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 girl...it 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, was...to 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 body...to 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 worlds...you've only become smaller and weaker, until you become an exceptionally small and weak person.


Saturday, August 19, 2023

The line that did not hold - can liberalism go only so far?

Konstantin Kisin did a review of the Barbie movie which I would categorise as being both insightful and flawed. He says in his review:

The central destructive notion of liberalism is the idea that we're all individuals maximising our freedom and pursuing happiness. I have much sympathy for this approach when it comes to relations between the citizen and the government. I am liberal in the sense that I want to be free from authoritarian control in order to be able to pursue my own happiness as I see fit. 

What I believe liberalism gets wrong is the attempt to apply this concept outside of the relationship between the individual and the state and extend it into the realm of family and human relations more broadly. Yes, freedom from intrusive government is likely to provide opportunities for each individual to pursue their own happiness but it is simply a lie to say that maximising freedom from your fellow human beings is a recipe for happiness...happiness is derived not from your freedom from other people but from the bonds you form with them.

Indeed, as any parent knows, the most meaningful things we ever get to do are the very things that constrain our freedom the most...

If the poison pill of hyper-liberalism is to encourage us to see ourselves as atomised individuals, the liberal feminism of Hollywood depicted here is worse still...the modern feminist movement is intent on brainwashing young women to see the relationship between men and women as one of competition...having retaken Barbie Land from the clutches of the patriarchy and rejected Ken's quite reasonable suggestion that he and Barbie, i.e. men and women, are created to be together, Barbie is free to ride off into the sunset, alone.

There are some aspects of this analysis that I think Kisin gets right. He identifies as a problem liberalism setting men and women apart as competing political classes; and he observes correctly that maximising our individual autonomy by rejecting family commitments, and instead going it alone, is not a pathway to happiness for most people. I also share with Kisin his opposition to an intrusive, authoritarian state.

Konstantin Kisin


Nonetheless, there are problems. Kisin would like to return to a much earlier version of liberalism in which liberalism was thought of as "political", i.e. as being applied to the sphere of politics rather than the personal life of family relationships.

This attempt to keep public/political life and private/family life apart did not work. It was always likely to fail, and it did, in fact, fail. Why? Because if you establish the maximising of individual autonomy as the overriding public good, then there will be a call for this good to be applied to all the institutions of society, including the family.

As early as the 1880s in England, women were starting to apply the key liberal political principle to their own lives. For instance, a student from Girton College at this time described her liberal understanding of herself as a woman as follows:

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

Clearly, the firewall that was supposed to protect the bonds of family life from the logic of liberal individualism was already failing by the later nineteenth century.

Feminists hammered away to collapse the distinction between private and public goods. "The personal is the political" was a favourite slogan of second wave feminism. Similarly, feminists often drew comparisons between tyranny in politics and tyranny in the family. For instance, in 1994 an Australian feminist called Kate Gilmore unveiled a new government policy with these words:

You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home...that will take us to the point where we can secure change.
It seems like straight out man hatred, but what is really happening is a feminist insisting that political liberalism needs to be applied to family life, as there is tyranny in both to be defeated (which helps to explain the feminist insistence on female oppression within the family, as this then justifies overriding the idea of family life as a private sphere insulated from political liberalism).

Just to illustrate how far we have already been through this whole cycle, here is a comment by the Russian feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, on a novel written by the French author Colette in the early 1900s:
Freedom, independence, solitude are the substance of her personal desires. But when Rene, after a tiring long day's work, sits at the fireplace in her lovely flat, it is as though the hollow-eyed melancholy of loneliness creeps into her room and sets himself behind her chair.

"I am used to being alone," she writes in her diary, "but today I feel so forsaken. Am I then not independent, not free? And terribly lonely?" Does not this question have the ring of the woman of the past who is used to hearing familiar, beloved voices, to being the object of indispensable words and acts of tenderness?

Kollontai is already using the phrase "woman of the past" to describe those women who sought family bonds rather than freedom, independence and solitude - and this in the early 1900s. The issue, then, is do we really want to keep cycling through these phases, in which the liberal principle gets applied to the lives of women, so that they pursue a lonely life independent of family love?

There is a second problem with Kisin's proposed solution. Even if our personal, private lives could be kept separate from the principle animating the public, political arena, Kisin's formula would still do significant harm. Note the way that Kisin himself puts it. He wants to be free as an individual to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit.

This sounds alright, but it leaves something out. If we are imagined as millions of individuals each seeking our own good according to our individual desires or beliefs, then how are common goods to be defended? Where, at the public and political level, are these common goods to be acknowledged and upheld?

The most obvious common good is that of nation. What if it is an aspect of the human good to belong to a traditional nation? I cannot uphold the existence of the nation I belong to at a purely individual level. The formula of people being left alone to do their own private, individual thing no longer works if you accept that the existence of a nation is important to human life.

And there is good reason to believe that it is important. Living amongst a people with whom you share thick bonds of a shared ancestry, language, history and culture provides the arena for expressing many of our social commitments. For instance, it allows us to express and fulfil aspects of our manhood, the ones by which we protect the larger polis, through the exercise of our masculine strengths, including the heroic virtues of defending the community from harm. It provides significant aspects of our identity and our sense of belonging, as well as a connectedness to culture, to place, to nature and to generations past, present and future. It makes us the bearers of a tradition, giving us standards to live up to and to make our own contributions to. It provides a warmth of familiarity of manners and mores, of humour and of the smaller, unspoken understandings that exist between a people embedded in a longstanding culture of their own. It allows us to reproduce who we are and what we most value, and it can be, at its best, a portal into the transcendent, as when we experience something like the "soul" of our nation and it draws out our love and a sense of duty that expresses something better within our own natures.

As important as it is to avoid state overreach or state tyranny, there are common goods like that of nation that do need to be upheld, and this can only be done at the level of the polis, and therefore the focus of political life cannot be only a freedom to pursue our own purely individual ends. If this is the only focus, we are left powerless to defend things that are highly meaningful to our own lives.

Finally, one more criticism of Kisin's analysis, but more along the lines of a quibble. Kisin claims that the makers of Barbie are motivated by the principle of "misery loves company" or "hurt people hurt people". I don't think this is so. The director of the film, Greta Gerwig, is married with children. The actress Margot Robbie has been with her current husband for a decade or more and writes glowingly of how fulfilled the marriage has made her. So these women are choosing one thing for themselves (marriage and motherhood), whilst promoting something else to other women (going it alone).

What is happening here is better explained by Lawrence Auster's concept of the unprincipled exception. Auster explained that liberal values, if followed consistently, would make it difficult to live a decent life. Therefore, it is common for liberals to make unprincipled exceptions in order to escape the personally harmful consequences of their own beliefs. 

