In our conversations with our philosophical adversaries, we should aim, not to destroy them intellectually, but to help them understand more fully, and for themselves, such truths as they have already managed to apprehend. Heresy and error, after all, are defects of good healthy doctrines. Certainly we should not refrain from pointing out their contradictions and absurd results. But our notice of such defects in the convictions of our adversaries should operate in them as prompts to deliberation. We can hardly expect them to undertake such a sober procedure when they see that the whole edifice of their thought is mortally threatened.
Once and Future Traditionalist blogger and orthospherean Casey Ann, now on hiatus from her doughty online efforts so that she can concentrate on college, recently commented on a post from 2013 in which I offered an ontological argument for the existence of God, asking for help with the covalent ontological arguments of St. Anselm of Canterbury and of Alvin Plantinga. She wrote:
I’m currently suffering through a Philosophy of Religion course (the democratic nature of these courses is sickening), and we have just gone over the cosmological arguments, arguments from design, the ontological arguments, and their respective criticisms. I’m writing an essay about which I prefer and discussing its strengths and weaknesses. I immediately go toward the ontological argument per St. Anselm, which I have loved for years now. The problem is that each time I study it I find myself peering at it through seemingly various aspects that become obscure to me as the next one approaches (this also could be linked to sleep issues, but anyway). I would love to get your perspective on it. What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it? Can a Thomist use the ontological argument? Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm? How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being? Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously). Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga? I’m very unfamiliar with analytic philosophy, so I hardly even tried to tackle his writing on it. I wrote on a paper for a concise summary of his argument, “If it is possible for God to exist, then it is impossible for God not to exist,” and yesterday morning it CLICKED, wonderfully (but at the same time I feel as though there’s a strange gap between the two statements that I need to work out). Is it possible to reconcile this with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)? What about Aquinas? Please, Kristor, don’t be vague (not to say that you tend to be); I really could use your help even from a personal position. Thank you.
The rest of this post is my response.
The modern crisis all goes back to nominalism. The modern muddlings of clear definitions, confusions of really and essentially different things, and denials of essences or definitions in the first place are all outworkings of the nominalist turn. Once suppose that categories are merely conventional, that universals are merely nominal, that life is never simply black or white, but rather only shades of grey, and you find yourself on a steep and slippery slope to chaos.
Many reactionaries complain that capitalism is eo ipso inimical to tradition. I disagree about that: it is liberal or deranged capitalism that is the problem; so that the problem is not with capitalism per se – which is really nothing other than the natural and basic form of human economic coordination, rooted at bottom in the exchange of gifts and favors, in the love we bear for each other as friends, neighbours and relatives, and so is the default to which all societies recur (and must recur, or else falter and dwindle) – but with its derangement. Latter day capitalism is sick, to be sure. But so is our whole society, beset in all her members and organs by the maladies and diseases by which we infect and corrupt her, a wounded animal struggling ever to heal herself, again and again deformed and crippled by our manifold political foolishness and iterated moral and intellectual insanities.
It’s not economics that is intrinsically inimical to tradition, but philosophy. In a traditional society, there would be no such thing. In a traditional society, no one would wonder how to be a good man, or what the meaning and purpose of life might be, or how and by what agencies the world is ordered. In a healthy traditional society, such questions would not even occur to anyone, because from earliest childhood everyone would have understood the ancient answers handed down by their forefathers from the very beginnings of time. No other answers would be even conceivable. Contrary doctrines would be greeted with outrage, horror and disgust.
Walking through the Oakland Airport this evening I spotted another one of those dreary advertisements that all schools of business everywhere throw up, showing some brave person who is not a businessman striding bravely into the brave new world she has dreamed up, and exhorting the reader (and prospective applicant) to “think outside the box,” “do well, but do good,” and most importantly, “challenge the status quo.”
Creativity in business is all well and good, of course, in due proportion, and where there is a better way to do things. But that is not what these ads are about. They are appealing to people who consider themselves “agents of change,” and who want to get into businesses and shake them up so that they are less, you know, businessy and more like NGOs. Not seeking those yucky profits, you see; not selling. Ew!
Dragging myself along the concourse, I reflected on the relentless chorus of “change!” to which we have all been more and more subjected these last 50 years now, and considered (not for the first time) that neo-reaction and traditionalism are the last gasp of the modernist critique of all established authority, with the ironic difference that the established authority they call into question is modernism itself.
Traditionalism is a quintessentially modern phenomenon. It is an artifact of a shattered, rudderless society. In a traditional society, there could be no such thing as traditionalism; for, in a traditional society, any suggestion that perhaps things ought to be done differently than they have been done would be met with horror, and outrage; so that, far from calling for their defense, their traditions would seem to them not even traditional, but rather just, and simply, the way that things must of course be done.
