An outline of history: the contest between civilization and barbarism by a neutral observer

If Leftists like Wells and Condorcet can try their hands at it, why not me?  The essay below is kind of exploratory.  I’m not sure if it represents my ultimate conclusions, and more research needs to be done, but I think the major pieces are coming into place.

First, the key distinctions.

Dependency, personal and impersonal

That humans need and have claims on each other is the fundamental social fact.  The ties between men can be either personal or impersonal.  In the former case, duties are between particular persons.  In the latter case, one has fundamentally has duties toward and reliance on a group; the group will delegate its obligation to you to some particular member, but the ultimate responsible agent is the group itself.  Personal dependency can base itself either on kinship or on vows of loyalty.  The paradigmatic case, the family, obviously involves both.  In many societies, personal networks are the basis of the whole social order.  A society publicly organized around kinship we call “tribal”; one organized around binding personal oaths, we call “feudal”.  Once the network gets large enough, though, its higher levels take on an impersonal character.  We can still identify such societies as “personal”, because even its most distant and impersonal levels rely on the network of personal relations (kinship, vassalage) for their legitimacy.

The more common word for the above societies is “barbarian”, a derogatory term invented by those peoples who organized themselves on the other principle.  The most impersonal form of dependency is the market–we all rely on each other via the division of labor, but nobody has any actual duties toward anyone else, at least as far as the market goes.  The more important form of impersonal dependency is the territorial state, a corporate person regarded as the ultimate authority and caretaker of the common good over a particular stretch of territory.  Such entities were called “polis” or “city”, and their citizens claimed every virtue and refinement as theirs:  they the polite, the civil, the civilized.  Those who organized themselves differently were “barbarians”–little better than beasts.  Civil organization does tend to allow a more specialized division of labor, and it does a better job of inspiring men to die for non-relatives.  Having produced the best conquerers and historians, the city-dwellers have earned the right to decide on names.  On the other hand, we should admit that even citizens have historically been only half-civilized.  No matter how “polished” an Aristotle or a Sarmiento thought themselves to be, it was not a city but particular women who bore them.  Historical civilizations have built themselves not out of free and independent individuals, but out of the nuggets of “barbarism” we call families.

How did the city arise?  In all the most ancient cases, it was a theocracy.  The city belonged to a god who was present in that territory and maintained his temple there.  Why should that be?

Recognition, particular and universal

Loyalty to natural persons comes naturally to us; loyalty to corporate persons takes more ideological work.  The history of civilization is the history of ideology.  Hegel and Fukuyama have emphasized the importance of the desire for recognition as a driving force of history.  I rely on the social order to give me the tools to make sense of myself, and for that it must somehow acknowledge all the key dimensions of my existence as a personal being.

I am a person.  On the one hand, that means I am particular, a separate world of subjectivity, distinct from all others.  Usually, the social order recognizes this through distinct, personal roles.  My individuality is affirmed by being the only husband of my wife, for example.  On the other hand, I feel that, while I occupy various roles, I myself am larger than these roles.  I have an intellect ordered to the totality of truth and a free will ordered to the totality of goodness.  One might say that I am a “universal subject”, anything and everything being fit objects of my intellect and will.  I want the social order to acknowledge my transcendent horizon, my freedom.

Traditionally, this has been done through religion.  If the city represented only some particular good, then only if man were a piece of a machine would it be right to ask him to sacrifice everything for it.  But if the city belongs to a god, if it is brought into relation with Being itself, then man’s ultimate horizon is recognized and, indeed, invoked in asking him to give his life for the city.  God, the source and plenitude of being, acts like a sort of reflection of the transcendental ego–He is the universal object to match the universal subject.  Nothing else awakens one to a true sense of his subjectivity and freedom like the encounter with God.

Cities grew around temples.  The city relied far more on its public cult than any barbarian tribe had need to.  Sometimes, the sense of the city as sacred would erode, as in decadent Greece and Rome, but this usually led to frightful class antagonisms, and stability only resumed with the assertion of personal (“barbarous”) dependencies–charismatic rulers, patronage networks, and so forth.

