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Who put the damn in Notre Dame?

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 16, 2019

We have met the enemy and he is us

There is a near universal sadness and shock at the loss of what is arguably the most iconic cathedral, not just of France, but of Western Christianity.  There will no doubt arise an acrimonious debate about penultimate causes.  Who’s negligence?  Or was it terrorism?  I foresee a thousand theories launched.  Let’s skip all that and proceed to the ultimate cause, who is God.  And by the way, who is God?

Does this offend you?  That God would burn down his own cathedral, using whatever human agency might be at hand.  If you are offended, then good, since it means you have already inferred the reasoning behind God’s action, that we are no longer worthy of Notre Dame, or any of the beautiful things which were made by men and women of faith (however imperfect that faith might have been) to glorify their Creator.

What kind of God would do such a thing?  A God with integrity.  If you think, no, that is impossible, then your god isn’t even as honorable as the hero in an Ayn Rand novel.  Rand was an atheist, but she tried to endow her characters with fragments of the very divinity which she denied.  In The Fountainhead, when architect Howard Roark’s plans for a housing project are compromised by faithless colleague, architect turns arsonist and burns down his own creation.  God is like that.  It is odd that many atheists have a better grasp on a theology which they eschew, than self-professed “Christians.”

From Christians to Europeans

The reaction is predictably histrionic.  Even with the flames still licking at the nave, Macron vows to rebuild.  The very Macron who perfectly epitomizes the essence of post-Christian, post-national Europe.  Why rebuild?  Because it is a symbol?  A symbol of what?  Perhaps a symbol of an ancient faith, like the Parthenon, which has been preserved for aesthetic and historical reasons.   The one thing we can be sure of, is that Notre Dame no longer symbolizes the reality of the secular society which surrounds it.  Secular France replaced Christianity, and Europe (if Macron has any say about it) will replace France, just as the Planetary Over-soul is scheduled to replace Europe and the other regional civilizations.  In the meantime the historic buildings are to be kept around, as a solace for the nostalgic and a lure for the tourist industry.

This is what the Bible calls an “abomination” and even those who are loath to receive Moses might take note of how gently a certain Yeshua ben Yosef treated merchants who commercialized sacred space.  That’s God in action, and he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry about Notre Dame, but I didn’t make the rules, He did.

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Posted in Anthropology, Architecture, Art, Christianity, culture, Culture & Politics, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Cost of Pseudo-Enlightenment: Libertarian ideology at the cross-roads

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 31, 2019

A movement (rightly) divided

We  are slouching towards a civil war.  I’m not alluding to a civil war within the American body politic.  Hopefully the release of the Muller report has set that particular doomsday clock back a few minutes, although I fear that inertia and the instinct for self-preservation are the primary forces holding civil society together these days.

No, I mean a smaller but still momentous civil war, a simmering ideological conflict between “left” and “right” libertarians, which (even if we treat those handed labels with ambidexterous contempt) is quite real.  Unlike a military conflict, this war of ideas is to be welcomed as a necessary house cleaning.  Furthermore it is to be hoped that, unlike the left, both sides in this conflict can still abide by the rules of intelligent debate, i.e., that one is not wasting ones breath, or ink as the case may be.  Unlike our nuclear conflict with the left, we can do better than praying that some equivalent to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Distruction (MAD) will delay the apocalypse.  Rather, we can hope for genuine conversions, for an audience of men and women with enough integrity and humility to surrender good ideas for even better ones.  After all, that was what the conversation of the West was supposed to be about, was it not?

Among the most recent documents to appear as part of this ongoing conversation is an essay entitled “The Cost of the Enlightenment” by Daniel Ajamian, which he delivered as the Lou Church memorial lecture at the annual Conference on Austrian Economics.   Clearly Ajamian is addressing the aforementioned divide among libertarians, a divide in which the continuum of pro-liberty opinions could be bisected using any number of criteria (left/right, minarchist/anarchist, adventurist/opportunist, cultural liberals/economic liberals, etc.).   However drawing attention to the way Jonathan Goodman reformulated the question posed by Jordan Peterson, “What from the Enlightenment do you toss out the window before things get ugly?”  Ajamian proposes  apportioning the pro-liberty camp between disciples of European 18th century thought and Pre-Enlighteners.  “Pre-Enlighteners” is my coinage, as Ajamian would no doubt prefer “Traditionalists” but we both come down firmly against the 18th century, together with Goodman, who responded to Peterson’s question by asking “…what is required to be reintroduced that the Enlightenment destroyed?”

Peterson is a psychologist, not a historian, and like most people he associates things like due process, habeus corpus, and the other trappings of the rule of law with the 18th century and the foundational documents of the American republic.  No harm in that, as long as we are arguing against the left for civility over chaos, since they don’t read history, they just rewrite it.   However in the interests of self-clarification it is important to understand that the Bill of Rights et al were  the culmination of thinking which went back to well before the Magna Carta.  Just how far back into time is an interesting question, and I suppose that beyond a certain historical horizon Ajamian and I would have to part company.  None the less, his essay is a convenient broadside against the thesis claiming civilization, hence freedom, is a product of abstract reason, this being the kind of Reason which the editors of said-named libertarian magazine and their 18th century Encylopedia predecessors have always assured us would guarantee the endless betterment of humanity.  Ajamian’s criticism of this thesis takes the form of an appeal to counter-revolutionary thinkers from Burke to Solzhenitsyn.   Their insights are well worth reiteration, especially the observation that resistance to tyranny requires a virtuous population, and the broader notion that any centralized state erodes the moral capital of civil society.  None the less, this appeal to the wisdom of tradition is unlikely to convince those who have already been persuaded that history is bunk, a view ironically popularized by the now-forgotten but still influential thinkers of the 18th century.  Hence traditionalism is in the uncomfortable position of having to assume the very thing it is struggling to prove.

To his credit, Ajamian shifts the brunt of the argument from periods to principles.  After all, there was nothing uniquely villainous about the European 18th century, a time which already saw opposition (pietism, romanticism etc.) mustered against the heady rationalism inherited from Descartes, Newton and other primary sources of modernity.  However that century will always be remembered for the crystallization of a sociopolitical movement which openly embraced two premises targeted by Ajamian’s critique 1) Liberty without God, and 2) Reason without God.  Short of proving the existence of God, which is a task best left to the Spirit, what kind of argument can be made against these negations?  Since Ajamain is conversing among fellow libertarians, the nature of liberty is not the problematic issue, since it can be reliably defined according to the Non Aggression Principle (NAP).  Rather the problem with liberty, thus defined, is the seeming absence of any force which ensures its ultimate triumph in the concrete historical world.  Hence liberty, somewhat like “spirit” in Max Scheler’s latter philosophy, is something noble but impotent.  Liberty appears as an attractive sojourner inside history, waiting for something or someone, a “factor X” to give it a lift to its final victory.

Of course Ajamian, like the rest of us paleo-libertarians, is well aware that Enlightenment-based libertarians have a snap answer to this dilemma.  They present us with two items (factor X1 and X2) which will jointly serve as the engines of liberation: markets and reason.  Indeed, the liberal children of the Enlightenment have a robust confidence in these two factors, a confidence which rivals the faith of their collectivist adversaries in the Hegelian dialectic.  However markets, as repeatedly demonstrated during the 20th century, are vulnerable to politics, propaganda, and war.   Markets may be efficient, but the forces arrayed against them don’t prize this efficiency, and have the power to either suppress markets or pervert them to their own ends.  The Enlightenment liberal knows that politics cannot be countered with physical force since armed conflict sets in motion a cycle of events which simply reinforces the power of the state.   Ultimately the Enlightenment liberal must fall back on the power of reason to convert men and women to the principles of freedom and the market.  Is this a panacea or an illusion?

I concur with Ajamian that a certain kind of reason, a naked reason in the service of no higher principle, is an illusion and a dangerous one.   Unfortunately he leaves the critique of reason tacit, preferring to summarize the wisdom of the West in its current state of expression.  Perhaps because he is consorting with Austrian economists and those of similar intellectual caliber, Ajamian felt that a fundamental critique of reason would belabor the obvious.  However in the moral wasteland which America has become, nothing can be assumed any more, so a brief reprise of elementary logic is anything but superfluous.

Fundamentally, reason, unless we are using the word as a cypher for something different (in such  cases the capital R is usually a giveaway) is nothing more than a tool of logical demonstration.  Arguments may be valid, but their truth is entirely dependent on the quality of the premises which they are founded upon.  All men are Socrates, Socrates is a banana, therefore all men are bananas.  That’s a completely valid conclusion, although it probably drives you bananas because you know, deep in your heart, that there is something profoundly wrong going on with the argument.  The premises are the thing, and premises are not inherently rational or irrational.  I say the moon is made of green cheese and you say it is mainly silicon dust.  Granted, there might be more evidence for your thesis, but as statements, both premises are equally rational.

The problem with the Enlightenment-based liberals (a.k.a. libertarians) is that, in spite of their appropriation of reason (capital R) they expect people to embrace their premises without argumentation.  They presume that humanity has arrived at a consensus that freedom is more important than any other value, when in fact there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.  I suppose Ajamian would agree with me on this, but I wanted to draw out a premise of his argument which he had left tacit.  However let’s go back even further than this basic critique of reason.

Word or Reason?

I don’t know Ajamian personally, so this is only conjecture, but I suspect that his own world-view is based on an enlightened premise.  Unlike the left-libertarians his enlightenment did not erupt into history around the time of the 18th century.  Rather, it started in the 12th century with the recovery of the Aristotelian corpus, and the rediscovery of dialectic (not historical and Marxist, but rational and Socratic)  If this is not Ajamian’s view, my apologies, but it is has certainly been  a perennial and popular understanding within the circles of Western conservative and libertarian thought.  Perhaps the best exemplar of this type of thinking was Richard Weaver, although he was deep enough to see its limitations.  It is certainly an attractive way of thinking for intellectuals.  Whereas the 18th century (like contemporary left-libertarians) just used “reason” as a slogan and a smokescreen, the 12th century actually recovered reason as a method of logical discovery and argumentation.  Unfortunately, like its 18th century imitator, this more genuine rationalism is fairly useless for the salvation of the human race.

Here is the basic problem.  Even if there is a transcendent truth, it must traverse the cognitive wasteland of human psychology before manifesting itself in the life-world of concrete action.  Because of the distortions of subjectivity, human cognition is morally weak.  This is not to say that cognition is weak in the sense that materialists claim, that thought is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of physical factors.  In fact, mental factors are surprisingly strong.  Like the invisible wind in the sails of a massive ship, human mental life is capable of reversing the course of material reality.  Impotence, whatever Max Scheler might have said in his last years, is not a quality of “spirit.”  The problem is that the mental winds are apt to blow in the wrong direction.  The tremendous power of “spirit” is subverted by propaganda and other cunningly devised lies and deceptions, including self-deception both by societies and individuals.

Ideas are powerful, and as Weaver said, they have consequences.  Unfortunately, good ideas are not powerful enough to stand up against the bad ideas which have been amplified by the coefficient of what Ajamian terms “the strongman.”  I don’t think the strongman is a literal gangster or dictator with a physical gun in his hands.  Rather, and especially today, the strongman is equipped with psychological techniques which subvert the human quest for truth, and make it serve the strongman’s agenda.  Hence humanity stands in thrall to the strongman, the incipient good ideas of individuals always in danger of being overwhelmed by techniques which herd the masses towards tyranny.

The obvious need is for a man who is both strong and good to counter the tyrant “strongman” and to author good ideas in place of bad ones.  Such a man would have to have one foot in eternity and the other in our world, in order to wrest sovereignty from the tyrant of Earth.  From its inception, the Christian church had some notion of this good man, who was a manifestation of a Good Idea.  He was called the Logos.  Goodness, but not the impotent goodness of mere ideas, rather a kind of Idea armed to the teeth.

Armed with this wonderful Idea, how was the church bested even by the half-baked philosophers of the 18th century?  That is a deep enigma indeed, and one which I can hardly investigate in the brief space of this essay.  However I do have an inkling as to a solution.  It may be that Richard Weaver’s thesis about the abandonment of reason in the modern world is the precise opposite of the truth.  Weaver believed that we needed to return to the enlightenment of the 12th century, and back to a belief in the priority of ideas over concrete things.  If this is a plea for objective standards in law and morality, for society not being “a respecter of persons” then it is admirable.  However what if Weaver got his historical narrative wrong?  What if the church, in the 12th century and under the influence of Aristotle, made the Logos too abstract and depersonalized?

