From the late, great traditionalist blogger Lawrence Auster comes this min-essay clarifying the meaning of transcendence. Auster points out that unless our activities, loyalties and institutions have meanings that transcend their merely physical elements, we cannot understand them, love them, or act to protect them.
In a postscript to the essay, Auster observes:
My main purpose in this discussion is to get at the root of why we our letting our culture be destroyed. I’m saying it’s because we have lost the experience of the transcendent as it is related to our specific culture, and therefore we don’t have the will to preserve or defend our culture. [Emphasis added] The transcendent needs to be understood not only in relation to the idea of God, but in relation to culture. If the transcendent is only experienced in relation to universal morality or God, then we end up with modern conservatism, which worships universal ideas of democracy and puts 99 percent of its moral energy into opposing abortion, but which fails to defend our culture as a culture from the innumerable ills that threaten it from without and within. It is no coincidence that both neoconservatives and evangelical Christians favor mass non-European immigration. It is because they lack a sense of the transcendent quality of our particular culture and nation.
Here is the essay: (Source.)
What is transcendence and why does it matter?
Unpublished fragment, 2001
The key to the Secular-Democratic world view—and to the loss of our traditional culture which that world view has destroyed—is the denial of transcendence. Before we proceed further in this discussion, it is essential that we grasp what this means. Fortunately that will not be difficult, since transcendence plays a key role in every person’s experience of life, including the lives of those who deny its existence.
In religious terms, of course, transcendence means “beyond the world,” in the sense that God as revealed in the Bible exists outside the physical universe of which he is the creator and is not an object of direct human experience or of scientific reason based on the evidence of the senses. But the idea of transcendence does not apply only to God in his ultimate transcendence. The quality of being objectively real yet beyond immediate sensory experience applies to all human values and institutions. It could be described as the quality of any whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
A marriage, for example, is not simply constituted of the man and woman who make it up; it is something larger in which the partners participate and which provides the very meaning of their life together, even though the institution of marriage that binds them is invisible to the senses and all that can be seen is the couple and their actions. Similarly, a sports team is not just a collection of athletes, but a larger entity that provides the ordering structure of their activities as well as the primary object of their fans’ loyalties; when a team becomes a collection of free agents, it often loses, to the fans’ distress, its character as something that transcends the individual players. In the same way, a nation, along with its whole system of common rules and interests, is a larger and more enduring entity than all the people who belong to it. Although its quality as a nation cannot be seen or experienced with the senses, its members do not doubt its reality or its function in establishing the meaningful order of their lives; they are even willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of that larger whole that they cannot see.
The idea of transcendence applies not only to social and moral institutions but to natural categories and socially defined roles such as male, female, child; policeman, priest, President. In belonging to any of these categories the individual partakes of a meaning greater than himself. The very idea of “man”—the largest human class to which we all belong—is not an object of experience. We cannot see “man” anywhere. We see individual human beings. None of those individual human beings is “man,” even though “man” is the essential nature of what human beings are, and, according to the Declaration of Independence, the very source of our rights as individuals. Further, each individual is also “transcendent,” in the sense that his inner self or consciousness cannot be seen or experienced by the senses, yet we know that it exists and is the source of his value as a person.
Though the concept of transcendence is not referred to in ordinary political discussion, it is at the heart of people’s deepest values that underlie all their political concerns—their love of their country and its history, their love for their parents and children and friends, their memories of their home town, their response to nature and art and literature, their belief in justice, or their sense of outrage at some injustice. All those things go beyond the specifics that can be seen, heard, or touched; and without the invisible added element they would fall far short of what they are for us. Transcendence is the matrix of basic allegiances that cannot always be justified in rationalistic terms because the true value of any thing can be known only through participation in that thing, not through mere external observation or manipulation of it.