What does it indicate, that modernism has in these latter days elaborated a withering modernist critique of modernism? Is the phenomenon of historically self-conscious traditionalism in fact modernism’s last gasp?
An eye for an eye makes the whole world circumspect. But, also, an eye for an eye makes the whole world cooperative, as Robert Axelrod showed with his study of tit for tat and competing strategies using iterated rounds of contests among genetic algorithms (described in his book The Evolution of Cooperation). Tit for tat beat all the alternative strategies, again and again; and as rounds of the contest were iterated, with winning strategies favored by the reproductive mechanism of the iteration, it more and more perfused the population of competing algorithms. As tit for tat increased in frequency, so did the total value generated by all competitors in each round: fewer and fewer defections occurred, and responses to defections were more and more often optimal.
That tit for tat wins the evolutionary game does not mean that its superiority is merely adventitious, an artifact of this or that sequence of random events that might have been quite different, and so generated quite a different sort of winner. On the contrary: provided the game goes on long enough, tit for tat wins every time, sooner or later, and no matter how the sequence of outcomes varies. The utile superiority of tit for tat is a truth of game theory, so that like any other mathematical truth it is from before any and all worlds, and holds true in every world. The metaphysical superiority of tit for tat, then, is the source and reason of its practical evolutionary success, and not vice versa (this is true of all perdurant evolutionary success). Tit for tat is the optimal strategy in evolutionary practice because it is the best in metaphysical fact. As metaphysically best it is the most moral policy of all (these are two ways to say the same thing).
Holiness is not hard, but the want of it.
It would be better for everyone if moral hazard were eliminated from the social order as much as possible. But it will be hard to root it out, because it is institutionalized deep in our laws. How deep? As deep as the rejection at the beginning of the 19th century of the old Mesopotamian notion of proper compensation for torts, memorialized both in the Law of Hammurabi and in the OT: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. The moment we reduced the penalties for torts from the time-honored “like for like” to financial compensation or time served, we reduced the net cost of hurting each other. Reducing the net cost of any sort of act does not generate more such acts immediately – you need agents for the mediation – but it does decrease the disinclination of agents to enact them, which they then more often proceed to do. So we are losing a lot more eyes and teeth than we might have been, had the penalties remained as they were.
What are monks good for, anyway? Why do we allocate scarce resources to their activities of prayer, liturgy, and the odd bit of gardening, or apiculture, or brewing?
We could ask the same question about priests, and about church buildings. Sure, they do lots of good and valuable work – teaching, nursing, and so forth – but their strictly religious activities would seem to be a complete waste.
But not so. People do better – are braver, more resilient, and happier in the face of life’s ineliminable vicissitudes both small and great – when they can see that their personal struggles signify in the larger struggle of good with evil for the redemption of the whole world. They do better when they can see how their small efforts to be good contribute weal to the side of the angels in the Wars of Heaven. If earthly life is throughly pointed toward some utterly transcendent and wonderful Good, then it can all be worthwhile. Otherwise, it just can’t, and is utterly vain and meaningless, so that despair is the only apposite response to life’s utter futility.
As for people, so for their families, their enterprises of all sorts, their tribes and nations. If these are formed by a shared understanding of their important roles in the wider struggle of God with his enemies, they are more likely to prosper and prevail. Otherwise, they are more likely to dwindle and fail. The demographic collapse of our merely secular society – more and more obviously nihilist – shows how irreligion plays out.
We can jaw till the cows come home about how to reform the social order so that it works better, and in so doing improve our own understandings, and those of our fellows, so that we jointly decide matters in such a way as to restore a more humane, realistic and successful social order. Such discourse is not only edifying, but can nerve us to action. We could even implement a lot of quite sensible reforms – indeed, it is within the realm of possibility that all the outward forms of an ideal traditional society could be implemented, sometime after the Collapse of the Liberal Order, when men are casting about for a better way. That would be good!
Political acts can truly make the world a bit better, at the margin, than it would otherwise be.
But in the absence of a fairly widespread metanoia, a spiritual awakening and change of heart, all the clever and salutary reforms in the world will not secure for us a robust and durable traditional society, that reliably supports true human flourishing. They might slow the rot, but cannot heal it; cannot procure for us a healthy body politic.
A merely secular order, that does not consciously refer its ends, forms, and significations to the ultimate source of all order and meaning, has severed itself from the root of all things, and must therefore soon err, and stray, and perish.