually significant and not an irrelevant choice, could be one way that conservatives could attack a significant cause of health care expense by working to transform the culture and instill habits more in keeping with the virtues.  This is a classic example of the need to have checks imposed from within if they are not going to be imposed from without.   

Ross commented on Noah Feldman’s article on Mormonism recently, which reminded me that I had also wanted to respond to one part of it and arguments like the following:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt.

Put that way, Feldman might have a point, except that the claim of new revelation is actually the least “ridiculous” part of the story.  It is, and always has been, the content of that revelation that has drawn the most criticism, and so for the most part the majority dutifully ignores or downplays how the content of this or that religion is theologically untenable.  To do otherwise would begin us down the road to taking one set of theological claims more seriously than another, which might even (gasp!) lead us to assign different significance and measures of truth to different sets of claims.  The problem with this argument is that, for the sake of promoting toleration for minority religions, it essentially grants that every religion is just as inherently plausible as any other, which not only makes discussion of doctrine pointless, but actually impedes the possibility of religious dialogue and persuasion.  Granting this equality of religions paves the way for exactly the kind of arational sectarianism that skeptics believe is unavoidable with religion in public life.    

There is this very strange attitude about religion out there, and it is held by more than a few observant Christians as well as secular skeptics, that says that no revelation is more plausible than any other, which implies that revelation is entirely outside the realm of rational discouse and demonstration.  This is essentially fideism or a kind of neo-Barlaamism, which holds that believers should hold to their traditional faiths primarily because they are ancient–there is nothing that we can actually say rationally about a doctrine of God.  One of the reasons why this bizarre idea can gain such currency is the lack of respect people have for theology and dogma.  In our culture, if you want to dismiss someone’s position, you say that he is being dogmatic, and if you want to discredit an argument you refer to his worldview as a “theology,” preferably preceded by adjectives such as arcane. 

Such is the depth of our divorce from Christian intellectual tradition that many people do not recognise the substantive difference between an elaborately reasoned theological view and the ramblings of a science-fiction author.  Simply put, we lack discernment.  Militant atheists are at least consistent in the implications of holding such a disparaging view of revelation–for them, it is all made-up and undeserving of any respect.  Out of some misplaced sense of solidarity with other religious people against the Christopher Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world, Christians seem to feel obliged to make general defenses of generic theism or the even more amorphous category of Religion, and woe betide the bishop who attempts, as Pope Benedict did, to illustrate the implications of radically different doctrines of God.  This then forces these Christians to argue that all these things are purely a matter of faith, where faith is defined not only as something inspired and the result of God’s grace (which it is), but also as something arational, rather than understanding that it is faith rightly understood that is the highest form of rationality.  Having conceded the high ground and having bought into a functionally extreme apophaticism, the Christian finds himself at a loss to make any argument from revelation, because he has already effectively granted that speaking kataphatically is impossible.  Trying to include everyone in a big tent of ecumenical anti-secularism eventually leads to being unable to say something about God and maintain that it is actually true, when there is nothing more fundamental to preaching and evangelising than speaking the truth about God in prayer and homilies. 

This brings me, oddly enough, to the question of evolution.  Fideistic understandings of religion and materialistic philosophies that seek to exploit evolutionary biology to their advantage enjoy a symbiotic relationship, since they both thrive on promoting mutual antagonism between reason and faith.  Tell the Christian that he must either endorse evolutionary theory or accept the Bible, and he will typically take the Bible, especially if he is not grounded in an authoritative teaching tradition that tells him that this choice is a false one.  Tell the average educated secular person that revealed religion is incompatible with scientific theory, and he may very well conclude that those who continue to adhere to revealed religion must be either ignorant, insane or up to no good.  Huckabee is someone who falls into the former category, of course, and declares himself agnostic on ”how” God works in creation, which is actually a far more honest view–and one that a majority of Americans would share–than affirming evolutionary theory because you know that it is socially unacceptable in certain circles to admit that you don’t understand or accept the theory.  As Rod has said before, evolution serves as a “cultural marker,” and it is deployed as a litmus test to see whether you belong to a certain kind of educated elite.  Ironically, the cultural bias against dogmatism and theology in religion has come around and struck science by making it permissible, even admirable, to doubt statements made with certainty.  Were it not for the tendency of many religious and secular Americans to oppose reason and faith, there would be no difficulty in affirming the truth of revelation and recognising the reasonable, albeit always provisional, nature of scientific inquiry.  Obviously, approaches to faith that prize doubt and uncertainty simply reinforce the tendency towards extreme apophaticism and fideism that make it impossible for believers and non-believers  to speak intelligibly to one another (to the extent that people working in two significantly different traditions can speak to one another). 

Sigh.  It’s enough to make you despair for your “national coalition,” also known as a “country.”  It never fails to amaze me how those who are keen to talk about the constructed nature of identity and social conventions seem to think that it is therefore somehow illegitimate to maintain identities and conventions once they have been constructed.  The key idea of constructivism is that we are the ones shaping and crafting the concepts we use, and that they supposedly do not derive from the nature of things.  If that is so, and for the sake of argument let’s say that it is, it is ultimately no more “abhorrent” in a firm, absolute sense for one group to exclude outsiders than it is for another to include them–both kinds of treatment of outsiders serve different functions, and the kind of treatment you advocate depends very much on which function you value more and which one you think you can live without.  Those who are already uninterested in the maintenance of national identity will naturally have no problem with welcoming in outsiders by the millions and tens of millions–they have made the great sacrifice of not maintaining something they didn’t value–while simultaneously declaring their greater moral sense for valuing inclusion.   

The unchosen obligations, which are still imposed on us and affect us even when we react against them by rejecting them, that the liberal wants to weaken actually serve both manifest and latent functions, and it is on account of this that they are reproduced.  Failing to maintain and reproduce them does actually lead to social disorder, which the liberal desperately tries to normalise and affirm as just a “different” kind of social organisation.  The vast majority of human experience tells us that there is something in human nature that compels us to cultivate in-group solidarity, construct identities in opposition to other groups of people and structure relatively restrictive social rules to organise our group.  Any of these things can be taken to extremes, and they can also be badly neglected.  In the current age of neglect, “society” continues to trudge on in one form or another, but the social costs stemming from neglecting those old unchosen obligations have badly damaged our capacity for creating social capital.   

Excesses in either direction will undermine human flourishing.  Of course, confusion sets in at the beginning when you begin making liberty the baseline of judging whether or not something is desirable.  Mr. Wilkinson has successfully shown once again that he hates boundary maintenance–both of the physical and the metaphorical kind–and that conservatives favour it, which is why he isn’t a conservative.  Very illuminating.   

At APSA, Prof. Patrick Deneen had a critique of Prof. Dienstag’s Pessimism, which I have discussed many times before, and of philosophical pessimism itself.   He said:

Memory and hope, Christopher Lasch argued – and not pessimism – are the proper antidotes to optimism.

I agree with this, or at least I almost agree.  Pessimism seems to me to be the antidote to the poison of optimism, and then memory and hope function as the proper nourishment that human nature needs to flourish.  Even if undiluted pessimism is a poison of its own, and I might grant that it is in its most extreme despair of any meaning in life, St. John of Damascus said of his heresiological work that it is necessary to make use of poisons to create antidotes. 

I have said many times that the virtue of hope has nothing to do with optimism, and Christians who routinely mistake hope for optimism are very badly confused about what hope is and what they are supposed to be hoping for in this life.  Indeed, to hope for salvation in Christ is almost the opposite of the optimist’s view.  The optimist says, “I will be saved, and I can save myself.”  The Christian says, “I may yet be saved, if it be God’s will.”  Hope and optimism are in fact antithetical, which reinforces my sense that optimism is as vicious as hope is virtuous.  Optimism is as demonic as hope is divine.

My own view is that the pessimists are as close to being right as secular philosophers are likely to be, but that in their denial even of the hope of salvation and their denial of all meaning they have missed the heart of why they are right about so many of their other observations.  They have seen clearly through the vanity of this world and the promises of those who would seek to realise some kind of salvation here below, and we would all be better off if there were more people inclined to see these promises as the hollow deceptions that they are.  However, the only possible pessimism that escapes the ultimate emptiness of this secular pessimism (the pessimists would see it not as emptiness, but as possibility) is a Christian pessimism that understands that redemption is still possible, but it is not one that can be fulfilled in this world.

James has a very interesting and valuable post on optimism.  We agree part of the way, in that we both seem sure that optimism is undesirable, misleading and potentially dangerous.  James goes on to say:

Optimism, in fact, is an attitude, an emotional orientation, a psychological posture, a feeling — a meta-feeling, even, a feeling about feelings, the feeling that we should  feel as if failure is impossible.

I agree that there is such an attitude, or orientation, or posture, or feeling, but I would say that this attitude is the product of an optimistic worldview, rather than the substance of optimism itself.  Just as I insist that we all recognise that pessimism is more than, and indeed quite different from, feeling gloomy and misanthropic, it is important that we understand optimism as a kind of philosophical thought.  Optimism of the kind I am describing, and which I reject utterly, is not simply unsettling cheerfulness and irrepressible giddiness, bad as these may be, but a set of assumptions about the world, human nature and the direction (or non-direction) of history.      

One of my first forays against dread optimism was early last year, when I came across this outstanding Salisbury quote in a Gimson article in The Spectator.  Lord Salisbury said:

The optimist view of politics assumes that there must be some remedy for every political ill, and rather than not find it, will make two hardships to cure one. If all equitable remedies have failed, its votaries take it as proved without argument that the one-sided remedies, which alone are left, must needs succeed. But is not the other view barely possible? Is it not just conceivable that there is no remedy that we can apply for the Irish hatred of ourselves? …May it not, on the contrary, be our incessant doctoring and meddling, awaking the passions now of this party, now of that, raising at every step a fresh crop of resentments by the side of the old growth, that puts off the day when these feelings will decay quietly away and be forgotten?

Optimism is not simply an attitude or a feeling, but an assumption that all problems, in the end, have solutions and that we can know what they are and put them into effect.  It is an assumption that no consequences are final, there is always another day to set things right, that there is always a second chance and that history is moving towards something that we can discern and, even more remarkably, we may be able to accelerate progress towards that end.  The optimist says, “It is never too late,” while the pessimist knows that people are late and they miss what they are seeking, or something else interferes and prevents you from reaching the goal.  Pessimism recognises certain limitations of finite man that do not change; optimism sees human limits as continually expanding and being redefined.  This is not simply an attitude, but a belief about the structure of reality and the nature of history.  Anyone who accepts the reality of the radical contingency of historical change cannot think that history is going in any particular direction.  Anyone who briefly scans the annals of mankind cannot conclude that human reason has the capacity to actually “solve” fundamental problems of our condition, yet this is what an optimist, be he liberal or Marxist or something else, must believe.  According to Dienstag:

Pessimism, to Schopenhauer, means not that our civilization or morality are declining, but rather that human beings are fated to endure a life freighted with problems that are fundamentally unmeliorable.

Optimism is the view that there are ultimately no problems that are unmeliorable (optimists may make a concession with respect to death, but only very grudgingly).  Rather than being filled with burdens to be endured, life may be improved virtually without end in the optimist’s view.  This is far more, and far worse, than endless self-delusion based on excessive cheer and confidence.  It is the assumption that there is good reason to be so cheerful and confident about the future.

In the end, optimism as a philosophical view is an acceptance of the reality of progress.  Here is Dienstag on the struggle between the idea of progress and pessimism:

Finally, the dismissal of pessimism reflects the continuing grip that ideas of progress retain on contemporary consciousness.  Though supposedly slain many times (Lewis Mumford called it the “deadest of dead ideas” in 1932), this beast continues to rise from the ashes for the simple reason that, first, it helps us to make sense of the linear time of our calendar and, second, there is no easy substitute for it.  However much it may be denied in principle, in practice the idea of progress is difficult to displace.  And from that perspective, pessimism is especially bewildering…..Pessimism is a substitute for progress, but it is not a painless one.  In suggesting that we look at time and history differently, it asks us to alter radically our opinion of ourselves and of what we can expect from politics [bold mine-DL].  It does not simply tell us to expect less.  It tells us, in fact, to expect nothing.  This posture, I argue below, is not impossible and not suicidal.  It is neither skeptical (knowing nothing) nor nihilistic (wanting nothing).  It is a distinct account of the human condition that has developed in the shadow of progress–alongside it, as it were–with its own political stance.       

Popper more than thumped the table.  He used propaganda techniques to caricature Hegel.  He twisted his ideals into their opposite, attributing to him false motives, denounced him as pathological.  On all major isues dividing Popper and Hegel, I stand with Popper.  Hegel’s theodicy, his premature reconciliation of liberty and power, favored the status quo and represented a long and dangerous German intellectual tradition.  All the same, he was neither totalitarian nor nationalist and deserved a serious critique, not a caricature.  Popper’s attack remains a showpiece of intolerance and narrow-mindedness.  Writing in the midst of a war that would decide civilization’s fate, Popper understandably “did not mince words,” but this should have reinforced, not waived, critical rationalist maxims.  Resorting to manipulation to delegitimize Hegel, Popper betrayed critical rationalism. ~Malachi Haim Hacohen, Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902-1945

This biographer is extremely sympathetic to Popper, but he does not make excuses for him when Popper goes off the deep end in his arguments against those whom he regarded as the fonts of totalitarianism.  One need not embrace Hegel to recognise that he is not what Popper made him out to be.

One more time, from the introduction of Elements of the Philosophy of Right:

For Hegel,as for Mill, the function of representative institutions is not to govern, but to advise those who govern, and to determine who it is that governs.  Hegel expects deputies to the Estates to be ordinary citizens, not professional politicians.  One evident reason for this is that he wants the Estates to be close to the people, and to represent its true sentiments; another reason (unstated, but quite evident) is that he does not want the Estates to be politically strong enough to challenge the power of the professionals who actually govern.  But he does not intend the Estates to be powerless either.  In his lectures, Hegel describes a multi-party system in the Estates, and he insists that the government’s ministry must always represent the ‘majority party’; when it ceases to do so, he says, it must resign and a new ministry, representing the majority of the Estates, must take its place….This idea takes the Hegelian constitutional monarchy most of the way toward presently existing parliamentary systems with a nominal hereditary monarch (as in Britain, Holland and Sweden).

And we all know about iron hand of totalitarian terror that Queen Beatrix has.

Later, there is a vitally important point: “Hegel distinguishes between the ‘political state proper’ from the state in the broadest sense, the community as a whole with all its institutions….He regards the state in the latter sense as the individual’s final end [italics mine-DL].”  In other words, as far as a political telos is concerned, Hegel is arguing for a position that is substantially similar to that of Aristotle: the citizen’s end is realised in and through the life of the political community, because man is a political animal and this end is appropriate to his nature.  It is our latter-day, impoverished understanding of what a political community fully means that causes many to mistake the importance these philosophers give to this broader political community for a theoretical endorsement of unlimited governmental power.  A polity is more than its government (thank God!), and there are many philosophers whose political thought will make no sense if we do not keep this distinction in mind.  We may or may not find this account of political life satisfactory, but we are not free to describe it as totalitarian or proto-totalitarian.  It is, by definition, exactly not that, because it assumes that there is more to the political community than the all-encompassing government and party machine.

Speaking of Hegel’s legacy, the editor goes on:

This is the case with traditional images of Hegel as reactionary, absolutist, totalitarian.  Taken literally, of course, these images have been long discredited [italics mine-DL].  Yet in our liberal culture they nevertheless possess a kind of symbolic truth, because they represent this culture’s self-doubts projected with righteous venom into its iconography of the enemy.  Hegel is especially unappealing to that dogmatic kind of liberal who judges past social and political thinkers by the degree to which (it has been decided beforehand) all people of good will must share.  The value of Hegel’s social thought will be better appreciated by those who are willing to question received views, and take a deeper look at the philosophical problems of modern life [bold mine-DL]. 

It is especially rich that defenders of the Popperian caricature believe that they are the ones engaged in the rigorous independent thinking and resistance to “official” interpretations.  The last fifty years of Hegel scholarship, from what I understand, have been filled with the debunking of myths woven by those in thrall to the politically correct interpretations of their own time.  Incidentally, the disparagement and dismissal of many early American heroes on account of their insufficiently enlightened attitudes come from this same instinct to measure past thinkers against present standards and condemn them when they (inevitably) fail to measure up. 

Popper’s view of Hegel was the ideologically-driven modern liberal view of the man for decades, and its perpetuation today is simply a continuation of something not much better than propaganda, which in the Anglo-American world was already more than a little coloured by a dislike for things German.  Popper had a very good argument to make against 20th century historicists who used language about the direction of history–language that everyone knows I abhor, by the way–to justify appalling crimes against their fellow men.  Popper was writing a polemic against totalitarians of his own time, and he was right to do this.  Where he went awry was to try to find roots for the woes of the 20th century in Hegel’s actual thought, among other places, rather than in the ideologically filtered abuses of it. 

