The Social Gospel, the activities of Social Justice Warriors, Political Correctness, electioneering, and the like (and their counterparts on the right side of the aisle) are all desperate and in the end bootless Pharisaical ritual purifications, undertaken to assuage the universal feeling of having done less well than one might have. They fail, in the first place because scapegoating never provides more than a few minutes of emotional relief, and in the second because they involve no inward purgation, and a fortiori no sort of metanoia, which is the only thing that can salve the sick conscience and repair the wounded mind. They wash the outside of the bowl, but not the inside.
My latest at The Brussels Journal is an essay entitled “René Girard on the ‘Ontological Sickness.’” I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning to the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” this semester and found myself re-reading him with a good deal of renewed interest. Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” explains a good deal about modernity, especially about what is sometimes called “entitlement mentality.” In the essay, I try to show how this is so. The essay includes an interpretation of what I regard as one of the major modern parables about the “ontological sickness,” the HAL subplot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The link is http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5178
I offer a sample below.
In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of its every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”
The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation.
The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 – the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”
A proposition that cannot be carried into practice at all cannot be true. An act that cannot be implemented in actuality must be somehow incoherent: self-refuting – for example, you can’t mean it when you say, “this statement is a lie” – or a contradiction in terms either simple or implicit – e.g., there’s just no way to implement “2 + 3 = 4,” for it is a contradiction in terms. That such propositions can’t work logically means that they can’t work in practice.
But a proposition that can be carried into practice might be true. E.g., “It is best not to defer gratification.”
When we sin, we assert one or more of a number of propositions:
- God does not exist.
- God is not omniscient.
- God is amoral.
- The world is amoral.
- God does not care whether I behave well or not, nor does the world.
- Whether or not God cares about my behavior does not matter (to me, at least).
And so forth. When we misbehave, we effectually attest to our belief in at least one of these propositions, or else in one of a number of other propositions like them. And to attest belief in propositions is to testify to their truth, and so is to urge their truth: behavior is an effectual proposal for how it might be well to behave.
If the notion of the social construct is true, then the notion of the social construct is itself a social construct. It is without any basis in reality, so that there is no real reason we should notice it, or order our lives thereby.
The consequence is that when someone argues that, e.g., marriage is a social construct, so that we may change it if we like so that gays can marry, it can be argued with equivalent force that the notion that gays ought to be able to marry is likewise a social construct. We may therefore reject the notion of gay marriage, under the banner of social construction, and there will be no way that the moral nihilists can gainsay us. If there is no moral reality, so that no one has any basis in that reality for an argument against gay marriage, then by the same token no one has any basis in moral reality for an argument against the proscription of gay marriage – or anything else, whatsoever.
In general, it’s no good to argue from moral nominalism to any moral realism. You can’t get any ought from “there is no such thing really as an ought.” Thus to talk at all about what it is right or proper to do is implicitly to recognize the falsity of moral nominalism; if moral nominalism is true, then nothing is really right or wrong to do, and such talk is all just nonsense. Moral discourse of any sort at all implicitly agrees to the presupposition that moral discourse has something real to discuss.
An article of mine has appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title, “Hannah Arendt and Richard Weaver on the Crisis of Western Education.” It is accessible at: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5141
Here is a sample:
Arendt writes of assuming responsibility for the inherited world, as the conservative or curatorial heart of education. A strikingly complementary notion occurs in the work of one of Arendt’s contemporaries who also wrote about the perils threatening education in the period of the Cold War. This writer saw in the self-styled progressive pedagogy of his day, which in his view had already begun to subvert traditional education, an essential ‘irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.’ Indeed, he saw that the assumptions of this revolutionary coup-d’état in the classroom could never ‘serve as the foundations of culture because [they] are out of line with what is.’ It was the case that ‘where [these assumptions] are allowed to provide foundations,’ or to allege to provide foundations, ‘they imperil the whole structure.’
The other writer is Richard Weaver (1910 – 1963) and the lines quoted above come from the chapter on ‘The Gnostics of Education’ in his book Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (published posthumously, 1964). Arendt was a woman of the Left; Weaver was a man of the Right. That their separate and independent commentaries on the same topic, appearing in book form within three years of one another, should be so convergent and complementary is striking. What explains it? A commitment to civilization, shared across the political frontier, might be the best answer to the question. Both Arendt and Weaver, in contrast to the advocates of avant-garde pedagogy whom they criticize, see education in its conservative or curatorial role as a civilizational, rather than as a social, institution. When the high-school English teacher in Santa Monica brought his portable stereo to the classroom and invited his students to listen to Wagner, he appealed to them in the name of civilization, not in the name of society. At the time, society’s idea of music was The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. When I challenge students to read and appreciate Tono-Bungay by Wells, I do so in the name of civilization, not of society, whose notion of literary challenge is non-existent.
I think … the skeptics are taking over atheism. …I am an agnostic,
because I believe that is the human condition, and I am a skeptic,
because I believe that is the most efficient way to live my life.
