Sunday, March 24, 2024

Can we support this type of marriage?

If we were to go back to late Medieval/early modern Germany, what did marriage look like? I recently read part of a book by Judith Hurwich, titled "Noble Strategies". It describes marital practices amongst the aristocratic elite. 

What I found most interesting was the conflict between an older lay German practice of marriage and the Christian one. The lay German practice, at least amongst the nobility, was that a husband could set aside a wife and live openly instead with a concubine (and have children with her). Unsurprisingly, it was then generally expected (amongst lay writers) that it was the wife who had the responsibility of maintaining marital concord. After all, she was the one who risked being set aside if the marriage failed.

The Church gained control over lay marriage by the twelfth century and by the thirteenth was beginning to campaign against concubinage. However, it took some time for municipal laws to change, and for open, co-residential concubinage to be punished. The earliest change to the law in Germany was in Strasbourg in 1337, then Ulm (1387), Wuerzburg (1418) and Frankfurt (1468). You can see that the pace of change was slow, so much so that it was still in play in the 1500s. 

If we describe this earlier understanding of marriage, in which male adultery was permissible, as was the setting aside of a wife, as marriage 1.0, then Christian marriage becomes marriage 2.0. Again, it is not surprising that when both spouses were equally bound to fidelity, that the responsibility of upholding marital concord also shifted. In the 1500s it began to be increasingly considered the role of both spouses to maintain harmony within the marriage.

This more egalitarian view lasted from about 1500 to 1850. From the mid-nineteenth century, liberalism began to aim at the autonomy of women. This too took some time. By the 1970s women were entering the higher professions in larger numbers; no fault divorce was introduced; a welfare state had been created; and there was a level of material wealth in society that enabled women to safely and securely divorce their husbands. In a reversal of the situation in Medieval Germany, it was now women who were empowered to set aside their husbands.

Again, unsurprisingly, this has led to a change in who is considered responsible for maintaining marital concord. In marriage 3.0 it is the men who must uphold marital concord or else pay the price. In its roughest expression, this is simply the idea that a man must try to keep his wife happy or else she is entitled to leave him and he is considered at fault for the marital failure. You can see this mindset in the social media post below:

It is uncommon for this change in marriage to be formally acknowledged. Liberals are committed to an egalitarian ideal, so there would be much cognitive dissonance if it were recognised that the current system of marriage is like the pre-Christian one in reverse.

Marriage 3.0 is well entrenched, to the point that many conservatives, in wanting to defend marriage, assume that this version of marriage is what has to be supported. They sometimes do this by claiming that the task of making a woman happy in marriage is a simple and straightforward one, as in the following social media comment:

I want to particularly focus, though, on Nancy Pearcey, who is an academic I genuinely admire. She has, however, accepted the terms of modern marriage. She thinks we can use scientific research to figure out what men can do to make their wives happy and leans on two researchers for support in this, namely John Gottman and Terrence Real. Here she uses Gottman to claim that it is up to men to make marriages work:

And here she fully embraces the idea that the failure of marriage can generally be attributed to husbands not pleasing wives emotionally. It is a more sophisticated expression of the idea that the husband must make the wife happy.

So is all this right? Do men go into marriage not wanting intimacy or closeness? Is it easy to achieve intimacy or closeness with women? Can science provide some sort of definitive answer to the question of what women want? Is the future of marriage men learning how to make their wives happy?

I'm sceptical. Achieving happiness in life depends on a whole raft of factors, as I have outlined in a previous post (Making Lady Lawyer Happy). A husband can contribute to a wife's happiness, but that's as far as it goes. She can be unhappy no matter what he does.

It is also a little naive to believe that it is simple and straightforward for men to divine their wives' emotional needs. It's useful, as an illustration of this, to turn to a review of one of Terrence Real's books. The reviewer summarises the material in the book as follows:
Real faces head-on the reality that many women come into couples work with fierce anger, frustrated by trying to achieve true emotional intimacy with their man. His premise is that many women's responsibilities and aspirations have grown as part of the women's movement and their resulting, empowered roles, during decades when many men's roles and expectations have progressed less dramatically. As difficult as the tone of the anger and complaint, Real suggests the substance of women's frustrations is right-on, which will provide some much needed vindication for women readers.

This book is full of composite examples of couples-therapy sessions where the woman's attitude sounds in complaint and withering anger. The man in these examples sounds clueless, and deeply hurt by the woman's anger. Real's prototypical woman comes off like a nag, shaming while complaining. It is at this point where men typically recoil avoiding facing women's needs, and their own fears.

The man may think, "what's the problem: I am nice and thoughtful. I don't rage or abuse....."

The husbands are trying to meet their wives' emotional needs but the result is not loving intimacy but an abusive rage by their wives before divorce. Why would this be the case? Well, one reason is that the husbands and wives are most likely understanding the very concept of "emotional needs" differently. The husbands think that it means being loving-hearted and affectionate and supportive etc. And the wives? Well, consider the following piece by a practising psychologist, Dr Steven Stosny. I don't entirely agree with the framework he puts forward, but he does paint an interesting picture of what some of his clients mean by "emotional needs":

There is no question that young children have emotional needs in the development of a stable and cohesive sense of self and need help from adults to so do. It’s also true that toddlers cannot distinguish wanting something from needing it, which is why they can become hurt or tantrum-prone when we say “no” to something they want but obviously do not need, like a toy or a treat. At the moment they want it, it feels like they need it; the stronger the feeling, the stronger the feeling gets.

The toddler's brain is active in adulthood when we misinterpret feelings in relationships and confuse wanting, preferring, and desiring with need. It’s how we create a false sense that a lover (parent-figure) must mirror and validate our feelings or else we can't maintain a cohesive sense of self.
So we are no longer in the realm of freely bestowed love. That is no longer the emotional need. The emotional need is to have one's sense of self upheld via validation and mirroring of our wants and desires. It is not enough to be a loving husband to meet this kind of emotional need - this is the terrain of husband as therapist.

Dr Stosny goes on to explain that when we are feeling bad, it triggers the sense of needing to have or to do something, which, if we believe our spouse has to meet our needs, then means that they are at fault for the way we feel:
The perception of need falsely explains much of our negative experience in intimate relationships. If I feel bad in any way for any reason, it's because my partner isn’t meeting my needs. It doesn't matter that I'm tired, not exercising, bored, ineffective at work, or stressed from the commute and the declining stock market, or if I'm mistreating him or her or otherwise violating my values; I’m convinced that I feel bad because she's not meeting my needs.
It gets worse. Eventually, even if the husband gets things perfectly right, there is little sense of gratitude, only anger if things go wrong:
In terms of motivation, emotional needs are similar to maintenance addictions, those that cause discomfort in withdrawal, with no stimulation of reward centers in the brain when gratified. Over time, there’s little or no reward in “getting my needs met,” and lots of resentment when they are not. I may not even notice when you do what I want, but I'll be angry or depressed when you don't.

The resulting mindset is not based around mutuality or reciprocity:

In my long practice, people who are resentful about not feeling “validated” are not in the least interested in validating anyone’s experience that differs from their own. They’re more likely to invalidate–reject, ignore, or judge–other people’s experience when they decide that it differs from their own.
You can see why those women, in the antechamber of divorce, are so witheringly angry and why the men are so hurt and lost. Love has been interpreted as "meeting my emotional needs" and these needs are not for affection or patient understanding or anything like that, but to meet an intensifying and increasingly unrewarding series of wants and preferences understood subjectively as needs, with negative feelings, no matter what their source, also interpreted as failings on the part of the husband.

What would help move us away from 3.0? Some better metaphysics would help. First, an ontology in which the more that we give of ourselves, the greater the fullness in being. This would help shift the emphasis back to an ideal of mutual service within marriage, or, to put it differently, a model of marriage in which we gift of ourselves to our spouse. 