If a Nazi likes and promotes Wagner, whatever else you might rightly say about Wagner’s attitudes, that does not make Wagner a proto-Nazi or his music proto-Nazi music.  Obviously.  I suppose I am especially annoyed by the Hegel-bashing tradition because it is just one more aspect of the old, wearisome obsession to read all of modern German thought and history as one big prelude to the Nazis (the ultimate example of this was, naturally, on The History Channel, where a program actually stated that if the Romans had not been ambushed in the Teutoberg Forest in AD 9, Hitler would never have come to power!), as if we could not find many more relevant proximate sources specific to the post-unification and post-WWI scene.  It is an attempt at a more sophisticated Goldhagenism, but the idea is the same.  It is itself a kind of essentialism–the sort of thing Popper rightly warned against–inasmuch as it seeks to find something particularly twisted in German culture to explain what happened later, but in the process succeeds in twisting everything to fit the preconceived pattern of some perverse Teutonic state-worship (to which we Anglo-Americans are, of course, immune).  This is a comforting myth that we tell ourselves, as it persuades us that we are somehow inherently less prone to the political and moral insanity of totalitarianism–that sort of thing only happens to other people.  How some parts of the Anglo-American world would love to be able to discredit a culture that did more to create Western civilisation than almost any other, and how better to do this than to smear the philosophical and artistic giants of the German past with the taint of somehow contributing to the rise of Hitler?  Just consider the stupidity of this: nationalists try to appropriate the cultural achievements of their countrymen over the centuries, regardless of whether the creators of the appropriated works would have anything to do with such people, and then it is taken by later observers as proof of their perfidy that some chauvinists have sullied their name by speaking it with admiration.    

At bottom, reading totalitarianism into Hegel’s thought is the worst sort of “precursorism” (interpreting earlier works in the light of what came later, rather than according to their own time and proper meaning) and an old standby of bad teleological historical narrative, those banes of real intellectual history, in which an idea that seems as if it could have led to something that happened later is taken as an inspiration for these later events.  Then there is the old habit of “so-and-so interpreted this thinker this way, therefore the thinker must mean what so-and-so says.”  Two things would have to be demonstrated for this to be a worthwhile point: the person citing the thinker would need to have shown that he understood what the original thinker meant, and this person would have to avoid making interpretations that flatly contradict what the thinker said.  Failure on either point makes the later “follower” of the thinker a bad student and a poor representative of the man’s thought. 

Nietzsche scholars are constantly battling against similar popular misrepresentations, as have scholars of Maistre (who was an important philosopher of science as well as a political thinker) and Bolingbroke, among others.  It makes no sense why a certain batch of interpretations or the tradition derived from them should be given priority if they do not do their subject justice.  If Byzantinists did that, no one would have bothered to say anything after Gibbon, and certainly not after Bury and Ostrogorsky.  Obviously, some interpretive battles will go on forever, but as more scholars dig into the material there will be more interpretations firmly established by the persuasiveness of the arguments and their support in the evidence.  Once well-supported and serious arguments have been made, however, it is not sufficient to go back to the old interpretation, unaltered, and declare that most people who have given the matter much thought don’t know what they’re talking about.     

From the introduction of Elements of the Philosophy of Right (pp. ix):

There were always those, however, who insisted that Hegel was fundamentally a theorist of the modern constitutional state, emphasizing in the state most of the same features which win the approval of Hegel’s liberal critics.  This was always the position of the Hegelian ‘centre’, including Hegel’s own students and most direct nineteenth-century followers [bold mine-DL].  This more sympathetic tradition in Hegel scholarship has reasserted itself decisively since the middle of the century, to such an extent that there is now a virtual consensus [bold mine-DL] among knowledgeable scholars that the earlier images of Hegel, as philosopher of the reactionary Prussian restoration and forerunner of modern totalitarianism, are simply wrong [bold mine-DL], whether they are viewed as accounts of Hegel’s attitude towards Prussian politics or as broader philosophical interpretations of his theory of state [bold mine-DL].

For what it’s worth, here’s another argument that Hegel was not a totalitarian. 

The point in all of this is to make clear that the popular, Popperian reading of Hegel as proto-totalitarian is wrong.  It is legitimate and appropriate to point this out when others repeat such a claim about Hegel.  For the time being, this is the last thing that I will say about this ridiculous controversy. 

While Hegel’s political philosophy has been attacked on the left by republican democrats and on the right by feudalist reactionaries, his apologists see him as a liberal reformer, a moderate [bold mine-DL] who theorized about the development of a free-market society within the bounds of a stabilizing constitutional state. This centrist view has gained ascendancy since the end of the Second World War, enshrining Hegel within the liberal tradition [bold mine-DL]. ~From the description of Renato Cristi’s Hegel on Freedom and Authority

Cristi is also author of “Hegel’s Conservative Liberalism”.  I cite scholarship on this question, since I assume that people who spend their lives studying Hegel might know a thing or two I don’t.  That is why scholars, like bloggers, make citations in the first place–to recognise that there are subjects on which others are greater authorities. 

Karl Popper, interesting, brilliant and fine man that he was, was not a Hegel scholar and was retrojecting onto Hegel the sort of exaltation of the state that he rightly found so terrifying in his own time.  He was not alone in this, but he was wrong to do this.  In mid-20th century, support for any kind of monarchy was likely to throw your credentials as a political liberal into doubt.  Because a constitutional monarchist is, almost by definition, some kind of liberal, as only a liberal or Whig would dare to suggest that the monarch be subject to the limits of a constitution (especially a written constitution), the only thing one might say about my description of Hegel is that it was a bit redundant. Pretty much all constitutional monarchists were liberals (in the 19th century, European sense), though not all liberals were constitutional monarchists.  It is possible to find in 19th century liberalism evidence of a dangerous centralising and “rationalising” tendency (demonstrated by Austrian liberals, Red Republicans and Garibaldian revolutionaries), and it is possible to criticise 19th century liberals for their close attachment to nationalism.  What you cannot do is deny that people who were plainly political liberals were, indeed, political liberals. 

Of course, when I referred to Hegel as a “moderately liberal constitutional monarchist,” a statement that is actually true whether or not some people want to accept it, I was referring to the liberalism of his day.  What started all of this was my criticism of the lumping in of Hegel into a discussion of so-called “liberal fascism,” since Hegel was neither a modern liberal nor was he a proto-fascist. 

What is strange about all of this is that Hegel’s 19th century liberalism does not actually make him look that good to me.  However, there is still a big difference between sympathising with the principles of 1789 and believing in a totalising, all-intrusive state.  That said, Hegel’s sympathy for the principles of 1789 ought to make him bad enough for traditional conservatives today that no one should need to resort to trying to pin later totalitarian ideas on him.  If you want to make the argument that 1789 led inexorably to 1917 and 1933, that would be an argument for why being a 19th century liberal is not necessarily the most desirable thing to have been.  However, for good or ill, that is what Hegel was.

Update: It is also worth noting that Hegel, while he did approve of the principles of 1789, was not an uncritical admirer of the Revolution.  Similarly, it is possible for Hegel to be a liberal without being uncritically accepting of all elements in natural rights-based liberalism.  He also had some criticism for the Enlightenment.  The more I am made to think about it, “moderately liberal” sounds more accurate all the time.

Sometimes blogging is a really tiresome pastime.  I recently wrote in a recent post that Hegel was a “moderately liberal constitutional monarchist,” which has the virtue of being more or less accurate.  For instance, consider the following:

Hegel stresses the need to recognize that the realities of the modern state necessitate a strong public authority along with a populace that is free and unregimented [bold mine-DL]. The principle of government in the modern world is constitutional monarchy [bold mine-DL], the potentialities of which can be seen in Austria and Prussia.

There are all sorts of responses to Hegel’s position, and it might be interesting to pick up our copies of Philosophy of Right and sort through his arguments.  Denying that he held such a position, when it is the beginning of most discussions of Hegel’s political philosophy, seems to me to be an unsatisfactory response.  Repeating some caricature of Hegel’s position that you could have picked up in The Open Society And Its Enemies and pretending that this is the appropriate understanding of Hegel’s politics are not the methods likely to persuade anyone of Hegel’s terrible totalitarianism.

Must we arrive at something anti-liberal when we build up from a metaphysical proposition? ~Joseph Bottum

I suppose the postmodernists belong somewhere in the Counter-Enlightenment fold—although whether on the left or the right, philosophically, is difficult to say. ~Joseph Bottum

It is difficult, perhaps, because they aren’t Counter-Enlightenment people at all, but post-Enlightenment who have nothing in common with the Counter-Enlightenment except perhaps skepticism about the importance of the self and the power of reason. 

Even free will, however, is only one more suggestive part of death’s relation to politics. Think of all this in terms of the violence praised by a surprisingly large range of modern political theories. Why does death manifest itself—a sudden, miraculous, culture-forming power—whenever a thinker turns against the Enlightenment? What logic compels political philosophers, from the most radical right to the most radical left, to embrace murder when they renounce the poverty and weightlessness of modern culture? And why does literature show us again and again characters who imagine they can resolve the anxieties of modernity by drenching it in blood? ~Joseph Bottum

In my biased estimation, it occurs to me that a great many people were very enthusiastic about violence and killing and sacrificing human lives for the sake of goals inspired by the thought of the Enlightenment and its derivatives.  Something about “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” comes to mind.  Mr. Bottum’s question about political philosophers and murder gives the impression that there have been a great many anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment people openly calling for murder, but he does not give any examples and seems to take a number of things for granted that may not be true at all.  For instance, I suspect that he thinks fascism is opposed to the Enlightenment, when it is one of the latter’s outgrowths; he probably thinks that the liberal belief in the perfectibility of man is significantly different from the fascist and communist efforts to create a “new man.”  I am not sure that he assumes these things, but that is what I would have to guess.  His argument here is unclear, but there seems to be no other way for him to make his claim about philosophers and murder hold up unless he attributes an anti-Enlightenment position to the moral insanity of various sympathisers with what Niemeyer called ’total critique’.  Read the rest of this entry »

Later in this essay, I take up what may be the largest piece—the fact that, at a very abstract level of logic, freedom of the will is closely tied to a world with death in it: If nothing really dies, then we have no freedom of choice; if we lack significant freedom of choice, then death will prove unreal. ~Joseph Bottum

Via Ross

This sounds like pretty heady stuff, and at first it gives you the impression that this is a deep and powerful claim about the nature of existence.  Then you realise that it is utterly and in all ways wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Joshua Cohen and Brink Lindsey rehash liberaltarianism.  Try to stay awake, if you can.  If you’re still awake, Lindsey talks about his book

So I haven’t said anything since my return about my excursion to Charlottesville and the ISI conference I attended there.  Fear not–I will have some more remarks before too long.  Until my pen ran out of ink, I was taking fairly detailed notes on each talk, so I hope to be able to sketch out at least a couple of the ones that I found most striking.  Prof. Deneen’s talk was one of these, since it seemed on first hearing to agree with the thrust of something I had written a little over a year ago.  Amusingly, this was the piece that dragged me into the rather tiresome skirmishes with the West Coast Straussians during the Crunchy Wars, which was then followed by an even more tiresome argument with those people after I mentioned that Claes Ryn had figuratively given the Jaffa-style Straussian reading of “the Founding” a good swift kick to the ribs in a speech at last year’s Philadelphia Society meeting. 

When Prof. Deneen remarked in his talk, as I remember it, “Sometimes, I think I am the only Straussian left,” I thought to myself: “If only that were true!”  But, no, that’s not quite fair, and that wasn’t the whole of my reaction.  I later thought: “If this is real Straussianism, it isn’t anything like what those people at Claremont have said that it is and it isn’t that bad after all.”  How refreshing!  The delight of apparently finding a Straussian using Strauss to argue for a position that I, non-Straussian that I am, had previously made from an entirely different perspective and one that the self-appointed successors of Strauss had vehemently attacked was considerable.  

Present at the Charlottesville conference were some of my TAC/Chronicles colleagues and partners in blogging thought crime, Dan McCarthy (who says he disagrees with a “great deal” in the talk) and Clark Stooksbury, as well as the fun, witty James Poulos, IMP, those champions of prairie populism and prairie populists, Caleb Stegall and Jeff Taylor, plus many, many more.  I had a very good time at the conference, and I believe the talks were well worth the trip (which unfortunately involved getting stuck in the Philadelphia airport for eight hours thanks to US Airways, whose motto ought to be, “Just try to fly with us if you dare”). 

While you’re waiting for my remarks on the conference talks, I will point you to another source for your edification and entertainment: Prof. Deneen of Georgetown has the beginnings of his remarks that he delivered at the conference up on his blog (via Dan McCarthy). 

Update: Prof. Deneen posts the rest of the talk here.

Andrew Sullivan, the vicar of doubt, is debating Sam Harris, ueber-atheist, in a blogalogue.  For me, this is like watching the Raiders play the Cowboys: the only thing to do is simply root for injuries and mistakes. 

Andrew Sullivan has another one of his tiresome “Vive La Resistance” posts, this time (indirectly) citing Ms. Mac Donald’s interview with Razib when she is at her most petulant.  For her part, like Sullivan, Ms. Mac Donald sometimes likes to target a faceless “them” who manage to embody every flaw that she perceives in religious conservatives.  First, here’s Mac Donald:

In the American Conservative piece I wanted to offer some resistance to the assumption of conservative religious unanimity. I tried to point out that conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief, and that rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law. I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

But no one assumes “conservative religious unanimity.”  Just as Sullivan fabricates his enemy, the “fundamentalists,” to match his preoccupations, Ms. Mac Donald imagines that there is such a thing as an “assumption of conservative religious unanimity,” which helps her defend the position that she is defending ”reason and realism” against superstitious yobs.  In a spirit similar to that Sullivan’s own incensed attack on “fundamentalism” and his claim that this mythical ”fundamentalism” is taking over and displacing American conservatism (which is far more ludicrous than Ms. Mac Donald’s more modest critiques), Ms. Mac Donald gives the impression that she is doggedly fighting against the overwhelming religiosity of modern conservatism.  As I have argued earlier today, this overwhelming religiosity is not nearly as great as she makes it out to be. 

I should say that if conservatism were governed by the truths of Christianity and leavened by the wisdom of the Fathers, I think it would generally be all to the benefit of conservatism.  The alternatives have always been an acquiescence in false Enlightenment liberal understandings of human nature and society or an acceptance of the Christian understanding that man is fallen (but capable of virtue) and in need of good order and the conservative wisdom that social organisation arises from inherited customs and structures and not from contract or consent.  When conservatives belittle the Enlightenment, it is normally the social and political theories of the more radical French thinkers that they are targeting, but they are in any case objecting for the most part to false understandings of the origin of society, how polities arise and function and what the rightful sources of legitimacy and authority are.  They object to a distorted understanding of the human person and a tendency of many Enlightenment thinkers to be hostile to rooted, traditional society and its numerous institutions and customs.  They do not reject scientific method, nor do they even necessarily hold an empiricist epistemology in low esteem.  The suggestion that they reject “empiricism” entirely, and the implication that most conservatives form a mass of hidebound ignoramuses who would abandon all scientific advances are both false.  

The strangest part of this charge is the connection between the Enlightenment and, for example, “the conquest of cholera,” since the major thinkers of the Enlightenment did not cure cholera and were not even close to understanding vaccination or many of the principles of public sanitation and hygiene that helped contain outbreaks.  There were still cholera epidemics in the 19th century, many of them in the filthy, overcrowded cities of the industrial era brought to us by technological progress.  In any case, what good, one might ask, did Voltaire’s contempt for Christianity do for people dying of cholera?  That is the part of the Enlightenment that we take pots shot at most of the time, so perhaps it is no wonder that Ms. Mac Donald defends it, but what does that have to do the advance of medical and technological sciences?  Is there a new psychosomatic cure for disease achieved not through prayer, but through mocking God?  Ms. Mac Donald refers to “empiricism,” whence come all these astounding fruits.  Now suppose that we find Leibniz’s “innate ideas” more compelling and more consistent with modern neuroscience than Locke’s tabula rasa?  Do we at least get credit for not rejecting Leibniz’s differential calculus?   

Ms. Mac Donald says that she finds it “depressing” that “every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment.”  But this is simply untrue.  No major conservative magazine “cheers on creationism” as such, much less do they do so “reflexively.”  I have yet to encounter a serious conservative writer or scholar who accepts the Young Earth thesis.  These people do not exist.  There are conservative people writing online who believe this, and there are even academics who believe it, but those aren’t the people Ms. Mac Donald was referring to. 

On ID, National Review has no formal position, and they certainly don’t “cheer” on creationism.  With respect to ID, they have entertained arguments from both sides, but that is hardly “cheering” anything on.  At least one of their more prominent contributors in John Derbyshire has made it his business to basically single-handedly crush Intelligent Design’s pretensions to being science.  It was not a difficult task, and he succeeded quite well.  I am as much of a Counter-Enlightenment man today as you are likely to find under the age of 30, and I have ridiculed ID’s claims to being science on several occasions.  That’s because it isn’t science.  Amusingly, two of the main proponents of this intellectual swindle are none other than the grand old man of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, and the grand dame Gertrude Himmelfarb, as Derbyshire noted last year.  As Derbyshire observed, their boosting of ID as science is entirely cynical and aimed at placating some religious conservatives.  That is hardly evidence of galloping religiosity in “every organ of conservative opinion.”  

