(1) Discrimination should be on the basis of culture and not race.
(2) No one has developed culture to a high degree by focusing on race.
(3) No one has developed culture to a high degree by neglecting his heritage, which is partially racial.
(4) The cultured man stands as a free man, subject to none.
(5) The cultured man knows that not all men are cultured yet believes that they may still be a part of his commonweal. Thus, even if he discriminates against them he does not reject them.
(6) The cultured man knows that race mixing is only possible when both races have something to offer, thus opposes it all other cases.
(7) Races frequently come into conflict with each other. The man of culture avoids these conflicts as best as he can, as rarely does any race represent a spiritual principle.
(8) A race may be utilized for a higher purpose external to the race. Even in this case, the cultured person should serve the principle not the race and be sure to distinguish the two.
(9) Races sometimes wage defensive struggles for survival. That which is valuable from the race should survive. This is, however, on the level of culture. It is possible that the culture will survive while the race dies. Be sure to separate one from the other. Mourn with those who mourn; ease the pain of the dying.
(10) Culture may run in the blood. Thus, there may be nobility which rises above a race even while it belongs to a race. This follows the same principle as culture in other forms.
(11) Inherited nobility can be squandered. Those born ignoble can rise though service.
(12) Nobility presents itself in the disparagement it feels toward material objects. Most notably, it does not care about wealth or life. The noble man has no fear of death and boldly serves his Lord.
(13) Character is the development of culture such that it serves as an inextinguishable facet of the individual. It is often displayed in the physiognomy, particularly in noble people.
(14) Ignoble people pursue love in the form of sex. Love pursues the noble in the form separated from the body, which it recognizes only as a vehicle.
(15) The ignoble only serve what they can see and hear and in view of material punishment or reward. The noble serve the hidden Lord of all.
(16) The ignoble are disparaged in times of dissolution. The noble have an inner joy hidden from the sight of the many.
(17) The noble man follows the way in his every step, never shying from battle, never rushing towards it.
(18) The noble man loves his body and thus he makes it his slave, beating it until it is ready for willing service.
(19) The noble are able to recognize the good in every man, even his enemy. The ignoble live on dogma and hate the other.
(20) God has been known in many forms to many peoples. Who would reject the form presented to his people while embracing another?
Following on from the last post, traditional and humanist China was fixated on family values, to a level which most of us would find oppressive. The West no longer is, it seems.
My wife and I married in our late twenties. Even as sexual mores were changing (and the birth rates falling) in the 70s, it was still what one did. If people marry at all here now it is after a period of cohabitation, usually if children are on the way – but many don’t bother. Except for (many) Muslims and Hindus, where the girls are paired off to their cousins to breed.
We bought a little house, and after only a few years had children, I went to work as the “breadwinner” while wife stayed at home and looked after the children, a social circle of women’s groups and babysitting circles still in existence. It was free choice made by both of us. Neither of us are native to the area, and neither of us are religious. We are still together, after over 30 years of marriage (and yes, there have been some rough passages). This is not exceptional among the friends and relatives of my generation.
This now seems unbelievably archaic. For a start, to be able to buy a house largely on one modest income (albeit a middle class one) is not just not conceivable, except in those parts of the country where there are no decent jobs. Both sides in relationships have to work away, and if kids arrive at all, they have to be juggled with work. As a result social networks revolve around work.
The average length of a British marriage is now 12 years, it seems, and as for cohabiting couples, we don’t know. My instincts are that this is a social disaster (how often do we hear that absent fathers are the root cause of violent young men?) Taking the two main measures of social dysfunction as crime rates and inadequate birth rates (well below replacement) the facts are all over the place, however:
I don’t know what to make of all this. I certainly don’t think it has much to do with religion – already largely secular Europe stuck to traditional families till the 70s, and socialist Prime Minister Clement Attlee exhorting the “women of England to go back to their families” at the end of the war is from another age: they did too, and produced an unexpected baby boom. Christianity’s hang up about sex led to ambivalence about families in the early Church, and formal marriage remained secular until the late middle ages – and then mainly among the aristocracy and bourgeois, where property was involved, the only sectors of western society that ever gone in for arranged marriage.
It is certainly a massive uncontrolled social experiment, whose results are uncertain (like chucking all that carbon into the atmosphere). It needs reasoned debate and research, but that seems hard, with entrenched positions from the fornication-is-a-sin school on the one hand and from radical feminists on the other. Divorce or separation may be better than being stuck in an unhappy Victorian marriage, but commitment means something too, and sticking through the bad times of a relationship – and a stable relationship is one of the best indicators of long term personal happiness, and having children of personal fulfilment.
Societies which focus a lot on families have either weak states, or distant autocratic ones, like ancient China – and without the complex layers of social institutions which the West has. Perhaps weak families are then necessary so as not to make society too oppressive.
Not so long ago the intellectual consensus (for what it was worth) was that religion was doomed as societies modernised. That evidently seems to be untrue in some cases, not least the USA and now India. Now the reverse trope emanates from the religious right: that secular societies are doomed to extinction . I mean, just look at their birth rates as, with no eternal life to hope for, the élan vital somehow slips away.
The birth rate thing is complicated. The US does indeed manage to breed to replacement, more so in red states than blue, and the least fertile US state (Vermont) has a similar birth rate to the most fertile Canadian province (Alberta), while a great swathe of largely secular Eurasia, from Japan to Spain, sinks to lowest low fertility rates of below 1.4 children per woman, compared to a 2.1 replacement rate. Yet aggressively secular France matches the US (and not just its Muslims, who attend the mosque as little as nominal Catholics attend church anyway). Equally secular Scandinavia and the UK are not far behind.
There is evidence that the religious are marginally happier on average than the non-religious, other things being equal . They are not equal however; surveys indicate that most of the happiest countries are secular. There are various different measures, but small secular European countries all seem to rank top. Prosperity helps, but only up to a point – strong community and a fairly high level of equality seem more important (the US scores badly on the last). However, happiness isn’t everything, to say the least, it’s Brave New World enough as it is (without the hatcheries)
The other argument is that there is no precedent for a sustainable secular society. Er, no – the longest surviving continuous civilisation, China, was humanist throughout its history: there was a vague deity (Tien) but as distant as 18C deism. Even the most developed local “religious” form, Chan (Zen) makes no mention of God, and Daoism is equally vague.
This is not the first time that Confucian China has been compared with the modern West. With China in the process of headlong Westernisation, it seems that most of the cultural traffic between west and east has been one way. In a key phase of developing western modernity it was very much the other way, however . It is 1648. In Europe, the most devastating war to date in the continent has laid waste to Germany, and in the process religious fervour had drowned in blood. Yet the shattered continent is about to embark on its brilliant ascent to the modern world , or to descend into atheism, depending on your point of view: the Enlightenment.
Historical analogies or models quoted by contemporaries, as ever in the West, leaned to Greece and Rome. But for the first time there was another empire that was idealised and misunderstood – the one at the other end of Eurasia, whose history shows an eerie parallel development, given that there was so little contact with Europe (even as to timing – Socrates and Confucius seem to have been contemporaries).
It coincided with the first real substantial knowledge and indeed trade with China in history. The later 19 and 20 century image of China as backward benighted heathen was certainly not the 18th century one, which as it happened reached the peak of traditional society – its Antonine age – with the three Qing emperors from Kang Xi to Qian Long, before the 19C collapse. French philosophes were particularly impressed with a model of how a humanist society could function; the English were less impressed by the despotism, but still incorporated Chinoiserie, willow pattern, and naturalistic landscapes into refined culture.
Historical analogies are dangerous and speak to the obsessions of the time – the benevolent Celestial empire in the minds of such as Voltaire and Diderot bore little relation to reality. Still, creativity usually proceeds by metaphor, and there are once again some interesting parallels emerging. I draw my examples largely from Europe, that steadfast redoubt of secularism, where immigrants apart, there is no real sign of religious revival, indeed the last bastions such as Ireland and Poland are crumbling.
The ethical state. Traditionally, in the West, ethics were a matter for a separate institution – the Church – although it did of course try to direct the behaviour of the state. This eroded with state churches in the Protestant north, but then in America the religious refusenik culture of the Puritans overcame an Anglicanism which lost status after the war of independence (although curiously surviving as an upper class faith, but eroding there to into secularism) : church(es) and state separated again. Islam was always much that way, although with a more rigid doctrine of how the state should be run and daily lives conducted.
Now in Europe (America remains a battleground) the state is responsible for ethics and care as well as government, and separation has gone. So it was in China. The modern ethical state has its separate priesthood – in the universities, social workers and the medical profession – but ultimately these are all responsible or employed by the state. I am not suggesting of course that the ethics are the same as Confucian ones – collective as opposed to individual responsibility, and unthinking deference to elders are not the modern way. There is though a liberal consensus, a mix derived from Christianity and the western Enlightenment, which has spread across the world as part of the modern package. Ironically “universal human values” is latter day Chinese coded language for resistance to the autocracy of the state, but it carries no religious overtones.
