Sunday, April 26, 2020

The therapeutic turn

One book I would like to read is The Fatherless Society by the Danish academic Henrik Jensen. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available in English, so I'm limited to descriptions of it from other sources.

Take, for instance, the following from The Therapeutic Turn by Ole Madsen. In a discussion on how Western culture changed its emphasis from duties to rights, Madsen writes:
In 2006 the Danish historian Henrik Jensen's monumental work The Fatherless Society was published, a work that depicts the current culture of rights as a clear departure from former civilisations' authoritative patriarchal cultures of obligation. Jensen, like Rieff and Carroll before him, sees signs of a moral crisis in Denmark and in the West in general. Late modernity is characterised by what he calls 'mother rule' and which indicates that the citizen is apparently liberated from all forms of authorities and duties, and the only guidelines imposed on him or her is the welfare state's encouragement of its citizens to pursue self-centred, self-actualisation. The social hierarchy in the West up to the present day has been organised around a vertical cosmos, while today we live in a horizontal culture, Jensen maintains,.. (p.59)

This reminded me of a talk I had with my father when I was a young adult. I happened to mention the word "duty" as part of the conversation and my father stopped me and told me with concern "there is no such thing as duty". It seems that my father (a classical liberal in his values) had already accepted the cultural shift described above, the change in mindset in which there is no vertical dimension we look up to as being authoritative and from which is derived duty or obligation. Instead, there is only the striving toward our own individual "self-actualisation".

The discussion then turns to the downside of this shift to a "horizontal culture":
On the flipside lies the pitfall of the culture of rights, if it should become an overly unilateral, self-stimulating, mass individualised victim culture, Jensen argues...
Where the individual in the culture of guilt is indebted to God, the parents or society, the opposite is the case in the rights culture: the victim has an eternal claim to recompense...

The second main problem with 'the fatherless society' which Jensen identifies is the fatigue effect. This is a type of crisis of meaning which finds expression in the form of an increased feeling of emptiness, loss of direction and meaning, particularly among the younger, adolescent generation, in that the individualistic culture does not offer access to anything outside themselves...

Self-actualisation is hard work and fewer external reference points make this project confusing and potentially exhausting for many people...

The paradox is that the therapeutic ethos invites people to understand their lives in terms of suffering because pain provides a basis which enables psychologists to give their knowledge legitimacy and construct stories about individuality. The greater the number of causes for suffering that are situated in the self, the more the self is understood on the basis of its predicament. (pp. 59-61)

There is a lot in this quote. The first two paragraphs describe one of the shifts between traditional and modern cultures. In the former, the individual is indebted to those who formed him (God, parents, nation/ethny) - and therefore it was thought right that he should have the virtue of piety in honouring them. The individual might be subject to feelings of guilt if he did not live up to what was expected of him from these sources of authority in his life. In modern culture, when this vertical dimension is lost, and there is only the individual existing as part of a mass, there are no longer obligations to external sources of authority (duties), but individual rights to oneself that might not be adequately upheld, leaving the individual in the role of a victim. The focus shifts from what we owe to others to what is owed to ourselves - and therefore our focus is more likely to be not on our failure to adequately serve but on how we have been failed in what is owed to us as a right - on ourselves as victims.

The next two paragraphs are also very interesting. In traditional societies the individual was connected to transcendent goods that were a source of meaning, purpose and identity in his life. Some of these goods held inherent meaning and were a stable source of support in an individual's life. For instance, if there was an inherent meaning in masculinity, and I was a man, then my sense of self had something positive to rest on. Similarly, if I were English, and there were admirable qualities associated with this, and a collective memory of achievements, then this too might be a stable support for my sense of self - independently of what I achieved personally in life as an individual. Yes, there were ways in which these sources of meaning did require the individual to live up to a certain standard, so there was a possibility of having a sense of personal failure, but these standards were at least known to the individual.

The self-actualisation ethos can be harder on individuals, because everything comes down to finding some inner, unique, hidden aspect of the self to be "actualised" that then will then put things right, i.e. adequately provide meaning or that might justify our existence. Most people seem to interpret this in terms of career success bringing validation - I know a few people who when they made it in their careers suddenly became more settled in themselves. It does make things particularly difficult, though, on adolescents who haven't yet even chosen such a path, let alone travelled down it. Failure, too, is immense in this outlook as there aren't other given aspects of our nature that provide meaning or identity.

I found the final paragraph interesting simply because it does seem to describe some moderns, particularly those on the left. The phrase "the more the self is understood on the basis of its predicament" describes people I know for whom their "oppression" is inextricably linked to their sense of self. If you go on social media, and engage with some on the left, you get a sense that the greater part of the mindset is organised around this. I doubt if this is entirely to do with a turn to therapeutic culture but it could be part of the explanation.

