‘One plausible view would be that this detachment of rightness from both custom and religion begins with Socrates, who rejected the customers and the gods of Athens in order to make the care of the soul a free-floating concern whose content would be elaborated in philosophical criticism of the received ideas of his milieu. Philosophy was clearly a necessary element here in facilitating the project of detaching the right thing to do from its religious and customary incrustations, and some capacity to isolate the moral from the customary and religious has lived an intermittent life in Western experience ever since. A great deal of philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman periods was concerned with how one ought to live, and Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical ideas have seldom been without influence on modern thought.‘
Minogue, Kenneth. The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes The Moral Life. Encounter Books. 2010. Print. (Pg 131).
‘One of the grim comedies of the twentieth century was the fate of miserable victims of communist regimes who climbed walls, swam rivers, dodged bullets, and found other desperate ways to achieve liberty in the West at the same time as intellectuals in the West sentimentally proclaimed that these very regimes were the wave of the future. A similar tragicomedy is being played out in our century: as the victims of despotism and backwardness from third world nations pour into Western states, the same ivory tower intellectuals assert that Western life is a nightmare of inequality and oppression.’
Often, I choose to see the world through the lens of the conserve vs change axis, coming down on the ‘conserve’ side.
We all depend upon independent thinkers, men of system, men of scope and genius, and men particularly concerned with injustice for innovation in the West, but I’d prefer most such men to be innovating systems and the natural world directly, not men. Those seeking to change (reform, overturn) what works in our habits, customs and laws, are less likely to understand what works well enough to change very many habits, customs and laws for the better.
Each of us knows relatively little, and what we know is usually a mixture of our natural gifts, fortunes of birth, direct experiences, hard work and luck out in the world.
I’m rather persuaded that in our modern world, many, many people, begin by believing that the West must fundamentally be changed, often without direct deduction to the animating source of the knowledge and truth claims behind the belief.
‘It’s those goddamned corporations’. ‘The whole Catholic church is rotten.’ ‘Every union member is a willing dupe.’
It’s much easier to nurse resentment at the mortal coil, after all, without any specific practice nor satisfying reasons for our impending demise. It’s much easier to blame the personal and professional failures we all experience at the hands of others, living for a time in anger and payback fantasies (I’ve met some who’ve forgiven, but no one really forgets). It’s much easier to blame the jealousy attendant to any lack of status and wealth outwards at the ‘they’ or ‘them’ who are ‘running things.’
Belief in secular ideals becomes something like a religion given the human nature I think we’re all dealing with (engaging the moral sentiments). Furthermore, direct political action becomes, for many, a moral imperative.
On that note, Socrates’ moral corruption of Athenian youth was the primary charge for which he was put to death. This conundrum, and Plato’s work in making the moral case for leaders having moral obligations to the led (some transcendent source for our truth and knowledge), is still worth thinking about.
Is it good to be ambitious? In which domains? Who should be in charge, and of what? For how long?
Are our habits, customs and laws merely the delayed reception by the many from the few?
Thanks to a reader for the link. Deep but very readable. How universal is the desire for individual freedom?:
‘Some people take the view that we in the West are fortunate to enjoy freedom, because it is a universal human aspiration that has been commonly frustrated in most societies. This is one of the more pernicious illusions we entertain about human kind. Most people have never lived in free societies, nor exhibited any desire or capacity for freedom’
‘What most people seem to want, however, is to know exactly where they stand and to be secure in their understanding of their situation.’
Isn’t that last part a universal claim upon human nature? If so, Minogue generally resisted the idea that evolutionary theories could be transferred successfully to Statecraft.
He is arguing that it’s easy to mistake your experiences and ideas within our Western tradition for that of peoples everywhere.
Maybe you’ve traveled and experienced the tribal taboos and family/kin loyalties of smaller bands and ethnic groups. Maybe you’ve been up close to the transcendental submission of will in faith in Islam, uniting a patchwork of tribes and peoples under its claims with high honor ethic and a strong warrior tradition (the individual doesn’t choose whether to drink or have women work outside of the home). Maybe you’ve seen the caste system in India, or the authoritarian feudal landownership structure in Pakistan, or the ancient, imperial Chinese structure with a Han core, now still a strong State structure charting some kind of course out of Communism.
What is unique about our traditions?
Towards the end of the essay:
‘The balance in our tradition between the rules we must respect because they are backed by the authority of law, and the free choice in the other elements of our life is one that free agents rightly will not wish to see disturbed.’
