Pico Ultraorientalis

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The Problematic Primacy of the Person: (Part 2) What’s love got to do with it?

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 5, 2019

Knowledge and Emotions

Behind the bravado, it is tacitly understood by most conservatives that civilization is going down the tubes at an accelerating rate.  The sundry ideologists (libertarians, traditionalists, natural rights theorists) charged with guarding the city of morals and manners are scrambling for exits and excuses.  The most popular line goes somewhat as follows:  Ideas, contrary to what we had been taught, really don’t count for much at all.  Why not?  Because we live in a world dominated by increasingly sophisticated conspiracies, technologies and propaganda.  That is a bleak outlook, but it is more popular, and less embarrassing, than the alternative explanation.

The alternative explanation would be that our (conservative/libertarian) ideas are no match for left wing ideology.  Please note that this is not the same as saying that right ideas are wrong and the left ideas are right.  No, it is rather that the persuasive power of left wing ideology and rhetoric (even if false) is apt to overwhelm its right-thinking but fragile opposition.  Increasingly we hear that the left bases its claims on emotions, that they are nothing more than a besotted band of snowflakes, unicorns, and cry-babies.   Conversely, the right bases its case on reason, dispassionate claims, and principle.  So what sways the court of public opinion, principle or pathos?  With disturbing regularity, the left emerges triumphant.

For many, the notion that conservative/libertarian thought isn’t up to the challenge is too disconcerting to take seriously, and those who do take it seriously are liable to react in a counterproductive manner.   Among these “reactionaries” the more emotional and irrational the left becomes, the more desirable it seems to appear cool and logical.  This reflects the perennial urge to counter adversity by doing more and more of what you had tried even though it hadn’t worked before.  If Ayn Rand were alive today, she would be egging us on towards more logical thinking and less emotion.  Reason for Rand was an unlimited good, like wine for Polythemis.  More!

Contrary to the claims of her followers, I doubt that Ayn Rand was the greatest philosopher of 20th century.  In my present state of knowledge I would be inclined to give that palm to Max Scheler.  Of course  I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a little dose of Schelerian phenomenology, like chicken soup, can’t do any harm, and might even be salutary in a seemingly hopeless historical situation.   Yet in significant ways Scheler was far less orthodox in relation to the Western tradition than Rand.  Indeed, for all her hatred of Immanuel Kant, Rand was able to offer little more than a simplified Kantian ethics.  As such she stood in the center of the tradition, albeit as a handmaiden, not the prodigy that her followers claim.

Conversely, Scheler was a heretic in almost every sense of the word, both philosophical and religious.  On the overt level, his wayward thoughts and actions cost him both academic tenure and church membership.   Yet his deepest heresy was a total reversal of Western thought, in which the emotions were made foundational and knowledge secondary.  To rationalists, and many who just profess to be rational, this reversal will sound wrongheaded, if not toxic.  To others, especially psychologists, it will seem to belabor the obvious.  The rationalists are more accurate in their (ab-) reaction, in so far as Scheler was not trying to be a psychologist, in which case his insights about the mind and its emotions would have been trivial.  Rather, as a phenomenologist, Scheler was relating the action of the mind to the objective structure of the world.  He wasn’t just saying that individual people’s minds are emotional (trivial), he meant that in some sense the world itself, as we understand it, is based on emotions (heresy).

