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.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Mary's moral dilemma

Mary has a moral dilemma. She wants to be a good liberal but she is concerned about the real world effects of liberal morality:

The first part of the moral dilemma is easy to explain. Liberalism says that the highest moral good is a freedom to act on our will unimpeded (as long as we don't impede others). Therefore, women should be "free to express themselves sexually" and in order to extend this freedom (to remove negative consequences) there should be easy access to abortion, contraceptives and an absence of judgement from others, hence no slut shaming.

The liberal approach to nature deepens this account of morality. Traditionally, humans were thought to stand within nature and therefore we attempted to discern our higher nature and to work within a natural order of being. But liberal modernity has tended to see nature instead as something that we stand outside of and have mastery over, so that we may then use nature to fulfil whatever our wants may be.

Therefore, it is often pointless to say to a liberal things like "open relationships will lead to jealousy" or "men will tend to have a stronger commitment to raising their own biological children". The instinctive liberal response will be that nature shouldn't get in the way of whatever people desire and that it is simply wrong to let jealousy or paternal instincts place limits on schemes to maximise individual choice. Some liberals will assume that objections do not really express aspects of nature, but are simply one group of people attempting to put their own wants ahead of others, i.e. that it is an attempt to assert power over others.

Mary wants to accept the liberal approach to morality. But she has noticed a problem. Women have been told that they should express themselves sexually without restraint. The real world effects of this message are considerable. It has led many women to treat their teens and twenties as party girl years in which they compete for relationships with a relatively small number of sexually attractive men. These men then have a wealth of options and can play the field. In the meantime, the family man culture takes a hit - many of the men left behind begin to take a more dismal view of relationships.

So how is Mary's moral dilemma resolved? I know a lot of men would like to resolve it by suggesting that women be free to express themselves sexually - with their husbands. But this too is inadequate. Our sexuality isn't meant to be freely expressed. It has its own proper ends, even within marriage. It can be a significant force for good, more deeply uniting a husband and wife in love, or it can make our relationships and our own being more base - it can disorder relationships and aspects of self.

Here's another complication in resolving the dilemma. Culture has a major effect in shaping how people behave. It is therefore difficult to resolve the issue at an individual level. For instance, the higher forms of relationships are not easily achieved. They require that both the husband and wife were raised as children within a stable, loving family setting so that they both grow up capable of secure attachments. They require that both the husband and wife grow up in a high trust culture, so that each is willing to make themselves vulnerable to the other (otherwise they will aim, in self-protection, at independence). They require that both are raised in a culture that encourages a sense of loyalty and mutuality between the sexes, rather than one that promotes the idea of men and women as competing sex classes. They require that both are raised in a culture that places love and spiritual goods above hedonistic or materialistic ones. They require that both are raised in a culture that promotes moral prudence - a capacity to discern higher moral goods and to act virtuously to attain them.

What this means is that leaving the issue to people to determine as individuals will rule out, for most people, the opportunity to experience the higher expressions of sexuality. It requires a community to deliberately create and uphold a culture for these higher expressions of sexuality to become widely available.

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, June 30, 2019

Ginsburg on feminism

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, once defined feminism as follows:
"Feminism … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, 'Free to be You and Me.' Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent."

This definition conjures up a feeling that feminism is an expansive movement, one that is opening up new vistas of human experience to people, more opportunities, new fields of endeavour.

Maybe this is what some feminists intended or hoped for. I would argue, though, that in practice things have moved the opposite way - that there has been a narrowing of life for most people, a "thinning" of human experience, especially of those aspects of life that once provided a sense of meaning, identity and emotional support to individuals.

Why have things moved the wrong way? It is important to understand that the principle set out by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a matter of logic, disallows as much as it permits. And what it disallows is, arguably, much more significant that what it grants.

What Ginsburg is arguing for is the autonomy principle, namely that what matters is a freedom to self-determine. Whatever is a barrier to us self-determining is thought of as a limitation, a cage, from which we have to be liberated.

We do not get to determine our sex. Therefore, according to the autonomy principle our sex should not influence what we might do or be in life. Ginsburg herself wrote:
The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage

And the Marlo Thomas song that she believes defines feminism has the stanzas:
They're closing down 'Girl Land'
Some say it's a shame
It used to be busy
Then nobody came

... And soon in the park
That was 'Girl Land' before
You'll do as you like
And be who you are.

There is an unfortunate logic at play here in which a girl can only "do as you like / And be who you are" by denying her own girlhood, something that you would think would be at the core of who she is and how she identifies.