Second, an understanding of our telos (our ends and purposes) as men and women being significantly realised through fulfilling the offices of husband and wife. In other words, there is a common good within marriage, as by being a husband or a wife I fulfil important aspects of who I am as a man or as a woman. 

Third, it would also help to have a more traditional anthropology in which humans are considered to occupy a special place within the hierarchy of creation by being able to rise upward to higher forms of being or to fall downward to more debased forms. The act of love toward a spouse would then be valued as an expression of our higher nature, as something ennobling in itself. Again, this would hopefully help shift the focus away from "if you loved me you would do x, y and z so that my emotional needs get met". 

Finally, I don't want the aim of all this to be misconstrued. When it comes to marriage, there are higher and lower quality women. There are still men who will have rewarding marriages, even in these times. The aim is to become attractive enough as a man to have options with higher quality women, and to intelligently vet these women. 

What does concern me, in writing this, is the culture. In particular, I would consider it unfortunate if conservatives were to defend an understanding of marriage that does not deserve to be conserved.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Laurence Fox & the little spheres

Aristotle's idea of the magnanimous, or great-souled, man is not an easy one to accept ("the great-souled man is justified in despising other people"). One aspect of his concept of magnanimity that is easier to relate to is that a great-souled man is willing to stand on the truth. Aristotle thought that such a man would "care more for the truth than for what people will think; and speak and act openly".

I very much admire the English actor Laurence Fox for being magnanimous in this sense - even though I disagree with his classical liberal politics. Fox recently posted his basic political principle on social media and it is simply the classical liberal understanding of individual freedom:

In such a view, every individual is free to act within their own little sphere, but not to encroach upon anyone else's sphere. The government exists to uphold and police the non-encroachment of our little spheres which is expressed in the language of individual rights.

I do not think this is an adequate way to conceive of freedom or politics. It is a framework that has signally failed to uphold the strength, vitality and integrity of the Western nations which have adopted it.

One reason for this is that if your focus is on each person doing whatever they see fit within their own little sphere, then you have already ceded much ground when it comes to upholding the rational, moral or rightly ordered ends of human life. You have already committed to "whatever they see fit" as the umbrella understanding, so it becomes difficult not to fall into neutrality when it comes to the choices people make. 

Fox himself illustrates this difficulty. He wishes in his social media post to make an argument against the trans movement and against the prescription of drugs for ADHD. But the best he can do is to argue against the use of ADHD drugs or trans surgery on children. He cannot take a principled stance when it comes to these issues in general:

Note that he feels compelled to underscore his general neutrality: "I've got nothing against adults dosing themselves with drugs. Or even removing their reproductive organs, should they so wish". He adopts this neutral position even though he believes that such outcomes are sad.

I do not think you can uphold a society over time on this basis. We should have at least something against people acting in ways that lead to sad outcomes.

If the focus is on each person doing whatever they see fit within their own little sphere, then much ground has been conceded when it comes to how we view the telos - the ends or purposes - of human life. If we were confident that there are distinctive, knowable and objectively existing ends of human life, then it would be irrational and uncaring to suggest that individuals should just do "whatever". Once we go with "whatever" we are leaning toward a telos that is self-defined and subjectively grounded.

For this reason, I don't think that Laurence Fox is on firm ground in taking a stand against the trans movement. If how we realise ourselves is determined subjectively and self-defined, then there does not seem to be a deeply principled way to argue against a man identifying as a woman. Such a man, after all, is "free" to do or to be "whatever" he chooses - that is, if we frame society along the lines that Laurence Fox himself sets out. 

The magnanimous Laurence Fox

On top of all this, there is another very radical consequence of seeing politics in terms of little individual spheres. In one stroke, an essential aspect of the human good is lost. There is no longer a larger circle, a body of people, that we belong to and have a duty to take care of. It is no longer factored in and disappears from view. There are only those little individual spheres.

I think it's helpful if we think about this in terms of bodies. We as individuals have a body. In this sense we are embodied souls. The two aspects of who we are should not be thought of as entirely discrete, not in this life anyway. Our physical body is not just an accidental feature of our self. It is not simply a machine for carrying around our mind. It is an integral part of who we are as a created being. Not only is our own good tied up with the health of our body, but our body is expressive of who we are and of our identity and purposes in this life. 

There is another body that we are a member of. This is the communal body of which we are a part, to which we belong, and through which we transmit across time the supra-individual aspects of our existence, such as our ancestry, our culture, our language, our religion, our manners and mores, and other key aspects of our own distinct tradition. 

And just as our own physical body carries meaning, so too does this communal body. It becomes a unique expression of the human soul in its own right, and as such is a transcendent good that inspires in its members a love of people and place. It is the body through which the individual participates in a much larger tradition that extends through time and place and that has continuity across the generations. And it is the body which contributes importantly to a sense of identity and belonging, that draws out our social commitments, and through which the individual expresses his or her social nature. 

Even in the early modern period, the existence of this body was acknowledged and defended. Descartes wrote:

though each of us is a person distinct from others...we ought still to think that none of us could subsist alone and that each one of us is really one of the many parts of the universe, and more particularly a part of the earth, the state, the society and the family to which we belong by our domicile, our oath of allegiance and our birth.

He is urging that we not just think in terms of our own little individual spheres, but that we recognise the larger spheres of which we are a part.

The idea is put even more forcibly by Francis Bacon in the early 1600s: 

he argues that there "is formed in every thing a double nature of good": "the one, as every thing is a total or substantive in itself": the other, "as it is a part or member of a greater body".

Put differently, there are two kinds of goods found in material nature: the one, goodness per se, or any given objects intrinsic value; the other, goodness insofar as it belongs, and thus contributes to, a collective reality greater than itself.

The appetite for self-preservation corresponds naturally to the safeguarding of a material body's essential goodness, whereas the appetite of union facilitates a basic level of material conjunction for the purposes both of self-preservation and the greater good.

For Francis Bacon there is a double nature of good. There is a good that pertains to the solitary individual. But there is also a goodness that relates to our membership of a greater body, including our contributions toward sustaining it. 

But how can we contribute to something that has been removed from the very design of human life? If there are only those small spheres that we are to stay within, and if goodness is represented by our choosing to do or to be "whatever" without regard to anything else, and by our committing not ever to extend beyond our own little sphere or even to think beyond it in terms of the good, then the larger body will remain undefended and, being subject to attack and to decay, will expire.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Patria & Christianity

Christianity is sometimes held to be a universalist religion. I think that's a flawed understanding, given the assumption in both the Old and New Testaments that people live in God-given nations.

First, let me acknowledge that Christianity is clearly not a tribal religion. The Christian God is conceived to be the God of all nations. Second, it is also clear that we are to extend the moral code of the Bible to all people, not just to those who belong to our own group.

I'd like to focus on one particular Bible passage, from a letter written by Paul to the Ephesians (3:15). The usual translation runs as follows:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.

One interesting thing about this passage is that the word translated here as "family" is in its original Greek the word patria. Patria in modern English means "one's native country or homeland". And what did it mean to the Greeks? 

According to the Expositor's Greek Testament:

The noun πατριά [patria]...means sometimes ancestry, but usually family, race or tribe, i.e., a number of families descended from a common stock, nation or people...Here the word seems to have the widest sense of class, order, nation, community.

The scholars I turned to for the definition of "patria" see it as having a wider meaning than "family" in the sense that we use the term (there is a different word in the Bible for one's household). They consider it to refer to family in a more extended sense such as a clan (think of the Scottish Highland clans who share a common surname denoting a shared ancestry or lineage) or to a tribe or nation (see here for a definition).