Eclectic therapeutic cults. Life can be unfair and hard to bear, even in the cosseted world of the modern social democratic state – and then we all die anyway, without even the promise of eternal life. Ethics alone are not powerful enough for many: the Chinese peasant believed in a host of gods and spirits, and after the time of troubles following the collapse of the Han empire in the third century AD, Buddhism spread like wildfire. At the popular level this wasn’t the austere praxis of the sutras and meditating monks, but a colourful world of Buddhas and boddhisatvas past, present and future, treated as gods, and also replete with demons and evil spirits.
Confucian gentlemen did not do this stuff, however – it was vulgar and lower class. It might be permissible to indulge in the severely practical and this worldly practices of Chan Buddhism, or more in keeping with Chinese traditions to retreat to write Daoist poetry. The point is that all this stuff was what Philip Rieff called therapeutic religion: it is not focussed on the after life (as all good Christians and Muslims should be, in theory) but on how to cope with this one.
So it comes round again. It is untrue to label Europe, for example, as atheist: most people have a vague sense of “there is probably something there” akin to Tien: it is just that it has little connection with their daily lives, and they are dubious whether Jesus is their saviour. A whole slew of therapeutic cults arise again to fill this vacuum, in descending order of austerity and respectability from psychotherapy and Western Buddhism to mushy New Age stuff. Christianity is acceptable, but as just one of a number of choices for a therapeutic cult – and if Islam is ever domesticated, it will be by reducing it to the same level (with Sufism as a starting base).
A recurring base of Chinese cults was reverence for nature, now re-emerging as ecology and green politics. The desert cults of the Middle East had little time for these, seen as the Pagan enemy, and this still bedevils transatlantic politics on carbon emissions today, with religious attitudes entrenched on both sides.
This worldly, practical, rational, but in different ways. Traditional China was good at technology, and indeed by Song dynasty times in the 11th century got very close to an industrial revolution. It never got science, however. Every advanced civilisation has had art and literature, and usually performed more impressively than the West at the spiritual side. Despite some Indian and Islamic contributions, however, the glory of science is almost wholly Western.
The two roots of religion, I would maintain, are mystical experience and magic. The latter should have been eroded by science, which is why thoroughly modern men find it hard or impossible to believe the dogmas of the traditional faiths; the alternative, which the rise of various fundamentalisms exhibits, is to deny the bases of science altogether. China managed to blend the yang of practical statecraft and technology, with the yin of therapeutic mysticism.
There are numerous ways, however, where Confucian China and the modern secular West do differ. Confucian China was one of the longest lived civilisations in history, so it got something right about sustainable values, which arguably elude the modern global civilisation. This will be the theme of subsequent posts.
Plato’s VIIth Letter, on Beauty
“There is no writing of mine on this subject nor ever shall be. It is not capable of expression like other branches of study; but as the result of long intercourse and a common life spent upon the thing, a light is suddenly kindled as from a leaping spark, and when it has reached the Soul, it thenceforward finds nourishment for itself.”
Plotinus, on the un-primacy of Evil
“Evil is not alone, by virtue of the nature of the good, and of the power of Good, it is not Evil only. It appears necessarily, bound around in bonds of Beauty like some captive bound in fetters of gold. And beneath these, it is hidden, so that, while it must exist, it may not be seen by the gods, and that men need not always have evil before their eyes, but that when it comes before them they may still not be destitute of images of the Good and Beautiful for their remembrance.”
George Parkin Grant is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost thinkers that Canada produced in the last century. His Lament for a Nation burst on Vietnam-era Canada like a thunderbolt, and the reading public had strong reactions, one way or the other. He relentlessly criticized the developing American world-hegemony, characterizing it as “orgasm at home, and napalm abroad”. His diagnosis, which delighted many Leftists, nevertheless came from a “conservative and Christian perspective”, along with the old dominion Britishness which he saw going the way of the dodo-bird in the face of Canada’s desire to “Americanize”:
It appeared to him then, however, that Canada was making the same deal with three witches on the heath that America had. Like Richard Weaver, the godfather of the paleo-conservatives in America, Grant fingered the medieval debates over realism, and the forms of Western Christianity itself, as the fateful crossroads of a troubled modern world. But unlike Weaver, he did not leave these assertions general.
Grant never contented himself with a surface analysis. Although he would argue that these problems are “merely theoretical” for real Christians (whose hearts are in union with God), he asserted that a kind of civic and public darkness was culminating in the West, with America as its primary practitioner and disseminator.
“Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow…”
This darkness was public because no primary Good could be agreed upon, or even allowed to exist, in a universe which was totally objectified as an Object for the exercise of Technology and Will. The primary driving force behind Relativism was absolutely not tolerance (except as a pap for the “people”), but the belief that man, as part of Nature, was any longer anything but Object. Although Grant also argued that America and Canada had long been insulated from the intellectual effects of a darkness already given, and shielded by the very anti-intellectualism which had given it birth, he increasingly believed that the logical effects would make themselves known in the context of a global world, in which a universal, homogeneous world-state would effectively be a perfect tyranny.
Grant set to work tracing and clarifying the roots of the darkness. In his later works, he never preached or delivered invective, as he had done in Lament for a Nation. Deferring such work to his acknowledged saint and intellectual mistress, Simone Weil, a thinker and “saint” (who had also argued that mankind was essentially organic and required the kind of favorable environment which a plant did in order to begin the process of apprehending the Good), Grant instead set himself to unravel the mystery behind Modernity. Like Weil, and perhaps like Strauss (his other mentor), he believed that Christianity required a form of Platonism in order to stabilize itself culturally and publicly. In fact, public Christianity itself, as it had developed in the West, was actually part of the problem.
What follows is a series of extensive quotes which show the way Grant’s mind unraveled the mystery of the Zeitgeist’s operations. First of all, Western Christianity had interrupted the Platonism native to the West, cutting across ancient traditions:
“We must think through how the western interpretation of the Bible was responsible not only for the greatness of modernity, but for what was frightening in it. This kind of questioning cannot be faced by a Christianity that envisages reason as simply a human instrument, and therefore cuts itself off from philosophy. To understand technology requires that we try to understand what is the true relation between love and reason. Did Western Christianity go wrong in its understanding of that relation? The temptation is always to try to understand technology from within technology.” (Conv: Phil, 147)
This had transpired thanks to the English empirical tradition, operating on the central European one:
“But during the 17thc. Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke had achieved the terrible task of making Machiavelli widely respectable, and the new secular and moral science is particularly welcomed by the Protestants” (Tech&Emp).
It worked because it worked, because it was power. Quebec was as helpless against it as the Dominion states:
“Marxism is an advanced product of the West that appealed to French revolutionary ideas, British industry, and German philosophy. Many people in North America no longer appeal to any ideology beyond our own affluence…this position is wrapped up in Darwinian packaging… “(Tech&Emp,74).
And it also worked because of its own shallowness and incompleteness:
“Until very recently, the very absence of a contemplative tradition spared us the full weight of the nihilism which in Europe flowered with industrial society…it was possible to move deeply into a technological society, while retaining our optimism and innocence…(Tech&Emp,37).
The European dilemma would eventually reach us, but without Nietzsche’s jouissance:
“Nietzsche’s equivocation about the relation of the highest will to power and the will to technology has never been part of the English-speaking tradition….our liberal horizons fade in the winter of nihilism, and the dominating among us see themselves with no horizon except their creating of the world, while the pure will to technology (whether public or private) more and more gives sole content to that creating. In the official intellectual community this process has become known as the “end of ideology” .The very substance of our existing which has made us leaders in technique stands as a barrier to any thinking which might be able to comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism” (Tech&Emp).
Nietzsche’s side-step would be unavailable to us, as we had learned Nietzsche from Weber. Grant endorsed Ernst Troeltsch’s definition of Calvinism as the key attitude/concept in driving the new hyper-Protestant anti-ethos which culminates around us in control/subjection of Nature, a Calvinism that was unaware of the complexity of the fire it played with. Because we are operating so fully in this mode, are more and more present in it, we are included in it. In fact, we couldn’t even ask the same questions Plato asked, because we could understand neither him nor ourselves. Oblivion of eternity was our self-definition:
“The very procedure of research means that the past is represented as object. But anything, in so far as it is an object, only has the meaning of an object for us. That is why it is quite accurate to use the metaphor of the mausoleum about our humanities research. Moreover, when we represent something to ourselves as object, we stand above it as subject – the transcending summoners. We therefore guarantee that the meaning of what is discovered in such research is under us, and therefore in a very real way dead for us in the sense that its meaning cannot teach us anything greater than ourselves.” (Role Conflict in the Humanities, p. 3, quoted in Conv, p.134)
Whatever else this New Man Ethos was, Grant admitted, it was not “flaccid”, but it had effectively eviscerated any possibility of judging or even thinking outside its own box, destroying the old liberal hope of speaking “Truth to Power”. What was more astonishing was the irony of a Christian West (and Christian elements in the West) devouring its own innards:
“Why is it, in the ancient world, that the materialists were the private, apolitical thinkers, while the Platonists were interested in the public realm, whereas in the modern world the nationalists are so directed?” (Conversation: Philosophy, 145).