It is the same when it comes to family life. To be autonomous means being independent. But a stable, successful marriage requires that men and women cultivate those aspects of their given nature, and those social roles, that make them truly interdependent.

Similarly, successful relationships require that individuals discipline themselves to a higher concept of behaviour, one that promotes high trust and one that places relationships within a larger concept of the good (of service to family, community, nation, God). But autonomy emphasises that we be free to act as we please, to act, as the song puts it, "as you like" without limitations. And so there is a shift to a low trust society with an unstable culture of family life.

There is also an assumption made by those who push autonomy that what matters most as a measure of life is our career. Career success is thought to override other aspects of life that were once thought significant, such as family. We are supposed to live primarily for one thing alone, for our job and for the values associated with it - for work values.

This is more than acceptable to those who have the most power in society. First, because it represents their own value set, but also because it focuses human life on patterns of work and consumption that benefits the plutocracy at the top of society.

If you think back just a few generations, an individual might have felt deeply connected in terms of purpose, social role, belonging, pride, self-worth, commitment, love and identity to the communities they were a part of (town, city, state, nation etc.); to family life and the goods associated with this; to their manhood or womanhood and the identity/values/roles attached to this; to long established ideals of moral behaviour (including to honour); and to the experience of what was "transcendent" in life (not self-determined, but a given part of existence) that connected us to the good, the beautiful and the true (in nature, in art, in religion, in love).

Can we trade all of this for a working life within a corporation or institution and claim that our lives have been expanded? That we have a wider circle of life? Or even that we are freer to be ourselves?

In my own experience, the answer is no. It feels instead as if life is being directed, over time, into a singular and narrower channel. This channel begins with the idea that what matters most is that we are self-determined, moves on to the related idea that our lives are then measured by self-achievement within the market place, which then means that we ideally cultivate "executive focus" skills as a means to this success, which then means that our lives are increasingly regulated by the needs and demands of the corporations or institutions we work for.

I am not entirely against this aspect of life. The pressures of work can help us, for instance, to achieve a higher level of self-governance and therefore build character. My concern is that there is little to delimit it, to provide boundaries to prevent it entirely dominating the culture we inhabit.

Which brings me to a further problem with Ruth Bader Ginsburg's approach to expanding life. According to her, the aim is to remove limits or barriers, as this will then give greater opportunity. But limits or barriers are not always a bad thing. They can protect. They can provide a delineated space within which certain aspects of life can be safely cultivated. They can demarcate, i.e. mark out spaces within which the variety of life can be maintained.

If we really wanted to maximise "self-determination" the smart thing would be to establish, as a community, an understanding of a common good, i.e. of what matters most in our individual lives within a community and then to act to secure this common good. This would give us a much greater control over the course of our lives.

As things stand now, our lives are being radically shaped by forces that we feel are alien to us: by powerful interests in society, by distant government, by a media we have no control over, and by a political philosophy which promises freedom from limitation, but which fails to delimit or protect or uphold, and which therefore places no barriers to the ever expanding dominance of work and consumption as the major source of values in modern life.

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, June 24, 2019

Augustine on freedom

In my recent post on Senator Hawley, I found myself writing about Pelagius - a figure from the early church.

Pelagius is associated with the idea that we, as humans, are free to self-determine, in the sense that we have the power to choose freely between good and evil.

St Augustine was not so sure. He believed that what lay behind the choices we make was more complex and that a "freed will" required both knowledge and feeling to be integrated. This integration of the human will was made possible "by an inseparable connection between growing self-determination and dependence on a source of life that always escapes self-determination".

I'm not enough of a theologian to be fully aware of the implications of this concept of the role of grace. But it does seem to have led Augustine to a sophisticated concept of freedom in which our efforts to self-determine take place, inseparably, in relationship with something that we know is not ours to will. And so freedom is not to be understood in terms of choice:
Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.

(Source: Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, p.376)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

On middle class life

The middle class has proven resistant to traditionalism. I want to explain some of the reasons for this and suggest how we might identify and appeal to the more disaffected members of this class.

Middle class life today is based on two distinct value sets. The first set I would call elite status values. These are materialistic values such as money, power, social status and conspicuous consumption. The pursuit of career success is at the heart of this value set.

Elite status values aren't new. I remember reading about middle class life in the mid-1800s. It was supposedly the case that a young man wasn't thought to be in a position to marry until he had enough resources to afford to stable horses and have a carriage at his disposal. This meant that some men had to wait until their 30s before they had any prospects for marriage.

What is new is that status has become more narrowly materialistic. Middle-class men in the past were also judged on other criteria, such as their status within a family as husbands and fathers; their uprightness; their masculine character; their commitment to a church; their taste in the fine arts; their education and learning; their self-control and so on. It's an extraordinary thing today to read character portraits that were written in the early to mid-1800s as they are so detailed and perceptive regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the men being described.