I have long noted that upper middle-class women are sometimes adept at playing this game. They do enough to secure traditional goods for themselves, whilst also promoting modernist values. It tends to be women a little below them who take the message at face value, and who attempt, usually disastrously, to live in a more principled way along feminist lines.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

The double nature of the good

Patrick Deneen has written of the two revolutions that liberalism brought to the West:

Liberalism...seeks to transform all of human life and the world. Its two revolutions - its anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and its insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature - created its distinctive and new understanding of liberty as the most extensive possible expansion of the human sphere of autonomous activity.

This is an excellent summary of the changes wrought by liberalism. However, I have noticed in my recent reading that the anthropological individualism was not necessarily intentional, at least not from some of the early luminaries of modernist thought.

Descartes, for instance, was happy to accept that we exist not only at the individual level but also as members of larger bodies, such as the family, that we belong to not by choice but by birth:

though each of us is a person distinct from others, whose interests are accordingly in some way different from those of the rest of the world, 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.

As it happens, Francis Bacon had a similar outlook, which he called the double nature of the good. Bacon believed that matter was moved by "appetite". One of these appetites inclined objects toward self-preservation. But the second appetite was a "motion of connection", a force through which "bodies support each other by mutual connection and contact". 

Francis Bacon

In his book of 1605, The Advancement of Learning, Bacon writes that the appetites of self-preservation and union together form the double nature of the good:

Here, 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 of 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. [Francis Bacon on Motion and Power, pp.236-37]

There is one thing to add. Bacon believed that the Fall had weakened the summary law of nature:

What Bacon means is essentially that after Adam and Eve broke the moral law, matter reverted in part to its original state of chaos: a dose of recalcitrance to the summary law was introduced into nature...Bacon explains this through the appetites of matter...Left to themselves these appetites normally ‘attack, usurp, and slaughter one another in turn’ – a characteristic Bacon uses to explain the underlying cause of chaos. When influenced by the summary law, however, disorder is turned to order, and the universe acquires goodness, meaning and direction.

The power of the summary law is needed to keep the right balance between the appetite of self-preservation and that of connection:

The behaviour of even the minutest of natural bodies, then, is directed by a kind of moral code imbedded in the fabric of nature, a "double good" in which the greater good corresponds to the preservation of the whole...the existence of the greater good, says Bacon, is ultimately predicated upon an equilibrium which necessitates the existence of the summary law. For without the balancing power of the lex summaria to mitigate between the appetite of self-preservation and that of union there can only ever be chaos. [Francis Bacon on Motion and Power, p.237]

Bacon, then, was not radically individualistic in the way we now understand the term. In fact, he thought that too great an emphasis on individual self-preservation, insufficiently balanced by a concern for the greater good, signalled a loss of the law of nature originally intended by God to create order within the cosmos. It signalled, in other words, a decline into chaos.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

When it doesn't work out as you imagined

A woman posted the following video on TikTok, in which she describes feeling unsafe living in San Francisco:


After experiencing an interaction with a man in which she was spat on and threatened with assault, she says of living in San Francisco "I literally never feel safe".

But here's the thing. This woman is living in what is arguably the most leftist city in the United States. And she herself is a young, single childless leftist political activist. In other words, she has helped to create a place that mirrors her own most deeply held values - and she doesn't feel safe living there.

Here is an example of her political views:


As you can see, it is the standard leftist version of equality. She writes "Vote as if you were the most marginalized, oppressed person you know". I wrote about this type of political frame in my last post:

So how, then, do you have equality? One way is to do what modern society formally does, and insist on levelling down any power structures. For instance, if white people have more power in a traditionally white society in the sense of dominating its cultural expression, then this has to be deconstructed, whereas the cultural expression of minority groups has to be supported and promoted.

There is a dissolving logic to this kind of politics. First, when the majority culture starts to think this way, they turn against what is best within their own tradition, in an effort to level themselves down. And so they no longer as effectively promote what is needed to hold things together. Nor do minorities find it as easy to maintain their own cohesion as there is no longer a core majority group to define their own existence against. Instead of what leftists imagine will happen, namely a hundred different groups each equally able to culturally express themselves, you get a loss of cohesion within all the groups and a descent into a more atomised mass consumer culture.

There is an irresponsibility in engaging politically to achieve "equal cultural expression". The focus should be on what is required to successfully uphold the common life of a people, including a regard for the health of the institutions, the supporting cultural norms and moral standards, and the stability of governance. 

If everyone thinks like the woman in the video, and votes and acts according to the issue of leftist equality, then why wouldn't there be a gradual decline in the social fabric? Why wouldn't there be a loss of important social and cultural norms? Why wouldn't the end result be a less safe and secure social environment? After all, who is now focused on maintaining these standards? Who now frames politics around these more traditional aims? Certainly, not the leftist single ladies living in San Fran - not, at least, until things get so bad that these young women "never feel safe".

And, even then, the most likely option is that these women will just move somewhere else, to a place they have not yet made unsafe, and subject that community to the same irresponsible concept of politics.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Mixed messages

You are probably aware that there are two very different takes on the recent Barbie movie. There are some on the right, like Michael Knowles, who think the message of the film is terrific. There is a scene toward the end of the film in which Barbie rejects having a relationship with Ken and tells him that he is enough as he is, but also that he has to find out who he is outside of any relationship with her.

Knowles interprets this in a red pill way. Given that all of the men in the film are shown as simps, who live only for validation from the women, he thinks this is Barbie telling Ken that he is not fit for relationships until he is his own mental point of origin, as the manosphere puts it. For Knowles, the message is that Ken needs to be more masculine, and stronger in his own frame.

This is plausible, but I don't think it is what Gerwig is aiming at. I am on the other side of the fence - I think Barbie is an unabashedly feminist film and that Gerwig believes that problems within feminism can be resolved by men and women going their own way. As I'll demonstrate in a moment, this is the message that at least some feminist women are taking from the film.


There are two problems within feminism that the film seeks to resolve by uncoupling Ken and Barbie. The first is equality. The philosophy of the film is that we have been created without any given ends and that therefore we have to make meaning for ourselves. And this then means that the power to have our self-chosen purposes and ends realised in society becomes critical. Power, though, is a zero sum game. If men have more of it, women have less of it and vice versa. In the film, this is shown as "either/or" - either the men have power or the women do.

So how, then, do you have equality? One way is to do what modern society formally does, and insist on levelling down any power structures. For instance, if white people have more power in a traditionally white society in the sense of dominating its cultural expression, then this has to be deconstructed, whereas the cultural expression of minority groups has to be supported and promoted.

There is something of a nod to this solution in the film, in the idea that the Kens must become activists to gradually improve their position, just as women must do in the real world. Still, the pursuit of power remains a zero sum game, in which whatever women gain, men must lose. And Gerwig believes that at this social level, men must lose. 