Grant believed that this diagnosis was not “pessimistic” at all, a word that entered the vocabulary with Leibniz, who had contributed to the problem. Indeed, “the Good can take care of itself”. Affirming the Socratic Real, as opposed to the Nietzschean Dionysian ethos of tragedy, he was arguing that there was “something with tears, but something beyond tears”, a something that would make itself known, if in no other way, by intimations of deprivation of that self-same Good. Like Denis de Rougemont, in whose classic Love in the Western World we also find that same affirmation of something Good which exists beyond tragedy, Grant would have understood Dido’s line from Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas – “Remember me, forget my Fate”. What was final was the Good, rationally apprehended. Tragedy and analysis gave way before it. Grant believed that this was what the Gospels had heightened.
This Good taught us, and at one time had done so publicly and culturally, that whatever else is true, it is not true that there are “human beings to whom nothing is due.” It may have endorsed slavery and practiced a thousand infamies, but it never affirmed that some human beings are outside of the pale of the Good. This Good was what “man was due as man”, in addition to being a vehicle of transcendence. It affirmed a microcosm, a mesocosm, and a macrocosm, and none of it based (primarily) upon any Objectifying of either Nature or Mankind as plastic to be worked by Technology, or a vacuum in which to exercise the will to technological (or any other kind of) power. Behind the conception of knowledge in the West, the most important fact of any society (for Grant), lies an affirmation of the will in a particular way which makes possible the historicism of Nietzsche and the abandonment of the Greeks for a final, total time (Conv: Phil, 142). Heidegger had given the clearest exposition of this anti-Greek fracture in his book on Leibniz, Der Satz von Grund. What was lost was not merely Plato’s teaching and emphasis on Bodies, but also the “absurd mystery of evil” in the context of a greater Light. Calvinist eschatology, positivistic Protestantism, & Hegelianism tended to confluesce.
“It has always seemed to me that Hegel makes God’s Providence scrutable, in a way we can understand…it was Leo Strauss who taught me to think this through” (Conv: Int.Background, 64).
“What we do to our own bodies and to other people’s bodies, is our partaking in justice here and now. We can’t learn anything about justice apart from bodies” (Conv:Theo&Hist, 104).
The particular is the nursemaid to the universal; without the particular, we cannot actually ascend to love the universal. Whether this is true to Plato or not, it was certainly Grant’s underlying creed. Also, Strauss taught him that in Christianity, revelation is received as being (a person), and not as Law, which explains Grant’s admiration of Simone Weil – “She has shown me how sanctity and philosophy can be at one” (ibid., 65). It is important to note that, apparently for Grant, although evil cannot be rationally apprehended, Love can. Or, rather, that Love is orderly, as well as sublime. Love lifts man up to participation in something higher, and it can be thought about and discussed, even in terms of history and culture. It begins with bodies and with segregate souls, passes through peoples and cultures (as vehicles), and it ends in the transcendent Good.
Saying that “science and technology are universal” really only means “let’s hire more people from Harvard and Cal Tech” (ibid., 105). Plato, by contrast, “proclaims the dependence of intelligence upon love in a much clearer way than Aristotle” (ibid., 107), a love which is awakened from local associations only, not abstractions. To talk of loving others (first) more than family is to talk “as if people do not have bodies” (ibid., 103). In philosophical jargon, it may be logically prior, but can never be so in Life.
Being an Ubermensch (freed from Chance, Nature, and Body), in this sense, involves creating one’s self-hood out of one’s self, like a spider. An older tradition sought to educate souls with the recognition that, in the words TS Eliot’s closing lines in Little Gidding – “the tongues of the dead are flamed beyond any of those of the living”. In speaking with them, one could not use power to deconstruct – one is challenged, responds, and is changed. This is what it means to truly understand. Obedience and Love are connected to Reason. One enters into a chorus of angels, if one can slip into heaven. Dare one say, you have to crawl through the eye of the needle? This noetic view of Truth as identical with the Good absolutely excludes the power-relationships and objectification which must, in the final sense, arbitrate all of modern knowledge, both as inner leaven, outer limit, and in a meta-form. The fact/value distinction is a symptom of this inner lie: in separating ’value‘ from ’fact‘, we ensure that our ’values‘ will be included in the account of fact which we dictate. Modern knowledge centers on what can be known, which is to mean, what we can demonstrate our control over. It will coalesce in terrible monisms centered upon the rewards of power or the rage of despair. Technique and technology alternately inform and dominate each other and the world. Modern man, at last, would also imitate as he understands, despite his boast.
Our era had chosen to forget all limits, manifesting itself in a war on Tradition for its own sake:
“In this era, when the homogenizing power of technology is almost unlimited, I do regret the disappearance of indigenous traditions, including my own. It is true that no particularism can adequately incarnate the good. But is it not also true that only through some particular roots, however partial, can human beings first grasp what is good and that it is the juice of such roots which for most men sustain their partaking in a more universal good? Or, can the achievements of the age of progress be placed at the services of a human freedom which finds itself completed and not denied by a spiritual order?” (Conv:Phil)
This, of course, for Grant was related to the way we were treating our bodies, objectifying them to enlist them in a war on Nature, a war that would inevitably be carried home against the body itself (and all bodily associations, such as families, kin, nations, etc.). The Hegelians had relegated Evil to the lack of total historical knowledge (on the one hand) and thought to explain it in our own day by the lack of Progress.
“For the Hegelian, political philosophy does not stand or fall for its ability to transcend history, but its ability to comprehend it…only in the radical negation of theism is it possible to assert that mankind is making progress…eternity is the sum of the historical epochs, merely…” (T&E, Tyranny and Wisdom, 90-91).
For Grant, this was a total misunderstanding of the mystery inherent in evil and human nature, most likely caused by the abandonment in the first place of the only Light which could burn in the presence of radical evil and banish it.
Given the destruction of the Past in the engines of Modernity, to what else can we appeal but a “dead” past? Resources on the ground were scarce, and the Future did not exist yet. There are few living reminders of how our ancestors captured a public Good (with all of its faults, warts and all). The situation was dire and complicated, for “How can man not be destroyed should he continue in this,” asked Grant, “and how will he not be destroyed if he tries to stop?” One is reminded of the old saying about “it is difficult to dismount a Tiger”. He even appealed to Kant against the rationalization of the will in man to nothing more than an organ or technique of raw dominance over objects:
“It is not my business here to describe the holding in unity of these two sides – timeless good and historical will – as it is laid before us through an account of the modern arts and sciences, in the edifice of Kant’s three critiques. However, in an era when the oblivion of eternity has almost become the self-definition of many of us, it is necessary to insist on the side of the timeless and universal good in Kant’s system. Indeed this side is shown with startling clarity in Kant, when despite all the causes which might lead him to propound the philosophy of history as an essential part of any true philosophical teaching, he turns back from possibility of such an enterprise because it would involve our moral choices depending on knowledge other than the timeless fact of reason itself. See The Critique of Judgement, paras 83 and 84…” (ESJ, p.98).
Kant and Rousseau had managed to reconcile the old and the new accounts, but their successors had not been so fortunate or honest. There was something which had “flamed forth in the Gospels and burned still”, for Grant, exemplified most fully in the Johannine Gospels. Grant called himself a representative of the Vedic wing of Christianity. And from this Platonistic and evangelical high ground, he went on in work after work to lay out the nature of the enemy before us, an enemy in which the issue of cybernetics (Who has the helm? who says “When”?) would increasingly become critical, especially given the movement against traditional human rights in the issue of Abortion. We were now left with a view of human nature as perfectly material, utterly arbitrary, and infinitely malleable. Duty and self/government had been destroyed as fictions, along with the Good, but paradoxically, the darkness would now compel our assent, even as it denied any value whatsoever:
“Now when from that primal has come forth what is present before us: when the victory over the land leaves most of us in metropoloi where widely spread consumption vies with confusion and squalor; when the emancipation of greed turns out from its victories on this continent to feed imperially on the resources of the world; when those resources cushion an immense majority who think they are free in pluralism, but in fact live in a monistic vulgarity in which nobility and wisdom have been exchanged for a pale belief in progress, alternating with boredom and weariness of spirit; when the disciplined among us drive to an unlimited technological future, in which technical reason has become so universal that is has closed down an openness and awe, questioning and listening; when Protestant subjectivity remains authentic only where it is least appropriate, in the moodiness of our art and sexuality, and where public religion has become an unimportant litany of objectified self-righteousness necessary for the more anal of our managers; one must remember now the hope, the stringency and nobility of that primal encounter. The land was almost indomitable.”
