Time flattens the peaks of emotion and fills the valleys of despond. Tormentors from the past are now shades pale and insubstantial, too weak to haunt. Absence wins out over presence. One needn't work at the purgation of memory: time does the work for us.
People are astonishingly suggestible. But is suggestibility always bad? Belonging to a community of believers reinforces one in one's belief. If the belief is true and life-enhancing, then so is the suggestibility that promotes it.
Money, power, sex, and recognition form what I call the Mighty Tetrad of human motivators, the chief goads to action here below. Hillary specializes in the inordinate love of the first two, Bill in the inordinate love of the second.
0. At regular intervals we find in the popular press articles about how free will is an illusion or 'a trick the brain plays on itself.' Just today, in fact, two different readers referred me to two different articles on this theme. One was positively awful, the other merely bad. So I reckon it is time to dust 0ff, revise, and supplement an old post from 2012.
1. Could freedom of the will in the strong or unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense be an illusion? I will assume that free will and determinism are logically incompatible and that every version of compatibilism is false. My position is a mysterian one: it is plain that what we are libertarianly free and that free will is no illusion. But we cannot understand how this is possible given our embeddedness in a natural world that is macro-deterministic. What is actual is possible whether or not we can explain how it is possible.
2. Suppose A and B are mutually incompatible but equipossible courses of action, and I am deliberating as to whether I should do A or B. (Should I continue with this blogging business, or give it up?) Deliberating, I have the sense that it is up to me what happens. I have the sense that it is not the case that events prior to my birth, together with the laws of nature, necessitate that I do what I end up doing. Seriously deliberating, I presuppose the falsity of determinism. For if I were thoroughly and truly convinced of the truth of determinism it would be psychologically impossible for me to deliberate.
In the case of a morally significant choice, the sense that the outcome is up to me includes the sense of my moral, and not merely causal, responsibility for the outcome. So if it is the case that freedom of the will is an illusion, then no one is ever morally responsible for what they do or leave undone. But then moral responsibility is an illusion as well.
3. Determinism is the thesis that, given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. When I seriously deliberate, however, my deliberation behavior manifests my belief that there is more than one possible future, and that it is partially up to me which of these possible futures becomes actual. There is the possible future in which I hike tomorrow morning and blog in the afternoon and the equipossible future in which I blog tomorrow morning and hike in the afternoon. And which becomes actual depends on me. One may be tempted to say that the indisputable fact of deliberation proves the reality of free will. For to deliberate is to deliberate in the conscious conviction that the outcome is up to the one deliberating.
4. But then someone objects: "The sense that it is up to you what happens is illusory; it merely seems to you that you are the ultimate source of your actions. In reality your every action is determined by events before your birth." The objector is not denying the fact of deliberation; he is denying that the fact of deliberation entails the reality of free will. He is claiming that the fact of deliberation is logically consistent with the nonexistence of free will. The claim is that when one deliberates, one only seems to oneself to be deliberating freely, and that all the processes involved in deliberation have causal antecedents that necessitate them.
One mistake that popular writers, including philosophically inept scientists, sometimes make is to claim that on determinism, no one ever makes choices. But of course people make choices; what the determinist denies is that people make free choices.
5. To evaluate this objection, we first need to ask what could be meant by 'illusory' in this context. Clearly, the word is not being used in an ordinary way. Ordinary illusions can be seen through and overcome. Hiking at twilight I jump back from a tree root I mistake for a snake. In cases of perceptual illusion like this, one can replace illusory perceptions with veridical ones. Misperceptions can be corrected. Something similar is true of other illusions such as those of romantic love and the sorts of illusions that leftists cherish and imagine as in the eponymous John Lennon ditty. In cases like these, further perception, more careful thinking, keener observation, life experience, 'due diligence' and the like lead to the supplanting of the illusory with the veridical.
But if free will is an illusion, it is not an illusion that can be cast off or seen through, no matter what I do. I must deliberate from time to time, and I cannot help but believe, whenever I deliberate, that the outcome is at least in part 'up to me.' Indeed, it is inconceivable that I should ever disembarrass myself of this 'illusion.' One can become disillusioned about many things but not about the 'illusion' of free will. For it is integral to my being an agent, and being an agent is part and parcel of being a human being. To get free of the 'illusion' of free will, I would have to learn to interpret myself as a deterministic system whose behavior I merely observe but do not control. I would have to learn how to cede control and simply let things happen. But this is precisely what I cannot do. Nor do I have any idea what it would involve.