I should note that I do not ridicule the possibility of understanding some of the claims of ID as a legitimate philosophical view on the orderliness of the universe and the implications this has for the existence of God, but that is not what ID proponents want when they push for recognition of their “theory.”  ID advocates are people who accept everything about the theory of evolution except the mythology woven around it; in place of that mythology, they would like to posit a different story, equally unproven and unproveable, for perhaps well-intentioned reasons that end up being nonetheless rather silly.  But Ms. Mac Donald might have more in common with ID proponents than she thinks, though, since they, too, enjoy playing the wounded, oppressed victim fighting against a hostile and arrogant establishment. 

As for taking pot shots at the Enlightenment, there isn’t that much of that going around these days.  More’s the pity.  I am fairly sure that I have made myself obnoxious to many movement conservatives because I go out of my way to disparage and ridicule certain assumptions of Locke and some of the more high-flown claims of the Declaration of Independence.  I take snide pot shots at the Enlightenment, but I never cheer on creationism and ID.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  Do I start by pretending that carbon dating doesn’t exist, or do I start by pretending that saying, “God did it” serves as an acceptable hypothesis?  Neither does my blog constitute much of an “organ of conservative opinion,” though I suppose it is a small one of sorts.  

Anyway, lately it has not been the case that conservatives have been too hard on the Enlightenment–many have rather become its latter-day cheerleaders as a sort of cultural one-upsmanship vis-a-vis Islam.  The Weekly Standard has not, to my knowledge, ever made a snide remark about the Enlightenment.  If they have, it would have to have been rare or fairly mildWhat about American Spectator?  We could inquire, but I am fairly confident that the only place where you might conceivably find respectful consideration of creation science is in a publication like World, and I’m probably not being fair to them when I say that.  Did American Conservative have a big “Yes, The Earth Is Only 4,004 Years Old” editorial and I missed it?  Of course not. 

This is because it is entirely possible to accept that God created everything without having to insist upon the absolute literal interpretation of every number (many of which are clearly symbolic in any case) in the Bible.  It is also possible to accept that God created all living things while also acknowledging that evolution is a plausible explanation for how living beings change over time.  It is possible to despise Voltaire as an impious fool and loathe Locke as a treacherous stockjobbing mountebank and to view their ideas with disdain without insisting that we live in caves and eat raw meat while dying of the plague.

“Red Tory” was never a well-defined term, and it never described a particularly influential trend in our political life. It has come to mean the opposite of what Grant or Taylor intended. Today it is commonly used to refer to someone who has no trouble either with the global market or Trudeau’s attempted erasure of traditional English Canada, someone pleased both with Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Mulroney’s free trade agreements, a libertarian lite. Crombie fits in with this more contemporary meaning of red Tory, but there is little evidence that he (or Stanfield) ever wanted to take some doomed Grantian stand on behalf of “our own” against the twin evils of corporate capitalism and post-ethnic post-Christian “rights-talk” liberalism. ~Pithlord

For the sake of clarity, let me say first that when I use the term Red Tory, I am always using it as it related to George Grant’s views. 

The “doomed Grantian stand” doesn’t sound so bad to me, but then I think everyone already knew that.  If there are two points where I think paleoconservatives diverge most from the present “movement” (or rather, where they diverge from us!) it is in our critical and often hostile view of the negative effects corporations have on real communities and our tendency to roll our eyes when people start talking about “rights.”  In the latter case, this is not because we think that secure protections against government abuse are a bad idea (sometimes it feels as if we are among the last conservatives who think they are a good idea!), but because, inter alia, rights-talk encourages the growth of state power and the breakdown of social bonds.  It may not exactly cause either of these things, but it certainly doesn’t help combat them.  Perhaps I am only speaking for myself on these points, but all I can say is that when I read George Grant I find that I am usually nodding in agreement with everything I read.  There must be something to ideas that seem so very sensible, and if they have some truth in them they cannot ever be entirely doomed. 

So I don’t know that the Grantian stand is necessarily all that doomed of a stand to take.  Someone clever said something about there being no such thing as lost causes, and I am inclined to agree.  Is a Grantian stand an insanely unpopular position to take on the American right nowadays?  You better believe it, and it would have been pretty unpopular 50 years ago, too.  Is it necessarily and certainly doomed because of that?  I am less sure.

Conservatives should remind themselves that they do not live by politics alone. Conservatism is a way of life, of which electoral politics is only a part and not the whole. ~Lee Edwards

If conservatism is to be relevant again its adherents must give up their perks as Washington insiders, or stop listening to those who won’t. They must demand an end to corporate-welfare policies that hide behind claims of “privacy” and “free markets.” They must reject the claim that “big government is here to stay” and insist that Washington cede back to the states and localities the power to control their own lives — from what their towns look like, to what can be done in the local public square.

Conservatism’s roots do not lie in facile slogans about natural rights and free markets — let alone angry, dismissive rhetoric that casts aside the poor and treats rich people as above the law. They lie in our attachment to families, churches, towns, and small businesses. It’s time to remember who we are and who [sic] we should be defending. ~Bruce Frohnen

These are very good points from both.  To which I would add the following question: if you aren’t defending a way of life and a vision of order as a conservative, what exactly are you defending?

After all, it’s nice to think that your particular political ideology isn’t just a good way of running government, but also a good way of being a person. ~Peter Suderman

Each time I read over Peter’s post, the bit about ideology always brings me up short.  On why preserving a way of life focused on natural loyalties and guided by a spirit that values restraint, prescription and prudence, among other things, is not an ideology, see here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here and here.  It has long seemed to me that ideology is that sort of abstract commitment to a proposition or theory that one makes that has little or no relevance to how you live.  Being a good liberal involves accepting a number of rather dubious claims about the nature of man and society and setting policy accordingly.  Allegedly, what you do in your own, “private” life is no concern to anybody.  Likewise, being a good communist or fascist ideologue has everything to do with toeing party lines and supporting the right kinds of policies.  Living ethically is neither here nor there, except insofar as it comes into conflict with policy.  One of the most disappointing parts of Austin Bramwell’s thought-provoking article in TAC was when he lamented the lack of clear policy implications from the ideas of Voegelin, Kirk, Weaver, et al.  This made their statements of principle to be of little value for making policy.  To which I expect Voegelin would have replied, “What did you expect?  That the ground of being would endorse your tax legislation?  Do you take me for some sort of gnostic maniac?”  Except that he would have said it better than that, at greater length and with far more impressive erudition, none of which is very useful for setting policy.  This is because philosophers and men of letters, unless they are mad or extremely arrogant, do not typically presume to provide blueprints for policy (they rather assume this is what magistrates and princes do) but are very interested in questions of what is true, what is just and what is beautiful.  They are interested in reflection or the creation of literature or living the philosophical life as they tend to their own gardens.  Their example does the Karl Roves of the world no good at all, because their example suggests that most of what Rove has spent much of his life working on does not matter all that much.   

Yet ethics is the heart of real politika, the things concerning the polis or community.  One’s ethos, one’s way of life and habitual practices, defines what kind of politics a man has, and what kind of community he and his will create and maintain.  To speak slightly dismissively of ”lifestyle conservatism” is to accept that a way of life is a question of style rather than substance, when there is nothing, save revealed truth, that can seriously be considered more substantial for men than their own way of life–even though such an attachment to something so substantial is deemed “subversive” to princes and potentates and grandiose systems.  Consequently, there can hardly be anything (except for questions of revealed truth) more important than questions of how we live and why we live that way. 

Politics are the nuts and bolts of organising the life of a community or a number of communities according to a vision of order.  Power is a fact of life, as is the unequal distribution of it, and a conservative politics would try to prevent that power from doing damage to the things, people and places that you love in your natural affinities and loyalties.  It would presumably stress principles of legality, legitimacy, authority and precedent, and seek to disperse power to as many different centers as possible to prevent its corrosive and corrupting power from overtaking any single community or any number of communities together. 

You have to have politics, just as you must have the nuts and bolts to hold up your desk so that you can write your correspondence, read your books and put up pictures of friends and family, but you do not spend much or even most of your time tinkering with the structure of the desk.  It is only when the desk stands in need of serious repairs or somehow threatens the truly valuable things that you keep on it that you attend to it with much concern at all.  I think that a conservative would really pity the silly people who sit on the floor as they awkwardly try to write a letter on the ground in resistance to all kinds of desks and the even sillier people who believe that someday no desks will be needed, just as much as he would pity the people who are simply obsessed with managing the desk or with turning the desk upside down (when it becomes useless, but no matter).   

I don’t expect that everyone who calls himself a conservative will share precisely the same vision (homonoia is difficult to realise and we can sometimes substitute drab conformity for genuine oneness of mind), but I do assume that all of them, if they are serious about conservatism, will expect that such visions are central to our understanding of the world and that they encompass our pre-political loyalties and the stuff of everyday life where most of real life is lived out.  Or, rather, if they do not expect as much right now, I would very much hope that they begin to expect it very soon.  If conservatism is simply a way of organising people to squabble over scraps from the high table of government or as a means of getting “our” kind of people up to the high table, not only is there no terribly interesting future for it but I would not be all that interested in being part of such a thing in the first place.  

I am drawn back again to a powerful line in the very clever film Max, in which the title character, fictitious art dealer Max Rothmann, says to a young Hitler about art and politics, “What would you rather do?  Change the way that people see or the way they pay their taxes?”  By the end of the movie, Hitler has made his choice.  The challenge of instilling a conservative ethos (which, at its best, is not a conservative ethos as such but one that would be recognised as humane and sane by all, regardless of party or policy preferences) is much the same as the one posed by the character of Rothmann: do we concern ourselves with a way of life, an entire vision of what constitutes good order for our communities or do we focus on narrow questions of policy and politicking? 

There are undoubtedly also important questions of policy to be tackled, and I don’t belittle the hard work and imagination that this kind of work takes and the necessity of having people who do this kind of work.  However, if there is something we all need to remember before we can start undoing the damage of the last few years it is that a conservatism that places high priority on living an ethical life and shaping the life of the community to be as conducive to that sort of life is what intellectual conservatism has always aspired to present.  As problems of ethics, aesthetics, meaning and a well-ordered everyday life have taken a back seat to the struggle to dominate the greasy pole, conservatism has lost much of what used to make it genuinely interesting and what gave it such intellectual vitality. 

This is an old argument.  Frank Meyer once belittled the New Conservatives for lacking a “program.”  Don’t bother us with all this talk about virtue and community–give us something we can use!  Be more programmatic, he urged them.  This made a certain amount of sense in narrow, party-political terms.  But to become programmatic was to take a step towards the ideological and the world in which taking “positions” on “issues” became the defining activity of so many conservatives.  Again, there is a place for such politicking, but even this is not the whole of what we used to understand as the whole of politics, much less the whole of life, about which, if conservatism is a worthwhile state of mind and persuasion, conservatism ought to have something important to say.    

John F. Kennedy described himself, in a brilliant phrase, as ‘an idealist without illusions’. That is what is needed now to fight the War on Apathy at home and the War on Terror abroad. So come on, you Conservatives! Man the ideological barricades! ~Maurice Saatchi, The Spectator

JFK also said of himself that he was the Democratic nominee for President who “happened to be the Catholic.”  Not exactly an inspiring example for the ages, or have I confused him with the other JFK?  A better description might have been: “political illusionist without ideas.”  No one did ever die of apathy, but quite a few people died because of JFK’s illusions, or rather delusions. 

Now I am all for chucking out the politics of “the centre,” which is just a way of anointing the policies of the establishment with the holy chrism of moderation and reasonableness (and thus the “McCain-Lieberman Party” or, as it might now be known, the “Torture-War Party” is supposedly the embodiment of “centrist” politics!), and the application of serious ideas in politics would be a remarkable novelty.  It has only occasionally been tried, and usually with fairly bad ideas.  But here are a few problems: there are no idealists who do not suffer from illusions of one kind or another, and ideological barricades are made for, well, ideologues who ought to have nothing to do, properly speaking, with Conservatives or conservatives. 

Once a body of ideas is truncated, chopped up and reprocessed into a regime-justifying, power-seeking, lackeyish propaganda tool called ideology, it is not longer worth talking about or supporting.  The most radical–and idealistic–thing that any of us can do is not to man “ideological barricades,” but to depart from the street-fighting on the barricades between ideological camps and consider philosophical ideas in a spirit of genuine inquiry.  If there is still such a thing as a philosophical conservatism, it has been terribly ill-served by its attachment to a political movement, which requires the philosophers and orators to play the roles of apologists and panegyrists for the movement rather than as lovers of wisdom and truth.  Compromising with “the movement,” they submit themselves to it and sooner or later find themselves either corrupted by it or put on trial.  They are routinely urged to modify and change their views, told to refrain from commenting on certain kinds of things that might induce divisions in the “movement” or nudged towards a bland consensus position that promises an easy path to good connections and patronage but seems to go nowhere near the road less travelled of intellectual integrity.  This is a generic example of the kinds of effects this sort of alliance of idealists and intellectuals with political movements can have.  If we can only too readily recognise contemporary political movements in this description, that should tell us something about the state of those movements and the quality of the ideas they espouse.       

It is a mistake, however, to read Bolingbroke’s notions of natural law as if they culminate in optimistic rationalism with some implicit revolutionary call.  Burke was the first to misrepresent Bolingbroke in this way, when he suggested that Bolingbroke called upon reason to end the empire of prejudice and prescription.  This was not Bolingbroke’s intention.  He did write that men’s reason had been seduced by false appearances and that these seductions, confirmed by law and religion, had barred mankind from perfection.  But his recognition of imperfection did not lead him to assault the institutions and prejudices that barred the perfect realization of rational and natural law.  His reasons are clearly stated: “It was not in the councils of the most high, which it becomes us to adore and not to examine, that this should be so.”  God has made men such that passions, appetites, and ignorance often have greater force than reason, and thus irrational will often prevails over rational nature.  To the extent it does, it is determined by God that the state of mankind will be less than perfect; and that it will not attain the perfection of rational natural law.  In the Patriot King Bolingbroke cautions “that perfect schemes are not adapted to our imperfect state.”  He who would read Bolingbroke as an optimistic rationalist must remember Bolingbroke’s theodicy, and its central tenet, resignation before God’s incomprehensible order….It is no revolutionary rationalist who would say: “if our reasoning faculties were more perfect than they are, the order of intellectual beings would be broken unnecessarily, and man would be raised above his proper form…The reason he has is sufficient for him in the state allotted to him.” ~Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke & His Circle

Leaving aside for the moment the problems of Bolingbroke’s theology and anthropology, according to which man is not intended for perfection in God’s plan, this is an important corrective to the Burkean calumny against Bolingbroke, which is also embodied in Burke’s satirical Vindication of Natural Society, which has normally been read as a mockery of Bolingbroke’s own ideas.  However, as this passage suggests, Burke misunderstood important aspects of Bolingbroke’s ideas and seemed strangely intent on misunderstanding and opposing Bolingbroke in other areas–particularly when it came to the man’s struggle with Walpole–in ways that are rather dispiriting to discover, since it seems clear that in his criticism of abstract rights and the “projecting” spirit of the age he and Burke are of a single temperament and mind.

The inability to keep the past alive is the truly reactionary feature. -Ortega y Gasset

Here Ortega puts his finger on something that is often misunderstood.  True reverence for the past is not the same thing as wishing for its return.  To feel the past as part of oneself is to know it is alive, ever-changing in relation to the self that necessarily alters as it passes through time.  It is only those who have no real connection to the past who can view it as something unchanging, because it is something outside them. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Indeed, it is only those disconnected from the past who believe that they can keep replaying the same episodes from the past and acting as if the past were recurring again and again (e.g., those who always think it is 1938); only those who hate the past would diminish it by imagining its continual recurrence in the present.  The reactionary loves the past as he loves a long-lost lover–he does not love her any less because she is unobtainable and gone forever, but indeed loves her all the more because she will never return.  He does not wish for her return, because her return is unnecessary for love to endure.  Though lovers perish, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.

Pessimism is the philosophy that can never crown itself king.  To be king, to be master of every circumstance–that is what pessimism teaches as unattainable.  Whatever modesty they profess, whatever authority they disclaim, optimisitc philosophies secretly find this impossible to accept, which is why pessimism has found it necessary to appear before them as a jester. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Optimism makes us perpetual enemies of those future moments that do not meet our expectations, which means all future moments.  It is when we expect nothing from the future that we are free to experience it as it will be, rather than as a disappointment. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

One could imagine a perspective in which nothing in particular was reliable, in this world, but which the world as a whole was comprehensible.  Such a view might mimic many of the effects of pessimism without really embracing it.  Augustine, for example, could be viewed in this way.  Indeed, many Augustinians are today called “Christian pessimists.”  They consider that this world is fundamentally disordered, that it will always contain evil, and cannot be set right, except, perhaps, by God at the Last Judgment.  Nonetheless, this terrible world can be viewed from elsewhere–its existence is part of a larger cosmology that also includes the heavenly city.  Although particular evils cannot be fathomed, the phenomenon of evil as a whole can be understood.  It shall be understood when one leaves the city of man for the city of God, either in this life, or the next.  Thus Augustine mimics (indeed foreshadows) many of the conclusions of pessimism–but always with the escape hatch of another world, where the effects of time are not felt. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

It is fair to say that I have been taking a strong interest in Dienstag’s study of pessimism because I hold such Christian pessimist premises.  In the final analysis, as far as these pessimists themselves would be concerned, I am not a thoroughgoing pessimist, because I retain the hope of salvation in Christ.  Obviously there is a certain unbridgeable difference here, but there are also many fascinating points of contact in a shared ascetic detachment and, if not exactly a contemptus mundi (pessimists would not have contempt for the world, but simply take it for what it is), an understanding that nothing lasts in this world. 