From In Defense of North America, Technology and Empire (24,40):
“How far will the race be able to carry the divided state which characterizes individuals in modernity: the plush patina of hectic subjectivity lived out in the iron maiden of an objectified world inhabited by increasingly objectifiable beings? When we are uncertain whether anything can mediate that division, how can we predict what men will do when the majority lives more fully in that division? Is there some force in man which will rage against such a division: rage not only against a subjectivity which creates itself, but also against our own lives being so much at the disposal of the powerful objectifications of other freedoms? Neither can we know what this unfolding potentiality tells us of the non-human: as we cannot now know to what extent the non-human can in practice be made malleable to our will, therefore we also do not know what this undetermined degree of malleability will tell us of what the non-human is. Is the non-human simply stuff at our disposal, or will it being to make its appearance to us as an order the purposes of which somehow resist our malleable-izings? Are there already signs of revolt in Nature? Despite the noblest modern thought, which teaches always the exaltation of potentiality above all that is, has anyone been able to show us conclusively throughout a comprehensive account of both the human and the non-human things, that we must discard the idea of a presence above which potentiality cannot be exalted? In such a situation of uncertainty, it would be lacking courage to turn one’s face to the wall, even if one can find no fulfillment in working for or celebrating the dynamo. Equally it would be immoderate and uncourageous and perhaps unwise to live in the midst of our present drive, merely working in it, and celebrating it, and not also listening or watching or simply waiting for intimations of deprival which might lead us to see the beautiful as the image, in the world, of the good.”
One quickly sees that in all his major works, he repeatedly and strongly affirms the centrality of the insight that it was unconstrained will, or will bereft of Reason and something beyond Reason, which has lead us to “Modern Times”. Manichean Evil was paramount, there could be no final Good or Reason. Socrates was, quite frankly, dead wrong:
“Socrates turned away from tragedy (and what was given in its truth about sexuality) in saying that what was final was not the abyss, but Good. The greatest achievement of the modern scientists and philosophers was the destruction of Greek rationalism with its ‘substances’, its ‘truth’ and its ‘good’. The greatest height for man was laid bare in Greek tragedy, in that it made plain that the basic fact of existence was our encounter with an abyss – our encounter with the finality of chaos. Classical rationalism is seen as a species of neurotic fear, a turning away from the elementary fact of the abyss by means of a shallow identification of happiness, virtue, and reason. Our study of it must be a kind of historical therapy (similar to the way Nietzsche proposes to free us of Christianity). That therapy is a means for the educated to bring themselves to an even greater height than that proclaimed in tragedy. It will be a greater height because it will now take into itself both the primacy of the abyss, and the overcoming of chance made possible through scientific technology. This will enable the great and the noble to be ‘masters of the earth’. The combination of the primacy of the abyss with technology will produce the Ubermensch – those who will deserve to be masters of the earth. Humanity has been a bridge in evolution between the beasts and those who are higher than human beings. Nietzsche may have been the great political critic of Rousseau, but he accepts his account of human origins. Reason does not open us to the eternal; its greatness has been to transcend itself in its modern manifestations, so that we are both able and deserve to be masters of the earth…
In Nietzsche’s conception of justice, there are other human beings to whom nothing is due – other than extermination….Whatever may be given in Plato’s attack on democracy in his Republic, it is certainly not that for some human be–ings nothing is due…what gives meaning in the fact of historicism is that willed potentiality is higher than any actuality…(85) Why should constitutional regimes be considered superior to their alternatives if human beings are basically ids?” (p. 88, 94, 85)
From Nietzsche and the Ancients, from Technology and Justice:
“The danger of this darkness is easily belittled by our impoverished use of the word ‘thought’. This word is generally used as if it meant an activity necessary to scientists when they come up against a difficulty in their research, or some vague unease beyond calculation when we worry about our existence. Thought is steadfast attention to the whole. The darkness is fearful because what is at stake is whether anything is good. In the technological era, the central western account of justice clarified the claim that justice is what we are fitted for. It clarified why justice is to render each human being their due, and why what was due to each human being was ‘beyond all bargains and without an alternative’. That account of justice was written down most carefully and most beautifully in The Republic of Plato. For those of us who are Christians, the substance of our belief is that the perfect living out of that justice is enfolded in the Gospels. Why the darkness which enshrouds justice is so dense – even for those of us who think that what is given in The Republic concerning good stands forth as true – is because that truth cannot be thought in unity with what is given in modern science concerning necessity and chance. The darkness is not simply the obscurity of living by that justice in the practical tumult of the technological society. Nor is it the impossibility of that account coming to terms with much of the folly of modernity, eg., the belief that there is a division between ‘facts’ and ‘values’; nor the difficulty of thinking that truth in the presence of historicism. Rather it is that this account has not been thought in unity with the greatest theoretical enterprises of the modern world. This is a great darkness, because it appears certain that rational beings cannot get out that darkness by accepting either truth and rejecting the other. It is folly simply to return to the ancient account of justice as if the discoveries of the modern science of nature had not been made. It is folly to take the ancient account of justice as purely of antiquarian interest, because without any knowledge of what we are fitted for, we will move into the future with a ‘justice’ which is terrifying in its potentialities for mad inhumanity of action…who has been able to think the two accounts together?”
From English-Speaking Justice:
“But the difference between the ancients and the moderns as to what is due to all human beings should not lead us to doubt that in the rationalist traditions, whether ancient or modern, something at least is due to all subjects, whether we define them as rational souls or rational subjects. Whatever may be given in Plato’s attack on democracy in his Republic, it is certainly not that for some human beings nothing is due. Indeed to understand Plato’s account of justice, we must remember the relation in his thought between justice and the mathematical conception of equality. In Nietzsche’s conception of justice there are other human beings to whom nothing is due – other than extermination. The human creating of quality of life beyond the little perspectives of good and evil by a building, rejecting, annihilating way of thought is the statement that politics is the technology of making the human race greater than it has yet been. In that artistic accomplishment, those of our fellows who stand in the way of that quality can be exterminated or simply enslaved. There is nothing intrinsic in all others that puts any given limit on what we may do to them in the name of that great enterprise. Human beings are so unequal in quality that to some of them no due is owed. What gives meaning in the fact of historicism is that willed potentiality is higher than any actuality…oblivion of eternity here realizes itself politically. One should not flirt with Nietzsche for the purposes of this or that area of science or scholarship, but teach him in the full recognition that his thought presages the conception of justice that more and more unveils itself in the technological West.”
Grant never proposed a “solution”, though he did wonder about the possibility of placing the goods of Progress at the service of a higher Good. Unlike Strauss, he was not reticent about his faith, nor did he deny that perhaps, in the end, charity or “compassion” for man was the supreme Good after all, with a nod to Feuerbach. But he did attempt to delineate where our accounting of ourselves had severed taproots in Tradition necessary for any human existence at all, a destruction which already manifested itself in the modern disorientation, a disorientation that crystallizes in irrational joy every time some bulwark of the idolatrous Past is brought crashing to the ground.
Grant stands as a permanent challenge to those who glibly undertake to asset that all evils exist in the world through Tradition, or lightly assume that man can effectively “will” to create his own realities without it. He was one of the few “conservatives” who carried out a deep foray into occupied territory, and his criticisms deserve to be meditated on by fellow conservatives or progressives of good will who would wish to remember that it is not Philosophy’s job to self-assure the elements of desire and naked will in man, even in a New Age. As Grant would say, Tyrants do not seize power to become warm, and the global situation had rendered man peculiarly adapted to control. For Grant had watched Strauss give masterful answers to the subtle Kojeve’s articulation of a new Hegelianism, and he left convinced that history was not the home of all truth, nor was Truth apprehended in the absence of our bodies. For the fullness of something beyond tears, he turned to Weil, from whom he ordered his experience of God. In this, Grant was a European of the old breed, but it made him a dangerous critic of the new. For Grant, the longing for that Good was not less, and that Good could never completely go, but it would exist forever as intimations of deprivation, even in hells of our own making.
We do not always know who is predator, who is prey and how to distinguish the two, or even if we should. It is all a game, we are told, and our chiefs, whether justices or executive officers, can only articulate the corporate good — to maximize profit. Corporations are thus not corporate as bodies, which, show eventually the absorption of excess calories by a plethora of hitherto unknown diseases, ultimately leading to cardiac arrest, particularly when the electric grid shuts off. The corporate magnates who stand above it all will declare the saboteurs murderers and terrorists for disrupting the energy supply, for the only rule of the game is not to disturb the game and the “heads” of the body are not mindful of the health of any other parts, leaving them incapable of responding to even the slightest bit of pressure without immediate and complete shutdown.
We are, thus, unsurprised to find our leading corporate lights in the form of internet companies formed by the well blown bubbles highlighting the American dream of social unity via cybernetic cables, mindspheres losing distinction in democratic bliss, thousands of clicks and “likes” without a single way to dissent from ever loader public opinion, no longer articulated by stump speech or verbal assent, but remote gesture via machine formed API.