Again, to make the contrast clear, it is more common for traditionalists to focus on aspects of the self that are connected to either pride or service, e.g. to manhood/womanhood, to national/ethnic identity, to fatherhood/motherhood, to membership of a church etc. But the more you head leftward, the more likely it is that people will organise their approach to life around coping with victimhood, e.g. from being a particular sex or ethnicity, or else they will speak about being "triggered" in their mental health from exposure to things they find difficult to cope with. For instance, if you go all the way leftward to the Democratic Socialists of America you get this:

Friday, April 10, 2020

Relying on the low?

I came across a speech by Boris Johnson that he gave back in 2013. It was on the topic of equality. The gist of it was that IQ is real and that people with an IQ under 85 are unlikely to succeed to the same extent as those with an IQ over 135. He also said:
I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.

This reminded me of something Patrick Deneen wrote in his book Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen argues that in the early modern period there was a revolution in the understanding of politics:
First, politics would be based upon reliability of "the low" rather than aspiration to "the high." The classical and Christian effort to foster virtue was rejected...Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon readily observable human behaviours of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory. He argued further that liberty and political security were better achieved by pitting different domestic classes against one another, encouraging each to limit the others through "ferocious conflict" in the protection of their particular interests rather than by lofty appeals to a "common good" and political concord. By acknowledging ineradicable human selfishness and the desire for material goods, one might conceive of ways to harness those motivations rather than seeking to moderate or limit those desires. (pp.24-25)

This view of politics was carried into classical liberal philosophy. This means that classical liberals accepted the existence of human nature but focused on qualities such as self-interest and greed:
Early-modern liberalism held the view that human nature was unchangeable - human beings were, by nature, self-interested creatures whose base impulses could be harnessed but not fundamentally altered. (p.36)

Progressive (or "left") liberals came to hold a different view. They felt that human nature itself could be conquered in the same way that classical liberals thought external nature could be. They emphasised the idea that human nature was perfectible, for instance, through education or through changes to social institutions.

You can see from this that Boris Johnson's outlook is more like the classical liberal one than that of left-liberalism. He accepts certain fixed aspects of human nature, including IQ, but is focused on "the low" - on harnessing greed and envy to spur economic activity.

And what of the traditionalist view of human nature? I've read a little bit about the "Tory" view on this (i.e. of the more traditionalist members of the UK Conservative Party). Kevin Hickson has written a book surveying the views of these members of the "conservative right" and states:
...traditional conservatism held to a much more pessimistic view of human nature. As John Hayes put it "we appreciate that man is fallen, frail and faulted".

That view has been vindicated by what has happened to Western culture in recent decades. When human nature is allowed free rein, unimpeded by social norms, you do not get a more elevated level of culture but a more degraded one. Even so, I think there were faults in the "Tory right" view of human nature. If you leave your understanding of human nature at the idea that we are fallen, then you can lose idealism and with it the strength of motivation to lead and direct society.

For example, the Prime Minister of the UK in the late 1800s was the Marquess of Salisbury. He was part of the "Tory right" but his mindset seems to me to have been defeatist. Here is how Kevin Hickson puts it:
Although he believed that certain forces at work at the time he was alive would lead to social disintegration there was nothing one could ultimately do to stop them. The wise statesman would delay. Government would need to be ever vigilant but ultimately was bound to fail. The frailties of human nature would ensure that all that was good in society would decay. (Britain's Conservative Right Since 1945, p.8)

If the leftist radicals were promising an idealistic utopia and the best that traditionalists could come up with was "we are holding the fort but will ultimately lose" then the initiative was going to be with the radicals.

So although traditionalists should continue to insist on a fallible human nature, we shouldn't slide into this kind of pessimism. Nor do we need to. After all, unlike the classical liberals we do not wish to base politics on the "low" - we are not seeking to harness greed and self-interest. We wish to uphold the higher goods in life that men will ordinarily seek to live within and to defend. This ought to draw forth the strongest and deepest political commitments, much more so than those motivating the utopians, because they involve issues of identity, of meaning and of the good.

If traditionalism is done right then it ought to attract those willing to serve, i.e. those who wish to be connected to and to place themselves at the service of the transcendent good in life (rather than the individual pursuit of happiness or the selfish pursuit of profit). The leftist mindset, in contrast, is often of the "non serviam" variety - a prideful desire to not submit to a higher good, to have no reverence and to remain bound up in self. Although that gives leftists an oppositional energy, and although leftists can also be motivated by utopian dreams, it does not draw on the same loyalties and loves that motivate traditionalists toward political commitments.

I'd like to illustrate some of this by discussing two issues. The first is family. It's possible for a traditionalist to understand the stresses placed on family life by fallible human nature but to still recognise the traditional family as a significant good to be defended. The modernist approach is to claim that people can be left to their own individual reason to pursue their own wants and ends and that whatever results is equally family and equally good. This hasn't worked out well in practice. If men and women are not oriented to serving the common good of the family unit, it becomes difficult to find a point of harmony in relationships between men and women. Nor do all people act presciently for their own longer term good (e.g. women who want children but who leave things too late). Nor is the capacity to lay down stable emotional attachments likely to survive the churn of relationships that the modernist approach enables.