Food for thought.
Roger Kimball quoting Minogue:
‘The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?’
‘This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom–not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but belongs to the same style of politics. ‘
‘Among the other evidences of Rationalism in contemporary politics, may be counted the commonly admitted claim of the ‘scientist, as such (the chemist, the physicist, the economist or the psychologist) to be heard in politics; because, though the knowledge involved in a science is always more than technical knowledge, what it has to offer to politics is never more than a technique.’
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991. Print.
British thinker Roger Scruton’s conservative vision was partially informed by his work as a philosopher (Kant/Hegel/Schopenhauer and German Idealism particularly). He was also informed by his return to the Anglican church over the course of his lifetime. Scruton advocated a rebuilding of the family and small, local communities around such belief, practicing as he preached, via Scrutopia.
He remained skeptical and wrote clearly about the dangers of ideology; why so many intellectuals end=up Left-of-Center, as well. He lived, mostly ostracized during his lifetime, from all the usual positions a man of his ability might otherwise hold.
First Of Three Charles Test Lectures Hosted By Princeton University-In the Q & A afterwards, Scruton receives about as pointed a post-lecture questioning on his metaphysics as I’ve seen.
Interesting presentation by an interesting thinker, indeed.
U.S. journalist Rod Dreher has moved from Catholicism to Orthodox Christianity, after many crises of belief. He’s also worked in the journalism industry for much of his life. He has one foot deeply in the Orthodox community, and another in contemporary, mainstream liberal thinking, from which he draws an audience. He’s been particularly harsh on what’s going on inside the Catholic Church, and the reckoning he believes needs to happen there.
In his new book, he’s been predicting soft totalitarianism to come fast and hard, and for religious believers to retreat and get ready for civil disobedience. “Wokeness” will come for its tribute; the new technocracy making new rules we all must follow.
Dreher’s also not liking the fusion of anti-Left fringe politics, Trump, and claiming religious means to political ends at the moment. It’s gettin’ pretty crazy out in the public square:
Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug and Unqualified Reservations), worked in computer science, has career Washingtonians in the family, and has retreated to different type of conservatism.
Here’s an introduction presented by a 3rd party:
A brief, unqualified summary (let me know what I’ve gotten wrong): What drives the civilizational trend towards the Left, consistently and over generations? Entropy, for the most part. Things fall apart.
Rules and hierarchies require heroism and courage during their formation, they settle down into somewhat functional instutitions, then eventually decline into chaos over longer periods of time. Such are the laws of nature itself.
Technology is also driving progress, very quickly now.
Most ‘progressives’ claim the mantle of progress, but are prone to post-Englightenment Idealism and capture by dangerous ideologues. They are much, much better at tearing things down then they are building things up.
Sure, you only want to follow (S)cience. Of course (R)eason is on your side. Progressives tend to claim liberation (over freedom and responsibility), usually without too much consideration for a suitable replacement to current institutional arrangements, usually running aground upon the dark parts of human nature.
Perhaps entropy has already done its work by the time progressives are in ascendency.
‘The Cathedral’, for Yarvin, is the current establishment with an inner party (Democrats seeking to balance atop the ball of ‘progress’) and an outer party (Republicans seeking to counter the Democrat party atop the ball of ‘progress’).
What can you achieve within such a vision?
Not much, Dear Reader. If you’re conservative and choose the revolution route, you’d really better be prepared. Bloodshed ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Compliance is a more reasonable option, according to Yarvin. Don’t challenge the mildly corrupt political and cultural elite authority directly, but don’t really believe in them, either. Go along to get along and build good alternatives all the while, should your opportunity arise.
Are you convinced?
On that note, some folks on the Left are claiming some kind of renewal is required.
I think it’s telling that many good minds on different parts of the political spectrum are seeing themselves as requiring of new thinking and action relative to American institutions.
As I currently see events, a self-directed life and the freedom to live such a life is a blessing of the Enlightenment, indeed. However, much Enlightenment thinking has helped produce many Shrines-Of-The-Self which currently dot the landscape, and which come with many downside risks.
Reserving judgment about such Shrines (should they exist), I suspect many in the West feel a tidal pull towards Romanticized-Modernized-Postmodernized visions of Nature. The triumph of the individual artist is key, revealing and having revelations, creating anew by casting the old aside. Towering genuises abound.
Many are European.
