Sunday, December 28, 2008

What went missing?

Earlier this year I wrote a piece on the three great "conversations" in the Western tradition:

There have been three important "conversations" in European culture. One is the materialistic, naturalistic, scientific one. Another is the formal religious one, marked by a Christian concern for individual salvation through the avoidance of sin. The third conversation is also spiritual, but not tied formally to religion or theology or to salvation or sin; it is a conversation on what impressed the European mind as being of spiritual meaning or worth in life.

We are used now to the materialistic conversation dominating what we discuss and in what terms. The Christian conversation is still there, but cordoned off to a minority of the population. The third conversation is now almost entirely lost to us, even though it was once as prominent as the other two.

What is also striking is that there is so little crossover now between the conversations. It was once not unusual for an individual to hold all three realities together: a man could be a believing Christian, conversant in theology; he could at the same time recognise the reality of the material world, and be educated in the scientific processes describing this world; and still again take part in a conversation about the role of character or moral virtue in the spiritual life of man.

And here's the thing. When I read books about the radicals of the early twentieth century, I recognise immediately what I dislike about their politics. At the same time, though, it's hard not to notice that even the radicals of the time were usually more embedded in all three of the European conversations than an ordinary, conventional man of today. In this sense, they were still more cultured, in spite of their political radicalism.

I was interested to learn, in researching my recent posts on Simone de Beauvoir, that she too seems to fall into this category of relatively cultured mid-twentieth century Western radicals.

No doubt she was mostly committed to a secular materialism. Consider, though, her views on love between men and women:

Love has been assigned to woman as her supreme vocation, and when she directs it towards a man, she is seeking God in him ... Human love and love of the divine commingle ... because human love is a reaching out towards a transcendent, an absolute.

This is taken from her book The Second Sex. I only have a partial quote and so I'm not sure of the exact context of what she is saying. Still, she seems at least to be "conversant" in an aspect of the human experience not usually dealt with so openly today.

A commenter at this site, Franklin, did recently write something similar to de Beauvoir. In a discussion on relationships he stated that,

Man, both male and female, has an innate desire for transcendent love, for something out of this world in this world.

This places a considerable degree of meaning in human relationships. If a man experiences the transcendent in his love of women, then he will appreciate all the more (and be particularly attuned to) those women who bring out their finer, more womanly qualities.

There will be a deeper reason to appreciate what is admirably feminine in women and to feel alienated by moves toward an androgynous, grungy culture in which gender difference is repressed.

De Beauvoir's quote reminds us, too, of one reason why many women are discontent with metrosexuality in men. There are women who want to admire us for our stronger, more masculine qualities - the ones that we ourselves instinctively feel carry the most significance.

De Beauvoir may have been relatively cultured in her ability to participate in the different Western conversations; she did women a disservice, though, in making her final political stance so one-sided.

She chose in her politics to tell women that femininity was an oppressive construct created by men in a process of "othering". This entirely fails to reconcile what de Beauvoir had written of in the quote above: that individuals experience the finer qualities of the opposite sex to have a significant meaning and to inspire love.

De Beauvoir knew the conversations but she failed to hold them together.


  1. The question of the "transcendent" is an important one, but one which straddles two different ways of thinking, one political, the other metaphysical.

    Non-liberals seek transcendence in the political sphere in the sense that they acknowledge the existence and validity of, say, traditions and institutions which transcend the individual and his choices.

    Religious people seek transcendence of the immanent, empirical world in the form of belief in God and other supernatural entities as a way of palliating the unsatisfactoriness of life.

    The two impulses converge where God and religious tradition is seen as the guarantor of transcendant relationships between generations living, dead and unborn, and God's decrees (or rather the social currency of belief in them)as providing support for the political type of transcendence.

    The point I want to make is that you can have the first without the second: the Romans and Greeks had it, the Chinese had and to some extent still have it, etc. If we tie political transcendence to metaphysical transcendence we make it unattainable just at the point in history, liberalism now being the orthodoxy, when we most need to rediscover it. There will not be a mass reconversion to Christianity in the West because its doctrines are rationally indefensible and the West has staked everything on the project of achieving rational certainty. (This does not go for the man in the street, of course, but for the educated classes whose opinions filter through to him).

    What we need to do is to show that liberalism is not rational because it denies that man is a social animal and that what separates him from the other animals is his EXCESS of sociality. We need to show that people like De Beauvoir, or for that matter Isaiah Berlin have it completely the wrong way around, and that real freedom is not freedom-from or freedom-against, but freedom-to and freedom-with.

    Also, as Alain De Benoist argues, Christianity (with its doctrine of the immortal individual soul, its cosmopolitanism and universalism and its setting up of a transcendent authority above the secular and its linear-progressive view of history) has been--particularly since the reformation--a contributing factor in the rise of liberalism and the decline of transcendent politics.

  2. One more thing: the mismarriage of conservatism (if that is the word) and Christianity is parallel to its still more incongruous partnership with libertarianism. it is not coincidentally in the US the most Christian of Western nations, that the confusion between conservatism and right-liberalism is most entrenched--to the point where you have people like Christopher Buckley following it to its logical conclusion and supporting Obama over McCain.

    Maybe I shouldn't be talking about conservatism here; I don't know what to call the politics I'm advocating, but it is the diametrical opposite to libertarianism. I think I will go for Reactionary Nationalism as a label.

  3. Jal, you've raised an important issue.

    Even though I count myself as a religious person, I agree with much of what you say.

    If traditionalism is to succeed in Australia it has to relate effectively to a largely secular political class.

    So it's better, I think, if the approach is a political, rather than a religious, one.

    I agree too that a key argument relates to the meaning of freedom.

    Another point of agreement is that Christianity as it stands today is mostly liberal in its effect.

    Disagreements? I don't accept that belief in God exists only to palliate the unsatisfactoriness of life.

    The path to a religious world view isn't singular. In my own case, it was a matter of experiencing what is spiritual in life over a period of time. So my religious world view was built on what was most profoundly satisfying in life, rather than on an escape from what was unsatisfactory.

    My own path to religion meant that I wasn't especially concerned with the details of theology, or with an intellectual justification of belief. It was a matter of how I experienced life.

    Jal, you recognised in your comment that a convergence is possible between political and religious transcendence.

    It's something to work toward in the longer term. Christianity doesn't have to continue to exist in its current radically liberal form. (Why should we allow liberals to wield unchallenged the significant power they have in the churches?) Nor is it impossible to imagine religious and non-religious traditionalists finding a way to work toward a common end.

    Finally, I'd like to encourage you in the basic project you have set yourself, namely to defend "traditions and institutions which transcend the individual and his choices" and to argue for the idea of man as a social creature whose freedom is a freedom-with and a freedom-for rather than a freedom-from.

    As I mentioned earlier, I do agree with you that these are the key issues to address and I would be interested to see how you develop them.