So here is my first argument, call it the Semantic Argument:
a. A meaningful and 'newsworthy' claim to the effect that it has been discovered that free will is an illusion must use 'illusion' in its ordinary sense, otherwise one is engaging in word play. b. Illusions in the ordinary sense of the term can be seen through and corrected. c. The 'illusion' of free will cannot be seen through and corrected. Therefore d. The claim that free will is an illusion is a meaningless claim.
"But perhaps free will is a special sort of illusion, one that cannot be seen through and corrected." My challenge to a person who makes this move will be: Explain how living under this illusion differs from the reality of being a free agent!
At the very least, the objector owes us an explanation of what it means to say that free will is an 'illusion' given that it cannot mean what it ordinarily means.
6. Now for an Epistemic Argument. It would be nice if one could 'switch off' one's free agency and go on automatic. Many choices, after all, are painful and we wish we could avoid them. Sophie's choice was agonizing because she knew that it was up to her which child would remain with her and which would be taken away by the Nazi SS officer. Now which is more certain: that Sophie knows that she is a free agent morally responsible for her choices, or that she knows that she is a wholly deterministic system and that the sense of free agency and moral responsibility are but illusions? (Let us grant arguendo that there is some sense of 'illusion' according to which the claim that free will and moral responsibility are illusions is not pure nonsense.) The answer ought to be obvious: the former is more certain. One is directly aware of one's free agency, while it is only by shaky abstract reasoning that one comes to the view that free will is an illusion. Sophie is directly aware that it is 'up to her' which child she surrenders to the SS thug. This is the source of her agony.
My Epistemic Argument:
a. We are directly aware of our libertarianly-free agency, our freedom in the unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense. b. This direct awareness trumps, epistemically speaking, the proposition that all of our mental and physical processes are causally necessitated by events antecedent to our births. Therefore c. One is justified is believing that one is libertarianly free despite one's having no explanation of how this is possible given the (macro) determinism of nature.
7. Now for a 'Bad Faith' consideration. We are not free to be free agents or not. We didn't decide to be free. It is an essential attribute of our humanity. Thus we are "condemned to be free" in a famous phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre. The sound core of the Sartrean exaggeration is that being free is constitutive of being human. No doubt I can try to view myself as a mere deterministic system pushed around by external forces, but that is a mode of self-deception, a mode of what Sartre calls mauvaise-foi, bad faith. Determinism is "an endless well of excuses" as I seem to recall Sartre saying somewhere. Being free is constitutive of being human. Better, it is constitutive of being a person. If determinism is true, then, strictly speaking, there are no persons.
8. An argument from the Impossibility of Existential Appropriation. Connected with all of this is the impossibility of existentially appropriating the supposed truth of determinism. Suppose determinism is true. Can I live this truth, apply it to my life, make it my own? Can I existentially appropriate it? Not at all. To live is to be an agent, and to be an agent is to be a free agent. To live and be human is not merely to manifest a belief, but an all-pervasive ground-conviction, of the falsity of determinism. Determinism cannot be practically or existentially appropriated. It remains practically meaningless, a theory whose plausibility requires an exclusively third-person objective view of the self. But the self is precisely subjective in its innermost being and insofar forth, free and unobjectifiable. No one lives or could live third-personally. While it is easy enough to reduce others to deterministic systems, thereby depersonalizing them, I cannot do this in my own case. I cannot depersonalize myself. It is practically impossible. Granted, it is theoretically possible to view myself from the outside as merely another deterministic system, but then I am abstracting from my agency, an abstraction that deserves to be called vicious inasmuch as I am as much an agent , a doer, as a thinker. I am not merely a spectator of my life, although I am that; I am also the agent of my life. I observe life's parade, but I also march in it.
Indeed, I am a doer even as a thinker: I decided to think about this topic, and then write about it; I had to decide whether to write this on my weblog or for my personal files, with my computer or with paper or ink; at every step I had to decide whether to continue or break off, etc.
9. The mother of all oppositions. The ultimate root of the problem of free will is the amazing fact that we are at once both objects in a material world caught in its causal net and also subjects capable of knowing and acting upon that world. We can, and are justified, in viewing ourselves objectively, externally, and in a third-person way despite the fact we live, know, and act in an opposing first-person way. This object-subject opposition is the mother of all oppositions and perhaps the ultimate conundrum of philosophy.