The second middle class value set is that of liberal autonomy. The good here is not so much having money, power and status but a freedom to do what you have a mind to do - to freely pursue your aims whatever they might be. It is thought to be just for everyone to have an equal right to this value of individual autonomy.

In certain respects these two value sets are in harmony. If you achieve great success in obtaining money and social influence then you are likely to have more lifestyle choice. Also, by committing yourself to the second value set you can persuade yourself that your life is not narrowly about money but also about a cause (of justice, freedom, equality etc.).

However, there is also a sense in which the two value sets are incompatible. Someone who commits themselves to the corporate grind is not really living a life in which they can choose freely to do whatever they have a mind to do. Their life is closely regulated to meet the needs of the corporation or institution they work for. Also, not everyone has an "equal right" to actually achieve elite status - if they did, then the status would no longer be elite. Most people who commit to the values of elite status will never actually experience this status. They will do the hard work but not get the desired reward. So the egalitarian aspect of the liberal autonomy value set is not compatible with the elitist aspect of the elite values set.

Middle class values are, therefore, not entirely coherent. Nonetheless, people willingly or unwillingly conform to them. If we look at middle class men, I think they fall into two camps. There are some middle class men who are by nature materialistic and ambitious. They are unsettled in life until they achieve career success. There is an equally large group of men, however, who are not like this. These men commit to career not because they think material success is important in itself, but because it is a means to other goods in life, especially the opportunity to attract a wife and to form a family (but also to fulfil aspects of manhood, such as successfully providing for a family, and to raise up the next generation to perpetuate familial and national traditions etc.)

For this second group of men, long hours in an office will seem like a considerable sacrifice in life, and they will be hoping for some reward or recognition for their efforts in bearing this burden. In the past, these men had a good chance of an enduring marriage (admittedly there was no guarantee of a happy marriage); of raising children within their own tradition; and of gaining a level of respect and acknowledgement within society as husbands and fathers.

As for middle class women, they too are committed to achieving elite status. The question for women is whether they aim to do this independently via careers, through marriage or both.

I work among women at the lower end of the middle class pecking order. These are women who are strongly committed to elite status values but who have no prospect of anything other than stressful working lives. A high percentage are either divorced or childless. They are under constant pressure to meet work demands or else face the threat of being called into the boss's office to justify their failings. It is in the nature of our industry that the work consumes a lot of time at home as well.

These women are often discontent and disgruntled, but they are still strongly supportive of the middle class values system. The problem is that they have been raised to believe that men, just in virtue of being men, have complete access to both middle class value sets. In other words, they believe that men already have all the elite status rewards and all the autonomous power to act as they want.

It's a strange belief, perhaps based, in part, on the "apex fallacy" of looking only at those men at the very top of society. What it means, though, is that they think that the way to solve their problems is to force men to share the goods that men are supposedly hoarding for themselves and won't give up.

These women often complain that men have easy lives, can do what they want, that marriage only benefits men, that men have all the power in relationships and so on. It is a mindset destructive of loving relationships, which then further cements the position of these women at the bottom of the elite values pecking order.

But you can see why traditionalism makes no headway among these women. The worse their lives get, the more they double down on the belief that men are to blame. They are held to the system as well by their belief that no matter how difficult their lives it is all for the cause of female liberation.

Unsurprisingly, traditionalism is strongest among middle class women who have commitments other than elite status or autonomy. These are usually religious women who view being a wife and mother as serious vocations.

If traditionalism is to make headway within the middle class, it's more likely to be among men (at first anyway). Not the naturally ambitious, materialistic men, but among those who sign onto careers as a means to achieve other, non-material goods in life.

These other goods are increasingly difficult to obtain - the expectation is growing that we are meant to find a materialistic justification for our lives to be sufficient (combined with some sort of superficial "wokeness" on social issues).

It is likely that numbers of these men will become disaffected. They won't find much joy in the prospect of becoming "bugmen" - corporate wage slaves whose only rewards are ethnic cuisine, new technology and shallow virtue signalling.

So one of our tasks is to find ways to appeal to the sensibilities and values of these men (ideally we would be in a position to concentrate numbers and provide real world, small scale communities, but we're not there yet).

One way to appeal to these men is to develop our own version of elite status. We don't have to reject career success as one aspect of this (industry and self-discipline are virtues after all) but it should go beyond this to include masculine leadership within the family and community.

We can encourage the link between elite status and "polis life" - the active contribution of men to the building and governance of community.