So how does someone who sees the world through a modern frame resolve this? How should men respond to a world view based on a zero sum game in which they are slated to lose out? Gerwig says that there is a positive side to feminism for both men and women, one in which both have equal status. And that is that both sexes can equally act as autonomous individuals, shaping their own meaning, via solo development, without regard to the other sex. The Kens can do this just as much as the Barbies can. If each sex goes its own way, their own self-generated life aims can be pursued, without imposing on the other. There is no more reliance on the other sex, no more enmeshing, and therefore no loss of power to pursue our aims.

A feminist mother (Wendy Hahn) took her 15-year-old son to the Barbie movie so that he would absorb exactly this message. She wrote:

In 2023, I am fighting to raise a son who doesn’t become the next Kyle Rittenhouse, Brock Turner or Elon Musk.

Movies, like books, invite dialogue. As a former high school English teacher, I wish all teachers would assign their students to watch “Barbie” in place of summer reading selections like “The Grapes of Wrath.” 

....in the end, Stereotypical Barbie tells Ken to get a life that doesn’t depend on others for happiness ― a life that gives him equal status without infringing upon the status of anyone else. I want that for your sons and my son as well.
The idea is that we can all have "equal status" if we don't "depend on others for happiness". In the context of the film, this means men and women going their own way. The purposes or ends in life no longer revolve around marriage. There is a sacrifice of love for the empowerment to fulfil our own individual ends.

That this is Gerwig's intention is suggested by the fact that her next film has a similar message. Gerwig wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film Snow White. It stars Gal Gadot and Rachel Zegler. An interview with these two actresses went as follows:
Interviewer: You said you were bringing a modern edge to it. What do you mean by that?
Rachel Zegler: I just mean that it's no longer 1937. We absolutely wrote a Snow White that...
Gal Gadot: She's not going to be saved by the prince.
Rachel Zegler: She's not going to be saved by the prince and she's not going to be dreaming about true love. She's dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be.

There is a sacrifice of love for power (I am not endorsing the Disney version of "true love" here). Marital love is sacrificed for girl power. The two are set against each other, as they have been within feminism for over a century.

The one exception to this messaging in the film is that there is some support for the mother/daughter relationship. I expect that this is because there is no zero sum game involved here (mothers, it is said in the film, help launch their high flying daughters into society).

The other problem within feminism that the film tries to resolve is that of cognitive dissonance. Women, we are told in the film, are oppressed because they have to walk a tightrope, for instance, by being thin but not too thin. The kinds of examples given are not all that persuasive: they do not seem, for instance, any more difficult than men having to be bold in approaching women, but not too bold.

However, feminism has, in fact, created significant areas of cognitive dissonance for women. For instance, if the aim is to attain power, then the traditionally feminine qualities will seem lesser than the traditionally masculine ones. So women need to have masculine traits and dial down their feminine presentation to other women, but still retain enough femininity that they will not make themselves entirely unattractive to men. 

Similarly, women who are brought up in a modern feminist culture will absorb from an early age the idea that their role is to assert their own power against that of men. However, this conflicts with the feminine impulse women have to "let go" and be receptive for the right man when it comes to forming relationships with the opposite sex. It is difficult, in other words, for women to have a boss babe mentality and still successfully pair bond with a man.

The film does try to put forward the idea that women can be leaders and still have something of the feminine left in them, but even so you have to imagine that many women who take feminism seriously will have a considerable burden of cognitive dissonance. In my observation, there are many feminists who do not walk the tightrope successfully - they don't come across to men as sufficiently feminine and so the men look elsewhere for partners.

One way to resolve this cognitive dissonance is simply to downgrade the significance of relationships in human life. If relationships don't matter that much, then some of the burden is relieved.

What all this illustrates is how important the intellectual frame is. Imagine if the frame was different. Let's say, for instance, that the masculine and the feminine were thought of as meaningful goods that the individual gets to embody. If these are fully realised within a relationship with the opposite sex, then there exists a common good for men and women to serve, i.e. our own individual good is tied together with a larger, communal good. The focus would shift away from competing for power with the opposite sex. What would matter instead would be the way we order ourselves toward this higher good. The questions to be focused on might be how I as a man can best embody the masculine through my role as a husband or a father, or how I as a woman might best express the feminine through my role as a wife or a mother.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Reframing Barbie

I have now seen the Barbie movie. It is not a children's film, but deals with issues of the meaning of life from a feminist perspective. It is useful to look at because it connects feminist politics with a modern metaphysics - and we get to see what is lost in the process.

I do need to set out the basic plot to explain this (so...spoiler alert). We begin in Barbie land which is a matriarchy where not only do the Barbies rule politically, but the Kens (the male dolls) are merely accessories. The Kens try to impress the Barbies but the Barbies aren't that interested, as every night is girls night.



Then Barbie is afflicted with an existential angst and is forced to go to the real world (where humans live). Barbie had expected to be greeted there as a heroine who had empowered women; instead, the patriarchy still rules. Ken loves that he gets some respect in the real world and returns to Barbie land to set up a patriarchy of his own. Barbie gets to meet her creator in the real world, and then returns to Barbie land with a mother, Gloria, and her daughter. Together they attempt to restore the matriarchy.

The best place to begin in analysing the film is with the metaphysics. Barbie's creator (a God figure) tells Barbie that "I created you so you wouldn't have an ending", i.e. that there are no ends or purposes to her life, but that she must choose for herself what she will be and do. The assumption in the film is that there is no given meaning to things, none given by a creator, so that everything is made up by ourselves and that we as humans subjectively create our own meaning and purpose.

This is the essential frame through which all else follows. What you see in the film is how some things, once thought to be a core aspect of being human, radically lose meaning within this frame.

This is particularly true of relationships between men and women. Some reviewers complained that the film was man-hating. I didn't find this to be so, not directly at least. The men are nearly all well-intentioned. The problem is that they are portrayed as entirely superfluous in the lives of women. They exist not only as a potential threat to women's autonomy and agency, but even more so as irritating figures who get in the way of women in their daily lives, i.e. who are merely tolerated. There is one husband portrayed in the film (Gloria's), but he is like a third wheel to the mother/daughter relationship, and he brings no meaning or purpose to their lives.

Similarly, at the end of the film Barbie rejects having a relationship with Ken. She tells him that he has to find meaning not in relationship with her but on his own. She effectively tells him that he must go his own way, and that he is enough by himself.

It is a savagely cold message but it makes sense within the frame. If we are to aim at maximising our autonomy, understood to mean our freedom to self-define, because this is how we assert meaning, then relationships are merely limiting. We are most autonomous when we develop solo, outside of relationships with others. Hence, love is rejected in the Barbie movie, for the sake of empowerment.

Imagine if the frame was different. For most of the Western tradition, love was thought to connect us meaningfully to higher goods and purposes and was therefore worth cultivating. Similarly, to truly develop who we are as men and women, it was once thought that we would do this in relationship with each other, as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers within a family, as a natural setting for human life. A significant regard was attached to fatherhood and motherhood to the point that it was possible, for instance, to speak of maternal honour.