It is now well known that growth sectors in the new economy are the continual supply of medicines to those who will never be healthy, the sloshing of capital from shore to shore in the carry and drop trade, virtual instruments of deliberately opaque value, and, now a new type of American casino by pioneered by the sons and daughters of the Alamo, games deliberately engineered to absorb the mental cycles and material wealth of those last sad sons and daughters of the revolutions and all of those forced to embrace their brand of democracy by the sword.
As they will tell you, there is simply too much money to be made to make a maxim of not being evil, or, worse, formulate a positive idea of the good. And the end is what it has always been, the predators gather round while the sick and lame and easily addicted are picked off as easy game.
There are many poker chips already on the table. Those who arrived already made their killing and now sit, cards on the table, eying each other curiously — knowing that the only way the game can continue is if more are convinced to come to the table. But China has already bought in and old Europe injected with a passivity inducing drugs, trading dictators and kings for glib democrats.
Soon the game will be up and, where our executive officers can no longer find fresh meat, they will turn to carrion.
(1) Last May in your essay on “the Gathering Storm” you quoted Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” and provided a number of tips for surviving it, including exercising our right to speech, defense, privacy and association. A year has passed. Is there anything you would add or modify today given the possibility that many Americans may not be able to exercise their constitutional rights (not to mention the presumed rights of creditors of the United States) ?
I would add that exercising your rights is not only good for you, it’s fun! This is a time of great uncertainty, and many people are more stressed than ever. But writing blog posts or debating the issues or studying history might help you formulate your thoughts and gain perspective on what’s happening, mastering a martial art or learning to shoot or protecting your privacy might make you feel more secure, associating with likeminded others might give you a stronger sense of community, managing your own investments or growing some of your own food or installing solar panels or whatever might make you more self-sufficient. Many of these activities are quite inexpensive and they give you more power over your life.
Although taking responsibility for your life is rewarding, I’ve discovered that it also takes a lot of time and energy to do things like take charge of your health or your finances, learn various self-defense techniques, and study the past so that you’re not doomed to repeat it.
By the way, I wouldn’t limit individual rights to what’s recognized in the constitution. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution delegates a small number of powers to the central government (Amendment X) and recognizes that individual rights are effectively unlimited (Amendment IX). Over time that founding vision has been almost entirely inverted (government power is unlimited and human rights are limited to what’s in the Bill of Rights), but it is still there for us to rediscover.
(2) You are unusual in combining a technical career with substantial intellectual essays, an online press and various artistic efforts. How did you end up where you are today?
Perhaps I’m unusual not in having diverse interests but in pursuing them so stubbornly.
Since my early teens I’ve been drawn mainly to philosophy, language, music, and technology. After college I bounced around quite a bit, working for business training companies and early website developers. When I started using Linux in the late 1990s I became quite impressed with the fact that so much value had been created for free, so I decided that I want to give back to the open-source community in some way. An opportunity came along in the form of the early Jabber instant messaging project, where my interests in language and technology led me to writing protocol specifications. That’s been my career for the last ten years, but to stay balanced I’ve spent much of my free time writing philosophical essays and books, translating ancient poetry and philosophy, playing guitar, and composing music. More recently, I’ve studied a lot of history, especially the history of civilizations (e.g., Carroll Quigley), the emergence of modernity (e.g., Ernest Gellner), the origins of the industrial revolution (e.g., Jean Gimpel and Robert Lopez), the roots of American exceptionalism (e.g., Alan Macfarlane and David Hackett Fischer), and the impact of deep technological inventions like the printing press (e.g., Elizabeth Eisenstein). There is so much to learn and to do that I like to work on lots of projects in parallel because I find that different disciplines feed into each other in surprising ways. If I didn’t already have too many responsibilities I’d learn a few more languages, become a better coder, immerse myself in a field like evolutionary psychology, or study painting or some another art-form.
(3) In your essay “American Winter” you highlight as problems:
[T]he endless debts incurred over the past twenty to forty years by American businesses, families, and governments alike; the withering away of American productive capacity in favor of mindless consumption; dependence on oil that is produced by sworn enemies of Western civilization; massive fortunes stolen (we cannot say “made”) by those who have been able to manipulate the levers of power, whether Wall Street bankers at the national level (resulting in a reckless debasement of the currency) or real estate developers at the local level (resulting in the subsidized blight of suburban sprawl) or various industries in certain states and especially unions in others (resulting in a complete capture of the political process by government employees in states like California); the never-ending expansion of welfare “entitlements” such as monthly stipends for those who do not work, guaranteed payment of medical care and pharmaceutical products for those who are not healthy, low-priced loans for those who wish to study, grants for those who wish to perform scientific research, and so on; a growing political class whose only means of livelihood is to take more and more from the productive class of those who still create real, independent value; inexorable centralization of national life in the District of Columbia; and a yawning societal and even personal chasm between collectivists and individualists, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, secularists and religionists, technologists and environmentalists, rule makers and rule breakers, controllers and rebels — a conflict of visions that goes far beyond Red States vs. Blue States to engulf politically-connected and personally-entitled “haves” against hardworking but unprivileged “have nots”
Yet you end the essay with an optimistic note. What makes you so confident in America and Americans?
America is full of optimistic, work-focused, religious, sectarian, freedom-loving, immigrant-friendly, patriotic, rebellious, energetic, mobile, adaptable, pragmatic, inventive, individualistic, youth-obsessed, generous, philanthropic, hopeful, innovative, entrepreneurial dreamers. Americans are, essentially, crazy (founded, after all, by crazy Englishmen who crossed the Atlantic in rickety ships to create a new society in a howling wilderness). We don’t always succeed, do the right thing, or live up to our ideals. In fact, we have a lot of problems and we make a lot of mistakes, but we seem to learn from our mistakes better than any other people in history. Although many pundits have forecast American failure, decline, and decay, those who bet instead on England, France, Germany, Japan, or Russia over America were wrong, just I think those now betting on China, India, or Brazil over America will also be wrong.
American exceptionalism is not jingoism, it is an observable reality. The core differences between America and the rest of the world, and even the rest of the Anglosphere, were plain to Tocqueville in the 1830s and to countless observers before and since. Those differences are not uniformly good, but they are deep seated in American culture. That said, in many ways Americans have lost sight of the basic cultural traits I’ve outlined. We face a lot of hard decisions as individuals and as a nation about crony capitalism, centralized power, foreign intervention, mindless consumerism, excessive debt, irresponsible behavior, dependence on the public trough, and much more. In addition, we are often too busy or myopic or anti-intellectual to think deeply and honestly about the mess we’re in and how to move forward. In that sense, I am far from optimistic. But I also wouldn’t count America out just yet.
Notice that I say “America”, not “the United States”. I am much more confident about the long-term prospects of America as a cultural nation than about the United States as a political entity.
(4) In your essay “Secular vs. Sacred” you describe the modern dilemma:
Historically, the modern codification of the soul-body dichotomy goes back to Descartes and his Faustian deal with the Church, in which Descartes won the metaphysical realm of Body for the investigations of the scientists, but abandoned the realm of Soul to the strictures of religion. While this “peace treaty” between reason and faith brought the West undreamt-of material prosperity and scientific progress, it also led to the spiritual stagnation of the modern West.
A major theme of this website and forums is alternatives to Cartesian modernity. In your opinion what would it take to go “beyond Descartes” and who or what is capable of taking us there?
Wow, you dug deep to find that essay — I wrote it when I was in college for a contest held by The Humanist magazine.
Back then I saw most everything through philosophical lenses, but my more recent readings into history have led me to think that modernity is not Cartesian. Facts precede philosophies and tinkers precede thinkers. You couldn’t have Cartesian mechanism about the biological world or Deistic ideas about God as a watchmaker without first experiencing a long tradition of building machines and watches. Yet that more practical tradition started over 500 years before Descartes, with European inventions like the stirrup, the horse collar, the heavy plow, three-field rotation, the waterwheel, the clock, eyeglasses, oceangoing ships, double-entry bookkeeping, guns and gunpowder, the printing press, the compass, and so many more. All that inventiveness got started because Europeans no longer had slavery to prop them up following the collapse of classical civilization — not because some philosopher pontificated about the importance of productivity. The other great stream of modernity came from the culture of early English society, whose individualism, respect for personal rights and private property, entrepreneurialism, and scientific bent also predate Descartes by hundreds of years, as historian Alan Macfarlane has shown. In essence, those two streams produced what Ernest Gellner called “the exit” from agrarian civilizations into modernity.
Furthermore, just as I would argue that modernity is not Cartesian, so I would argue that Descartes is not modern. Have you ever noticed the similarities between his “cogito ergo sum” and Avicenna’s thought experiment of the “flying man”, who is utterly separated from corporeal existence? To my mind there is a religious quality to modern-day mechanism and reductionism, a baseless belief that we could reliably predict the future course of the universe or this planet or a particular creature if only we could know the position of every atom that is relevant to the object of prediction. Yet what factual foundation has ever been offered for the notion that we could gain such physiochemical omniscience? None whatsoever. It’s taken strictly on faith.