But, even if pessimists see Christian pessimists as mimics, both together share much in their recognition of the world as it is.  Even if pessimists see their Christian counterparts as retaining an “escape hatch” in God and the Kingdom not of this world, both share the conviction that man’s predicament is not soluble–at least not by human agency.  For the pessimists, man’s predicament is not to be solved at all, but accepted and borne; for the Christians, the predicament is solved only in Christ, but the structures of life in the world must still be borne all the same.  

A key difference between the pre-modern and modern man, as Chantal Delsol proposed in Icarus Fallen, is that modern man sees problems to be solved, but pre-modern man sees burdens to be borne.  The pessimist, though no less a child of modernity than the optimist, shares far more with this pre-modern mentality (and with a Christian understanding of suffering) than he does with his fellow moderns. 

As Michael Oakeshott put it: “Cervantes created a character in whom the disaster of each encounter with the world was powerless to impugn it as a self-enactment.”…The quixotic life is not thwarted by a lack of results; its value lies in the experience of freedom that it enacts.  That is why it is possible for the pessimistic ethic to persevere in the most adverse circumstances, when optimism has nothing to offer except an unfounded hope that is little more than wishful thinking.

All narratives, as all lives, must end (”human affairs are not eternal but all tend ever downwards”)–this is the pessimistic knowledge that grounds Cervantes’s perspective.  But if we all face destruction at the hands of time, this need not convince us to resign ourselves prematurely.  Although in one sense, nothing about the world has been changed for the better by Quixote’s actions, his success consists in having led a life consistent with who he is.  Like Sisyphus with his stone, he has achieved dignity by accomplishing nothing.  Or rather, what he has accomplished is to have enacted the value of pessimism in the form of a quest.  He has made his life unpredictable, memorable,and narrativisable by bringing his life-practice into contact with the world.  And a small portion of the world responds by allowing itself to be inspired by this practice. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

One of the best parts in Dienstag’s book is his chapter on Cervantes and Don Quixote, a work referenced by many of the major pessimists Dienstag studies.  In his telling, Dienstag mentions Quixote’s habit not of recounting specific teachings or codes of the knights-errant whom he is imitating, but instead tells stories.  That is perhaps what separates every truly humane person from an ideological one: the love of stories and the telling of stories to provide examples to follow, rather than programmatically reciting propositions, testing for ideological purity and uttering banal platitudes about the betterment of the world. 

Every story has an end, and many endings are not happy, but the good endings have a certain integrity and dignity of an authentic life.  Meanwhile the wheel of alleged Progress grinds ever onward, like time, like the grindstones of the windmills in Don Quixote, never satisfying, never satisfied, always consuming and offering us little in exchange for what it extracts from our humanity.  The optimist tries to cheat time, to beat it at its own game through every scheme of improvement imaginable, whereas the pessimist takes time on its own terms, gets knocked off his horse and badly bruised, but shakes off what has happened and goes on to the next adventure. 

The optimist would have the world be other than it is, and would have man become something other than what he is.  Pessimists and, I believe, Christians both seek for man to become what he is, though obviously the pessimists deny the Christians’ means of realising this and Christians typically reject the pessimistic rejection of all transcendence.  But what both tell us is that man can be transformed into who he truly is, made new, which is different from the optimistic view that man must inevitably keep becoming better and better in an unavoidable parade of unfreedom.  People who tell us that history has a direction steal from us the freedom that is “gained when one’s existence is detached from the narrative of progress.” (Dienstag, p. 198).   

Optimists insist that reality is insufficient and that they will redress the imbalance; they want us and everyone in the world to become someone else.  But as Ortega y Gasset said, “A hero, I have said, is one who wants to be himself…Don Quixote…is a hero.”  Let us, then, tilt at windmills in the understanding that the only true despair, the most bitter illusion, is the expectation of making the world fundamentally different from what it really is and the hope of lasting victory in this world. Read the rest of this entry »

Pessimism, to Schopenhauer, means not that our civilization or morality are declining, but rather that human beings are fated to endure a life freighted with problems that are fundamentally unmeliorable. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Is this really that controversial or remarkable a claim?  It does not seem so outlandish to me, but then I cannot recall a time when I thought that meliorism made much sense.  I will refrain from Wedding Crashers references in this instance, since I imagine that is more Michael’s territory anyway.

The worst sort of unhappiness is produced by a lack of recognition of the limits to happiness. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

In this statement lies a vital part of the essence of every critique of consumerism, individualism, liberalism and every doctrine of revolutionary emancipation that exists or has existed.

Indeed, fundamentally, the pessimistic account of the origin of unhappiness (even, I would maintain, in Freud) has little to do with psychology itself but with a claim of ontological misalignment between human beings and the world they inhabit. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (p.33)

Dienstag is not talking about any of these things in relation to Christian theology.  Though he does mention Dostoevsky among the many pessimists of modernity (and it is perhaps by way of Dostoevsky that I have come to appreciate the insights of pessimism–it is also encouraging to think that Dostoevsky’s view was indeed as philosophical as I have thought it was and not simply a function of stereotypical Russian angst), he does not concern himself with modern Christian thought at all in this book.  But the pessimists’ recognition that man and the world are “ontologically misaligned,” that there is something deeply awry in our condition and that our predicament is one of continual mismatching of desires and achievement stands as a ringing confirmation of the Christian description of the state of man after the Fall. 

It is also true, as more than a few have observed over the years, that there is a strong resemblance between Schopenhauer’s pessimism and the teachings of the Buddha that all life is dukkha, often translated as suffering, because of the impossibility of satisfying craving and desire: either the desire or the achievement of the desideratum will be too great or too little, creating dissatisfaction, which cannot be cured except through the cessation of desire.  Many a deracinated child of nominal Christians has thought that in this teaching lies some hidden wisdom that Christianity has never taught, which would be mistaken–the extinction of desire, detachment, is the same concept and same goal of the ascetic life in Orthodox Christianity, which the early monastic writers termed apatheia (dispassion), borrowing from the lexicon of Plato and the Neoplatonists. 

Where the pessimists will not go, of course, because they do not believe in any ultimate solution of any kind, is to the Christian answer to the human predicament, but in their assessment of the predicament they are that much more realistic than the people who seek to sugar-coat the nature of the world with promises of a better tomorrow and grandiose schemes for reform and progress.  The Christian pessimist, if I can use such a term, acknowledges the finitude and createdness that are integral to our being, but he also places his hope in deliverance that is from beyond the ages and an adoption into the divine life of God.  

The pessimist’s recognition that no advance comes except at a price (and sometimes too high a price) and a related insight that you abolish a structure in human life in the name of emancipation only to find it re-emerging in its “black market” forms elsewhere (as Chantal Delsol has argued in Icarus Fallen) point to a certain structure and logic in reality that I think even the pessimists in their embrace of the absurd tend to miss.  This recognition of the costs of any change, though not framed in specifically conservative language, also can be seen as standing in close relation to conservative critiques of all forms of social engineering and the common sense view that there is no free lunch.

There are few activities in life that can be said to be more futile than blogging.  What, after all, does it do, except provide a forum for people with nothing better to do than to give a lecture on the virtues of pessimism to other people with nothing better to do than respond in kind?  We can futilely mock each other in very serious ways, and then pat ourselves on the back that we have made our respective points, having probably changed no one’s mind and exhausted part of an afternoon or evening that would have been better spent in almost any other way.  I could be reading more of my book on pessimism rather than writing this post.  It’s all very discouraging. 

There are no more fleeting accomplishments than writing “posts,” which sometimes lack in themselves even the completion accorded to more complete articles or essays.  As an entirely electronic medium, a blog is as ephemeral as can be and entire years of work could be eliminated in some sort of horrendous server crash.  Most blogging is of a topical and derivative nature (thus you have a response to someone else’s reaction to another person’s article on a press conference about a policy initiative), as sickeningly post-modern as you could want and as time-bound an activity as man can imagine.  Worse, only the inside jokes of sci-fi geeks can compare with the ultimate irrelevance that most blog posts enjoy (it is no surprise that many a sci-fi geek also happens to blog and more and more of the blogging at The Corner, for example, seems preoccupied with the latest trivia from the world of sci-fi).  Perhaps both benefit from their common unreality–one is a product of fictional stories, the other is an entire medium at a remove from the real world and one step closer to the fantasies of science fiction.     

Not only is online writing fleeting and impermanent, as well as remarkable for how little impact it has on anyone, but most blogging is of such a trivial nature that it would likely make schoolgirls with their diaries feel contemptuous of the light-weight, meaningless banter that goes on on many sites (that a great many blogs are actually just electronic versions of the schoolgirls’ diaries only confirms this–what is depressing in a way is how little difference there often is between those diaries and the prattling nonsense that passes for most political blogging, from which, of course, the author must obviously be excepted).  I’m sure someone has made similar observations somewhere (and if I spent enough time using Google Blogsearch, I could find the reference!), but blogging is the ideal cultural expression of an age of no authorities and no meaning.  The new authority might be this: I blog, therefore I have authority.     

It is perhaps doubly ironic that a proponent of eunomia should then be blogging at all, since I assume that there are things of permanent value and permanent meaning, though I am typically opposed to all modern progress-laden accounts of purpose and meaning in life.  But on the other hand, I believe that I am giving voice to some of the much neglected ideas of reactionaries of ages past and working, in however limited a fashion, to dismantling the pretensions of every kind of progressive, not unlike Dienstag’s own reappraisal of pessimism in Pessimism.  Whether it will have any lasting value is uncertain, and it would be entirely out of character–and quite inappropriate for this post–for me to be optimistic about that.  

One point that deserves emphasis here is the non-equation of pessimism with theories of decline.  While pessimists may posit a decline, it is the denial of progress, not an insistence of some eventual doom, that marks out modern pessimism.  Pessimism, to put it precisely, is the negation, not the opposite, of theories of progress.  This may immediately strike some readers as a fudge, but consider: most of those thinkers whom we could agree without argument to call pessimists, like Schopenhauer, did not profess a belief in any permanent downward historical trend.  Schopenhauer posits no long-term historical trends at all, merely a constantly regrettable human condition burdened…by linear time.  In fact, belief in a permanent decline of the human condition is relatively rare in political theory….But it is not an accident that writers such as Schopenhauer are known as pessimists–for the nonprogressive yet linear view of human existence is indeed profoundly discomfiting.  Unlike a cyclical account, where the pattern of history is essentially pregiven, pessimism is historical in the modern sense: change occurs, human nature and society may be profoundly altered over time, just not permanently for the better. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Spirit, Ethic

Obviously, I am sure that even pessimists cannot show change in human nature over time one way or the other, just as meliorists and optimists cannot.  It is this constancy of human nature that convinces me that the pessimists are on the whole right, or at least more likely to be right, because even with institutional, social or political change man remains unchangeably man (even the Christian belief in grace and deification does not really overthrow this constancy of nature, so much as it transforms the quality and purpose of the energies of man–grace and deification do not really change human nature so much as they restore and fulfill it to its true purpose).

As for the lack of long-term trends in history, I am completely in agreement with the pessimism outlined here.  It is my firm conviction that believers in progress are able to believe in it largely through ignorance of human history or because of a particularly biased Hegelian idea of History, so that you can still have inexplicably prominent people use the phrase, “History is against this or that,” as if History were out there somewhere expressing a firm opinion about a topic.

In spite of what I have already said on this, someone may still object that it is impossible to embrace the Gospel and pessimism, when one of the tenets of pessimism (as Dienstag lays out elsewhere) is that human existence is absurd.  But without the Gospel, without the extraordinary act of God entering history and redeeming man, human existence would be absurd after a fashion.  The pessimists do not tell the entire story, but they do largely correctly assess the state of the world and they certainly tell more of the real story than the optimists who would generally like to rewrite the story. 

Finally, the dismissal of pessimism reflects the continuing grip that ideas of progress retain on contemporary consciousness.  Though supposedly slain many times (Lewis Mumford called it the “deadest of dead ideas” in 1932), this beast continues to rise from the ashes for the simple reason that, first, it helps us to make sense of the linear time of our calendar and, second, there is no easy substitute for it.  However much it may be denied in principle, in practice the idea of progress is difficult to displace.  And from that perspective, pessimism is especially bewildering…..Pessimism is a substitute for progress, but it is not a painless one.  In suggesting that we look at time and history differently, it asks us to alter radically our opinion of ourselves and of what we can expect from politics.  It does not simply tell us to expect less.  It tells us, in fact, to expect nothing.  This posture, I argue below, is not impossible and not suicidal.  It is neither skeptical (knowing nothing) nor nihilistic (wanting nothing).  It is a distinct account of the human condition that has developed in the shadow of progress–alongside it, as it were–with its own political stance. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Most, if not all, political writers today are ready to recognize and reject the historical utopianism found in the philosophical descendants of Hegel.  Pessimism, however, is equally critical both of that tradition and of the less flamboyant but, from its perspective, similarly progressive liberalism found in the descendants of Locke, Kant, Mill, and Dewey.  Indeed, one of the intellectual benefits of reviving the tradition of pessimism is the way that it causes us to reassess the theoretical debates of the last three centuries so that we see more clearly how the various forms of optimism have been allied.  From this perspective, the great divide in modern political theory is not between the English-speaking and the Continental schools, but between an optimism that has had representatives in both of these camps and a pessimism whose very existence those representatives have sought to suppress.


For centuries, much philosophy, both Anglo-American and Continental, has been premised on the idea (not always explicitly defended) of a gradual improvement in the human condition.  But what if we grapple with the possibility that such a melioration cannot be expected, that we must make do with who and what we are?  Pessimism is the philosophy that accepts this challenge.  It does not preach inevitable gloom.  In a relentlessly optimistic world, it is enough to give up the promise of happiness to be considered a pessimist.  Pessimism’s goal is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for the life that lies ahead.  To build proper fortifications, one must have a proper sense of the enemy and his weapons.  For the pessimists, it is fundamentally our time-bound condition that threatens us.  But this presents a special problem since it is also our existence within time, and our consciousness of time, that makes possible many of the most excellent and glorious of human attributes, not least of which is the reason that allows us to philosophize at all.  So pessimism must suggest a kind of fortification of the self against an enemy that is already inside the gates of the soul. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Instead of blaming pessimism, perhaps we can learn from it.  Rather than hiding from the ugliness of the world, perhaps we can discover how best to withstand it.  As I noted above, pessimism’s critics have often assumed that it must issue in some sort of depression or resignation.  But this assumption says more about the critics than about their targets.  Who is it, exactly, that cannot bear a story unless guaranteed a happy ending?  Pessimists themselves have often been anything but resigned.  Indeed, they have taken it as their task to find a way to live with the conclusions they have arrived at, and to live well, sometimes even joyfully.  If this cannot be true for all of us, it is not the pessimists who are to blame, but the problems they grapple with. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

The majority of our political and pundit class associate “blood and soil” with the Third Reich, though they rarely associate the “proposition nation” with the Soviet Union. So, can we put those two horrors away for a moment? ~Michael Brendan Dougherty

Many readers may have already come across Michael’s fun, fortune cookie takedown of neocon arguments elsewhere, but I highly recommend the original post and the follow-up.  On a more serious note (hardly anyone will ever accuse me of being too glib), the substance of Michael’s response to Foreign Policy’s James Forsyth’s post regarding Mr. Buchanan and State of Emergency is excellent, so let me quote a little more from it before I go on with my remarks:

Forsyth posits that anyone who “believes in the value” of certain ideas is an American. If I’m supposed to take him literally then there are a number of absurdities that result : anyone in Latvia, Belize, the Congo, or China IS an American if they believe in a certain ideology. They may not know George Washington is the Father of their country, they may not understand expressions like “mom and apple pie”, they may not be impressed with American ingenuity, or literature. They don’t have any of the thousands of cultural marks that being an American imprinted on them unconsciously. They don’t even have to speak English - they believe in an idea, you see.

He goes on to suggest that Mr. Forsyth’s views on what makes an American American are not necessarily all that interesting or meaningful, since Forsyth is not an American and might be missing out on a few important things that go into making Americans who we are.  Indeed, that would almost be worse than a recently naturalised citizen declaring people with generations of ancestors in this country unpatriotic because of policy differences–but that couldn’t happen here, could it? 