But even if the modernist principles weren't so influential, there would still be a gap between the ideal of family life and the reality. There exist, for instance, relatively fixed personality traits and some of these do not make for loving or faithful spouses. And so some families will be unhappy. It's possible to recognise the reality of this whilst still seeing a larger truth about the family as a model of human community, as something that is rightly striven for but, given human nature, cannot be taken for granted.

The second issue is that of moral community. Liberals claim that they are neutral in respect to this, but that isn't really so. Even right-liberals, who look to the individual pursuit of profit or pleasure, are still led, by their ideological preference for a limited state, to envision a moral community of self-helping, free-standing, law-abiding, hard-working, self-reliant, responsible, adult individuals. In general, given the liberal preference for "doing as thou wilt as long as it doesn't interfere with others doing the same", the liberal vision of moral community is one that is open, non-judgemental, non-discriminatory, tolerant, respectful of diversity etc.

Traditionalists should not be shy, therefore, in having their own vision of moral community. In part, this means a return to a pre-liberal understanding of the core ordering moral concepts, such as freedom, justice, equality and dignity. It means as well a return to a moral vision that was centred on the ideal of living within and serving the higher good in life. For our forebears, this meant a moral language centred around the praise of the nobler qualities of character and an avoidance of the baser ones, and of the cultivation of virtue.

Which brings me to one final matter. Much of what I have been discussing is properly an aspect of polis life. It is part of the masculine role of upholding the vertical dimension, of a hierarchical ordering of things, of looking upward toward the higher good.

There is a crossover here with the role of the church, but the focus of polis life and of the church are not exactly the same. The church focus must be, at least in part, also horizontally planed, i.e. on the sideways relationships between people, so that there is an emphasis on qualities such as love, neighbourliness, forgiveness, acceptance and hospitality. The church should hold to this as well as to the vertical dimension, in which there is an emphasis on reverence, worship, obedience and virtue.

It would be a mistake for a church to focus on the horizontal dimension alone (as a wholly feminised church might do). After all, it is in looking upward to serve the higher good that we are often brought to the service of God. Through the vertical structure we create the protected, cultivated, social spaces in which people can best unfold their "telos" - their God given purposes. It is through the vertical structure that moral community is formed and safeguarded. It is through the vertical structure that we maintain the continuity and stability of our communities (country, people, family) which fosters our capacity for love (in contrast to social anomie).

St Paul made this connection, this link between the aims of the church and the upholding of the vertical dimension (the aspiration to the high), in writing the following to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Review: The Year of our Lord 1943

I've just finished reading a book by Alan Jacobs titled The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.

By 1943 it was becoming clear that the Allies were going to win the war. There was much interest in how the post-war world would be shaped. The book focuses on the work of five intellectuals of the period: T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil.

What is interesting is that these intellectuals were fearful that the West had lost its way and that without a change of course was likely to fail in the post-War world.

What did they identify as the problem? There are two main themes discussed in the book. The first concerns education. There was, for instance, a concern that education should promote moral and character formation, particularly for an elite who would be most influential in creating the culture of a society. As part of this aim, there was an idea that it was important to train or to educate a person in feeling or emotional response, not just in formal precepts.

This make sense to me. If someone doesn't feel or respond in a fully natured way to things, then it becomes difficult to enculturate them and to build human character.

The second theme is that of technocracy. Most of the writers seemed very aware that they were living in a time of transition, in which an older culture was giving way to a depersonalising, mass, technocratic one.

It's interesting, in this respect, that the year 1943 was chosen, as this was the year that the Australian Government made the formal decision to end Anglo-Australia and to have a more diverse population. The decision was made largely on technocratic grounds by planners and economists in obscure departmental committees, whose concern was with objective measures of growth above all else.

At the end of the book, Alan Jacobs praises the writers for the richness of their thought, but concludes that it came too late to make a difference, given that the technocrats had already consolidated their power, and the situation in Australia in 1943 seems to bear that out.

A thought of my own: perhaps the student revolt of the 1960s can be thought of, in part, as a kind of "revolt against the machine" - against the technocratic view of life favoured by the older elite (I'm thinking particularly of the hippy side of it, the drop out/commune with nature/alternative lifestyle side). The student revolt ultimately made things much worse by failing to appreciate and defend the good still existing within society (and there was much still worth defending in the 1960s).

That would be my criticism too of artwork like the following:

It's a very famous Australian painting titled Collins St., 5pm painted in 1955 by John Brack. It shows the mass of city workers in Melbourne leaving to go home. Brack painted the work after reading The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

Again, it makes sense as a protest against the depersonalised, mass, industrial society. But there was much to love and defend in Melbourne in 1955. (I've often wished that much of the city centre of that time had been preserved, like the European "old city" centres.)

I did find the book interesting and thought provoking, but because it provided a snippet of the thought of each writer at a particular time it didn't really provide a depth of argument or insight. I've been left most curious about the essays written by Eliot and Lewis, which I will have to follow up and read when I can.