As to moving beyond what is taken to be Cartesian modernity, I think that project is being pursued on many fronts within Western society, in everything from practices like yoga and holistic medicine and networked organizations to the theoretical insights of complexity theory and behavioral economics and the ecological psychology of J.J. Gibson. Another hopeful sign is the accelerating dissolution of what John Taylor Gatto calls the factory model of education. Unfortunately, I think we are still quite far from a more factual, integrated approach to value-laden fields like ethics and politics. I’m working on aspects of the ethical issues through a book I’m writing entitled “The Tao of Roark”, but it’s slow going in part because I have too much to do in my career but mostly because the problems involved are so thorny.
(5) In that same essay you refer to “people power” and human rights as built on a “universal conception of sacredness.” Do you still hold today to your statement about the potential of sacredness and human rights as a unifying principles which can check unwelcome elements of governmental expansion (i.e. totalitarianism)? Do you have any concomitant critiques of contemporary usage of the term “human rights”?
It seems that I indulged in quite a bit of overblown rhetoric back in college! These days I am much more skeptical about claims of universality, mainly because after the 9/11 attacks I took the time to study both Islam and the Anglosphere, which I see as the two primary cultural visions at work in the world today. The rights that we think of as Jeffersonian or Lockean — life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness — were not imposed by governments or invented by philosophers but emerged over many centuries. As John Hasnas explored in his paper “Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights”, rights are evolved solutions to the problem of minimizing violence in society. The solutions we are most familiar with today were codified in English common law, which has done the best job (although far from a perfect job) of preserving and extending them as the modern world has scaled up beyond the smaller societies of earlier times.
Although in one sense these rights are natural and universal because they are traditionally honored even in the absence of government, that potential universality is overridden and obscured by the actuality of too many philosophies, religions, autocracies, bureaucracies, and systems of government. To my mind, perhaps the greatest corruption has been the inflation of the concept of rights from those solved problems of human interaction to positive dispensations like a comfortable retirement, a convenient commute, pleasant vacations, inexpensive access to medical services and pharmaceutical products, affordable housing, and all the rest. Those things are good, but when the state provides them by taking from some people to give to others, we don’t solve problems, we cause them: tearing apart human goodwill, turning people from peaceful trade and production to legalized plunder, reducing the sense of personal responsibility and increasing the sense of dependence, and piling up debts and obligations that are simply unsustainable. That’s the hole in which many nations find themselves now, and the path forward is made much more difficult by intellectual confusion and false expectations regarding the proper solutions to problems of human interaction.
(6) In your essay “The Individualism of the Poet-Musician” you refer to ancient lyric poetry, the Medieval troubadour ethos and near-contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. However, if there is a positive side to the troubadour ethos and nomadic lifestyle which to some degree characterize America do they not also inhibit “greatness” and facilitate other things that you disparage (like Suburban sprawl) ? Is there any way to reconcile these impulses?
You are right that historically Americans have been more mobile than people elsewhere, although statistics indicate that the rate of moving has slowed down lately. American mobility is no great surprise when you think about it: almost all of our ancestors moved here from somewhere else, we continue to attract a large number of immigrants, we have a wide range of physical, social, and economic climates to choose from, a relatively small percentage of us have careers that are tied to a particular place, etc. Here again the mere fact that American society is exceptionally mobile and dynamic compared to other societies is not all good or all bad; we can be quick about building new cities and industries and the like, but we also tend to have a disposable attitude toward almost everything.
The kind of nomadism that hurts us more is our lack of focus on the long-term consequences of our policies and decisions. For instance, U.S. politicians regularly send American troops to meddle in foreign nations; the citizenry initially approves of the intention to spread democracy or rid the world of some two-bit dictator, but doesn’t think about the pernicious influence of such interventionism on the national soul, if you will. The same goes for our endless “wars” on drugs, poverty, hunger, crime, obesity, immigration, and so on.
At the individual level, excellence or greatness in any field of endeavor does require diligence, focus, dedication, practice, and countless hours of hard work. However, too often we take that as an excuse for excessive specialization. I suppose that I still admire the ideal of a liberal education and see great value in general knowledge — whether it’s the science of climatology, the economics of national debt, the sociology of immigration, the statistics of demographic change, the psychology of investing, or the history of civilizations. Learning about these topics is not only inherently interesting, but I’ve found that it gives me greater perspective on current controversies, not to mention greater skepticism about our self-appointed elites.
(7) Many of your essays address Objectivist Philosophy as articulated by Ayn Rand, including the chasm between engineers and art (1 2 3). Are there any indications in technical or artistic fields that this gap will be diminished in the future? If so, what stands out as a positive example?
Yes, as a teenager I was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, and it’s taken me a long time to work out my thoughts about her. In fact Rand perceived a great affinity between engineers and artists: she saw engineering as a creative act and recognized the technical discipline necessary to make works of art. For example, the architect Howard Roark in her novel The Fountainhead designed buildings that were not only beautiful but founded in good engineering. In my experience, most scientists and engineers have an aesthetic sense of what makes for an elegant solution to a technical problem in their field, and most artists are deeply immersed in the technical details of their craft.
Despite those similarities, there is an unavoidable gap between art and engineering because they serve different purposes: a product of technology is a practical tool for improving human existence, whereas a work of art organically symbolizes some conception of what’s important in life. The aesthetic aspects of technologies like cars and computers are a matter of good design, not truly artistic creation; similarly, the technical aspects of the arts are a matter of underlying craft and does not imply that art is useful in the sense that technology is. Howard Roark was an anomaly because he worked in the field of architecture, which straddles the fence between art and engineering; her novel would not have worked as well if she had written it about a composer or a sculptor.
I worry less about the chasm between technology and art than about the impact of the digital revolution on the economics of artistic practice. Simply put, the copyright era is coming to an end, first for musicians, next for writers, and eventually for visual artists as well. Anyone who makes art will need to adjust to that new reality. Personally I’ve put all of my writings and music into the public domain, but I can afford to do so because I work full-time as a technologist. Real artists will need to apply even more of their energy to making a living and finding new economic models for creative activity, which means the rest of us might have less new art to experience. Although that sounds pessimistic, humans were creating art for thousands of years before the copyright era and I think they’ll be doing so for thousands of years into the future.
|Hillel Halkin’s new book, Yehuda Halevi, is an exploration of the life and passions of this important Jewish figure of religious and philosophical significance. What this book tells us about the history of the medieval period in which he lived in Spain, however, is interesting in and of itself, and it is especially provocative in light of all the tortured attempts being made nowadays to cobble tougher a view of amicable Christian – Muslim – Jewish coexistence by referring to the ‘convivencia’ that existed in Spain before 1492. Convivencia means coexistence and the three faiths did indeed coexist in Spain during this period, but the coexistence that they enjoyed, endured, or suffered through, as the case may be, was hardly the Disneyland version of everyone holding hands and singing happy songs, each with his own little colored hat and matching flag.|
Halkin explains how the great early 20th century archeological find of documents hidden away in the Cairo Geniza allowed historians to draw a picture of Jewish life in the Muslim world during exactly this period of history. What we know is that the periods of peaceful coexistence among the three faiths were punctuated quite frequently by a conquista or reconquista by either the Christian or Muslim side. The boundaries between the Christian and Muslim parts of Spain were forever shifting north or south depending on who had won the latest round. The Jewish population never took part in these wars, being a pacifistic community occupied with commerce and scholarship, primarily. But the Jews frequently ended up being displaced or slaughtered when the ruler to whom they had accommodated themselves suddenly was overthrown and replaced by the other side, thus exposing them to charges of collaboration.
This was the actual reality of convivencia, according to Halkin, not peaceful coexistence as an end unto itself, but as an interregnum merely until the next battle for territorial expansion. Why this should be so becomes clear if we read Halkin’s description of how Jews, Christians, and Muslims actually viewed themselves during this period. They did not see themselves as Spaniards, for there was no real concept of Spain as a country or nation, at that time. Spain was a geographical, linguistic, and cultural term. The most important reference point for a person’s identity, in fact, was his religion. And members of each religious group dreamed, when amongst themselves, of their group someday being dominant in all of Spain rather than having to rest content with only part of it.
Halevi’s writing makes clear that the Jews in Spain did not waste much energy in dreaming of conquering Spain or any place else they lived, being so down-trodden and defenseless themselves. What they did dream of, in their moments of idle fantasy, was restoring the Land of Israel to its former glory and to its former owners – the people who put that Land on the map, so to speak. It was the revelation at Mount Sinai that made the Jewish people a nation, but it was God’s promise to Abraham to show him the Land of Israel, and give it as a prized possession to his descendents that made that small piece of territory the important place that it has been now for thousands of years.
And it was to this small, but cherished piece of territory that Yehuda Halevi set out to spend his last years, leaving the comforts of Spain during its golden age, and then the comforts of Egypt – another flourishing cultural and economic center – to go to a land being contested by Muslim and Christian, and devoid of all but a small Jewish population.
