Saturday, November 16, 2019

The gatekeepers of the failed right

Back in 1998 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote:
Contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.

This explains why society has drifted in an ever more liberal direction. Those who have called themselves "conservatives" have actually been right-wing liberals who believe in little more than individualism & the free market - a philosophy that is dissolving of tradition rather than supportive of it.

We are at an interesting moment in political history when this framework is beginning to be challenged. Some younger members of the right are no longer willing to go along with a philosophy they see as dissolving their identity; on the other hand there is a well-funded movement that aims to exclude from the right anyone who is not a right-liberal of some sort (i.e. classical liberal / libertarian).

I want to take a quick look in this post at some of the ideas that the right-liberal gatekeepers are promulgating - because I think it demonstrates clearly just how radically dissolving of society these ideas are.

Charlie Kirk, for instance, gave a speech in which he said he loved some of the places in America, like the Grand Canyon, but that,
...if all that disappeared and all I had was ideas and we were on an island...that's America...people have to remember that America is just a placeholder for timeless ideas and if you fall too much in love with the specific place, that's not what it is...

If this were true then anyone, anywhere could be just as "American," or perhaps more so, than actual Americans. Kirk, then, is not conserving a real entity, i.e. a people & place, but at most an idea - one which can be realised anywhere by anyone.

Moreover, this idea (or "proposition") is usually defined as something which is itself highly dissolving. Barack Obama expressed it during his 2011 State of the Union address as follows:
We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea—the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.

Sounds nice, but if that is it, then why not have open borders so that everyone who wants to can participate in shaping their own destiny? There is nothing to delineate a real historic people in this formulation - the nation is just a large conglomerate of people doing their own thing. There is nothing to connect them meaningfully, apart from a shared commitment to doing their own thing - and anyone from anywhere can do this.

Dan Crenshaw, a Texan Congressman, is another to reject the idea of a real community in favour of a radical individualism. He said,
Speaking to those reptilian brains, which go back for thousands of years of human history, where identity politics actually matters. But it doesn't. The Western Enlightenment told us it doesn't, individualism is what matters.

According to Crenshaw, having a communal identity is something which should be made not to matter. We should instead just see ourselves as individuals. Again, this is a radically dissolving philosophy rather than one which conserves real, historic communities.

Where do such ideas lead establishment "conservatives"? Here is what a writer for National Review (and a TV personality for Fox News) believes about immigration:

Now, here's the thing. If Kat Timpf is allowed to represent the side of politics that is supposed to conserve the nation, how is that going to turn out? Obviously, not much in the way of conserving an existing people or nation is going to take place.

My hope, therefore, is that Charlie Kirk and the TPUSA, in spite of their funding, do not succeed as gatekeepers in limiting the right to forms of right-liberalism. I support the gatecrashers. I particularly support those who have correctly observed that the current establishment right does not actually conserve, but that all too often it is part of the process of dissolving peoples & identities.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Imlay, Wollstonecraft & Free Love

Mary Wollstonecraft
I recently wrote about the free love philosophy of the Englishman William Godwin. He believed that progress was achieved when people were perfectly free to follow the dictates of their mind (i.e. autonomy), and that marriage was therefore an artificial, prejudiced and tyrannical social institution.

In other words, the belief in free love was high-minded. It was supposed to lead to a moral progress in which people would follow pure reason and choose to act selflessly and benevolently for the good of others.

The theory was put into practice with damaging consequences spanning two generations. I want to look in this post at the case of Gilbert Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft. Imlay was an American diplomat and businessman, Wollstonecraft a feminist author. They met in France at the height of the French Revolution. Both being advocates of free love, they began an affair and Mary fell pregnant. Imlay, true to the free love theory, quietly abandoned Mary - she gave birth to her daughter, Fanny, in 1794.

Mary wrote letters to Imlay during this period, criticising his behaviour. She drew on a more traditional understanding of morality to do so. The following is drawn heavily from a book by E. Michael Jones, Libido Dominandi.

Mary was critical of Imlay for following impulse (sensual passion/appetite), ungoverned by reason. She wrote, for instance,
Beware of the deceptions of passion! It will not always banish from your mind, that you have acted ignobly - and condescended to subterfuge to gloss over the conduct you could not excuse.

Along similar lines she wrote,
But is it not possible that passion clouds your reason, as much as it does mine? - and ought you not to doubt, whether those principles are so “exalted,” as you term them, which only lead to your own gratification?

Mary notes here that Imlay's "exalted" principles are really only being used to justify a pursuit of individual self-gratification.

She also attempts to describe a higher form of love than the sensual alone, one which requires self-denial, but which is held to more stably and which expresses a higher nature within man:
The common run of men, I know, with strong, healthy and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand, to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason.

Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant: but they do not exist without self-denial. These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and childbegetters, certainly have no idea

Finally, she notes the way that a life based on gratifying appetite can make someone jaded and less capable of love:
I shall always consider it as one of the most serious misfortunes of my life, that I did not meet you, before satiety had rendered your senses so fastidious, as almost to close up every tender avenue of sentiment and affection that leads to your sympathetic heart. You have a heart, my friend, yet, hurried away by the impetuosity of inferior feelings, you have sought in vulgar excesses, for that gratification which only the heart can bestow.

So what happened to Mary and her daughter? Mary returned to London in 1795, trying to rekindle the relationship with Imlay, but he rejected her. She then attempted suicide via an overdose of laudanum. In 1796, realising that Imlay was never going to accept her, she attempted to drown herself in the Thames but was rescued by a passer-by.

In 1797, in an odd twist to the story, Mary married William Godwin - the radical philosopher of free love. However, she died giving birth to a daughter, also called Mary, who would go on to write the novel Frankenstein.

And what of her first daughter, Fanny? She committed suicide as a young woman in 1816. There are different theories about what led her to do so, but one of them is that her two sisters had run off with another advocate of free love, Percy Bysshe Shelley, but she had been rejected by him.

Conclusions? Most obviously, in practice free love did not lead someone like Imlay to act selflessly toward others. Nor did it liberate individuals like Mary Wollstonecraft from tyranny. Nor did it crush prejudice so that individuals might follow pure reason. Nor did it usher in a new age of benevolent love.

As Mary's letters indicate, a free love philosophy had something like the opposite effect. It justified the pursuit of self-gratification. It harmed others grievously. It justified the pursuit of passion, ungoverned by reason. And it closed off the experience of a higher-natured love.

In a larger sense, the problem is that Enlightenment thinkers like Godwin were trying to find ways to justify assumptions about the individual as an autonomous actor in society. This individual was supposed to act according to his own unlimited will and reason, but whilst still advancing the common good. It was shaky ground to build a social philosophy on, as it relied on beliefs about human nature (man as a blank slate), about progress (that unfettered mind would advance knowledge and therefore moral culture), and about human goods (highly abstracted, indefinite forms of love and community as purposes in life).

The starting point is wrong. It is the wrong image of man. It is important that we ditch the Enlightenment project and describe man differently, not as an autonomous actor, but bound by his own nature to specific forms of human community and to specific roles within them - so that we fulfil our own selves, at least in part, through our commitments to particular forms of community.

There is one more post to come. Another generation was to be inspired by Godwin to adopt beliefs about free love - and they too were deeply affected by the real life consequences.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A comment on Godwin

Before I resume telling the ill-fated story of the free love advocates of the British enlightenment, I want to do something I don't often do and highlight a comment to my original post.

My first post sketched out the philosophy of William Godwin (1756-1836). I noted that Godwin's philososophy established a gulf between man's being in the world and the pursuit of a common good that was only uneasily bridged.

For Godwin, it was "natural" for man to follow the dictates of his own mind. In doing so, he would extend the sphere of knowledge and this would then improve moral standards - autonomous man would, via pure reason, choose to act selflessly and benevolently for the benefit of mankind as a whole.

This philosophy led Godwin to denounce marriage and the family as these placed controls over who we chose to establish relationships with. By the logic of Godwin's philosophy, to marry was to engage in an artificial, selfish and prejudiced act in which we treated others as property.

