What it means to be against reform

I oppose reform, not just this or that ill-considered reform, but reform in general. I’ve brought this up before with regard to the Catholic Church, a much reform-ridden entity, but reform is poison for any group.

To understand this, one must be clear about what “reform” is. Not all changes tend to be described as reforms. It would sound strange to hear that Beethoven “reformed” music, or that Einstein “reformed” physics, or that Cooley and Tukey “reformed” the discrete Fourier transform. New styles, innovations, and improvements are usually not considered reforms; I am entirely in favor of creativity in the fine arts, improvement of the practical arts, and advancement of the sciences.

Reform requires moral condemnation of previous practice. It always involves two roles. First, there is the reformer, the prophet (always a prophet), who announces the immorality of past ways, thereby gaining power and status for himself. Second, there is the discredited representative of the old order, who must be held in scorn. It would be absurd to think that the theory of relativity disgraced physicists who had been using Newtonian theory. Music, science, mathematics, and engineering are progressive disciplines; they advance by building upon the past rather than by tearing it down. Thus, they have no use for reform.

One might say that arts and sciences do not need reform because they are amoral. However, friendship and marriage are generally not considered to be progressive, and wounds to friendships and marriages often result from moral lapses of at least one partner. Yet it would sound strange to say that a couple “reformed” their marriage or friendship. This is because no friend would want to assert moral superiority over his friend by playing the role of prophet. Such a thing would be inimical to the spirit of friendship. To “reform” a friendship would be to end it. Marriage also is a form of friendship, and who but a narcissist would want to seize power and status over a spouse in this way? Friendships and marriages are not reformed, but healed, the difference being a spirit of forgiveness.

Suppose the reforming prophet is one who already holds power? Suppose a king decides that the ways of his people are wicked, so that rather than the upholder of their traditions, he makes himself their enemy. See what at once happens. The king suddenly claims a much greater power for himself than a traditionalist king would. The latter was only the servant of an inherited order, not the legislator of a new one. At the same time, the king alienates himself from the existing order, makes his government a revolutionary one, so that any imperfections of his kingdom are blamed on persistence of the old order with which he does not associate. A reforming ruler at once aggrandizes power and abdicates responsibility, regardless of the nature of his reform. And, of course, most reforms are evil even in intent, driven by the Satanic principles of freedom and equality.

The only benevolent case of reform is the reform of oneself. We do hear that an alcoholic or a gambler took it upon himself to reform his life, which is all to the good, because there is only one subject. The same man who stands condemned by the reform stands vindicated by it.

The Catholic Church is said to be always in need of reform, which is to acknowledge that all the prior centuries of self-recrimination and demoralization have bought us nothing. Indeed, one notices that all the great reforming ages of the Church end in catastrophe–the Gregorian reform in the Great Schism and Reformation, the Tridentine reform in the Enlightenment and Revolution. There seems to be no graceful exit from reforming zeal. Suppose instead of reforming the Church we were to improve her? Catholics will rightly be suspicious of the idea of such “improvement”. It seems to presume a fixity only of ends, with the means entirely unconstrained. The Mass cannot be improved (or–God forbid!–reformed) because it is a treasure in itself, apart from any purely extrinsic consequence of its performance. (The glorification of God is an intrinsic consequence.) Any change to improve some “outcome” could never give more than what it takes away–the great solace of worshipping God with the same forms and words as our ancestors. However, as inadequate as it is, an attitude of improvement is less damaging than one of reform. One can imagine listing the actions of the Church and their desired outcomes–catechesis and retention of our children, evangelization to non-Catholics, care for the poor and suffering–and ask how these could be done more effectively. It would actually be nice if someone were thinking about these things! Instead, they are all ignored or damaged by the constant futile effort to gain status by denouncing our fellow Catholics.