The Secular-Democratic consciousness, especially in its more radical stages, devalues and denies this invisible dimension of existence. To the Secular-Democratic mind, a police officer is not a symbol of the constituted authority of society (which is itself a transcendent idea), but just a man with a gun. A priest is not the representation of Christ, but just a man in a funny uniform going through obscure, even absurd, gestures. A human being does not represent the transcendent essence “man,” but is simply a bundle of needs, desires, and rights (though where these human rights come from if there is no transcendent human nature to base them on is never made clear). Similarly, marriage is not the fulfillment of God’s command in Genesis that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” It is any pairing of persons seeking mutual gratification, lasting as long as both partners find it gratifying. A nation is not an enduring essence transcending its individual members, but an ever shifting collection of individuals with an ever expanding portfolio of demands that the government must satisfy. And since the nation is not a transcendent idea, the flag that symbolizes it has no higher significance; it is only, as many liberals love to sneer, “a piece of cloth,” a phrase that perfectly conveys their contempt for the transcendent, and their undying wish to free humanity from its “oppressive” claims.
Another phrase with which liberals attack transcendence-based standards is “Why not?”: Why not allow people to burn the flag? Why not permit marriage between two persons of the same sex? Why not allow a 15-year-old boy to come to school dressed as a girl? Why not have female priests? Why not have female soldiers? Why not encourage children to treat their teachers and parents as their equals? Why not import totally incompatible cultures into our society? Why not surrender our national independence to a global government?
And here we come to the nub of the problem: In a society that has lost the experience of transcendence, in a society that sees only the material or individualistic side of things, there is no answer to these questions. Without an allegiance to its own transcendent essence and the ability to articulate it, no institution—and no nation—can survive the Secular-Democratic critique. Indeed, the members of such a society will fail even to recognize that a threat exists, since they no longer have any consciousness of the thing that is threatened.
At the same time, since people cannot actually live together without institutions, the breakdown of institutions based on shared adherence to a higher truth must lead to new institutions based, not on any ideal, but on the increasingly naked assertion of will—whether it be the will of “the people,” or the will of some oppressed minority, or the will of some managerial or ideological elite who seek to redesign the society from top to bottom. For these reasons, whenever the Secular-Democratic consciousness has gained power it has repeatedly led to various kinds of extremism and statism, except in those societies, such as Britain and the United States, where it was balanced and moderated by surviving elements of the Classical-Christian consciousness.
(End of Essay)
A couple of comments:
To the Secular-Democratic mind, a police officer is not a symbol of the constituted authority of society (which is itself a transcendent idea), but just a man with a gun.
With mayors and governors withdrawing the police’s authority to arrest looters or disperse rioters, police are powerless to do their jobs. Indeed, a policeman without the ability to punish wrongdoers could be said not actually to be a policeman at all.
[Without transcendence a] nation is not an enduring essence transcending its individual members, but an ever shifting collection of individuals with an ever expanding portfolio of demands that the government must satisfy.
A perfect description of globalism.
The post has generated some controversy. I attempt some clarification:
To say that something is “transcendent” is not necessarily to go full platonic. Look again at what Larry said about marriage:
[Without transcendence] marriage is not the fulfillment of God’s command in Genesis that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” It is any pairing of persons seeking mutual gratification, lasting as long as both partners find it gratifying.
But if marriage is something in particular, then it is not “any pairing of persons seeking mutual gratification, lasting as long as both partners find it gratifying.” To say that marriage has a specific nature, and therefore that same-sex pairings can never be marriage, is to invoke a transcendent. Marriage transcends “pairing of persons seeking mutual gratification, lasting as long as both partners find it gratifying.”
The left denies transcendence when it seeks to destroy, but affirms it implicitly when it tries to build new ways. Liberals said marriage was “nothing but a piece of paper” back when they were about destroying bourgeois values; now that they are in the business of re-forming society they claim marriage is something precious, so that disallowing any couple (or group!) who wants it is a great injustice.
As Larry’s essay points out, the real issue is not transcendence vs “nothing-but-a-piece-of-paper” nominalism. Everyone believes in some sort of transcendence. But if everything is transcendent, then for all practical purposes, nothing is.
I must also reiterate Larry’s main point:
My main purpose in this discussion is to get at the root of why we our letting our culture be destroyed. I’m saying it’s because we have lost the experience of the transcendent as it is related to our specific culture, and therefore we don’t have the will to preserve or defend our culture.
We’re not defending the transcendent simpliciter. We’re defending the traditional transcendents of our people.