Godwin had not given up on a common good. He connected a radically individualistic mode of being (we act according to the dictates of our own mind without constraint) to a highly abstract common good (by acting so we come to choose, via pure reason, to act selflessly and benevolently for the good of our fellow man - i.e. for humankind).

A reader observed:
I am convinced that the "valid" realms of human pursuits are for liberals relegated to the individual or the global abstract, while the stations in between are dismissed or denounced.

With enough brainwashing, the individual can be convinced he is master of himself, and liberal elites (the brainwashers) can dictate universal values. It is family, community, church, ethnicity, etc., that represent a threat to this binary. They give people some measure of influence in managing their particular interests and connecting with others in meaningful ways. Liberals seem to believe, therefore, that those venues, in which their revolutionary ideas have little control or influence, must be made irrelevant or destroyed.

I have bolded the two thoughts that I think are particularly well put. I would only add to the first that the conceit of being a "master of oneself" might contribute to the liberals of today believing that they are anti-establishment free thinkers when in fact they are conforming to a state ideology that has been entrenched for generations.

As for the second observation, it rings true when you consider the rationalism of Enlightenment thinkers like Godwin. By rationalism I mean the belief that a society could be refounded (literally "re-formed") on the basis of rational principles formulated by intellectuals like Godwin himself.

If you have this mindset, you will instinctively dislike the "measure of influence" that institutions like the family give to ordinary people in "managing their particular interests and connecting with others in meaningful ways" because this then limits the "ground zero" approach to re-forming society along the "rational" and "unprejudiced" principles favoured by intellectuals.

In stark contrast, traditionalists instinctively admire the "little kingdom" aspect of family life, i.e. the way that family allows us to perform offices that express and fulfil our natures (even if they involve burdens) and, in so doing, create unique human communities based on very personal ties, loves and loyalties. Our instinct is that this is a better foundation on which to build the wider expressions of human community than any philosopher's abstract formula.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Love gone wrong

One of the more extraordinary stories in English political history was the failure of the free love movement across two generations.

The story begins with William Godwin, who published an influential book, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793. In this work he attacks marriage on the following grounds:
So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness.

There is a political philosophy underpinning this argument. Godwin believed that we start out as blank slates and that it is therefore possible to improve human nature via the gradual extension of knowledge. Knowledge would advance only to the extent that people could follow their own individual judgement - the "dictates of their own mind".

I find it interesting that this is similar to the approach of what we now call classical liberals. They had attempted to resolve the problem of how to fit together the liberated individual and the common good by asserting that if individuals acted freely for their own profit that the hidden hand of the market would deliver a benefit to society as a whole.

Godwin resolves the same problem by claiming that if individuals act freely according to the dictates of their own mind, without the influence of social institutions, traditions or conventions, that knowledge would increase, and therefore there would be a progress in moral virtue, with people choosing to act selflessly and benevolently to maximise the happiness of the community.

The problem is that in both cases there is now a deep divide between the understanding of man and the common good that has to be bridged. In the older understanding, it was essential to our nature as men that we were fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and Englishmen. Our commitment to the common good was written into our natures. Yes, there could be a tension between the duties to family, community and nation springing from this aspect of our inborn natures and our more purely individual existence. But in general we expressed our own natures via our participation in stable forms of community.

In the newer Godwinian view, we do not have a given nature. And the emphasis is on ourselves as wholly independent minds, developing without the corrupting influence of "artificial" communal entities such as family. What is "natural" is to develop alone as a thinking, rational mind. Our "being" therefore is highly individualistic and atomised, so the leap to a common good is a difficult one. It relies on the assumption that as knowledge and education progressively develop, we will reason our way to a belief that the moral purpose in life is to maximise the happiness of the general population, leading individuals via "pure reason" to act selflessly and benevolently.

Note that this new common good is an abstract one. We are not acting selflessly to uphold particular forms of community, such as our own family, but a "general happiness of mankind".

For Godwin, the important thing was that we were free to follow the "dictates" of our own mind; it was therefore an irrational, selfish and despotic act to hold someone to a marriage vow. If we allowed individuals to follow their minds freely, the result would ultimately be an extension of knowledge, of moral virtue and of human happiness.

But things did not turn out happily for those who followed Godwin's philosophy of free love.

(In the next post I'll look at the story of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist of the era, who became Godwin's wife.)

Monday, October 21, 2019

Conference 2019 a great success!

The Melbourne Traditionalists Conference took place on the weekend, organised by Mark Moncrieff of the Upon Hope blog. It was another very enjoyable event with about 30 in attendance.

The conference once again gave things a good push along. There were plenty of new faces, lots of new friendships made and interesting talks on a range of subjects. The conference has given our movement a welcome boost - many thanks to all those who took part.

If any local readers are interested in getting involved, we do hold regular catch ups. More information at the Melbourne Traditionalists website.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Is Charlie Kirk a conservative?

There is an organisation in America called Turning Point USA (TPUSA). It's active on campuses and it promotes itself as a conservative organisation, even selling T-shirts with the slogan "Keep it conservative".

As good as this might sound, the reality is different. To give you a sense of what TPUSA really stands for take a look at the exchange between its leader, Charlie Kirk, and an audience member at a recent campus talk. I'll provide a summary below, but you can watch it live from 40:40 onwards:


The gist of the exchange is as follows:

Audience member: I'm against mass immigration. I'm from California and things have declined there since mass immigration began in 1965. Its changed the voting trends. It's made cities like Los Angeles culturally divided.

Charlie Kirk: I think the growing anti-immigration part of the Republican movement is dangerous. There's a difference between coming here legally and border jumping. However, I do believe that what makes America different and what will continue to make America exceptional is that the best, the brightest and most aspirational from all over the planet earth should be able to get a shot to come here legally...this country was built by immigrants, this country is a shining city on a hill for immigrants.

Audience member: But is a million a year a sustainable number? Before I die more than 60 million foreigners will come in who will bring their culture with them. 80% of immigrants vote Democrat. And the trend holds through the generations.

Charlie Kirk: I don't think you can design immigration policy based on politics. I think that's very dangerous. If someone graduates from a US university and we send them back to Korea or to Japan that doesn't make any sense. They should be given a green card or a visa upon graduation...What makes this country so different is the embracing of coming from somewhere else to be able to achieve your dreams here. When an immigrant entrepreneur comes here with an idea and comes here to take a risk basic economics will tell you it's a net benefit for everybody. I want the best, smartest people here in America.

Kirk is obviously misguided in thinking that America is exceptional in having a large scale immigration programme - most Western countries do. The more significant thing to note, though, is that Kirk has a typically right liberal attitude to what matters in life. For him, what matters is success in the market, and he therefore idealises America on the basis that it offers people from around the world the opportunity to pursue such success.

This, however, is anything but a genuinely conservative world view. What, after all, does it end up conserving? If the aim is to have the fewest constraints to participation in the market, then you will end up radically dissolving the core, traditional aspects of a society rather than conserving them.

Think, for instance, of the family. If success in life is measured by material success in a free market, and if the core value of society is a "freedom" of having the least constraints on participation in the market, then why would people devote themselves to family? On what basis would women forego participation in the market to devote themselves to home and children? Why would people forego a consumerist lifestyle to direct their energies and resources instead to the raising of children? And why would people not begin to treat relationships themselves as a kind of commodity, i.e. as a lifestyle choice based on personal preference - rather than as a sacramental union, or as a commitment to an ongoing familial legacy spanning the generations.

It's the same when it comes to traditional national ties. If what matters is the absence of constraints on participation in the market, then it will be thought a positive development for people to arrive from around the world to join the national economy (the "shining city on a hill"). It will be thought wrong to limit who might come in order to conserve an existing identity. In some ways, the "aspirational immigrant" will be seen to be a better representative of the nation's values than the stay-put native born resident. And so the end result is an outlook that dissolves the existing identity and tradition, and replaces it not with anything new and stable, but with continual change as new waves of immigration roll onto the country's shores.

