de Maistre on Rousseau

I’ve been reading Against the Current, a collection of essays by Isaiah Berlin.  In an essay on the “counter-enlightenment”, I came across this delightful quote:

Rousseau asks why it is that man, who was born free, is nevertheless everywhere in chains; one might as well ask, says de Maistre, why it is that sheep, who are born carnivorous, nevertheless everywhere nibble grass.

Blog updates

On the right, you’ll see that I’ve added a new cluster of pages:  my “Aristotle and Evolution” essay, in which I show that the Aristotelian arguments for human uniqueness, the existence of God, and the spiritual reality of love and loyalty are not affected by Darwin’s theory, or any other current or conceivable scientific theory.  I’m particularly pleased with my last chapter, on the doctrine of original sin, which I show means far more than just that human beings have temptations to be bad.  Non-Christians are right to point out that that in itself hardly needs a supernatural explanation.

Another recent addition is my new blogroll, in which I list some recommended sites.  I was fairly picky about who I put on my blogroll.  A site only made the cut if 1) I agree with the majority of its central positions, 2) I’ve learned things by reading it, i.e. it presents new and interesting ideas, and 3) it presents reasonable arguments for its positions, as opposed to just calling their opponents bad names.  Needless to say, I don’t agree with everything you might find through these links, but they constitute, in my opinion, the cutting edge of online traditionalist thought.  More links may be added as they occur to me.

What’s wrong with dependency? My response to the health care debate

I have no problem with people disliking to the health care bill, but I do wish that the  Right-blogosphere would be more precise in stating its objections.  I don’t like the tone of most of it.  For example, there’s the title to Mark Steyn’s piece Happy Dependence Day!  The article itself makes some valid points, but I always object when one speaks of dependence as if it were intrinsically bad–as if we conservatives had embraced the view of abortion and euthanasia advocates that to depend on another person is to be subhuman.  Dependency is the most basic fact of human existence.  The independent man is a fantasy, an imaginary creature like the Tooth Fairy, the noble savage, the state of nature, and the social contract.  The project of conservatism is precisely this:  to moralize and dignify the dependence of man on his fellows.  Nor is dependence on the government an inherently bad thing.  We are supposed to depend on the government after all; that’s what it’s there for.  Conservatives only object to dependence on the government when it undermines other meaningful dependency relationships, e.g. dependence on one’s family or local community.  From this perspective, Obama’s bill is far less wicked than federal incursion into the education of children (e.g. No Child Left Behind), which more directly usurps the role of parents and cities.  I for one would much rather the federal government control which doctor I see than control the beliefs of my children.  So my question is this:  what dependency structure does the new government regulation of health insurance jeopardize?

There are three types of dependency:  personal, corporate, and impersonal.  In personal dependence, one individual relies on another qua that individual.  The main example is the nuclear family, but other examples might include the lord-vassal, priest-parishioner, or master-apprentice relationships, depending on social context.   In corporate dependence, the individual depends ultimately on some corporate entity, and only on other individuals qua agents of that corporation.  The relationship between the state and its subjects is of this kind.  In impersonal dependency, one depends on other men ultimately as an unincorporated aggragate, by trading to get what one needs at a price set by the aggragate supply and demand.  This is the realm of what Hegel called “civil society”, what is now called the “market”.  Impersonal dependency comes about because of the division of labor in advanced societies.

The dependence of person on person is moralized by the ascription of reciprocal rights and duties, and its culmination is love.  The dependence of person on corporate person is moralized in the same way, and its culmination is community/patriotism/justice.  In both cases, the ascription of duties depends on an ideological construct–the ends of marriage, gender roles, constitutions, legitimating founding myths, etc.  Our job as conservatives is to defend these communal understandings.  Impersonal dependency cannot be moralized in this way.  If some good is distributed through the free market, and someone can’t afford to buy it, it’s no one’s fault in particular that he can’t get that good.  As long as it remains in the impersonal sector, there’s no way to assign responsibility.  As Hegel pointed out, civil society can only be moralized from outside:  from the personal side from guild associations and from the corporate side from state regulation.  Conservatives have no reason to want civil society left unmoralized.  Quite the contrary.  And since health insurance is not a traditional function of family, church, or local community, none of these things are undermined even by a complete government takeover.  Why should we conservatives care?

Another complaint is that President Obama will be forcing young people who don’t want health insurance to buy health insurance.  Good for him–they should be forced to buy insurance.  Everybody knows that if one of these bright “nothing bad could happen to me” lads were to stagger into a hospital with a knife in his back, the doctors would save his life whether he had insurance or not.  It’s a free-rider problem.  If somebody can get care who could have payed for it but didn’t, that makes the people who did pay for it suckers.  We also force people to buy car insurance, but nobody calls that tyranny.