This beautifully written and scholarly book really leads the reader to two unavoidable conclusions. The first is that the concept of convivencia, as used most commonly today by western liberals looking to promote peaceful coexistence between Muslim and non Muslims, is an illusion. It was coexistence of a sort, to be sure, but it was not peaceful if one takes a historical view of it. Nor was it meant to be. Neither Christians nor Muslims in Spain ever reconciled themselves to ruling over only part of the Iberian peninsula. Each wanted total dominion over the other and planned to achieve this over time, through the ambition of charismatic leaders and ideological factions.
Ultimately, the so-called “Catholic monarchs” of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella achieved the Catholic dream of uniting all of Spain’s regions under one monarchy and one universal church. The Jews and Muslims were expelled.
It was this emerging situation in Spain that most likely led Yehuda Halevi to the conclusion that the only solution to the fragility of Jewish existence was restoring the old homeland to Jewish sovereignty, starting by settling in it. This seemed so farfetched at that time when Jewish fortunes in Spain, Central Europe, and Crusader Palestine had declined to such a low ebb. However, one can easily see why Hillel Halkin identifies so much with Halevi, having – like him – abandoned the easy life in America for the struggles of living in a developing country like Israel of the 1970’s, that was also stuck in a permanent war zone.
This book also has a positive Zionist message to it, and one comes to the conclusion that this is probably why Halkin wrote it, thirty-three years after publishing his Zionist polemic, “Letters to an American Jewish Friend”. That book made the case for a Zionist-motivated immigration to Israel at a time when that message was doomed to fall on mostly deaf ears in the American Jewish community. However, this book has a more fateful and also more negative but realistic message to it, as its subtext, whether Halkin intended this or not (perhaps he didn’t).
Halkin is no right wing Likudnik, but neither is he the sort of person who was seduced by the fantasies of the Oslo peace process that led to the current situation of managed hostility that exists between the Israelis and Palestinians. The convivencia that existed in Spain was in no way a permanent peace between the contending religiously-motivated powers in Europe’s most important country, at that time. It was the temporary adjustment of permanent enemies to each other’s civilian populations, while the respective armies waged sporadic battles against each other for control of Iberia. The Christians ended up winning this long-term war of attrition, although the Muslims, initially at least, clearly had the more sophisticated civilization. The Christians won because they were more determined and more united, had better leaders, and because Islam simply went into long-term decline and could not sustain itself as an advanced civilization. The Jewish Golden Age in Spain was long-over by the time the expulsion edicts were finally signed in 1492, and Islam was well on its way to the state of decrepitude that still encumbers it today, while Christian Europe forged ahead on a path of development and conquest which didn’t groan its last sighs until the late 20th century.
This story may well have its mirror image in the Middle East today, with Israel as its new focus. A small but developing Jewish state surrounded by larger but fragmented, demoralized and decrepit Muslim powers has created a beachhead for itself by winning wars, and driving Arab populations away from its borders. Israel right now has no motivation to make any real concessions to two dysfunctional Palestinian polities ruled by corrupt and incompetent administrations. It should and probably will wait them out, until a major war eventually erupts and the Arabs flee in large numbers as happened in 1948 and 1967. The days of Islamic glory in el Andalus are gone and will never come back, while Yehuda Halevi’s dream of Jewish sovereignty has come true one thousand years after he wrote his love poems to Zion.
To end with Halkin’s rendering of Halevi’s famous poem:
My heart in the East
But the rest of me far in the West
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
How, in the chains of the Moor,
Zion bound to the Cross,
Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?
Gladly I’d leave
All the best of grand Spain
For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust
In general, these definitions are suggestive and mechanistic, meaning that all actors and their actions can be described with respect to a rational choice model and without any necessary appeal to outside or irrational forces.
A group of people who recognize an authority or authorities, which can commit internal and external acts of violence on behalf of the group. Internal acts of violence include taxation and enforcement of laws. External acts of violence would be war. When a critical mass of the population no long believes in the legitimacy of those with control over mechanisms of violence, the political union ceases to exist — the strength of a political union can be assessed along the belief in the legitimacy of the mechanisms of violence. This definition recognizes the potentially declining influence of the nation-state, and thus geography does not play any part in this definition.
General term used to refer to the authority entrusted with the mechanisms of violence in a political union, recognizing that there may be multiple parties with differing interests.
People living in a political union, however the political union chooses to define itself. It is possible that, given the division or overlap in roles requiring violence, that a single person could belong to multiple political unions. For instance, in a “corporate state” one could pay directly for services like protection to one entity, while another demands payment to protect from potential foreign enemies. It is, however, unlikely that such a situation will persist.
The extension of the government that commits acts of violence against people not a part of the political union.
Any coercive means by which a political union attempts to attain desired objectives vis-à-vis another political union when accompanied by a formal statement of intent. This typically but does not necessarily involve death, given that there are many coercive mechanisms (psychological, economic, information infrastructure) currently available to a government which can cause ‘pain’ without causing death.
However, given attempts to steal state secrets, disable infrastructure, and many other potential applications of “information warfare,” including those “waged” by independent actors, it seems that another term is needed to capture these potentially escalating minor conflicts between political unions which do not involve statements of intent.
Additionally, the definition of war provided indicates that “war,” as opposed to simply violent conflict, is a product of political unions at a certain state of development, and even if certain rules can be revoked, necessarily has at its outset a clear sense of “us” and “them,” or pro- and antagonist.
Also, according to this definition war is not a game, as a game must have rules and develop out of a pleasurable ‘play state.’ The means by which war approaches a game, thusly include when pleasurable elements are introduced, including mechanisms for winning prestige through the fighting of war, role-playing, uniforms, and, importantly, explicit or implicit rules for what constitutes proper conduct.
Coercive action taken to achieve a given objective as articulated by the political union, traditionally including the possibility of physical injury to the receiving party and potentially including death.
Treated because an objective may be singular or composite, in the latter case potentially including both rational and irrational elements – which is to say that political unions, insofar as they have uniform values, may approach single actors in their desire for what is here described as “karma,” potentially including prestige on the basis of values shared by both parties. Thus, it may be important that a hoplite battle is fought “honorably,” as the party which wins “honorably” will garner greater prestige among peer political unions. In some cases, the ostensible objectives will be superceded by the incidental objectives and accompanying values, leading to a situation where it is preferable to fail in obtaining the primary objective so long as the secondary objectives related to prestige are maintained.
In the case of composite objectives, it may be presumed that all objectives will ultimately be subject to the “existential” objective, which would be the continued existence of the political union, insofar as it is capable of presenting a unified will to continue fighting, as described by Clausewitz. This “existential” objective may be represented differently in different contexts, as political unions by their very nature are composite, and there is often although not always the possibility of dividing or re-forming a political union on a new basis.
Political unions which allow association on a supra-ethnic or basis which does not necessarily exclude a defeated foe, may be better at effecting the submission of their enemies for this reason, whereas other conflicts will be necessarily be mimetic and potentially involve escalation to extremes, in Clausewitz described as “Durch diese Wechselwirkung wieder das Streben nach dem aussersten.”
|Carl Schmitt quotes Vergil’s Fourth Ecologue at the close of his Der Begriff der Politischen (The Concept of the Political), “Ab integro nascitur ordo.” A new order is born from the renewal.
Schmitt claimed that a world state could not exist, that such an attempt, where legitimacy rested primarily on economic means could and would lead to a dystopian world state — a system in which a people might be legitimately, according to this emerging economic order, be exterminated merely for being unable to pay their debts.
As Leo Strauss commented in response, Schmitt’s affirmation of the political “is nothing more than the affirmation of the moral” which is necessarily undermined by purely technological culture, such as that provided the anti-narrative mentioned in a previous essay (and also described by Strauss). While Schmitt ultimately falls back on a weak moral category, resistance, Strauss dissolves the possibility of the moral — there is no imperative.
Thus, we witness this dystopia emerging, not only in that the legitimacy of states is articulated by their ability to maximize the participation of their citizens in markets, as with Philip Bobbitt’s work, but where not only the default but also primary evaluative mechanism for the value of any thing, including human relationships, is in reference to personal (or corporate) utility.
Thus, in a world in which numbers, especially when cast as “science” in the field of economics, are the primary evaluative method, the default mechanism for evaluating the value of any relationship must accord with personal utility. The same is true for all functions related to relationships (e.g. sex). Accumulation of partners may not be the goal, but, as specified by economic science, accumulation of ‘good moments’ likely will be, often taking the primacy of ‘fun’ (see our discussion of the fall of Batman).
This means that no-fault, previously the exception, becomes the norm. Every contract should be able to be broken by any party when the exchange of words/fluids leading to any other exchange is not kept. Which is to say, any purely quantitative system tends towards complete fungiblity as a ‘perfect’ state. Descriptions here serve a purely cosmetic function. Any usage of word ‘marriage’ approaches a lie, as its origin and intention are not in keeping with the purely cosmetic function which it now serves. ‘Relationship’ would be closer to the truth, but really, any words are acceptable as the fundamental nature of the transaction and conceptions remains unquestioned.