The rise in exclusionary rhetoric

By this I mean a marked increase in statements like “X is not who we are” or “there is no place in this city/state/country/organization for people who believe/practice X”. Such statements are not necessarily bad. For some values of X, such exclusion is appropriate. However, for values of X that impugn a large fraction of the population, or beliefs or practices that until recently were uncontroversial, it is remarkably aggressive.

About the time I was leaving New York, the governor (I think it was) made some statement to the effect that those who disapprove of homosexual sodomy have no place in his state and should leave. As it turns out, I was going anyway, but it was disturbing nonetheless, because there was no acknowledgement of any place in particular where people of my religious and philosophical persuasion do belong.

Compare to an immigration restrictionist who yells at immigrants to “go back where you came from.” Don’t do this, it’s rude, but even this is less menacing than what non-Leftists are hearing. The restrictionist might think that Mexicans don’t belong in the U.S., but he presumably acknowledges that they do belong in Mexico. At least, he doesn’t particularly object to them being there.

Compare, if I were to make a statement like “In an ideal Catholic state, there would be no place for atheists.” Would it not be natural for people to ask me what I proposed to do with atheists? Indeed, the question is much more appropriate for our exclusionary Leftists. My “ideal Catholic state” is the hypothetical musing of a powerless man; an actual Catholic state might differ from the ideal in numerous ways, and how they are to be accommodated will depend on the details of the case. (One might wish to treat atheists who have lived in the area for generations and are not making trouble differently from foreign atheist missionaries, for instance.)

By contrast, exclusion by the Leftist power is happening right now, and the questions are pressing. People who profess Christian sexual ethics and whites who feel toward their own race in the way other races feel toward themselves are not to be allowed to work in this and that profession. What exactly are they going to be allowed to do for a living? If they’re not “who we are”, i.e. not Americans, what are they, and where do they belong?

Sometimes we will hear things like “racism has no place anywhere”, but do those who say it appreciate the genocidal logic of the statement? Apparently, whites who do not hate their own people shall not be allowed to exist.

If only someone were negotiating on whites’ behalf

If we were allowed to speak on our own behalf, we would prefer to have non-white quotas than diversity thought policing at work (including “diversity statements” from applicants and humiliating diversity training of employees). We’d rather the salaries of the diversity and inclusion commissars who torment us went to hiring non-white regular employees instead.

We would rather just have a law removing all statues of whites and names of whites on public buildings than have a racial reckoning. That lady who objected to the Father Damian statue because he was white was being nice. At least she didn’t feel the need to destroy his reputation first, like they have done to the other canceled Catholic saints. I honestly think a law of this sort would reduce racial tensions. If we must lose the public honor of our heroes, at least spare us the lectures on how they are symbols of “hate”.

Similarly, we’d rather have a law against giving any awards to whites than force private organizations to undergo yearly racial reckonings and vilification of their white members. We would enjoy everyone knowing that the awards had thereafter become jokes but no one being allowed to say so.

Schopenhauer on death

Arthur Schopenhauer is much given to refutation by insult, a practice that irritates me. Thus, he says many times that only fools could believe in the existence of the soul after death without also believing in its existence before birth, but we are never given an argument why the idea is incoherent, just that some arguments for post-existence are unavailable to one who won’t embrace pre-existence (i.e. that the soul is atemporal, which no one who believes in an afterlife believes anyway). Personality tics like that make me warm to Schopenhauer less than I do to Montaigne. Let me now try to set that aside.

According to Kant, all we know about things are how they fit into categories that we already have in our minds. (You can’t get an answer to a question that you can’t think to ask.) There may be more to objects than this, but we’d never know it; thus the claim that the thing “in itself” is unknowable. Schopenhauer, like Descartes before and C. S. Lewis after, claimed we have unique access to one object, ourselves, toward whom our relationship is not just that of a subject knowing an object, and from this he thought he had caught a glimpse of the thing-in-itself: will. Now, the thing-in-itself is, by definition, outside our ordinary categories of thought–space and time (and hence, he infers, individuation), substance and causality. Thus, temporal properties do not apply to our innermost essence, which is the thing-in-itself, which is will, but belong only to our “representation” (the world as ordered by our mental categories). So this essence doesn’t cease to exist at death. Now, if we are to deny temporal categories, neither should we say that it persists after death, but having made this point Schopenhauer soon puts it aside in his enthusiasm for what he takes to be the wisdom of the ages (all peoples who weren’t screwed up by those dumb Abrahamic religions): the transmigration of souls. As he pithily puts it, men fear that death means themselves terminating while the world continues, but in fact it’s the opposite: our innermost essence (unindividualized will) is beyond termination, while the world (our representation of it) ends.

