2018: my year in reading

Intellectually, my life is divided into periods of reading and periods of thinking.  The two overlap, of course, and the former should be and is a stimulus to the latter, but I do find that my concentration switches between absorbing others’ ideas and working out my own.  My last few years of graduate school, I spent a great deal of time on philosophy, politics, and Church history (probably to the detriment of my dissertation research).  While I was a postdoc, my spare time reading tapered off as I concentrated on the construction of my own synthesis, which was then unveiled as Throne and Altar.  By the time I became an assistant professor and new father, I was too engrossed with my own thoughts to devote any of my precious bits of free time to reading others’ thoughts.  Not much could have come of those years outside work and family regardless, so I’m quite satisfied to have written a couple of essays that greatly pleased me.  However, without outside stimulus, my mind came to be stuck moving in the same rather small circles.  Eventually, even I noticed it and started to lose interest.

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Book review: The Natural Desire to See God

The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and his Interpreters
by Lawrence Feingold (2010)

The relation between man’s natural and supernatural ends is what Catholics argue about when we’re not arguing about sex.  God is both ends, but apprehended and enjoyed differently.  Our natural end is to know and love God in a way proportioned to our natures (unassisted by grace), as the first cause.  Our supernatural end is the beatific vision of God’s essence, a knowledge and intimacy of which we are naturally incapable but to which we can be supernaturally elevated.  Hereafter, the “vision of God” or “seeing God” will refer exclusively to the latter.  We naturally desire our natural end.  We desire our supernatural end via the infused virtue of hope.  That much is uncontroversial.  The tricky question is whether we are able to naturally desire our supernatural end.  Saint Thomas believes that we can.  But if so, then is the vision of God not really supernatural; is man’s natural end therefore inadequate to his nature.  Thomas cannot admit either without contradicting himself.  Thus was the question bequeathed to future Thomists:  how can an end be both naturally desired and not proportionate to our nature?

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Moderns starting to realize how inhumanly difficult their morality is

Modern morality is often thought of as a deliverance from the harshness of past moral codes.  But that’s only because we don’t take it seriously.  If we do, then it is absolutely inhuman in its demands, a sprit-crushing, insatiable monstrosity, whether modern morals are taken in their Kantian-personalist or, especially, in their utilitarian form.  Can you imagine being required to maximize the total happiness of mankind, never treat anyone as a mere means, or value everyone on Earth’s happiness equally with your own every moment of every day?  Every human good would be strangled, and no one could ever be happy again.  One begins to appreciate that the legalism and casuistry of pre-modern morality functioned not to burden mankind but to us from the hell of unbounded altruism.

This has not gone unnoticed by the moderns.  See this review of Susan Wolf’s “Moral saints”, namely an argument against trying to become one.  Wolf appeals to all the “non-moral” goods that can only be preserved if we limit our commitment to modern morality.  Interestingly, the reviewer, Daniel Callcut, points out that one way to escape from the dilemma would be to return to pre-modern virtue ethics, in which an altruism restricted to neighbors is held in balance with other goods as parts of a comprehensive good life, and he notes that Wolf rejects this option.  Wolf is left to construct a solution which limits universalist altruism while granting it the monopoly on morality it has had in modern thought.  She must claim that we should be somewhat altruistic but that we should not aspire to “moral sainthood”, i.e. allow the admitted demands of morality to entirely structure our lives and crowd out other goods.  Indeed, I agree that one should not allow utilitarian ethics to ruin one’s life, but I see no way to coherently assert this while admitting utilitarian ethics.  One is applying to a “should” which is more authoritative than the “should” of morality, but such a thing cannot exist.  The ruling “should” is one’s true morality, and it’s better to make it explicit.

Performative conservatism and honesty with oneself

Continuing with our discussion of “performative” or “existential” conservatism (i.e. conservatism after the last hope is lost)

One no longer fights liberalism with hopes of victory or even stalemate.  Defiance is a performance, an act of fidelity–to God, to the truth as one sees it, or to oneself–carried out for its own sake.  Because it cannot accomplish anything, there is no obligation, no uniquely right decision.  The very fact that a man has only the present compels him to decide what he wants to do with his time (a short time, but the only time that is real to him), how he wants to live it.