It is therefore misleading to associate right liberalism with the term conservatism. Right liberalism does not conserve, it dissolves. Nor does right liberalism succeed on its own terms. For instance, the slogan of right liberalism is usually something like "free markets, individual freedom and limited government". However, in the longer term the inner contradictions of right liberalism fail to secure these things. Government tends to grow larger and more intrusive under the philosophy of right liberalism, despite the call to limit its influence.

One reason for this is that it is the state that is used to break up the traditional structures of society that once placed limits on the market. If, for instance, you want women to participate in the market to an equal degree to men, then you have to use the power of the state to create affordable childcare; to enforce anti-discrimination laws; and to replace the social welfare functions once associated with the family. Similarly, if there are mass waves of immigration that gradually undermine social cohesion, there will be less social engagement and potentially issues of crime or social decay that then require state intervention (e.g. government agencies to undertake welfare work once managed by volunteer organisations, a greater presence of law enforcement etc.).

The other reason why right liberalism fails was pointed out to Charlie Kirk by the man in the audience. By having such a glowing account of immigration, and refusing to think in practical political terms about the consequences of this immigration, right liberals are handing political power to the left. California is a very clear example of this: in 1988 52% of Californians voted for the Republican candidate for President, but by 2016, after large-scale demographic change, that percentage had fallen to 31%. California is now a stronghold of the left.

Those right-liberals who are willing to confront this issue often have a change of heart and rethink many of their political positions. But for the Charlie Kirks, who still centre their politics on the "shining city" philosophy, this isn't possible. They will hold fast to their philosophy, even as evidence mounts that the philosophy will ultimately hand power to those who stand openly for big government and government regulation of the economy.

Finally, we need to call out right liberals for having too "thin" an account of what matters in life. It's true that success in the marketplace can bring a sense of achievement, as it requires self-discipline, self-sacrifice, industry, judgement, perseverance and boldness. Material success can also give access to other goods in life, including success in relationships, financial freedom and so on.

The reality, though, is that participation in the market is not very glamorous for most people. It consumes time and energy, it separates us from our family, it prevents a more rounded development of our talents, it places us often in stressful conditions in which we are subject to a boss, and it leaves most people in a merely modest financial position.

Many people, therefore, do not live to work. They make the rational decision to base their life values elsewhere, often in family commitments, but also in friendships, in a church community, in sporting or artistic endeavours, or through identifying with the larger ethnic or civilisational tradition they belong to.

Most people won't succeed in any notable way as entrepreneurs in the market. In right liberal terms, they will be failures. And so right liberalism is, at best, an "apex" philosophy for a relatively small number of people - it cannot genuinely represent the values of the greater part of the population. If anything it undermines the sense of meaning, identity and belonging that most people once found in society.

It is therefore a pity that the opposition to the left still comes primarily from right liberals rather than from a more genuinely socially conservative political movement.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Two new podcasts

Australian readers in particular might be interested in two new discussions between myself and Mark Moncrieff:

And here:

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The skirmish line

The focus in liberalism is on freely determining for ourselves our identity, our purposes, our values and so on. Therefore, a liberal society cheers on those who reject received identities. It's considered a great thing for a young woman to play rugby and not so good for her to be oriented to motherhood.

On what basis do traditionalists reject this liberal focus? One serious way to do so is to emphasise that we should, as individuals, be focused on ordering ourselves to the good. In this view, our impulses are wayward and need to be directed, through the cultivation of virtue, and with the support of culture, toward higher ends.

How would a liberal react to this claim? Well, I don't think a liberal would easily think along these lines, but at the same time a liberal might attempt to incorporate it into the liberal view. A liberal might respond that, yes, an individual might order themselves toward the good, but that nobody else but the individual has the right to determine what that good is. We would then have a society in which each individual orients themselves toward the good that they have chosen, whilst respecting the right of everyone else to do the same.

So the idea of being oriented toward the good is only, at best, a skirmish line separating liberals and traditionalists - it is not the war line.

The liberal view can work if people choose a good that can be pursued at the individual level. For instance, if it is my chosen good to be successful in the career, status and money sense, then I can pursue this within the liberal framework. Similarly, if I choose to pursue personal pleasure, such as through travel, entertainment or dining out.

So what is the war line?

We get to the war line if we insist that the good that we orient ourselves to is given to us within the natural order rather than being subjectively chosen. The liberal view is that we can choose anything, and that as long as it does not limit the choice of anyone else, it is equally valid. The traditional view is that there is an objective good for us to order ourselves toward and that there are ends given to us that we properly seek to fulfil in life.

Professor Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, explains the distinction this way:
Premodern political thought...understood the human creature as part of a comprehensive natural order. Humans were understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and thus humanity was required to conform both to its own nature and, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which it was a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. (p.35)

A secondary war line is when we see the individual good and the common good as being intertwined. For instance, let's say that I see my individual good as being tied in with the good of family life. I might take seriously a goal of marrying well, having a large family, playing a distinct sex role as a husband and father, expressing both marital and paternal love within the family, socialising my children into a familial, communal and civilisational heritage and so on.

I cannot easily do this within the liberal framework because I cannot do it alone through my own choices. It requires that I live within a culture that supports such a concept of the good. Imagine, for instance, that the women I live amongst have been socialised to be independent career women, who see family life as limiting their autonomy, and who see an unrestrained sexuality as empowering. Imagine, too, that it is assumed that family life is secondary to careerism and that I should spend all my time and energy at work. Or that I should not be paid a living wage, given the default assumption that there will be two full-time wage earners.

In other words, the assumptions that liberalism makes about the good - that it is based on the subjective preferences of autonomous individuals - limits the realm of what goods are practically available to us, in particular by undermining the possibility of a common good. And if you hold that the individual good rests upon the existence of a common good, then liberalism does clearly fail.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

UK judge: Christian belief incompatible with human dignity

The UK was once a very Christian nation. I've been reading a biography of the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Shelley: The Pursuit), who, unusually for his time, was an atheist. In 1811 he met his future wife Harriet Westbrook. This is how she described her initial reaction to his beliefs:
You may conceive with what horror I first heard that Percy was an first I did not comprehend the meaning of the word; therefore when it was explained I was truly petrified. (p.67)

But how things have changed. A UK judge has recently declared Christian belief to be incompatible with human dignity. In a way, this is not surprising, as Christianity does not fit in with the ruling state ideology in the UK, namely liberalism.

The story runs as follows. Dr David Mackereth was employed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a disability assessor. He was queried by a supervisor about whether he would, hypothetically, refer to a 6ft tall bearded man by female pronouns. He answered that he couldn't in conscience do this given his Christian belief that we are created male or female by God (Genesis 1:27) and that we cannot change our sex according to our own will.

There is some dispute about whether or not Dr Mackereth was then directly dismissed from his position or not, but regardless the case ended up at an employment tribunal hearing. Judge Perry found in favour of the DWP and it is the reasons he gave for his decision which are the most significant part of the story.

Judge Perry began by noting that according to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

So what's the catch? Well, another judge, J Burton, (in the case of Grainger v Nicholson) defined what constituted an acceptable "philosophical belief" or religion. And one of his criteria was the following:
(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

Judge Perry then ruled that:
belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others, specifically here, transgender individuals.

And this:
We accept Dr Mackereth’s account that his beliefs are inherent to his wider faith. In so far as those beliefs form part of his wider faith, his wider faith also does not satisfy Grainger.

According to Judge Perry, the orthodox Christian view "does not satisfy" the criteria for acceptable belief in a society because it is incompatible with human dignity and conflicts with the fundamental rights of others. Therefore, orthodox Christianity is not protected under the convention of human rights.

The underlying problem is not that Christianity is incompatible with human dignity but that it is incompatible with liberalism. A Christian might argue that the belief that our male and female natures are God-given and a part of God's plan for us enhances the dignity of our persons. But for a liberal human dignity comes from the act of autonomous choice in which we self-determine our own personhood.

For a Christian, the moral thing is to fully develop our given natures as men and women, i.e. to order ourselves toward ideals or standards of masculine and feminine virtue. We discern what is best within our masculine and feminine natures and attempt to fully develop these qualities, as a way of completing ourselves and meeting one of our missions in life (our telos).