Unfortunately it can, and it is precisely the kind of thing that happens and will keep happening if we define being American–and by extension patriotic loyalty to America–in terms of the political positions we take and ideological commitments we make.  But before we can successfully combat this ideological turn, we need to make clear what the origins of the ideological “proposition nation” idea are and why this idea has been increasingly misleading us for 140 years.  At first it seemed very odd to me that, along with the usual list of texts and “values” that people embrace to become American, Mr. Forsyth also listed the Gettysburg Address, but the reason for its inclusion became clear to me soon enough.  This address is rightly understood as the seminal document that expresses the idea of the ahistorical, consolidated nation dedicated to a proposition, as the opening lines say very clearly:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The other day I referred to this as “mendacious revisionist propaganda,” which I think is a fair assessment of its character, but my reasons for saying so may be obscure to those who have not given much thought to the numerous problems with this text and the inordinate influence it has had on modern Americans’ conception of how the Union came into being. 

M.E. Bradford is our surest guide through the minefield of the Address, just as he is well-known for his powerful opposition to everything that the Address represents in the politics and rhetoric of our country.  In the following, I am including excerpts from his “Lincoln, the Declaration and Secular Puritanism: A Rhetoric For A Continuing Revolution” contained in A Better Guide Than Reason:

The reason behind this movement of mindless rehearsal into myth is then the success of Mr. Lincoln’s battlefield performance.  In such a cauldron history is easily remade.  For Lincoln’s Pennsylvania miracle is visible in the shape and surface of its accomplishment, a retreat from proposition, discussion, and argument into oracle and glorified announcement: an advance from discourse of what is believed to be into an assertion of what must be, and yet forever remain in the process of becoming.


For Americans, the effect of this epideictic encapsulation is what the Greeks called “Asiatic.” after observing its prevalence and usefulness among natiions living beyond their eastern boundaries.  It is a prerhetorical rhetoric, suited to judges, prophets, and priest/kings who instruct and command without explaining: that is, suitable to a “closed” world.  As no dispute concerning the materials it enshrined was imaginable, the end to which it was employed was obviously very different from that of the deliberative and forensic discoursings of which the Athenian philosophers approved.  Never did the epideictic serve in pure Hellenic “deciding before” or “judging after” a genuine choice.  Probably its intent was instead the affirmation of a common bond–often in its user, but always shared by those who heard or read after him.  Of course, as long as there have been “authorities” among or over their people, the style has remained a part of every rhetorician’s equipment, a magic to be used whenever what was there for the saying was less important than the saying itself.  Now, we may at first reasonably resist this association of Lincoln and Oriental despotism, especially if we know of Necessitarian Rationalism.  But before we resist too strongly, let us look at what the biblical style implies, and conceals, in his address, aqnd ask if he is not assuming the role of a Joshua, whose authority is such that he need only speak the command of the Lord for it to be obeyed.  

What troubled Bradford, and what should trouble us, is the move beyond discourse and deliberation in political rhetoric to declarations and affirmations of unchallengeable mystic truths.  The Address that fathered the idea of the “proposition nation” is spoken in the language of command and dictation–it and the idea that comes from it both demand unstinting obedience.  This rhetorical move by Lincoln began a tradition of taking sacred idiom and applying it to profane political disagreements that takes the gnostic step of seeking to realise the sacred through politics:

We were a fellowship of “the Book” and took all government and political philosophy–even the Constitution–to be practical and unworthy of mention in the same breath with Holy Scripture.  Politics might, within reason, be tested against revealed truth.  But we never imagined more than a tangency for the political and the sacred–never a holy beginning or conclusion by politics.

In this new confusion of the sacred and political, the creation of the “nation” (which he ahistorically locates in 1776) cannot be simply the separation of one political community from another, but a sign of a commitment to a timeless abstraction.  The Address’ abuse of the Declaration denies the importance of history and custom and all of the actual causes that the Declaration gives for the separation.  The substance of the Declaration itself has little to do with the timeless abstractions with which it is so often solely identified:

Prescriptive laws and kings and honor have nothing to do with the “self-evident” and “metaphysically” proved first principles of Burke’s doctors of the closet.  History is their “legitimate” ancestor; trial and error, reputation and disrepute, sifting and selection stand behind Jefferson’s appeal.  In weight, this argument from the record will not replace revelation or anointment by a Samuel.  But it is far removed from the abstractions of the Encyclopedists or mechanical universe of their perpetually absent “Creator”.  And therefore it does not pretend, despite “self-evident,” to bespeak His will.  Respected for what it is (and with its explosive sentences circumstantially grounded and converted into “mere argument” by a Whig rhetoric), the Declaration is agreeable enough.  Its implicit denial that there was a “founding”, its complexity and dialectic (recognized by most responsible American leaders who invoked the document before 1860, and acknowledged by the very different language of the 1787 Constitution) are, I repeat, inverted by Father Abraham.  And the forces which he thus released in manufacturing his “political religion” [bold added] find their tongue in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” 

So here we come to the heart of the matter.  Not merely a confusion of sacred and political, but the creation of a “political religion” that all good Americans now must confess to belong to the nation.  From the horrors of the twentieth century, we know the full destructive power that political religions can unleash, but, as Michael said, let us leave those horrors aside.  The “proposition nation” idea is even more dangerous than a generic idea of an ”ideological” nation, because it comes from our own history and possesses a mythology of its own.  The problem and the evil of the “proposition nation” idea are that this idea has been ingrained in our national consciousness; we have been to some degree initiated into the political religion of Lincoln from a very early age, perhaps before we could even reason, and many of us have been convinced that to turn against Lincoln and this religion is to set ourselves outside of the boundaries of the nation whose “founding” he invented and rhetorically invested with sacred purpose.  When someone suggests to us that being American is defined by the acceptance of certain values, the dedication to certain propositions, we are predisposed to heed this falsehood, because it is a homegrown falsehood and so it seems to us that there must be something to it. 

There has always been something deeply worrisome about the phrase “credal nation,” so closely tied as it is to a similar notion of “proposition nation”, and it is in the likening of the nation to the Church and the transformation of political ideals into the equivalent of the Deity.  If taken literally, this is blasphemy and idolatry.  Even if taken only metaphorically, it is extremely dangerous to the continuation of reasonable discourse and deliberative politics of the kind fundamental to our republican system and our common experience.  The “proposition nation” idea possesses all of the same dangers. 

In its potential to exclude or denounce dissenters as traitors or enemies of the nation, the “proposition nation” idea is perhaps the single most poisonous idea in American thought today.  That it is taken up with the greatest zeal by those who seem to glory in causing upheaval, violence and revolution around the world and by those who are the heirs of the prophet of “perpetual revolution” should not be a surprise.  It is a revolutionary idea designed for the furtherance and continuation of political revolution.  For this and other reasons, conservatives–if they are to be conservatives–cannot have anything to do with it. 

But the Founders failed to see that they were setting a time bomb.  To begin with the autonomous individual and his rights is to open up a dynamic process, that of the sovereignty of the individual, in which the rights of man break every bond with nature.  It is to open the way to what was to come, to the results we see today.  Whereas Christian thought said, “Here are your duties, and may God help you,” contemporary thought declares, “Here are your rights, and to hell with you.” ~Philippe Beneton, Equality by Default

Prof. Beneton’s conclusions are very good, though I am not convinced that the Founders understood the rights they were defending as “the rights of man” in this sense or that they were “beginning with the autonomous individual.”  For them, constitutional rights came from the traditional inheritance of Englishmen in relationship with their past and with one another.  That their language of chartered liberties was then hijacked and appropriated into the language of the rights of the autonomous individual was a different, later process that now obscures the fundamentally historical and traditional understanding of legal rights that was decisive for the Founders.  More important for them than theoretical natural rights were the actual rights guaranteed them as part of the English constitutional tradition.

The Mac Donald blog fest goes on, prompting this remarkable statement from Wesley Smith at First Things:

Regarding Michael Novak’s post about Heather Mac Donald’s discomfort with talk of God: I too have grappled intellectually with how to analyze crucial concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, in a society that seems so pluralistic morally that it frequently appears not to be a true society at all. Yet, if we look carefully, we can discern a common frame of reference underlying many of these arguments. Indeed, amid the cacophony of competing voices—whether Christian, Jewish, secularist, atheist, or none of the above—I find it encouraging that all sides in most cultural controversies at least give lip service to the belief in universal human equality.

Why is it encouraging that all sides in most controversies pay lip service to something that isn’t true?  Would it be encouraging if all sides in the debate on evolution paid lip service to the fantastical Young Earth theory?  Would it be encouraging if all sides in Egyptology paid lip service to the belief that the pyramids were landing platforms for alien spaceships?  I ask because I regard “universal human equality” to be approximately as accurate an assessment of the human condition as those other claims are accurate assessments of the respective truths in each area of inquiry.  All of them are pleasant or amusing ideas (entire sci-fi universes have been constructed around the latter), and none of them seems to have any empirical basis in reality.  As near as anyone can tell in real life, universal equality doesn’t exist, the earth really is several billion years old, and the pyramids were built by people for the Pharaohs as monumental tombs.  The first and third claims have something else in common: those who believe in each one also believe that sinister, oppressive institutions have at one time or other hidden “the truth” from the people. 

I know, I know, Mr. Smith would not have made the statement if he didn’t believe “universal human equality” actually existed.  Some will say, “Surely you believe in the equality of man!”  Alas, no. 

It is interesting that this comes as part of an ongoing response to Heather Mac Donald’s article in defense of the “skeptical” (read non-religious, non-believing) conservative’s claim to being a real conservative.  Of course, no one had really denied the skeptical conservatives their place, though I did suggest that conservatism and full-on materialist atheism don’t really make a lot of sense together, but the basic argument was that skeptical conservatives come to their conservatism through a solid grounding in experience and empirical evidence and that they can reach basically conservative conclusions on all sorts of things from politics to morality to culture largely by means of their own critical and rational thinking.  Supposing this is true, why would a skeptical conservative be inclined to accept something like “universal human equality” and pay lip service to it?  What reason would a secular or atheistic conservative have to believe this?  Indeed, since it is one of the basic principles in the conservative tradition that such equality is not real, why would any kind of conservative be so inclined? 

To the extent that there is any truth to the idea of the equality of man it would be based in a metaphysical and spiritual claim, because it is plainly false if we are to judge by any other standard.  (It is important to remember that, as Bradford and Tonsor have told us, metaphysical or spiritual equality has no necessary connection to questions of any other kind of equality.)  I have never been entirely clear where the idea of spiritual equality itself came from. 

In all seriousness, it does not, to the best of my knowledge, appear in the early Fathers–or rather it is not even a question that much exercised the Fathers.  The Gospel may invert or subvert conventional worldly hierarchies, but the belief in some sort of hierarchy is always present, particularly from the Apostle onwards. 

In patristic theology, questions of equality arose in relation to the status of the Son in relation to the Father, and later the Holy Spirit in relation to both.  Because of their common essence, they are co-equally God.  The assumption here was that those that share the same nature possess an equality in that nature, which means that all those who share in human nature are all equally human.  It does necessarily follow that all individual human beings are therefore equal, except to say redundantly that they are all human.  Arguably, our two prelapsarian ancestors possessed the fullness of created nature, which was diminished in the Fall, and the Redemption has provided the possibility of recovering the fullness of our true nature, which suggests that the only spiritual and fully natural equality of man that exists is one realised by grace among the deified.  Otherwise, all that can be said with certainty is that all men are under sin and in the need of God’s grace–I submit that it is in this, and in nothing else, that fallen men are equal.        

Someone will object and say, “But the point of this other post was not so much about equality itself, but how people should treat one another, whether or not everyone is entitled to the same protections and dignity.”  That is what the rest of the post was about, and I am getting to it.  Mr. Smith discusses a number of moral questions, most of them related to the protection of life, and frames them in terms of equality.  Now, as a matter of description, I believe he is correct that most people do argue about these controversies in terms of equality and equal rights, but this is not something that I find “encouraging.” 

For example, what can it mean to say that an unborn child is equal to his mother and has equal rights?  Does it mean that she treats her unborn child with respect and dignity only to the degree that he is equal with her?  Clearly, the child loses in any such approach.  That would suggest that we ought to treat those weaker, more defenseless and more dependent with less respect and dignity than we would those who are more our equals.  This is clearly an unjust and cruel way to treat the weakest and most vulnerable people in a society. 

So perhaps someone will invoke a metaphysical right–the child has the same rights as anybody else.  Yet all of this rights talk presupposes the child’s autonomy in a way that seems hard to credit; the child, particularly the unborn child, is not autonomous in any meaningful sense and will not be for many years.  Rather, why do we not recognise the stark inequality in such cases and acknowledge that justice and charity require of us to treat the weakest and most vulnerable with the same respect and dignity that we would if they were our equals?  Indeed, if men treat their equals with equal dignity, that is to be expected, so where is the virtue and merit in this?  Rather, does it not follow from the teachings of the Gospel that we are to treat those who are not our equals with the respect and dignity that we would give our equals?  For if human equality were true, charity would become superfluous. 

The tragedy is that the conservative movement cannot take credit for this groundswell of conservative feeling—not here nor, I suspect, anywhere else. These small, local, civic groups, all of them trying to protect goods necessary to human flourishing, do not appeal to the conservative tradition in making their cases, nor do they attract (for the most part) right-wingers to their causes. The more self-conscious today’s conservative man is of his conservatism, the more likely he is to be suspicious of such organizations. He has been taught to think in terms of ideological abstractions. Say the word “conservation” or, heaven help you, “sustainability,” and he merely flips to the flash card in his head marked “Environmentalism: Bad.” Appeal to tradition or inherited rights, and he reminds you that, In This Time of War, Sacrifices Must Be Made. And, besides being the price of capitalist progress, he has been assured that studies actually show Wal-Mart is good for communities; meanwhile, his own town has lost, oh, half a dozen or more locally owned businesses since the Smiley Face moved in ten miles down the road, finishing the community-killing work started by the federal purse and the federal bulldozer. But what does personal observation count in the face of the great think tanks’ official authority? ~Jeremy Beer

The problem with Bush’s freedom rhetoric is that it appears to not be true. Hezbollah and Hamas, and the populations that support them, desire the destruction of Israel above all, and are willing to endure warfare and dysfunctional societies to bring it about. The Sunni insurgents in Iraq want power more than anything else, and are willing to kill and maim to gain it. The Shia militias, in turn, desire revenge against the Sunni. ~Rich Lowry, National Review

Via Doug Bandow

Let me say first that it is extremely rich that the callow, ridiculous editor of National Review would presume at this point to speak about deeply held conservative principles and understandings about the fallen nature of man, since these things hardly ever came up at NR c. 2002-03 when wiser counsel about the complexities of culture and the passions of men might have availed something.   

But there is something a little odd and more than a little condescending about this.  It is as if the liberal universalist yuppie has taken his first steps out of his own, sheltered neighbourhood to meet with a brusque reception at the local bar full of people he has never seen before (except maybe on TV) and does not really understand.  After an evening at the bar that sees him get into a nasty brawl with someone over an ill-chosen phrase about liberation, he is confident that ”those people” are simply savages who simply want to obey their lower desires.  That must be what they want more than anything else.  Nobody likes people like this yuppie, because he makes no effort to understand the motivations of his fellow man.  “If they do not respond as I do, or as I would wish them to, they must be bent solely on evil or destruction or vengeance–that’s the only explanation!”

For the dedicated Hamas and Hizbullah types, destruction of Israel is probably high on their to-do list, but I think we would make a terrible mistake if we assumed that this is what even many of these fanatics desired “above all.”  Presumably many of them do desire power, of course, and wish to lord it over their neighbours and avenge old slights, and this is true in the Iraqi context as well, but then every man desires power of some sort.  Even the urge to “be free” is a desire for a certain kind of power, an autonomy, an immunity from mistreatment, a means to express one’s will and, in a democratic context, a desire to participate in government.  To speak of equality is also to make a claim about power–you believe that no one else should really, ultimately have more power than you, at least not permanently.  You believe there is a certain minimum level of power that you should always retain–over yourself and vis-a-vis other people.  That is what “rights” are supposed to be–embodiments of power that you are able to use to protect yourself.  No one wants to have a vote unless he also wants some measure of power–but it is typically power as a means to something else. 

Thus it is with most men.  Rare is the maniacal lunatic who simply wishes to keep acquiring power; most seek power and use violence to achieve certain ends, of which the destruction of their enemies may be only one and perhaps not even the most significant.  Most often we can tell what motivates a man by looking at his loyalties, associations and actions.  Hizbullah has changed and morphed over the years to become a Syro-Iranian front group, no doubt, but its members and sympathisers presumably see in it something more than that and understand their allegiance to it in terms beyond the old “death to Israel” motto.  Whether they are profoundly mistaken or not does not matter if we are trying to understand their motivation–even if they are profoundly mistaken, as indeed they are, they have committed themselves to an idea that will not permit them to so easily acknowledge this in any case.  And so we must try to understand what function this allegiance plays in winning the loyalties of so many people.  Read the rest of this entry »

More to the point, Dougherty says that Joe Francis’ unhinged lewd behavior makes his brain play the word libertarian on repeat—it’s not my favorite track, it just got stuck, he protests—and so maybe, sure, this is what anarchic freedom gets you in a secular, pluralistic, sexually “free” society like we have today. But I don’t need to remind Dougherty that Francis’ crudeness isn’t a result of a dominant libertarianism in government, because that’s not something we’ve had. Maybe this is just my ideology talking (now I fear the wrath of Larison!), but it seems to me that lifestyle libertarianism is apt to be more dominant in a society with a powerful state; the more power you give to a monopolistic secular authority like the government, the more secular your society will become. ~Peter Suderman

As glad as I am to jump on the old guv’mint for just about anything, and as much as I think there is something to the idea that what a state actively promotes as cultural values will have considerable impact on the state of the culture, I am a little perplexed.  What real difference does it make whether libertarianism is “dominant” in the government?  When it comes to “cultural libertarianism,” it is dominant in the society at large in some of its most obnoxious and abusive forms.  From Nelly Furtado’s Promiscuous Girl to the dreck on television to the mores governing relations between the sexes to the idiocies of The DaVinci Code, the entire culture is inundated with the message: do and believe what you feel; human nature and reality are irrelevant. 

