The metahistorical attack on Western civilization

Once, history was the story of civilization.  Then, writers like Toynbee (or more recently, Samuel Huntington), argued that really we should structure our thinking around there being multiple civilizations, and only our “Eurocentrism” had kept us from noticing that they are all on a roughly equal footing as far as the part they play in humanity’s story.

Today, educated opinion is moving toward something closer to the original story of monocivilization, emphasizing that different civilizations did interact with and influence each other.  The goal is to delegitimize any defense of Western Civilization by claiming that there never was any such thing as Western Civilization.  One way to go about this would be to emphasize migrants from other cultures–extend the whole “nation of immigrants” line of attack to Europe–but there’s not much mileage in this, because no one doubts that the number of Indians, Chinamen, etc. in Western Europe has historically been small.  Much more dangerous is the line of attack based on influence:  Western Civilization doesn’t exist because all its features–literary forms, food ingredients, core technologies,…–are borrowed from what we would think of as other civilizations.  The West is unoriginal; therefore it doesn’t exist.  Again, Eurocentrism is supposed to be the reason we don’t recognize this truth.

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Vatican attack on integralism

Antonio Spadaro SJ and Marcelo Figueroa at Civiltà Cattolica accuse conservative Catholics and American Evangelicals of practicing an “ecumenism of hate”.  The article is, or at least should be, an embarrassment to all Catholics.  Really, the awfulness of the thing, the offensiveness fortified by intellectual incompetence, must be read to believed.

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On equality

Full equality is nowhere to be found in the world of men.  The predestined and the reprobate, the baptized and unbaptized are not equal in the eyes of God; nor are industrious and lazy employees equal in the eyes of their employers; nor are the homeowner and the burglar equal before the law.  Citizens and aliens do not have equal rights.  The noble and the degenerate are not equal in dignity.  No one treats strangers and friends equally.

The believer in “equality” will insist that this is not what he means, that he only condemns iniquitous inequalities, and that, for example, judging employees solely by their unequal productivity is treating them equally in this refined sense.  And indeed it is a part of justice that organizations should only discriminate according to qualities relevant to their function.  In a modern business corporation, two employees with the same work history should get the same promotion.  Things like that.  Note, though, that this sense of “fairness” cannot be elevated into a fundamental political principle.  It’s only once the purpose and structure of an organization is given that we can distinguish relevant from irrelevant qualities.  In a family business, ownership does not pass meritocratically to the best employee but by inheritance, and this is justified by the purpose and structure of the business.  Similarly, only once the structure of an organization is given and spheres of sovereignty established can we speak of freedom within these spheres.

Contour plots are a useful way to visualize multidimensional functions.  Each organization defines a status function on the space of personal qualities, and for each of these functions one can define isostatus contours which in general will differ for each organization.  “Equality” only deals with people on one of these hypersurfaces, and it is a derived concept.

Thus, we cannot say a priori that a hereditary aristocracy is unjust because unequal.  The isostatus contours defining “fairness” can only be known after the state is fully understood and the status function defined.  The aristocrats may have some useful role; they may serve some identifiable good; their existence may be somehow tied to the state’s self-understanding.

This is what conservatives mean when they claim to be non-ideological.  Political abstractions like “freedom” and “equality” are not considered to be fully formed principles existing apart from society, able to judge them “from the outside”.  They are analogical, not univocal, and their concrete meanings only emerge within an existing society.  Within the social order, there is plenty of room for moral critique using the emergent political concepts, but these tools of critique cannot be turned against the order itself, which is what makes the non-ideological position conservative.

Imagine never being confused

I’ve written

It occurs to me that Leftists may have a very different personal experience with morality than Christians.  While Christians all to some extent fail to follow our own moral code, and are thus confronted with our own personal weakness and viciousness, Leftist morality, being a matter of attitudes, can be quite easy.  It’s not hard to avoid having negative thoughts about blacks, especially if your only exposure to them is The Cosby Show. Nor am I impressed with so-called “liberal guilt” which always seems to mean condemnation of one’s ancestors for failing to meet one’s own standards.  The fact that this is what passes for guilt with them just illustrates how different are their moral experiences.  For us, morality usually means confronting ourselves; for them, it mostly means confronting evil others.  What if many on the social justice warrior Left have never, or almost never, felt personal guilt or shame?  Wouldn’t their personalities be very different from those of ordinary mortals?

Continuing my meditations on our oh-so-righteous undergraduates, it occurs to me that they may also have a very different intellectual experience than ordinary mortals.  Just as they have not had to confront their moral weakness, perhaps they have not had to confront their intellectual weakness.  They don’t know how ignorant they are.  Faculty are right to protect students from embarrassment or discouragement–to, for example, make sure no one is afraid to a ask a “stupid” question.  To be frank, we try to treat our students like equals because we imagine our own superiority is so manifest that the only danger is that we might intimidate them.  But perhaps their epistemic inferiority is not obvious to them at all.  Professors are also right to make material as clear as possible.  We don’t want the difficulty of the material to intimidate them.  But they need to know when we are simplifying.  And they need to have the experience of confusion, of things not making sense until the end of a long struggle when everything finally “clicks”.  They must get the experience of accepting a plausible model, working with it, and then finding that they must abandon it.  Incorrect assumptions must become a live possibility for them, not just for the stupid ancients.

Our students are above average in intelligence but have been fed a diet of very simple ideas.  The simplicity is artificial–it relies on language and social taboos sweeping lots of assumptions and ambiguities under the rug–but it feels utterly natural.  If a life without guilt seems foreign to us ordinary people, how unfathomable is a life without confusion.

Students don’t realize how ignorant they are.

Teaching a survey class for non-science majors year after year has taught me unexpected things about college students.  These provide some insight into their recent behavior.

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