Thus, each sphere of action becomes little more than a game, one should/must play to win in order to maximize. Is it permissible to use words with purely cosmetic function, allowing the other party to think according to old structures, while one embraces personally the new, the entirely economic? Certainly it does not make sense to be in the middle, embracing both new and old paradigm, neither fully. The probable answer within the means presented is, it does not matter — do what you need to succeed. Thus, not only do relationships and marriage cease to exist in any meaningful way, so also does the concept of a truth and a lie. There is only utility, which is frequently reducible to pleasure.
We will not comment at length on the moral salves available to those who wish to utilize them. Nicholas Kristof compares the estimated 800,000 trafficked each year with the 80,000 at the peak of the American slave trade, but advocates neither starting at home nor fundamentally rethinking, but more overseas initiatives (and lobbying!) for the globally connected. Anthony Daniels looks closer to home:
A hundred yards from where I write this, twelve-year-old prostitutes often stand under streetlamps on the corner at night, waiting for customers. The chief of the local police has said that he will not remove them because he considers that they are sufficiently victimized already, and he is not prepared to victimize them further (his job, apparently, being to empathize rather than to enforce the law). The local health authorities send a van round several times at night to distribute condoms to the girls, the main official concern being to ensure that the sex in which the girls take part is safe, from the bacteriological and virological point of view. It is the authorities’ proud boast that 100 percent of local prostitutes now routinely use condoms, at a cost to the city’s taxpayers of $135,000 a year, soon to be increased by the employment of a further outreach worker, whose main qualification, according to the recent job advertisement in the local press, will be “an ability to work non-judgmentally”—that is, to have no moral qualms about aiding and abetting child prostitution. Meanwhile, local residents (such as my neighbors, a banker, a lawyer, an antiquarian bookseller, and two university professors) who object to the presence of discarded condoms in their gardens and in the street outside their homes have been offered a special instrument with which to pick them up, in lieu of any attempt to prevent them from arriving there in the first place. And at the same time, the overwhelming majority of the work done by the social workers of the city concerns the sexual abuse of children, principally by stepfathers and mothers’ boyfriends who move in after biological fathers move out. (Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses)
In this arena one observes the previously ‘free-range’ people, the American homesteaders, struggling to adapt to their life gravitating in the same direction as the mechanized cattle industry, not realizing that the dictum “do unto others” has always related also to the animals around them. Neither die with or from a surfeit of artificial hormones, they simply cease to live in a meaningful way. Moreover, “resistance” is primarily a function of debates over cosmetics. Given this context, it is surprising they fight for the word or even discuss fighting for ‘marriage,’ a concept they have abandoned in every meaningful sense, just as they fight for “life” for those who, by virtue of physical infirmity or terrible situation will never have a “life” in any sense more than a simple binary assertion.
In fact, whether or not a copy of the Ten Commandments hangs in a courtroom matters not at all. What matters is the concept of jurisprudence applied within that courtroom, the basis of which has been abandoned for multimedia spectacles and megachurchs. Should we be surprised when the spectacle ends and the citizens involved return to speculating on current and afterlife fortunes, rendering all attempts at “change” null and void? Or that the book supposedly at the center of their religious practice is primarily presented as tool to help them achieve this maximization? Or that end times prophesies, the rapture, or the Jewish people are going to help them achieve this mystical jackpot?
While cattle ‘moo’ in their mechanized pens, Schmitt offers us this chilling reminder of the nature of the existential struggle which remains, even if covered in the shadows:
“If a people no longer possess the energy or the will to maintain itself in the sphere of politics, the latter will not thereby vanish from the world. Only a weak people will disappear.”
As Clausewitz notes, it is the defender of the city who will and must be the first express violence if he wishes to be successful in his defense. The arsonist with the torch can burn down an entire village if he is not first apprehended, and this apprehension will likely require an act of violence. But as Strauss also realizes, it is exceedingly easy to go from to this point to advocacy for “dangerousness” for its own sake.
Thus, the question is not simply what constitutes a weak people, but what constitutes a people, and the failure to ask the question and, perhaps, define what constitutes a people (or race) worth preserving ultimately undermines the strength of the people in question. Consequently, the quest for the definition of the political is necessarily a question of an ideal sense. Thus, we cannot reach it simply at the extremes, and to focus solely on the extreme case is to abandon the search for the political for politics.
Knowledgeable readers will know where this took Schmitt, and, indeed, it is emblematic of the whole struggle. Liberalism, as defined by Schmitt, must be separated from modernity, which is simply the necessary multiplication of loyalties on the basis of multiplicity of communities based on new forms of connectivity provided by technology. Which is to say, it is not necessarily an ideal, it is simply fiberoptic cables lying across the ocean floor and politicians suddenly able to talk on the phone.
Indeed, if merchants pursued this connectivity for its own sake, or for their sake, does this invalidate the connectivity? It is neither a barrier nor a help towards awareness; a multiplication of contingent loyalties is not necessarily an abrogation of a single essential one.
We then affirm the importance of the search for the essence of the political, and find that we must first, in the words of Rosenstock-Huessy, go back to Descartes, hoping that we may find a new order along the way.
|John Gray is a former professor of philosophy at Oxford and the LSE, and not to be confused with the pop psychology author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. In 2007 he published one of the most thought provoking intellectual works of the past decade. The title derives from the fact that a Satanic Mass takes Christian forms and inverts them – but, like Satan himself, the process takes its substance from Christianity.
Gray’s thesis is that modern life is a Black Mass, and that the roots lie deep within Christianity itself. The latter, right from its origins, was apocalyptic and utopian. Most religions lack a linear sense of history, or indeed any conception of a beginning and end time. Salvation, if perceived at all, is largely seen as as release from an unending worldly round. Christianity injected teleology- history has a purpose and an end time, when its purpose will be fulfilled. This to some extent predates Christianity, with Jewish and Iranian roots, but Christianity is the vehicle by which such thinking was spread to the wider world.
This is familiar stuff, but Gray’s contribution is to examine at length the pervasiveness of the apocalyptic utopianism. Millenarian movements recurred from time to time in medieval history, but were constrained by the institutions of the Church (notably the Inquisition) and by Augustinian original sin, which precluded or at least limited the belief that life on this earth could be perfected.
In modern times, these constraints were loosened by two developments. The first was Protestantism, which never had as effective a machine to define or constrain “heresy” as the Catholics. Thus it spawned milleniarist movements by the score, who sought to build the City of God upon the Hill – including, tellingly, a key strain in American culture. Europe chose other forms of Christian heresy, secularism (the term has no meaning outside of monotheism, until the City of God was separated from the City of Man). If so far you have thought that this is yet another anti-religious tirade, then Gray is at his most venomous when discussing the secularist heresies. The totalitarianism of the Left, from the Jacobins to Stalin, makes an easy and familiar target, the apocalyptic myth a crude parody of Christianity. Nazism is often seen (notably by Isaiah Berlin, Gray’s erstwhile mentor), with its emphasis on Kultur , as a lineal descendant of the (largely German) Counter Enlightenment. In fact Gray makes a good case that it was another Enlightenment –influenced apocalyptic heresy, if a somewhat bizarre one (salvation only for Germans); certainly Hitler would not have been possible without Lenin.
Gray, however, implicates as well the most benign and successful Enlightenment belief system, liberal democracy. Though apparently tolerant, it still seeks to convert everyone on the planet – at gunpoint if necessary; there follows a lengthy section on the Iraqi tragi-comedy and the “War on Terror”, where ex-Marxist neocons formed an unholy alliance with the American Christian right. The other unexpected target is Islamism. Sayyid Qutb, the Karl Marx of the movement, was well versed in Western philosophy and impressed by Nietzsche it seems – hardly the traditional Muslim by any means. The latter would accede to Allah’s will, not actively seek to build the perfect Caliphate in an all-too-Western mimicry of the Christian reformation. No wonder it all appeals to disaffected educated Muslims in the diaspora, and spoilt rich kids from Saudi construction magnates.
Demolition is easy, but what to do? Turning one’s back on religion is not the answer: Gray believes that it is innate in humans, and if thwarted simply finds unconscious paths, as described above; indeed he feels that Dawkin’s style atheism is distinguished by its intellectual crudity. Christianity and Islam, historically the two most aggressive and intolerant faiths, demand belief – while others are content to stand in awe before mystery, and perhaps to commune mystically with it. Meanwhile, realism rather than idealism can rule the everyday world.
All very sensible, but the objection is: who wants to live in a sensible world? It would be uncreative and rather dull. The Western world (which has now infected the rest) is like a manic depressive, whose creative highs justify the depressive and destructive lows. Fine until the depression verges on suicide: Gray clearly feels that we are near the latter, as the book ends with an environmentalist tirade. Perhaps,or else he is no more immune to apocalyptic religion than others: or else, with no utopias left to believe in, it is time for Western(ised) man to grow up.