So Paul is writing that every extended family/clan/nation on earth is named from God the Father. What does this mean? Well, there are different interpretations, but some commentaries emphasise the idea that "patria" are divinely instituted, albeit imperfectly realised, models of community. Ellicott, for instance, defines "patria" as:

every body of rational beings in earth or heaven united under one common fatherhood, and bearing the name (as in a family or clan) of the common ancestor.
He explains the passage as meaning:

The Apostle looks upon the fathers whose names they delight to bear as the imperfect representatives of God, and upon the family itself, with its head, as the type in miniature of the whole society of spiritual beings united in sonship to the Father in heaven

Another commentator writes:

God is the prototype Father; He is the archetypical Father. Every other family derives its family pattern from Him. There is a policy of Scripture that relationship to God revolves around the family. Our descent from the Father affects our nature...

...there is the idea that God formed the principle of the family as a divine institution. This is especially important in our time because of the assault on the family. The family originates in the very nature of God as Father

The Expositor's Greek Testament has this:

The sense, therefore, is “the Father, from whom all the related orders of intelligent beings, human and angelic, each by itself, get the significant name of family, community”. The various classes of men on earth, Jewish, Gentile, and others, and the various orders of angels in heaven, are all related to God, the common Father, and only in virtue of that relation has any of them the name of family. The father makes the family; God is the Father of all; and if any community of intelligent beings, human or angelic, bears the great name of family, the reason for that lies in this relation of God to it.

On this interpretation, God created the patria which are patterned on a model of community that spans both the earth and the heavens. God is the ultimate source of all the patria and the patria function in this world as a necessarily imperfect manifestation of a more perfect or ideal model of community derived from God the Father.

Where else in the Bible do we find the word "patria" being used? Well, there is Luke 2:4:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David

Here patria has been translated as lineage, but the commentary again states that the word itself means "Lineage, ancestry; a family, tribe. As if feminine of a derivative of pater; paternal descent, i.e. a group of families or a whole race." This passage is not as meaningful as the first one but is an example of ancestry or tribe being part of the cloth of human community in the Bible.

More significantly there is Acts 3:25. This is normally translated as follows:

You are the children of those prophets, and you are included in the covenant God promised to your ancestors. For God said to Abraham, ‘Through your descendants all the families on earth will be blessed.’

Here, again, the word patria has been translated by "families", even though it means a more extended family of people with a common lineage or ancestry. The King James Version opts for the word "kindreds". Meyer's NT commentary insists the translation should be "nations". Barnes writes:

The word translated "kindreds" πατριαὶ patriai denotes "those who have a common father or ancestor," and is applied to families. It is also referred to those larger communities which were descended from the same ancestor, and thus refers to nations, Ephesians 3:15. Here it evidently refers to "all nations."

So God is saying to Abraham that, through his descendants, all the nations on earth will be blessed. Why would there be mention of nations being blessed if nations are not part of the divine order?

Saturday, January 13, 2024

On the origins of the great replacement

The following post was written by a guest contributor, Alex J. Rendell (the first ever guest post at this site!)

Many explanations have been proffered as to the origins of the Great Replacement, but none thus far have been able to withstand close scrutiny: specifically, they have not been able to explain why, where, and when replacement migration has occurred. 

If, for example, the problem was “white people,” then all white nations would be undergoing replacement. And yet this is clearly not the case. Likewise for economic modernity (not all first world nations), Christianity (not all Christian nations), colonialism (not all/only former empires), Die Juden (not all/only nations with a prominent Jewish diaspora), and so forth.

The one risk factor that *does* seem to account for practically all the evidence is this: the Hajnal Line, which separates Western Europe (centered on the North Sea coast) from the rest of Eurasia. With very few (and not particularly problematic) exceptions, it is fair to say that all and only countries north and west of this line (together with their offshoots in the New World) are undergoing replacement migration. 

Hajnal line

What is it that makes this region so unique? What accounts for the fact that, as a friend of mine once put it, the average Greek communist is a thousand times more “racist” than even the most right-wing Sweden Democrat? 

To answer this, we first need to draw a distinction within the concept of demographic replacement. All peoples, everywhere, have always experienced demographic replacement: as one generation retires from the workforce, another steps forward to take its place; as one generation grows old and dies, another is born and flourishes. 

Under conditions of economic modernity, however, this organic process of self-replacement is no longer occurring (one might call it “The Great Non-Replacement”): all first world countries (including the Jewish diaspora) are affected, and TFR statistics reflect as much.

What is special about the West is that this process of self-replacement is not only not occurring (as is also the case in Eastern Europe and Asia), but has in fact been rejected in favour of “other-replacement,” i.e., the replacement of retirees not by their own children and grandchildren, but by immigrants to whom they are unrelated. 

How are we to explain this? Well, the Hajnal Line describes a pattern of marriage and family life characterised above all by what one might call “voluntary associationism”: the belief that free association among relative strangers is or should be the bedrock of life in society. Indeed, for Northwest Europeans, marriage itself has been construed primarily as a social contract entered into on a voluntary (uncoerced) basis by a comparatively unrelated (no cousin marriage) bride and groom, one that normatively gives rise to a neolocal household, detached and separate from both sets of parents.

This emphasis on voluntary association is, of course, completely legitimate, and has led to a great flourishing of civil society in the West. Churches, clubs, guilds, etc. existing for the mutual benefit and support of their members: these are all good things. Moreover, it is certainly superior to a situation in which association is coerced, i.e., in which people are locked into a straightjacket of relationships appointed not for their benefit, but for that of another, and frequently at their expense. One can see here the origins of the characteristic Western emphasis on freedom and individualism, over and against what one might (somewhat uncharitably) call Oriental despotism and collectivism.

This brings us to the great rallying-cry of Western modernity: autonomy (the King of Virtues)! And to the great bugbear of Western modernity: heteronomy (the Queen of Sins)! With the advent (curiously enough, in England) of nominalism and voluntarism during the Late Middle Ages, the locus of valuation was transferred from Being to volition: things were no longer seen as Good (and therefore as valuable) simply in and of themselves, but only insofar as they were (autonomously) chosen. This hypervalorisation of the voluntary (“freedom of indifference”) is what ultimately has led to the reductio ad absurdum of consent-based morality (anything goes, no matter how objectively bad, as long as it is freely willed by all stakeholders).

What does this have to do with the Great Replacement? Well, as I see it, this hypervalorisation of the voluntary has been accompanied by an equally radical devalorisation of the involuntary, which, when applied to the realm of association, has led to the unchosen bonds of kinship being viewed (in contrast to the chosen bonds of friendship and civil society) as of at least questionable value, if not actually bad: “You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family” is the sort of quip that only makes sense on this kind of social/relational voluntarism.

Initially, this seems to have taken the form of “colour-blindness” with respect to kin: one ought not to (publicly) discriminate in favour of people who simply happen to be related to you (taboos against nepotism and other forms of clannish behaviour), but should treat all socio-economic actors fairly, impartially, as individuals, on the basis of their merits, and without respect of persons. It is surely no accident that Libertarianism has been, and remains, an almost exclusively Anglo phenomenon: a fact which to this day forms the basis of liberal nationalism.

Later on, this “blindness with respect to kin” was extended by New World powers to include “blindness with respect to ethny”: anyone could be an American (or Australian, under the WAP), as long as he was a “free white man of good character.” Non-whites were still, at this point, excluded on the grounds that they were too clannish, too untrustworthy to be capable of living in a society built around the free association of individuals, but replacement migration now had a foot very much in the door.

It was not long, however, before both liberal (ethnic) and racial nationalism came to be seen as unfair, arbitrary, and less than ideal: the requirement of ethnic/racial relatedness (not subject to choice) seemed to vitiate the voluntary character of the social order. As long as meritocratic norms were respected, why not have a society colourblind also to race (à la the Civil Rights Movement)? And, more to the point, why not a society built entirely around other-replacement (a voluntary phenomenon: migration)? After all, would not such a (civic nationalist) polity be superior to (or at least more consistently liberal than) one based on self-replacement (an involuntary phenomenon: birth)? The Great Replacement (“immigrants are the real Australians”) was now not only thinkable, but actual.

