To change the culture V: metahistory

Today’s history is Whig history on steroids. Whig history is just the application of the anti-Christian good guys vs. bad guys narrative to the past, with the Left cast as the heroes and their clients the innocent victims. The fact that this history is generally accepted and almost never contested gives the Left tremendous moral authority. Conservatives are cast in the position of arguing “Yes, we’ve always been wrong in the past, but this time we’re right!”

The solution cannot be to simply tell Whig history in reverse, casting the Right as the heroes and victims. Why not? As a good guys vs. bad guys story, it’s anti-Christian, for one thing. Now, you might grant this but say that it is a rather abstract objection. Seeing oneself as one of the good guys battling bad guys is tremendously motivating, so aren’t we giving a major advantage to our enemies by not making use of this motivator given that they’re using it? This is a strong counterargument, but in fact there is a more practical reason why we cannot use the reverse Whig template.

We wish to embrace our ancestors and inherited culture, meaning Western civilization at the broadest level. Now, it is a fact that most great men of the past were neither pure Leftists nor pure Reactionaries, but had elements of both in their thought and their work. The Left, given its fundamental hostility to the past, is free to denounce a greater and greater fraction of their ancestors; to Leftists it is clear evidence of increasing moral purity that ever fewer of the thinkers of the past and ever less of their thought is judged tolerable. Declaring more and more the dead white men reprobates is indeed what the Left, in its urge to purge, is doing, but it’s not something we want to do. (In fact, the Left’s renouncing most of the great men of the past as being basically on our side might turn out to be a great favor to us.)

The truest interpretation of history is the one that takes the past on its own terms rather than subjecting it to contemporary preoccupations, and it is the one that encourages the broadest sympathies.

Here I believe that the quantitative work of legal historians, archeologists, and population geneticists will be increasingly useful. A useful check on whether the aspects of history that most catch our attention are truly the most important or only reflect contemporary preoccupations is whether those actually had the largest effect on the largest number. To give a simple example, if one massacre killed ten times as many as another contemporary to it, but historians are much more interested in the one with the much lower body count, we should suspect bias; the burden of proof is on the one who says the smaller massacre was the more significant. I doubt these quantitative re-orderings will be kind to the Whig narrative. (Consider their presumption that McCarthyism was more significant than communism.) For example, recent books have advanced the thesis that medieval exogamy laws were enormously important for the development of our society, something that never figured into popular grand narratives.

Accumulation of data can point out the biases of Whig history, but it cannot supply an alternative ordering principle. I think the best alternative would be a Hegelian dialectic without the progressive teleology. Call it the “tragic interpretation of history”. In any given age, society finds itself in the tragic dilemma that, given its material basis, basic organization, and spiritual/conceptual presuppositions, certain genuine goods are incompatible with each other. Hence arises conflict between the holders of rival goods. Both have valid motives; there are no bad guys. Both sides fight heroically for their incompatible visions until, through the struggle, society alters so that the configuration of rival goods changes. Goods that were incompatible become compatible, or goods that were compatible become incompatible, or the pursuit of new goods becomes possible. Thus a new era of conflict begins. Through the changing of eras, some spiritual goods are gained, others lost. No age is morally superior, and the moral quality of individual men comes from how they dealt with the constellation of goods-claims in which they found themselves. Perhaps some goods and valid interests will always be in tension.

Thus we may understand the contest between Optimates and Populares, between Guelphs and Ghibellines, between Yankees and Confederates. Thus, if we wish the rending of Christendom ever to be undone, we will have to learn to understand the parties of the sixteenth-century Reformation. We should always say that both sides were right (not necessarily equally right), but neither could be entirely right, because the presuppositions of the time shared by both sides prevented either from being able to fully incorporate the good championed by the other. Even the nineteenth century liberals, we freely admit, had some valid motives. From all eras, we recognize the greatness of great men and women and the decency of common men and women. Our regard for our ancestors expands capaciously over rival factions, for we are their synthesis.

As I said, I think such a way of viewing the past is the most honest and objective, because it takes the past on its own terms. Read the records of both sides; refrain from applying contemporary political categories; don’t condemn, but come to appreciate their motives; appreciate also the beliefs both sides took for granted. Make good use of our ability to manipulate large quantities of data to ascertain the effects on the masses of men. However, it’s also the most congruent with a properly reverent mythology of the past, which every healthy people needs. We do not want to cast out any faction of our ancestors into outer darkness, but to recognize them and their struggles as glorious.

21 thoughts on “To change the culture V: metahistory

    • That’s a good question. The refusal to declare villains really applies more to parties than to individuals. Individuals, we should admit, were morally compromised (although grandeur can often be seen even in morally compromised ancestors), but if we are talking about leaders (and we usually are), then we should consider the motives of the followers. The Democratic party of the 30s wasn’t a giant conspiracy of criminals. Rural Southerners and urban Catholics supported it without being communists. There were reasonable arguments for and against New Deal programs, and one who would understand the past should sympathetically understand both sets of motives.

      Similarly, for Nero, there is no need to defend the man, but one should understand the patriotic pagan point of view.

