This essay originated a few years ago in a request by the Sydney Traditionalist Forum for articles on the topic of Politics and Transcendence. The topic is not only compound but complex, associating itself with numerous difficulties. The term transcendence, for example, usually associates itself with religion and art rather than with politics although writer-thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon and Nicolas Berdyaev have characterized mass political movements as relying on a type of pseudo-transcendence. Yet insofar as such movements invariably establish themselves in dogmatic materialism an observer might better characterize them as anti-transcendent or immanentist. In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, indeed, the Western nations find themselves subjugated without exception under such anti-transcendent regimes. The liberal elites of Europe and North America, like their Jacobin precursors, promulgate a totalitarian doctrine that opposes itself to all inherited hence also to all dissenting ideas or forms. Among these ideas or forms are those of the aesthetic realm. Modernity strongly prefers functionality to beauty and agitation of the emotions to genuine tragic pathos. It prefers mediocrity to merit and therefore downplays the implications of art, and wherever it can it replaces art with politicized kitsch. Art participates in the sacred, where it originates, and, as sacred, art poses a threat to the pervasive denial of transcendence. Artistic achievement demonstrates, moreover, the inequality of talent; it establishes standards that undermine the regime’s goal of equality. Modern life is nevertheless replete with shallow substitutes for transcendence in which the de-natured subject experiences physiological and psychological effects that he feels as type of ecstasy, but it is merely the pseudo-transcendence previously mentioned. Fear and pity pose a danger; entertainment and diversion serve to mollify the masses.
Gustave Le Bon remarks in his study of The Crowd (1895) that when the suggestible individual loses himself in the irrational multitude, he enters into a mental phase “hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness” which is characterized by “violence of feeling.” It is no wonder that the crowd’s appetite should run to the insipid and at the same time to the nasty. Regimes want this result, as it increases the malleability of the masses, immobilizing them temporarily in simple satiety, while convincing them of a specious independence. Le Bon writes that, “the improbable does not exist for the crowd,” which falsely regards itself as a superhuman entity. Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, agrees with Le Bon. In Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Berdyaev writes of the pseudo-mysticism typical of political movements in an age of crassness and a purely materialist worldview: “There are orgiastic types of mysticism in which the spirit is swallowed up by the ‘psychical’ or corporeal elements, and remains wedded to them.” According to Berdyaev, “true mysticism frees us from the sense of oppression which arises from everything which is alien to us, and imposed, as it were, from without.” In modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.
Philosophy at its best is the study of basic reality. It helps people to think more accurately. At its worst, philosophy is irrelevant or malevolent. Let the buyer beware.
One way to divide philosophy is into ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. Each can be ruined by being relativized.
The classic expression of ethical relativism is Pope Francis’s infamous “Who am I to judge?” In moral relativism there is no morality for all, just for individuals. Ethics is subjective (relative to the subject who is ethicizing), not objective (the same for everyone.)
Epistemological relativism says “Your truth is not my truth.” Everyone (or maybe every tribe) has his own truth. Alethic relativism (it sounds better in Greek) makes all truth relative to the subject, the individual.
These last two have been popular for decades, because relativism means you cannot be wrong. But there’s a new kid on the relativistic block. When the postmodern dude or dudette says “I self-identify as a[n] insert descriptor here” he is spouting ontological relativism. Continue reading →
Rule of Law is often cited as one of the distinctive characteristics of the West, and of Western cultures, which has enabled the West and kindred cultures to rise above despotism, corruption, and poverty. And so it is. The keeping of the Law is traditional in the West.
But, the Law is only as good – can do only so much good – as the men who keep it. It is men who by their acts keep to the Law, enforce and adjudicate it honestly and as fiduciaries of the nation, or who do not; who transmit the tradition they have inherited, or who traduce it.
There is a curious temptation to conflation of incompatible ends. I saw this most recently in my exchange with Orthosphere commenter Theodman about the optimal tonlieu. He objected – not unreasonably, and indeed in these latter days quite normally – to any restrictions on immigration, such as a tonlieu, because they discriminate against the poor. Which they do. And which does not mean we ought to be cruel to the poor. And which does mean we ought not to confuse immigration policy with social welfare policy.
It is a commonplace of neoreactionary and reactionary discourse that Social Justice Warriors always project. Once you’ve digested a Red Pill, in respect to any domain of life, you cannot help but notice this phenomenon. No one in the modern West is as hateful as the haters of haters; no one in the modern West is as blind to his own hatred.
It is worth remembering, then, that as Jung first developed the notion of projection from his own vast clinical experience, projection is of those traits that people most abhor in themselves. It arises from their deep conviction of their own personal evil. What we most hate in others then is – so Jung found – a pretty reliable indication of what we hate in ourselves, but would rather not confess to ourselves, or of course a fortiori to anyone else.
You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.
Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.
Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.
Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.
Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.
I have noticed that our adversaries often mistake our critique of their notions as ad hominem condemnation of them as persons. They then react defensively, levying just the sort of vicious ad hominem attacks they say they abhor. This mystifies me.
James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:
Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?
Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?