If this is the case, then most of us, even those of us who fancy ourselves “paleo-libertarians”…we are largely, if not entirely, post-Enlightenment liberals.  If Western Christianity has appealed to a God who is little more than the author of abstractions, then what was the philosophy of the 18th century but the chickens coming home to roost?  Only if our God is a person do we have the leverage to fight against the strongman with our otherwise puny ideas.  Fortunately, in every age believers have never lost their grasp on the God who is a person, however churches, in their quest for universal moral and social doctrines, have tended towards abstraction.  Out of this earlier theological misstep came the great leveling doctrines of secular modernity.  Contrary to what Richard Weaver may have envisioned, the nominalism of the late Scholastics, refreshed by the concreteness of Hebrew sources (via Nicholas of Lyra) may have been the antidote rather than the disease.  Furthermore, it was this nominalistic Scholasticism (not Thomism) which was the immediate predecessor to the revival of moral and natural philosophy in Western Europe.  Today, as we search for a moral philosophy which goes beyond the frayed paradigm of social contracts and other formal ethics, conservatives and libertarians would do well to study the works of the nominalists, and ultimately the Hebraic mindset which was their source and inspiration.  If so, then they will have in their grasp a counter-Enligtenment which is indeed enlightening.

 

 

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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 3) Saturdays with Scheler

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

If my hunches are correct, then we will have to understand what Max Scheler meant by the difference between formal and value ethics if we are to have any hope of grounding conservative/libertarian thought on something deeper than its present eclectic ideology.  I hope to examine that ideology in a future post, but for now simply allow the compound “conservative/libertarian” vouch for its eclectic nature.  Now, in order to get a precise understanding of the difference between value ethics and formal ethics, we would have to delve into the dense jungle of philosophical and phenomenological investigation, the very prospect of which would cause any sane person to cry out for Divine deliverance!

Fortunately, Godly help has long since arrived, in the form of a Jewish teacher who walked our planet some two millennia ago, one Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Fortunately (from the perspective of our own autonomy as persons) He was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, but a wonderful poet and parable maker, a man stamped with the legacy of David, His ancestor, both king and composer.  The sayings of Yeshua are frequently enigmatic nuggets, intended for careful unpacking over time.   There is always considerable danger when we try to interpret such dense teachings, especially what Peter Leithardt has called the danger of “eisegesis” i.e., imputing our own ideas to a text, rather than the “exegesis” of carefully unpacking the text to find its true meaning.  I happen to think that the royal road into value ethics runs though the teachings of Yeshua, but you would be justifiably suspicious that I am engaging in eisegesis unless we can locate an issue where His sayings are pointing us directly towards the contrast between value and form.

In fact, it is the teachings of the Messiah on the Sabbath which provide (for non-philosophers at least) the most accessible portal into the form/value distinction.  The church has tended to treat this issue as either secondary (in the sense that ethics is secondary to the doctrine of salvation) or to use the sayings of Yeshua as proof-texts licensing either a change in, or abolition of, the Sabbath.   I must make clear that my purpose in this essay is neither to advocate for or against Sabbath observance.  However it is in the context of this seemingly arcane and irrelevant issue that we can both elucidate the way the Messiah would have us think of forms and values, and apply them to contemporary social and political conditions.

The Test Case

In Matthew chapter 12 vv. 1-14 a sequence of events occur involving questions by 1st century (i.e.,Tannaic age) Jewish teachers and responses by Yeshua.  These responses highlight the circumstances under which the Messiah feels that it is permissible to perform actions which would normally be prohibited between sundown of Friday night and sundown of Saturday night.  It is doubtful that his auditors were open minded enough to profit from his teaching.  However we in the 21st century may profit in an unexpected way if these teachings point us towards the distinction between formal ethics and value ethics.  It is almost as if the Fourth Word (i.e., fourth commandment) together with the Messiah’s response, were inserted into scripture by the Almighty to start us thinking in new ways about the foundations of ethics.

Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue), which mentions the Sabbath, is uniquely suited as a test case for critiquing the concept of a formal ethics.  The fifth through tenth words comport only too well with our common understanding of morality, to such an extent that Divine authorship seems almost superfluous.  Conversely, the first through third flatter us during our pious moods, and fill us with numinous terror at other times.   All of the Words, including the fourth, are conveyed as imperatives.  However only the Forth Word arouses our suspicion that it is an arbitrary and extra-moral formalism.  Readers of Matthew 12:1-14, unless they happen to be Talmudists, will instinctively side with the response of the Messiah as a mere reiteration of common sense.  However this facile assent preempts a deeper appreciation of both the Fourth Word and the Messiah’s emendations.

The thinking behind this near-automatic assent goes as follows.  Sabbath keeping is framed in the imperative, and to the extent that it applies (of course, this is a matter of dispute) must be complied with.   However, this rule of the Sabbath is subordinate to a higher rule, that which mandates the preservation of human life.  This subordination of the Sabbath is illustrated by the actions and sayings of the Messiah in two or three categories, 1) staving off hunger by gleaning from fields, 2) healing the sick, and possibly 3) animal rescue (actually a limiting case dealing with property).

We are now liable to jump to the conclusion that we have adequately understood the difference between formal and value ethics.   It is all too easy to make the Fourth Word a stereotype of any possible formal ethics.  After all, it is an imperative and sharply delimits the kind of behavior ( or absence of behavior) permissible within certain boundaries of time and space.   Superficially, the Fourth Word is not about a good, or any kind of pleasure, but about a duty to be performed.  It would  seem to follow that whatever is antithetical to the Fourth Word automatically counts as a value ethics.  Hence, violations of the Sabbath in the cause of preserving life clearly promote a good, arguably the highest good of all, the ultimate value of human life.  Thus we might see in the tension between the Fourth Word and the attitude of the Messiah, a contrast between formal ethics and value ethics.

However this understanding is premature.  If we sifted them through the sieve of Scheler’s analysis, we would find both alternatives fall entirely within the world of formal ethics.  First we are presented with the formal ethics of Divine imperatives, which we feel authorized to forsake in favor of an alternative formal ethics which invokes the sanctity of life.  In effect, we have replaced the God of the Bible with another god, “Life” on the basis of which we can construct an allegedly superior system of formal ethics.  This way of thinking (life-ethics) has considerable appeal (and in the political context, both among liberals and conservatives) because it seems to rest on a solid axiom out of which moral imperatives can be generated.   However there is a difficulty here for anyone who wishes to invoke the sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef in support of this second system of formal ethics, a system which rests on the imperatives of life.  As it happens, this is not what the Master is really teaching in Matthew 12.

How would Jesus think?

Yeshua ha Moshiach (a.k.a. Jesus) actually gives two complementary justifications for “working” on the Sabbath, justifications which seem, according to the modern mind, congenial to life-ethics, but which in fact are based on radically different premises.  The first justification returns us to the original theme of these essays, the primacy of the person, and in this case the primacy of a Person.  If we resort to the insights of Scheler and certain other philosophers, we will note that they draw an important distinction between the concept of an “individual” and a “person.”  Granted in American usage we tend to talk about individuals in a robust way that conflates this analysis, as in “she is a colorful individual.”  However Scheler restricts the meaning of individual to the legal individual who stands as one unit within a democratic society.  In contrast to individuals, persons are not only unique, but morally asymmetrical in their relations among themselves.  Drawing on the test-case of the Sabbath for his illustrations. Yeshua, who as Messiah is authorized to speak on his own behalf, becomes the expositor of the Biblical system of ethics where a supreme Person is sovereign over all formal ethics.  From this initial, and supremely asymmetrical relation, we are ushered into a world where persons at large possess sovereignty over forms.  This because, while qua God, Yeshua is unique, qua human, he is the first born among the benei Elohim (sons of God).  It is this sovereignty over forms which was subsequently epitomized (by Paul and countless others) in the slogan “Christian freedom” a notion which should never be confused with the supposed abrogation of the Torah, which is at most an illustration or a test-case of a much broader issue.

The above, personalist, justification of Sabbath “work” can (in my opinion) be unpacked from verse 8, “The Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat.”  However Matthew 12 contains an important, correlative justification of Sabbath “work.”  This correlative justification is actually more interesting and foundational, even though it dwells on a level further down on the hierarchy of persons.  The Messiah gives the illustrative case in vv. 11-12.

He said to them, “What man among you will not grab his sheep and lift it out, if it falls into a pit on Shabbat?  How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.”

Again, the modern temptation is to assimilate this illustration to an ethics of life.  Parenthetically, it is not entirely clear (as per modern animal advocates) if the merely organic life of an individual sheep is of any less worth than that of individual of the homo sapiens species.  Never the less, I feel it best to depart from this line of thought in order to concentrate on the way the passage as a whole discloses the foundations of value-ethics, and in particular the way in which an objective value-ethics can be distinguished from the subjective valuation of objects.  I am grateful that the TLV passage actually uses “valuable” for the word which is translated “worth” in the Authorized version (KJV).

Now it should be obvious that “value” here does not refer to the subjective exchange cost of the man and the sheep.  Not that one couldn’t find some scholars who might be willing to follow that particular rabbit hole to its logical, and dreary, conclusion.  Thus, supposing we could find out what the average rent value of a laborer’s time or the purchase value of a slave was in the Levant during the 1st century of the Common Era, and then express such values as ratios against the price of a single head of sheep during the same period, we could no doubt test whether the assertion “the man was more valuable than the sheep” was true historically.  We could attempt such a historical investigation because “the man was more valuable than the sheep” is a meaningful assertion which is susceptible to testing.

However this is not the meaning which the Messiah gives the the assertion about “value.”  The word here is a conjugation of diapheroo which can mean any number of things, including “value” or “worth.”   However from the context alone it is clear that Yeshua is not speaking of subjective exchange value, but of what might be called an ordo amoris (i.e., an “order of the heart”) a phrase coined by Blaise Pascal but given closer treatment by Scheler.  The man is loved and the sheep is loved, but the loves are not equal in value.  If there is an underlying ordo amoris then the human being would stand higher in valuation even if the market price for a slave were lower than that of a sheep.  This is because, according to the kind of personalism which Pascal and Scheler advocate, there is an objective order of values which is independent of era, place, or economic calculation.  In the illustration provided by the Messiah, it is implied that there are sacred and intellectual values which bode forth through the thoughts and actions of the human being which are inaccessible to the sheep.  It is urgent to save the sheep, but it is even more urgent to save the man.  Both the necessity of saving the sheep and the man supersede compliance with formal ethics, as here represented by observance of (rabbinical) Sabbath regulations.

No right thinking person (even among the Talmudists!) actually disputes the response given by Yeshua to the Sabbath dilemma.  None the less, sloppy and casual treatment of the case has often led to either generalized and trivial conclusions or hair-splitting and divisive historicism.  For example, one might say, religious customs should not stand in the way of protecting life.  That is certainly true, but if we condemn formal ethics in the name of an ad hoc and indiscriminate category called “life” we are taking the first step towards materialism and utilitarianism.  Eventually we will have to sacrifice not only formal ethics but mind and the spirit as well.  Embracing value ethics saves both life and the Sabbath, in so far as it gives consideration both to the creatures and the ultimate Person, God Himself. It is the universal asymmetry of objective values which give them substance, in comparison with which both rules regulating time and protecting life stand as abstract generalizations.

It is only to be expected that historicists, relativists, materialists, positivists, modernists and post-modernists would all reject the idea of an objective order of values.  It is more tragic that those who oppose these main stream schools, i.e., paleoconservatives, paleolibertarians, traditionalists et al, are not in one accord with regard to the trans-historical objectivity of values.   This is a matter for further discussion, but hopefully Matthew 12 has epitomized the issues in question .  My contention has been that viewing the Sabbath controversy within the framework of formal vs. value ethics, brings out a broader meaning than that of either life-ethics or the Torah/anti-Torah diatribes, and (hopefully and prayerfully) is closer to the meaning intended by the Messiah Himself.  If that is so, then the dilemma of the Sabbath can be transformed into a two way street, with ethics illuminating religious practice and Scripture illuminating what we mean by value ethics.

 

 

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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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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 1) Do we need to go back to school with Max Scheler?

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A man who could not decide whether he wanted to be a playboy or a philosopher is probably not the best advertisement for a new ethics of love.   Yet out of charity it should at least be noted that Max Scheler was considered by his contemporaries (and I concur) the most brilliant thinker of his country and generation.  This was no mean accomplishment since the “time and place” was a still vibrant and relatively free Germany at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even if you havn’t heard of Scheler, and there are many reasons why you probably havn’t, none the less there are serious grounds for reexamining the kind of problems Scheler grappled with.    Notably this included the question: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?”  Furthermore, according to our understanding of “what a person is” what impact does that have on the relationship between rights and obligations, between law and love?

