Some years ago, back when I would occasionally flip through cable channels, I came across a bit of a news documentary about a professional ethicist analyzing the moral reasoning of grade school students. First the students were interviewed and said rather unremarkable things such as that cheating on homework or tests is wrong. These interviews were reviewed by the ethicist, who pronounced himself “disturbed” at how students never question the justice of school rules against cheating “…blah blah white supremacy patriarchy structural capitalist oppression blah blah…”
As an antidote, some quotes from wise men:
…if geometry were as much opposed to our passions and present interests as is ethics, we should contest it and violate it but little less, notwithstanding all the demonstrations of Euclid and Archimedes…
— Gottfried Leibniz
Why, Sir, if the fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying; and I see not what honour he can propose to himself from having the character of a liar. But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.
— Samuel Johnson
The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
— Søren Kierkegaard
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. 
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.
Reading about the final exploits of “Sky King” Richard Russell, I was reminded of a fad in mid-20th century drama, when existentialism was all the rage, of characters doing crazy things just to prove their freedom, or something like that. For example, Sartre’s Orestes and Anouilh’s Antigone cause havoc just for the hell of it. (The myths had to be reworked to make less sense.) Dostoevsky arguably got there first, but he knew it was foolishness, and Raskolnikov ultimately repents his ultimately pointless murder. In existentialism’s heyday, it was always assumed that asserting one’s freedom from all socializing and internalized expectations, sticking it to the bourgeois social order, means aligning with the Left. Indeed, the inspiration is liberal, but there has always been some irony to the pose. First, the incoherence of determinist materialists fretting about their freedom. Second, that they thought they could assert their autonomy by aligning themselves with that great impersonal machine, the Direction of History and Progress, and most often with Soviet tyranny as well.
Men of the Right are understandably touchy about accusations of “LARPing” for long-defeated causes. Still, there is more than a bit of Don Quixote in every true reactionary. Why deny it? The knight of La Mancha couldn’t stop history from moving past the age of knight-errantry, but he could resist being carried along in its flow. He was only crazy because he was serious.
Jean Raspail published The Camp of the Saints in 1973, a story of Western civilization unwilling to defend itself, virtue-signaling itself to death. It is best known for its cynical portrayal of Leftist humanitarianism, of the hatred and cowardice beneath its facade of compassion. Raspail does sometimes read like an irate Alt Right blogger of 2018, but that’s not his fault; reality has plagiarized him. I find, though, that his treatment of the few Right wing characters is what has stuck in my mind. A Leftist hero may die for the victory of his ideology. A Rightist hero often lacks an ideology. He has loyalties, things that he loves, and things he disdains. And victory is usually not a possibility. His fighting and dying make no difference in the grand scheme of things. He is in some ways much more like an existentialist hero than his adversaries. (Spoilers follow.)
My quarrel with the thinking man
In his essay What we think about, G. K. Chesterton relates his perplexity at finding someone write “Mr. Chesterton does not mean to enlighten us, for all we know he is modernist enough in his own thoughts.”
What the man really meant was this: “Even poor old Chesterton must think; he can’t have actually left off thinking altogether; there must be some form of cerebral function going forward to fill the empty hours of his misdirected and wasted life; and it is obvious that if a man begins to think, he can only think more or less in the direction of Modernism.” The Modernists do really think that. That is the point. That is the joke.
Now what we have really got to hammer into the heads of all these people, somehow, is that a thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism, but not deeper and deeper into difficulties about Catholicism. We have got to make them see that conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive, and even adventurous life of the intellect. For that is the thing that they cannot at present bring themselves to believe. They honestly say to themselves: “What can he be thinking about, if he is not thinking about the Mistakes of Moses, as discovered by Mr. Miggles of Pudsey, or boldly defying all the terrors of the Inquisition which existed two hundred years ago in Spain?” We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle, and even individual, compared with which all that skeptical scratching is as thin, shallow, and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village. Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world….To set out to belittle and minimize the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism.
In our day, we are familiar with the “thinking Catholic”. “Thinking” means that he accepts the modernist consensus without question, and “Catholic” means he insists the Church adjust herself to accommodate his lack of imagination. Similarly, we all know the “thinking conservative”, the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism. I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected to be more radical than most Leftist voters, whereas the intellectual leadership of the Right is expected to be more moderate than most Rightist voters. This is one of our major disadvantages.
It’s hard to avoid noticing that egalitarians think they’re better than the rest of us. After all, there must be some difference between people that makes progressivism convincing to some but not others; that they are smarter and more compassionate they no doubt find an agreeable hypothesis.
To be fair, there is some evidence in its favor. Some studies have found a definite trend of increasing liberalism with IQ, with the “very liberal” having as much as an 11.6 point advantage over the “very conservative”. (See here and here for a bit of the literature.) While this data is of some interest, most of the attention has gone to the proposed explanations, often some variation on the idea that liberalism is cognitively challenging and too difficult for the dim-witted. Liberalism involves empathizing with strangers, or being comfortable with ambiguity, or challenging received notions–whatever it is, it’s something that smart people do better, or more often, or more easily.