Moreover, at the same time that the involuntary ties of ethnicity and race were coming under attack, the equally involuntary ties of family life were also being deconstructed (feminism and the sexual revolution). Indeed, all three are really just variations on the same theme: the drama of natality, i.e., of birth (and of its prerequisite phenomenon: sexual difference), which, as Rémi Brague has pointed out, we do not, cannot, and could not even possibly choose, but which is always and everywhere chosen for us. 

For a society that so over-valorises autonomy, the fact of our birth into a body (male or female), family, ethny, race, and even world not of our own choosing simply *is* a serious problem: the ultimate affront to liberal self-determination.

In short, the ideology of the Great Replacement (as also of feminism, and of many others besides) is that of the voluntary society (a phenomenon unique to Western Europe), now radicalised to an absurd extreme: whereas the Great Non-Replacement appears to be common to modernity as such (likely connected to a nominalist devalorisation of Being in general, and of human life in particular), only liberal modernity so devalorises involuntary association that demographic replacement through (voluntary) migration comes to be seen as superior (and preferable) to replacement through (involuntary) birth.

Our line of attack, therefore, is clear: revalorisation of the involuntary, whether of existence as such, or of sexual difference, or of family, ethnic, and racial ties. This can only possibly occur if the locus of valorisation is shifted away from volition and back onto Being: if existence, if the body, if family, ethny, and race are all viewed under the rubric not of agonistic imposition (and therefore as an affront to freedom), but of agapeic donation (and hence as conditions of the very possibility of freedom). In other words, we must come to see Creation once again as Gift.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Was the feminism of the 1870s any better?

If we were to go back to the 1870s, and look at progressive politics in the US, what would we find? 

I stumbled across a newspaper that was published at this time by two suffragettes, called Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. The editors were sisters, Victoria Woodhull (who was the first woman to run for President) and Tennessee Claflin. 

Victoria Woodhull

Reading through it, I drew the conclusions that, first, progressive politics was extraordinarily radical in that era and, second, that amongst all the failures the key one was a false understanding of freedom.

In what sense was the politics radical? Well, it comes through especially clearly in attitudes to marriage and to nation. 

Victoria Woodhull gave a speech in 1871 at Steinway Hall. She declared to the 3000 in the audience that,

Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it.

She did not, in other words, respect the ideal of marriage as a lifelong union. She also advocated for women to be independent of men. She said of women that,

Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like is a libel upon say this world is not calculated to make women...self-reliant and self-supporting individuals.

The attitude to nation was worse. There was a notion that the world was progressing to global government and that American borders would soon be open to hundreds of millions. With the exploration of the last corners of the world complete:

We have begun the unitary culture and administration of this human habitat and domicile, instead of the fragmentary and patchwork management which has prevailed through all the past ages...And we are talking glibly of unitary weights and measures, of a unitary currency, of a common and universal language, and finally of a Universal Government

Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought that teeming millions from China would soon be arriving:

We shall have at the end of this century one hundred million of people. With the purchase of territory now proposed, we shall add greatly to this number. Forty thousand Chinese are already on the Pacific coast, but the entering wedge of 400,000,000 behind them.

Victoria Woodhull understood progress as meaning a merging of races in the US to form a new race that would ultimately lead to a world government:

These two processes will continue  until both are complete - until all nations are merged into races, and all races into one government...the people, who will no longer be denominated as belonging to this or that country or government, but as citizens of the world - as members of a common humanity.

So the question is why these women fell into such a radical politics. There are many mistakes to point to, but I don't want to confuse the issue by examining all of them, not when there is a foundational one that needs to be highlighted.

The foundational problem is freedom. Victoria Woodhull takes as a starting point here a position a little similar to that of Hobbes. She does not assert the idea of a God given free will. Instead, she sees individuals as natural agents whose actions are determined by how they are acted on by external forces. As these external forces differ for each person, then each person is uniquely determined:

But what does freedom mean? "As free as the winds" is a common expression. But if we stop to inquire what that freedom is, we find that air in motion is under the most complete subjection to different temperatures in different localities, and that these differences arise from conditions entirely independent of the air...Therefore the freedom of the wind is the freedom to obey commands imposed by conditions to which it is by nature related...But neither the air or the water of one locality obeys the commands which come from the conditions surrounding another locality. 

Now, individual freedom...means the same thing...It means freedom to obey the natural condition of the individual, modified only by the various external forces....which induce action in the individual. What that action will be, must be determined solely by the individual and the operating causes, and in no two cases can they be precisely alike...Now, is it not plain that freedom means that individuals...are subject only to the laws of their own being.

She has established a metaphysics here from which much else follows. In this view, there can only be individuals pursuing things their own way (and allowing others to do the same). There are no substantive goods that humans might rationally seek, nor are there common goods (i.e. my own good realised in common with others). 

You can see how difficult Victoria Woodhull's metaphysics makes the defence of both marriage and nation. She defends free love on the basis that we are simply acted on to have feelings for someone else, and that similarly we are simply acted on to lose those feelings. These things are passively determined by our own being or by external conditions upon us. If true, then there is no possibility of actively upholding love and respect within a marriage, and so an expectation of fidelity becomes an illegitimate, external imposition on my own being, a tyranny. 

Similarly, how can there be a defence of nation if the underlying understanding of man is that we are all sovereign individuals acting for our own uniquely formed individual goods? Where in this is the understanding that humans are social creatures who naturally form thick bonds with those they are closely related to by culture, language, religion, custom and lineage?

And what is the telos of man in this metaphysics? If we are all dissimilar in the goods we pursue because we are all determined uniquely by the forces acting upon us, then what does it mean to be fully formed as a man or a woman? What are the roles we should ideally fulfil in life? What are the spiritual experiences that constitute a higher point in human life? These questions lose sense in a world in which there are only uniquely determined, self-sovereign individuals.

What Victoria Woodhull chooses to emphasise at the beginning of her Steinway Hall speech is telling in this regard. She sets out a liberal framework for society in which individuals have an equal right to act in any way they wish as long as they do not encroach upon the rights of others to do likewise:

It means that every person who comes into the world of outward existence is of equal right as an individual, and is free as an individual, and that he or she is entitled to pursue happiness in what direction he or she may choose...But just here the wise-acres stop and tell us that everybody must not pursue happiness in his or her own way; since to do so absolutely, would be to have no protection against the action of individuals. These good and well-meaning not take into account...that each is free within the area of his or her individual sphere; and not free within the sphere of any other individual whatever...the most perfect exercise of such rights is only attained when every individual is not only fully protected in his rights, but also strictly restrained to the exercise of them within his own sphere, and positively prevented from proceeding beyond its limits, so as to encroach upon the sphere of another...

I have before said that every person has the right to, and can, determine for himself what he will do, even to taking the life of another. But it is equally true that the attacked person has the right to defend his life against such assault. If the person succeed in taking the life, he thereby demonstrates that he is a tyrant and that every individual of the community is put in jeopardy by the freedom of this person. Hence it is the duty of the government to so restrict the freedom of this person as to make it impossible for him to ever again practice such tyranny...

I would recall the the true functions of government - to protect the complete exercise of individual rights, and what they are no living soul except the individual has any business to determine or to meddle with, in any way whatever, unless his own rights are first infringed.

What can we say about all this? First, the "freedom" she claims to be upholding is a limited one as it is justified on the grounds that we are all different in being as we are all determined differently by external conditions. So we are not really "choosing" to act in any direction, but are rather being left free to act in the ways we are uniquely conditioned to act. 