This German idealist reasoning is remarkable. I’d like to try it. I have a red rubber ball. “Red” is an a priori category I have imposed on the ball–just an arbitrary range of EM radiation when my ball has so many other properties that are not captured by this designator. Because there is more to the ball than its color, let us speak of the ball in its other aspects, abstracting from color. Call this “the-ball-apart-from-its-color”. Now, by definition, the-ball-apart-from-its-color does not include color descriptions. One might say that the the-ball-apart-from-its-color is not red. It is not any color. The-ball-apart-from-its-color is invisible! Warming up to my though of the-ball-apart-from-its-color not being red, I shall even see wisdom in calling it that quality which is the opposite of red, namely blue.

The lesson of this rather silly example is clear. If your post-mortem hope is in your noumenal self being atemporal, you’d better find something else to help you sleep at night. That you-apart-from-temporality can’t be said to cease to exist (because of arbitrary restrictions on what aspects of you we’re talking about) doesn’t mean that you won’t cease to exist.

I’m a fan of philosophical writings about death, but they usually strike me as dishonest. The problem is framed that each of us knows that he is going to die someday, and we must find some reason why we shouldn’t be freaking out about this. But that is starting with a desired conclusion and reasoning backwards, an invitation to sophistry. We should start our investigation open to the possibility that maybe it is rational to be inconsolably horrified by the prospect of our own mortality. Of course, practically speaking, such horror would not help anything and would make us miserable, so we would like to avoid it. But that’s not a rational justification.

Speaking even more practically, regardless of whether or not the knowledge of our own mortality should fill us with crippling terror, mankind never seems to have had this problem and doesn’t seem to have it today. Here I think Schopenhauer is right, and it’s a point I’ve made myself–Christianity has made men less able to accept death than they were without it. And this is a good thing, because the heathen acceptance of death is founded on forgetting the distinctiveness of each person and is therefore metaphysically deficient and morally suspect.

A corollary to “things coming to a point”

If things are coming to a point–less ambiguity, with fewer and fewer aspects of life or culture free from a stark choice between Christianity and atheism, then things were less pointy in the past, and we can afford to be more generous toward ambiguous figures in the past than we can be toward prevaricators in the present.

As an example from the last post, I am less hostile toward Renaissance humanism than most traditionalists are. Yes, one can find elements in it that contributed to the West’s later embrace of evil, and these elements do indicate defects in the humanist program, but that doesn’t mean that these defects are the essence of the program, or that humanists like Petrarch were less than sincere in their belief that they were doing the Church a favor.

As another example, growing up in an ultramontanist Church, it was once natural for me to see advocates of imperial or royal power in ecclesial organization as enemies of the Church, antecedents of a later age’s anticlerical totalitarian revolutionaries, while advocates for the autonomy of national Churches against the Papacy remind us in retrospect of post-Vatican II liberal, heresy-infested local Churches. And it is true that support of the temporal power did evolve into the atheist subjugation of the Church, and resentment of papal authority brought much ruin to the Church during Vatican II and afterward. But when judging past figures, we must remember how differently things not only seemed but were when the temporal power in question was a Christian kingdom, and the national Church in question was robustly illiberal. Plenty of Gallicans and Josephists were sincere Catholics. In the light of Vatican I, we can definitely say that their positions were defective, but during their time it was still possible to have such defects without having a fundamentally anti-Christian orientation. Today, those who support secular states or local synods against the universal Church are open in their hatred of the historic Faith. Things have come to a point.

