Bushido: the soul of Japan

Chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history.  It is still a living object of power and beauty among us, and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it none the less scents the moral atmosphere and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell…It is a pleasure for me to reflect upon this subject in the language of Burke, who uttered the well-known touching eulogy over the neglected bier of its European prototype.

Fair play in fight!  What fertile germs of morality lie in this primitive sense of savagery and childhood.  Is it not the root of all military and civic virtue?  We smile (as if we had outgrown it!) at the boyish desire of the small Britisher, Tom Brown, “to leave behind him the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy or turned his back on a big one.”  And yet, who does not know that this desire is the cornerstone on which moral structures of mighty dimensions can be reared?  May I not go even so far as to say that the gentlest and most peace-loving of religions endorses this aspiration?  The desire of Tom is the basis on which the greatness of England is largely built, and it will not take us long to discover that Bushido does not stand on a lesser pedestal.  If fighting in itself, be it offensive or defensive, is, as the Quakers rightly testify, brutal and wrong, we can still say with Lessing, “We know from what failings our virtue springs.”

— Inazo Nitobe, from Bushido:  The Soul of Japan (1905)

Dr. Nitobe was a man of impressive broad-mindedness:  a Japanese convert to Quakerism who wrote this study to help Westerners appreciate the spiritual grandeur of a martial code that his adopted faith would not let him completely share.

Self-consciously modern people will not tolerate a good word for European chivalry, but they can sometimes be tricked into feeling some respect for the samurai.  I actually found this book at my university’s bookstore among the required reading for an “Asian Studies” course.  It may be one of the few books they read in college that leave them better (and more open to forbidden thoughts) than it found them.

Nitobe has a delightful trick of granting a modernist’s objection in a way that exposes its pettiness.  For example

I am not entirely ignorant of Mr. Spencer’s view according to which political obedience–loyalty–is accredited with only a transitional function.  It may be so.  Sufficient unto the day is the virtue thereof.

And I’m going to remember to use this one

Democracy may make self-confident retorts to such a statement and fling back the question–“When Adam delved and Eve span, where then was the gentleman?”  All the more pity that a gentleman was not present in Eden!  The first parents missed him sorely and paid a high price for his absence.  Had he been there, not only would the garden have been more tastefully dressed, but they would have learned without painful experience that disobedience to Jehovah was disloyalty and dishonor, treason, and rebellion.

One last quote

I have noticed a rather superficial notion prevailing among half-informed foreigners, that because the common Japanese expression for one’s wife is “my rustic wife” and the like, she is despised and held in little esteem.  When it is told that such phrases as “my foolish father”, “my swinish son”, and “my awkward self”, etc., are in current use, is not the answer clear enough?

To me it seems that our idea of marital unions goes in some ways farther than the so-called Christian.  “Man and woman shall be one flesh”.  The individualism of the Anglo-Saxon cannot let go of the idea that husband and wife are two persons–hence when they disagree, their separate rights are recognized, and when they agree, they exhaust their vocabulary in all sorts of silly pet-names and nonsensical blandishments.  It sounds highly irrational to our ears, when a husband or wife speaks to a third party of his or her other half–better or worse–as being lovely, bright, kind, and what not.  Is it good taste to speak of one’s self as “my bright self”, “my lovely disposition”, and so forth?  We think praising one’s own wife is praising a part of one’s own self, and self-praise is regarded, to say the least, as bad taste among us–and I hope, among Christian nations too!

Nitobe goes over the main facets of the samurai way:  loyalty, politeness, stoicism, suicide, the virtues appropriate to women.  He predicts that Bushido as an explicit code will not survive the modernization of Japan, that in the end materialism and Christianity will divide the world between them.  Nevertheless, his hope is that Bushido might live on as a moral sensibility in (presumably) Christian Japan as Stoicism does in Christian Europe.

The alternative to freedom of religion

I value my Protestant conservative allies.  I notice they seem to get concerned when they hear that traditionalist Catholics object to the principle of religious freedom.  Presumably, they worry that, should Catholics ever again gain power, we will start persecuting Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and so forth.  I can sympathize; if I were a Lutheran, Anglican, or Methodist, I would prefer that people be willing to tolerate me.  However, they’re going about reassuring themselves in the wrong way.

Continue reading

Is it time to retire the word “freedom”?

Like J.S. Mill, I stipulate that I am speaking of political liberty, not the philosophical problem of free will.