      I will even apply this to Hitler and the Nazis, who were by no means the mindless, movitated-by-pure-hatred monsters of Allied propaganda. If one is not willing to try to understand why a German might have become a National Socialist, one should not presume to speak of the period at all.

      The most difficult case, for us, is what sympathy to apply to the hard-Left. Must we acknowledge that the Jacobins and Bolsheviks had a point? To understand the times, I think we do. Revolutions could not succeed if they didn’t attract the allegiance of some sane, intelligent people of non-psychopathic personality. The difficulty is that, unlike the pagans and Nazis, the Left is not only in the past but a present reality. It’s not clear whether we can or should take a historical view toward the era in which we live. The historical perspective is an outsider perspective; maybe to see the validity of our enemies we would have to be part of the synthesis of the next age which does not yet exist. Or maybe it is the greatest lesson of history. Combining the two, perhaps the lesson of history is that we should have faith in a goodness of our enemies which we cannot see and trust that someday the compatibility of our rival goods will become clear.

      • I think one way to show sympathy for the hard left is to say that many leftists were motivated by a sense of fairness, which is admirable so long as fairness as balanced by other goods. But this fairness easily degenerates into egalitarianism, which is unjust and in defiance of nature.

      • Another way of thinking about it could be to say that even if Mao, Stalin, Hitler, FDR, and Nero were evil, or motivated by evil desires, it is not up to us to mete out justice for the wrongs they and their direct followers committed by punishing our contemporaries who we judge to be their ideological or cultural offspring.

      • The difficulty is that, unlike the pagans and Nazis, the Left is not only in the past but a present reality. It’s not clear whether we can or should take a historical view toward the era in which we live. The historical perspective is an outsider perspective; maybe to see the validity of our enemies we would have to be part of the synthesis of the next age which does not yet exist. …

        This is exactly the tension I noticed upon reading this post. I like the basic thought expressed in this post, but there seems to be some dissonance (at least in appearance) with the tribalism and friend/enemy distinction that you advocate we also adopt in the present age.

      • One thing that reduces the tension is to realize that the friend-enemy distinction is emphatically not a moral distinction between good guys and bad guys.

  1. I have read this twice, now; and if feels rather a let-down – in the sense that it seems psychologically insufficiently motivating (even if it was introduced – which I think would not happen due to its luke-warm-ness); but also, in principle, the solution seems inadequate to the depth of the problems you have earlier described. This kind of ‘giving the benefit neutrality’ is not an answer to our actual problems.

    It is also backward looking, in seeking an answer to our unique and unprecedented situation in historic theories.

    I agree that we should understand the past in its own terms; but I believe we need to take the extra step of understanding the people of the past in their own terms – rather than assuming (as I think this scheme does) that they were essentially identical with us in terms of their nature and relationship with the world.

    In other words (as you know) I advocate the next step of assuming that consciousness of Men has (by God’s intent) developed through history, and that this development has been a driving force of history.

    Such crises and disputes as you mention can be understood as responses to such changes in the ways Men experience the world – in situation where there was a divine intent as to how Men would respond – yet where this intent was never altogether fulfilled except in partial and distorted ways (except sometimes by a few individuals that we know of).

    We can then see how God continued to develop Men’s consciousness’s, and to give second, third (etc) chances – but (because the best chance was missed, and greater evil was introduced into events) with inevitably more down-sides and suffering.

    SO, this current global crisis can be seen as yet another version of the same learning and choosing that God has been presenting us with for the past 200-plus years; but (due to the mass wrong choices of past generations, increasing dominance of evil, and corruption of all human institutions) much tougher choices and harsher possible outcomes than in the past.

    This may be personally motivating; as it acknowledges the unprecedented nature and power of global evil here and now, but allows the possibility of genuine good from *individual* spiritual resistance and striving.

    • It depends on what you mean by “development” of consciousness. If it just means that peoples’ assumptions and mental categories change, then this is an important part of history as I imagine it. If it means that peoples’ consciousness has been evolving to some higher level, then I would reject that, both because I so no compelling evidence for it, and because I don’t think we can show proper homage to our ancestors if we imagine that we are their spiritual superiors.

      • Bruce has co-authored a book which plausibly makes a case that, due to drastically reduced infant mortality, the average intelligence of mankind has been in decline for a century or two, hardly conducive to an ‘evolution’ of consciousness. Therefore, I have to assume that Bruce does not hold that ‘evolutionary’ view.

      • @Bonald – ” If it means that peoples’ consciousness has been evolving to some higher level, then I would reject that, both because I so no compelling evidence for it, and because I don’t think we can show proper homage to our ancestors if we imagine that we are their spiritual superiors.”

        I give up.

        I have Never said this; and on the contrary explained what I Do mean so often that I am sick of it. One cannot assume that vague knee-jerk projections based on word-association will suffice for understanding key terminology.

        One more try… Everyone would acknowledge there is a development of consciousness from early to late childhood and then into adolescence. But nobody would call an adolescent consciousness ‘higher’ (presumably you are here meaning *spiritually* higher?) than a child’s.

        So there IS a development of consciousness that everybody would agree – but it does NOT make later consciousness ‘higher’ than earlier.