I’m not saying that Scheler resolved these problems in a completely satisfactory way.  Indeed, his philosophy resembles a ruined cathedral, at one time complete from foundation to tower, where the builder suddenly changed his mind and tore everything down to the second story.  That foundation, which Scheler insisted was serviceable no matter what religion (or none) one professed, was what he called a “non-formal ethics of values. ” Admittedly, this “non-formal ethics of values”, is just the sort of jawbreaker that you might expect to emerge from the cerebral jungles of German scholarship.  Yet, rightly understood a non-formal ethics of values gives us a key to deal with many thorny problems where the post-modern world has come up against a conceptual dead end.

For example, whom should we consider the rightful inheritor of Christ’s spiritual mantle, the modern political left or the modern political right?  Weighty and irreconcilable claims to a moral, if not apostolic, succession are made on both sides of the aisle.   To oversimplify, which should we acknowledge as the true gospel of political ethics: the left’s advocacy of indiscriminate and unconditional love or the right’s advocacy of absolute rights and righteousness?  The catch phrase here is “to oversimplify” since without further analysis of these bald claims, they both seem to rest on valid premises.   Agreed, we need to be both righteous and loving, and until we come up against a crisis where decisive action is required one way or the other, it would seem that we can eat our cake and have it too.  But then what?  In order to resolve this issue, and many like it, we need greater sensitivity.  Not greater emotional sensitivity (although that might be a desirable consequence) but a greater intellectual sensitivity.  Through phenomenological investigation Max Scheler developed his understanding of the difference between formal ethics and a non-formal ethics of values.  We need not endorse his conclusions, but we can utilize some of his discoveries as tools for resolving the dilemmas of modernity post-modernity.  It all starts by reexamining what we mean by “the person” and “persons.”  Indeed, are persons important at all, or just illusory sparkles on the surface of a vast ocean of existence?

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

Let’s begin with the person of the hour.  Love him or hate him, everyone agrees that Mr. Trump has shaken things up on a grand scale.  Even his supporters are divided over the extent to which he has succeeded in fulfilling his promises.  But nobody doubts that his presidency has been educational.  For good or for ill, many things have been brought to light which were hidden prior to the last few years.  Most of these revelations have been social and political, and concern the influence of elites and/or the frustration of the popular will.  Yet hiding in plain sight is possibly the most important revelation of all, a metaphysical revelation in the truest sense.  Trump, of all people, has reminded everyone on the planet about the primacy of personal.

Central to the modernist movement has been an insinuation that all history, human as well as cosmic, reflects the movement of vast impersonal forces, within which individuals have little significance except to appear on the stage of life as pathetic victims.  Negatively, this expresses itself through seemingly self-evident critiques of “great man” theories, to which the adjective “discredited” is always applied.  Positively, it manifested through much of the 20th century as existentialism, the idea that the most heroic thing a human being could do was to accept the futility of life and derive meaning through suffering.  Both these moments in the self-depreciation of human life have a certain plausibility.  After all, heaven forbid that we return to the kind of hero-worship depicted by Thomas Carlyle, which reflected the Victorian world’s trauma in the aftermath of the Napoleonic episode.  Likewise, the ubiquity of human suffering certainly justifies highlighting the limitations and frustrations of existence.

Yet, viewing the 20th century in hindsight, it appears that the devaluation of the person was as much a product of propaganda as intrinsic plausibility.  Indeed, it was the high-tide of that movement against theism and personalism which was birthed in the so-called Enlightenment and then picked up momentum among the ideologues of the 19th century.  Through it all, personalist world-views never lacked exponents, of whom Max Scheler was but one voice, yet the general atmosphere of thought weighed heavily in favor of the subordination spiritual life to inexorable forces: mechanical, biological, social and (here is where it gets dicey) psychological.  If we drift spiritually, we are apt to forget that we, both self and others, are persons.  That is precisely what “they” i.e. the adversaries of personalism, who are arguably not forces but persons-in-hiding themselves, want us to forget.

In that context, consider how an individual like Donald Trump might be threatening to adherents of the impersonalist world-view.  After all, he seems to be an atavism, a sport of nature, an exception to the uniformity of history.  Naturally he is hated by those who detest his policies, but he is even disparaged by those who would normally be considered fellow travelers.  The common line is that policies are supposed to be planned and enacted by teamwork, not by rogue agents.  Yet there he is, right or wrong, reminding us that an individual can divert the course of history, if not to order, at least to some extent.  This might be the furthest thing in the world from ethical individualism, yet it demonstrates, as nothing else could, the plausibility of a personalist world-view.

Apart from being playboys, Scheler and Trump would seem worlds apart.  The reflective thinker on the one hand, the impulsive actor on the other.  Yet the present moment in history is one of flux, one which gives lie to the myth of material forces proceeding on to a determined end.  The individual has returned with a vengeance, and this should lead us to renewed reflection on personalism in both ethics and metaphysics.

 

 

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“Cultural Marxism” is a Pleonasm

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 1, 2019

Cultural Marxism is just plain Culture (i.e., Culture Theory)…so no, you don’t need to say it twice

Granted, it takes people a long time to wake up.  For a long time a notion has been going around in conservative circles that everything was just hunky dory until Gramci and the Frankfurt school showed up.  It is implied that prior to that Western intellectuals inhabited some mental prelapsarian world.  Baloney!  The only thing that the so-called “critical” schools did was tighten the screws until it started hurting people.  Perhaps they have taught us an object lesson in intolerance…not entirely a bad thing if it motivates one to action.

I am tempted to say that there was never any such thing as a non-Marxist theory of culture, but that would be imprecise.  Rather, there was never such a thing as a non-materialist theory of culture.  The modern theory of culture was designed as an adjunct of materialism, a theory which would explain away the existence of consciousness, volition, sensation and much else which seems to contradict our impression of how an exclusively material world would appear.  None of this has much to do with Marx, at least with the mature Marx who gave himself to ponderous and erroneous speculations on economics.  The story begins in his youth and with his more precocious peers, the Young Hegelians, who were the clearest exponents of materialism as a theory-of-everything, where “everything” necessarily includes consciousness, ideas, traditions, institutions, and morals.

These pre-Marxist radicals were too honest for propaganda purposes, and the path back to their witticisms has been strategically and mercifully covered up.  You can’t say things like “what you eat you are” or “consciousness is just another excretion of the body, like sweat…or…” and have any possibility of being misunderstood.  Building an ideology requires misunderstanding.  Enter “the Theory of Culture.”

No, there never was a “Conservative Culture Theory”

Darwinism was a “theory of everything.”  Unfortunately it was not just a bad theory, it was an unpalatable theory, which made it unpardonable.  People don’t like to be told that they are machines.  The brutal materialists of the 18th century said precisely that, and not a few of them got the guillotine for their pains.  The post-romantic, post-idealist, ideologues of the 19th century were wiser than that, and after Darwin started turning people’s heads they realized that they needed an anthropological x-factor both to plug the gaps in materialist theory and to give human pride something to hang its hat on.  The idea of “culture” was seized upon, a word which previously had referred variously to gardening, schooling, and nurturing the arts.  Now it was expanded to mean everything which was outside the human body which gave meaning to life, especially social life.  It became the sociological equivalent to the Cartesian ego, a mental complement to the material world.

But not really.  The surface dualism was only an ideological mask, not a metaphysical reality.  In place of the “spirits” of religion and the “ideas” of philosophy, the natural scientists of the 19th century filled the extra-material human world full of “culture”.    Culture was claimed to be a superorganic life, superimposed on organic beings.  However this “superorganic” level of culture was only an abstraction from group behavior, which in turn was the net result of human brains and bodies acting according to lawful patterns.

The period from the eclipse of the Young Hegelians (apx. Darwin’s Origin 1859) to the rise of the critical schools in the 1930s saw the golden age of cultural anthropology.  Supposedly this was a time of socially neutral, objective, and even edifying research.  As such it payed lip service to the classical Western notion, frequently identified with Plato, that human beings were metaphysical amphibians, inhabiting two worlds, one designated as the world of matter, and the other as the world of spirit, ideas, or according to the increasingly popular nomenclature…culture.  Unfortunately, “culture” was a Trojan horse in the service of materialism.   In place of the guileless expression of the Young Hegelians “consciousness is an excretion of the body” there was now the formidable “superorganic” which sounded like dualism but was actually the cloak and extension of a monist materialism.

No doubt this fooled gentle souls like Ruth Benedict who probably thought of the culture theory as a kind of flexible idealism manifesting itself in the variety and color of thousands of ethnic groups.  In fact, the term “superorganic” was derived from the hard-headed Herbert Spencer, and picked up by Alfred Krober in American anthropology.  Hence its roots go back to Positivism, a theory which is no less monist in its materialism than Marxism.  The only difference is that Positivism was willing to tolerate, at least for a while, some conservative norms of Western culture.  Eventually the tolerance ran out, and the critical schools (a.k.a., “Cultural Marxists”) began their relentless march through the institutions, a march which continues today.

In retrospect, this creates an illusion where “gentlemen and ladies” era of social science seems to have been motivated by Platonic idealism.  I have tried to point out that this is an illusion.  The culture concept, a formulated by the various schools of American, British, German etc. anthropology and sociology was always a derivative complement to a deeper metaphysical materialism.

Yes, different peoples throughout the world have had different traditions…but they did not come from “culture”

The total victory of the critical schools in post-modern thought is an outgrowth of the total victory of cultural anthropology in modern thought.  The latter was in turn founded on the prejudice of modernity itself.  Culture replaced idealism, as idealism had replaced spiritualism.

Objections may be raised to this view.  What, the peoples of the world had no culture?  Of course they did, but not in accordance with the cannons of the “culture theory”.  They had customs, morals, and language.  Where did these come from?  They came from tradition, of course.  But where did tradition come from?  Here is the crux of the matter.  From the point of view of the ancients, the traditions were not of human origin, but had been given to their ancestors by spirits.  This view is unacceptable to modern science.  It has never been disproved, it is simply unacceptable.  One reason why the testimony of the ancients cannot be right is that it would render the modern scientist superfluous, and the modern scientist does not want to be rendered superfluous.  The post-modern critic may smile at the discomfort of the scientist, but the critic is himself parasitic on the scientist he criticizes.

Hence it is not the ancients, but the moderns who have placed the world on a pillar of supporting elephants who stretch back to infinity.  The ancients could always specify a point of origin.  It all originated with the spirits.  This is not to say that the spirits were necessarily good.  Quite to the contrary!  The ancient account was free from the modern rubrics of cultural and moral relativism.  Many of the spirits were wicked, and the institutions they inspired were wicked as well.  Yet behind even the spirits was a substratum of nature which was good, the work of the Most High God.  Among the peoples of the Earth, it was only Israel which recovered contact with this primal source of morals and institutions.  However even outside of Israel, there were no nations who constructed their morals and manners out of whole cloth, hence they are sometimes called “children of a lesser god.”

This anthropology divested of the humanist “culture theory” is not likely to make much headway in recognized institutions of higher learning.   Modernity, not to mention post-Modernity, cannot tolerate the notion that human beings are a hybrid of matter and spirit.  Such a recognition would shut down the way society operates, higher education most of all.  No matter how intelligent a case you might make for a spiritual world, it would be banned.  The closest an aspiring professor might come would be to teach a course in the history of Platonism or Eastern Religion.  In this environment, the modern theory of culture can expect to have a long shelf life within the halls of education.  It teaches people a materialist theory of consciousness and human institutions, while flattering them that they are creating their own world: Free spirits who, if you bother to read the fine print, are neither free nor even spirits.

 

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Beyond the social compact: Origins, vows, and the foundation of America

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 23, 2018

In search of an origin

There are certain schools of anthropology which seek out the origins of society in a “social compact” i.e., a primitive getting together of all humanity where the individuals comprising the species said something like, “We are tired of living in fear of one another, let’s invent an institution called civilization.  We will have laws, courts, good manners, and some method of dispute resolution superior to bludgeoning one another into compliance.”  Of course such a “primal scene” (as they call it) is a myth.

At least, it is a myth if we lump together the human species and try to assign an origin to “society” in general.  However it may not be a myth if we are willing to limit the concept of the “social compact” to the origins of nations.  Do we not have have a singular example of this in the foundation of America, on or about July 4th, in the year of our Lord 1776?  Well, yes and no.  Originalism, whatever its merits as framed by American judicial conservatives, cannot be expanded into a total outlook on society.

As much as I love the Constitution and the bill of rights, I was humbled by Tom Woods observation that “If you are going to be an idolator, one of the silliest forms of idolatry is the worship of a political compact.”  It struck me that Woods, though a great American, saw through many of the shibboleths of the conservative movement.  To be sure, if there can be such a critter as a “contractual nation” then America fits the bill.  Whether or not America is unique, it certainly had a time of inception, and a time prior to inception when it was not.  However wonderful the thought of Dr. Freidrich Hayek might be, the United States did not come about through the workings of what he calls the “spontaineous order”…rather, it came about through deliberation and prayer of a people being transformed from subjects of the British crown into patriots.  The nation, or at least this nation, is a creation, not an “evolute.”