Relationships are regarded in the Barbie film as just meaningless flummery. In Ken's patriarchy, the men are romantic and want to help the Barbies by demonstrating masculine competence. The Barbies are happy, admire the Kens and do little things for them like bringing them beer. But the female role is to be something like a "bimbo" that does not engage the higher nature of the women (a merely "helpful decoration" as the film puts it). When matriarchy is restored, Barbie triumphantly says that the women once again have "brains and autonomy". Again, this only makes sense within the modern feminist frame. In the older frame, relationships had a significance that would ask of both men and women something of the best within their natures - it was a field of human life that would justify giving the best of ourselves to those whom we loved. There was, potentially, a nobility to this kind of love.

Which brings us to motherhood. The film is conflicted here. Early on, motherhood is given a drubbing. The film shows little girls rejecting motherhood by bashing their baby dolls on the ground. The narrator dismisses the idea that women experience motherhood as a worthwhile thing. Throughout the film what matters is women holding political power or judicial power or winning prizes for science or journalism. However, in the real world, Gloria is just an ordinary woman with a boring office job and for her the relationship with her daughter does matter. Gloria's love for her daughter is perhaps the one human touch in the entire film. Later, we are told that mothers do have a purpose, which is to launch their high flying feminist daughters into the world. There is nothing said about women who might end up with sons instead.

Why are there mixed messages here when it comes to motherhood? I'm not sure. Perhaps the one last bastion of human love in this feminist world is a purely female one between mother and daughter that has as its ultimate purpose female empowerment. 

Another difficult message in the film is that of equality. Within the feminist frame there is no common ground between men and women. There is no mutual service to a family or nation, nor do men and women fulfil aspects of their own created nature in relationship with the opposite sex. What there is instead is a pursuit of empowerment so that we might get to follow our own autonomous will. This, however, is a zero sum game. If men have power to set the world to their own desires, women lose power and vice versa. This is part of the basic plot of the movie. There is either male supremacy (Ken land) or female supremacy (Barbie land). One side has to win or lose.

The film tries to take the moral high ground by suggesting that each sex might gradually fight for and win political rights within these systems. The film also asserts that equality can be achieved by the Kens accepting, just like the Barbies, that they don't need the opposite sex and that they can be self-defining autonomous agents just like the women. It is somewhat radical for the film to suggest this, as feminists usually assert that men already have this power. The film is conceding that men are more likely to still want to uphold a pre-modern ideal of the sexes being in relationship with each other. Equality is possible, according to the Barbie film, if both sexes go their own way.

But there is another problem with equality. Barbie decides, at the end of the film, that what she really wants, even at the cost of becoming mortal, is to become a person so that she can be one of the makers/creators instead of one of those being acted on. What this illustrates is that the feminist frame is necessarily elitist rather than egalitarian. Most people are not going to wield power in society - they are not going to be part of the elite who get to move things according to their will. The film is honest enough to concede this in the character of Gloria, who is an exploited office worker who does not even have enough time to go on a vacation with her daughter. In other words, the kind of power that the feminist frame suggests will allow us to make meaning will be illusory for most people. There will be a tiny number of winners at the top, but most will be losers.

There is another confusion that arises here. On the one hand, we are supposed to rise to a godlike status of being makers/creators who thereby infuse meaning into existence - a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch:

For Nietzsche, the Übermensch is...a being who is able to be their own determiner of value; sculpt their characteristics and circumstances into a beautiful, empowered, ecstatic whole; and fulfil their ultimate potential to become who they truly are.

However, the film depicts women as complaining that under the patriarchy they are expected to meet standards and that this is oppressive and that, instead, people should just accept who they are, as they are (at the end, Ken comes to the realisation that he is "Kenough").

So which is it? Are we self-defining, empowered meaning makers or just good enough as we are, any way that we are? 

Perhaps one problem for the feminist frame here is that there does not exist within it any basis for objective standards, so meeting these will necessarily feel oppressive and/or arbitrary. But if this is true, then why bother self-defining? If what you already are is enough, and as good as anything else, then you may as well stay with it. The power you are striving to have, that of autonomous self-definition, is not even needed. But where then does meaning come from, if we are not subjectively making up our own meaning or purposes, as an expression of our agency, but are just accepting who we already are? If I am enough as an ordinary office worker like Gloria, then why suggest that women must find meaning in being movers and shakers as creatives or executives?

So how to summarise the film? On the one hand, I think it is better if these trends within modernity are brought to the surface, as they are in the movie. Better to see openly where things are headed and on what basis. The problem, though, is that even people who are opposed to the trends tend to argue for something else from within the feminist frame itself, which can only ever slow down what is happening rather than genuinely alter the course of social change.

On the other hand, I do find it sad that things have reached such a low point, that men and women are being split off from each other within mainstream culture. It is a defeat for all of us, men and women.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Trouble in feminist paradise

I saw an interview with the cast of the newly released Barbie film and it demonstrated that feminism is still really a creature of political liberalism.

In the interview there is a discussion of what it means to be a Ken, i.e. one of the male dolls. Two responses were given, both of some interest.

Kate McKinnon, who plays "weird Barbie" in the film, pushed the idea that the point is to reject gender roles altogether. She said "Gender roles deny people half their humanity...we just need to be ourselves". The journalist commenting on this agreed and wrote:

That’s the point, plain and simple: Trying to shove oneself into a category or box, rather than simply being yourself and letting people apply adjectives to you as they see fit, limits yourself as a human being.

Rather than thinking about whether they’re “acting like a Ken” or “acting like a Barbie,” people should simply worry whether they are acting like themselves – that is how you truly come alive.

This is simply liberalism applied to the issue of our sex. Liberalism wants to maximise our individual autonomy, understood to mean our ability to self-determine or self-define who we are and what we do. Therefore, pre-determined characteristics, such as our sex, are thought of negatively as limitations that should be made not to matter.

Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie

One of the problems with this view is that it makes who we are less meaningful. In the pre-liberal understanding, I as a man get to embody the masculine, which exists as a meaningful category within reality (an "essence"), which then means that my identity and role as a man is connected to a larger, transcendent good that I can strive toward as an ideal.

What liberalism replaces this with is a notion that our sex is not meaningful in this way, but rather I am just me, not connected to anything outside of my own self. I could be one thing or I could be another, and either way it wouldn't matter. There cannot be, in this view, any ideals connected to being a man or a woman, nor any standards, and in this respect the categories become radically unimportant.

This is not the end of the feminist story. One of the ideas within liberal modernity is that the good in life is a power to enact our own individual desires rather than having to serve someone else's. This then leads to the distinct ideal of female empowerment, which is understood to mean women being able to act in whatever direction they wish, without negative judgement or consequence. 

But this makes relationships between men and women a zero sum game. You either have independent boss babes or you have The Handmaid's Tale. And this comes out in the second comment made by a woman on the Barbie interview panel. Issa Rae said,

I think a Ken for me is just kind of there. I think a Ken is a great accessory. That's what I loved about Greta's imagining of Barbie is that the Kens are just supplemental characters to these Barbies. Barbies can do everything, Kens are there to support and don't necessarily have their own story and I think that's not necessarily a negative thing, it's incredibly strong for a man to be in supportive roles.