For a liberal, the moral thing is not only to author our own identity but to respect the right of others to do the same. Because liberals do not like the idea of a given nature, it will be held to be particularly moral to act against "stereotypes" when it comes to masculinity or femininity (hence the banning in the UK earlier this year of a car ad which briefly portrayed a mother sitting next to a pram, the image being ruled to be a harmful and offensive stereotype).

Given the logic of the situation, it seems naive to me to expect that orthodox Christianity will be well tolerated within a liberal system. Either it will change to fit in better with liberalism (which usually means becoming irrelevant, as it then loses its animating principles) or else it will have to more self-consciously recognise the difficulty of the situation and use whatever power it has to defend its own place in society.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

In conversation with Mark Moncrieff

Mark Moncrieff (of Upon Hope) and I sat down yesterday and recorded some conversations, the first of which is now up at YouTube. It can be either listened to directly or else extracted as an MP3 file. I hope you enjoy it (the photo, if you're wondering, is of the American traditionalist Lawrence Auster).

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Locke & the family

Dr Allan Carlson believes that the English philosopher John Locke set the template for the modern family back in the late 1600s. According to Carlson, Locke thought that the traditional role of fathers in the family was unnatural. All men wanted to do, by nature, was to survive as individuals and beget children (and then leave). Therefore, men were given power and authority over women and children as a way of luring them into family life.

And so, for Locke, the traditional paternal role was not only narrow in purpose, but politically damaging as it was used to justify the rule and authority of kings. Therefore, it had to be reformed:
"Since his overall project demanded an end to Patriarchy at the political level, so as to undermine the claims of kings, Locke deemed it necessary to bring an end to Patriarchy within the family as well. His alternative was the “liberal” marriage – of limited purpose and authority – where men might find compensatory satisfactions in friendships with a wife and children. Locke understood that, while it ran against his premise of gender equality, he still needed to cast the father as the presumed head of the family, which in industrial society evolved into the “breadwinner” role."

Being the "presumed head of the family" did not mean as much as it once did. As Dr Carlson points out, the paternal role was increasingly dominated by the demands of paid work. Even so, liberals eventually came to believe that even this "soft patriarchy" conflicted too much with liberal beliefs about gender equality. And so Locke's voluntary marital contract, in which women are tied to family by their natural connection to children, and men by their "artificial" role as head of the family, breaks down:
However, some in the liberal order eventually saw that as too great a price. To gain the promised equality, they said, women must instead overcome their maternal instincts and break their affective ties to children and to nature itself. At that point, the contract breaks down. As women renounce their innate purpose, men lose their artificially created one, and the liberal marriage system dissolves.

This overtly feminist step did not take place until the second half of the nineteenth century, but it had its origins in Locke:
While John Stuart Mill, writing in the mid-19th century, was among the first to describe this feminist imperative, its roots lay in Locke. Indeed, he readily acknowledged the validity, in certain societies, of the single-parent family, where “the children are left to the mother, follow her, and are wholly under her care and provision”.

So also with polygamy: systems of one man with multiple wives or one woman with multiple husbands. These too, Locke said, could serve as household forms adequate to the tasks of rearing children as “free and rational creatures”. Such matters were subject solely to cultural acceptance, what Locke called “fashion”. 

It would be interesting to follow this observation further. If Locke's end goal really was simply to raise children as "free and rational" creatures, then you could do this in a variety of settings, including state institutions. The traditional family is then put on shaky ground. An alternative approach would be to think of the offices of husband/father and wife/mother as being part of the social context within which we best fulfil our given purposes as men and women. It would also see the traditional family as an aspect of society itself, as its own little commonwealth, with a distinct culture, and with a set of economic, educational, religious and leisure functions that are foundational to the larger society.

Carlson does discuss the problem of the family losing its larger functions in society. According to Carlson, this was something deliberately aimed at by Locke:
Locke’s “Conjugal Society” rested on a “voluntary compact between men and women” that was limited to the “things of their common interest and [common] property”. Under Patriarchy, the economic lives of men and women had been merged, wholly and completely. As expressions of pre-industrial life, such households were also characterised by a great array of productive activities. The sexual and the economic merged fully here.

Locke aimed at families stripped of most functions, economic or otherwise. Property could be held separately, by husband and wife. Since the purposes of marriage were only procreation and the socialisation of small children as rational creatures, and since marriage was always provisional, a strong home economy was neither necessary nor desirable.

I've been thinking about exactly this issue lately. Modern society is rendering men and women increasingly less necessary to each other - at least in terms of social function. Not only is there gender role convergence, in which men and women end up doing much the same thing in society, but so many aspects of life are being outsourced, that it's much more possible for people to survive without the support of family.

To the extent that we can, we need to "un-Locke" the family. The family will not rest well on the basis provided for it by Locke and his successors (which is increasingly limited to a provisional friendship between "partners" of any sex). It needs to widen once again its functions within society and the paternal role needs to be grounded on fundamental aspects of masculine nature, identity, social roles and telos/purposes.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Melbourne Traditionalists Conference 2019

Last year we held our first ever conference. It was a great success both in terms of attendance and atmosphere. You don't need to be part of the group to attend, just interested in learning about traditionalist ideas and meeting a group of like minded people. The details are:


Friday 18th October, 7pm Meet and Greet

Saturday 19th October, 10am - 5pm Conference; 7pm Banquet


1. Shelley and the origins of Liberal thought

2. E.F. Schumacher: Small is Beautiful

3. From ABC to XYZ: Alt Media in Australia

4. International Banking and You

5. Class Warfare and White Genocide: The origins of Cultural Marxism


The cost includes both the lunch and the Saturday evening banquet. Concession $75, Full Price $110.


An historic building in the inner suburbs, address to be confirmed to attendees prior to conference.


Booking is online here.

Further information:

Mark Moncrieff, email: uponhopeblog(at)

Monday, September 09, 2019

How a law came to pass

A new law has been passed here in the Australian state of Victoria to allow people to change whether they are listed as male or female on their birth certificates:
The bill was introduced a second time by Attorney-General Jill Hennessy, who celebrated its passing on Tuesday night.

"These important new laws are about ensuring everyone can live their life as they choose, and that includes having a birth certificate that reflects their true identity," she said.

As you can see from the quote, the Attorney-General justified the new law by emphasising the importance of a freedom to live as we choose, even to the point of choosing our sex. Supporters of the new law likewise held up placards reading "Autonomy & Freedom," connecting freedom with an autonomy to self-define.

None of this is surprising. Courts in the U.S., for instance, have made very explicit the idea that a right to self-define is fundamental to how moral issues are decided. One example of this was a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court in 2018 which struck down a law requiring women to wait 72 hours before procuring an abortion on the grounds that:
Autonomy and dominion over one's body go to the very heart of what it means to be free. At stake in this case is the right to shape, for oneself, without unwarranted governmental intrusion, one's own identity, destiny, and place in the world. Nothing could be more fundamental to the notion of liberty.

Liberty is being tied together here with an autonomous individual self-defining in whatever direction they choose.

This is not a new notion in the West. It was one of two approaches to freedom that seem to have contested for the Western soul from the early modern period onward.

I wrote a post earlier this year about a dispute in England in 1620 on the question of transvestism. Was it right for women to wear men's clothes? In one pamphlet the reasons given in favour were very similar to those still being made today. The transvestite woman defended herself with the argument that freedom existed when there was no "restraint from those actions which the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire". Therefore, she was free if she was able to follow her desire to dress as a man. Similarly, she claimed that "for me to follow change according to the limitation of mine own will and pleasure, there cannot be a greater freedom." She believed that she was free if she could act with nothing to limit her but her own will and pleasure.

But in 1620 there was another way of thinking about freedom. Her opponent in the debate reproaches her with these words:
You have wrested out some wit, to wrangle forth no reason; since everything you would make for excuse, approves your guilt still more ugly: what basest bondage, or what more servile baseness, than for the flattering and soothing of an un-bridled appetite, or delight, to take a wilfull liberty to do evil, and to give evil example? This is to be Hells Prentice, not Heaven’s Free-woman.