Hence I will side with originalists over progressives every time.  If we are at the mercy of social evolution, every change in the editorial stance of the New York Times necessitates a trans-valuation of our fundamental morality.  This is worse than absurd, it is spiritually exhausting.  We need a baseline, not a “project.”  What and where is the baseline of American moral consensus?  Was it set at some privileged moment in the 18th century, or perchance earlier or later?  In search of it, we  must become intellectual archeologists, digging down into history until we find bedrock.

Origins, compacts, and peoples

The self-understanding of a “contractual nation” must be made expicit, since a contract is always signed on a particular date, and indeed without a recorded date no contract is valid.  America has not just one, but several candidates for its inception.  The constitutional convention of 1786 and the foundational documents which flowed from it are frequently made to bear excessive historical weight by theorists affiliated with the right wing of our political spectrum.  Yes, these documents formed a government, but did they actually found a nation?  One center-right line of thought (associated with Jaffre and Clairmont College) attempts to remedy this by expanding the contractual origins of the nation to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and even the Gettysburg Address (1863).  These are construed as supplying the missing philosophy, and even theology,  which is only implied in the text of the Constitution.  On this basis, what in anthropological jargon would be called the “ethnogenisis of the American nation” is thought to be secured.

Conservatives and libertarians are the only ones who continue to care about this line of inquiry.   Progressives no longer think there is any such thing as an American nation, only hoards of hyphenated tribes squabbling over the riches of a largish continent.  This train of thought has been gaining traction on the left since the publication of Nathan and Glassier’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in the sixties, however it only became the undisputed progressive line in the past few years.    Here I’m not addressing progressives or the merit of their theses.  Rather, I’m wondering whether conservatives have put their understanding of American origins in the wrong basket.  They have become social contract theorists.  In other words, they have become Rousseuvians.  Now if you understand that J. J. Rousseau is the ideological fountain of leftward modernity then perhaps you will recognize that conservatives are resting their case on a treacherous foundation.  If you really want a social contract with teeth, then you should go past American statecraft and cross the Atlantic to view the tennis court oath of 1789 with its ensuing (First) French Republic.  That’s the one that came straight from Rousseau’s brain, bent on righteousness and vengeance.  The laws with teeth soon became more than a metaphor, as indeed the incisor of the guillotine began to chomp down indiscriminately on errant necks.

Even today the French are still working righteousness, and perhaps a new (would this be the sixth?) French Republic is in the offing.  We can only wish them luck.  Given the inability of social contracts to arrest the slide of the West towards bureaucratic domination and leftist lunacy, it is understandable that some conservative thinkers advocate placing the foundation of nations on some non-contractual basis.  That neglected luminary, Dr. Paul Gottfried, suggests that lip service to formal political contracts have become simply an item in the neoconservative toolbox to be put in the service of managerial globalism.   Against this background, he hints that it might be wise to reinstate, at least partially, a candid recognition that Western civilization did not arise in a vacuum but out of the historical experience of particular peoples.  This would constitute a strategic retreat from the sacred (at least in America) principle of lex soli, but none the less an inevitable counterfoil to the corroding influence of multiculturalism.  After all, if it works in Hungary, why shouldn’t it work in the United States?

For a variety of reasons, I hope this is not the path followed by conservative thought in the near future.  The most obvious, but ideally least important, reason being that this is precisely the avenue which has been mapped out for conservative ideology by the cultural Marxists.  For Marxists in general, Operation Barbarossa is the gift that keeps on giving.  Get their Hitler to attack your Stalin and, voala!, there you have your moral equivalence, if not moral superiority.  The same principle applies on the cultural level.  Even the smallest embrace of identity politics on the right would be seen as racism, not as a measured equivalent to the wholesale adoption of identity politics on the left.

I only mention the left because the their strategy is so easy to see.  It is never good to adopt a policy out of either consideration or antagonism to one’s enemies.  The real reason to make land, not blood, the basis of American citizenship is spiritual.  When I mention “spiritual” I am using the term in its broadest sense.  You don’t need to stop reading at this point just because you don’t meditate or speak in tongues…although if you do either I wouldn’t be one to object.  I would call the social contract theory spiritual.  Conversely, I would call the theory that nationality should be based on ties of blood non-spiritual.  I don’t want to see membership in the political community based on their DNA.  Some people do, they are called eugenicists.   On the other hand, I don’t want membership in the political community to be open to everyone.  Membership should be limited to those who are spiritually in agreement with the foundational principles of the political community.  If you aren’t in spiritual agreement with the foundations of the community, then you are either a traitor or a spy…or at the most charitable, very ignorant.  Those types of people are not good for the community.

Vows, Contracts, and Prayers

In spite of its fundamentally spiritual quality, I have been casting doubt on the efficacy of social contract theory as the foundation of American nationality.  Is there any other spiritual bond which might have formed the basis of the American union?  Again, I am using “spiritual” in the technical sense of an act of deliberation and will.  For example, what about the common possession of the English language?  No, because being born into a language community is not an act of will, although choosing to use that language might be.  Interestingly, during the 17th and 18th centuries there were English speaking expatriate communities in the Carabbean Sea and the Indian Ocean who formed independent, “buckaneer” republics, based on social contracts.  In spite of similarities in race and language, they were not the same nation as that formed by the thirteen English colonies on the eastern coast of North America.  They had their own separate “spiritual” foundations, based on values quite different from their linguistic cousins.  Out of deference to fans of Johnny Dep I won’t go into further description of their values.  Not to say that the American colonists were angels.  This is not an apology for their morals, it is just an attempt to identify the essence of their political identity.

That political identity was never grounded specifically on the French enlightenment theory of social contract.  Prior to independence, the British colonists were not citizens but subjects.  Directly, they were citizens of the British crown, but through that king, as head of the Anglican church, they were subject to the God of all Christians.  When  the ties with the crown were dissolved, the middle man, as it were, was cut out, and the American states came directly under the sovereignty of God.  Since the early days of the republic, there have been strong forces which have sought to obscure this point, and to conflate the origins of the American nation with social contract theory.  No doubt some thinkers, Thomas Jefferson comes to mind, were explicit in their allegiance to what might be called the Franco-American theory of American origins.  However Jefferson was an eccentric.  If there was any “general will” among the American people at the moment of separation from the British crown, it was a “general will” which was in direct contradiction to “general will” in the sense given to that term by J.J.Rousseau.    The general will of the American people was a collective surrender to the will of Divine Providence, a transcendental covenant, in stark contrast to the mutual compact of the French people among themselves during the same revolutionary epoch.

One reason why so few people recognize this covenantal basis of American nationhood is the benevolent, but mistaken, myth of constitutional origins.  I say “constitutional origins” advisedly, since I don’t want to dissuade anyone from constitutional advocacy.   None the less, the American nation was not founded by any one sheet of parchment, however right-thinking and venerable.  It was founded by the inner vows and aspirations of countless patriots at the time of political separation, vows which more often than not took the form of formal, public, prayer.  Furthermore these vows transferring direct political sovereignty from the British crown to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are not just rumors from oral history but were the subject of ample and official documentation.   One major reason contributing to contemporary ignorance of these facts is the prestige of the constitution and the bill of rights in contrast to the obscurity of  many documents where the proclamations and enabling legislation pertaining to the divine sovereignty are recorded.  I urge readers to investigate this subject on their own, and to see what the public documents the era (not private political pamphlets, whether by Paine, Jefferson or whomever) have to say on the subject of sovereignty, and whether it is based, ultimately, on the will of God or of the people.  Then, I think, you will have a solution to the enigma of American nationality, that it was forged in common through allegiance to a common God.

As a significant example of a public declaration of divine sovereignty during the transition from colonial to independent America, consider the following document proclaiming a collective desire “to seek God in time of war” issued by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777.  This states,

“That with one Heart and one Voice the good People may express the grateful feeling of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and…they may join the penitent Confession of their Manifold Sins…and their humble supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive them and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him Graciously to afford his blessings on the government of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole…to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”

This is not a document of political federation.  None the less it is evidence that at some point a spiritual bond of unity had been forged, through a common allegiance to God.  It is not a mutual and direct unity, such as described in social contract theory.  Rather, the political community is brought about through a mediated and transcendental unity, with God replacing the British crown as the common fountain of sovereignty among the states.  Here a word of caution is in order, this theocentric unity did not establish a theonomic regime.  The “good People” recognized the sovereignty of God working through Providence, but they did not in any way replace secular law with a system of ecclesiastical courts.  On the contrary, such ecclesiastical courts as were already in existence were speedily abolished, at least in the paradigmatic state of Virginia.  In that regard the “good People” of 1777 were acting more like common sense products of the Enlightenment age than Puritans, albeit their “common sense” was more pious than that attributed to Thomas Paine.   But common sense and the fear of God were enough.  Enough to accomplish what the modern mind would deem an impossibility, forming a nation on a basis which is neither biological nor contractual, but spiritual.

 

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Dr. Savage and the case against Mass Madness

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 2, 2018

Lashing out against the latest lunacy

From its style and content one might suppose that Dr. Michael Savage wants rank-and-file left wingers to read his latest work Stop Mass Hysteria (Center Street, 2018) as a first step towards the restoration of their mental balance .  Of course they won’t.  You know that, and so do I, and the good doctor knows it as well as anyone.  Yet this is a timely book, and one which fully deserves to be bought, read to taters, passed on to a friend…or better yet, presented as a fresh copy to a “frenemy”.  Indeed, if it were a psychiatric prescription and not a broadside, the title would have shouted Stop Being Hysterical…At Least When You Are Out In Public!  The default title is a sad admission that we, the conservatives and right-leaning libertarians who must suffer the antics of the Left, will be the book’s likely readership.  Alas, what a waste if so, since the testimonies of numerous ex-Communists during the 20th century demonstrated that most of them were drawn into leftism for the most noble of reasons.  They were not “insane” at the onset, though driven so in the outcome. Thus rare are those who, now as then, can “walk away” from the hypnotic trance of ideological deception.  Savage knows the odds he is up against and it drives him to heroic frenzies, frenzies which on the surface might be described as…well…hysterical.    That being said, if self-disclosure is a good measure for separating moral indignation from madness, then Savage is notable in his willingness to bear his wounds in public.

“They [the left] cannot see or feel because their entire worldview is a hysterical tantrum…My own personal rage has been building since the first American flag was burned in protest during the Vietnam War.” (SMH p. 175)

Hence, laying aside the question of the good doctor’s sanity, we ought to at least hear him out, if only to see if he has found a panacea for the infantile disease of leftism.

As even Jesus said, “We danced with you and you would not dance, we cried with you and you would not cry.”  Likewise, the legendary Michael Savage who has battled the progressive mob for decades on air, occasionally resorts to reasoned book-length prose in hopes of getting a better hearing.  The books are not written in a vacuum, but are presented as an alternative answer to critics who won’t abide civil discourse while streaming on-line.  As Savage mentions,

“I believe in many [i.e., variously left to right] positions but I am not a strict ideologue.  If people have rational ideas, I want to hear them.  It’s what I do every weekday on the radio.  But it is almost universal that liberals who phone my radio show are hysterics who place the call to shout memes, spit bile, and depart–convincing no one and hearing nothing.”

Indeed, Savage isn’t some smug conservative intellectual dredged up from the not-so-golden Age of Buckley.  He is the son of an immigrant, and himself a refugee from the frying pan of progressive New York into the mad hippy heat of San Francisco.  Far from being the kind of purse-lipped traditionalist who would disavow knowledge of Beatlemania or Haight-Ashbury, Savage can rattle off a virtual people’s encylopeadia of factoids that have conveniently been dropped down the memory hole in recent decades.  For example, who was the editor of MAD magazine?  When did Americans start smoking marijuana, and why? Arcane digressions of this sort constitute both the marrow and the charm of Stop Mass Hysteria, which takes the form of an inventory of America’s flirtations with collective insanity.  These include, but are by no means limited to: The Salem With Trials, the Tea Party (original version), Reconstruction and Anti-Reconstruction riots, the Red Scare, Marijuana Madness, and the radical ’60.  Moderates will be glad to know, and conservatives forced to remember, that until recently hysteria was a solidly bi-partisan tradition.  Then something happened and it would seem as if the left acquired a coveted monopoly on mental derangement.  With some degree of success, Dr. Savage seeks to highlight this transformation, together with the clear and present danger it poses to the values he espouses, neatly summarized as national “borders, language, and culture.”  His conclusion, which is hard to avoid, is that the transvaluation of those three values, gets us nothing but the supreme anti-value: Chaos.  We probably don’t need Dr. Savage to inform us of that, but his entertaining narratives connect many obscure dots which, filling out the historical picture, should supply conservatives with a fresh magazine of  intellectual ammunition.

Is there a doctor in the house?