The unfortunate triumph of civilization

So, one had one’s choice of tribalism or theocracy.  Ah, the good old days.  That’s obviously not the situation any more.  What happened?  The tribalism/theocracy days lasted thousands of years, so it must be a fairly stable arrangement.  There have always been some people with “atomic” personalities who presumably didn’t like it, but below a critical mass they don’t cause problems.  Today, the new system–modernity, liberalism–is powerful enough to be self-sustaining and expansive.  At some key point in history, circumstances had to be right to allow liberalism to grow from insignificance to the force it is now.  That circumstance was the contest, beginning with the Investiture Controversy, between the Church and the temporal powers in the West.  The liberal historian Lord Acton has pointed out

To that conflict of four hundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty. If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the king whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid.

What Acton meant was that by checking each other, neither party was able to achieve ultimate power and establish an “oriental”-style theocracy.  This is a good point, although we’ll see that things go deeper than that.  The Church on the one hand and the incipient states (Emperor, kings, and free cities) on the other were main the agents of civilization.  For the most part, kings and priests worked together to squeeze out feudal barbarism, with some sort of theocracy–on the model of Christian Rome–as presumably the ultimate goal.  There was, unfortunately, the detail of who would end up on top of the finished product, disagreements on this point leading to some serious roughhousing between papal and imperial partisans.  These fights were, indeed, the precursors to the clerical-secular battles of modern times, but we must not read too much of the latter conflict into the former.  The Ghibellines were orthodox Catholics with many clerics in their ranks.  Both Guelphs and Ghibellines acccepted the Gelasian doctrine that Church and State both had some legitimate authority from God.

More important than the physical battles was the propaganda war, the constant temptation for partisans of one authority to relativize the claims of the other.  The first major philosopher to seriously maintain a social contract view of the State may have been papal partisan Duns Scotus; he claimed that, while the family is a natural society and the Church supernatural, the State is artificial–a convenient instrument for upholding property rights, themselves another artifice.  However, the ideological fixtures of modernity–freedom, democracy, impersonality–were invented as weapons for the secular power to use against the Church.

The first great ideologue of modernity was Marsilius of Padua, who presented the theory of democratic totalitarianism nearly five centuries before Rousseau.  Marsilius broke with the medieval consensus to assert the absolute supremacy of the temporal power, with the Church reduced to being a creature and plaything of the State.  The State deserves its unlimited power, if it is democratic, because it represents the will of the people.  Government without consent is tyranny.  Here we see the beginning of a new conception of the city, one where religion is ultimately superfluous.  Civilized life is superior because it means freedom.  The power of the state just means the freedom of the collective will.  The theocratic state recognized man’s freedom by placing itself under a divine order.  The modern state does the opposite; it recognizes man’s freedom by refusing to subordinate his will–as represented by the democratic state–to any outside judgment, divine or natural.

In the fourteenth century, these ideas were too radical to gain much traction.  The leading philosopher of the day, William of Occham, was critical of Marsilius.  Then disaster struck the Church, first the disaster of the Great Schism, then the worse disaster of conciliarism, which together produced Vatican II levels of clerical anarchy.  By the eve of the Reformation, the State’s supremacy was secure, in practice if not yet in theory.  As Father Copleston writes

It is significant that the first printed edition of the Defensor pacis was published in 1517 and that the work was apparently utilized by Cranmer and Hooker.

The latter, as we know, worked to make the King’s ecclesiastic supremacy official.  They still, of course, wanted a Christian England where the king rules by God’s grace.  In pagan civilizations, it might work–in fact, it has worked–for the official cult to be a department of the State, and the priests government functionaries, but such a thing cannot be maintained in Christendom, where the Church was instituted directly by Christ and predates all modern states.  If the Church is subordinate to the State, then religion itself is subordinate to the nation.  One can’t maintain Marsilius’ Erastianism without eventually falling into his democratism as well.  Two revolutions, and Anglican England was reduced to a functional democracy.  A further revolution brought democracy to the continent; another brought down Russia, the “third Rome”.

Civilization had triumphed, but not the old, theocratic model of civilization, but the new model, based on the sovereignty of man rather than of God.  As in the old cities, the political sphere was–at least at first–supreme only at the top.  At the bottom, there was still the family as the nexus of personal dependency.  Religion, having been reduced to a private hobby, became socially irrelevant.

