Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Trench on the French Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

A sequel to the foregoing.

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

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Richard Chenevix Trench

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 15, 2019

Nisbet's powerful chapter

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

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

Nisbet's argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 08, 2019

Nisbet: the quest for community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Mary's moral dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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