According to the standard narrative, American mass hysteria has typically been a knee-jerk response by outraged apostles of normality.  To a certain extent Dr. Savage is willing to go along with this legacy of center-left cultural criticism.   Yet, on at least one hysteria-invoking issue, Marijuana Madness, he sacrifices his San Francisco “old hippy” card by committing the gross heresy of condemning the  sacred weed itself.   According to Savage this is not willful deviation, but only a decent respect for facts.

“I have a doctorate in ethnobotany and I can tell you that crops have dramatically shaped civilization, whether through ensuring an adequate supply of food that allows people to settle in an area, or the cultivation of cash crops that open up commercial possibilities, or in the introduction of invasive speices of plants that can destroy an ecosystem.  In fact, there is evidence that past societies have used this idea as an early form of ‘special ops’ warfare.”(SMH p. 95)

On this basis he documents the increasing acceptance of marijuana as integral to the dumbing down of American minds. Here we have an instance where Savage’s understanding of science (pharmacology) trumps his libertarian impulses.  On this issue and others throughout the book he (correctly) attempts to transcend the deceptive left/right dualism by embedding his critique of political correctness and hysteria within the larger history of scapegoating and persecuting movements in America.

Scapegoats aren’t just people, but any hysterical object which can be focused on to limit empirical investigation into the actual causes of America’s social ills, ills in which the left is often complicit.  One compelling problem is the rise in school shootings, where the left is frantic to limit all discussion to the physical instruments of violence.  Any informed citizen might conjecture that the availability of guns are not necessarily the salient cause of increased school violence.  However Dr. Savage has additional credibility to state,

“If we examine the school shootings in America, in almost every case the deranged child was on antidepressant medications but inevitably it is swept away by the drug companies before we can recognize the perils.” (SMH p. 108)

Yet, for better or worse, the narrative format of Stop Mass Hysteria brings the good doctor up against a dilemma which is never resolved to complete satisfaction, at least in the eyes of this reader.  On the one hand Savage wants to highlight the exceptional badness of the new madness.  Yet on the other he wants to use his street cred as a tree-hugging, cetacean-loving, left-coaster to distinguish himself from the middle-brow National Review set.  So what are we to think?  Are today’s leftoid temper-tantrums  a harbinger of the apocalypse or just another iteration in the left/right dance of persecutor vs. persecuted?

This ambiguity isn’t what we would expect of a philosopher or a social scientist, but Dr. Savage, though writing in book-length format, remains a journalist at heart.  Even when he drops his journalistic persona to reveal some scholarly insight, it is only for technical corroboration of historical facts.  The reader will have to go elsewhere for a systematic treatment of “mass hysteria” or even a definition.  The closest we get to definitions are rhetorical statements intended to highlight the very insanity of the insanity itself.  For example, Savage notes how corporate self-censorship has increasingly come into line with the agenda of social justice warfare.

“If there is a chance that some consumer or some viewer may not like something, it gets jettisoned…fast.  No hearing, No due process.  Just a professional execution.  That is the very definition of hysteria.”  (SMH p. 270)

Of course, that is not a definition.  None the less it is a provocative statement, one which points to a larger problem than the phenomenon of “mass hysteria” considered in isolation.  Hysteria in itself is only the point of the spear, behind which lurks a coldly calculated agenda formulated by the minds behind the agitators.  Not to say that the phenomena labeled “hysteria” are without interest.  As a discredited medical diagnosis and as a synonym for the irrationality of crowds, hysteria has a checkered but fascinating history.  However Savage uses mass hysteria as a kind of portmanteau word for any current of social indignation, currents originating in such factories of half-baked ideas as illuminated salons and modern campuses, whose mental secretions only mutate into street violence during the final scene of the social tragedy.

Painting with such a broad brush, it is hard to see how the good doctor can execute his initial objective, which is to demonstrate the unique monstrosity of the contemporary left’s campaign to delegitimate the Trump administration.  Savage begins his volume with a thumbnail description of the Muller investigation as an official “witch hunt”  but, seized by the metaphor, quickly delves into the history of (alleged) real witches, Puritan divines, Cristobal Colon and other fascinations, signaling his resolution to be solidly historical rather than hysterical.    As a fisher of men, or rather a fisher of persons, and left-wing persons in particular, Savage ingratiates by casting his net as widely as possible.  However the exercise is in vain unless he has some way of closing the net, and can show that the dangerous deviation of the modern left is qualitatively distinct from the “normal” mass hysteria which, according to Savage, characterizes virtually all of American (a.k.a., USA) history.  Presumably, Dr. Savage intended Stop Mass Hysteria to be a definitive case against progressive praxis, and not just entertaining folklore.

Further, we can safely presume that the good doctor did not intend to bait the left into its favorite line of defense, which is ever to set up a false moral equivalence which voids the accusation.  Yet this peculiar combination of author and subject makes such a counterattack all but inevitable.  “After all,” the argument goes,” isn’t Michael Savage himself a notorious hysteric projecting his syndrome onto all those good people who are struggling to make this Earth a better world?”  Actually, there is a huge gap between an indignant talk show host and the sentiments of the mob, but knowing that isn’t a conclusive argument, it just makes you a fan.  What we need is an air-tight demonstration of that quality (whatever it might be) which separates the anger and frustration felt by conservatives from its hysterical counterpart on the left.  Indeed, we need that distinction fast, since the “progressive” in progressive hysteria is both a both an ideology and a prognosis.

Dr. Savage seems to understand that there is a need to divide the genera of mass hysteria into various species, but his taxonomy is somewhat opaque.  A significant fork in the road occurs when the narrative moves from Salem to Boston Harbor.  With the exception of a small number of conspiracy analysts such as James Perloff, most American historians have striven to explain how the Tea Party of 1773 was a riot-within-reason, and Dr. Savage pretty much falls into step with the consensus view.  Indeed, it becomes a singular type within his general paradigm of the good, or at least better, sort of hysteria.  As he explains this subtle distinction,

“There is significant difference between mass hysteria to achieve an outcome and and mass hysteria to change an outcome.  The witch burnings were the former.  Fueled by fear and prejudice, the fervor of the populace was renewed every time a new victim was arrested and brought to trial.” (SMH p. 111)

Presumably the persecution for the sake of persecution in Salem is being contrasted with the Boston riot, which was intended to deflect the imposition of the British tax.  Going berserk to deflect an undesired outcome seems to be a viable strategy in some cases.  After all, Prince Vlad (a.k.a. “Dracula”) managed to deflect a Mongol invasion by decimating his Wallachian subjects, thus convincing the invaders that he was dangerous, i.e., dangerously insane.  Effective, yes, and of course morally problematic.  Indeed, going insane for a good cause, perhaps better than anything else, shows the pitfalls of what philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe called “consequentialist” ethics, the notion that we can do anything we want as long as it makes the future a better place.  With that in mind, it might have been more lucid, or at least in line with libertarian nomenclature, if Dr. Savage had coined fresh terms like “aggressive hysteria” and “defensive hysteria” in place of struggling with the difference between that hysteria which achieves outcomes vs. that which changes outcomes.  But the good doctor may well have had his own motives for obscurity, realizing that, in the context of our victim-centered politics, any notion of “defensive hysteria” would surely uncap a Pandora’s box of bad theory and worse practice.

However Savage is writing historically, not topically, and thus can be excused from the making of air-tight definitions.  In accord with his anthropological background, he prefers the comparative method to deduction.  Following his bent, our author delights in giving his chapters double titles (“From Plymouth Rock to City Hall”, “From Treason to Tomorrow” etc.), which gives the book a kind of Plutarch’s Lives feeling, except with hysterical Americans standing in for heroic Greeks and Romans.   In this way, Savage attempts to illustrate how assorted ravings during different decades are nothing but outbreaks of the same virulent hysteria  which has seldom lain dormant for long in the American body politic.  The comparisons in themselves are instructive and entertaining, but they don’t produce any smoking gun to convict the contemporary left of unparalleled insanity.

None the less, it soon becomes clear that Savage is in a tacit agreement with his readers to show that, yes, the modern left is just as apocalyptic as your worst fears imagine.  This tacit agreement, though concealed by the the pairings of the chapter titles, is revealed by the ark of the narrative considered as a whole.  We are presumed to think that that there was a false turn in history when the left attained dominance within public institutions and has been rubbing our noses in it ever since.  Dr. Savage doesn’t isolate this precise turning point, but he chronicles the events which accompanied it in general.

Indeed this presumption of an axial period in modern American history rests on solid ground.  Whatever their differences, both mainstream historians and conspiracy analysts note that there was some sort of paradigm shift in the American governance system between the end of the Second World War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Here again Savage provides his characteristic interpretation of events, stretching the term “hysteria” to include the peculiar state of collective amnesia and scapegoating which accompanies and legitimates a change in regime.  French Postmodernist philosophers, with their penchant for jargon, call this an “epistemic rupture”, and the late Rene Girard, who was head and shoulders above that crowd, called it the “mimetic crisis.”  Our good doctor with his universal diagnosis of “mass hysteria” provides a rough and ready handle with which the uninitiated can grasp the enormity of events.  It all amounts to the same thing:  At some point in history, truth was inverted, the bodies were buried, and the trail was covered up.

Fortunately Savage has access to the actual events on which the false, but consensus, narrative is based.  Notably, with regard to the crucial battles between Senator Joe McCarthy and his opponents, he draws attention to the canonization of McCarthy as the archetype of a “Red Scare” hysteric in American political memory.  However, Savage goes on to put the matter within a broader context where the facts of history have been uncovered, but the effects of the initial lies have continued to radiate out and corrupt society.

“But there is one stubborn little fact that the Establishment glosses over and that the public, in the grip of this mass hysteria, isn’t curious about–McCarthy’s allegations were true.” (SMH p.220)  “Thus the official story was written, McCarthy was a vindictive bully who exaggerated communist influence and ruthlessly destroyed many innocent people.  Sixty-four years later, a generation of Americans who accept this mass hysteria about McCarthy as reality now believe socialism is superior to capitalism.” (ibid, p.221)

Here at last we have the makings of a distinction between fictional and actual hysteria.  Fear of actual dangers (falsely impugned as “hysteria”), in contrast to the hysterical twisting and denial of truth.

The flipping of McCarthy from hero to villain was an important milestone in the transit of “normal” America from center-right to center-left and points beyond, or rather, a change in those protean terms “left” and “right.”  The marginalized left of the early and mid-twentieth century, had some genuine empathy for victims.  Those were the lost times of the “bleeding heart liberals.”  Indeed, it was a time when calling a progressive a “liberal” was not a complete oxymoron, since there was still some ideological commonality between the left and its roots in classical liberalism, or libertarianism.  After the capture of the institutions, the left became normal, and like all who attain to power, the progressives turned from defending victims to victimizing their enemies.

The paradigm institution in this transition was the education system, and especially higher education.  Savage summarizes this as follows.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern political madness gained its toehold in the United States, thanks to academia.  Professors who had been students in the Marxist-embracing 1960s now had tenure, and they wanted to use their status for power.  The question was how to do it without a Russian-style revolution–which indeed, many of them advocated.  What grew, like mushrooms in this intellectual darkness, was modern political madness.” (SMH p. 260)

Thus from the stigmatizing of conservatism after McCarthy, to the sixties, and on to the dissemination of radicalism as embodied in gender feminism, minority identity movements, and transgenderism, each wave retreating for a while but leaving “sleeper cells” of graduate students and younger faculty waiting for tenure, the Cultural Marxist flood came not as a deluge but as a rising tide which lifted its own ships as it submerged the old landmarks of Western civilization.

Play it again, Maimonides

With society-wide victory, and all the major institutions under its control, one would expect the left to be magnanimous, or at least sane.  That didn’t happen, and the fact that it didn’t happen is why Dr. Savage can sell us a title which rests on a tacit premise, i.e.,  Stop Mass Hysteriaand you know exactly who we mean!  In spite of the theory that Trump Derangement Syndrome was triggered by a uniquely bad man with orange hair, it should be clear to any reader of Dr. Savage’s work, or any number of similar works on recent political history, that hysteria is the left’s default response to any barricade erected against its agenda, regardless of who is manning that barricade.

My own pet theory is that the left hates Trump, not because he is a “right-winger” (whatever that might consist of) but precisely because Trump is a centrist.  If there had been a authentic conservative in the oval office, say, a President Cruz, then the left would have had its defensive positions validated, on, for example, abortion, LBGT rights, and so forth.  In lieu of a conservative the left was forced to depart, not only from its script, but from reality itself.  The “Donald Trump” of the left’s imagination is a bogeyman, constructed, if not quite out of whole cloth, then out of disconnected gossip and character flaws, which, though numerous and egregious are politically irrelevant.  Cognitive dissonance seems to be a price that the left is willing to pay for the optics of battling against the Great Orange Dragon.