The plain meaning of freedom is being able to do what you want, but there is no way to maximize this.  Power is conserved; distributing it is a zero-sum game; any decision means more freedom for some set of people and less for some other set.  See Zippy.

One way liberals get around this by introducing the idea of a private realm that is one’s own concern.  “Freedom” means few restrictions in the private realm while in the public realm that affects everybody decisions are made impersonally so no one oppresses anyone else.  Freedom requires structuring society a certain way.  If my right to move my arm ends where my neighbor’s body begins, than freedom means giving everyone as much elbow room as possible.  This atomization process destroys communal goods that many would rather keep, but liberals are getting very comfortable about telling these people that their desires are evil and not true exercises of freedom.  And if power only over your private realm seems a paltry thing, you can participate in the impersonal public decision making machine (voting, jury duty), just as long as you only invoke motives that liberals approve as “public reason”.  Such is the price of freedom.

Conservatives have long noted that this model of expanding freedom in fact leaves everyone isolated and powerless before an impersonal government.  A better model of freedom, we have sometimes said, is provided by subsidiarity.  Don’t strip all authority from people and concentrate it at the top in an impersonal bureaucracy.  A better model of freedom is power distributed to as small units as possible.

There is some truth to this, but we should be careful about basing our case for the authority of fathers, bishops, and local governments on subsidiarity concerns, as if the only thing that mattered were spreading power and not who in particular gets it.  We insist that God has granted authority to these categories of people in particular (meaning both that He affirms the right to self-rule of the institutions these people represent and lead, and He endorses a particular hierarchical constitution of these institutions).  Defending the authority of fathers on the grounds of freedom from the state is playing on dangerous territory, because the state will invoke the liberal understanding of freedom to “liberate” the children.

Dissenting Sociologist has made an ingenious suggestion that we invert the liberal scheme of “freedom as no power of one person over another, rather power held impersonally” with “freedom as power held by responsible persons within an explicit hierarchy”, which would indeed mean a much more livable world, one that resembles less than the liberal one what we intuitively recognize as tyranny.

In my Defense of Tradition, I offer another way that conservatives might acknowledge the desire for freedom.

Cultures also have established standards of courtesy which recognizes persons as dignified by an accepted place in society…As Montesquieu noted, each people also has its own conception of freedom, the dignity we accord persons as beings with free will addressed by the moral law.  This culturally conditioned freedom can be quite different from liberal autonomy.  For example, a soldier is a free man rather than a slave—even if he was conscripted, even though his life is minutely regulated, even though he may be ordered to risk his life.  What makes him free is, ironically, his duty to obey.  To command someone over whom one has recognized authority is to appeal to him as a moral agent.  An animal could only be conditioned, and a slave could only be threatened.  The distinctive mark of freedom is also seen in the treatment of criminals.  A free society does not excuse or condition them; it punishes them.  Punishment appeals to a belief in free will and a common standard of justice.

Each of the above behavior codes varies from culture to culture.  In some aboriginal cultures women bare their breasts, while in some Arab cultures women cover their faces.  This doesn’t scandalize the traditionalist, any more than one would worry that different languages have different words for the same thing.

Freedom means not being treated like a child, which can mean completely different things in different cultures.

Other attempts to save the quest for freedom from incoherence exist.  For Hegel, true freedom is rationality, and the state exists, to speak very roughly, to make things make sense and to make us fully self-aware.  Virtue ethicists distinguish mere license from “freedom for excellence” which involves actualizing one’s own nature.  This seems to be what Tolkien meant by the “free peoples of Middle Earth”.  These definitions come close to replacing freedom as a distinctly political category with a fully actualized free will–self-control, understanding, “freedom from sin”.

Sure, there are definitions of “freedom” for which pursuing freedom is a good thing, but in all these cases, isn’t there a better, clearer word for what we are really pursuing?  If we want subsidiarity, personal (i.e. responsible) rule, culturally-conditioned expressions of respect for subjects, rationality, or virtue, wouldn’t it just be better to say that instead?

But we are conservatives, which means validating common sense categories.  If people value “freedom” and abhor “tyranny” so much, there must be something to it.  Even if the good of “freedom” is identical with some other good, the word “freedom” must be capturing some particular aspect of that good.  Maybe one of the above illiberal views of freedom is adequate, maybe not.  The intellectual work on the Right shall continue.