Issa Rae is drawing out the logic of the way that feminism frames reality. In a pre-liberal mental universe, men and women served common goods. They did this, in part, because the framework was not so radically individualistic. Instead of attempting individual empowerment, men and women acted to serve the larger common good of the families and communities they belonged to. There was also a common good in the sense that men and women only fully expressed who they were in relationship to each other, as husbands and wives, within a spousal union.

Issa Rae

In the newer liberal mental universe, men and women become competing political classes. There is no mutual service toward a common good. Instead, there is the effort to self-empower to enact our own individual desires. So either the woman gets to empower, with the man serving her, or vice versa (apparently, the plot of the Barbie film revolves around this notion of two such alternative worlds).

This understanding of a zero sum game, in which something that is beneficial to men is assumed to be a loss for women, does not gel well with the liberal emphasis on political equality. Feminists have long proclaimed that they want equality, so how then can someone like Issa Rae endorse the idea of men as being a supporting cast for women?

The explanation I have heard from women is that men are already empowered to do whatever they want and therefore any empowerment for women is just a progressive move toward equality. I have also heard women acknowledge that it is unequal but that it is nonetheless justified because men previously dominated (so that it is a kind of historical balancing of the books).

We are stuck within this feminist framing. We are trapped within the idea that manhood and womanhood are limiting to who we are rather than adding a meaningful layer to our existence. And, perhaps worse, we cannot escape the zero sum game mentality, in which the sexes are radically set apart from each other, in non-complementary roles, and where gender war will proceed eternally because of the lack of any common ground. 

The truly liberating option would be to step outside the frame.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

Lane's New Australia

In the 1890s a charismatic Australian journalist named William Lane attempted to establish a socialist utopia in Paraguay. A book published about this enterprise in 1912 has been republished by Bonfire Books (None but the Crocodiles by Stewart Grahame). 


What is so interesting about the New Australia Movement is that it had so much in its favour....and yet it nonetheless rapidly failed.

The socialist experiment in Paraguay had every reason to prosper. Paraguay had recently experienced a war and had lost much of its adult male population. Its government was therefore keen to attract new settlers and so offered William Lane a large amount of quality land. At the same time, some bitter labour disputes in Australia led to a large number of skilled and experienced workers joining the movement. Lane himself was genuinely idealistic and principled and an inspiring leader. Nor was the experiment overly radical; for instance, members were allowed to continue to live in families.

The idea of the new society was a socialist one: what was produced would be held in common and then distributed equally to each member. 

I won't go into the details about how this unfolded, as it is described so well in the book (which you can purchase here). It is curious, though, that the reason for failure was predicted some 600 years earlier by the medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas justified the holding of private property as follows:

Firstly, because everyone is more solicitous about procuring what belongs to himself alone than that which is common to all or many, since each shunning labour leaves to another what is the common burden of all, as happens with a multitude of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if each has his own duty of procuring a certain thing, while there would be confusion if each should procure things haphazard. Thirdly, because in this way the peace of men is better preserved, for each is content with his own. 

All three of these principles played out in New Australia, but especially the first. 

Socialist Australians in Paraguay in the 1890s.

What lessons do we draw from the failure of the New Australia colony? The basic one, I think, is that the family is one of the natural settings for human life. Men are more motivated to work industrially if they can direct the fruits of their labours to their own wife and children. If, instead, those fruits are directed toward a common store to be distributed equally, then the work is more likely to be left to others and, as Aquinas so shrewdly predicted, there will be discontent about how the work of a community is apportioned.

Stewart Grahame was optimistic in 1912 that the combination of the free market and Christianity would prove a winning formula. History didn't work out that way: Christianity gradually lost its influence in the culture and the bigger corporations have increasingly adopted a leftist social agenda. 

One final point. Although pure socialist experiments like the one in Paraguay are doomed to failure, a certain kind of state socialism is increasingly influential in the West. This is perhaps where the real argument about socialism is to be had.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Descartes: commitment & community

I found a passage written by the philosopher Descartes which I thought interesting (it is from his letter to Elisabeth of Bohemia, 1645). Descartes is recognised as a progenitor of modern thought, but he clearly did not support the radical individualism which has come to characterise liberal modernity. 

He writes:

After acknowledging the goodness of God, the immortality of our souls and the immensity of the universe, there is yet another truth that is, in my opinion, most useful to know. That is, that though each of us is a person distinct from others, whose interests are accordingly in some way different from those of the rest of the world, 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. 

What I believe he gets right here is not only the idea that we are social creatures, but that we are a part of (i.e. we belong to as an aspect of our being) certain communities. Descartes clearly accepts that our membership of some of these communities is predetermined - that we are born into them. Unlike liberal moderns, he does not push the logic of individual autonomy to the point of rejecting unchosen forms of community.

René Descartes

The next part is more questionable:
And the interests of the whole, of which each of us is a part, must always be preferred to those of our own particular person —with measure, of course, and discretion, because it would be wrong to expose ourselves to a great evil in order to procure only a slight benefit to our kinsfolk or our country. (Indeed if someone were worth more, by himself, than all his fellow citizens, he would have no reason to destroy himself to save his city.) 
Understood a certain way, this makes sense. If I could make money in a way that betrayed my country, then I should certainly set aside my own financial self-interest in favour of preserving the national community I belong to. Even so, the introduction of a kind of moral calculus here rings false. It is also unhelpful, I think, to focus on the idea that there are occasions when it is morally right to destroy ourselves to preserve the community. More typically, in acting to uphold the good of the community we belong to, we are also preserving our own good, as our own good can only be fully realised in common with others.

Descartes continues:
But if someone saw everything in relation to himself, he would not hesitate to injure others greatly when he thought he could draw some slight advantage; and he would have no true friendship, no fidelity, no virtue at all. On the other hand, if someone considers himself a part of the community, he delights in doing good to everyone, and does not hesitate even to risk his life in the service of others when the occasion demands. If he could, he would even be willing to lose his soul to save others. So this consideration is the source and origin of all the most heroic actions done by men. 

Descartes is arguing against the idea that a society can be formed solely on the basis of individual self-interest. If I act solely from selfish motives, then there is no ground for important virtues like loyalty. If, though, I see myself as being part of a community, in the sense that it is an aspect of identity and belonging, this is likely to inspire my social commitments. Descartes' views have been supported by the research of Professor Robert Putnam, who found that when there is less ethnic solidarity, that people tend to "withdraw from collective life" and to "to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often". Descartes' basic argument here is also one I have often made myself, as for instance in defending the continuing existence of historic nations:

From this larger body we derive parts of our identity, our loves and attachments, our participation in a larger, transcendent tradition, our sense of pride and achievement, our social commitments, our attachments to place, whether to nature, landscape or urban environment, our connection to a particular cultural tradition, our commitments to maintaining moral and cultural standards, our sense of connectedness to both the history of our own people - to generations past - as well as our commitment to future generations.
I should pause, though, to question one part of Descartes' argument. He says that we should be willing to lose our souls to save others. Perhaps he wrote this for effect, but taken literally I think he is wrong.