Generations and centuries later, such ideas have also saturated Western civil society enough to create many of our familiar tensions: Some individuals are in a process of fully rejecting religion, science, and many products of reason in favor of modern mysticism, ideology and the nihilist denial of objective reality.
I think other individuals in the modern world have placed a lot of hope and meaning into political ideals and political movements gathered around what I’ve been calling the ‘-Isms’ (feminism, environmentalism, racism etc. Here, basic human desires form into group identity. Such movements have important moral truths to offer and arguably freedoms for all (such is always the claim), but they don’t come without costs, dangers and downsides either (spin-cycles of utopia/dystopia as Eric Weinstein points out in the video above).
I consider these movements to be in serious need of critique, resistance and context, especially in dealing with hard problems of human nature like war and conflict, potential evil, and the incredible difficulty of maintaining legitimate moral decency aligned with positions of authority.
Process can often matter as much as outcome.
Last but not least, still other individuals have been taken up into radical movements staying true to the totalitarianism and misery guaranteed within doctrines of revolutionary praxis. Such individuals are busy activating beneath the deeper bedrock of secular humanism and liberal thinking, pushing upwards.
The Weinsteins are engaged in a lot of the pushback:
That mathematics, the natural sciences and evolutionary biology offer profound truth and knowledge should go without saying. We are living within expanding knowledge-frontiers of the natural world, explaining empirically observed patterns and relationships within that natural world, and actively disrupting most old models many of us have long since internalized.
This is what free and rigorous thinking, often at great personal cost, can offer to an open and free society. May it long continue.
I don’t know if I’m with the brothers Weinstein when it comes to their radicalism regarding all current institutional arrangements, but I could be persuaded by their ‘panther-in-the-china-shop’ model of reform. Frankly, many of our most important institutions are proving over-inflated, cumbersome, and full of rot: Buffeted as we all are are by migration and mass communication, global labor markets, and very rapid technological rates of change.
***Perhaps if there’s a spectrum of change, I fall more on the conservative side. At the moment, I’m skeptical of the defense of experts and expertise (despite the truths), the panther-reformers (despite our common interests), and the populist discontent so active in our politics right now (boiling over, but accurately, I think, representing many of the fissures and chasms in civil society).
I should add that I think much that’s being conserved is arguably not worth conserving at any given time, but I doubt any one of us, nor any group, has accesss to full knowledge of what should stay and what should go. In fact, I’m pretty certain one of the main points of good governance lies in prohibiting any one of us, nor any particular faction, no matter how reasonable, to have very much power for very long (and it’s definitely the job of good people and the good in people to keep the demagogues, zealots, career bureuacrats and grubby strivers from too much power).
Let me know what I may have gotten wrong. Any thoughts and comments are welcome.
As always, thanks for reading. That’s a blessing in and of itself.
Perhaps Scruton is just being nostalgic for what he describes as the old humanism:
“There is no need for God, they thought, in order to live with a vision of the higher life. All the values that had been appropriated by the Christian churches are available to the humanist too.”
And he laments the new humanism, which lacks the noblility of purpose of the old, and offers nothing positive:
“Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness”
Scruton suggests Richard Dawkins to be an example of the new humanists. Also, an interesting quote:
“Having shaken off their shackles and discovered that they have not obtained contentment, human beings have a lamentable tendency to believe that they are victims of some alien force, be it aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, capitalism, the priesthood, or simply the belief in God. And the feeling arises that they need only destroy this alien force, and happiness will be served up on a plate, in a garden of pleasures. That, in my view, is why the Enlightenment, which promised the reign of freedom and justice, issued in an unending series of wars”
‘A strong dislike of pretension, accompanied by a happy delight in puncturing it through satire and parody, is also a major element in his literary criticism. His demolition of Ezra Pound is especially effective because, as a classical scholar and linguist, he is able to establish that many of Pound’s most admired technical effects are in reality simple errors of grammar or translation.’
“Those teach who can’t do” runs the dictum,
But for some even that’s out of reach:
They can’t even teach—so they’ve picked ’em
To teach other people to teach.
Then alas for the next generation,
For the pots fairly crackle with thorn.
Where psychology meets education
A terrible bullshit is born.’