There is no freedom, in this view, in asserting "unbridled appetite, or delight". If we choose to act basely, then we are not exercising freedom, but falling into a servile bondage.

The woman eventually reveals that she never really wanted to wear men's clothes but only did so to shame men into acting less foppishly themselves. She quotes some lines of a poem in which the hero has been beguiled by a witch and has lost his manliness:
His Locks bedewed with waters of sweet savour;
Stood curled round in order on his head;
He had such wanton womanish behaviour,
As though in Valor he had ne’re been bred:
So chang’d in speech, in manners and in favour,
So from himselfe beyond all reason led,
By these inchantments of this amorous Dame;
He was himselfe in nothing but in name.

The lines are significant because they suggest that we have fit ends within our nature as men and women that we know best when in a certain state of right mind/reason, but that we can be led beyond reason and therefore fail to inhabit what we are meant to be. Freedom, in other words, is more a capacity to act according to what is best within our given natures as men and women, rather than an autonomy to self-define.

The man is inspired to firmly reject his own effeminate dress and declares:
From henceforth deformity shall pack to Hell, and if at any time he hide himself upon the earth, yet it shall be with contempt and disgrace...Henceforth we will live nobly like ourselves

The writer of the 1620 pamphlet felt that the more he approached the nobler qualities of manhood the more he lived as himself.

The transvestite woman did not win the argument in the 1620 pamphlet but today she inhabits the benches of supreme courts throughout the Western world. It is her understanding of liberty, as a freedom to self-define, which is now the ruling principle, having vanquished the other, once influential, Western tradition that connected freedom, reason and nature.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Partial interest & the common good

I listened recently to a very interesting lecture by Professor Patrick Deneen on the topic of "Aristopopulism". In this lecture, Deneen mentions that a basic problem in politics going back all the way to the ancients was how to overcome the conflict between the few at the top and the many below. The solution was to look for a common good, particularly one that might restrain the behaviour of those with power.

It is clear that the commitment to a common good is weakening in Western societies. The elites no longer see their own fate bound together with that of their co-nationals. At the same time, there is an emerging unease within the majority about their appointed role in society. Below, for instance, is an image from a yellow vest demonstration in France. The placard reads "Work, consume and shut your mouth" - a complaint about what is expected of ordinary French people.

We seem to be replacing the traditional commitment to a common good, that all were duty bound to uphold, with an understanding of society as being made up of a whole series of partial interests, each set against each other, but each needing to be balanced to achieve a state of social justice.

Liberals often just assume this model of society, whilst traditionalists are more likely to still have in mind the notion of a common good. For instance, a liberal woman will assume that men have always acted out of a partial interest to press their own power in society against that of women. Therefore, if men express unease or discomfort about some feminist initiative, a liberal woman will understand it to represent a psychological difficulty of those men in giving up power for the sake of equality.

Similarly, imagine a situation in which a husband has worked for decades for the good of his family and ends up with a larger amount of superannuation than his wife, who perhaps stopped work for a period of time to be with her children. If you think in terms of people acting dutifully to uphold the common good of their family, then you will think of the husband and wife sharing a joint interest and benefiting together from their combined superannuation. A liberal woman, though, might be so used to thinking in terms of men and women having separate and distinct partial interests, and the notion of a common good might be so absent, that she will see the husband and wife as having separate financial interests, and therefore she will see the difference in superannuation as harming rather than benefiting the wife.

You can see all this playing out as well when it comes to race relations. In a traditional society, there was a common good represented by the continuing existence of a people, its culture and tradition. It would have been thought not only normal but also highly desirable for this culture and people to dominate within its own country.

But if there is no common good, but only competing partial interests needing to be balanced out, then the existence of a dominant majority people and culture becomes highly problematic. White nationalists sometimes claim a place within the field of modern politics by asserting the right to promote the partial interests of whites. As understandable as this is, it doesn't work well when the notion of a common good has been rejected in favour of partial interests. If the majority people and culture assert their rights, then this will be seen to be favouring an "unequal" situation, of the majority wanting to continue as a dominant majority and therefore favouring "supremacy" rather than being balanced out by everyone else.

Can a society that lacks the notion of a common good prosper? I don't think so. First, there will be a widening sense of incompatibility between those at the top and the rest of the population. The discontents that gave birth to the yellow vest movement in France are likely to build up in force elsewhere. Second, the absence of a common good will, over time, erode the conscientiousness and sense of duty that once helped motivate people to make and to keep their commitments to others. Third, it will be more difficult to persuade people to make lifelong commitments without the sense of meaning and purpose provided by a common good.

Finally, when people stop thinking about how interests can be harmonised within a common good, then even our own partial interests are likely to suffer. For instance, feminists often make the mistake of thinking that they can push the partial interests of women without thinking of the larger harmony of interests necessary for things to work out well. As an example, feminists have been very successful in enrolling women into higher education, sometimes with the help of quotas and the like. There is now something like a million more women than men in higher education in the U.S. But where then do these women find husbands with a similar or higher standard of education? Feminist successes in education lead to failures in family formation. So are women really any better off even looked at from the point of view of their own partial interests?

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Some Australian classical music

Classical music has been in the doldrums for some time, so it's pleasing to find some worthwhile Australian music, by composer Iain Grandage, to share:

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Nisbet: the problem of community

I have now finished reading the first part of Robert Nisbet's 1953 work The Quest for Community. If you recall, I found the opening sections of this book to be a powerful criticism of nineteenth century liberal individualism (see here and here).

I also wondered why Nisbet did not have more influence within the conservative movement of his time. I think the answer is to be found in the basic argument Nisbet goes on to make in the first part of his book. In its briefest form the argument is:

1. The reason why traditional forms of community are moribund is that they no longer have a significant economic or political function. Therefore they do not hold allegiance as they once did.

2. It does not matter if these traditional forms of community (such as family) do not survive. The form does not matter, what is needed is any form of local and personal community to meet individual needs.

3. The voluntary forms of association which were supposed to replace the traditional kinship based ones have not appeared, leading to social withdrawal and alienation.

The first step in the argument undoubtedly has some truth to it, but is overstated. The second I disagree with. The third has been confirmed by the research of later sociologists, such as Robert Putnam.

Here is Nisbet setting out his main argument:
The most fundamental problem has to do with the organized associations of men. It has to do with the role of the primary social group in an economy and political order whose principled ends have come to be structured in such a way that the primary social relationships are increasingly functionless, almost irrelevant, with respect to these ends.

...For more and more individuals the primary social relationships have lost much of their historic function of mediation between man and the larger ends of our civilization...

In any society the concrete loyalties and devotions of individuals tend to become directed toward the associations and patterns of leadership that in the long run have the greatest perceptible significance in the maintenance of life...

In earlier times...there was an intimate relation between the local, kinship, and religious groups within which individuals consciously lived and the major economic, charitable and protective functions which are indispensable to human existence.

Family, church, local community drew and held the allegiances of individuals in earlier times not because of any superior impulses to love and protect, or because of any greater natural harmony of intellectual and spiritual values, or even because of any superior internal organization, but because these groups possessed a virtually indispensable relation to the economic and political order.

Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional association, founded upon kinship, faith or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends and psychological gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society. Family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution. (pp.45-47)

There are two reasons for this being an overstatement. First, some of these traditional groups do still have a significant functional role in society. It is still the case, for instance, that family plays a significant role in mutual aid, welfare and recreation. If I think of my own life, it is my parents who have been the most reliable source of support, in terms of finances, advice and practical assistance. Similarly, the family is still important when it comes to an individual's economic interests in society. It is easier to advance economically if you have the support of a spouse and if your parents invested in your education.

Second, the viability of these traditional associations does not rest entirely on their economic or political function. Why, for instance, does it make sense for individuals to pair bond early in life within marriage? The answer is not just for economic or political advantage. It is, in part, because it is prudent to bond early, when in our prime, so that we have a strong basis for a partnership that will last us into the long decades of middle and old age. And we tend to discover that sex has such a strong unitive aspect that casual relationships are jading and damaging. For some people, too, the ideal of self-sacrificing love within a faithful relationship is an elevating spiritual good in life that is pursued for this reason, rather than for social function.