If we look at the self from a third person point of view, then determinism has no little plausibility, for then we are considering the self as just another object among objects, just another phenomenon among phenomena subject to the laws of nature. But the third person point of view discloses but one aspect of reality, leaving out the first person point of view, when it is the latter from which we live. We are objects in the world, but we live as subjects for whom there is a world, a world upon which we act and must act. Subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable.
We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere? No philosopher has ever explained this satisfactorily. What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them.
Let us say that a philosopher is a unitarian if he thinks he can unify these opposing points of view and aspects of reality by elimination or reduction of one to the other. My suggestion is that we cannot achieve a satisfactory Unitarian view. All indications are that the problem of free will is simply insoluble, a genuine aporia, and that we ought to be intellectually honest enough to face the fact. It is no solution at all, and indeed a shabby evasion, to write off the first-person point of view as illusory. Especially when one goes on to live one's life as if free will and moral responsibility are not illusions! Have you ever praised or blamed anyone and felt justified in doing so? Do you praise and blame deterministic systems?
Worry and regret form a pair in that each involves flight from the present; worry flees the present toward an unknown future, regret toward an unchangeable past. The door to Reality, however, is hinged on the axis of the Now. If access is to be had to the nunc stans it is only via the nunc movens. Past and future are but representations in comparison to the reality of the moving now.
We should anchor our thought in that which is most certain: the fact of change, the nearness of death, that things exist, that one is conscious, that one can say 'I' and mean it, the fact of conscience. But man does not meditate on the certain; he chases after the uncertain and ephemeral: name and fame, power and position, longevity and progeny, loot and land, pleasure and comfort.
Wealth is not certain, but the grave is. So meditate on death, asking: Who dies? Who survives? What is death? Who am I? What am I?
Death is certain, but the when is uncertain. Do not try to make a certainty out of what is uncertain, or an uncertainty out of what is certain.
"What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." (James 4:14)
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, tr. Craufurd, Routledge 1995, p. 75:
The infinite which is in man is at the mercy of a little piece of iron; such is the human condition; space and time are the cause of it. It is impossible to handle this piece of iron without suddenly reducing the infinite which is in man to a point on the pointed part, a point on the handle, at the cost of a harrowing pain. The whole being is stricken in the instant; there is no place left for God, even in the case of Christ, where the thought of God is then that of privation. This stage has to be reached if there is to be incarnation. The whole being becomes privation of God: how can we go beyond? After that there is only the resurrection. To reach this stage the cold touch of naked iron is necessary.
'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' There we have the real proof that Christianity is something divine. (p. 79)
We are spiritual beings, participants in the infinite and the absolute. But we are also, undeniably, animals. Our human condition is thus a predicament, that of a spiritual animal. As spirits we enjoy freedom of the will and the ability to encompass the whole universe in our thought. As spirits we participate in the infinity and absoluteness of truth. As animals, however, we are but indigent bits of the world's fauna exposed to and compromised by its vicissitudes. As animals we are susceptible to pains and torments that swamp the spirit and obliterate the infinite in us reducing us in an instant to mere screaming animals.
Now if God were to become one of us, fully one of us, would he not have to accept the full measure of the spirit's hostage to the flesh? Would he not have to empty himself fully into our misery? That is Weil's point. The fullness of Incarnation requires that the one incarnated be tortured to death. For if Christ is to be fully human, in addition to fully divine, he must experience the highest exaltation and the lowest degradation. These extreme possibilities, though not actual in all, define being human.
The Crucifixion is the Incarnation in extremis. His spirit, 'nailed' to the flesh, is the spirit of flesh now nailed to the wood of the cross. At this extreme point of the Incarnation, doubly nailed to matter, Christ experiences utter abandonment. He experiences and accepts utter failure and the terrifying thought that his whole life and ministry were utterly delusional.
Familiarity and social proximity have their positive aspects, but they also breed contempt. No man is a hero to his valet. Nemo propheta acceptus est in patria sua: No prophet is accepted in his own country. (Luke 4:24) Few bloggers are read by their relatives. Social distance, too, has positive and negative sides. One negative is that people are more ready to demonize and abuse the distant than the near-by. Internet exchanges make this abundantly evident. On the positive side, distance breeds respect and idealization which can taper off into idolization.
What is almost impossible to achieve is justice in our relations with others, near and far, falling into neither favoritism nor contempt, demonization nor idolization. Four extremes to avoid if you would be just.