Descartes writes in a similar vein:
A person seems to me more pitiful than admirable if he risks death from vanity, in the hope of praise, or through stupidity, because he does not apprehend the danger. But when a person risks death because he believes it to be his duty, or when he suffers some other evil to bring good to others, then he acts in virtue of the consideration that he owes more to the community of which he is a part than to himself as an individual, though this thought may be only confusedly in his mind without his reflecting upon it.

He connects this to a religious piety - to preferring to follow God's will rather than hedonic pleasures:

Once someone knows and loves God as he should, he has a natural impulse to think in this way; for then, abandoning himself altogether to God's will, he strips himself of his own interests, and has no other passion than to do what he thinks pleasing to God. Thus he acquires a mental satisfaction and contentment incomparably more valuable than all the passing joys which depend upon the senses.

In addition to these truths which concern all our actions in general, many others must be known which concern more particularly each individual action. The chief of these, in my view, are those I mentioned in my last letter: namely that all our passions represent to us the goods to whose pursuit they impel us as being much greater than they really are; and that the pleasures of the body are never as lasting as those of the soul, or as great in possession as they appear in anticipation. 
Descartes clearly considers our commitments to family and nation to be higher spiritual goods, through which we follow God's will for us, and are contrasted with a selfish pursuit of hedonic pleasure.

Although I do not subscribe to Descartes' larger philosophy, his views on this topic are preferable to those that were to develop later on, in which the individual was expected to pursue self-interest in the market (as Economic Man), and to develop solo as an individual outside of natural forms of community, with many intellectuals ultimately becoming not only disembedded from their own historic communities but actively hostile to them.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Why the incoherence?

One of the most obviously incoherent aspects of modern thought is the presence, at the same time, of both voluntarism and materialism/naturalism/scientism. These things would not seem to go together well at all. The voluntarism suggests that it is our own wills which define reality. If I say I am a woman, even if I am a man, then that is what I am and I should be treated as such by society. This conflicts with the materialism/naturalism/scientism which sees reality in terms of material processes. According to this outlook it would be genetics, chromosomes and hormones and such like that would determine my sex.

Many moderns hold to both voluntarism and scientism with equal force, despite the apparent incompatibility. How can we explain this? I don't personally have a modern type mind, so cannot answer with confidence, but I can suggest three possible explanations.

a) Accretions 

It can be the case that certain philosophies influence a culture over the course of that culture's history. Instead of these philosophies being harmonised, they simply "enter the mix". If this is the explanation, then the voluntarism might come from a variety of sources, e.g. from the theological voluntarism of the Middle Ages, or from German idealist philosophy of the nineteenth century, or more generally from the emphasis on autonomy as the goal of a liberal politics. The scientism/materialism/naturalism is derived from the rejection of scholastic philosophy in the Early Modern period and perhaps from empiricist schools of philosophy.

b) Science as a servant of human desires

My understanding is that modern science was launched, in part, with the idea that by understanding natural processes, humans could obtain the resources to satisfy unlimited wants. In other words, if the larger aim is not to live within the natural order, but to pursue our individual wants and desires to the furthest extent possible, then science could be employed to create the conditions in which those wants and desires could be fulfilled.

If this is so, then you can understand why moderns cleave to both scientism and voluntarism. The voluntarism represents the unfettered pursuit of whatever we will for ourselves. The scientism the means by which to obtain these wants and desires. 

c) The loss of value in nature

If nature is seen only from a scientistic/naturalistic viewpoint, then it will seem merely mechanical. It will no longer be a bearer of value in the way it once was when it was appealed to morally (i.e. when saying "it is natural/unnatural to do x, y or z" as a way of endorsing or condemning certain acts). 

I think it can be difficult for those raised within a Christian tradition to understand this. Christians are used to the idea of a purposeful act of creation, so that our relationship to the natural world is invested with meaning (even when we apprehend a certain mystery in the created world). But there are moderns for whom nature is just a mechanical process coldly indifferent to human life. There is nothing for them to relate to in the natural world.

So values, for such moderns, must then come from ourselves: they must come from our own subjective wills. We do not discover objective values inhering in the created world; instead, we assert the power to create values through an act of will (which perhaps represents a deification of ourselves in the image of a voluntarist concept of God).

You can see, then, why the scientism/naturalism/materialism goes together with a voluntarism. The scientism disenchants and de-values; the voluntarism is then necessary to reassert value. You get both, despite an apparent incompatibility between the two.

I'm not sure which of the three explanations is the more likely reason for the coexistence of both voluntarism and scientism. Perhaps all have had an influence, or there might be some other reason I have not considered.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Romance & reason 3

This will be my final post on Eva Illouz's work Why Love Hurts (see here and here for the first two). There is a passage about equality in the book that I think is worth commenting on. The issue being discussed is whether the modern understanding of equality undermines attraction between men and women by eroding differences. Illouz draws on the work of Louis Dumont, a French anthropologist:

As he puts it: “[I]t is easy to find the key to our values. Our two cardinal ideals are called equality and liberty.” And these values, Dumont suggests, flatten out the perception of social relations:
The first feature to emphasize is that the concept of the equality of men entails that of their similarity. [. . .] [I]f equality is conceived as rooted in man’s very nature and denied only by an evil society, then, as there are no longer any rightful differences in condition or estate, or different sorts of men, they are all alike and even identical, as well as equal.
Recalling de Tocqueville, Dumont adds: “[W]here inequality reigns, there are as many distinct humanities as there are social categories.” 

Here Dumont is recognising an apparently strange thing, namely that liberal moderns understand equality to mean something like "sameness". In theory, someone could support equality in the sense of seeing different types of beings as having equal value or worth. But moderns tend to want to erase distinctions in the name of equality. Percy Bysshe Shelley, as far back as 1811, in reference to the differences between men and women wrote:

...these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being

Similarly, in 1837 the American feminist Sarah Grimke opined,

permit me to offer for your consideration, some views relative to the social intercourse of the sexes. Nearly the whole of this intercourse is...derogatory to man and woman...We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes...the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female...Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex...we never can derive that benefit from each other's society...

So, from early on equality was conceived as the abolition of distinctions between men and women, i.e. as a shift toward sameness. Why? I think it went something like this. There was once the idea of a great chain of being, which was on the one hand a hierarchy of being, with those at the top having a qualitatively higher nature; however, each creature in the chain was necessary to the function of the whole, so each had a secure dignity for this reason. 