A conservative must always be honest with himself.  Part of his job is to acknowledge and defend motives not sanctioned by liberalism.  It is dishonest, and ultimately pointless, to defend illiberal goods with liberal arguments.  The only real victory is to establish our true motives as legitimate.  Such have been the main themes of this blog:  the legitimacy of authoritarian motives, of tribalist motives, etc.

Why am I a conservative?  Of course, like everyone else I imagine myself to be committed to the truth whatever it should turn out to be, but like everyone else I keep finding the world to be the way I want it to be.  All reasoning is a little bit motivated.  I am a conservative because I care more about meaningfulness than about freedom, and I am more horrified by nihilism than by inauthenticity.

Why am I a conservative blogger?  Why does anybody become publicly conservative, even in an anonymous or pseudonymous way?  Those of us who do it often sink a lot of our free time into it.  Why?  One could invoke “the cause” of course–we’re trying to save Western civilization or whatever.  What, me, save Western civilization?  Well, maybe not me personally, but as one part of a larger group, like soldiers in an army.  No individual soldier wins the war even when the army collectively does.  But we are not like soldiers in an army.  We are each fighting alone.  Our efforts don’t add in any visible way.  (Liberals participating in protests and marches are much more like soldiers in an army.  There are not enough people on the Right for that sort of thing.)  And in any case, all hope of victory, or even preserving the Church, is long gone.

Some protest purely intellectual goals.  I have done so from time to time.  Some bloggers I like say that they write as a way of developing their thoughts, with the existence of their readers an almost incidental matter.  Perhaps this is entirely truthful for them, but for me it only captures part of the truth.  Yes, I’ve been conditioned by long years in academia to only value efforts that wind up being published, and this has spilled over into my hobby.  But I can’t imagine that I would keep this up if I had zero readers.

This blog was an act of performative conservatism long before I started explicitly thinking in those terms.  When one has convictions but no hope, the only thing one can do is make a scene.  Not that it accomplishes anything, but the thought of going to my death having never said anything is horrifying, as if I will somehow be more dead if my beliefs never escape my brain before its destruction.  And a performance requires an audience.  A drama in one’s own person is preferable, of course, and I still hope to perform one someday, but the practicalities will take time to work out.

Now, if the goal is just to say something offensive, that is easy enough.  I admire this kid.  With a forbidden act of piety, he defied the world.  I hope he’ll be able to make a living somehow, having aroused the wrath of media-academic-corporate America.  JMSmith, in a recent comment, as alluded to the strange desire to get the un-personing over with, the fatigue of evading progressive censorship, which many today undoubtedly sometimes feel.  Still, how one brings it about is a very personal thing.  One only gets expelled from polite society once, and one wants a performance to be proud of.  Something that makes the best use of one’s personal strengths and the enemy’s collective weaknesses.

Asymmetry: a post about adultery

Via Chateau Heartiste, I am alerted to a Telegraph article arguing that men should allow their wives to cheat on them because monogamy is particularly difficult for women.

Of course, this being a socially conservative blog, one of my jobs is to deplore these sorts of things.  However, I found myself in surprising agreement with one of Mrs. Martin’s unstated assumptions.  She argues

“Why is it better to get a divorce and move on when you simply decide “I don’t fancy him anymore”, or the spark is gone…What a trail of destruction you might save yourself from creating if you said instead:  is there something [i.e. open infidelity] we can do here”?

