Reactionaries often blame capitalism for eviscerating tradition and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. But capitalism – i.e., free exchange – is not a recent phenomenon. It was not invented by the Franciscans, forsooth, but rather discovered by them as a subject amenable to moral, theological and philosophical analysis, and so to discourse, development and elaboration. Capitalism has been around since the beginning of human society. It is no more than a fancy word for exchange that develops surplus, after all; for mere trade, and commerce. For almost all of human history, capitalism supported and indeed mediated local tradition – or, at least, did not vitiate it.
Beginning in the mid-1990s and for about ten years I published a number of articles about the dismal state of the humanities and one of its causes: The savage war against literacy being waged in the public schools by the state-university departments of education that set curricula for K-12. My Modern Age article from 2003, “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition,” synthesizes several of my argumentative strands at the time and suggests the dire state of American literacy already nearly twenty years ago. (Click on the emboldened link to go to a PDF of the article, which may be read online or downloaded.) Things have not improved and they are getting worse all the time.
I find myself prompted to call attention to “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” by the appearance at The American Thinker recently of an article by Bruce Dietrick Price under the title “K-12: History of a Conspiracy against Reading,” which I strongly recommend. (Again, click on the emboldened link to go to the article.)
The decline into a post-literate condition, in which there is no intact oral tradition to which the deprived parties might repair, belongs to the general subscendence of our age.
I believe that “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” does a fairly good job of summarizing the findings of three important scholars of literacy: Walter J. Ong, whose Orality and Literacy (1981) is indispensable; Eric Havelock, who wrote on the early phases of alphabetic literacy in Greece (see his Preface to Plato, 1963); and Barry Powell, whose Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991), is bold and monumental.
Much of what follows is a literal transcription of a recent conversation with my four year old granddaughter.
Poppy walked out with his granddaughter and her little brother to play. There was a series of lawns, connected by grassy paths. On one lawn, his granddaughter spotted a tiny, perfectly camouflaged toad hiding in the sand. It was almost impossible to distinguish the toad from the surrounding sand.
She wanted to mess with the toad, but Poppy told her that was a bad idea, because to the tiny toad she seemed like a monster a hundred times bigger than the great fir tree just yonder seemed to us. The poor little toad was so scared of us, that if she just touched him with a blade of grass, he might be scared to death.
She left the toad in peace, even though that was very hard for her to do. Her little brother left him in peace, too.
Then, she found another tiny toad, hiding in just the same way as the first. She looked at it, but left it alone, even though she really wanted to pick it up and pet it. Her little brother left that toad alone, too.
Then, she found a dead toad out on the grass. It was not hiding in the sand. It was quite dried up. She and her brother squatted to look at it. So did Poppy. They poked it with a twig, because Poppy said that the toad could not feel bad about anything anymore.
She asked, “What’s the matter with it, Poppy?”
“It’s dead, sweetie.”
“Yeah. Why is it dead?”
Holiness spirals are not first a search for status, although once they have got going, they do result in an arms race to see who is holiest among the Pharisees, thus of the highest moral and political rank, and thus least suitable as a scapegoat.
They are, first, a search for the proper constraints of true holiness upon conduct. Men are Fallen, and live in a Fallen, corrupt world; and they know it. They want to get holy; they want desperately to get ritually pure. Until they can honestly feel that they have done so, they will feel terrific anxiety, and thrash about in their predicaments like a bear in a trap.
Trapped bears are very dangerous.
When there is no established sacerdotal hierarchy that can authoritatively define the unquestionable constraints of holiness, and then offer men a way to get back within those constraints when they have strayed beyond their pale – that can give them a way to know that they have reached safe harbor – then men are going to push and push toward holiness however they can discern it according to their own best lights, without let or correction, and without possibility of any satisfactory completion of the search (because a forecondition of success for any search is a clear definition of success – such as can be authoritatively furnished to the searcher only by an incontrovertible authority). Anyone who disagrees with the notions of those who find that as a result of their personal quest for holiness they themselves are of the holiest sort then becomes a legitimate scapegoat in their eyes, and so a social enemy. There is then mutual repudiation and scapegoating of adversarial sectarians; mutual excommunication; schism; and, with the ensuing conflict of irreconcilable cults, civil war either hot or cold.