Second, the freedom is limited, rigorously, to our own "sphere" - i.e. the space in which we do not impinge on others acting freely. This is more radical than it sounds. Can a wife then have expectations of what a husband might do in a marriage, or does that impinge on his freedom to act according to his own uniquely determined self? If she does have such expectations, even reasonable ones, is she then a tyrant? And how big is a sphere that is self-enclosed? Yes, I can choose what to have for dinner without impinging on someone else. Or what music concert to attend. But what can I ask or expect of others in terms of creating a well-ordered, stable, pleasant, prosperous community? In theory, very little - since others should be free to act within their own sphere however they like.

Then there is Victoria Woodhull's treatment of crimes like murder. She states that I have a right to act in any way, and therefore I have a right to commit murder. The government only prevents me from committing murder because in acting on this right I am impinging on the rights and freedoms of others. Again, this is a radical take. Yes, governments do act against murder, in part, to protect the freedoms of others in the community. But where is the sense of there being a moral issue at play here? Perhaps it is disregarded because if an objective moral dimension is introduced it might have to be acknowledged that there are principles of action that apply to all humans as moral truths - and that therefore place limits on what "self-sovereign" individuals might rightly choose to do.

Here is another significant problem with this liberal framework. In theory, it is meant to maximise my freedom. But it assumes that I am an individual level actor who is free to the extent that I can be my own uniquely conditioned self. As the 1970s campaign put it "free to be you and me". This campaign was focused on "liberating" boys and girls from....being boys and girls. And this makes sense within the given metaphysics. If I am uniquely conditioned, then I can only be free as "myself" and nothing more. But what if I am constituted, in part, by my given sex? Or by the longstanding communal tradition I am born into? Then I am free not just as "me" but as a man, or as an Englishman or as a Christian. These things form part of my self, and so I cannot be free unless I am free to be these things.

Note too the role of government in the Victoria Woodhull system. It exists only to force people to stay within their own individual spheres. It does not exist to represent a particular people and to promote the continuing existence of this people over time. It cannot do this as its sole reason for existence is to uphold individual rights.

Finally, once accepted, this system ties the hands of those who would defend their own tradition and attempt to transmit the best of it to future generations. It becomes difficult, within such a system of individual spheres, to defend goods that require cooperation between people communally. It becomes difficult to expect people to have the volition or understanding to discern and to uphold rational goods in life (because goods are thought to be unique to each individual, hence their freedom to act in any direction). It becomes difficult to assert the existence of higher, transcendent ideals that might elevate the life of a community (because, again, the one operative good is a freedom to act in any direction in order to be "oneself").

Monday, January 01, 2024

Making Lady Lawyer happy

One of the mistakes in modern culture is the idea that a husband can, and should, make his wife happy. If he fails in this task, then she considers herself aggrieved and justified in seeking to divorce.

You can see this mindset in the following exchange on social media, with a woman going by the moniker of Lady Lawyer.

Notice that Lady Lawyer has the expectation that the wife is "owed" happiness in marriage. This is not how traditional Western culture understood things. Being a wife and mother was thought of as a moral vocation requiring emotional self-discipline:

Nor does it make much sense to think that you can be "owed" happiness by a husband, not when you consider the kinds of factors that generally support happiness.

For instance, happiness can be influenced by genetic predisposition. It can depend on a healthy, self-disciplined lifestyle, on a good diet, exercise, sleep and sunshine. It can depend on the range and quality of our friendships. On the quality of the parenting we received and of our early childhood experiences. On the positive or negative influence of the culture we inhabit. In can depend on our level of connectedness to nature, to a family lineage, to a people and place, to a tradition and culture, to a history, and to a church. 

To be happy requires, to a considerable degree, an internal locus of control. We need, for instance, to take care with our inner monologue, to ensure that it does not talk us out of a positive mood and into a negative one (as per the Milton quote above). We need to cultivate a responsiveness to the world around us that includes gratitude, reverence and even delight. We need to cultivate the virtues that allow us to deal well with the difficulties life presents us with, such as fortitude, patience and forgiveness. We need to combat our own vices: envy and avarice, for instance, will leave us forever discontented.

We need the ability to both give and receive love, but this requires us to take care in embarking on relationships, particularly sexual ones, so that we avoid becoming jaded, hurt and withdrawn.

Our self-concept and world picture can influence our happiness. What kind of cosmos do we inhabit? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a man? A woman? How we answer these questions can make a difference in how we experience life.

Similarly, it helps to have a reasonable level of self-esteem. This can come as a gift from motherlove in childhood, but achieving a certain level of mastery in some thing, i.e. being good at something and being recognised for it, can also help.

Our ability to stay oriented to transcendent sources of meaning is important as well. Do we register beauty, truth and goodness? Particularly as connecting us to something meaningful outside of mundane existence? Is there a higher good embedded within virtue? Within the masculine and the feminine?

Our larger identities can promote our well-being. Do we identify positively with a communal tradition of our own? One that we can take pride in and wish to contribute to? That helps to give meaning to our work and to the sacrifices we make on behalf of others?

Then there is the issue of retaining a sense of integrity and self-respect. To what extent do we successfully resist the pressures toward entropy and dissolution? Are we still able to order ourselves toward the good? 

Having a sense of role ethics can make our inner lives more stable. This is because happiness is sometimes more a by-product of fulfilling our duties to others, particularly when we serve others whom we love and are closely bound to. I think this is what the following comment is suggesting:

Finally, a good level of self-knowledge and intelligence can help to promote our happiness. What we need at any particular moment can vary, and it helps if we know ourselves well enough to recognise what is lacking and what character flaws need addressing. Similarly, it helps if we react to those around us with intelligent insight. A woman, for instance, who makes no allowance for sex distinctions will undermine her relationships with men - she will be upset by well-meaning masculine behaviour that doesn't correspond with how she would act as a woman.

I hope this is enough to demonstrate that no-one can passively "receive" happiness from someone else. It is not the kind of thing that you can hand over to a spouse. That doesn't mean that a husband shouldn't do nice things for a wife. Or that he shouldn't be concerned for her well-being. A husband can help his wife by being a source of reassuring strength, by being warmly protective, by providing material security and physical safety, by offering physical and emotional intimacy, and by being a source of practical, worldly knowledge, as well as a wisdom derived not only from experience but from a rational discernment of Logos.

Ideally, also, men would cooperate together to create spaces that would best foster a good life for women and children - and this would include maintaining a healthy culture, with positive social norms, a high level of social connectedness, and a morality that encourages an elevated expression of human nature.

A good marriage does have an influence on our happiness. We were not designed for solo living. There is a deep impulse within our nature as humans to connect intimately to someone of the opposite sex in marriage.

But we are setting up marriages for failure if we suppose that a wife can passively expect happiness to come from the husband alone, i.e. that it is something that she is simply owed and that if it is missing, it is due to neglect on his part. A woman working within this frame will tend to have a judging attitude to her husband, focus on his faults, lack genuine gratitude for what he does contribute and, over time, develop resentments and distance herself from him. She will not achieve a genuine spousal union. 

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Why the dysfunction in relationships?

In "The Load-Bearing Relationship" Cat Orman sets out to explain the dysfunction in modern relationships. She begins with the statistical trends:

In 2000, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 50 who had never married was just 21%. By 2018, the share of never-married adults climbed to 35%. The median age at first marriage was 25 for women and 27 for men in 2000; by 2022, it was 28 and 30. Today, 41% of Americans ages 18-29 are single, and about a third of never-married single adults say they have never been in a committed romantic relationship.

Her explanation for the decline in relationships is what she calls the "contractual moral framework":

Traditional societies held that we are born into our roles and responsibilities. You owed certain social and practical tributes to your neighbors, siblings, and countrymen, even though you didn’t sign up for them. Confucianism and stoicism made these systems of reciprocal obligations explicit in “role ethics.” Abrahamic religions treated one’s responsibility to the community as part of their obligation to God. Hinduism and the related traditions of the Indian subcontinent contain injunctions from dharma, the personal and social moral duties expected of every spiritually upright individual. While the roles and responsibilities differed greatly across time and place, all of these societies agreed on the necessity and even nobility of fulfilling unchosen roles and responsibilities.