Actually, the one good reason to oppose government in health care is the reason that’s been subject to the most ridicule:  the danger of state-sanctioned abortion and euthanasia.  “But that’s not in this bill!”  cry the Democrats, with some justification.  However, this legislation will create a bureaucratic apparatus that will push for these things year after year–twisting language, redefining words.  Even if I believed that President Obama is sincerely dedicated to opposing public abortions and public euthanasia, I don’t believe that he or Congress or both together are capable of stopping it.

Absolutist and relativist authority

Dispatches from the North has an excellent essay on the nature of authority.  The author argues that the real dichotomy is not between democracy and other types of government, but between authority that bases itself on human will and authority that bases itself on on something transcending human will.  Do read the whole thing, but I particularly liked this disussion of divine-right monarchy:

The inscrutability of God’s ways was another vital part of the system. After all, if humans knew exactly what God wanted, they could simply do it without His help, and would be justified in deposing any monarch considered unjust or tyrannical at a moment’s notice, thus stripping the monarchy of any real legitimacy or power. Paradoxically, it was an imperfect knowledge of God’s will which allowed that will to meaningfully manifest itself on the earth, and a partial inability to do away with things perceived as unfair which allowed fairness to triumph.

I hadn’t thought of it exactly that way before, but it’s a very good point.

The internal contradiction of multiculturalism

Check out this article on Zenit, in which Professor Christopher Shannon explains what multiculuralism is and why it is self-defeating.  An exerpt:

Q: What is multiculturalism, and how does it end up subverting culture?

Shannon: Multiculturalism means different things to different people. If I had to identify a common ground that unites all self-proclaimed multiculturalists, it would come down to two points. First, all cultures are equal in value and have an equal right to flourish free from external constraints; and second, the greater good of humanity — defined in terms of peace, love and understanding — is best served by people living within or directly experiencing as many different cultures.

The irony or contradiction within this ideal of diversity lies in the historical reality that all of the traditional cultures celebrated in the multiculturalist literature were able to flourish and develop their unique beauty precisely because of a degree of isolation now judged to be the incubator of intolerance.

The peoples of the South Pacific islands developed their unique cultures largely due to their separation from the mainland of Southeast Asia and from each other.

The Hurons and the Iroquois of North America maintained distinct cultures in large part because they were sworn enemies. Sustained contact between cultures transforms — that is, undermines the integrity of — each culture.

The demand on the part of multiculturalists for a constant engagement with difference betrays a very elitist, cosmopolitan vision of culture in which each individual is free to sample the cultures of the world and piece together their own idiosyncratic, personal “culture.” By the standards of most of the cultures in world history, this is simply cultural consumerism.

Multiculturalists mingle cultures to acheive “diversity”, but cultures can only flourish when separate, so multiculturalism destroys what it consumes.  I made similar points in my Defense of Regional Cultures.  It is encouraging, though, to see such a view openly stated in a Vatican-affiliated newsletter.  Could it be a sign that the Church is beginning to embrace its destiny as a leader of worldwide Reaction?

Bonald’s maxim on ecumenism

The more vocally a Catholic declares his support for ecumenism, the more bitterly will one hear him denouncing “fundamentalism” and “Calvinism”.

Their idea is that Catholics should cooporate with the right sort of Protestant.  Ecumenists never want us to get all chummy with Southern Baptists, Mormons, or Pentecostals.

Features of conservative history III: the Catholic connection

The connection between anti-Catholicism and the Left, and between Catholicism and the Right, is obvious to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the last three centuries of history.  In fact, there is–historically speaking–very little to keep us from defining liberalism as “the political movement that seeks the destruction of the Catholic Church” and conservatism as “the policical movement that defends the Catholic Church and her social power”.  True, there have been great Protestant conservatives, such as Burke and Coleridge, but they represent a minority sensibility among their religion, and their Protestantism often seems to be the least conservative thing about them.  One feels, for example, that Burke would have been a more consistent anti-revolutionary if he had opposed the Reformation and the “Glorious” revolution as well as the others.  On the other hand, a search for great Catholic liberals tends to demonstrate the incompatibility of the two things.  One could name figures like Montesquieu or Tocqueville, but they combined the two by been mild both in their politics (today, these two are mostly read by conservatives) and in their faith.  People who try to be militantly liberal and militantly Catholic generally find that they must make a choice–either to apostosize from the Church, like Lamennais, or to turn against liberalism on crucial points, like Maritain or Pope Paul VI.  The story of Pope Paul VI shows clearly why no Catholic can be a liberal.  Here was a pontiff desperate to appease the Left at all costs, who sacrificed the liturgy to their profane whims, who tolerated open apostasy and communism in the clergy, but the Left still wasn’t satisfied.  They demanded he sacrifice immutable Christian teachings, on sex and also on other subjects, and this was something no Pope could do.  One could also point to the stories of famous Catholic converts:  very often the move to Rome coincided with a political move to the Right.  Orestes Brownson and Richard John Neuhaus would be two American examples.  I can think of no case where conversion to Catholicism has moved anyone to the Left.