To any sensible and conservative thinker this reversal of knowledge and the emotions will sound suspiciously like “bad news for modern man” and without a doubt the initial impact and misappropriation of Scheler’s thought was pernicious.  From the 1930s onward in Europe, Scheler, if remembered at all, was considered to be little more than the precursor of succeeding, irrationalist, philosophies of existence.  These succeeding varieties of  existence-philosophy, manifesting in the popularity of Heidegger (fascism) and Sartre (communism) might be seen as either co-opting Scheler into the lineage of nihilism or making him a byword for intellectual and moral default.     My own view of Scheler is predicated on the conviction that European thought as a whole reached its peak prior to the First World War, and in the shattering aftermath of that conflict entered a period of steep decline.  Unfortunately this “peak Europe” was also “peak Scheler” as well, as characterized by his later (1920s) attempt to disengage his ethics from his (new) metaphysics.  This move is a source of continued controversy, and one way or the other makes Scheler look like a transitional figure.  However, I prefer to see his value theory as the culmination of previous thinking, from Augustine to Eucken, rather than as a prophetic interlude prior to a titanic onslaught on civilization which he would have deplored.  This framing of Scheler as a conservative, someone who encapsulated previous ethics prior to his attempts to improve on them, should give contemporary defenders of morality and freedom access to a method of thought which they might otherwise neglect.

Even if conservatives and libertarians manage not to be put off by a line of thought which attained its terminal expression in Weimar Germany, they may understandably balk at regrounding their political theory in a phenomenology of the emotions.  On the face of it, taking the emotions as primary not only smacks of the left’s methods, it just sounds plain wrong.  Hence, to make the most plausible case, before venturing into a contrast of formal vs. value ethics, I’ll take up the case of the emotion par excellance: Love.

Gnostic Love vs. Christian Love

We will have to make a wide arc from religion to politics and back to religion.  By insinuating that conservatives don’t have their ducks lined up correctly, I don’t mean that we need a new idea.  Perhaps we need to return to an old idea, which will turn out to be nothing but Christianity expressed in thought.  Not that the experience of Christianity has ever been lost, but the conceptual articulation of that experience is fraught with extraordinary difficulties.   As Paul said, we must work it out “in fear and trembling.” So much is this so, that the history of the West might be summed up as a succession of varied misinterpretations of Christianity.  Erick Voeglin has chronicled the stumbling misapplication of the Gospel from the time of the ancient gnostics to the rise of modern politics and the (pseudo-) messianic totalitarian state.  While there may not be a direct teaching lineage stretching from the ancient to the modern gnostics, they are both typified by the notion of salvation by self-effort, either collective or individual.  The great irony of this movement can be seen from the contrast between its origin and its final outcome.  Gnosticism began as an attempt to ground Christian doctrine in Greek philosophy, while today, in its final stages, it is manifesting as an effort by the left to shut down “the conversation of the West” and replace it with something that looks frighteningly like a hive-mind.

Escaping from this ironic history requires getting beyond the simple equation Left=emotions, Right=reason.  Rather, it requires a reexamination of the metaphysical filters by which we decide what we mean alternatively by reason or emotion, and within emotion, the valuations we assign to various states of mind, for better or for worse.  As the lyrics of a popular song went, “Love is a battleground”…and there is no more important battleground in either politics or the war of ideas than the definition and understanding of what we mean by love.  Contemporary political rhetoric is dominated by the struggle over who is compassionate and who is insensitive.  Surely, only an all knowing God could objectively determine the extent to which one particular individual really cared about other individuals, short of such omniscience even depth psychology or a phenomenology of the emotions would be helpless.  Yet as historians we can critically examine the doctrines which have been offered up to epitomize love, doctrines which have shaped the convictions and behavior of humanity.  Strange as it may seem, our capacity to love is affected by our metaphysics, our view of the world.  Notoriously, someone who believes human beings to be mere lumps of flesh will have a different attitude towards others than another person who believes all humans have a soul.  Yet not everyone who shouts “Lord! Lord!” or even “soul, soul” is speaking the same language.  If, as per Eric Voeglin, the history of the West is a history of heresy, we can expect that both life and love have been variously defined according to sundry ideologies, all of which have at one time or another sought to portray themselves as the true “Christianity.”