Savage is not alone in referencing this latest stage of progressive mania, although he is unusual in framing it around the context of America’s hysterical past.   Other pundits have published similar hardbacks alerting American citizens to the dementia of the globalists and the progressives.   What sustains this cottage industry is not the prospect of “red pilling” their readership.  These readers are more like a constituency of those who have already been brought to enlightenment through other media, and are now looking for a lawyer’s brief to back up their opinions.  The hardbacks have become the fanzines of those willing to boost the reputation of their favorite journalists and talk show hosts.

In the context of this overcrowded cottage industry, is there any compelling reason to pick up Stop Mass Hysteria in preference to some other muckraking account of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, etc.?  Actually, yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the methodology Dr. Savage employs in his work.  Savage tries to do justice to both the psychology and history of American politics , but both of these approaches are flawed if taken up in isolation.  The real distinction of the Michael Savage books is that, in spite of their irascible author, they edify.   One comes away, not just hating (for example) Hillary Clinton, but loving America, with all of its flaws, all the more.  One becomes more of a mench.

This heart-warming experience is rather mysterious.  I ascribe it to the following, 1) Michael Savage believes in God, 2) the God of Michael Savage is a God who pushes his children into the shallow water before they get in too deep.  The real danger that libertarians and conservatives face today is that they will go “too deep” in their strategies for the defense of natural rights and the constitution.  We can win the battle against the globalists and their useful leftist idiots.  We can’t necessarily win the battle against UFOs or aliens, even if, or especially if, they turn out to be non-existent.

It might be best to take our clue from another good Jewish doctor, Moses Maimonides.  Maimonides would probably have been willing to eat a ham sandwich with Aristotle (anachronistically speaking) if that would have gotten the whole of humanity on board with the logical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.  Those three principles authored by a God otherwise unknown would have been enough for the two philosophers to converse in peace.  In the forum of public opinion we need just enough of God to guarantee public sanity, the rule of law, and the sanctity of contract.  Insisting on more than that is the beginning of trouble.  Interestingly, Michael Savage doesn’t talk much about God in Stop Mass Hysteria, but when he does it is in the unflattering context of fanaticism and hysteria, the bane of our adoptive puritan ancestors who steered the body politic too deep into the divisive waters of theology and occult speculation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that supernatural phenomena which the puritan divines took for granted are unreal.  However the fact that such phenomena are not susceptible to experimental demonstration implies that they are also not suitable as judicial evidence.  In today’s counter-currents of independent social media journalism, a vast array of esoteric phenomena are constantly brought up for uncritical discussion.  This is the epistemological (not moral) equivalent of establishment-left hysteria on the part of the alternative media.  The basic error here is an increasingly popular assumption that simply being able to imagine an entity proves its existence.   Contrary to what the David Ikes of our world may think, what we need is not a richer demonology with which to unmask our enemies, but a stronger faith in the God who is on our side.  To take the former course is to wander endlessly in a Meinongian jungle, while the latter holds out the prospect of restoring a moral community, or at least a minimalist meta-community along Maimonidean lines.

Normally authors tout their most recent book as their best.  Not so Michael Savage, who refers us back to his previous work  God, Faith, and Reason as his personal favorite. There he shows us a God who is less minimal and more intimate, a God of the heart who instills good character.  This God can build up individuals even while communities are breaking down.  According to Savage there is a kind of transitive order which starts from God, moves on to the individual, and then finds fruition in the community.  In God, Faith, and Reason he notes,

“As I said in the beginning of this book, God does not do the heavy lifting for us.  It is up to us to find our connection to God and to do his will here.  I truly believe that my lifelong fight for our borders, language and culture is part of my mission.  As I’ve said many times, it is indisputable that I helped Trump get elected.  It’s equally indisputable that, as imperfect as he is, he represented the only chance to restore a free, just, and godly nation given the crossroads we were at last November [2016]”(p. 147)

While screaming agitators are the most obvious manifestation of the irrationality of progressive politics, the deeper madness lies in the cool headed theory that our world is nothing but solid bodies wandering through the icy vacuum of space.   Whatever one may think of either Michael Savage or his God, his is reason and purpose with a vengeance.  Or rather, reason with a higher purpose than mere vengeance.

 

 

 

 

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Time, Truth and Value: An essay on the fundamental metaphysics of revelation

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 15, 2018

The false foundation of the Modernist movement

“There is a way which looks right to a man, but its end is in death.”–Proverbs

Modernism is the desire for a new religion, a new and more accurate understanding of truth and goodness.  In one sense this is laudable, and in another sense it is impossible.  As finite beings living in the stream of time, we want to see a tomorrow which is better than today.  We want to reform, repent, innovate, exceed, and improve.  This desire for betterment, whether it is the betterment of ourselves or others, is deeply ingrained in our minds, and we ought to thank God that it is.  In the absence of adequate reflection it would seem as if the Modernist movement, and especially its late-stage manifestation as “the Progressive movement” were the very flower and acme of all benevolent aspirations for human betterment.  Alas, this is an illusion, and more than an illusion, it is the very gate through which evil pours into our lives.

There are very precise reasons why this is so.  Granted, a Christian, accepting revelation through the golden path of faith, need not labor through a proof of her world view.    Conversely, philosophers have always insisted on the silver path of reasoning before accepting what is manifest to both the physical senses and common sense.  Today, since the doctrine of progress and especially the transvaluation of values have pushed our civilization to the brink of madness, it behooves both our contemporary Platos as well as our brothers and sisters in faith to have a sound understanding of the metaphysics of theism, and most especially the theism behind the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  Bad metaphysics lies deep down at the root of Modernism.  It is easy enough to see the destructive tendencies of Cultural Marxism, the Frankfort School, Progressive Education, and Statism.   However, behind all these more recent movements is bad metaphysics and bad Christian theology in particular.  Erick Voeglin referred to all of these off-base Christian theologies as “gnosticism” while other critics have used different nomenclature.  In all the elaborate studies of Gnosticism/Modernity as a collection of social movements, the simplicity of the Modernist mistake is often overlooked.  Here I will try, with as much economy as I can, to outline the essential error behind what Voeglin calls “gnosticism.”  False revelation will be shown to be intrinsically relativistic, while true revelation will be shown in harmony with good metaphysics.

Progress vs. Revelation

The triumph of the modern enlightenment is frequently depicted as an epistemological struggle between revelation and empiricism.  While there is something to be said for this way of thinking, it seems rather shallow to me.  Ultimately all human cognition is based on revelation, even empiricism being itself a species of revelation.  What differentiates different forms of revelation is the proximity of one’s epistemological horizon.  Expert knowledge and social propaganda are the forms of revelation which are accessible to the greatest number of people under conditions of modernity.  However there are eccentrics, people who sometimes call themselves “zetetics” who will not accept the truth-claim of any scientific doctrine unless they have observed it experimentally with their own senses, or with equipment which they have either acquired or constructed by themselves.  An even more proximate epistemological horizon would be that of classical skepticism (Pyrronism) in which even one’s own senses are considered  a dubious revelation.  Yet even the classical skeptic would allow that their reasoning reveals truth to them, if only the truth that truth is undiscoverable.

Historically, the dispute over the nature of the world has been a dispute over where to locate the horizon of revelation.  In contrast with the subjectivism of modernity, primitive thought began with an objective idea of the cosmos which was revealed to the ancestors and then handed down through tradition.  The concept of a “discovery process” was absent.  This is not to say that people didn’t make discoveries, for example a tribe wandering into a new climactic region would certainly discover new species of plants and animals and incorporate them into their catalogue of knowledge.   However the idea of a world-view built up from scratch through a discovery process was absent from the minds of primitive humanity.  To maintain otherwise is to anachronistically transpose the disputes of the 17th/18th century Western enlightenment thinking onto other ages.

When disputes did occur (and they soon did) over world-views, these disputes had nothing to do with the discovery of facts which invalidated previous knowledge.  Rather these disputes arose over the how proximate revelation was to those receiving it.  Do we go by the received revelation, or should we switch over to a new oracle?  Whatever the “Babel event” might have been, it seems reasonable to infer that at some such time, in addition to separate languages and novel ethnicities, new mythologies where instituted, whether through signs in the heavens or through communication with “daemones” good, bad, or indifferent.  If, as all people of sound moral instincts agree, the human race had a single origin, there was also a single wisdom held in common prior to Babel.  When the new revelations of Babel were received, the dominant tendency was to drop the old universal wisdom, and to embrace the new, national, wisdoms.  Yet the primitive wisdom survived in fragments, not only among the family of Abraham, but also admixed with the new mythologies of the nations after the Babel event.  This foreshortening of the horizon of revelation went hand in hand with a replacement theology, as the name of the High God was eclipsed by the intermediary pantheons of the nations.

If anyone had a right to a replacement theology it would have been Moses:  Moses the public revelator to an assembled nation, in contrast to the single, isolated, household of Terah’s children; Moses the sophisticated Egyptian prince, compared to Abraham the wandering shepherd.  Yet what emerged from the Sinai event was not a Tetratibibilos of Moses set up against a book of Abraham.  Rather, what emerged was an integral Torah, otherwise known as the Pentateuch.   Multidimentional to be sure, but a single teaching none the less.

Here the salient point is that the teaching of Moses was not an abrogation of Abraham’s faith.  Rather it was an elaboration and restatement of the original doctrines, applied to conditions appropriate to an entire nation.  It was a supplemental teaching, not a new teaching.  From here on, let’s call the notion of a new teaching which abrogates on older teaching by the name of “progressive revelation.”

Progressive Revelation

In excising the Torah from the Gospel, the sectarian leader Marcion (Rome, 2nd c. AD) did to Moses what Moses had refrained from doing to Abraham.  Granted, revelation had not stopped, it had continued after Moses with the latter prophets and writers.  For the Christians, it had further continued with the writings of the evangelists and the apostles.  Were these later writings supplements or replacements?

Marcion not only considered the New Testament a completely different Bible from the Torah, he went to the extreme of expurgating all apostolic writings which were too closely associated with earlier revelation.  This left Marcion’s followers with a very slender Bible indeed, which was evidently his intention.  After a few centuries, Marcionism died out, but the history of the movement retains more than arcane interest, since much Christian theology has retained the spirit, if not the letter, of Marcion’s reforms.  Among many Christians today,  only the New Testament is considered the “real” Bible, and Torah (together with its associated writings) is relegated to the status of an archive of lore useful for interpreting the Gospel.

Islam is even more consistent in rejecting earlier revelation, not simply editing (as per Marcion) but entirely replacing both the Old and New Testaments of Christianity.  Voeglin and kindred thinkers would include Islam within their portmanteau word “gnosticism.”  Once the trolley of progressive revelation starts to accelerate, it is impossible to stop the car and alight at one’s preferred destination.  Rather the whole of the human species is increasingly drawn into a series of new movements:  Islam, Medieval Chiliasm, the the Radical Enlightenment, Marxism, Fascism, etc. each of which took on the characteristics of superceding revelations, each with their own sacred text, rituals and practices.

 

So, what’s wrong with that?

I have gone through a brief excursion into the history of revelation in order to show how disputes over the horizon of revelation are the most bitter and consequential of epistemological contentions.  If, as I have tried to indicate, all epistemological differences express faith in different revelations, it becomes very hard to judge the truth-claims of various revelations on any basis other than faith.  It would appear that we are forced back into a position of relativism, or at best making our judgement of revelatory texts dependent on secondary considerations, such as which text seems to be expressed in language indicative of transcendent origin.

From the outset I have been hinting that false revelation engenders chaos, while true revelation is grounded in reality and engenders reason and order.  Now, as we switch the weight of our argument from its epistemological left leg to its metaphysical right leg, we can turn from the impossible task of judging different historical species to a different procedure, one which promises a definitive conclusion.  All relativism is based on the notion that there can be “new truth” while absolutism is based on the premise that truth is outside of time.  Construing alternative epistemological systems as variations on “discovery processes” begs the question as to whether truth is, or is not, something outside of time.  If we accept such a starting point to our investigations, then the category “truth” will always be subordinated to the category “time.”  Therefore I have been at pains to define epistemology from the standpoint of revelation rather than inquiry.  If we accept this as our starting point, we retain the possibility of two alternative conclusions, either truth changes or it does not.  If the first case holds, then we live in a world governed by progressive revelation, if the second case holds, we live in a world governed by an original and integral revelation.

 

The world of Time and the world of Truth

In order to secure the claims of revelation, we must briefly absent ourselves from the Portico of Solomon and take up residence in the Grove of the Philosophers, since we have to rid ourselves of the sloppy understanding of the moderns and return to the strict reasoning of the ancients.  Emotionalism is a keynote of modernity, especially since the Enlightenment, and a strong hint that all is not well in the predominant secular world view.  Yet we must refrain from using it as anything but a hint, since if anti-Modernists were to use the emotionalism of our opponents as a substantive argument we would fall into the same ad hominum trap as they have.  We will not be able to deal with human thinking, let alone emotion, before we have dealt with time.