Embracing the scandal of venial sin

Conservatives defend common sense distinctions against ideologically-driven over-simplification.  It is commonly thought that, by taking our stand on common sense, we are being intellectually lazy.  This is the reverse of the truth.  It’s the simplest thing in the world to take an established ideology with a clear established vocabulary–or even just an established slogan–and follow it to its insane conclusions.  It’s even easier to congratulate oneself on being more rational than those who notice the insanity.  Much more subtle is the process of understanding why one’s rational conclusions offend one’s more complete but less articulate general moral sense.

It’s so very easy to prove that all sins are mortal.  Doesn’t Anselm lay out the proof nicely in Cur Deus Homo?  Even the smallest infraction offends against God, who is infinitely good.  Can we not say that the slightest sin is an implicit denial of God’s sovereignty, of His claim on our obedience and love?  Is this not the rebellion of Satan himself?

Obviously, something must be wrong with this argument.  It would be exactly the same to say that the slightest legal infraction (e.g. violating a speed limit) is insurrection and treason against the established government, because disobedience implicitly denies the legislator’s legitimacy.  But this is not how we understand minor crimes at all (except, perhaps, for a minor disobedience performed ostentatiously before the sovereign specifically to carry this meaning; similarly, the smallest sin would be very grave if the sinner deliberately wished to express apostasy thereby–but then the serious sin would be apostasy, not the choice of signifier).  And yet, the argument that all sins are mortal has plausible premises, and it is a “holy-sounding” argument.  The one making it gives the impression of having greater remorse for his sins, greater reverence for God.  The one making the counter-argument is bound to sound lax by comparison.

Modern men would find it hard to believe, but throughout her history, the Church has more often than not come down on the side of “laxity”.  Heresies often impress with the uncompromising logical and moral rigor of their oversimplifications.  By dividing sins by their gravity, the Church took the more conservative and intellectually challenging path of endorsing common sense.

Didn’t Jesus Himself equate anger with murder and lust with adultery?  This might count as evidence that all sins are mortal, but it doesn’t have to.  Our common sense is that being angry at a sibling isn’t nearly as bad as killing him, and lusting after another man’s wife isn’t nearly as bad as actually sleeping with her.  One might try to explain away Jesus’ words by imagining that looking lustfully at a woman is a peculiar and monstrous state entirely distinct from what most of us do regularly, e.g. that lust really means actively plotting to seduce and anger really means actively plotting to kill.  This would strip the meaning from Jesus’ words.  He is denying that the sins we abhor are things that lurk only in exceptionally bad people.  The same spiritual deformities are in us.  If we nevertheless insist, as we should, that checking out a girl isn’t as bad as sleeping with her, we must conclude that some acts of adultery are more grave than others–a difference of degree rather than kind, one might almost say.

Gravity would seem to be a continuum, so how do we get from there to a binary distinction of mortal vs. venial?  This is a difficult question, but difficult because reality really is complicated in that way.  To return to the analogy above, we don’t treat every petty criminal as an enemy of the state, but we do treat some criminals that way, and it tends to be a pretty binary thing.

Pope Francis endorses my interpretation of “more Catholic than the pope”

Seven years ago, I wrote

The fact that this expression exists, and that to accuse someone of “trying to be more Catholic than the pope” is to make that person sound silly, is a sign of everything that’s wrong in the Catholic Church today.  That we’re not supposed to try to be “more Catholic than the pope” usually means three things

  1. One should not take a stricter view on moral matters–especially matters of sexual morality–than the pope.  (E.g.:  “How can you say that there’s something wrong with natural family planning?  Even the pope is okay with that!”)
  2. One should not express concerns over matters of doctrinal orthodoxy or liturgical orthopraxis if the pope himself has not expressed these concerns.  (E.g. “How can you call Tielhard de Chardin a heretic?  Even the pope thinks he’s great!”)
  3. One should not express a higher opinion of the Catholic clergy or the historical record of the Catholic Chruch than the pope does.  (E.g. “How can you say the media is exaggerating the prevalence of clergy sexual abuse?  Even the pope has admitted that it’s really bad!”  or “How can you defend the crusades?  Even the pope has apologized for them!”)

Each of these claims is not only wrong but harmful.  #1 and #2 make it inevitable that the Church will continue to drift Leftward, closer and closer to heresy and immoralism, because it means that the Vatican only ever feels pressure to move in a Leftward direction.  No one is pushing the other way.  At best, the pope has defenders who will take the same positions as him, but the Holy Father can be confident that he won’t alienate these loyalists by moving to the Left; they would be sure to follow, for fear of seeming more Catholic than the pope.