Read the rest of this entry »

The idea that contemporary Venezuela represents a social model superior to liberal democracy is absurd. ~Francis Fukuyama

Via Steve Sailer

Of course, it is absurd to think that contemporary Venezuela is superior to very many things.  But Fukuyama misses everything important when he says this, as he often does.  Something that seems to forever elude Fukuyama (in addition to his ignoring the salience of questions of race and ethnicity as forms of identity that are very powerful in driving history, as Steve Sailer notes correctly today) is that rival ideologies and worldviews might, in fact, be absurd, inferior and doomed to ongoing failure in their attempts to acquire the political and economic goods that could improve certain aspects of life for billions, but this is entirely irrelevant to whether or not people will embrace them.  It is irrelevant whether these ideologies actually ever “provide the goods” or are even capable of providing them: what matters is that the ideology appears to be true, appears to make sense and, in this day and age, appears to represent an alternative to American and Western models, be they “neo-liberal,” “neoconservative,” “liberal democratic” or what-have-you. 

Ideology is not so much a way of seeing the world as it is a set of blinders designed to keep you going in the ‘right’ direction, even when you would normally bolt and run the other way from horror at the sight of the place your faceless rider, Ideology, is taking you.  Read the rest of this entry »

You [Rod Dreher] claim to have second thoughts about Iraq and regrets for your support of that War, but you are apparently no wiser; indeed you seem to have grown in folly.

I have long thought that “crunchy con” sounded like some sort of swindle, a scam. Now I know it: when it comes to moral principle and foreign policy a crunchy con is just a neocon in sandals. ~Daniel Nichols, Caelum et Terra

Let me say first that I understand Mr. Nichols’ dissatisfaction and disagreement with Rod’s views on the war in Lebanon.  I share many of his objections to Rod’s statements about proportionality and Rod’s judgements about the justifiability of what has been happening to the civilian population of Lebanon.  While I also understand the reasons why Rod continues to support the campaign, I obviously believe the better arguments in terms of both charity and justice rest with the critics of the campaign and further I think these arguments are more in accordance with the humane conservatism and Christian tradition to which Rod, Mr. Nichols and I all belong.  

But I must agree with Maclin Horton, who distanced himself from these statements, that they overreach, assume far too much and, unfortunately, tend towards a degree of inflexibility in discussing questions of policy that is far better suited to the journals of the very neoconservatives whom Mr. Nichols and I both fervently oppose.  It is very much their style to denounce and cast out someone lacking in ideological rigour when he fails to meet a test of seeing eye to eye with them on a question of policy, typically foreign policy in the Near East.  Imitating that particular model does not seem very appealing.  While there are very good arguments to be made for the inconsistency of praising a life of restraint, virtue and proportion and endorsing a military campaign that is sorely lacking in several of these, dismissing everything that you have in common with Rod and everything that Rod has right because he does not see the war on Lebanon as you do is a bad mistake.  Claiming that he is simply a fraud because he takes a different view on policy is to assume far too much–it is what we might call the Frum fallacy. 

Though Rod has been criticised by traditionalists and paleoconservatives for not going deep enough into the themes he wrote about in Crunchy Cons and having an insufficient grasp of the connections between the agrarian tradition, liturgical Christianity and rooted, humane life, as I intend to discuss in a future post when I return to blogging on the TRI agrarian summer school, his thinking on these topics has raised many of the right questions and proposed more than a few tentative, reasonable answers for recovering a humane way of life.  What has always infuriated and baffled those who wanted to make the crunchy con idea into a policy debate has been Rod’s consistent refusal to pigeonhole an authentic conservative temperament according to the specific prudential policy prescriptions that he or anyone else thinks should be followed.  As all of us repeated time and again, this conservatism is a temperament, a persuasion, not a system, much less a platform or policy agenda.  Though certainly never apolitical, the concerns of “crunchy conservatism” for building up local communities, the cultivation of agrarianism, preserving the family, and conserving the natural world are in many respects those of traditional and paleoconservatives, and throughout all of it is the common sense of restraint and a sense of the sacramental nature of life.  In one of my last statements on crunchy conservatism, I wrote this description:

To these core elements that Mr. Goss identifies I would add, in no particular order, a certain degree of the spirit of self-denial and asceticism, festivity and (as an aspect of sacramentality) communion, in the sense here of being closely bound to a place and the people in the community, as well as cultivating a sense of obligation before religious tradition and local community.  Additionally, a key idea running throughout all of these is right proportion or right measure, which finds its expression in the principle of moderation that informs the crunchy attitude and the appreciation of beautiful things in terms of their proportion, balance and harmonious arrangement of space.

Crunchy Cons was a first attempt to break out of the stifling atmosphere of the modern conservative movement, in which the wise men who fathered the movement were known mostly only as names to be invoked, their principles long since discarded by a movement that needed principles a little more flexible and usable.  It was an attempt to remember the humane conservatism of Russell Kirk, among others, and so it is with some curious irony that the the issue that has driven Mr. Nichols to attack Rod so sharply is none other than U.S. and Israeli policy in the Near East in the current war on Lebanon. 

I say irony, because one of the many critics of the Israeli war on Lebanon is none other than Kirk’s own daughter, Andrea Kirk Assaf, which pits the kin of the the man Rod named the “patron saint” of crunchy conservatism against the author of Crunchy Cons.  It is not unreasonable to suppose that Kirk himself, an outspoken opponent of the first Gulf War, would have at least had strong objections to the way that the war on Lebanon has been waged, even if he might have accepted in principle the justice of some sort of Israeli response to the taking of its soldiers.  Obviously, as my numerous posts over the last two weeks have made clear, I take a dim view of the attacks on civilian targets, the displacement of three quarters of a million people and the general devastation of an entire country that have taken place in the last three weeks in Lebanon, and many of those posts have been direct or indirect critiques of positions Rod has taken on his blog. 

Now, someone might say, “Oh, very well, Kirk’s daughter is against it, and Kirk might have opposed it, but they might be wrong.”  That is certainly possible, and it is also not enough simply to cite Kirk’s past views, but I think it only makes sense for a leading proponent of reviving Kirkian conservatism to consider Kirk’s history of foreign policy views that leaned towards limiting and avoiding war as much as possible.  If crunchy conservatism is one kind of embrace and application of the Permanent Things in modern life, it is incumbent on those persuaded by the virtue of this idea to consider also what fidelity to the Permanent Things could require of us when it comes to contemporary politics and policies.   

That said, it is far too excessive to declare that “when it comes to moral principle and foreign policy a crunchy con is just a neocon in sandals.”  As I already noted in my comment at CetT, a “neocon in sandals” would have no grasp of the importance of local community, agrarian life, decentralism or the moral and social problems created by the structures of state capitalism and the corporate economy, nor would he care much for talk of restraint, virtue or asceticism; the crunchy cons’ religiosity would probably scare the neocon in sandals more than a little, and their proclivity to homeschool their children would make him shudder.  I agree that Rod has been mistaken in his statements about Lebanon, but the neocon in sandals would undoubtedly be mistaken about everything and in far worse ways than I would care to imagine.       

The newest issue of The American Conservative has brought together thirty short articles from a number of prominent, primarily traditional conservative and libertarian writers and scholars on whether the terms conservative and liberal and the modern Right/Left opposition have any meaning and, if they do have any meaning today, what that meaning might be.  Rod Dreher has excerpted from a number of his favourites, and I expect that all of them will be worth looking at in greater depth (I only received my copy this morning), but the one that caught my immediate attention was that of Dr. Clyde Wilson, professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a contributing editor at Chronicles.  Here are a couple excerpts:

In a dynamic and free republican society, citizens of similar ideas, values, and interests, and even inherited allegiances and inclinations, come together to seek representation, forming political parties as their vehicle in the contest with citizens of opposing tendencies.  (In addition, in the United States, political representation has been geographically based rather than strictly a matter of parties.)  Citizenship–participation in politics–assumes mental and material independence and a social identity pre-existing the state apparatus.  None of these preconditions for politics any longer characterize the American regime.


After the elections, it was seen that the parties, except at the fringes, do not disagree on anything of importance nor do they represent the people on any important issue–for instance, war, foreign aid, immigration or quotas.

On behalf of the imperial bureaucratic regime, the Democrats absorb and defang whatever liberal inclinations remain in their constituency, and the Republicans do likewise for the conservatives.  The only difference is that the Democrats institutionally are wired to keep up the momentum of an already liberal state, while the Republicans’ conservatism has always been a pure fraud.

If, as may be the case, a real politics is struggling to be born, one that involves representation of the interests and values of the remnant genuine elements of American society that have a reality apart from the state, then the terms “liberal” and “conservative” will not much apply.  Politics against the imperial regime will have to be both defensive and radical, that is to say, it will have to be reactionary. 

His concluding words reminded me of M.E. Bradford’s important idea that the time may come (indeed it is already here) when there is nothing worthwhile to conserve and conservatives are faced with “the reactionary imperative” (the title of his 1990 collection of essays) to restore or recreate a humane, decent order.  As Bradford said:

“Reaction” is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit late in the twentieth century because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.

The Turkish military, for example, is a defender of Turkish liberalism - flawed though it may be — against the threats it faces from, among other things, democratic Islamic populism. ~Jonah “Lie For a Just Cause” Goldberg

The Turkish military is a defender of Kemalist secular republicanism, which is not necessarily anything like liberalism (in the Continental sense).  It is non-Islamic, rejects traditional monarchy, modernising, authoritarian and has attempted to create a mass Turkish nationalism.  In the context of the 1920s in Turkey, Kemalism was a radical leftist and revolutionary ideology, but liberalism on any Western model it never was.  Ask the Kurds whether Kemalism is a form of liberalism.  Perhaps Goldberg has been so confused by the title of his own book, Liberal Fascism, that he has lost track of the difference between authoritarian nationalist military men and liberals of any and all kinds. 

We forget easily that natural rights theory, depending as it does on postulates concerning an anterior “state of nature,” is the worst enemy of human freedom yet to be devised by the mind of man.  Liberty is precious to most of us, particularly to a people who have learned from their frontier heritage to connect a personal sense of worth and merit to what they achieve in making private decisions.  Yet only men who belong to something are in any durable sense free.  And belonging to a society also means citizenship in some kind of commonwealth and submission to some kind of law restrictive of our presocial freedom to a degree that goes beyond the mere prevention or punishment of crime.  Our forefathers knew the costs of the civil condition, but did not speak well of life in a state of nature.  They avoided “constructivist rationalism” (to use Hayek’s terms), regardless of its ostensible connection with “the rights of man.”  Even the most liberal spirits among the Framers of the Constitution and heroes of the Revolution fall short of compliance with the full libertarian paradigm.  Thomas Jefferson, with very slight revisions, fought to keep the English common law in force in Virginia: that law “beyond the cunning of reason,” where custom reigns supreme….Usually the freedoms of which they spoke with fervor were part of the warp and woof of an established way of life.  Most of them understood that “Liberty, like happiness, is most perfect when least remarked.  As most misery is caused by the pursuit of abstract happiness, distinct from the occupations that make men happy, so most tyranny springs from the struggle for an abstract liberty, distinct from the laws and institutions that make men free.” ~M.E. Bradford, Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (University of Georgia Press, 1985)

Man’s bodily existence is also the basis of his social existence.  This may grow quantitatively from the family, to the labor-dividing small society, to that size in which ordering consciousness finds the material basis for the unfolding of the eu zen, the good life, Aristotle’s criterion of the eunomia, the good social order.  No matter how well ordered society may be, its corporeality, compelling it to provide material care and the control of the passions, requires an existence in the form of organized rulership.  The organization of society through representatives charged with care for the social order within and for defense against external dangers is the conditio sine qua non of society to such an extent that the investigation and description of the various pragmatic organizations is a main part of political science.  A theory of politics cannot stop there, however, since this part deals only with that aspect of political reality that is founded in man’s corporeality. ~Eric Voegelin, “The Concrete Consciousness” in Anamnesis (University of Missouri Press, 1978)

In time of war, people tend to lose all sense of proportion.  This is true when it comes to the kinds of domestic government measures they are willing to endorse during the “emergency,” which always overreach and violate fundamental legal protections to the general indifference of the masses, or when it comes to the latitude they are willing to grant their armed forces in attacking the hostile state (and nation), resulting in excesses and crimes to which the general public typically reacts with relatively little concern.  Thus violations of principles of discrimination (distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants) and proportionality are frequently shrugged off or the assumptions behind these principles are questioned or denied.  Even when it is an ally that is at war, there is the tendency to lose a sense of what the proper limits to waging war ought to be, because anything less than solidarity and arguments in defense of the ally’s war effort will appear to be hostility to the ally and an expression of a desire to see the ally defeated. 

Because of a desire to show steadfast support for an ally, in this case Israel, there have been a number of expressions of outright hostility to the very idea of proportionality as a legitimate principle governing justice in war.  Quickly vanishing is the trope of Israel’s tremendous restraint.  The new idea is the virtue of her disproportionate violence. 

This does no credit to Israel and rather reinforces the notion that a perpetual state of “existential threat” from her enemies somehow justifies behaviour that would, were it committed by any other government, be a cause of condemnation and sanctions, which muddies Israel’s image and makes it appear as if Israel is exempt from the standards that her benefactor, the United States, applies only too rigorously to other states.  How any of this serves the long-term interests of Israel genuinely does escape me.  At the same time, it hardly serves American interests, which are my primary concern in matters of foreign policy, to have an ally committing excesses that our government tacitly or openly endorses.  

Some have recourse to the experience of total war in WWII, as Mr. Chait does.  Of course, between the notion of a moral total war and the just war tradition, of which the principle of proportionality is a part, is a vast and unbridgeable chasm.  If you believe that total war is just, you will never see any virtue in proportionality, just as you will scarcely see any virtue in discrimination.  Indiscriminate killing is the essence of total war, so why would any supporter of total war be interested in a principle that automatically makes total war unjust?  Proportionality exists, in part, to limit the destructiveness and cruelty of war, rooted in the virtue of charity.  Total war, on the other hand, does not even admit the humanity of the enemy, so why should it wish to show him charity?   

Others, such as Mr. Cohen, take refuge behind an argument from pragmatism: responding in limited fashion to small-scale attacks does not establish deterrence.  This is a more serious argument, divorced as it is from Chait and Podhoretz’s nostalgia for the good old days when bombers turned tens of thousands of people to ash.  This is harder to argue against, because the priority of deterrence is security for your side and the priorities of proportionality are justice towards both sides and a desire to act virtuously.  Particularly when you are of the opinion that the other “side” does not deserve to be treated justly, proportionality simply seems incredible. 

But let me take a stab at showing why this deterrence argument is nonetheless mistaken.  Deterrence relies to a certain degree on predictability.  Both sides refrain from large-scale provocations or attacks on the assumption that they will call forth absolutely overwhelming retaliatory force from the other side.  If every incident, no matter how small, results in a large-scale response, there is nothing–short of their physical annihilation (which may or may not be achievable)–to keep those whom you are trying to deter from making ever larger and more destructive attacks.  They will attempt to do the maximum of damage before the inevitable large-scale response comes.  The more disproportionate the response now, the less restrained an enemy will be by deterrence in the future.  If a string of border incidents over several years, capped off by the kidnapping of two soldiers, leads to waves of air strikes and a ground invasion, it is not hard to see that Hizbullah or its successors will initiate hostilities next time on a much more destructive scale.  The disproportionality of response seems effective in pummeling your adversary this time, but it is only truly effective as a deterrent to others if the adversary is wiped out or permanently disarmed (an objective that would currently require an even more disproportionate response than Israel has so far employed).  Of course, the entire notion of proportionality rests on such quaint notions as having a causus belli and obtainable objectives that, once met, bring an end to the need for war.  It assumes that the waging of war is done to achieve redress of specific wrongs.  It has no meaning for partisans of theories of “total victory,” because there is no justice in “total victory,” which presupposes the degradation and complete surrender of all protections of the defeated party to the mercy of the victors.  Vae victis is not a motto that we should want to take to its logical conclusions.  Proportionality is an essential feature of governing Macht by means of Recht.  We would be extremely unwise to throw out this principle, if for no other reason than that we should want to hold to something that justifies our claims to civilisation and which keeps the line distinguishing us from the likes of Hizbullah bright and clear.       