Unless we can assume that there is something which is outside of time, then nothing, not even time itself, can exist.  Aristotle’s notion of an Unmoved Mover, though predicated on currently unacceptable notions about celestial spheres, is an apt parable concerning a metaphysical reality.  Without a point of reference there can be no movement, and in the broadest sense this applies to time, which only is rendered actual if there is movement.  There is a something, we might even call it a place, which forms the background of our cosmos yet which is its qualitative opposite.  In religious language we can call this Eternity.

Humanity, as a natural species, lives inside of time.  All the things that human beings can sense are inside time.  We experience time and space, good and evil, truth and falsehood.  Using only these three pairs of opposed qualities, we can begin to evaluate the rival claims of original and progressive revelation.  For the benefit of our imaginations, we can look at Eternity as a circle.  Inside the circle we can draw a line which represents time.  The line is entirely inside the circle, and stops far short of touching any part of the circle’s imaginary circumference.  The line could be thick, drawn with a marker rather than a pen, since it really represents space-time rather than time in itself.

We are carried along the line much like a lily pad is swept down a river.  We want our journey to be happy and not sad, pleasant and not painful.  Hence we look at the prospect downstream and hope that it will be as good, or better than where we have come from.  This is our desire-nature, and at root it is a good and necessary thing.  We want things to get better, not to deteriorate.  However what we consider good and bad are based on subjective evaluations.  It is impossible for human beings to evaluate objectively.  There are individual evaluations, and there are the aggregated evaluations of groups, but the latter are just as subjective as the former.

Now let’s alter the diagram.  In this second version, which might be called the gnostic version, we will eliminate the circle surrounding the thick line.  There is now no longer an Eternity surrounding the cosmos.  In the original diagram we wanted to make the circle as large as possible in relation to the interior line.  Ideally, though impractical for purposes of illustration, the circle should have been infinite in diameter.  Erasing that huge circle, even one which we have scaled down for purposes of comparison, will naturally leave us with a sense of claustrophobia.  Since in this version the cosmos of the time-space world is all-there-is, we will need more room.  We will want to stretch the time line out as far as possible into geological or mythological time.  Also, we will want to thicken the line to get more land area, even if most of our land turns out to be empty space.  Eventually we will get an oblong universe which, at least from our own perspective, looks nearly as big as the “time-space world plus Eternity” of the original version.

Do these diagrams allow us to compare the transcendental and the immanent ( a.k.a. gnostic) world-views?  Yes, but they aren’t really decisive enough to let us pick one over the other.  They illustrate some interesting points of gnostic-immanent psychology, like the desire to inflate time and space to compensate for the loss of eternity.  Since these are only illustrative diagrams, for all we know, the immanent position might be right.  Unless we can adduce better reasons, we are forced to entertain the possibility that nothing exists outside of the time-space cosmos.  All the transcendent version has going for it, as a purely cosmological illustration, is something similar to Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”  Hence our diagrams are liable to be criticized as bloodless abstractions.  After all, that’s exactly what they are.

 

Good, evil, time, desire

When we plug ethics and value into our diagrams, they become more than bloodless illustrations.  They become bloody illustrations.  As terrible as that may sound (and its working out in the concrete world is indeed terrible) such diagrams will be much more informative.  In the transcendent diagram the circle of eternity now doubles as a moral compass.  Movement along the time line now becomes movement towards or away from an outside standard.  Human will and desire remain subjective, but they are measurable according to criteria external to either individual or collective evaluation.

In the immanent-gnostic diagram, where the circle of eternity does not exist, value and morality coincide.  If not individually, at least collectively, whatever is valued is moral, and whatever is moral is valued.  In the immanent-gnostic system there can be no such thing as hypocrisy and no such thing as desire which is frustrated by moral sanctions.  In this system, collectives, if not individuals, are able to attain moral autonomy.  Whatever they will is good and the good is what they will.  There is no failure, and more ominously, there is no freedom to fail.

The transcendent system is heteronomous.  There is often a clash between individual, or even collective, desires and an outside criteria.  What is valued may not be good, and the good may not be valued.  At first sight, the system of  moral heteronomy seems more stressful and conflicted than the system of moral autonomy.

We can call the gnostic-immanent system by other names.  One of them is the secular system.  This is particularly apt since the root meaning of “secular” refers to time.   The gods of this system live inside time, compete with each other, and engage in subjective evaluation of ends.  They may, or may not, be human beings.  If they are human beings they are identical to human beings in the other system in that they desire improvement in their future outcomes in relation to their present state.  They want change for the better.  We all do.

However the gods within the immanent system (whether they are the majority, elite conspirators, or others) have the power to change the criteria of what is good and what is bad in accordance with their desires.  This is called “transvaluation” in accordance with the nomenclature popularized by Nietzsche.  Hence progress along the line of time does not resemble a football game where the ball is moved towards or away from the goal line.  Rather, progress resembles a game in which the ball and the goal posts move in tandem with one another.  In such a game losing is impossible.  However one wonders if winning has any meaning either.

In the immanent-gnostic system humanity attains its desires through transformation, which entails a loss of identity.   In the transcendent system human beings attain their subjective goals by conforming them to objective criteria external to individual and collective desires.   In the transcendent system these desires are frustrated but the species and the individuals who comprise it have a chance to retain their identity.  Time devours its children, while Eternity preserves its own.  From a human point of view, this is the primary benefit of a double decker universe, with Eternity wrapped around time.

 

Revelation, Progress, and Originalism

By the end of the Enlightenment, the oracular though-forms of immanent gnosis had lost their conscious identity as revelation.  Even the ponderous pronouncements of G. F. W. Hegel were considered “secular” in the common sense of non-religious.  However Marcion, Joaquin of Florence, and Hegel were all “secular” in the broader sense of immanent time-worship…they were all revelators of an ongoing time-space continuum, processed through the prophetic faculties of the human brain.   Today, with Cultural Marxism unchained, we are experiencing a new revelation, a new gnosis, with every generation, if not every decade.  Time, at least eschatological time, seems to be accelerating.

The solution will not be returning to whatever shreds of truth the last generation, or even some past century, was hanging on to.  Will you stand your ground defending the virtues exemplified by John Travolta’s Grease, or even the Greece of Werner Jaeger’s Paedia?  The solution must be sought far back beyond the obvious distortions of pagan myth.  Indeed, it must go behind the numerous contortions and confusions of Christian theology, back to the original revelation where Time met Eternity.

When one has returned to the original bedrock of revelation, a point of origin where, admittedly, many things, including soterology, remain tacit…only at that point has one found solid ground.   And only there can one stand one’s ground.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Conspriacy Theory, Esoterism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

A Song of Ascents: Some curmudgeonly criticism of the Southeast Students for Liberty Conference

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 5, 2018

Why is freedom good?

The regional Students for Liberty southwest regional conference was held on October 29th.  Being a fellow-traveler of all things libertarian I was pleased when a friend of mine told me he was scheduled to speak at the conference and I was invited to attend.  There are many things that might be said about SFL, both pro and con, but the salient issue on today’s campuses is the issue of freedom of speech and how to make an informational end-run around what has been dubbed “the Left University.”  SFL is one of a handful of organizations seeking to give college students a perspective which differs from that of the compulsory Left Classroom, and hence I deem it worthy of everyone’s support.

The alleged topic of the conference/seminar was “The problem of Authoritarianism.”  I have no idea why SFL picked that theme, but it was largely honored through avoidance.  Instead, another theme seemed to emerge spontaneously as the talks progressed.  It was briefly articulated by the philosopher who spoke mid-way through the conference: “Why is freedom good?”  Indeed, that is the nub of everything, is it not?

I suspect that I was the oldest person at the conference, and probably the only one who had the privilege of meeting such bygone freedom advocates as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio.   As such,  I was well positioned to play the role of the old curmudgeon bringing to bare all sorts of technicalities and arcane lore.  However, my better self realized that was unsporting, so I decided to join in the applause and stuff my carping criticism into these notes.  After all, the conference did what it did quite well, since, to put it in Biblical terms, there is “milk for babes” and there is “meat for the apostles.”  Now is the time to raise up children for the freedom movement, the business of ideological fine-tuning can be left to the apostles of the future…if there is to be a future.

Yet, to my surprise and delight, the talks seemed to mount a stairway of increasing significance and application.  Indeed, I felt myself riding on an intellectual escalator, at the top of which was the supreme answer to our question: “Why is freedom good?”  Of course this was just my personal perception, and each person’s mental escalation may be the moral deflation of someone else.  So let me give you a brief critical treatment of five speakers from the conference, and you may decide if you agree that the order of presentation was also an order of ascending significance.

The five presenters, each of whom represented a significant rung on the stairway to freedom, were in sequence: 1) an Advocate for Entreprenuership, 2) a Philosopher, 3) a Movement Leader, 4) a Libertarian Muslim, and finally 5) a Rogue Scholar.

 

The Advocate for Entrepreneurship

This presentation was the real milk for babes, and it was well done indeed.  Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that freedom, economic efficiency, and technological progress go together?  Unfortunately, yes, today’s youths, living within a cornucopia of technological wonders, are blocked from seeing the obvious connections between information and the free market through the interference of the Left Academy.  That’s why we need informal presentations to help people see the forest of capitalism from the trees of technical devices.  As the speaker noted, technological progress gets a spurt every time there is deregulation of an industry.  Today’s smart phone applications are an outcome of the unregulated environment of the 90s.  The Advocate did an excellent job of illustrating this with copious examples.  He was by far the most trend conscious and personable of the presenters, only occasionally slipping up with a reference to Taylor Swift, who apparently is now passe.

Nuf said!  After all, we all need to recognize that freedom promotes technology, the spread of information, and economic efficiency.  Well, except that, being the curmudgeon that I am,  I can’t help but peer around the corner of this tried-and-true thesis.  Is there no dark shadow behind the cheery gospel of technological optimism?  Are not command economies more efficient at generating instruments of destruction?  Not all technologies are benevolent.  What kind of technologies would we have today if the First and Second World Wars had never occurred?  In the absence of those cataclysms perhaps our technology today would resemble developments along the lines laid out by Tessla (the man, not the company)?  Instead we have a wide spectrum of technologies, some of them benevolent, but others highly problematic.  Just a thought…which I am tossing out like a monkey wrench into the wonderful but fragile works of the Randians and kindred humanistic utopians.

 

The Philosopher

The first job of a philosopher is to find the salient question in any venue and then pose it with clarity.  The fine representative of that profession who appeared at the SFL conference was able to articulate its basic theme: “Why is freedom good?”  He then proceeded to give what seemed like an exhaustive survey of all possible answers to the question.  He attempted to accomplish through analysis what I am trying to recap here synthetically.  Is there not a hierarchy of motives which impel us toward freedom, some of which are closer to wanting freedom for its own sake and some of which are only using freedom as an instrumentality for some other value which is considered the supreme end of life and action?  In short, the visiting philosopher seemed to be treating us to a “Critique of Pure Freedom.”  Fortunately his presentation was not quite as long or as frustrating as any of Kant’s critiques.

Again, the curmudgeon must make a confession.  I don’t particularly care for this kind of approach.  I’m sure that the visiting philosopher would have been miffed if I had labeled him as an “analytic philosopher”…since that moniker rightly belongs to the linguistic philosophers of the last century.  Rather, his philosophy, or rather his presentation was analytical in the sense that it came down to decision trees and processes of elimination.  If you are reading this and you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, that is understandable, since such a method is better shown graphically than discursively.   I consider that a weakness.   Its not that analysis doesn’t have its place.  The image of correct demonstration I have in mind is that of Kierkegaard using the ladder of reason to mount up to faith (or some primary axiom) and then throwing it down after having reached the summit.  To my mind, the visiting philosopher seemed overly attached to the ladder.

 

The Movement Leader

I am keeping people in this essay anonymous,  ostensibly to protect them from persecution.  To tell the truth, that’s mostly bullshit…I just have a bad memory and seem to have lost my notes.  None the less, there is some justification for the ostensible reason.  As they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.  Here I will outdo myself in subtlety and keep not only the speaker but his country of origin anonymous.  Actually, if you have a computer and the intelligence of a six year old child you should be able to find out the names of all the presenters in under three minutes, maximum.

Having said that, the next speaker was no mere scholar, but a front lines political activist from one of the most important nations of Latin America.  In the 1970s and 1980s this nation was the freest and most prosperous in the region.  Then something happened, and today it has become a brutal, impoverished, Marxist dictatorship.  Certainly this defies all logic, at least the utilitarian logic which states that people, having once tasted freedom, will never go back to slavery.  How is this possible?  Fortunately this speaker opened the floor to Q&A so that the attendees of the conference could probe him on this enigma.