The future, if you can stomach it

The new city is less tolerant than the old.  A theocracy could accept that God had given the paterfamilias sovereignty in his own sphere.  There was still a place for personal organization.  For modernity, this is not possible.  Its ideology forces it to regard personal dependency of any form as servile, degrading, and iniquitous.  Why should wives obey their husbands, or children their parents?  The former didn’t vote for the latter in regular elections, and the latter don’t necessarily have any publicly verifiable expertise that would make them ideal family leaders.  Family life is no doubt unequal, not only in the difference of roles within each family, but also in that some children will, through no merit of their own, end up with better parents, which will give them an “unfair” advantage.  A family burdens children with familial, cultural, and ethnic legacies that the children never got to choose for themselves.  Surely this is nothing but slavery!  How different it is from the twin centers of impersonal dependency–the market and the State–that alone fully recognize men’s freedom, their priority to predetermined roles, by treating each person as an identical, unencumbered will.

In the end, the impersonal sphere can’t be content to see itself as the domain of freedom; it must extirpate the domain of slavery, of barbarism.  Children must be artificially conceived and must gestate ideally in government hatcheries, or at least in the wombs of women volunteers chosen by an unbiased, scientific selection procedure.  They must be raised identically by the State via certified child-care experts.  Future generations will no doubt be shocked that “amateurs” were once allowed to raise children, that the “accident” of filiation should have been allowed to choose who a child must obey.  For the liberal, the destruction of the family will have many additional benefits:  the end of tradition, of piety in all its forms, of organized religion, of inequalities of inherited wealth.

Remember, though, that there are two sides of the recognition man craves.  Liberal, egalitarian society may recognize man as free, but how can it recognize him as distinct?  How can it make up for that sense I have, when I see how my own wife and daughter rely on me, that I myself, as a distinct person, matter, that I am somehow irreplaceable?  It was, I think, Durkheim who first pointed to the answer, and every feminist has repeated it since:  the free persons of the liberal future find personal fulfillment through careers.  Instead of having family roles, they will have their own distinct place in a business or government.  There, we are assured, they will find work that is “fulfilling” and “creative”, unlike the drudgery of domestic life.  And most importantly, they will be “independent”.  (Durkheim, being more intelligent than the feminists, stated more accurately that they would rather be dependent on society in a different way.  Still, “organic solidarity” feels less constricting than “mechanical solidarity” because it’s more diffuse; hence the feminist talk of “independence”.)

This, more or less the dystopia of Huxley, is our future.  Every important social movement, every movement that manifestly has the winds of history on its back, points toward this end.  Conservatives will fight it every step of the way, and we will lose every step of the way, as we always do.  At the terminus of history is that most eminently civilized creature, the Last Man, and a vast spiritual night before the merciful extinction of the species.

13 Responses

  1. Accepting a dystopian future as inevitable cannot be something we subscribe to. As you noted, us Conservatives have lost at every single battle. But why do you suppose that is? I believe it stems from our inability to actually articulate our position and confront the beast. Appealing to notions of God, divine law, tradition, the family, and so on may seem reasonable to us, but to our enemies and those in a neutral position such arguments have been heard before.

    Unfortunately what many of us on the Alternative Right will have to realize is that we cannot win this war by playing with the same arguments. Are our arguments correct? Yes. Are we right in wanting to turn the tide? Yes. Simply because we are right does not make our arguing style something which yields success. Perhaps it would be wise to look for intellectual stimulus outside of our presently designed zone.

    If arguing with positions elaborated by Burke, de Maistre, and de Bonald have failed, why not look for a transitory figure? One that does not bring our program to fruition outright but sets the stage for it to be accepted again; much like Karl Marx envisioned Socialism as the transitory phase between Capitalism and his desirable end result, Communism.

  2. This is spot on.

  3. I tend to agree with your first sentence, if for different reasons. Simply put, if the situation gets as far as Bonald suggests, then our religion is simply false.

  4. Something like this dystopian future already played itself out for the better part of a century in Communist and now post-Communist Russia – the atomizing of society, the tyrannical domination of the State, the undermining of family commitments, the neutering of gender distinctions, the propagandizing of youth, the destruction of faith – the end result of which was political failure, partial societal collapse and a scratching among the ruins that continues to this day.