The Catholic Church is an inherently reactionary institution.  Impossible as it would seem to dispute it, some still feel compelled to try.  Time and again, I hear American Catholic bloggers whining about how the labels “conservative” or “liberal” don’t apply to the Church, that people only use these labels because they’re obsessed with politics and see it even when it isn’t there.  A quick answer to this complaint is that, if it’s arbitrary whether one calls the Church “liberal” or “conservative”, how does one explain the fact that everybody who does think the Church has a political posture describes it as conservative?  If the label were arbitrary, it could just as easily go the other way.

What Americans mean when they say Catholicism is neither liberal nor conservative is that it is neither Democratic nor Republican.  This is true enough, but it’s true because the Republican Party is not perfectly conservative, not because the Catholic Church isn’t.  To the extent that Republicans are classical liberals, the Church disagrees with them; to the extent they are true conservatives, they share the mind of the Church and will generally be accused of being Catholic theocrats.

People sometimes describe Catholic teachings as generally conservative, but with some concessions to liberalism or socialism.  The examples they give, however, prove that there are no concessions.  For example, one might say that the Church in the Middle Ages endorsed the feudal hierarchy on one hand while maintaining the “spiritual” equality of all people on the other hand, and that this represents some sort of compromise between hierarchy and egalitarianism.  In fact, the doctrine of spiritual equality made the Church perfectly aristocratic, not imperfectly so.  The aristocratic principle is that authority comes from traditionally-assigned social roles, not the competence of the individual or the will of the majority.  If one were to maintain that noblemen are inherently better people than commoners, this would be imperfect aristocratic belief.  It would mean that one had lost faith in the legitimacy of tradition and felt the need to switch one’s justification to one of competency; one declares that (miraculously) the best people and the hereditary nobility just happen to be the same bunch.  In the same way, the Nazis were imperfect racialists when they claimed superiority for the Aryan race.  A true racist wouldn’t feel the need to justify his ethnic loyalty by invoking some universal qualities that his race serves to promote.  Or consider what St. Augustine says in the Confessions:

And as in his soul there is one element which deliberates and aspires to dominion, and another element which is submissive and obedient, so in the bodily realm woman is made for man.  In mental power she has an equal capacity of rational intelligence, but by the sex of her body she is submissive to the masculine sex.  This is analogous to the way in which the impulse for action is subordinate to the rational mind”s prudent concern that the act is right.

Augustine is not compromising his patriarchism when he claims that women are as smart as men.  On the contrary, patriarchy demands that authority proceed from sexual symbolism rather than intelligence.  A man who claimed to rule his wife because of being smarter would be abandoning the traditional justifications for male headship.

Let us, then, admit what most people have sensed:  Rome is at an end of the political spectrum, not nowhere and not somewhere in the middle.

Features of conservative history II: enduring charisma

Max Weber identified three types of authority:  traditional, rational (bureaucratic), and charismatic.  Roughly speaking, conservatives defend the first, and liberals advocate the second.  Both will tend to distrust personal charisma, because it gives someone authority based on his personal qualities, rather than his social roles.  Conservatives would prefer that the relevant roles be traditional; liberals would prefer they be rational-bureaucratic.  Charismatic movements could disrupt either system.

Nevertheless, charismatic leaders can be extremely important at crucial moments in history, and so both liberals and conservatives have at times resorted to them.  The difference is that the charismatic figures that liberals have supported–Benito Juarez, FDR, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Zedung, Martin Luther King Jr, etc.–have been genuine leftists.  They were really dedicated to socialism, and so leftists have seldom had cause to regret their alliances with such figures.  In fact, communism seems to only advance under the leadership of a “great leader”.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have generally been driven to supporting anti-socialist charismatic figures who were not conservative, but were just seen as being the only forces able to check the Left.  In other words, the embrace by the Right of charismatic figures is rarely a true marriage of wills, but an attempt by conservatives and the leader to manipulate each other.  There are many examples of this:  Napoleon III, Mussolini, de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan.  These alliances sometimes do accomplish their immediate goal of forestalling a Leftist takeover, but conservatives often live to regret, or at least be very ambivalent, about them.  Of the above, only Reagan still has any popularity on the Right, even though he was obviously a classical liberal and not a conservative at all.

