Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

Great Chain

Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873 – 1962), The Great Chain of Being – A Study of the History of an Idea (1936): Lovejoy’s book joins the rank of those, once located in the “must read” category, that steadily fade into an obscurity, which they by no means deserve.  The horizon of intellect in Anno Domine 2020 has retracted so far that the scope of Lovejoy’s learning lies beyond it; no Great Chain of Being exists for the contemporary mind, which obsesses perpetually over somatic trivialities, so much so that it forfeits the dignity implicit in the label of mind.  Lovejoy is aware of folkloristic precursors to the idea of the Great Chain, but he sees the fully articulate expression of it as emerging in Plato’s Timaeus and in the essays, collected as the Enneads, that make up Plotinus’ Third-Century Neoplatonism.  In Chapter II of The Great Chain – “Genesis of the Idea” – Lovejoy divines the dialectic of “otherworldliness” with “this-worldliness” as the urgency behind his titular metaphor.  “Having arrived at the conception of the Idea of Ideas,” as Lovejoy writes, Plato “finds in just this transcendent and absolute Being the necessitating logical ground of this world.”  The apparent flux of existence, which stands in tension with the conceptual, takes its explanation, not only in what Lovejoy calls “the Intellectual World,” but in a Creative Intellect that generates the world.  Becoming provides the bottom floor, or perhaps the basement, of the universal structure, which, unlike a this-worldly structure, a Parthenon or a Mausoleum, the Master Architect builds from the roof down to the foundation – or rather the roof is the foundation.  The Master Architect’s kallokagathos permeates the cosmos in the form of “a Self-Transcending Fecundity.”  A common interpretation of Plato – that the philosopher finds the realm of matter inferior to the realm of spirit – strikes Lovejoy as false.  Lovejoy extends this judgment to Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorously otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient Absolute, that the necessity of this world… is deduced.”

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Contract : Society :: Cell : Person

Society is indeed constituted of social contracts; there is no other sort of contract; so that “social contract” is redundant; to say “society” is to invoke contracts, and vice versa. A contract is literally a “drag together” People work together to drag things from here to there, which they could not alone easily budge; they coordinate their activities in search of common ends.

But obviously any such contract supervenes the society in which alone it can have any … traction. No prevenient society, no contract enacted therein.

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Our Deepest Loves Cannot & Do Not Err

Provided they spring honestly from motives of true charity, and to the extent that we are sane, our deepest loves must point toward reals. They must be reliable guides, or they would interfere with survival, and we would not have them.

So then also likewise with our deepest sorrows.

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Letter To an Investor

A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded:

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Preference Cascade Incoming

As an investment advisor, I’ve been pretty tied up the last couple of weeks, for obvious reasons – although I will say that the reaction of our clientele so far to the corona virus crisis – or, is it a ‘crisis’? – seems to be, “Well, these things happen from time to time, best to just hunker down and wait; after all, that worked well the last 23 times this sort of thing happened.” Which is true. Now more even than usual, any investment decisions we might make in view of the present crisis are in the nature of things obsolete by the time they occur to us. And when the market plunges, pretty much the best thing looking forward is to own the market – because reversion to the mean. But their reaction is heartening, too, as a testament to their sanguine equanimity – which is to say, to their wisdom.

What is more, we are tied into a network of roughly 100 advisory firms such as my own, and that reaction seems to be pretty normal among all their clients, in their thousands upon thousands. Which is doubly heartening.

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Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Materialism and the mechanistic world-view – the idea that the everything is a machine operating in terms of mindless, mechanical forces – has severe nihilistic implications. An alternative to this view is that the universe is alive, and that consciousness permeates it – a view called ‘panpsychism.” When his wife began to think that panpsychism might be true, Sam Harris, a famous anti-religion atheist. initially told her to remain silent about her views in case she lost all street cred. When she asked scientists she knew their own views, it turned out that many of them were also secret believers in panpsychism.

The fact that Annaka Harris and the scientists thought it necessary to lie by omission is troubling. It shows that science, as a human activity, can suffer from the usual human tendencies, one of which is the desire to belong to a group and to reach for social status. Groups define themselves by who they exclude as much as their positive beliefs, and they reward with the maintenance or increase of status and punish by demotion those who dissent. Hence, the creation of orthodoxies.

Another oft-commented upon human tendency is the desire to have something to worship. If religion is abandoned, a religious attitude will usually simply be taken towards something non-religious. Communism was atheistic so the Russians simply worshipped Stalin instead, and the Chinese turned Mao Zedong into a demi-God in their imaginations. I have met an engineer with such reverence for science and his own status as a scientist that he is tremendously conceited about his ability to think about philosophical, or any other, topics beyond the scope of his expertise. He definitely seems to see himself as a priest of science – an idea that Francis Bacon, credited with contributing to “the scientific method” actually championed, including the idea that scientists should wear special robes to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi. Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Causation is Stochastic

It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible. If acts are wholly caused – as they must be, if they are to be intelligible, and so more or less intelligent, and so integrated fully in a coherent world – then how can they be free? If acts are even a little bit free, are they not to that extent chaotic, ergo unintelligible, and so an insuperable impediment to the integration of a coherent world?

There is in fact no such incompatibility.

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Chastek Asks a Good Question

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?

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Belief in “Evolution” is not Necessary for the Dissident Right

Understand the terms used here. This is about evolution in the Darwinian sense: That purely material forces drive all biological change and therefore God is not the creator of the species and the human race. As a Christian I reject Darwinian evolution; the Bible says that God created the living beings, including mankind, and therefore Darwin contradicts Christianity. I do affirm evolution in the other senses, including microevolution, minor variation in already-existing forms caused either by natural selection or by deliberate human interference. I believe it because we see it happening now. But Darwinian evolution, which goes far beyond the observable evidence to postulate that all biological change was non-theistic, is doubtful and unnecessary.

And by “dissident right” I mean the non-mainstream yet non-insane right. Others may try to define the term more narrowly, but since the mainstream right is not helping to restoring a sane society, we need a term for rightists who are on the right path. At the moment, “dissident right” is the best candidate. Continue reading