Nonetheless, Nisbet has a point. Traditionalists ought to be concerned that the institutions we support do not have their economic, welfare and political functions undermined, because this does contribute to the undermining of these institutions.

Decades ago, I was struck when reading nineteenth century diaries how much closer sibling relationships were compared to today. In particular, the relationships between brothers and sisters were noticeably stronger. Why would this be so? At the time, I suspected the reason was that brothers and sisters were more dependent on each other. If her parents died young, an unmarried woman might rely financially on the support of her brothers. A man who was injured might rely on his sister to nurse him back to health.

The point is not to deconstruct public hospitals so that this functional relationship is restored. It is, instead, to be sensitive to ways in which public policy might undermine the role of the family, or the local church, or the local town hall.

This is not just an economic issue. Take, for instance, the role of fathers. There is a trend in modern societies to reduce this role to that of "walking wallet". If allowed to continue, the role won't appear to young men to fulfil, in Nisbet's terms, a "principal moral end" or "psychological gratification" in life. So the challenge is to organise society in such a way that men play a more significant role as fathers. This might mean freeing up time for adult men to spend with their sons; it might mean organising worthwhile father son activities; it might mean providing resources for fathers to inculcate important values in their children; it might mean providing a more masculine role for fathers within a local church and so on. It would also be important to preserve, wherever possible, a degree of paternal authority and status in society.

To put this another way, if the first step is to abandon the liberal ideology that dissolves, as a matter of logic, the traditional institutions, there still remains a second step of organising society in a way that upholds the significance to the individual of these institutions. This means, in particular, setting limits to the organisation of society along mass, impersonal, standardised, bureaucratic lines, and instead allowing, wherever practicable, economic and political decisions to be made first at the level of family and second at a local, communal level.

(I had a debate recently with someone who told me that my children belonged to the state rather than to the family. This is exactly the outlook that then removes economic and political significance to the family, and therefore allegiance, commitment and viability.)

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Lady Hale: what is a family?

Lady Hale
Lady Hale (Baroness Hale of Richmond) is President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Prospect magazine has named her one of the world's top 50 thinkers. So she has some clout in the field of law.

Last month she gave a speech on the topic "What is a 21st Century Family?". It's an interesting speech as it illustrates clearly one aspect of the way that liberal moderns think about such issues.

To explain, though, I need to turn briefly to a post written by Andrew Willard Jones. He notes that Christians often call liberals moral relativists. And yet liberals do clearly have a strong belief in right and wrong:
The entire ideological edifice of liberalism rests on the conviction that it is just plain wrong to intervene in the individual’s pursuit of desire fulfillment, and that to do so is a violation of justice, the paradigmatic moral principle. You will find no group of people more certain of the rightness of their convictions and more willing to force others to comply with them than those who congregate on university campuses. There is, obviously, no shortage of right-and-wrong in late liberalism’s woke culture. And yet, many Christians continue to talk about moral relativism. Why?

The pursuit of individual autonomy, and the concept of justice flowing from this, does provide liberals with categories of right and wrong. But here is the critical point. Within the liberal framework the actual term or category "moral" is indeed limited to the issues that society has a relatavistic stance toward:
in the everyday liberal vernacular, the word “moral” is restricted in application to things that society is more-or-less relativistic about.

Liberalism sets up the binary of moral/political. The moral is my own subjective, irrational and private beliefs on issues that the state is indifferent toward. Once an issue is thought to involve public policy, however, it becomes part of the morally neutral political and economic realm that the state then seeks to regulate.

Lady Hale's speech makes sense within this liberal framework. On the one hand, she praises the shift toward autonomy within modern family life:
...three things stand out from the developments of the last 50 years. The first is an increasing desire and respect for individual autonomy in adult decision-making – by both men and women. So we try and facilitate or at least acknowledge the family life created between same sex couples, through informal partnerships, through assisted reproduction, adoption and surrogacy. At the same time, we increasingly respect their decisions to bring their adult relationships to an end and their autonomy in deciding upon the financial consequences of doing so

On the other hand, she is quick to identify the purpose of family life as a political/economic one. She believes that the family originally had very limited purposes, being established to provide a legitimate male heir for the transmission of property. However, it was the role of the family in providing economic support for its members that gave it a more significant reason for existence. As a mini welfare state, it relieved the state itself of some of its financial burdens:
As I have said before, the conjugal family is its own little social security system, a private space, separate from the public world, within which the parties are expected to look after one another and their children. The more the private family can look after its own, the less the state will have to do so...Perhaps it was for this reason that the narrow view of family relationships began to expand.

She believes it to be a "narrow view" to see family relationships as being based on kinship. This makes sense if the purpose of the family is simply to be "its own little social security system" as kinship is irrelevant to this aim.

She is also critical of attempts to reform family law in the UK by limiting alimony to five years. She questions how the reforms,
can possibly fulfill the role of the family in shouldering the burdens which it has created rather than placing them upon the state. 

Again, given her view that the very reason for the existence of the family is to relieve the state of a potential financial burden, you can understand why this decides the matter for her.

There are two main points to draw from all this. First, if the family exists as a social technology then it doesn't really matter what form it takes. It could be three adult men and five children as long as it is performing its economic role of being "its own little social security system". That is what matters to a liberal state that only admits to determining public policy on "morally neutral" economic and political grounds, but within the larger understanding of justice as being based on maximising individual autonomy.

Second, most people currently see aspects of family law as being gravely unjust. For instance, a wife can unilaterally and without any grounds divorce her husband and yet the state will still compel him to support her financially whether it be through alimony or child support. She can elect not to work, not to provide for herself, but still compel her now ex-husband to work on her behalf as if he were still her husband. It seems mad.

However, it makes sense within the liberal framework. First, this framework seeks, in Lady Hale's words, "individual autonomy in adult decision-making" including to "respect their decisions to bring their adult relationships to an end". Therefore, the liberal state is committed to easy divorce.

At the same time, the liberal state sees the family as a social technology that has the function of acting as a mini social security system. Therefore, the state wants the husband to be an economic provider - that is his permitted social function. The liberal state wants to have its cake and eat it too, by emphasising autonomy and easy divorce, as well as men working as providers - even after they have been rejected as husbands by their wives.

This is not a viable approach in the long term for a number of reasons:

1. The emphasis on autonomy can only undermine family commitments. If the aim is to maximise our ability to pursue our desires without impediment, then you cannot have lifelong monogamous marriage. Serious commitments require trust, shared moral commitments, and a willingness to act for the greater good and for higher principle rather than for our own immediate interests and impulses.

2. The emphasis on autonomy tends, over time, to expand the role of the state in supporting individuals, rather than having them supported more cheaply, but with greater interdependence, within the family. It is already the case that a woman can, if she so chooses, raise children with the support of the state rather than with the support of a husband.

3. The view of the family as a social technology is too limited. Yes, social function matters and no doubt played a role in shaping the family. But this ignores the way that aspects of our natures are fulfilled within closely bonded familial relationships, particularly those based on kinship that span generations. This ought to be acknowledged as part of the "common good" that a society seeks to uphold, rather than relegated to the field of private moral goods that the state is indifferent toward.

4. The contradiction between easy, no fault divorce and the justification for the family as a mini welfare state will not so easily be solved by compelling ex-husbands to continue their former provider role even after the dissolution of their families. Over time this will erode confidence in marriage as an institution.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Trench on the French Revolution

My last post focused on some patriotic poems by Richard Chenevix Trench. Trench was an Anglican archbishop and a popular poet of the nineteenth century.

The two poems I'd like to focus on in this post deal with France and the French Revolution:
On the Results of the Last French Revolution

How long shall weary nations toil in blood,
How often roll the still returning stone
Up the sharp painful height, ere they will own
That on the base of individual good,
Of virtue, manners, and pure homes endued
With household graces—that on this alone
Shall social freedom stand—where these are gone,
There is a nation doomed to servitude?
O suffering, toiling France, thy toil is vain!
The irreversible decree stands sure,
Where men are selfish, covetous of gain,
Heady and fierce, unholy and impure,
Their toil is lost, and fruitless all their pain;
They cannot build a work which shall endure.