Atheism and its twin brother agnosticism are usually descriptions of individuals. But they’re also cultural forces, shaping society and in turn being shaped by the society in which they live and move and have their being.
[For brevity, I shall refer to them both as “atheism,” for they’re essentially identical at the level of day-to day operations.]
What has atheism to do with low cultural self-esteem? Just this: Atheism, especially today’s variety, makes a virtue of not believing. But skepticism weakens a man and a nation, leading ultimately to ruin unless countered by a renewal of belief.
Think of it: What character trait is today nearly-universally held to be the greatest virtue? Which trait is most praised? The absence of which trait is loathed most deeply and punished most harshly?
Tolerance, of course.
It does go by other names: nonjudgmentalism, openness, diversity, anti-racism, etc. But whatever it’s called, the supreme virtue of the modern age is not to believe. Continue reading
[This is a much-revised version of an article that originally appeared some years ago at The Brussels Journal.]
Prologue: Contemporary popular culture is as jejune as contemporary politics, with which it is more or less indistinguishable: Strangled by political correctness and by contempt for form and etiquette, “pop” culture eats away like acid at what remains of courtesy and memory. But the past of popular culture – in literature, illustration, and the movies – has much nourishment to offer. One of the most widely read authors of the Twentieth Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950), had a penetrating insight concerning the health of the body politic and the positive relation of a vital culture to its founding traditions. The author of Tarzan (1912) and its many sequels, the inventor of the extraterrestrial sword-and-sandals romance, ex-cavalryman, admirer of the Apache and the Sioux, anti-Communist, anti-Nazi, self-publishing millionaire entrepreneur, religious skeptic, “Big-Stick” patriot, Southern California real-estate baron, sixty-year-old Pacific-Theater war correspondent, Burroughs has, with a few ups and downs, maintained an audience from his authorial debut in 1912 to the present day, nearly sixty-five years after his passing. Burroughs has a place in the culture wars, standing as he does for the opposite of almost everything advocated by the elites of the new liberal-totalitarian order. I offer, in what follows, a modest assessment of Burroughs’ work.
The Eucharist is a participation in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But then likewise a true wedding is a participation in the Sacrifice at Golgotha. The bed of marriage is properly an altar, where bride and groom offer their lives in a total sacrifice, joining and thereby engendering a new and larger organism.
When Paul says, “I beseech ye, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” [Romans 12:1], he refers to the whole and perfectly general motion of the Christian toward his Savior and Lord, howsoever expressed: whether in priesthood, or martyry, or marriage – or at Mass.
The rites of the altar – the bed, the table, the throne – are the basis of society: “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” And, vice versa: where there is no altar, there is no civilization; no cult, no culture; no culture, no polis.
I argue here that most men should attempt to marry, for several basic reasons. First, marriage is necessary for the survival of a people. Second, men (and women) need to be a part of a good order if they are to live well and a good social order includes marriage. And three, men were designed for leadership, as they are more attuned to the practical application of truth and justice, and are more able to impose their will on a situation, than women are.
This essay does not refer much to Christianity. Of course, all men and women should be Christians. But that is a subject for other essays.
Throughout our Western Civilization there is a crisis of marriage. Not enough marriages occur. Homosexual pseudo-marriage is causing (and reflecting) extreme moral confusion and devaluing real marriage. Many people marry later in life than is healthy for them and for their children. Many fewer babies are born per woman (married or not) than is healthy for our nation. And many children are no longer raised properly, that is, with a father to provide masculine order and authority and a mother at home most of the time to supervise the children.
So what can be done to make things better? And who’s at fault?
The basic answer to the less important question, the second question, is this. In the immediate sense, and with exceptions acknowledged, it’s more the fault of women than of men. Men, by nature, are always seeking relationships with women, but women do not always seek relationships with men. Therefore womankind is always the ultimate factor determining whether relationship occurs.
But in a broader sense, marriage is in crisis because our entire society is in crisis. America is not a basically healthy nation in which, for some mysterious reason, marriage is failing. No, American society is fundamentally and radically disordered, and one manifestation of this disorder is that marriage is generally no longer done correctly, or even adequately. The proper way to do marriage is rarely taught, and when it is, the teaching is often rejected. Continue reading
At the Thinking Housewife, Laura Wood links to and excerpts an article discussing how heroin use is ravaging Vermont. I immediately thought of Robert Locke’s 2001 essay Why We Must Not End the War on Drugs. Since Mr. Locke has apparently retired from the arena of public intellectual combat, I reprint the essay in full below.
For those in a hurry, Mr. Locke’s central point is this: If all forms of drug use were to be legalized, it would rapidly become not only socially acceptable, but subsidized and forcibly legitimized by the state, much as homosexuality has been. The results would be catastrophic. Even more catastrophic, that is.
Note also that there is a legitimate debate on the tactics we use to oppose drug abuse. Mr. Locke’s essay concerns only the key point that we must not end official opposition to drug abuse. Continue reading