Pope Francis spoke critically again of the faithful who have a strong embrace of Catholic doctrine, resorting to pejorative terms he has often used such as hypocritical and phariseeism.

“You cannot be more restrictive than the Church herself,” he told a lay association gathered Thursday morning at the Vatican, “nor more Papist than the Pope.”

Addressing the Congress of the International Forum of Catholic Action in the Synod Hall, the pope told participants he wanted them to be out among the people and that there is a need for “active mercy.”

The theme for the association’s three-day gathering was “Catholic Action is mission, with all and for all.”

“Do not be border police,” he told the conference.

“Please, open the doors,” Pope Francis stated, “don’t administer Christian perfection tests because you will only promote a hypocritical phariseeism.”

Pope Francis leaves it open whether we are allowed to be less restrictive than the Church herself.  Would that perhaps be “active mercy”?

Perhaps I’m a better Catholic than I thought, being less restrictive than the Church on many matters.  I don’t condemn people for preferring their own race or for wanting a low level of immigration into their countries.  I regard the manufacture for sale of weapons as an honorable profession, and I don’t condemn countries for accumulating arms for purposes of deterrence.  I approve of wifely submission in marriage (condemned by the pope in Amoris laetitia).  I have no objection to my fellow Catholics engaging in “proselytism”, as I generally think that trying to convince others to share beliefs one regards as true to be an innocent, even generous, activity, so long as those beliefs are in fact true and profitable.  All of these activities are censured by the Church to varying degrees, and my refusal to condemn racism and national border control in particular make me an unorthodox Catholic, given the unanimity with which the Church speaks on these things.  However, as a the pope says, administering “Christian perfection tests” is unhelpful.  We would not want a Church of hypocritical anti-racist pharisees.

The role of a conservative intellectual

We are not fighters, much less leaders of fighters.  The wars happened long before we were born, and our side lost.  We therefore have no need for allies.  Readers once told me that my criticisms of the manosphere were unhelpful, since we are broadly speaking on the same side.  I agreed that if the manosphere was a third political party with hope of gaining power, and I through my blog could sway 10% of the electorate, it might be best to steer them toward what would be by far the lesser evil.  In the real world, both the manosphere and the orthosphere are utterly marginal internet groups, and the obfuscation of differences is not justified by such political considerations.  Nor do we have any responsibility for preserving the morale of our imaginary fighters.  If I were a bishop with care of souls, it might be irresponsible for me to speak too clearly about the hopelessly wretched state of the contemporary Catholic Church, but the conservative intellectual does not claim to offer spiritual guidance, only clarity.  Let us then hear no more against “defeatism”, and let us demand evidence and rigorous arguments when fellow conservatives assure us that liberalism is on the verge of an inevitable self-destruction.  Conservatives have been saying this since the French Revolution, and their predictions have a poor track record.  We often underestimate the resilience of liberalism, its ability to profit even from crises arguably of its own making.

What we are is professors, and like our academic counterparts, our job of professing has two parts:  teaching and research.  (Thank God we don’t have to write proposals or serve on committees.  Being a conservative intellectual just means the fun parts of being a professor.)  Both of these are usually futile endeavors.  Most students will not learn, and most new ideas turn out to be duds.  But occasionally we do clarify things for our students and ourselves.  While we have no need for allies, our research does benefit from collaborators, intelligent critics, and friends.  While we have no ideological duty to sell the cause, we do have a pedagogical duty to be clear and accessible to new students.

While our enemies pursue novelty, it falls to us to articulate the common wisdom of mankind, that which men throughout the ages have tacitly recognized but have not needed to explain or defend.  The conservative intellectual must maintain a permanent attitude of openness for identifying distinct categories or dimensions of moral concern already invoked by men but not yet recognized in political theory.  Hence our concern to validate the friend-enemy, native-foreigner, and masculine-feminine categories as both valid and irreducible.  Rather than imposing a theory on all of life, the conservative intellectual allows common sense to expand his theory.

We must remain in a certain sense unsystematic philosophers, unless we embrace a system like those of Aristotle or Husserl that teach us to be constantly alert to distinct essences.  Missteps in conservative theory often come from over-reliance on general ideas–not that we are more guilty of this than others, but that it is more damaging to our work.  One example is a sociological conservatism’s craze for “mediating institutions” which ignored the all-important distinctions between a family, a church, and a sports team.  Another is the clumsy attempts one often sees to explain sexual morality in Hegelian terms of “objectification” [1].