According to the speaker, the key institution implicated in the downfall of his country was the military.  Although a “showcase of democracy” his country’s military retained the same privileged position which the armed forces of lesser developed Latin American nations occupied in their respective societies.  As the economy of the nation contracted after the oil boom of the 70s, the military contracted an unholy alliance with left wing politicians to retain its wealth and influence at the expense of other sectors of society.  I was not surprised at this analysis, but somewhat disappointed.  What, I wondered, about the influence of other sectors, notably the universities.  He said, yes, the universities were leftist, but the military factor outweighed all other sectors of the society.

He ended with an appeal for support, and an admonition that people in the United States maintain vigilance over their own freedoms.  He remained rather more sanguine about the prospects for freedom here than in Latin America, which is understandable given his perspective.  My own take away was that the notion of an irreversible evolution of freedom is part of the Hegelian, not the Classical Liberal, tradition.  For better or worse institutions need to be under constant repair and renewal in the face of the entropic forces of power lust and opportunism.

And again: “Is freedom good?”  This speaker did not directly address the question, taking it as a given.  However the context of his talk indicated a striving for societal good, a populist or democratic freedom rather than a libertarian ideology.  Freedom is good because it advances the well being of the nation.  It is well known that, until recently, libertarians had nothing but scorn for populism and nationalism.  However presented in the context of a Latin American country struggling against tyranny, one can more easily see that patriotism (in spite of its collectivist overtones) can be a potent adversary against the kind of left-wing nationalism which (paradoxically) is often in secret or not-so-secret alliance with the forces of globalism.  Perhaps for most people, freedom under an independent and limited national government is the most realistic goal on the historical horizon.  None the less, being a utilitarian construct, it falls short of the Holy Grail of libertarian theory…freedom for its own sake.

 

The Libertarian Muslim

Our penultimate speaker was that rarest of animals in the libertarian menagerie, a libertarian muslim.  Opening with a prayer, which I couldn’t follow well because of my extremely limited Arabic, he launched into his forceful and very articulate presentation.  Unfortunately it was pitched far above the heads of the audience, who were thinking of little other than “How in heck can you be a muslim and a libertarian?”  They had trouble getting beyond the messenger and into his message, a message which in itself was quite sophisticated.  I didn’t agree completely with his thesis, and it could have been challenged on its own premises, but so far as I could tell nobody else was in the mood or equipped for that kind of conversation.  This isn’t a dig at young people or college students, who I think gave the libertarian muslim a more courteous reception than he would have gotten among almost any other audience.  Of course I am discounting the two-faced reception of politically correct crowds, who would have smiled at the muslim in hopes of political alliance while secretly despising him for his belief in God.

However I relished the libertarian muslim’s talk as a survival, or perhaps revival, of a line in libertarian thinking which has long been dinned out by the clash of rival civilizations.  It is the same thread of reasoning which Rose Wilder Lane took up, only to be dropped by subsequent publicists.  This notion indicates that freedom is good because it advances the cause of civilization.  In this view, civilization is understood as a vast tapestry stretching, without significant breach, over the course of roughly the past five thousand years.  The term civilization therefore is twofold, having both a general and a specific meaning.  One the one hand there are specific civilizations, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European etc., and on the other hand there is the cumulative civilization of humanity.  At critical points of juncture, the cumulative knowledge of the human species “jumps” from one regional civilization to another.

In tried and true Rose Wilder Lane fashion, the libertarian muslim was at pains to illustrate that the pedigree of rationalism, a key component of the freedom philosophy, was not indigenous to Europe, but rather jumped into Western Scholasticism from the “filosofia” of the muslim sages.  In truth, and in very truth, and not in lies, say I, this is pretty much correct.  The tradition of rationalism did indeed pass through a muslim (or at least Arabic) parenthesis from about the ninth to the twelfth centuries of the Western era.  I could quibble about a meta-civilization which absorbs all previous civilizations, but I won’t at this juncture.

Rather, the foremost question regarding the Lane thesis should be the relationship between reason and freedom.  Many philosophers who have claimed that their systems were the acme of rationalism have also claimed to be champions of freedom.  The prime example of such a philosopher, who’s claims are generally acknowledged by the Left but rejected by Classical Liberals is G. W. F. Hegel.  According to the Lane thesis, ibn-Rushd, (latinized as “Averroes”) is a kind of Hegel for Classical Liberals (a.k.a., contemporary conservatives and libertarians).  He was the bridge who transmitted reason from the Middle East to the Western World, thus becoming the middle term between Aristotle and Modernity.   This broader view of history eliminates any “dark ages” or rather localizes it in Europe.  Hence the light of reason never goes out, indeed, it never even flickers.  This view is comforting to those who seek to identify the progress of freedom with a putative uninterrupted progress of civilization.  Naturally, it is also very congenial to those who are either religiously or ethnically connected to the Middle East.  For the most part, the libertarian muslim’s presentation involved a restatement and elaboration of the Lane thesis, but this seems to have generally gone over the heads of those in attendance.

Although many other Middle Eastern luminaries can be thrown into this kind of discourse, ibn Rushd/Averroes (properly speaking an Andelusian, not a Middle Easterner) is the man to beat.  Unsurprisingly, nobody at the conference jumped into a technical discussion of Averroism…not even the philosopher, who I believe still remained in attendance.  If such an engagement had occurred, someone would have eventually broached the question of whether the rationalism of Averroes is indeed a philosophy of freedom.  Actually the metaphysical views of Averroes in relation to the human individual and freedom are highly problematic, and in many ways he is less a predecessor of John Locke (as per the Lane thesis) than the metaphysical collectivism of Teillard de Jarden.  Few people think of Teillard as a libertarian, in fact few think about him at all, they just hear about his system and say “gee wizz!”

In lieu of meaningful philosophical engagement, by the end of his talk the libertarian muslim was reduced to abandoning the philosophy of history entirely and switching to an impassioned cry for libertarian activism on the part of people from all faiths and factions.  Actually he didn’t advocate abandoning theory, only an obsession with redundant arguments over shopworn libertarian issues.  This is certainly a sensible admonition.  However there is also the troubling prospect of people forgetting or altering their fundamental principles in the heat of political conflict.  Certainly in today’s political hothouse, with its clash of civilizations and so-called “cultures” it is more difficult than ever to keep a rational head.  Meanwhile one must remember that rationality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for “freedom” in the sense that libertarians use that term.

This is because “freedom” as it has come down through the Classical Liberal/Old Right/Libertarian tradition, e.g., through thinkers such as von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, means individual freedom.  In the system of Averroes, perhaps even more so than in the system of Hegel, “freedom” is an attribute of a collective organism which we would feign call by the reassuring name “civilization.”  While a sophisticated civilization may nurture individual freedom, excessive veneration of civilization and especially “a” civilization can be dangerous for liberty.  Furthermore, from any religious point of view (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.)”civilization” construed as the supreme value of human life can be considered a form of idolatry, or at least an attempt to reduce the transcendence of God to immanence.

Bearing this in mind, it should be clear that Averroism and Islam have little in common, other than coexisting in the head of an individual philosopher who lived nine centuries ago.  How Ibn-Rushd reconcilled his “filosofia” and his faith, I don’t know and it is not my place to know.  Similarly, there is something paradoxical about a libertarian muslim, but the speaker at our conference acquitted himself with courage and clarity.  If he failed to impart a deeper understanding of “civilization” to his audience, at the very least he inspired them with a clarion call for libertarian activism and engagement.   Similar to being a movement leader in militarized Latin America, being a libertarian muslim is a tough row to hoe.  The speaker has obviously experienced persecution, and expects further challenges in the future.

 

The Rogue Scholar

There are Rhodes scholars and there are rogue scholars, and which kind you are inclined to trust says a lot about you.  The legendary Justin Raimondo, writing from his sick bed, is presently lamenting the fact that his organization never received any awards.  True.  The information and research organizations which got the awards, never spoke up and changed the consciousness, or afflicted the conscience of America like the Randolph Bourn Institute and its web presence, the antiwar.com.  As for the decorated and the endowed, it is written “They have their reward already.”

Likewise, the late Rene Girard, though amply recognized in the twilight of his life by a seat in the French Academy, never fit comfortably into the departmental cubbyholes of academia.  Expatriated from his native land and with no proper profession, he was seen variously as an itinerant literary critic, a sociologist, a psychologist, a philosopher, or an anthropologist.  If he had lived a hundred years earlier he probably could have founded his own discipline, but he lived in an era when Western thought had ossified into exclusive, jealous compartments.  He brought a form of wisdom to the study of human behavior which was at once new and yet discoverable in both the Bible and the corrupted witness of mythology.  It showed how the bond of society was forged through force of imitation, and yet how, at a critical point in each society’s foundation the bond turned into the blood of sacrifice.  He called this mimetic theory (MT for short) and it has become a growing undercurrent in the social sciences for the last few decades.

In Girard’s understanding, increasing convergence on a model for imitation creates the primary tension within societies, as they reach the point where individuals lose their individuality in the frantic search for identity with the model.  The tension is only relieved when the model is expelled (through exile or death) and demonized, relieving the jealousy in society and replacing the dynamic of imitation with the bonds of collective guilt in the aftermath of mutual conspiracy.  This is what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism, and he saw in it the basis of all societal transformation.

The Rogue Scholar stumbled, unfashionably late, into the conference.  It was not a promising beginning.  I asked him if he had a power point presentation prepared.

“No.”

I wondered how he would explain the subtle nuances of the Mimetic Triangle without graphic support.  It didn’t seem to bother him.  He strode up to the front of the hall with confidence and pulled out his sole prop, his cell phone.  Then he dialed a federal prison in the state of Illinois.

“Hello, can I speak to Craig Cesal?”

“Hi, it’s me!”

As it turned out, Craig Cesal was serving a life sentence without parole for a victimless crime.  According to the Rogue Scholar, Craig had been a garage mechanic occasionally repairing trucks destined for shipping marijuana across the US/Mexican border.  Apparently many of the big guys in the smuggling conspiracy had gotten off making pleas for lighter time, but Craig had neither clout nor information to bargain with.   When asked what the most bitter aspect of his existence was, Craig mentioned the fact that perpetrators of violent crime, up to and including murderers, routinely rotated through the system with five, ten, or fifteen year sentences, while he was stuck there for the rest of his life.

Craig was a scapegoat.

Instead of explaining what a scapegoat was, the Rogue Scholar gave us a heart rending example of how human societies, whether those societies are criminal or civil, routinely scapegoat individuals.  The session ended with a heartfelt appeal to support Craig and his family.  In the end, nobody felt that they had been deprived of a thorough explanation of Rene Girard’s theory.  The theory had actually become incarnate, through the witness of an incarcerated man.

 

Conclusion:  Why is freedom good?

Freedom is good for any number of reasons.  It grows technology and expands the economy.  It gives us more choices and let’s us choose our own ideologies, even if they happen to be inimical to freedom.  Free minds and free markets strengthen every nation which embrace them.  Finally, liberty gives meaning to the story of human civilization, which is, or at least ought to be, a record of freedom’s victories.

Yet ultimately, for the libertarian there is no such thing as civilization, or even the human species, apart from the individuals who comprise it.  Just as the cosmos has no existence apart from the brilliant stars of which it is composed, society has no meaning apart from the individual person.  The dignity and autonomy of the person, although subsisting in relation to other persons, should be the building block from which all social realities are constructed.  Yet historically we see that societies are built not through trade and coexistence, but through sacrifice.

It was Satan speaking through a human mouth who said, “It is expedient that one man’s life be taken lest the people perish.”   Yet the measure of meaning is the sanctity of the individual.  Freedom is good because it is an inalienable aspect of the person.  On the other hand, it makes good political sense to isolate a small group and use animus to increase the degree of social cohesion among the majority. By logical extension, the most efficient and economical way of attaining world unity would be to turn the universal hatred of the human race against one man.  Yet such a unity would be a toxic unity, based on bloody sacrifice.

In the end it is a choice between human sacrifice and the Tenth Commandment, the word against envy.  We must learn to live and let live.  And more than just coexist, we must tolerate the fact that some people will be happier than ourselves.  We must resist the urge to destroy them, in full knowledge that as long as they live, our own happiness will be inferior to theirs.  That is the bare minimum requirement for calling oneself a “libertarian.”  The opposite of a libertarian would be an egalitarian.  All egalitarianism ends in human sacrifice, i.e., in death.   As long as there is even one sacrifice, even one individual to whom the great rights (great because negative, not their positive counterfeits) of life, liberty, and property  are not granted, then that is not a free society.

Or as they say these days, “Where we go one, we go all!”

 

 

 

 

 

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