I find this poem interesting because it illustrates a point made in Patrick Deneen's book, Why Liberalism Failed, that freedom was in the past not usually understood to mean doing whatever one had a will to do, as there could be no freedom in society (no "social freedom") if individuals did not first cultivate virtue in themselves. (I'm not sure the exact year Trench's poem was written but it was published in a volume of poetry in 1835.)

Trench wrote a companion poem to the one above:
To England.

A sequel to the foregoing.

Thy duteous loving children fear for thee
In one thing chiefly—for thy pure abodes
And thy undesecrated household Gods,
Thou most religious, and for this most free,
Of all the nations. Oh! look out and see
The injuries which she, who in the name
Of liberty thy fellowship would claim,
Has done to virtue and to liberty;
Whose philtres have corrupted everywhere
The living springs men drink of, all save thine.
Oh! then of her and of her love beware!
Better again eight hundred years of strife,
Than give her leave to sap and undermine
The deep foundations of thy moral life.

Trench is arguing that the English are the most free nation because they are still the most moral, not having drunk the "philtres" (love potions) of the French Revolution. He does not want England to ally itself with France on the basis of a shared commitment to liberty, as revolutionary "liberty" will fatally undermine the genuine article. Better to resume the 800 years of warfare with the French than have friendship on such terms.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Richard Chenevix Trench

Richard Chenevix Trench
It's common today for Christianity to be associated with open borders and globalism. But it wasn't always so. It was once held to be perfectly normal within Christian culture for people to express a patriotic love of country.

As an example, I'd like to revive some poems by a once popular, but now largely forgotten, nineteenth century English poet, Richard Chenevix Trench.

Trench was a senior ranking cleric in the Church of England, being appointed the Dean of Westminster Abbey and later the Archbishop of Dublin.

He wrote the following poem (from a volume published in 1835) on sighting the British flag flying at Gibraltar on the way home from an overseas journey:

England, we love thee better than we know,—
And this I learned, when, after wanderings long
Mid people of another stock and tongue,
I heard again thy martial music blow,
And saw thy gallant children to and fro
Pace, keeping ward at one of those huge gates
Which, like twin-giants, watch the Hereulean straits:
When first I came in sight of that brave show,
It made my very heart within me dance,
To think that thou thy proud foot shouldst advance
Forward so far into the mighty sea;
Joy was it and exultation to behold
Thine ancient standard's rich emblazonry,
A glorious picture by the wind unrolled.

Trench wrote the next poem after vising the Italian town of Sorrento. He thought the place so delightful that the thought of living there was appealing. However, he knows he would not be content doing so, as we only find peace doing "Heaven's work and will" and this means carrying out our "appointed task" in our "natural sphere", i.e. our homeland. Trench believes that God intends for each one of us to serve our own nation and that if we abandon this sacred duty, and choose to act selfishly, we will not find inner peace.



They are but selfish visions at the best,
Which tempt us to desire that we were free
From the dear ties that bind us unto Thee,
That so we might take up our lasting rest,
Where some delightful spot, some hidden nest
In brighter lands has pleased our phantasy:
And might such vows at once accomplished be,
We should not in the accomplishment be blest,
But oh! most miserable, if it be true
Peace only waits upon us, while we do
Heaven’s work and will: for what is it we ask,
When we would fain have leave to linger here,
But to abandon our appointed task,
Our place of duty and our natural sphere?

The following poem also captures Trench's patriotic feeling. He writes that although our eternal promise is a better country than any on earth (heaven) he is still, in his living heart, a son of England:

We look for, and have promise to behold
A better country, such as earth has none—
Yet, England, am I still thy duteous son,
And never will this heart be dead or cold
At the relation of thy glories old,
Or of what newer triumphs thou hast won,
Where thou as with a mighty arm hast done
The work of God, quelling the tyrants bold.
Elect of nations, for the whole world’s good
Thou wert exalted to a doom so high—
To outbrave Rome’s “triple tyrant,” to confound
Every oppressor, that with impious flood
Would drown the landmarks of humanity,
The limits God hath set to nations and their bound

(The last part of the above poem seems to refer to England's victory in the Napoleonic Wars. He is accusing Napoleon of trying to extinguish nations, the "landmarks of humanity", through conquest, thereby violating God's act of appointing nations and their boundaries.)

There are other interesting poems by Trench on other themes, but I'll leave these for a future post.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

New Podcast

My colleague at the Melbourne Traditionalists, Mark Moncrieff, has set up a podcast (here). He will be speaking regularly with David Hiscox of the XYZ media site (and possibly others). I congratulate him on his initiative and encourage you to have a listen.

On the topic of the Melbourne Traditionalists, we've had a good run of meetings this year and have consolidated our recent growth (we've doubled attendance since early last year). If readers living in the Melbourne area are interested in attending please get in touch (see here for details).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Nisbet's powerful chapter

A young Robert Nisbet
I've finished the first chapter of Robert Nisbet's The Quest for Community, published in 1953.

It was extraordinary to read. I had imagined that this would be a dry work of sociology, but it is powerfully written and almost impossible to extract "the good bits" because it is all so memorably expressed.

Nisbet's argument

In my last post I described the first part of Nisbet's argument, namely that in the nineteenth century there was an optimistic account of the growing "individuation" of society. It was assumed that the individual was self-sufficient and had all that was needed to fulfil his potential innate to himself. He simply needed to be liberated from tradition, including traditional social relationships and forms of community. Particular relationships were sentimental and outmoded, henceforth society would be organised on more impersonal and "rational" lines (e.g. via the market or general legislation). History, too, had a power of impersonal social organisation that guaranteed social order and progress.

Nisbet then describes a reaction to this nineteenth century view. Intellectuals became increasingly pessimistic about social changes, using terms such as disorganisation, disintegration, decline, insecurity, breakdown and instability. Some excerpts:
At the present time there is in numerous areas of thought a profound reaction to the rationalist point of view...There is a decided weakening of faith in the inherent stability of the individual and in the psychological and moral benefits of social impersonality...A concern with cultural disorganization underlies almost every major philosophy of history in our time...Toynbee's volumes...are directed to the feelings of men who live beneath the pall of insecurity that overhangs the present age.

...Is it not extraordinary how many of the major novelists and poets and playwrights of the present age have given imaginative expression to themes of dissolution and decay - of class, family, community and morality?

...Where the nineteenth century rationalist saw progressively higher forms of order and freedom emerging from the destruction of the old, the contemporary sociologist is not so sanguine. He is likely to see not creative emancipation but sterile insecurity, not the framework of the new but the shell of the old

The writing becomes even more trenchant in the third section of the chapter:
A further manifestation of the collapse of the rationalist view of the conception of man's moral estrangement and spiritual isolation that pervades our age. Despite the influence and power of the contemporary State there is a true sense in which the present age is more individualistic than any other in European history. To examine the whole literature of lament of our time...and to observe the frantic efforts of millions of individuals to find some kind of security of mind is to open our eyes to the perplexities and frustrations that have emerged from the widening gulf between the individual and those social relationships within which goals and purposes take on meaning.

Nisbet makes a similar point here to that of Patrick Deneen in his recent book Why Liberalism Failed, namely that individualism and statism in practice grow together. The more individualistic a society, the greater the role of the state. Nisbet also observes that individualism is counterproductive as it harms the individual by undermining the "social relationships within which goals and purposes take on meaning".

Nisbet continues:
Frustration, anxiety, insecurity, as descriptive words, have achieved a degree of importance in present-day thought and writing that is astonishing..."The natural state of twentieth-century man," the protagonist of a recent novel declares, "is anxiety."

...Where in an earlier literature the release of the hero from society's folkways and moral injunctions and corporate protections was the basis of joyous, confident, assertive individualism, the same release in contemporary literature is more commonly the occasion for morbidity and obsession. Not the free individual but the lost individual; not independence but isolation; not self-discovery but self-obsession; not to conquer but to be conquered: these are the major states of mind in contemporary imaginative literature.