Add to this the longstanding Whig historical narrative that the great men of the past–inventors, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers–have always been “ahead of their time”, i.e. different from their contemporaries in ways that make them more like us. Of course, it will be granted that one may find in any of them this or that regressive opinion, but this is just the influence of their wicked culture. They themselves always broke the mold in a progressive direction, and this is what constitutes their greatness. To sum up, the host culture (if it is a Western culture) gets all of the shame that their great men retained now-disapproved beliefs of their time, but it gets none of their glory.
Anthony Gottlieb reviews Will Storr’s new book on the humbug of self-esteem promotion. It sounds like Storr makes a number of good points, but the following reflections were prompted by his conclusion.
The “lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism,” according to Storr, is that “we can be anything we want to be.” At the end of his quest, he decides that we should stop trying to change ourselves and focus instead on worthwhile ways to change the world.
I would have thought that unearned self-esteem is a hindrance to self-improvement, so that debunking the former would actually promote the latter. True, there is something narcissistic about an exclusive focus on improvement of one’s self absent any sort of transcendent reference. But striving to change the world is not to be encouraged, since it only destroys the good things handed down to us. Is not the jump from self to world an excessively large leap? Is there nothing in between these extremes?
Why it may be good for the Church to be brittle
Bruce Charlton comments on the “brittleness” of the Catholic Church.
I feel that with the RCC it is all or nothing – to be viable it needs to be authoritarian, heavy-handed, and anti-individual; and any attempt to reform the undesirable aspects will just smash it.
I agree, although I used the word “fragility” instead.
I do think we should be careful in deciding what is and is not “desirable”. Vulnerability is per se bad, of course. Then again, falsifiability is a virtue in a belief system; we don’t want our theories to be “flexible”. That the Catholic Church can hypothetically lose or sabotage its credibility is a testament to its current clarity.
A Catholic apologist could say that Christ wants the Church to have one particular teaching and to operate in one particular way and that He arranged things so that the Church will fall apart if either is modified. An institution with more social capital, more sociological attractiveness, could presumably turn that capital to other purposes and still function. I’ve said before that it is a credit to Christianity that it dies so quickly when it is liberalized. That the universities have–at least on the surface–prospered so well under political correctness says something uncomplimentary about academia’s real driving force, or that of we its denizens.
Lastly, we could entertain the possibility that the truth is not what we humans would prefer it to be, that popular belief systems have been “optimized” to human wishes to such a point that the truth, whose attractiveness is constrained in ways falsehoods’ are not, is quite unpalatable to modern men given the alternatives, and can only be imposed as dogma during our impressionable years. Not that an authoritarian religion is particularly likely to be true, but rather that only an authoritarian religion might be true. After all, Catholicism is predestination without assurance of salvation, moral rigor without the compensating pleasures of self-righteousness, being “deep in history” but always on the losing side, and who wants that?
I am perplexed by JMSmith’s suggestion that Nell Fenwick appreciated being tied to train tracks by Snidely Whiplash, and I’m sure I have no idea what Mr. Spock was insinuating when he said to Janice Rand that the evil transporter double Captain Kirk who had tried to rape her had “interesting” qualities. But I can’t deny the evidence that they understand something about women that I don’t.
A while back, I got my older daughter (1st grade) a kid’s book on Greek myths. I thought it would be the sort of thing she’d like, and she took to it right away. Then she invented a new game. She’s Persephone, I’m Hades, and I have to kidnap her and take her to my underworld kingdom. Other stuff can happen too, but that’s the important part. She’s had us do it lots of times. After being recruited to play Demeter, her younger sister (preschool) realized that this is a fun game, and wanted to be Persephone too. It’s strange, because all versions of the myth they’ve heard make it pretty clear that Persephone is not happy to be kidnapped and made Hades’ wife. (In their games, she seems happy enough.) Nor does Persephone in the myth do anything particularly exciting. However, the myths are also clear that she is a particularly beautiful and desirable goddess, and my daughters are fascinated by pretty girls.
The only sense I can make of it is that girls can appreciate a genuine compliment. A man who tells a girl she looks nice may just be being polite, but kidnapping is always a tribute in earnest.
There is nothing wrong with mistrusting intellectuals. After all, intellectuals often mistrust each other, and even those they trust they often vehemently disagree with. Nor is there anything particularly wrong about a person not being interested in intellectual pursuits, nothing wrong even in a person actively disliking the practice of certain forms of inquiry. We are all “anti-intellectual” on some topics, those that we find uninteresting or that we think obvious humbug. I’ve never been interested enough to investigate claims that aliens built the pyramids or that the moon landing was faked. Life is short, and I must allocate my time accordingly. The phenomenon of anti-intellectualism involves something more: dislike of analysis of a topic one has made one’s own. If I were to write a book about the claim that aliens built the pyramids, it would be my job to give arguments for this view a careful hearing. If instead I maintained my aloofness to the topic–now my own topic–but instead made my book entirely ad hominem, say seeking out embarrassing personal facts about those who espouse the alien construction hypothesis or accusing them of being pawns of the oil industry, then I would be practicing anti-intellectualism. I would be engaging in a fundamentally dishonest practice, an abuse of the life of the mind, regardless of who built the pyramids.