Without being blinded by a system, the conservative intellectual must always return to first principles.  See nearly any post at Oz Conservative to see how this is done.  Mr. Richardson reports some new liberal craziness.  Then he argues that this is a consequence of liberalism’s commitment to autonomy before all else.  This shows that we require conservatism’s fuller set of human goods to live by.

Because conservatives expound the common knowledge of mankind, it is crucial that we eschew any claim to possess esoteric knowledge.  In the last century, there was an unfortunate tendency to defend traditions in terms of unknown functions and the extreme complexity of social systems, from which it would follow that the meaning people do find in their traditions is illusory, not the “real” reasons for them.  Today, such trends comes more from followers on the Right of esoteric doctrines such as those of Leo Strauss, Julius Evola, and Rene Girard.  One danger is that the tendency to impute hidden meanings onto dead authors cuts us off from the wisdom of old books–at least the wisdom most useful to us, namely that which we do not already possess.  The other danger is that this talk of hidden social realities devalues the lived surface of social life which is the conservative’s primary concern [2].

The other side of this hocus-pocus about esoteric truths is the disparagement one finds, especially today in Catholic circles, toward the goal of clarity.  I don’t here mean the reasonable discontent many have toward the goal of making liturgy “accessible” in a banal sense.  However, it’s hard not to cringe when one hears of a senior prelate saying that in theology 2+2 can equal 5 or when the pope calls a desire for doctrinal clarity a spiritual failing.  Here, of course, it is the liberal modernists who are primarily at fault, but the implications are a sort of esotericism wherein the content of revelation is something entirely beyond the reach of public scrutiny and logical analysis.

Lastly, the conservative intellectual is locked in discourse with liberalism, even if the flow of ideas only goes one way because our adversaries don’t acknowledge us.  We can’t help it that our adversaries set our agenda.  Improved articulations of the liberal position actually provide a strong stimulus to our side.  Early-to-mid 20th century conservative thought suffered from its focus on socialism, drawing our attention to economic matters which are not our primary concern.  Arguably, the subsequent flourishing of conservative political theory owes more to John Rawls than to anyone else, because by drawing liberals back to their own first principles and explaining them clearly, he drew us back to our first principles, which clash with theirs at this fundamental level.  Even if it were true that dealing with restatements of liberalism, each hoping to avoid the contradictions of previous statements of liberalism, is an intellectual game of whack-a-mole, with no permanent victory, it would still be our job, just as any professor deals with the same set of student misconceptions every semester.  In fact, dealing with the best arguments for liberalism is how our own theory advances.

That being said, some types of engagement with liberalism are unhelpful.  Engaging shoddy Leftist arguments may be pedagogically necessary, but it contributes little to our own theory-building.  I once decided to understand feminism better by reading The Second Sex, but the argumentation–such as it was–was so blatantly bad that this time was not well spent.  More importantly, conservative intellectuals should spend no time dealing with liberals’ accusations against us.  Trying to prove that one is not racist, for example, is wasted effort.  Liberals should give us some reason to believe they have the ability to read souls before we treat their claims about ours as worthy of reply.  Liberal arguments against our beliefs could be useful to us but are seldom offered, because it would mean acknowledging our concerns if only to dismiss them.  For the most part, liberals are useful to us when they are talking about themselves, not when they are talking about us.


[1] The problem here is not that phenomenology is being used, but that it is being used badly, i.e. falsely to the actual experience of lust.  (The man is aroused by the woman’s pleasure; the woman by the man’s desire.  Audiences ignore the subjectivity of porn actresses, but only in the same way that a competent actor always disappears behind his character to the audience.  Anyway, treating a person as an object isn’t necessarily immoral.)  One cannot properly understand sexual morality without attending to what is distinct about it–the awesome potential of procreation, so oddly missing from phenomenological theories about sex but certainly not from our lived experience with it.

[2]  For example, in Girard’s system, the desirability we think we find in things is an illusion of mimesis, the danger we think we identify in particular persons is an illusion of the scapegoat mechanism, our sense of the sacred is an illusion of the relief we feel from engaging in mob homicide, and the myths and stories of mankind are really just restatements of this elaborate thesis.