Nisbet then discusses how religious thought had turned against the idea of the "self-sufficiency of man before God":
...this faith in the spiritual integrity of the lone individual is perceptibly declining in much Protestant thought of the present time..."It is this autonomous individual who really ushers in modern civilization and who is completely annihilated in the final stages of that civilization," declares Reinhold Niebuhr...Buber, Maritain, Brunner, Niebuhr, and Demant are but the major names in the group that has come to recognise the atomizing effects of the long tradition of Western individualism upon man's relation to both society and God.

Nisbet gives further evidence from the fields of sociology and psychology and ends the chapter with a quote from the historian Toynbee, who described the "proletarian" as having a consciousness "of being disinherited from his ancestral place in society and being unwanted in a community which is his rightful home."

What can we conclude from Nisbet's work? First, we have to acknowledge that the problems that we see around us today have roots that go back a long way. It is particularly interesting that Nisbet describes his own time as an age of anxiety, given the anxiety epidemic among young people today. It seems as if we have gone through a cycle and ended up back in 1953, but in an even more difficult situation.

And this raises an important question. If Nisbet was right, and the intellectual climate of his own time was highly sensitive to the level of anxiety, insecurity, guilt and alienation existing within the culture, then why have we cycled back to it once more? Why didn't this intellectual climate lead to a lasting change of course?

I can suggest several possible reasons but I'll leave this discussion to the next post.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Nisbet: the quest for community

Robert Nisbet
I'm reading The Quest for Community by the American sociologist Robert Nisbet. The book was published in 1953 which serves as a reminder that the problems besetting the West go back further than some are willing to acknowledge.

The first chapter is titled "The Loss of Community". It begins,
Surely the outstanding characteristic of contemporary thought on man and society is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration. The fears of the nineteenth-century conservatives in Western Europe, expressed against a background of increasing individualism, secularism and social dislocation, have become, to an extraordinary degree, the insights and hypotheses of present-day students of man in society.

This is put very clearly. Nisbet believed that the thought of his age was focused on the problems of personal alienation and cultural disintegration.

What had brought society to such a point? Nisbet continues by noting that in the nineteenth century, the age of individualism and rationalism, words such as individual, change, progress, reason and freedom carried great symbolic value:
All of these words reflected a temper of mind that found the essence of society to lie in the solid fact of the discrete individual - autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable - and the essence of history to lie in the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past.

He is pointing here, in part, to the "anthropology" of liberal modernity, i.e. its framework for understanding man and society. Liberal moderns based their framework on the "discrete individual", i.e. man considered alone, separate and unrelated. It was then fitting, as a perfecting of society, that history would gradually liberate this self-sufficient and autonomous individual from a pre-modern past that emphasised instead a vision of man fulfilling his nature within a network of communal relationships.

Nisbet adds:
Competition, individuation, dislocation of status and custom, impersonality, and moral anonymity were hailed by the rationalist because these were the forces that would be most instrumental in liberating the individual from the dead hand of the past and because through them the naturally stable and rational individual would be given an environment in which he could develop illimitably his inherent potentialities. Man was the primary and solid fact; relationships were purely derivative. All that was necessary was a scene cleared of the debris of the past.

Again, it was assumed that man was to be understood as a discrete individual, not as someone whose nature was expressed and fulfilled in relationship to others. And so these traditional relationships were thought of negatively as limitations holding back the potential of individuals, rather than as the social framework allowing the individual to reach toward his better and fuller nature. (Nisbet seems to have thinkers like J.S. Mill in mind when describing nineteenth century thought.)

Those who pointed to the costs of "individuation" were met with the response that progress required periods of disorder (an argument still heard today):
If there were some, like Taine, Ruskin, and William Morris, who called attention to the cultural and moral costs involved - the uprooting of family ties, the disintegration of villages, the displacement of craftsmen, and the atomization of ancient securities - the apostles of rationalism could reply that these were the inevitable costs of Progress. After all, it was argued - argued by liberals and radicals alike - in all great ages of achievement there is a degree of disorder, a snapping of the ties of tradition and security.

Nisbet's next point is interesting. He argues that the nineteenth century had faith "in the harmonies of nature", in the sense that the "natural man" - freed from "artificial" constraints of traditional social relationships and conventional morality - would then release his true natural potential and forge more authentic relationships. Therefore, the individual was right to follow his natural interest, guided by reason:
This was the age of optimism, of faith in the abstract individual and in the harmonies of nature. In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, what we are the matchless picture of a child of nature revolting against the tyrannies of village, family, and conventional morality...In the felicities and equalities of nature Huck finds joyous release from the cloistering prejudices and conventions of old morality. Truth, justice and happiness lie in man alone.

In many areas of thought and imagination we find like perspectives. The eradication of old restraints, together with the prospect of new and more natural relationships in society, relationships arising directly from the innate resources of individuals, prompted a glowing vision of society in which there would be forever abolished the parochialisms and animosities of a world founded upon kinship, village, and church. Reason, founded upon natural interest, would replace the wisdom Burke and his fellow conservatives had claimed to find in historical processes of use and wont, of habit and prejudice.

Let's stop there for a moment. If Nisbet is correct, there already existed in the 1800s a framework of thought in which it was tremendously difficult to defend traditional society. What was inherited was thought to artificially restrict a self-sufficient, "natural" autonomous individual. Restraints on behaviour did not exist to secure a common good, but were irrational limitations on a pursuit of individual "natural interest". (I criticised this type of thinking in an earlier post Every Eve knows and follows the best path?)

And how was "reason" understood? Things get worse here: our particular loyalties and attachments were thought to be based not on reason but sentiment. Reason was connected instead to general principles which would govern abstract social groups, with these groups ever expanding in composition. Nisbet quotes the observations of the nineteenth century Russian sociologist Ostrogorski that,
Henceforth, man's social relations "were bound to be guided not so much by sentiment, which expressed the perception of the particular, as by general principles, less intense in their nature perhaps, but sufficiently comprehensive to take in the shifting multitudes of which the abstract social groups were henceforth composed, groups continually subject to expansion by reason of their continual motion."

An Australian Prime Minister of the early 1900s, Alfred Deakin, was torn by this idea that the particular was to be rejected in favour of a constant expansion toward the universal (see Deakin's strange contradiction). On the one hand, he thought that the loss of the particular would lead to a flattening of identity; on the other hand, he associated the "expansion" to the universal with a vision of progress.

Nisbet explains the nineteenth century mindset further:
Between philosophers as far removed as Spencer and Marx there was a common faith in the organizational powers of history and in the self-sufficiency of the individual...Both freedom and order were envisaged generally in terms of the psychology and politics of individual release from the old.

We see this in the social sciences of the age. What was scientific psychology but the study of forces and states of mind within the natural individual, assumed always to be autonomous and stable? Political science and economics were, in their dominant forms, concerned with legal and economic atoms - abstract human beings - and with impersonal relationships supplied by the market or by limited general legislation.

Above everything towered the rationalist's monumental conviction of the organizational character of history - needing occasionally to be facilitated, perhaps, but never directed - and of the self-sufficing stability of the discrete individual.

It's important to grasp the importance of this view of history. If historical movement has a direction of its own, one with an organisational power that is a guarantor of social stability and progress, then it logically becomes wrong to uphold a traditional way of life - as this would then disrupt the proper organisational power of history.

So if Nisbet is right about all this, there were a number of features of nineteenth century thought which were dissolving of traditional society:

1. An anthropology based on the discrete individual, rather than man embedded in society.

2. A view that the individual was self-sufficient and that his potential was therefore restricted by traditional social relations and moral conventions.

3. The idea that relations flowing from the innate resources of the discrete individual were "natural" in opposition to the "artificial" relationships associated with traditional family and community life.

4. The notion that individuals should act according to "natural interest" rather than a common good.

5. The belief that particular loyalties and attachments were based on mere sentiment and that this was inferior to the "rational" formulation of general principles to regulate ever expanding abstract social groups.

6. The faith in the organisational power of history as a guarantor of progress.

If such ideas hold for too long they will inevitably have an effect - so we should not be surprised at the hollowing out of culture that afflicted most Western nations by the mid-twentieth century.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.