Sexual fidelity is one of the duties of marriage.  There are others.  Kasperite Catholics forget this when they roll out the red carpet for adulterers who have also abandoned their spouses and children (or abandoned their spouses and deprived their children of their father, as the case may be) for a fake second marriage, while these same “merciful” Catholics have showed less interest in accommodating adulterers who have not abandoned their families.  Not that the latter deserve accommodation, but solicitude for the former gives the impression that we care less about violated duties than bourgeois respectability, which is satisfied as well by a simulated marriage as by a real one.  Even orthodox Catholics are too comfortable with accepting those in second marriages who agree to live “as brother and sister”.  Even if any such couples exist, they are ceasing to violate only one of their wedding vows.  Most likely, their true spouses don’t want them back, but let us please give some consideration to those forgotten other vows.

Having an affair is less immoral than divorcing one’s spouse.

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Book review: Religion and the Rebel

Religion and the Rebel
by Colin Wilson, 1957

I came across this book in the library accidentally shortly after two Orthosphere writers I respect greatly had independently mentioned it, so I decided it must be divine providence.

Wilson’s interest, as in his previous book The Outsider (which I have not read), is the perspective of “outsiders”.  What Wilson means by an “outsider” (and its opposite, and “insider”) is a bit subtle.  As one may guess, outsiders are alienated from their host societies; they can’t or won’t adopt the shared perspective of their neighbors.  However, Wilsons’ outsiders nurse a particular sort of dissatisfaction.  It has an ugly, misanthropic side that Wilson makes no effort to hide.  The outsider regards his fellow men as stupid and superficial, their ordinary activities and satisfactions as meaningless and spiritually deadening.  His interests are ultimately religious, but he regards himself as part of a spiritual elite with no use for ritual or doctrines of the supernatural.  The insider gets little chance to defend himself; almost all famous thinkers are classified by Wilson as “outsiders”.  (Two famous men he does classify as insiders:  Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley.)  I think the insider’s defense would be that when one man finds something meaningful and another doesn’t, it is more likely the latter who is deficient in sensibility.  Along with this undeniable nastiness is a much more attractive outsider trait.  Although confident of his superiority to the common man, he is convinced that he himself is still living in illusions, is still failing to appreciate evident truths about his consciousness and world.  He makes arduous efforts to deepen his mental perception.

Wilson’s new insight in this book is that outsiders only appear in a civilization in decline, one whose religion has ceased to be compelling to the spiritually ambitious.  This spiritual decline pains the outsider first, but ultimately leads to the stagnation and fall of the entire civilization.  Wilson hopes that outsiders in the contemporary West may constitute a “creative minority” in the sense of Toynbee’s Study of History, a group who can produce a creative solution to our civilization’s current challenge.  This solution, he insists, must be a religious solution.  Writing in the 1950’s, Wilson is clearly caught up in the enthusiasm for existentialism on the European continent.  Indeed, there was a certain openness at that time to religious questions, although not to religious solutions.

The second half of the book is a case study of outsiders who have grappled with religious questions.  These chapters are fun but difficult to summarize.  I will just mention two points that interested me.  Wilson is surprisingly skeptical of Kierkegaard’s claim to have broken off his engagement for quintessentially outsider reasons, something his other biographers have accepted uncritically.  Wilson believes that Kierkegaard was immature and selfish playing with a girl’s feelings, and everything he wrote about it later was just rationalization.  I don’t know if this is true, but I’ll probably never be able to think about this incident in the same way.  Second, Wilson has, I think, a very intelligent reply to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.  It is quite true that many things cannot be said, but that doesn’t mean that one must be silent.  What language cannot say, it can evoke; it can show.  Wittgenstein’s mistake, Wilson says, is that he didn’t give up philosophy after the Tractatus and write poems or a novel.  I would point out that this same consideration can go some way to explaining the value of ritual, showing that it is not just a crutch for insiders who lack the outsider’s spiritual acumen.