Among several books I intend someday to write, one stands out: The Great Indoors: Why Going Outside Is Vastly Overrrated. Now is probably the time to pitch it—contrarian cant at its finest—given all the hugga-mugga over Crunchy Cons and the various websites supported by sundry disciples of Wendell Berry, who believe consumerism, free markets, and technological obsolescence are destroying our souls, families, and communities.

This concern is an old one. And the solution—high-tail it for the Ozarks—is also old. I believe Aristophanes was the first to give it dramatic form (while side-swiping poor old Socrates at the same time): Abandon the cities, abandon false patriotism, abandon the quack sciences and gimcrack philosophies that threaten old religion; abandon the battlefields, politics, and sausage salesmen. ~Anthony Sacramone, First Things

Surely if there was a place for cant, it would be First Things under Mr. Bottum’s esteemed guidance, and Mr. Sacramone shows himself to be right at home at the intellectual Bottum.  One definition of cant, after all, is:

The use of religious phraseology without understanding or sincerity; empty, solemn speech, implying what is not felt; hypocrisy. 

Check Mr. Sacramone’s sad invocation of the New Jerusalem as a justification for rancid urbanism and consumerist degradation to see whether he meets this definition.  Perhaps Jeremy Lott will write a sequel to his current book that would be entitled In Defense of Cant, and Mr. Sacramone can be his chief defendant.  I missed this latest wave of cant at First Things while high-tailing it to northern Illinois (the Ozarks were too far away), where, as it happens, I had some sausages for dinner at the Saturday dinner for the summer school on America’s agrarian tradition (whether they came from a salesman of sausages, or were instead homemade, was not made known to the assembled guests).  Fortunately, Michael Brendan Dougherty took up my usual role of angry reactionary blogger and gave him and those like him a good hiding.  

Now, as Mr. Sacramone may or may not be aware, the only problems that matter are old ones (who are we? why are we here? what is our purpose?), and the only solutions worth their salt tend to also be old and venerable ones.  He may have heard something about the accumulated wisdom of generations providing us with time-tested truths that tell us about human nature, the good life, and so on.  Supposedly First Things, given the name, might be expected to take these things seriously, since they pertain to the permanent things, the serious things, things of the first order of importance in human existence.  It might be worth noting that the prophetic and eschatological witnesses to the Kingdom being not of this world, monastics and ascetics, typically have fled the wretchedness of the cities.  But what did those monks and saints know?  Besides, they’re all so very old.  Nobody fashionable goes into the desert, into the country, to follow Christ anymore–you might be accosted by all manner of rustics with guns! 

But who are we kidding?  There is apparently nothing so serious that the semi-learned gentlemen at First Things cannot trivialise and mock it.  I have rarely seen such a self-indulgent, cynical display of intellectual hooliganism–and nihilism–as Mr. Sacramone has given us.  Glad to know that this is what First Things stands for–it confirms what I have assumed about that journal for many years.   

What would this kind of regional populism look like in an actual political platform? Broadly speaking, it would seek at every turn to end the dependence of its constituents on elites. It would oppose, for example, the nationalization of any sector of our economy, from health care to agriculture. Instead, it would seek creative ways to open regional markets for regional goods.

It would seek to permit regional cultural and religious particularities to emerge from the fog of federalized regulation and be made manifest in our schools, courthouses, businesses and civic organizations. And it would provide incentives to keep cultural capital local. It would encourage people to work, study and raise families close to where they grew up. It would seek ways to promote local culture and would cultivate loyalty to our neighbors and a fierce love for our own places.

But in the end, what this kind of vibrant regionalism requires is something much more difficult to obtain than a slogan. It is a renewed appreciation for society over and against both the individual and the state. Society defined by what the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry calls “membership” – a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. To be a member of this kind of social order is the best hedge against manipulation by the central planning committee for “growth” and “prosperity.” It is, to put it plainly, to be free. ~Caleb Stegall, The Dallas Morning News

There’s an irony inherent in a system like our own that identifies the individual as the fundamental unit of political, social and economic order. Because it shears the individual of the republican virtues cultivated within communities of tradition in the name of empowering him, it actually makes the individual subject to tyranny. Limitless emancipation in the name of progress is, it turns out, the final and most binding mechanism of control.

When the oldest sources of order – which are at root religious – are abandoned along with their traditions and taboos, the resulting void of meaning is by necessity filled with some ideology promising one form or another of perfect happiness in the here and now. And these systems of self-salvation creep not toward liberation, but toward total control. ~Caleb Stegall, The Dallas Morning News

Why do editors and columnists prepare articles on religion like this one to publish on Sunday morning?  Is it just to irritate the odd reader about to leave for church who finds random Washington Post columns thrust into his local paper’s op-ed section?  Perhaps I should have ignored the paper this morning, but the pull quote from Hoagland’s piece today (which is actually a quote from the South Side’s own Sen. Obama) caught my attention.  It sums up everything that is wrong with the article and the broader argument it is making about the place of religion in democratic politics:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. 

My immediate reaction to this was something along the lines of, “If that is what democracy demands, we won’t be having much need for it.”  But give Sen. Obama credit for unpacking modern democrats and universalists’ assumptions about what “democracy” allows and “demands”: it does not allow religious expression in terms of “religion-specific values,” which is to say religious values as such are irrelevant to public debate and public policy, and it demands that adherents of religions (and, to cut through it, we all understand that we’re talking essentially about Christians and about  no one else) accept one of the alternative secular schemes that are deemed suitable for “democratic” politics and consign their religious convictions to the corner where they can safely gather dust. 

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For those still interested in the futile “debate” with the Straussians (in which their critics make arguments of greater or lesser power, and they baselessly accuse their critics of abandonding reason, truth and, now, the entire Western intellectual tradition for lack of being able to make an argument of their own), Joseph Baldacchino of the National Humanities Institute has taken up for his colleague, Prof. Claes Ryn, here, and the ever-excitable Mr. Peterson provides us with this.
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Now available at The New Pantagruel is an essay by the Rev. James Schall, S.J. entitled On Beginning in Gladness.

That the spiritual habits and disciplines of the Christian aim at such formation, the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of holiness, ought to be obvious; when a Christian abstains from some evil act, it is for reason of the deformity such an act would introduce into his being. Moreoever, when, say, an Orthodox Christian observes the fasting season of Lent, he does so as an act of piety and obedience, yes, but also because, given his beliefs, it is an eminently rational or logical thing for him to undertake. If one believes that human nature is pulled hither and tither by the stimuli of pleasure and pain, and thereby rent into pieces, dominated by multitudinous passions attached to sensible and imaginary things, then not only petition for mercy but abstention from objects and acts that enkindle the passions becomes a logical and spiritual therepy for the disorder of one’s being. One’s travail is not an ordeal of the intellect alone, but is existential, involving the whole of one’s being; one must then not only refrain from an excess of attachment to things intellectually, but actually, for what inner detachment can a man cultivate if he never really detaches himself from the pursuits, the inordinate loves of things, that disorder him? ~Maximos (Jeff Martin), Enchiridion Militis

Jeff brings together a number of connected strands (I think successfully) over at EM: crunchy conservatism, the disciplines of Lent, Orthodox anthropology and the latter’s antithesis in the autonomous and consumerist models of the modern individual man. He also cites approvingly from Claude Polin, an editor of Chronicles, towards the end of the post, so that there is practically something for everyone.

It was a central aspiration of the Enlightenment, an aspiration the formulation of which was itself a great achievement, to provide for debate in the public realm standards and methods of rational justification by which alternative courses of action in every sphere of life could be adjudged just or unjust, rational or irrational, enlightened or unenlightened. So, ti was hoped, reason would displace authority and tradition. Rational justification was to appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person and therefore independent of all those social and cultural particularities which the Enlightenment thinkers took to be the mere accidental clothing of reason in particular times and places. And that rational justification could be nothing other than what the thinkers of the Enlightenment had said that it was came to be accepted, at least the vast majority of educated people, in post-Enlightenment cultural and social orders.


Yet it is of first importance to remember that the project of founding a form of social order in which individuals could emancipate themselves from the contingency and particularity of tradition by appealing to genuinely universal, tradition-independent norms was and is not only, and not principally, a project of philosophers. It was and is the project of modern, liberal, individualist society, and the most cogent reasons that we have for believing that the hope of a tradition-indepdendent rational universality is an illusion derive the history of that project.~Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [italics above mine]

MacIntyre’s body blows to Enlightenment thought are well known, and I won’t pretend that I can indict the incoherence of that thought better than he already has. I remain an enthusiastic amateur in these matters, of course, but if MacIntyre’s characterisations are right I do take some consolation that my earlier descriptions of Enlightenment ideas on morality were not nearly as superficial as some had claimed.

Intelligent Design holds that the universe and its living things are not simply the product of random chance; an intelligent cause is behind their existence. Intelligent Design does not conflict with Darwinism’s belief in evolution ­ that living organisms will change over time. It does run counter to the new school of Darwinism that holds random selection drives evolution. Chance mutations occur without reason. Intelligent Design challenges this direction head-on based upon its belief that changes occur due to a reason. ~Paul J. Weyrich (courtesy of Orthodoxy Today)

What Mr. Weyrich should have said was that in random selection “chance mutations occur without a demonstrable reason.” All that ID tells us is that there are complex structures and then infers that, because most complex structures we know are the product of intentional design, all complex structures owe their structure, origin and development to a Designer. It does not actually explain anything more about the processes of mutation and selection–it presupposes them, and then covers them with some philosophical frosting. He does have it right when he says that ID challenges neo-Darwinism “based on its belief that changes occur due to a reason.” ID is just that–a belief, a philosophical claim, reasonable enough in a certain sense but not a scientific hypothesis. Unlike philosophical claims, which are never definitely confirmed or rejected, a scientific hypothesis can be repeatedly tested and found to be true true or false.

I happen to agree with the argument from design as a philosophical argument. It seems reasonable to me that there is a general orderliness to the laws of nature, which the practise of science assumes, and this orderliness tends to suggest that the universe has been arranged and well-arranged by an Intellect. But this is not proveable or demonstrable in the way that the acceleration of gravity can be demonstrated to be 9.8 m per second squared. The claim is just simply not scientific. There is nothing inherent in complexity and structure in nature that compels conviction that evolution is guided and directed. This should not scandalise Christians, even though some have become so enamoured of the possibilities of natural theology that they forget that our God is a hidden and mysterious God.

Physicists tend to see patterns of order as evidence that strengthens belief in an Author of the universe, whereas biologists find random mutation so unguided and without apparent purpose that it is much more difficult for them to accept a sovereign Deity. What ID theorists would like to do is affirm that there is a purpose to random mutations, as indeed I think there is, but that affirmation is not an affirmation derived from scientific study nor can it be repeatedly demonstrated nor proved by experiment. There seems to be a muddling of reasons why things change and happen–their purpose–and their material causes.

ID simply lacks everything, including scientific method, that would pass muster as science. Citing the Discovery Institute, the headquarters of the ID-as-science fraud, does not inspire confidence in Mr. Weyrich’s argument. Mr. Weyrich is right to note, as I have done before, that ID is really as far from creationism as East is from West, but that does not make ID more scientific.

For as a result of the loss of reality, human action turns into a phenomenon that can no longer be understood by means of such reality-charged categories as “destiny.” Even the term action misses its mark, since action in the sense of classical ethics is oriented by means of the existential tension towards the ground, while action minus this orientation becomes nonaction. The social advancement of symbols like “activism,” “decisionism,” “terrorism,” and “behavior” is symptomatic for the need to find adequate words for the experience of reality-forsaken, world-immanent conduct in its active and passive varieties. Insofar as political events drop down to the level of unhistorical “nonsense” (madness), it can indeed no longer be interpreted by symbols that have originated in consciousness’ center of order and its exegesis; new terms are required in order adequately to describe the pneumopathological phenomena of the “loss of reality,” which we prefer to the accurate, but fuzzy, “nonsense” (madness). ~Eric Voegelin, “The Consciousness of the Ground,” Anamnesis

Voegelin tells us that action without orientation and purpose is not really action. This can help remind us why so much human activity for strictly immanent ends is not fully efficacious and never properly expresses the nature of the person who acts. In this sense, anyone who ‘acts’ for immanent ends only not only fails to act as he should but indeed fails to act all together. I would add that the most frenetically busy and ‘active’ societies thus tend to be spiritually and morally the most shallow and hollow, and they, in fact, betray their fundamental inactivity in this sense because of the lack of natural purpose according to which they do so much. Such societies are aware at some level of their own hollowness and continue to ‘act’ as they do to escape the dreariness, ennui and spiritual boredom that threaten to settle upon them at every moment, and the pursuit of distraction and entertainment finds these societies attempting to find refuge from useless activity in still more useless activity.
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“We will not yield to the terrorists,” Bush said. “We will find them, we will bring them to justice and at the same time we will spread an ideology of hope and compassion that will overwhelm their ideology of hate.”, July 7, 2005

When the July 7 bombings occurred, I was just preparing to leave on the lengthy road trip that took me away from posting for much of July, so I did not have the chance to comment then on this particularly buffoonish comment. How, after all, can one have an “ideology of hope and compassion,” when these are to be considered as either virtues or the passionate feelings commonly associated with those terms? To have an ideology, one must at least have some kind of ideas, or at least cheap knock-off versions of ideas that can be readily fitted, like replaceable parts, into the machine of power. Having been routinely told that “hope is not a strategy” with respect to the menacing Iraqi weapons cache (no laughing, please), we are now informed that hope is apparently an ideology.

It has not been a one-time incident of Mr. Bush freely and senselessly using the word “ideology” when something else would have undoubtedly been more appropriate. Ideology has become one of his new pet words, which he feels compelled to use, either to show that he is conversant with (neoconservative) party doctrine or to make his pronouncements sound more intelligent than they are. But there seem to be a great many people confused about what ideology is, both in its original meaning and its more conventional modern usage. Since the meaning of words is the beginning of all other understanding and cultivation, confusion over the meaning of words will invariably lead to just the sort of muddled, dense nonsense that issues forth from the imperator, as his devotees like to think of him (”our Commander-in-Chief,” and all that).

Ideology (originally ideologie in its native French) was the study of ideas as outlined by Comte Destutt de Tracy. Understood this way, Comte de Tracy, a materialist liberal of the old French variety, evidently understood ideology as the study of the intellectual products of biological and material life. In its original meaning, therefore, ideology was completely materialist and reductionist. Not only is he a radical empiricist in his epistemology, and bases all consciousness in sensation, but his conception of the source of ideas would make all intellectual activity a function of material circumstances.

Plainly, no one uses ideology quite in this sense any longer, but it could be and was readily adopted by Marxists, whose model of historical materialism was perfectly in agreement with the more specifically biological and anthropological claim that ideas are the products of material conditions. But for Marxists ideology is the combined form of symbols, ideas, rhetoric and discourse that create legitimacy and justify the exercise of power by the ruling class, and it is a product of the contemporary mode of production as part of the superstructure. It is thus something to be debunked (unless the ruling class is full of self-styled Marxists). It is this politicised form of ideology with which 20th century Westerners are familiar.

Ideology was typically associated first with Marxist revolutionaries, then gradually with any political system (usually non-liberal) that sought to marshal any useful fragments of political thought into a system that legitimised current policy. Non-Marxists came to identify ideology as something that only radicals possessed. Free societies did not produce such reigning ideologies, because such a thing ought to be either redundant or impossible to impose with any degree of success (of course, the advent of mass media might make both of those assumptions doubtful).

Unfortunately, the advent of post-modernism has made ideology something of a buzzword, and not only in academia, and thus this fantastically anachronistic term is now routinely applied to the study of the ancient, late antique, medieval and early modern worlds entirely uncritically. Whether a scholar accepts that material conditions create the “ideology,” many scholars are trapped into using the Marxist language for lack of any alternative that would be comprehensible. Weber’s notion of “ruling ideas” is theoretically much more attractive, not least because it allows for greater complexity and variety in the genesis of ideas, and also because it allows for the possibility that ideas can come from the margins or peripheries to overtake the ideas of any given ruling group. But it is fair to say that using the word ideology has entered the blood of historians and social scientists, and has now also entered political commentary and presidential speechwriting.

When Kirk first wrote The Conservative Mind in 1953, ideology was something principally connected with totalitarian regimes and was viewed as something exceedingly artificial and also something specifically Continental. Living philosophical and political traditions could not be compressed or compacted into programmatic bullet points, as in a manifesto, because there was a richness and breadth to real philosophy (in part because philosophy was interested first and foremost in truth, not power) that could never be distilled and boiled down into a simple political creed for mobilising supporters or made into a utopian scheme for reorganising society.

Almost by definition, such idea-shards and uniform plans for social engineering based on those shards were doomed not to take root in the rocky ground of reality, because they were the pruned and dessicated remnants of a once-living organism that were being taken as the essential organising principles of society. Anglo-American tradition had little to do with ideology, either in the Comte de Tracy’s sense or the Marxist sense, and likewise a conservatism nourished in that tradition could only be an anti-ideology.