Postscript on Renaissance Philosophy

Over Christmas break I read most of The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy to see if my inferences from Cassirer’s book held up to subsequent scholarship. In fact, the claim that Renaissance humanism and the resurgence of Platonism were primarily reactions against Averroism’s supposed threat to the Faith seems to be so well supported that it would probably not even be considered remarkable to Renaissance historians. I’ll next want to see what support (or disconfirmation) I can find for my guess about the role of revived Platonism in the scientific revolution. One interesting thing I learned in my book was that the resurgence of skepticism, which we have seen being the Catholic apologetic weapon of choice in counter-reformation France, also seems to have had its origins in these same worries about the danger to belief in personal immortality from an unreliable unaided reason (a position ironically similar to that of their Averroist opponents). Nevertheless, the argument that we should prefer revelation to fallible private reasoning works better against Averroists than against Calvinists, i.e. when the content of revelation is not itself in dispute.


There is much, much less intellectual diversity now than there was one hundred years ago. It is impossible to imagine someone like Oswald Spengler arising in the intellectual world of today, much less his becoming a cultural sensation. The Overton window has not merely shifted Left but drastically narrowed. Even Leftists were much more interesting and diverse one hundred years ago–one cannot imagine a character like Georges Sorel in today’s world either. One hundred years ago, the ideological landscape was a dizzying array of communists, Fabian socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, guild socialists, laissez faire classical liberals, nationalist liberals, distributists, agrarians, and Carlists. And when I say that these groups existed, I mean not as a couple of isolated dissidents unable to propagate their doctrines, the way dissidents exist today, but rather that they had significant followings and were able to participate in the great debate about how society should be organized. The metaphysical debate, too, was much more open, as it was an age of positivist, but also of spiritualism, Bergsonianism, and the neo-scholastic revival. Today, we have a consensus with enthusiastic support from nearly all writers, and the few whose support is less that enthusiastic know that it is professional suicide to openly question it.

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Rousseau vs. the cosmopolitans

From The Imaginative Conservative. Rousseau may be another enemy thinker whom I haven’t given enough credit.

Rousseau refers to the commercial man as a “bourgeois” whose existence hinges upon the thin and shallow ethic of “politeness.” [13] Politeness epitomizes both falseness and hypocrisy. Polite citizens, Rousseau quips, possess the “appearance of all the virtues without having a single one.”[14] The polite, bourgeois individual desires to get ahead, so he pretends to care about the needs of others, even if he harbors contempt for them in his heart.

Commercial individuals only live together in society incidentally and share no common attachment to their Fatherland. Indeed, Enlightened commercialists possess more loyalty to their specialized profession than to their country. “We have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters,” Rousseau complains, but “we no longer have citizens.”[20] In the absence of a fatherland, these pseudo-citizens turn their gaze to all of humanity. Rousseau posits that this attention to “humanity” is a thinly veiled effort on the part of individualists to dispense with any meaningful civic duties that may threaten their private pursuits. “Distrust the cosmopolitans,” he admonishes, “who go to great lengths in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them. A philosopher loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his own neighbors.”[21] A principal issue with the Enlightenment, Rousseau proclaims, is its institutionalization of this very cosmopolitanism: “National hatreds will die out, but so will the love of the Fatherland.”[22] A healthy political society would recognize the unique habits, customs, morals, and beliefs that make its regime distinctive. Cosmopolitanism, in contrast, makes “for a mixture of all peoples that must inevitably have destroyed the morals and customs of each of them.”[23]

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part IV

It’s interesting to consider why Breuer’s and Popper’s arguments fail when applied to God. How is it that God can have complete self-knowledge? The reason is that our usual model of knowledge fails in His case. For finite subject A and object X, we think of A’s knowledge of X as an internal state of A, the presence within A’s mind of a representation of X, this knowledge being a proper part of A and ontologically distinct from X, indeed which may or may not even correspond to the truth about X. However, God is completely simple, so He has no internal states. In this case, we are told not regard God’s self-knowledge as a proper part of His mind (from which one could show that it must be incomplete) but as identical with His being.