Many people still can’t handle how bad Communism was on the ground, and fewer these days are looking to keep the ideology up in the air, partly thanks to Conquest and his labors:
Court in Venezuela fines opposition newspaper *one billion* bolivars for a story about Chavista nutbag Diosdado Cabello. Paper’s editor then points out that because of insane inflation, that amounts to…a $500 fine https://t.co/EJ1UrZg5hT
‘Bill de Blasio, then 26, went to Nicaragua to help distribute food and medicine in the middle of a war between left and right. But he returned with something else entirely: a vision of the possibilities of an unfettered leftist government.
‘His activism did not stop. In the cramped Lower Manhattan headquarters of the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York, where he volunteered, Mr. de Blasio learned to cause a stir. He and a ragtag team of peace activists, Democrats, Marxists and anarchists attempted to bring attention to a Central American cause that, after the Sandinistas lost power in a 1990 election, was fading from public view. “The Nicaraguan struggle is our struggle,” said a poster designed by the group’
‘Oakeshott’s strong antipathy was for what he terms “rationalism” in politics. Rationalism is the reign of confident reason expended on a subject that cannot readily be reasoned upon. Politics, “always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory,” will not obey the kind of technical expertise under whose banner ration-alism travels. For the ration-al-ist, no problem evades solution, and perfection will arrive promptly when, one by one, all problems are solved.
“Political activity,” Oakeshott writes, “is recognized [by rationalist thinkers] as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.”
“Rationalism in politics means, in Oakeshott’s challenging phrase, making politics as the crow flies, i.e. ideologically. Hayek, a student of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and for many years a professor of economics a the University of Chicago, shows that this mode of thought is characteristic of one major stream of Continental (primarily French) social criticism, which he labels “scientism” to distinguish it from the other principal stream, which issues into social science properly understood (recall Jeffrey Hart’s essay. The one tradition insists on science’s ability to order society according to a rational plan; the other counsels the dependence of reason on nonrational circumstances, its inability to survey and command the whole of society, its limited room to maneuver in the interstices of society. Placing Burke, Hume, and Tocqueville squarely in the latter camp, Hayek shows why traditionalism is closer to the free market analysis of libertarianism than is commonly thought.”
“In contrast to both Hayek and Vogelin, Leo Strauss presents a profound critique of rationalism that culminates in the renewed authority of reason to guide moral and political life. Not the reason of Hegel or Rousseau or Hobbes, however, but the practical wisdom, the prudence, of statesmen-especially as explicated and defended by Aristotle.”
Buckley Jr., William F. & Charles R. Kesler. Keeping The Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought-A Revised Edition of American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
‘I sat down to read the Introduction and, reading it straight through, found it to be such an exciting intellectual experience that it was a spur to my embryonic commitment to the study of political philosophy.’
‘What then is the Hobbesian theory of the state? It is distinguished from more conventional modern conceptions by leaving aside all substantive considerations of justice or rights—how the state ought to be constituted. Its essential character is to distinguish all constitutional aspirations from the prior question of getting a state into being in the first place. His aim is above all to distinguish statehood from constitution, the civil association from any concern with how that association is actually ordered. The state, in other words, must be distinguished from any particular opinions dominant within it. Failure to meet this condition would generate in some degree or another an ideological version of statehood. Hobbes’s great admirer Michael Oakeshott poses the same problem in On Human Conduct, and solves it by distinguishing “enterprise associations” (based on one or other enthusiasm within the state) and “civil associations.” The essence of the state itself may thus be found in civil associations, whose entire point lay in associating individuals together on the basis of nothing more substantive than an obligation to conform their conduct to a system of law. In Hobbes, the basis of statehood similarly lies in the recognition of the conditions declared by the sovereign. Any actual state, of course, will contain both types of allegiance.’
If you’re interested in critiques on the effects of rationalism and utopianism in politics and political theory, and a defense of the familiar and the traditional in the face of Socialist, Marxist, and other ideologies, it’s probably worth looking into.
Drop a line if this is your area.
‘That Oakeshott’s thought does not in the end hang together may not be very important. What system of philosophy does? But the fact is ironic given his intellectual antecedents. He was one of the last of the British Idealists, who, as opponents of empiricism, understood truth not as meaning correspondence with any kind of external reality but as a form of internal coherence in our thinking.’
‘He wrote for himself and anyone else who might be interested; it is unlikely that anyone working in a university today could find the freedom or leisure that are needed to produce a volume such as this. Writing in 1967, Oakeshott laments, ‘I have wasted a lot of time living.’ Perhaps so, but as this absorbing selection demonstrates, he still managed to fit in a great deal of thinking’