Thus, if Mr. Bush prattles on about ideology, we can only be slightly reassured by the fact that he has no idea what the word means. We should be very worried that he has speechwriters and advisors who believe it is appropriate or consonant with the beliefs of his constituents to have an “ideology” (be it of “hope” or anything else) and to view a fundamentally political and strategic problem in principally ideological terms. This betrays mental weakness and confusion. It should be a warning sign that he is even more firmly in the grip of the neoconservative fever than before. It also promises a continued inflexibility in policy decisions that will take us, slowly but surely, the way of the Soviet Union if we persist in imagining that ours is, to borrow the idea of Irving Kristol, an “ideological” nation. Once an ideologue believes his ideological cause is implicated in a conflict, real national interests cease to have any influence on his decisions, and I believe Mr. Bush has become so firmly entrenched in that view that even something as fundamental as real political self-interest may not shake him from it.

But supposing we still believe, despite the strong weight of evidence, that Mrs. Schiavo remains conscious at some level and might someday lead a normal life. The question then becomes not “What is the right thing to do,” but “Who is to decide?” As in so many human affairs, it is easier to have moral knowledge than knowledge of facts. We do know that, in our tradition, spouses are next of kin and empowered by law to make decisions when their wife or husband is incapable. That is why Mr. Schiavo, when the physicians concluded the case to be hopeless, was free to decide his wife’s fate. To change this legal tradition, in the heat of a passionate case, is a perilous undertaking.

I do not know what Mrs. Schiavo’s husband ought to do, but I do know that the decision belongs to him and not to either Jeb or George Bush. To those who wish to defend physical existence for its own sake at any cost, this will seem like Pilate’s decision. They are wrong. Pilate shirked his responsibility as Roman procurator by giving in to the mob. He should not have allowed the execution of Jesus, but neither should he have overturned both Roman and Jewish laws in order to strip families of their legal rights. The analogy, used with increasing frequency, between Mrs. Schiavo and Christ is blasphemous on many counts. She is not the God who willingly accepted death in order to redeem mankind. She is only a poor, frail mortal, like the rest of us, and her condition and death, so far from being a willing sacrifice, is the result, apparently, of binge dieting.

We also know, from our moral and legal traditions, that it can never be safe to entrust such a decision to the self-seeking politicians who seek public office, whether as state legislator, governor, congressman, or president, and that the only step more perilous than entrusting politicians with the power of life and death over members of our family is to give such power to the most dangerous enemies of morality and religion: federal judges. The Republican strategy, even if it had not been revealed in a GOP Senate memo as a cynical ploy, is subversive of the constitutional order of the United States and of what moral order is left in our society.

That much, a well-intentioned pagan might have said, but, for Christians, there is another dimension to this question. Liberal nonbelievers, who believe that “this is all there is,” may be pardoned for their hysterical attachment to physical life. This makes the non-Christian willingness to practice abortion and euthanasia all the more terrifying in its implications. For them, other people’s lives are mere commodities to be used when they are convenient, discarded when they are not.

Christians know better. They know, not only that life is a precious gift, but also that it is not all there is. There was a time when believers gratefully accepted even martyrdom because it was a chance to live and die for their faith. Life can and ought to be beautiful, and we who believe that God looked at His creation and saw that it was good cannot contemn the joy and beauty of everyday life. But we also know that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. We are sojourners here, like the Hebrews in the land of Egypt. Our home is elsewhere.

Mrs. Schiavo’s parents have the right and duty to do what they can for their daughter, but the rest of us—and, by the rest of us, I include Bill Frist, Tom Delay, George Bush, and the Vatican spokesmen who so cavalierly intrude themselves into legal and constitutional matters they do not understand—have no business. Playing politics with a dying woman, even if it advances the pro-life cause or expands the electoral base of the Republican Party, is contemptible.

The basic moral problem lies with Mr. Schiavo himself, and with a society that turns a blind eye to his adultery or bigamy. He has effectively repudiated his first wife, and, if Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature wished to do anything productive, they would stiffen laws protecting marriage and strip people like Mr. Schiavo of their power to act on behalf of their wives. It is not judges who need more power, but families.

I do not propose to legislate for the people of Florida, but there are any number of useful measures that might be passed in response to this agonizing case. Apart from stripping adulterers of spousal rights, they could specify a line of authority passing from parents to siblings to aunts and uncles, and so on, with a final provision for a family council to be made up of a group of the nearest living relatives who can be found. Admittedly, a handful of cousins may not take their responsibility very seriously, but even a long-lost cousin is more closely attached to me than any judge or politician.

Every decent American must feel sympathy for poor Mrs. Schiavo and her parents, but thousands of people die every day, and 50 years from now—a mere twinkling of a star—all of us will be dead: the Schiavos, the Schindlers, even the Bushes. If Mr. Schiavo is, in fact, murdering his wife, he will hardly be the first husband to get away with such a crime on one or another technicality. In 2003, 599 people were murdered in Chicago alone. Although the homicide rates have taken a drop in recent years, the United States leads the way in the developed world. We can take comfort that South Africa, Russia, and the Baltic republics are even more homicidal. Nonetheless, judges and parole boards continue to put dangerous felons and psychotics back on the streets. I wish that the Vatican spokesmen who want to change the laws of these United States from the safe distance of Italy (a country with one-fifth the per capita homicides as the United States), would express as much concern about a criminal justice system that, for a variety of reasons—liberal theories of penology, minority sensitivities, political corruption—refuses to protect American citizens from murder. Yet it is to these judges—the class with the most blood on its hands—that we are expected to turn for protection. Every preventable murder is a travesty of justice, and every intentional murder that goes unpunished—i.e., does not end with the execution of the murderer—is a sin crying out for vengeance.

Christians are right to be disturbed by the culture of death that has made abortion and euthanasia not only acceptable but legal and is well on the way to legitimating that form of homicide that goes by the name “assisted suicide.” But Christians should also bear in mind that we are not called upon to keep our mortal bodies running for as long as possible—indeed, the saints were always somewhat careless in this regard. We need to lead moral lives, accepting our responsibilities, both those we have inherited and those we have undertaken willingly, in the knowledge that we are preparing for another, better life. Mrs. Schiavo, in her current condition, cannot get on with this, the most important business of life. Her parents and friends who have told us she was a good Christian woman can be confident that she is passing on to a better life. If we do not believe this, then what do we believe? ~Thomas Fleming

I am very grateful that Dr. Fleming has taken the time to provide this very thoughtful and serious reflection on this suddenly very public controversy. There is not too much that I can add to his sober reflection on the matter, but I will second his observation that the travails of this poor woman are not our business. Neither is her case properly the business of the state or federal government.

I would like to add a few observations about the political response to this poor woman’s case. It is inconceivable that the very advocates of this week’s federal meddling would tolerate it were similarly intrusive actions were taken by a Democratic Congress and President for one of their new adopted causes. It ought to be beyond the pale for every conservative that their representatives would engage in such blatantly unconstitutional and arbitrary lawmaking–the very sort they decry and attribute to ideological activism when done by others–and it is simply absurd that the proponents of the butchery in Iraq can speak of the sanctity of life with any seriousness at all. What we have seen over the past week is a sort of “bleeding-heart conservatism” that is neither truly charitable or conservative: it is the sentimental demagoguery of a democratic politics in which rational appeals, discourse and standards of law are increasingly irrelevant in comparison to the emotional appeal to the crowd.
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The Doxa [illusion] is the source of disorder; renunciation of Doxa is the condition of right order, Eunomia. When man overcomes the obsession of his Doxa and fits his action into the unseen measure of the gods, then life in community will become possible. This is the Solonic discovery. At the core of Eunomia, as its animating experience, we find the religiousness of a life in tension between the passionate, human desire for the goods of exuberant existence and the measure imposed on such desire by the ultimately inscrutable will of the gods…He passionately loves the magnificence and exuberance of life; but he experiences it as a gift of the gods, not as an aim to be realized by crooked means against the divine order. Through openness toward transcendence, the passion of life is revealed as the Doxa that must be curbed for the sake of order. ~Eric Voegelin, The World of the Polis

Shortly after this passage in World of the Polis describing Solon’s idea of Eunomia, Prof. Voegelin perceived Solon’s conception of the polis in Plato’s Republic, where the order of the polis “embodies the Eunomia of the soul.” As Voegelin sees the development of the idea of order in Athenian history, the union and balance between passion and order, Doxa and Eunomia, that Solon had conceived “dissociated into the passions of the demos and the order that lives through the work of Plato.” (p. 199)

I would venture to add that Prof. Voegelin perceived in this dissociation of passion and order the failure of Athens, which is its preference for the Doxa and so its basic departure from the eternal order, the perception of which fundamentally distinguished a people from those who viewed the world in predominantly temporal terms.
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Now, one of Tyrtaeus’ elegies, later called “Eunomia” and perhaps mentioning this term (1-4W), included a summary of the Rhetra, which thus was identified with the ideal of eunomia and presented as a solution to the crisis described in the same poem. Solon’s famous programmatic elegy that perhaps bore the same title (4W), similarly addresses the need to overcome crisis and civil strife and concludes with striking lines of praise of eunomia. Author authors emphasize the same ideal: Hesiod introduces Eunomia as daughter of Zeus and Themis and sister of Dike and Eirene (Theog. 901-3); Alcman praises her as sister of Persuasion (Peitho) and daughter of Foresight (Promathea, 64P). Spartan tradition maintained that an early state of stasis and disorder (kakonomia) had been transformed into one of eunomia that secured lasting stability (Hdt. 1.65-6; Thuc. 1.18). The ideal of eunomia thus stands not only for a good social order, but for the political resolution of crisis and stasis and for the integration of the polis; it represents the aim of the archaic lawgivers and encapsulates the main concern of early Greek political thinking. ~Kurt A. Raaflaub

These things my spirit bids me
teach the men of Athens:
that Dysnomia
brings countless evils for the city,
but Eunomia brings order
and makes everything proper,
by enfolding the unjust in fetters,
smoothing those things that are rough,
stopping greed,
sentencing hybris to obscurity,
making the flowers of mischief to whither,

and straightening crooked judgments.
It calms the deeds of arrogance
and stops the bilious anger of harsh strife.
Under its control, all things are proper
and prudence reigns human affairs. ~ Solon

George Grant was a professor of philosophy (mostly at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario) who had a wide audience through his public lectures and contributions to mass circulation magazines. He disliked the narrow analytic approach of his discipline and ignored fashionable trends in favor of the grand picture. Grant was a Christian, a deep thinker, even something of a mystic, and a commentator with insight into developments not only in Canada but in the entire Western world.

One reason for his lack of recognition in the United States could be his reputation as an anti-American. He was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam war, and he put this in a larger context of a critique of American imperialism. In this respect he provided useful ammunition for Canadian leftists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Grant shared the suspicions that many American conservatives have about the tyranny of big government, but he also extended this suspicion to technology itself (as the French sociologist, and Christian, Jacques Ellul did). And he applied his suspicion of social control by powerful corporate interests, and of the economic mentality in general, to moral problems in a bracing fashion:

If tyranny is to come in North America, it will come cozily and on cat’s feet. It will come with the denial of the rights of the unborn and of the aged, the denial of the rights of the mentally retarded, the insane, and the economically less-privileged. In fact, it will come with the denial of rights to all those who cannot defend themselves. It will come in the name of the cost-benefit analysis of human life.~ Excerpts from Daniel Westberg review of George Grant: A Biography (please excuse the First Things reference)

Having just finished reading both the outstanding Lament for a Nation and English-Speaking Justice, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of George Grant until just a few weeks ago. Now that I have discovered his writings, I am astonished that American conservative writers have not tried to adopt his ideas more readily and more often. It would be a pity if Grant’s critiques of American imperialism (an imperialism that he derided not because it was American so much as because it was modern and universalistic to the detriment of his own country) prevented ‘conservative’ Americans from deeply appreciating and developing his ideas, especially now that more and more ‘conservatives’ (Grant denied that there were any American conservatives of any kind) have begun to appreciate just how corrosive to their own institutions and traditions “the empire” has always been.

Few, if any, modern conservative writers from any country manage to combine serious engagement with modern philosophy, an anti-modern and genuinely conservative impulse and a distrust of all consolidated power both public and private in such an eminently sober and inspiring way. He also has presented us with an unavoidable set of difficult truths: a technological society cannot really be conservative, decentralisation in an age of corporations will only lead to an unaccountable corporate oligarchy, and most people in other countries are not motivated by anti-Americanism but by the reality that they are not, and never can be, Americans (not anti-Americanism, as Grant said of Diefenbaker, but a lack of Americanism).
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Unlike Augustine, however, Aquinas lived within a recognizably Christian social order and, for that reason, approached the question of citizenship from a different angle. Whereas Augustine spoke of the theological foundations of citizenship, Aquinas, following Aristotle, thought of citizenship as a natural aspect of human life. Aquinas considered politics to be inescapable because, like Aristotle, he believed human beings were by nature social and political animals.

While human beings are the most socially and politically inclined of all animals, they are also the most physically needy, which helps to explain the human propensity to live in society. The household or family is the first natural society to which persons belong. Yet the good of the family is only partial, since its principal aim is to procure the necessary goods for survival. But even the family, which is ruled by economics or the art of household management, is incapable of providing for its every need. Aquinas thought the political community completed the family unit, because as the greater community it incorporates and subsumes all lesser communities to its own end.

Because human beings are rational animals, it is not sufficient merely that they live, but that they live well. Indeed, Aquinas contends that our natural disposition inclines us both “to know the truth and to live in society.” Following Aristotle, Aquinas believed that natural human flourishing could occur only within the political community, “the most perfect of all human societies.” Unlike the household, the political community attains a degree of self-sufficiency. While the end of the family is the promotion of life, the end of the political community is the cultivation of human virtue. This elevated good is “common” to all citizens. Aquinas bases his notion of citizenship on the type of virtue that develops either from “ruling and being ruled in turn.” The good habits instilled in those who live under well-ordered and just laws, which are significant, given Christianity’s transpolitical claim, represent authentic human goods. As a result, Aquinas views the common good as constitutive of the citizen’s “proper” versus private good. To be sure, Aquinas held that the natural perfection of citizenship was inferior to the supernatural perfection of God’s grace. Yet insofar as grace does not destroy but perfects nature, human spiritual perfection does not negate the legitimate, natural perfection of political life. Accordingly, for Aquinas, only the man who is “depraved, a beast as it were … or the man who is better than a man, a god as it were,” is capable of living outside of civil society.~ Marc D. Guerra, review of The American Myth of Religious Freedom

This is a helpful and, I think, fair summary of the Thomist view of politics. The incorporation of lesser, or more local, communities in all their integrity is a vitally important point, and it makes all the difference in distinguishing what I might call a traditionalist conception of the state from its rival, the total state.

This ‘traditionalist’ view emphasises the need for larger political organisms to be developed ‘from the ground up’ and would seem to militate against forms of consolidation and centralism imposing one scheme on a variety of communities. It is the difference between what one might call a conservative “socialism” in corporatism, Distributism or solidarism and the uniforming, levelling and desolating revolutionary socialism, which is to say all the difference in the world.

Perhaps if we think of larger political organisms as ascending steps in a political hierarchy, in which, as in a spiritual hierarchy, lesser orders are raised to perfection (in the sense that lesser orders are able to attain their proper end or completion, telos), the idea of prior obligations to polity and state might seem less onerous. Obviously, the existing state is nothing like this ideal, but perhaps this ideal will make the basic principle of such an obligation easier to accept.

But the general approach of the paleos is burdened by one major negative trait and several bad habits. The first is their fear of and antipathy to clear political principles, to the very concept of politically relevant, universal objective truth. What is – or, rather, should conservatism be all about? About conserving the truth – true notions of justice, morality, civility and freedom. But for any notion to be true, it must necessarily be universal, absolute, and binding on all people at all places in all times. The Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – is true, and therefore relevant for all people in all nations in all eras. “Thou shall not kill!” – it does not mean “thou shall not kill, except Negroes”, it does not mean “thou shall not kill in the 19th Century, but you may in the 20th,”it does not mean “thou shall not kill in Alabama, but you may in Oklahoma.” It simply means you shall not deliberately kill any innocent human being, period. Paleocons seem not to understand that – they consider universal norms of justice to be a product of Enlightenment Liberalism – as if Moses, and the God, at Mt. Sinai, were Enlightenment Liberals. Paleocons would profit very much by re-reading their favorite, but neglected, Richard Weaver, and his defense of philosophic realism against relativist, historicist and particularist nominalism.

Mr. Francis is outraged that Mr. Devine criticized him (absolutely correctly, in my reading of Francis’ earlier column) for denouncing “fusionist conservatism for its preoccupation with its ‘pet abstractions’ of liberty, national security and the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Well, that is the point we have already raised: the paleoconservative allergy to any abstract, universal concepts or ideas.~ Roman Joch, March 10, 2004

At the risk of dredging up a tired, old argument between “fusionists” and paleoconservatives, I was inspired to return to this rather disingenuous reply of Mr. Joch after reading one of the reviews mentioned by name in the article, Richard Weaver’s “Anatomy of Freedom,” where he reviewed Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom for the old, more respectable National Review. The heart of the trouble with Mr. Meyer’s ideas will have to wait for another post, but my observations on this article deserve separate consideration.
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