Why can’t conservatives find any charismatic leaders who actually share their beliefs?  Perhaps it’s because the techniques of mass popularity are even more inimical to the conservative mentality–to whom they seem to be demogogy–than they are to the liberal mentality.  After all, to whip up an enormous chanting mob is already to erase social organization and hierarchy.  It is a fundamentally anti-conservative thing to do.  Thus, the conservative who refuses to encourage men to coalesce into a mass is at a distinct disadvantage in mass politics.  No one would say that a figure like Franco or Dolfuss or Adenauer had charisma, or that he was especially loved (as opposed to being respected).  Desperate conservatives may, however, feel driven to support someone who does possess this magic over the crowd, thinking they will be able to influence the Leader in their direction.  More often, though, the Leader accepts the support of conservatives and gives them nothing in return, except to share with them the hostility of the public when his popularity wanes.

Evolution and divine causality

Here’s the next-to-last chapter to my “Aristotle and Darwin” essay.  It’s about two pages.  In this installment, I address the claim that evolution has removed the need to invoke God’s creative action.

From time to time, I’ve seen newspaper articles reporting surveys on the relative popularity of “evolution” and “creationism”.  The survey will have questions which ask whether one believes that life or humanity A) was created by God or B) evolved from lower forms through natural processes.  These articles always end with reporters lamenting the “unscientific” attitudes of Americans, because some people checked “A”.  The real scandal, though, is the philosophical ignorance of reporters who think A and B are mutually exclusive.

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The Prodigal Marxist

This Sunday’s Catholic Mass in Carlisle, MA, I just heard one of the most reprehensible homilies I’ve ever had to endure.

The gospel reading was the story of the prodigal son.  For 2000 years, this story has had a special place in the hearts of Christians, especially those who have found ourselves deep in sin, realized God’s anger with us, but felt too trapped in sin to reform.  In this parable, we hear about how eager God is to forgive and how he rejoices at the return of any of His straying children.

The priest today had another take on the story.  He said, essentially, that the younger son was right to squander his inheritance on prostitutes, because it was a reasonable protest against the unjust practice of primogeniture.  Rather than encouraging us sinners to repent and avail ourselves of God’s unfailing mercy, he encouraged us to take on an attitude of suspicion towards our inherited traditions, because they may be keeping us from living in true “harmony”.

This is such a noxious, arrogant, stupid, evil message, it’s hard to know where to begin in answering it.  Most importantly, of course, it turns Christ’s invitation to repentence completely on its head.  People listening to this homily will be fortified in their sins.  They will be encouraged to persist in a spirit of self-pity and self-righteousness, a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of “society did me wrong, so I’m justified in doing whatever I want to get back.”  Second, there was the priest’s obnoxious way of treating “tradition” and “culture” as if these were dirty words.  It’s as if we were to regard our ancestors as criminals and our customs as guilty until proven innocent, rather than taking our traditions, with appropriate piety and gratitude, as communally-recognized paths to God.  I don’t need to explain to my fellow traditionalists how utterly wrong-headed is this contempt for the wisdom of past ages.  It would be bad enough for anyone to say this, but from a priest of a church that claims to be the bearer of a sacred tradition, it’s especially silly.  Plus, the taken-for-granted culture in Jesus’ time was not heathen culture, but Jewish culture, which Catholics believe was specially shaped by God to prepare the setting for the Messiah.  It seems that these “spirit of Vatican II” priests think Jesus came not to fulfill the Law, but to destroy it, after all.  Finally, there was the arrogant, ignorant attack on the practice of primogeniture, which is just one example of the tendency of these ignorant, closed-minded liberals to denounce other cultures without even bothering to try to understand them first.  “This is inequality; therefore it must be wrong.”  That’s the extent of these simpletons’ thought processes.  No need to understand that, in a trustee-family system, the oldest son doesn’t own the farm in the modern sense–the family owns it, and the patriarch is just the trustee charged with delivering the family estate entrusted to him intact to the next generation.  He has no more authority to split up or sell the estate than he does to exhaust the soil for short-term profit.  The position is one of responsibility to family members alive, dead, and unborn, as well as one of “privilege”.  Plus, in some cases, practical considerations make it unwise to split up modest estates into smaller units that might not be economically viable.  The liberal outsider doesn’t need to consider any of this.  He’s spotted inequality–that gives him the right to denounce it without further thought.  The United Nations is full of bullies who think this way.