    If dystopian arrangements run against both human nature and the requirements of reality too hard and for too long, they cannot be sustained. Much destruction, possibly irrecoverable, can be expected to follow from their eventual collapse. If anything stable follows from this, it may be expected to embrace, in however incomplete and halting a manner, those practices and understandings that have been more or less universal and permanent characteristics of human societies: the reassertion of particular attachments to family, community and place, of gender roles and identities, of faith in and worship of God.

    To recall Horace’s famous phrase, “naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret” – “You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she still will hurry back.”

  5. I don’t believe that believers will become extinct. There will be great goodness and great evil in the future. Most likely believers will be driven underground and will have a parallel society as the barbarians and the degenerates have living in the surface.

  6. …degenerates have living…

    Apologies I meant “degenerates are living”.

  7. I believe it stems from our inability to actually articulate our position and confront the beast.

    It isn’t always as such. What about people who are “spiritually autistic” as a couple of Orthosphere bloggers have pointed out? They cannot comprehend our position. What about those who understand our position but have a will to disbelieve and will never accept it?

  8. I’d like to add just a bit to what you say about barbaric institutions. At their heart they are built around the principle of justice, but justice enacted in circumstances of inequality. We moderns have a hard time seeing this because justice and equality are so closely linked in our minds. Take, for instance, the family. The father gives something of value to his children, thus justice requires that the children return something of value to the father. Yet they have little or nothing to give. What they can give is loyalty, or a settled disposition to protect or advance their father’s interests, insofar has they have the power and opportunity to do so. The value of their loyalty need not equal the value of what they receive from their father, but in giving what they have they satisfy the demands of justice. Obviously the transactions of husband and wife are more complicated, but the traditional expectation of obedience from the wife was based, I think, in this conception of justice.

    The principle has not disappeared in modernity. I doubt it could, since I believe it is natural to humans. But liberal society is very hostile to the notion that dependents owe their benefactors some recompense, even if it is only symbolic. Behavior that a traditionalist sees as just, a modernist sees as servile.

    The relations I am describing are, of course, bound up with love in all of its forms. And love is what modernity really detests most of all. It’s our most barbaric emotion.

  9. Conservatives have not lost every battle in history and the seeds of our eventual victory over liberalism have already been sown for those with eyes to see.

  10. But ‘conservatives’ (contrasted with true reactionaries) are merely moderate Liberals/ Leftists – trying to retain the benefits of modernity (or the bits they like – science, universities, opera, prosperity, individual autonomy) without the self-destruction (or the bits they don’t like).

    Conservatism loses because it is merely pick and mix modernity, half-hearted modernity.

    Bonald is certainly of this type. And although I theoretically see-through conservatism, in practice I too cannot help but fall back into it – the reactionary alternative seems so stark and scary and alien to my semi-modern self.

    So, at root, it is a clinging to sin that holds back conservatives – they cannot embrace sin and serve it (as do Leftists), but neither can they completely repent sin (as do true reactionaries).

  11. Yes. Perhaps, though, conservatives (as opposed to reactionaries) do not completely repent yet because they do not see that our society is in sin or the true extent of the sin of modernism. Perhaps, then, some even must happen to bring to light the true evil inherent in our modern way of life and, once seen and understood, many will repent en masse.

  12. even=event

  13. The true root of liberalism came in reaction to the erastianism of the Elizabethan settlement in England and James I & VI’s attempt to impose it in Scotland.

    The Puritan asserted Private Judgment against any visible authority over individual conscience (The “Crown Rights of Christ”) and, through his doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, replaced the visible Church and its sacramental system with an invisible church of the Elect, known only to God.

    In this, they were soon seconded by pragmatic statesmen, who saw in toleration the only recipe for civil peace amidst irreducible religious pluralism.

    In France, it was Cardinal Richelieu and his Capuchin “Grey Eminence,” Père Joseph du Tremblay who promoted the policy of tolerance for Huguenots, as individuals, whilst doing everything possible to undermine the group rights conceded to them under the Edict of Nantes. The modern French suspicion of communautarisme can be traced back to this policy

    This generated an ideology of limited government, with the power of the state limited, not by the rights of the church, as in the mediaeval model, but by the supremacy of individual conscience.

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