As a consequence, doctrines of how to be a good person centered on the idea that we hold a positive duty of care to others, be it through tithing, caring for sick family members, or raising our neighbor’s barns on the frontier...

The last decade is defined by a shift away from a role ethic and towards a contractualist one. In a contractual moral framework, you have obligations only within relationships that you chose to participate in—meaning, to the children you chose to have and the person you chose to marry—and these can be revoked at any time. You owe nothing to the people in your life that you did not choose: nothing to your parents, your siblings, your extended family or friends, certainly nothing to your neighbors, schoolmates, or countrymen; at least nothing beyond the level of civility that you owe to a stranger on the street.

This is well put. It is part of the shift toward seeing individual autonomy as the highest good in life (which itself has a connection to "voluntarism" in the sense of seeing the will as the ultimate source of value). If it is my autonomy, i.e. my ability to choose as I will in any direction, that is the highest good, then stable commitments to others are a limitation on this good, a kind of fetter or chain, that I should seek to liberate myself from. The focus becomes my freedom to revoke my commitments, rather than my obligations to fulfil my given roles in life. It is not surprising that this focus would lead to a lower trust society with less stable patterns of family life.

Cat Orby goes on to make an interesting observation, namely that if we cannot rely on the support we once received from our unchosen forms of relationships, then too much comes down to the support from a spouse, placing excessive burdens and expectations on that one relationship. 

One small criticism I have of Cat Orby's piece is that the shift toward moral contractualism is much older than she realises. The idea that human society is governed by a "social contract" voluntarily entered into goes back to the proto-liberalism of the seventeenth century. Again, the first wave feminists of the nineteenth century emphasised the idea of maximising autonomy for women, which meant valorising independence rather than family commitments. A female student at Girton College in the 1880s expressed this ethos by stating that,

We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family...One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Unsurprisingly, the same dysfunctions in relationships we see today were also present toward the end of first wave feminism, including delayed family formation and a low fertility rate.

Another minor criticism is that Cat Orby might have extended her argument to go beyond that of obligations. For instance, if what matters is an autonomous freedom to choose in any direction, then the qualities that we are born with, rather than choosing for ourselves, will also seem to be constraints that limit us as individuals. This includes our given sex. And so instead of cultivating the positive qualities of our own sex, it is common for moderns to think negatively of these qualities. Modern women, for instance, have a difficult relationship with their own femininity. This too disrupts heterosexual relationships.

Then there is the issue of equality. It is common now for people to conceive of the very categories of man and woman as political classes vying against each other for power in a zero sum game, where if men win women lose and vice versa. There is little sense of men and women realising themselves more fully in relationship with each other and therefore having a mutual interest in upholding family life as a common good. 

Another way of framing this is that there is no longer a sense of unity governing the relations between men and women. Instead there is fragmentation and the only way of overcoming this fragmentation, within the current way of thinking, is a non-reciprocal one in which either men must strive to meet women's needs and desires or vice versa (or else, as suggested in the recent Barbie film, the sexes achieve equality by going their own way).

To be fair, if there were an emphasis again on role ethics, then this would challenge some of these other problems, because there would once again be a consideration of what we owe to others in virtue of our given roles and responsibilities. What Cat Orby emphasises is therefore not a bad starting point for tackling the current malaise.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

A change of heart on men?

Most leftists today are opposed to masculinity, often prefacing it with the adjective "toxic". Their opposition makes sense given their understanding of both freedom and equality.

If you understand freedom as a self-determining, self-positing individual autonomy, then masculinity will be looked on negatively as something predetermined that is limiting to the individual.

As for equality, moderns see this as a levelling process, in which the emphasis is on "sameness" - we are ideally to stand in the same relation to each other, which then requires distinctions to be negated, at least in certain political contexts.

So leftists will sometimes reject masculinity because it is associated with inequality: masculinity is thought to have been constructed as a means to give men privilege and dominance and to oppress women. And sometimes leftists reject masculinity because it is restrictive, e.g. because of the implication that there are social roles or ways of being in the world that are for men alone.

These attitudes have been around for a long time now. In one of the earliest feminist tracts, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it, though it may excite a horse-laugh. I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society... For this distinction...accounts for their [women] preferring the graceful before the heroic virtues.
Here you can see the modern understanding of both liberty and equality. She wants to level down the distinctions between the sexes (equality) because she wants to choose a masculine way of being (liberty). 

Similarly, we have Shelley writing in 1811, in reference to men and women:
these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being.

Given this long entrenched approach to masculinity, it is of particular interest that a leftist journalist, Christine Emba, has questioned the modern rejection of masculinity. She has written an opinion piece for The Washington Post ("Men are lost. Here's a map out of the wilderness" July 10, 2023), in which she calls for a more positive embrace of the masculine. Why would she go against the current of leftist thought in this way?

Christine Emba

She gives multiple reasons and these should interest us because they indicate some of the deficiencies in modern ways of thinking about our sex. 

First, as a heterosexual woman she is concerned that unmasculine men are unattractive dating prospects:

She quotes a podcaster, Scott Galloway, who makes the point that women who want men to be more feminine often don't want to date such men:

“Where I think this conversation has come off the tracks is where being a man is essentially trying to ignore all masculinity and act more like a woman. And even some women who say that — they don’t want to have sex with those guys. They may believe they’re right, and think it’s a good narrative, but they don’t want to partner with them.”

I, a heterosexual woman, cringed in recognition.
She wrote the piece, in part, because of laments from female friends about the lack of dating opportunities:
It might have been the complaints from the women around me. “Men are in their flop era,” one lamented, sick of trying to date in a pool that seemed shallower than it should be.

So here is a fundamental problem with the leftist rejection of the masculine. Heterosexuality is, by definition, an attraction of the masculine and the feminine. Women will therefore be sexually attracted to masculine qualities of men. Furthermore, it is through their masculine drives that men make commitments to women and to family. So the political commitments of leftist women (to modern understandings of liberty and equality) are set against fundamental aspects of their own being as women (their sexuality and desire for committed relationships with men). 

Second, Christine Emba is concerned that men are struggling. She makes the good point that women should be concerned for the welfare of the men they are closely connected to:

The truth is that most women still want to have intimate relationships with good men. And even those who don’t still want their sons, brothers, fathers and friends to live good lives.
She does not believe that modernity is delivering good lives to men:
I could see a bit of curdling in some of the men around me, too.

They struggled to relate to women. They didn’t have enough friends. They lacked long-term goals. Some guys — including ones I once knew — just quietly disappeared, subsumed into video games and porn...

It felt like a widespread identity crisis — as if they didn’t know how to be.

...Growing numbers of working-age men have detached from the labor market, with the biggest drop in employment among men ages 25 to 34. 

Then there’s the domestic sphere. Last summer, a Psychology Today article caused a stir online by pointing out that “dating opportunities for heterosexual men are diminishing as relationship standards rise.” 

...women are “increasingly selective,” leading to a rise in lonely, single young men — more of whom now live with their parents than a romantic partner. Men also account for almost 3 of every 4 “deaths of despair,” either from a suicide, alcohol abuse or an overdose.

...cut loose from a stable identity as patriarchs deserving of respect, they feel demoralized and adrift. The data show it, but so does the general mood: Men find themselves lonely, depressed, anxious and directionless.

What she is pointing to here is that our sex is deeply connected to our identity, our sense of purpose and our social commitments. Therefore, to malign masculinity and to make it inoperable in society is to undermine the larger welfare and well-being of men. For this reason, it is not liberating for a man to live in a society that is designed for androgyny.