Following Voeglin, if we understand the modern movement in politics, with all its chaotic tendencies, as the extension of an ancient spiritual impulse, it becomes clear the West has long carried the seed of its own destruction deep within.    This insight is gladly embraced by those who follow Nietzsche in identifying the destructive agent as Christianity itself.  However Voeglin makes a distinction between genuine Christianity and the power-drive of its heretical imitators.  Indeed, we could construct a jerrybuilt argument against modern politics by simply by identifying Christianity with love and calling out modernity as  an extension of ancient preoccupations with power and knowledge.  However this is not satisfactory for a number of reasons, among them, that it hands both knowledge and power over to the enemy.  Even more importantly, an exclusively anti-gnostic argument abandons the battleground of love, a commanding height which the enemy believes he has already captured.

It is the singular quality of modern tyranny, that it finds its ultimate justification in neither law nor reason, but a peculiar doctrine of love.  Behind the cruel edicts of Robespierre were the musings of J. J. Rousseau, a “man of feeling” and philosopher of love.  In more recent times, who was Che Guevara except a romeo of revolution?  Whatever revisions critical scholarship might make to his biography, which might show his character to be quite different from that supposed by his idolators, it is unlikely to tarnish the archetype.  Examples of the type could be multiplied without limit.  This is not, of course, “romantic love” in the vulgar sense of the word.  Nobody cares that Leon Trotsky was the lover of Frieda Kahlo, only that he was the lover of humanity as a whole.  Indeed, he loved humanity so much that he could wish it nothing better than perpetual war in pursuit of a perfection doomed to recede into an infinite future.  Where does this peculiar love come from, this love which is spiritual while professing doctrinaire materialism?  Indeed, how do we explain a form of love which is at once universal, and in its concrete manifestation indistinguishable from hate?

In his essay on “Love and Knowledge” Scheler delves somewhat deeper into this enigma than Voeglin was able to do even in his very detailed and historically subsequent work.  Granted, Scheler’s Greek-Indian type is a bit broader than what Voeglin identifies as gnosticism.  If modern political movements had only a doctrine of hate, and were explicit in their call for class war, then we could be satisfied with labeling them gnostic, with the dualism that implies.  However, (and here I think it is Scheler who is to be commended for perspicuity even though he doesn’t draw the modern political implications as clearly as I am doing), the dualism is actually driven by a deeper monism.  It is not that the incendiary movements are simply appealing to “love” as a deceitful propaganda ploy, but rather that they are sincere in both their emotions and metaphysics.  Scheler notes that the predominant characteristic of Greek-Indian (a.k.a., gnostic) thought is monism.  From this he points out that we can expect a pantheistic doctrine of love to be grounded on the attraction of similarity.  The movement of love will be in the direction of grounding solidarity in sameness, and its end result will be the homogenization of the lover and the loved.  Hence this kind of love is both the expression and actualization of pantheism.

If we are willing to entertain the idea that love is connected to metaphysics, then it should be apparent that the Greek-Indian, or gnostic, love contrasts broadly with Christian, or Judeo-Christian love.  The Judeo-Christian God is not a god like that of Aristotle, who can only recognize universal ideas.  Rather, He is the God of particulars, not just the God of the universe, but the God of Abraham, of Issac, and of Jacob.   This God (of Abraham etc.) is even further from pantheism than He is from being the god of Aristotle.  The salient point here is that love in such a God’s creation will not negate particularity as it would do in a pantheistic universe.  Indeed the whole point of love in such a creation will not be the overcoming but the cherishing of difference.

Returning to the doctrines of the modern political left, we see with increasing clarity a growing intolerance for any distinctions of either heredity or merit within the human species.  In spite of lip service paid to “multiculturalism” in the interests of equalizing the fortunes of sundry demographics, it is clear that any substantive differences in life practices are scheduled for progressive elimination.  The overall thrust of modern politics in a managerial state is towards the leveling and homogenization of society.  This is promoted under the oxymoron term “democratization” but an enthusiasm for democracy is unaccountable if we stop to consider that it is no more than a method of political administration.  Behind the bloodless terminology of politics lurk the emotions love and hate, and since the latter is only the shadow side of the former we have been concentrating here on love.  Yet even behind love lurks religion.  Which religion determines which love.  Choose wisely.

 

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