We can also appeal to the type of men I am speaking about by clearly affirming the non-material goods in life that traditionally motivated men. We can, for instance, promote the dignity of the roles of father and husband, connection to people and place, and the cultivation of masculine character.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Senator Hawley's Great Speech

Hawley with his wife and two sons being sworn in
Josh Hawley is currently the youngest American senator, aged only 39. He was invited to give the commencement address for King's College in New York City.

Early in his address, Senator Hawley spoke of a failure in America's public philosophy which he urged the graduates to rectify:
"Your work is only just beginning. For the wider world now beckons you and it is a world in need. And so this morning I remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul, "Fan into a flame the gift that God has given you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, and of love and of discipline" - and you will need all three to meet the challenges of our present age.

For we stand at one of the great turning points of our national history. When the failure of our public philosophy and the crisis of our public life can no longer be ignored, and what we do about these needs will define the era that is to come.

For decades now our politics and our culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition. Of escape from God and community. A philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice. It is a philosophy that has defined our age."

This is the philosophy of individual autonomy that is most commonly associated with political liberalism. But Senator Hawley does not name liberalism as the problem. Instead, he believes that we are living in an age of Pelagius, a British theologian who was condemned as a heretic in 418 AD.

Which raises the question of why Senator Hawley connects political liberalism with the theology of a heretical British monk. At first glance, the connection seems tenuous. Pelagius would not have endorsed a modern liberal morality. He belonged to the ascetic wing of the early church. He believed that through our free will we could achieve moral perfection and therefore salvation. His theology was morally demanding. He would have been aghast at the liberal idea that the highest good is a freedom to choose in any direction.

Nonetheless, Pelagius is looked on warmly by some liberals. Why? It seems that when it comes to the critical debate in the early church between Pelagius and Augustine some liberals instinctively prefer the Pelagian view.

The Pelagian view of salvation gives a greater role to individual self-determination. The stress is more on what we achieve through our own will, rather than through unmerited grace or through the sacraments of the church. It is claimed that Pelagius regarded Augustine's theology as giving man too supine a role in relation to God (which made me think of the liberal humanist intellectuals of the late 1800s and early 1900s who wanted man to be co-active with God in steering humanity to its ultimate destination).

The Pelagian view also gives greater emphasis to human perfectibility. The Augustine view was that man inherited sin via the fall and therefore all men, even the saints, were blemished and in need of grace. The Pelagians are said to have rejected this doctrine of original sin. This view would certainly have appealed to some of the early utopian liberals, such as the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He and his circle bristled at the idea that man's nature was tainted. They believed that we could live in this world as in the Garden of Eden, in an idyllic and perfect state of freedom and equality, doing whatever we had a mind to do, and that this was only prevented by the existence of power structures in society.

Charlotte Allen, writing in First Things, explains the appeal of Pelagius to liberal progressives as follows:
Augustine is at odds with our prevailing climate of opinion, which regards obedience to the will of God as servility, the idea of eternal damnation as unspeakably cruel, and mankind as essentially a race of good people held back only by reactionary political attitudes and unjust social structures. Such views have turned Pelagius into a modern hero, a progressive before his time. As Michael Axworthy wrote in the New Statesman last December, those living in the “liberal, humanist culture of western Europe today . . . believe in free will, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the ability of people to make the right choices, do good, and to make things better.” We are, in a word, Pelagians.

Regardless of how much blame we apportion to Pelagian theology, Senator Hawley does a great job in identifying troubling aspects of "our public philosophy". For instance, in commenting on a significant Supreme Court decision, Hawley observes:
It is the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but also from society: from family, from tradition. The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he or she is most alone, able to choose his or her own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighbourhood and church, these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice.

Senator Hawley makes a further important point. This view of freedom most suits the elite, who are in a better position to imagine themselves having significant choices in life:
The truth is the people at the top of our society have built a culture and an economy that work mainly for themselves. Our cultural elites look down on the plain virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice, things like humility and faithfulness. They celebrate self-promotion, self-discovery, self-aggrandisement...The elites assume that their interests are vital, while everyone else's can be done without, they assume that their value preferences should prevail, while denigrating the loves and loyalties of the great middle of America...Our Pelagian public philosophy says liberty is all about choosing your own ends - that turns out to be a philosophy for the privileged and for the few. For everybody else, for those who cannot build an identity based around what they buy, for those whose life is anchored in family and home and's Pelagianism robs them of the liberty that is rightfully theirs.