This idea of a chain of being meant, potentially at least, that those higher up the social scale might be thought to be more noble than those who were common. This meant that the noble class had to distinguish themselves not just through money or power but also through nobility of manner, character and behaviour. It meant, too, that most people would look "upwards" for social and cultural leadership to this noble class.

With the demise of this idea of a chain of being, a reaction took place, in which the emphasis was on "all men are created equal". Understood in historic context, this meant not only "equal in value" or "equal in the sight of God" but equal in the sense of there being no qualitative distinction in being: there was no class that due to birth or breeding stood higher in nobility.

I suspect that some moderns hoped that what would result from this loss of distinctions would be a net gain, in the sense that everyone would now stand equally in a condition of nobility. But clearly this is not what happened. Instead, we got what Dumont recognises as a "flattening" not only in social relationships but in the way that moderns think about "ontology" - i.e. about categories of being. We have increasingly lost the ability our ancestors had in discerning what is noble and what is base within the nature of things - leading to a cultural drift downward.

With the insistence on ontological sameness we have also lost a sense of "thick differences":

Dumont is an advocate of the kind of thick differences that are played out between different social and cultural groups in India, for example. In his view, the right and the left hand are not simply polar and symmetrical opposites; rather, they are different in themselves because they have a different relation to the body. What Dumont suggests, then, is that equality entails a loss of qualitative differences. He uses the analogy of the right and left hand because both are necessary to the body, but each is radically different from each other. In the nonmodern, non-egalitarian view, the value of each hand – left and right – is rooted in its relation to the body, which has a higher status. 

This shunning of subordination, or, to call it by its true name, of transcendence, substitutes a flat view for a view in depth, and at the same time it is the root of the “atomization” so often complained about by romantic or nostalgic critics of modernity. [. . .] [I]n modern ideology, the previous hierarchical universe has fanned out into a collection of flat views of this kind.

The regime of meaning to which Dumont points is one in which transcendence is produced by the capacity to live in an ordered, holistic and hierarchized moral and social universe. Eroticism – as it was developed in Western patriarchal culture – is predicated on a similar “right-hand/left-hand” dichotomy between men and women, each being radically different and each enacting their thick identities. It is this thick difference which has traditionally eroticized men’s and women’s relationships, at least since these identities became strongly essentialized.  (pp.186-87)

So our difficulty runs as follows. We have inherited an understanding of equality, whose origins we are no longer self-consciously aware of, but which pushes toward making men and women the same (i.e. a flattening of the social relationships and a "thin" rather than a "thick" expression of sexual difference). This then contributes to a failure in the culture of sexual relationships between men and women.

The solution? It's important not to over-correct. There will always be both a horizontal axis of society as well as a vertical one. Even so, there does need to be a reassertion of "an ordered, holistic and hierarchized moral and social universe". It is one aspect of what constitutes the core of the West - the capacity to rise toward transcendent goods - which cannot even be attempted whilst we still, as a culture, believe ourselves to be inhabiting a flat cosmos.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Jena Set 2

I have now finished reading Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics by Andrea Wulf. The second part was focused, to a considerable degree, on the wayward personal relationships of the first generation of German Romantic thinkers.

I wrote in my last post:

...if we start from the point of pure subjectivity, conditioned only by our own feelings and passions, then relationships will be thought more pure and elevated the less they are based on pragmatic rational considerations and the more freely bestowed they are, without any "limiting" claims being made on the feelings or passions of the other person.

The early Romantic thinkers seem to have acted along these lines, or something similar, in their love lives. August Schlegel, for instance, married a much older single mother, Caroline Böhmer, but happily allowed her to live in his house with her lover, the much younger philosopher Friedrich Schelling, while he himself (Schlegel) pursued the heavily pregnant, married sister of the poet Ludwig Tieck. Freely bestowed emotions overrode considerations of age and fertility, of marital status, of fidelity, of honour and of self-respect. Passion über alles. It makes for gruesome reading.

August Wilhelm Schlegel

As I wrote in my previous review of the book, there were some positive aspects of the German Romantics. They reacted against the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment, insisting on a more poetic experience of life. They upheld the transcendent value of beauty and promoted the idea of nature as a living organism. They were open to the culture and religion of the medieval world. We can thank the Romantics, at least in part, for beautiful neo-Gothic churches, for the nature poetry and painting of the nineteenth century, and for the music of Beethoven and Schubert.

But there were problems. It is said that much of philosophy is based on establishing the triadic relationship between God, man and nature. During the Enlightenment, there was an emphasis on man existing outside of nature. Man was an observer, measuring and classifying and seeking to master nature. I am going to call this a process of "exteriorisation" in the sense that man is no longer an active participant within nature, but places himself outside of it.

The Romantics reacted against this. In part, this meant acknowledging the sense of connection between man and nature, including the responses of awe and wonder to nature. However, philosophers like Fichte also created problems in establishing the relationship between man and nature. He was in the tradition of Descartes, in the sense of looking into the operation of self-consciousness to discover truths about human existence. It led him to a belief that we establish our freedom of will, as opposed to being conditioned by the material world, by recognising that it is the "ich" (the "I") that creates the limiting conditions on the self and that these therefore can be dispelled by the "ich". As Andrea Wulf describes it:

As Fichte stood at the podium in Jena, he imbued the self with the new power of self-determination. The Ich posits itself and it is therefore free. It is the agent of everything. Anything that might constrain or limit its freedom - anything in the non-Ich - is in fact brought into existence by the Ich.

This philosophy did not readily harmonise the relationship between man and nature. Fichte himself wrote:

My will alone...shall float audaciously and coldly over the wreckage of the universe.

We could call this trend in Western thought "interiorisation" in the sense that it is a turn away from the idea that we are influenced or conditioned by an external nature, or even a given nature, but that we subjectively "posit" our own self and in so doing reject the "limitations" imposed by what is outside of our own volition. Some of the critics of the Jena set complained at the time that this was a "metaphysical egotism" (p.350) and Ralph Waldo Emerson described the new age in 1837 as an "age of Introversion" (p.351). Friedrich Schlegel, the brother of August and at one time a follower of Fichte, later turned against his ideas, writing that Fichte was "idolising the Ich and the self" and that he had confused the self with the divine.

(Schelling, another influential Romantic philosopher, tried to connect man and nature, apparently by arguing that both were identical in some sense, i.e. that the "ich" was identical with nature.)

I've focused on this distinction between exteriorisation and interiorisation because it seems to me that both have been bequeathed to the modern world, even though they are not entirely consistent with each other. They are simply two of the accretions that the modern world runs with.

Man the observer, standing outside of rather than participating from within, is found in the modern liberal personality. It is evident in those moderns who enjoy observing and experiencing other cultures, as something like tourists (outsiders), but who renounce a culture of their own (or who are simply oblivious to it). Similarly, exteriorisation is also evident in those moderns who praise Aborigines for having a rich relationship to nature but who are strangely unaware of the importance of the relationship to nature expressed within their own culture.