        I mean analogically very much the same; but with reference to the consciousness of Mankind developing (but not getting ‘higher’) through history.

        And purposively – in line with divine intent. So that this developing consciousness of Mankind drives history (and is not passively caused-by historical circumstances).

        OK?

      • Most people would say that increased maturity means improvement. Adults understand things better than children (with adolescence a middle case); that’s why we are their teachers. Your analogy is not reassuring.

        Let us ask what is the difference between my “change” and your “development”. Development clearly adds something to change. You say it is not a relationship of superiority and inferiority, of “higher” and “lower”. Thus, we shouldn’t say that switching from one form of consciousness to another is per se a good thing or a bad thing. On the other hand, it may be that movement naturally goes in one direction, and I think that’s what you mean by “development” and your analogy of maturation. Our consciousness can’t help but evolve in a certain way, and pretending it hasn’t is just self-deception.

        A better analogy would be the development from young adulthood to old age. We have no choice about this progression, and trying to act like a young man when elderly is just silly. Here there is no implication of advancement–aging is usually considered a bad thing, although better than the alternative–but simply of a progression that must be accepted and followed. This is not inconsistent with how I understand history. That is, I imagine it sometimes happens that worldviews and sensibilities are forced to change in particular ways, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that at other times multiple lines of development have been possible.

      • @ mickvet – evolution doesn’t have to “progress” to anything. The schizophrenic, half-ape, r-selected humans without a wiritten language slowly going extinct could very well end up inheriting the Earth.

        Given the utter silence of the universe of baryonic matter, that is probably the case.

        fictionaut.com/stories/strannikov/the-fermi-panic

      • God is in charge of creation. Including human genetics. I think God has as much interest in not having our gene pool melt down more so than the so called Eugenicists.

        I think it’s a partial explanation as to why some Righteous die untimely deaths. Or remain unmarried.

        He isn’t going to allow humanity to degenerate beyond a certain threshold.

  2. “The solution cannot be to simply tell Whig history in reverse, casting the Right as the heroes and victims. Why not? As a good guys vs. bad guys story, it’s anti-Christian, for one thing. Now, you might grant this but say that it is a rather abstract objection. Seeing oneself as one of the good guys battling bad guys is tremendously motivating, so aren’t we giving a major advantage to our enemies by not making use of this motivator given that they’re using it? This is a strong counterargument, but in fact there is a more practical reason why we cannot use the reverse Whig template.”

    I think its more Christian to think that History is very often a Villain vs Villain story. But there is Good that the Evil must parasite off of in order to function.

    Murderers require clean water, good food and healthy body to carry out his murder effectively for example.

    Were it not for Virtues to feed off of. Great evil cannot happen.

    There were always those who called on the name of the Lord as the Scripture says. And those with that faith can be considered more of the “Good Guys” than anyone else at least in working out their salvation under God’s Kingship.

    The God’s eye view of history as much as possible should be incorporated into our understanding. In fact as the Chief view of History.

  3. You have been aiming at highbrow culture throughout this series. We cannot win a culture revolution without taking a much stronger position in highbrow culture, but we also must pay attention to the the history written for the proles. I’m not sure that this can discard the heroes and villains format you deplore.

    • I think it can. I’ve been musing here recently about what I’ve come to call Twain & Crockett stories, which used to be fairly common in popular culture. This is the basic well-meaning white dude who finds himself in an historical situation. The story has disappeared from pop culture because now the left insists there’s no such thing as a well-meaning white dude, or if there is, all his good intentions are actually evil because he’s just that blind.

      Mark Twain wrote what was in part an abolitionist novel when he wrote Huckleberry Finn. He had no way of knowing that America would come to fetishize horror over the n-word. His work often illustrates what Bonald is talking about. Both Huck and the Jim-Who-MUST-NOT-be-fully-named have complicated issues and work them out in complicated, not pious Sunday school kinds of ways. Huckleberry Finn, I think, is pretty much exactly what Bonald is talking about, and for me it is The Original Twain & Crockett story.

      As for Crockett, he fought in the Indian Wars in the southeast. He got into politics via Andrew Jackson’s machine. But when he saw the massive betrayal of the Cherokee – who had kept their side of several treaties — he saw that it was a betrayal, and dishonorable, and all around rotten, and he stood up in Congress and said so. And so he wasn’t re-elected and wound up dead in Texas. And today he’s hated for the Alamo. What he tried to do for the Cherokee is forgotten because, apparently, Santa Ana, was just that saintly, or something.

      Am I making any sense? I haven’t even written in my own journal about this idea yet.

  4. Leftism is a problem of orientation, not ideas; the mind and its ideas merely serve the evil heart and its despicable corruption. They will endlessly argue for that which is less desirable because it’s less desirable.

    Because of this, to present an alternative mode of understanding history is missing the point. They’re phobophilic and philophobic in their *hearts* and so I suppose a cleansing of the heart as a consequence of a choice for Good would be necessary for them to orient themselves in accordance with that Good.

  5. Pingback: Linkery and Linkage, Junkie Cosmonaut Edition | vulture of critique

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