Third, and less important for my argument so I will not dwell on it, she is concerned that if the left simply rejects the masculine that the right will step in and provide the leadership that is otherwise lacking. In other words, she fears that the left will simply vacate the field for the right.

Fourth, she makes a partial acknowledgement that our sex is grounded in reality:

But, in fact, most of these features are scaffolded by biology — all are associated with testosterone, the male sex hormone. It’s not an excuse for “boys will be boys”-style bad behavior, but, realistically, these traits would be better acknowledged and harnessed for pro-social aims than stifled or downplayed. Ignoring obvious truths about human nature, even general ones, fosters the idea that progressives are out of touch with reality.

This is an interesting admission, but she herself is not consistent here. It is very difficult for a leftist to hold together, at the same time, the observation that our sex is a "truth about human nature" with the idea that "freedom means being able to self-determine who we are". 

This is her effort to force these two incompatible ideas together:

The essentialist view...would be dire news for social equality and for the vast numbers of individuals who don’t fit those stereotypes. Biology isn’t destiny — there is no one script for how to be a woman or a man. But...most people don’t actually want a completely androgynous society. And if a new model for masculinity is going to find popular appeal, it will depend on putting the distinctiveness of men to good use in whatever form it comes in.
“Femininity or masculinity are a social construct that we get to define,” Galloway concluded. “They are, loosely speaking, behaviors we associate with people born as men or born as women, or attributes more common among people born as men or as women. But the key is that we still get to fill that vessel and define what those attributes are, and then try and reinforce them with our behavior and our views and our media.”

If this is an awkward way of formulating things, Christine Emba does do a reasonable job in defining desirable masculine traits. For one thing, she rejects the idea that a positive masculinity should be men trying to be feminine:

To the extent that any vision of “nontoxic” masculinity is proposed, it ends up sounding more like stereotypical femininity than anything else: Guys should learn to be more sensitive, quiet and socially apt, seemingly overnight. It’s the equivalent of “learn to code!” as a solution for those struggling to adjust to a new economy: simultaneously hectoring, dismissive and jejune.

She begins her treatment of desirable masculine qualities by quoting Scott Galloway:

“Galloway leaned into the screen. “My view is that, for masculinity, a decent place to start is garnering the skills and strength that you can advocate for and protect others with. If you’re really strong and smart, you will garner enough power, influence, kindness to begin protecting others...”

Richard Reeves, in our earlier conversation, had put it somewhat more subtly...His recipe for masculine success echoed Galloway’s: proactiveness, agency, risk-taking and courage, but with a pro-social cast.

This tracked with my intuitions about what “good masculinity” might look like — the sort that I actually admire, the sort that women I know find attractive but often can’t seem to find at all. It also aligns with what the many young men I spoke with would describe as aspirational, once they finally felt safe enough to admit they did in fact carry an ideal of manhood with its own particular features.

Physical strength came up frequently, as did a desire for personal mastery. They cited adventurousness, leadership, problem-solving, dignity and sexual drive. None of these are negative traits, but many men I spoke with felt that these archetypes were unfairly stigmatized.

The discussion of masculinity here is a good one overall. What is particularly striking is the acceptance that men might set out to garner power and influence to put themselves in a position to protect others, as this is a departure from the "zero sum game" attitude to relationships that I have criticised in the past. It is typical for feminist women to see power in liberal terms as a means to enact our desires in whatever direction we want, without negative judgement or consequence ("empowerment"). But if you see power in these terms, then it becomes a means to have my own way rather than someone else having theirs. Therefore, if men have power, women will be thought to lose out and vice versa. There is no understanding in this view that men might use power to protect those they love rather than to act in a self-interested way that deprives others. 

In other words, Christine Emba has a better anthropology here than most of her left-wing colleagues.

However, I do think the discussion of masculinity could be extended. Its focus is on men being good providers and protectors. This leaves out aspects of masculinity that are rarely defended.

Reality is marked by a tendency toward entropy, both in the individual and society. By this I mean a declining energy to uphold order, so that there is a slide into decay and chaos. One of the higher missions that men have is to resist entropy, both within their own person and in the communities they belong to. The opposite of entropy, or "reverse entropy", is "negentropy" - in which things become increasingly better ordered. 

The task of bringing the individual and the community into negentropy is not an easy one. It is necessary to consider, and to find ways to harmonise, the tripartite nature of existence, namely the biological, social and spiritual aspects of our natures. It requires also a capacity for prudence - for considering the likely consequences of measures that are undertaken; an ability to rank the goods of life in their proper order; an awareness of both the good and the evil that exists within our own nature; a capacity to learn from history and past experience; and an intuitive grasp of what constitutes the human good and rightly ordered action.

In short, what is required is a certain kind of wisdom. The instinct to exercise this kind of wisdom in the leadership of a community is given most strongly to men. You can see this when it comes to feminism. This movement is, and always has been, a "partial" one, in the sense that it is oriented to issues relating to one part of society only. Nor has it ever taken responsibility for upholding the larger social order or for conserving the broader tradition from which it emerged. It is there to "take" or "demand" rather than to order and uphold. 

One of the problems with masculinity in the modern world is not only the undermining of the provider and protector roles, but even more notably that of wise leadership. The fault for this does not lie entirely with feminism. 

Political liberalism hasn't helped. If the purpose of politics is to maximise individual preference satisfaction, with all preferences being equally preferences and therefore of the same value, then how can a politician seek to rule wisely? It becomes difficult to make qualitative distinctions between different choices and different policies. Urging prudence might be condemned as discriminatory or even as "arbitrary". 

Even worse, I think, is the influence of scientism. In part this is because scientism places limits on what type of knowledge is considered valid. But more than this, modern science, in making the advances that it did, seduced Western men into looking for technological and technocratic solutions to social (and personal) problems. I am reminded of this quote from Signorelli and Salingaros:

Modern art embodies and manifests all the worst features of modern thought — the despair, the irrationality, the hostility to tradition, the confusion of scientia with techne, or wisdom with power, the misunderstanding of freedom as liberation from essence rather than perfection of essence.
I want to underline here the problem that Western man is so oriented to "techne" that he voluntarily withdrew from the field of wisdom, thereby making entropy inevitable.

One further problem is that Western thought became too focused on the poles of individualism and universalism. Wisdom comes most into play when considering the particular communities and traditions that the individual wishes to uphold. If all you care about is individual self-interest, or abstract, universal commitments, then wisdom can be at least partly replaced by "cunning" on the one hand or feelings on the other.

The ideal of the wise father lasted for a long time. It was still present in popular culture in the 1960s and 70s, for instance, in television shows like My Three Sons, Little House on the Prairie and even to a degree in The Brady Bunch. But then it was axed. In more recent decades, fathers have been allowed to be loveable, but never a figure who might wisely order or advise. 

The recent Barbie movie is a case in point. In that screenplay, the three wisdom figures are all female, but none of them have much to offer. The creator figure, for instance, tells Barbie that "I created you so that you wouldn't have an ending", i.e. that there are no given ends or purposes to her life. Barbie herself becomes a wisdom figure at the end of the film, but all she can advise Ken is that he is enough as he is. The men in the movie are uniformly of the "goofy" type that our culture prefers (the opposite of men having gravitas). So there is no-one who is truly fit to lead.

It is in this context that a figure like Jordan Peterson has become so prominent. He is a psychologist and so has status as someone within a technocratic field. But he has pushed a little beyond this, a little into the field of "wise father" dispensing life advice, and this is so missing within modern culture that it has catapulted him to fame. Christine Emba has noted precisely this, that despite the advice being a little thin, he is filling an unmet need:
In 2018, curious about a YouTube personality who had seemingly become famous overnight, I got tickets to a sold-out lecture in D.C. by Jordan Peterson. It was one of dozens of stops on the Canadian psychology professor turned anti-“woke” juggernaut’s book tour for his surprise bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” The crowd was at least 85 percent male...