It is unacceptably anthropomorphic to think of God as having a perspective on the world. This would make Him part of the universe, rather than its transcendent principle. God has no internal mental state corresponding to his perspective on the universe; His knowledge of the universe is rather a property of us–one might almost say that it is us. The scholastics used to put it that we have real relation to God but not vice versa. If there is a global, third-person view from nowhere, it has nothing in particular to do with God’s knowledge. It is not one degree closer to His omnipotence than our partial, first-person views.

Here is another way to reject the idea that this global view makes our first-person views to be falsehoods. Just as your perspective and my perspective are just two partial views compared to the global perspective, our perspectives and the global perspective are just three finite creations compared to God’s absolute transcendence.

In the Middle Ages, it was generally believed that a hierarchical universe was most neatly congruent with monotheism. Given the universal human symbolism of heaven and the sky god above, we should always speak of this intuition with respect. But it was challenged, first by Nicholas of Cusa, precisely on grounds of theological appropriateness. Cusa thought a universe without center or privileged perspective and with a number of indeterminate features more fittingly expressed God’s complete transcendence. We have now grown used to the idea of the Earth as just one more celestial body flying through space and can’t appreciate the disorientation such ideas must have caused at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Or perhaps we can. Suppose it should turn out that we must accept the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics after all. Wouldn’t that take Cusa’s program of equalizing perspectives to a whole new level?

That’s not the common good

F. A. Grabowski at Crisis is understandably perturbed by an excerpt from Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream (yes, he really wrote a book with that title) on the New York Times. I have no stomach to read the source myself. I will respond to quotations on the Crisis article which may not completely capture Pope Francis’ thought but which give me a chance to note some widespread deficiencies of public discourse.

“Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”

The first sentence is a true and important point, but it is completely undermined by the second. The needs of the least fortunate are still individual goods. Unfortunately, this seems to be what people usually mean by “common good”, which means that the idea of a distinctively common good has been lost. The common good in pre-conciliar Catholic social thought meant primarily the irreducibly common good, that which can only properly be said of the community and belongs to its members only by their participation therein. Things like being a high-trust society, the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows one another, a long established Christmas tradition that the whole town cherishes, and things of that sort. I suppose a certain distribution of resources could count as a properly common good (not what the poor have, but the quality of the community that ensures it), but this is a severe materialistic impoverishment of the original idea which included material but especially spiritual goods. (Spiritual goods are particularly apt to be common.)

In contrast to healthcare workers and other “antibodies to the virus of indifference” are those who have protested the lockdowns, refused to distance, and marched against travel restrictions.

These protesters, whom Francis regards as “selfish”, are the pandemic’s bad actors.

We have also lost the ability to speak of competing goods and trade-offs. It would be one thing to say that personal livelihoods, small businesses, personal liberties, community social life, and the corporate worship of God are precious goods, but that in the current emergency they must be sacrificed for an even greater good. This would be to say that protestors are wrong while acknowledging the legitimacy of their concerns, preserving the dialogue and mutual respect that are a large part of the social common good. People don’t argue like that anymore. When a trade-off must be made between two sets of goods, one set is declared “selfish”, meaning it has no legitimacy at all. No compromise is acceptable between legitimate and illegitimate goods; a categorical choice is demanded. This is so even if the same goods are recognized as legitimate in other contexts. For example, Pope Francis thinks that native workers are selfish for wanting freedom to move within their home town in order to keep a job, but he insists that third-worlders are absolutely righteous in moving across countries (illegally if necessary) to get that same job. Francis would never call migrants “selfish”. Nor should he, really, because it is legitimate to pursue one’s self-interest (within the limits of law and morality). In many contexts, we are expected to think of a group of people pursuing their common interests as admirable.