They have inherited the exteriorised mindset in which they are onlookers, standing on the outside of both nature and culture, rather than participants from within. This explains, in part, why they are so little touched by questions of loyalty or duty - you have to stand within something, as an active participant, for either loyalty or duty to have a claim on you.

The influence of interiorisation in our own time is even greater (and more obvious). What we self-identify as is asserted to be what we really are. The "self-positing ich" is extending its reach far beyond anything envisaged by Fichte and his contemporaries. 

Instead of coming to a better understanding of the triad of God, man and nature, we have just left things as history left them, to our own considerable detriment.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Romance & reason 2

In my last post I discussed the ideas of Eva Illouz, a Moroccan born sociologist who writes on the topic of relationships. I noted that she agrees with a point that I have long made, namely that there is a tension between a belief in individual autonomy and a commitment to stable relationships. This is because autonomy requires us to be free to choose in any direction at any time and we cannot do this if, for instance, we take seriously our marriage vows. Eva Illouz puts it this way:

This idea makes sense only in the context of a view of the self in which promises are viewed as posing limits on one’s freedom: that is, the freedom to feel differently tomorrow from the way I feel today. Given that a limit on one’s freedom is viewed as illegitimate, requesting commitment is interpreted as an alienation of one’s own freedom. This freedom in turn is connected to the definition of relationships in purely emotional terms: if a relationship is the result of one’s freely felt and freely bestowed emotions, it cannot emanate from the moral structure of commitment. Because emotions are constructed as being independent of reason, and even of volition, because they are viewed as changing, but, more fundamentally, because they are seen as emanating from one’s unique subjectivity and free will, demanding that one commits one’s emotions to the future becomes illegitimate, because it is perceived to be threatening to the freedom that is intrinsic to pure emotionality.

A reader ("Guest Ghast") drew out something important from this:

It’s something I’ve been made more aware of recently through a number of personal incidents, but there’s a real unexamined driving ideology here that emotions equate automatically to action. Eva doesn’t even question her assumption that how we behave is determined by how we feel and that people’s feelings are what we ought to be concerned about, even though she’s clearly thought about it. I can’t claim an exhaustive examination of this, but once you notice it it’s clear it’s everywhere. The so-called transgender movement is practically founded on the notion that how you feel ought to determine reality, but that’s somewhat adjacent to the, I think, larger phenomenon of action being assumed to derive almost purely from emotion. I would suspect this is a development from the ideals of the Romantic movement that lionized feeling and passion, but I haven’t investigated to find out.

I think that Eva herself does question the loss of a "moral structure of commitment", but even so the main point here stands: that modernity has slipped into the idea that how we feel justifies how we act. Instead of our feelings being ordered to a notion of the good, it is the other way around: what we feel becomes the good we are to pursue. 

This led to a discussion of why liberal modernity has slipped into this habit. Both Guest Ghast and I agreed that it could have something to do with the influence of Romanticism, with its emphasis on feeling and passion and its focus on individual, subjective experience. I also offered this:

I wonder (this is just a thought experiment) if it has something to do with the logic of modernism itself. If what matters is maximum preference satisfaction, and preferences are equally valid, then there is perhaps less "rational" justification for any act. It just comes down to subjective preference, i.e. what we want to do and this itself may be perceived to be based on what we feel like doing or having.

In other words, liberal modernity sees the good in a freedom to choose as we will, rather than in our choosing rationally and prudently what is objectively good for us and for the communities we belong to. As James Kalb used to emphasise, our preferences are seen as equally valid (as long as they do not limit what others might prefer to be or to do). But if they are equally valid they do not have to be justified by an act of reason. They are valid because they are my own subjective preferences. If preference alone is a sufficient justification, then it comes down to what I want, or feel like, or think will create a pleasurable experience, or simply to what moves me - which is often my emotional responses.

Guest Ghast replied with another significant argument:

I posted a comment here some time ago...in which I worked through my own logic to show that liberalism requires only meaningless choices. In short, since choices that have consequences would influence one to make a decision in one direction or the other, freedom is maximized when consequences are done away with, but this reduces all choices to meaningless preferences. Now that you’ve suggested a connection, it occurs to me that said meaningless preferences by necessity must operate only by feeling since there’s no logical way to choose one option over another. Since we seem to hold that we are defined as individuals by having individual preferences no one else has, this would seem to elevate feeling to the dominant position we observe it in (since feelings would be the truest expression of one’s individuality). Worse, reason in fact cannot have anything to do with decision making rather than being merely subordinate to feeling.

It also occurs to me that to reason necessarily means to discriminate, which liberals have reliably connected with oppression. cf. a previous post you wrote wherein it was said (not in so few words) that treating people differently for their choices was unacceptable and cf. the ubiquitous modern attitude that treating people differently for their unchosen aspects is also unacceptable. Basically treating people in any rational way is unacceptable. Mere feelings and preference can’t be in essence accused of discrimination, at least when you’re sufficiently reeducated and your choices are indistinguishable from random ones.

There are two points being made here. The first is that if we think of choices as having consequences, serious enough to sway one's decision permanently in one direction only, then a limitation is being placed on our freedom to choose in any direction. Therefore, it is better if choice is conceived of as not having these serious consequences (or if these consequences are seen as being there artificially, as a power ploy of some sort, i.e. of one person or group wanting to manipulate others, so that they can be dismissed as an oppressive imposition that can be overridden). Another way of putting this is that the absolute ideal under the terms of liberal modernity is to be "empowered" in the sense of being able to choose in any direction, without negative consequence or negative judgement. In this case, the older emphasis on wisdom or prudence is superseded, as the vision is of a society in which it is possible to choose any self-determined path that we have a mind to travel.

The second point is that when we reason we necessarily discriminate. We make judgements as to the good, as to the worthiness of particular acts, and to the likely consequences of beliefs and behaviours. But making these judgements is not licit under the terms of liberalism, and in some cases will be condemned as inherently hateful or bigoted. Therefore it is difficult to "treat people in any rational way". In contrast, a feeling or a preference is simply a subjective state that in itself does not involve a process of discrimination (though it might still be considered illicit if it is not in line with the larger principle of non-discrimination). Perhaps this helps to explain why the liberal classes so often emphasise "right feeling" as the basis of being a good person, or why they seek these feeling states rather than grappling with the longer term repercussions of what they advocate.

Why discuss all this? We need to go back to the where the discussion began. Relationships cannot be defined in purely emotional terms, independent of reason and volition. First, because emotions change and therefore relationships grounded only on emotion will be unstable. Second, if we start from the point of pure subjectivity, conditioned only by our own feelings and passions, then relationships will be thought more pure and elevated the less they are based on pragmatic rational considerations and the more freely bestowed they are, without any "limiting" claims being made on the feelings or passions of the other person.

The very first generation of Romantic thinkers in Germany seem to have already accepted the logic of all this. Their relationships were marked by this emphasis on pure, unconditioned subjectivity. I will go into details in the next post.