Surrounded by men on a Tuesday night, I wondered aloud what the fuss was about. In my opinion, Peterson served up fairly banal advice: “Stand up straight,” “delay gratification.”...Suddenly, the 20-something guy in front of me swung around. “Jordan Peterson,” he told me without a hint of irony in his voice, “taught me how to live.”

If there’s a vacuum in modeling manhood today, Peterson has been one of the boldest in stepping up to fill it.
I don't want to disparage Jordan Peterson's efforts because he is one of the first to take a step in the right direction. His instincts are right. Note the title of his book: "an antidote to chaos" - he understands that it is not just about "techne" but that men are to be a force for negentropy - for the harmonious ordering of the self and society, and that he has a role to play in providing wise advice to younger men. I might wish that he could draw more deeply on "logos", but even so he has made a welcome start.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Empowerment and misery

There is a feminist by the name of Amanda Montei who has taken autonomy theory to the next level. If you recall, a key aspect of liberalism is a commitment to individual autonomy. Autonomy is thought of as a power to self-determine in whatever direction we choose, with the predetermined aspects of life, such as the sex we are born into, being looked on negatively as impediments artificially imposed upon the individual.

Amanda Montei

Feminists have long sought to apply this theory to the lives of women. It has led them to prefer women to be independent of men, to reject roles traditionally associated with womanhood, and to believe that the aim of life for women is to be empowered, meaning to be able to do as they wish, in whatever direction, without negative consequence or judgement. 

It might, at first glance, sound nice to be "empowered" in this way. It sounds strong and commanding and in control. But the logic of empowerment doesn't foster strength and well-being. As we shall see, it leads Amanda Montei to a kind of pitiable frailty and misery.

First, though, here is Amanda Montei's brain on autonomy theory (from her book Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control):

On those of us marked is not just toy dolls or our parents that insist on our inevitable maternity. Every aspect of the world...tells us how to be woman, largely indistinguishable from mother. As Melissa Febos writes in Girlhood, "Patriarchal coercion is a ghost", an immeasurable figure that looms, hovers, hardly seen, correcting, policing, molding. The afterimages of our gendered socialization haunt the body, telling us how to be, what to say, who to become...We are compelled toward surrender, as the whole world rambles on, telling us who and what our bodies are for.

She begins by claiming that being a girl or a woman is merely a social construct, and that girls are simply "marked" as girls as if they could be assigned some other identity. This is a good example of why feminists are in no position to criticise transsexuals for undermining female identity when they have done such a good job of it themselves.

She then harps on about an all powerful, ghost-like patriarchy, hiding behind the scenes, robbing women of their autonomy by "telling us how to be, what to say, who to become". 

Note the difficulty she is in already. First, she is at war with herself. She has taken her own womanhood to be something artificially and oppressively imposed upon her by shadowy forces she cannot control, rather than something essentially good about her own personhood that she can then seek to express and embody the higher forms of as a way of fulfilling her own being and purposes in life.

Second, she has adopted an impossibly radical world view, one in which the only things that are legitimate are the ones that are self-given. Therefore, she has already taken a negative and hostile stance toward motherhood as this is a "given" of womanhood and is therefore alien to her radical concept of personhood.

Third, wrapped up in this mindset she is already a hapless victim of the world she inhabits. She is not a strong woman in control of her own life. She inhabits a mental realm in which things are done to her that she does not like and that she cannot resist. The focus on autonomy has created a person who, if anything, is relatively low on self-determination and self-empowerment.

Despite this outlook on life, Amanda Montei did decide to marry and have children. This was not a good move for someone seeking to maximise their individual autonomy, as children inevitably make claims on us as parents. We sacrifice a part of our autonomy in order to serve other goods when we take on the role of father or mother.

Predictably Amanda Montei fell in a heap. Rather than being a strong woman, she couldn't cope with the idea of sacrificing for or serving her own children. Nor was she open to any of the joys of motherhood, as her sense of victimhood and resentment was too overwhelming.

It reached the point that she could not bear the touch of her own young children, feeling this to be a violation of her bodily autonomy. She went as far as to compare her children wanting to hug her to rape culture. 

"The book is really about motherhood after Me Too,” Montei says. “And the connections between rape culture and the institution of motherhood, the continuity between these two kinds of cultural institutions and the way that they see women’s bodies."

And this:

But over time I came to see that the basic tenets of rape culture run through our cultural expectations of American mothers. Just as we normalize sexual violence against women, we normalize the suffering of women in motherhood.

And so you get to this version of motherhood:

What I wanted, more than anything, feel as though I fully inhabited and had my body. But all the ideas about how I should act as a mother - how I should respond to my children's near-constant requests for snacks, their demands for attention, their volatile emotions, their hands down my shirt or smushing my face - felt like insects crawling on me. I found myself frequently rubbing my face, itching my scalp, trying to delouse.

She thinks of her children as being like insects requiring her to "delouse". She continues:

Other times I burst into anger, yelling at my children or my husband, demanding space or help, simply because I felt so small, like a little creature myself, shouting in the wide expanse of darkness and nothingness...I struggled with the physicality of caring for children, but even more with my growing awareness that the lack of autonomy I felt in motherhood reiterated everything I had been urged to believe about my body since I was a girl. 

Where in this passage is the power in empowerment? Her obsession with autonomy has led her to feel small, a "little creature" lost in a "wide expanse of darkness and nothingness". Nor is she in control of anything: she is lost to her negative emotions, taking things out on those who love her, believing herself to be a victim of vast impersonal forces. 

Matt Walsh made a video in response to Amanda Montei. I'm pleased to report that he began with first principles, by denying that autonomy is always and everywhere the highest good to be pursued in life:

As a woman your body does not belong entirely to you. As a man your body doesn't belong entirely to you. You are not an autonomous island floating alone out in the sea. Neither am I. I have responsibilities. I have obligations. I owe myself to others, especially my family and when I say that I include my body as I am not in this life separable from my be entirely autonomous in your body is to be entirely autonomous in your person, but no person is autonomous, we all have duties that transcend whatever claims we might want to make to autonomy...I am not a self-created being existing only for whatever purpose I decide.

The last sentence is particularly good, coming as it does from a relatively mainstream conservative with a large following. I might not have framed the other part exactly as Matt Walsh does (as I don't think it is just about obligations, though these exist, but more about higher goods in life, including caritas love and fulfilling higher aspects of our being as men and women). 

To be fair, Matt Walsh goes on to say:

The author, a feminist named Amanda Montei, has written not a revelation that she is a child of God who exists for a higher purpose, but rather a lament that everybody in the world, including her children, especially her children, are using and victimising her. This is not an expression of motherly love but a long, weird and weirdly sexualised whine.

Walsh also describes well Amanda Montei's pathetic victim mindset:

Yet another is the insistence on being a victim in all things. Notice how she describes all of her sexual encounters as horrific drudgeries that she had to cope with and endure miserably. That's not because the encounters were non-consensual, she did consent, but she is still a victim of them somehow. She's the victim of everything. She's the victim of everything that she herself does. She's the victim even of her own children's affection. She is cringing through life, waiting for every moment to be done so that she can get to the next moment and complain about that one too. 

His finishing statement is also fine. It is too long to transcribe in full, but here is an excerpt:

We all have to experience hardship. There is nothing special about that. You get credit for enduring it with some semblance of dignity and strength and courage...We all have crosses that we bear. And you can choose to carry yours with grace or you can whine and cry and milk it for every ounce of pity you can get out of it. And if you choose the latter option then it is all for nothing. Suffering is an opportunity, an opportunity to become stronger, to gain wisdom, to gain perspective, but you squander that opportunity if you whimper and moan and gripe the whole time. Now you still have to suffer, but you aren't even becoming a better person through it, you're actually becoming a worse person, it's the worst of all've only become smaller and weaker, until you become an exceptionally small and weak person.