As we look to the end of Christmastide next week, I thought it seemly to bid farewell to the season with a fond nod – not just of respect and gratitude, but as shall be seen of reverence and some awe – to the inspiring and administering angel of the domestic rites of that festival, Santa Claus. With that statement, I have given away the matter of this post.
I puzzled for years over the tradition that the Magi were led to Bethlehem by a star. I read all sorts of ingenious explanations: that, as expert astronomers, the Chaldeans were uniquely equipped to navigate to Bethlehem by celestial observation, or that there had been a supernova whose light reached Earth for the first time shortly before the Nativity, or the like. None of them quite made sense. How could something outside the orbit of the moon indicate a specific town on Earth?
Fish know not that they swim in the sea, nor birds that they swoop in the air. No more do the denizens of the prevailing era know that they live out their lives in a philosophically narrow, righteously conceited, anti-human, and anti-natural dispensation, calling itself modernity, which can trace its immediate beginnings only to the Eighteenth Century, and which represents a radical break with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom gleaned painfully from a massive human experience. No doubt but contemporary modern people, when they hear an invocation of the Eighteenth Century, locate that century in a periwigged past, thinking that it could not possibly have anything to do with them, as they exist, in the transient now. This very attitude betokens, in fact, an essential feature of modernity, which idolizes the present moment as the figure of a so-called progress that is self-consummating and that makes obsolete everything belonging to any moment in the historical continuum that precedes it. Indeed, the modern mentality necessarily rejects history; it is fundamentally non- or anti-historical, which also makes it anti-memorious, devaluing not only history, but memory. Thus the modern mentality has conveniently forgotten the violent origins of its perpetually disruptive mode. The mendaciously self-designating Enlightenment, rejecting the moral and intellectual inheritance of the European Middle Ages, viciously attacked the vestiges of the past and in so doing set the stage for the mayhem and terror of the French Revolution. The violence of modernity would perpetuate itself through the centuries, murdering a hundred million people in the middle of the Twentieth Century, always in the righteous name of that selfsame progress. The convulsion of modernity, however, provoked a response, and that response took the form of Traditionalism – a critique of modernity that seeks also to curb modernity, and to curb it for the sake of a human restoration. In Traditionalism humanity remembers itself. Traditionalism attempts to revive an immemorial wisdom and to place it once again at the memorious center of institutions.
The earliest representatives of Traditionalism gained prominence with the onset of revolutionary agitation in France in 1789. The Terror of September 1793 to July 1794 and the executions of the royal family, beginning with Louis XVI in January 1793 and concluding with Louis’ ten-year-old son and heir apparent in 1795 galvanized them. The Jacobins labeled the original Traditionalists reactionaries. But the term reaction requires a context. Reaction originates, in fact, in the revolutionary mentality itself, which reacts, or rather rebels, against the Tradition. Such names as Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), and Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) stand at the center of Traditionalism and produced the heart of its classical expression. In Contra Mundum – Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition (2017), Thomas Garrett Isham makes an important point about both Maistre himself and the loosely organized movement that Maistre initiated. Isham tells of Maistre’s adherence to the Catholicism in which he came to manhood and of his loyalty, both as citizen and public servant, to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. When in 1792 the Revolutionary Army invaded Savoy, the Piedmontese départment where Maistre’s parents had brought him into the world and raised and educated him, the magistrate and senator experienced the bloody barbarity and atheistic intolerance of revolutionary-nihilistic politics at first hand; the dispossession of his property and his forced exile to neighboring Switzerland provoked in Maistre a colossal reorganization of his philosophical and theological assumptions.
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.
Rule then is always of men.
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.
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?
The acid eating at tradition is cheap information. This is to say that the acid eating away at cultures – all cultures, properly so called – is cheap information.
And information is from now on essentially free.
Can there then ever again be such a thing as a coherent traditional society?
Sure, tradition is necessary; it is the atomic stuff of culture as such. But is it even possible anymore? Are we looking at the death of culture?