I'd like to draw this point out further. It is concerning to see the anxiety epidemic that is growing among young people. I think the following explanation for this epidemic is perceptive:
I’ve observed in myself and others a deep seated anxiety (which can manifest itself in depression, arrogance, self-loathing, or an affect of neurotic superiority, among other things) which seems to follow from the idea that our worth is ours to either prove or create. Under this idea, even if our worth is unconditional we must live a certain way to make sure that others know this — and if the value of our existence is in our own hands, then we need to make sure we live a certain way in order to justify our existence in this world.

There has been a significant change in how individuals derive self-worth even during the course of my own lifetime. Of course individual ambition and a desire for personal achievement existed when I was younger. But this was not the only source of people's sense of worth. There used to be a much stronger connection to larger social entities that individuals identified with, took pride in and derived a sense of meaning from.

Individual achievement was supplemented by membership of communities with a common fund of achievement that everyone could draw on. These communities were richly overlaid. I remember the civic pride in local suburbs, parochial attachments to city and to state, a sense of national family, as well as participation in a larger Anglo and then Western culture and civilisation. Most of all, there was a positive sense of belonging to a tradition of Australian manhood.

Senator Hawley is right to express concern at the logic of the reigning public philosophy. If it is all about my own self-determined achievement, measured in terms of status, money and social power, then there will be a severe hierarchy of winners and losers (and many of those who "win" will work themselves to the bone to do so).

I believe one of the reasons the philosophy will ultimately fail is because it does denigrate and undermine the loves and loyalties of the common man, expecting him instead to join a contest for elite status, with all the demands and sacrifices of this aim, but with little prospect of success.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Houellebecq & Liberal Modernity

Michel Houellebecq
There's an interesting review at American Affairs of Sérotonine, the latest novel by French author Michel Houellebecq.

The reviewer is none other than Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch party Forum for Democracy, which made significant gains in the elections in The Netherlands earlier this year.

Baudet notes that the characters in Houellebecq's novels are portrayed as grappling with the alienating effects of liberal modernity - of a society which is focused on maximising individual autonomy to a degree that dissolves traditional forms of identity and belonging and which also makes stable, enduring relationships difficult to maintain:
At some point in the course of their lives, all of Houellebecq’s characters are forced to acknowledge that their romantic ideals have be­come untenable in the modern age, since individualism has made profound, long-term relationships impossible. This simple idea forms the fundamental conviction of Houellebecq’s work. It echoes, in certain ways, Marxist Verelendungstheorie: as technological inno­vations have made jobs boring and interchangeable, and as free trade has destroyed traditional farm life and honest labor, we now pass through life as atomized wage slaves in the service of incomprehensible, unfathomable government organizations and overwhelmingly powerful multinational corporations. Erratic consumer preferences, capricious fashions, and an unpredictable herd instinct dictate the opinions (or the whims and fancies) of most of us who no longer have a family, a home, a church, and a nation to reinforce our sense of identity. Unable to chart a course for ourselves, we are floating around in an empty sea. Rudderless. All control of life—andof who we are—is lost.

The fault lies on both sides of the mainstream political spectrum. As a European, Baudet labels these the social democrats on the left and the liberals (classical liberals) on the right:
Now this fundamental point which Houellebecq makes time and again deserves further reflection, because it challenges the very fun­damentals of both the contemporary “Left” and the “Right.” It challenges modern anthropology as such. Both the social-dem­ocratic and the liberal wing of the modern political spectrum (re­spectively advocating the welfare state and the free market) wish to maximize individual autonomy. Liberalism and socialism differ when it comes to the most effective way to achieve that objective, but they do not differ in the objective itself. They are both liberation movements; they both want the complete emancipation of the indi­vidual.

And both base their vision of society on the (unfounded but supposedly “self-evident”) principle that every individual enjoys certain “inalienable rights,” which by definition eclipse all other claims, and to which all other ties, loyalties, and connections must ultimately be subordinated. Over time, all such institutions that the individual requires to fully actualize a meaningful existence—such as a family and a connection to generations past and future, a nation, a tradition, perhaps a church—will weaken and eventually disappear. Today, even new life (in the womb) may be extinguished to avoid disturbing the individual’s freedom. In the Netherlands (where I live), suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints—such as the duty to care for your parents—are placed on the indi­vidual.

It is this fundamental assumption of the modern age—that individual autonomy (be it through free markets or welfarism) leads to happiness—which Michel Houellebecq challenges.

The weakness that Baudet identifies in Houellebecq's writing is defeatism. Houellebecq captures the descent skillfully but cannot see a way out.

There is much more in the review - I recommend clicking on the link and reading it in full.

Saturday, June 01, 2019