The Rectification of Names is obviously important, if our talk is to be pertinent to reality, ergo effectual. But prior to the rectification of terms is the rectification of the grammar we use to treat of them. If we can’t agree on the right *way* to talk, we shall certainly find it impossible to agree on the right things to talk *about.*
Too often on sites putatively dedicated to the restoration of the West, or of Tradition, or to Reaction (toward tradition) have I seen writers err grammatically, at the most basic level; even that of the agreement as to number of subject and verb. It makes them look like fools.
Cult effects culture. A people cannot efficiently coordinate their activities except insofar as they share a common understanding of the way things are, and of the proper way to deal with them. At the very least, they must agree about what is real, what reality is like, what it is for, and so forth; they must agree about First Things, and indeed Most Things. This they generally do, without ever even noticing all their myriad agreements; men rather tend to notice only their irksome disagreements, however petty.
Thus to cohere, a culture must recur to its common cult, and must rehearse it together. So is there always an established religion.
A people among whom heterodoxy regarding First Things begins to gain a foothold begins ipso facto to become confused in their motions: in their heads, hearts, and acts. Their loyalties are then divided, and so vitiated, at least at the margins.
Heterodoxy is cold civil war. Let it compound long enough, and it will go hot. So healthy societies must control for heterodoxy, especially about First Things.
I’m not using your name because the Web is public and I want to minimize the chance that your privacy will be invaded. But this letter is written mainly for you. Other people may benefit from it, but that’s just a fortunate byproduct.
As a young man, your most important task is to come to understand the world. A man cannot live well if he does not know what’s happening.
The contemporary world has been disrupted. But the disruptors (the liberals) are a wicked bunch, and their disruption, which is really destruction, threatens you and everything you love (or should love.) You are just one person and you cannot stop the destruction by yourself. But as a first step you can understand the disruption by understanding how the world really works, and how humans should behave.
That’s what I want most to get across: What reality really is, and how humans should behave. There’s a lot to say, but I can only write one letter at a time. This letter concerns postmodernism.
Postmodernism is one of the defining features of the modern world, so we must understand it. We don’t need to understand everything about it; we’ll leave that to the scholars. But we have to understand its essence, the thing that makes it what it is. Continue reading
A hierarchy that is not consecrated and thus ordered in all its parts to the vision of the Good vouchsafed by the common cult is as likely to work good as is a broken clock to display the correct time. A profane institution is finally, and thus fundamentally, and thus thoroughly misdirected away from the proper mundane end of all human acts: the achievement, maintenance, repair and restoration of that proper harmony among and within things under and toward heaven, in virtue of which alone is there any health, prosperity, propagation, contentment, wisdom.
Reading a book of evangelical theology this afternoon, I realized that there are a few reliable ways we can be sure that an author is a liberal weenie, and that the text he has written is therefore ideologically driven, ergo tendentious (whether witly or not), and probably wrong in its arguments. It is very simple, at least in books of theology. We can be sure that an author is a weenie if:
- He uses “impact” as a verb.
- He uses “image” as a verb.
- He avoids using masculine pronouns in referring to God.
- He uses “gender” to indicate sex.
- He uses “gender” as a verb.
If furthermore there is ever in a writer about ancient texts anything like environmentalism or feminism, egalitarianism or communism, relativism or nominalism, we can be sure that he has read them anachronistically, and therefore wrongly. We can, in short, be pretty sure that he is a hopeless idiot, and what is worse, not even therefore much useful to his sinister god.
What can we take from this? That we should never, ever, ever in a million years commit any such howlers.
Probably I have missed a few. I welcome correction of any such omissions.
One of my favorite sorts of book relates fascinating historical facts new to me, in such a way as to cast a novel light upon a subject or an era. The facts all by themselves are savory intellectual morsels; the discovery of their dense, thick and muscular coordination under a new perspective is strong meaty beer.
Lydia McGrew has written just such a book, and I have just had the pleasure of reading it. A pillar of the traditional Christian Right, a prolific and penetrating blogger (both at her own site, Extra Thoughts, and at What’s Wrong With the World), McGrew is among other things (mother, home schooler, musician, etc.) an analytic philosopher and formidable Christian apologist. She has also commented here from time to time.