Memory and anticipation in the age of Leftist power

History really did end, not because things stopped changing but because they stopped staying the same.  There was a time not long ago when the past seemed to have some weight, and that which had long endured was assumed to have deep roots.  A conservative accusing progressives of seeking to change the definition of marriage from what it has been “for thousands of years” alludes to this sense.  A progressive invoking the “long arc of history” does as well.  Now, effective resistance to the Left has nearly ceased to exist, and one can expect any aspect of social life to be transformed or eliminated as soon as a consensus on the Left forms that social justice demands it.  Whether this is good or bad, it means the death of the historical sense. [1]

This might seem an odd accusation, at least when directed at progressives.  After all, their entire worldview is indignation at the oppressive past and devotion to a utopian future.  But this worldview is ahistorical in the sense that modernists used to accuse traditionalists of being ahistorical in their devotion to the past, in that the past is imagined to have been static (all history until yesterday being white Christian patriarchal oppression in about equal measure as far as the progressive is concerned) and morally unambiguous (evil, in this case).  (Whiggery, by contrast, was not ahistorical in this sense.)  Nor can today’s progressive imagine what future progressives will be demanding in a hundred years; if he could imagine it, he would be demanding it right now.  So he is not consciously a link in a continuous progression.  His moment is the phase transition from evil to good, the only truly dynamic moment of mankind.

In the face of Leftist power, the conservative also steps outside of history.  The past has no enduring presence, and we feel completely alone when we believe what all of our ancestors believed.  The future has no reality for us.  It no longer makes sense to say that one is fighting to preserve something for one’s children or grandchildren.  The time of their adulthood presumably will come, but it is beyond our horizon; we can neither predict it nor do anything to influence it.  As I’ve written before, the whole purpose of conservatism has changed.  One no longer fights liberalism with hopes of victory or even stalemate.  Defiance is a performance, an act of fidelity–to God, to the truth as one sees it, or to oneself–carried out for its own sake.  Because it cannot accomplish anything, there is no obligation, no uniquely right decision.  The very fact that a man has only the present compels him to decide what he wants to do with his time (a short time, but the only time that is real to him), how he wants to live it.

I believe conservatives can respond well to this new situation.  That is, we can individually achieve our intellectual and spiritual potential in this era of presentism and existential performance.  Motivation was always a struggle when victory was so far out of reach (even the modest sort of victory conservatives pursue, of simply succeeding in preserving something), but not far enough for us to forget about it entirely.  If the question is only whether each of us can give a performance to be proud of, if we feel so called, then I think the answer is that we can.  Certainly, some can respond to this call poorly.  Probably there will be more deplorables deciding to “go out in a blaze of glory” by shooting bunches of random strangers, but for most of us, this is hardly our idea of glory.  A more common case will probably be the unveiling of a carefully crafted statement on the internet, to be delivered when the author feels ready for involuntary early retirement and loss of friends, friends and job exchanged willingly for a regained sense of his manhood and the pleasure of just once giving them all a piece of his mind.  Which will do more for his personal development than donating money and voting in futile elections.

 

[1] Social change accelerates.  By comparison, things which used to undergo change are settling.  The militant certainty which drives rapid social change retards the intellectual and creative life.  Half a century ago, when people spoke of “rapid change”, they usually meant technology.  Since then, technological progress has greatly slowed, as has advance in the theoretical sciences.  No one anymore expects technology to fix our energy or environmental problems or to let us colonize space.  (We do expect it to change men into women, but here again the true power is not medical but social, the power to make us all agree that such transformations have indeed taken place.)  Philosophers are “naturalists”, meaning they think it’s clear what science teaches us about nature and don’t imagine future science can do anything but fill in details.  Philosophers’ political commitments demand that various groups be recognized a priori as innocent or oppressive, which leaves little interesting for a political philosopher to think about.  Status in art, literature, and drama is ruled by political considerations, and no true innovations can be expected while art is subordinated to political orthodoxy.  A hundred years ago, men cared passionately about the location of national borders.  Today, men argue about whether borders should exist at all; few would fight a war or bother at all about where exactly they are drawn.  In this crowded Earth, the age of exploration, founding of cities, and new cultures is over.  Not all of this is to be missed, but while modern men congratulate themselves on their transformative time, they should remember that a peoples’ areas of development and stasis shift with its interests.