A. Inordinately favoring one's own; being partial; overlooking or downplaying their wrong-doing. Tribalism. Nepotism. Clannishness. Chauvinism. Racism. Class-identification. Blut und Boden mentality. Example: John Gotti's children thought him a good man despite the fact that his good qualities were overshadowed by his murderous thuggishness. Their blood-ties to him blinded them to the fact that he was an evil man.
The conservative is more likely to make this mistake than the liberal.
B. Contempt for one's own; being impartial in violation of duties to kith and kin; treating them exactly as one would treat an outsider, if not better. A vacuous internationalism that ignores real differences. Example: the deracinated 'open borders' types who will not understand that a nation has a right to its culture and heritage and the preservation of its culture and heritage.
The liberal is more likely to make this mistake than the conservative.
C. Demonization of the other, the foreigner, the stranger. Xenophobia. Irrational hatred of the other just because he is other.
Some conservatives are prone to this. But of course leftists lie viciously when they brand conservative opposition to illegal immigration as xenophobic.
D. Excessive admiration of the other. Idolization of the far away. Idolatry. Romanticization of foreign lands and cultures.
Many liberals make this mistake. The young are more likely to make it than the old.
One reason to try to 'make it' is to come to appreciate, by succeeding, that worldly success cannot be a final goal of legitimate human striving. 'Making it' frees one psychologically and allows one to turn one's attention to worthier matters. He who fails is dogged by a sense of failure whereas he who succeeds is in a position to appreciate the ultimate insignificance of both success and failure, not that most of the successful ever do. Their success traps them. Hence the sad spectacle of the old coot, a good flight of stairs away from a major coronary event, scheming and angling for more loot and land when in the end a man needs only -- six feet.
Christopher Hitchens died on this date in 2011. Herewith, a meditation composed in August 2010, slightly revised.
I just caught the last third of an interview of Christopher Hitchens by Charlie Rose. Hitchens looks bad, the chemotherapy having done a nasty tonsorial number on him. But his trademark intellectual incandescence appears undiminished. 'Brilliant' is a word I don't toss around lightly, but Hitch is one to whom it unarguably applies. Public intellectuals of his caliber are rare and it will be sad to see him go. Agree or disagree with him, it is discourse at his level that justifies the high regard we place on free speech.
In the teeth of death the man remains intransigent in his unbelief. And why not? He lived in unbelief and so it is only fitting that he should die in it as well. He lived for this life alone; it is fitting that he should die without hope. God and the soul were never Jamesian live options for him. To cop out now as debility and death approach must appear to him to be utterly contemptible, a grasping at straws, a fooling himself into a palliative illusion to ease the horror of annihilation.
For what he takes to be the illusion of immortality, Hitchens substitutes literary immortality. "As an adult whose hopes lay assuredly in the intellect, not in the hereafter, he concluded, 'Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul.'" (Here)
But to the clearheaded, literary immortality is little more than a joke, and itself an illusion. Only a few read Hitchens now, and soon enough he will be unread, his books remaindered, put into storage, forgotten. This is a fate that awaits all scribblers but a tiny few. And even they will drink the dust of oblivion in the fullness of time.
To live on in one's books is a paltry substitute for immortality, especially when one recalls Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's aphorism: Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt. "A book is a mirror: if an ape peers in, no apostle will look out." Most readers are more apish than apostolic. The fame they confer cannot be worth much, given that they confer it.
To live on in one's books is only marginally better than to live on in the flickering and mainly indifferent memories of a few friends and relatives. And how can reduction to the status of a merely intentional object count as living on?
The besetting sin of powerful intellects is pride. Lucifer, as his name indicates, is or was the light-bearer. Blinded by his own light, he could see nothing beyond himself. Such is the peril of intellectual incandescence. Otherworldly light simply can't get through. One thinks of Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre, and to a lesser extent Hitchens. A mortal man with a huge ego -- one which is soon to pop like an over-inflated balloon.
The contemplation of death must be horrifying for those who pin all on the frail reed of the ego. The dimming of the light, the loss of control, the feeling of helplessly and hopelessly slipping away into an abyss of non-being. And all of this without the trust of the child who ceases his struggling to be borne by Another. "Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." But this of course is what the Luciferian intellect cannot do. It cannot relax, it must hold on and stay in control. It must struggle helplessly as the ego implodes in upon itself. The ego, having gone supernova, collapses into a black hole. What we fear when we fear death is not so much the destruction of the body, but the dissolution of the ego. That is the true horror and evil of death. And without religion you are going to have to take it straight.
What would Hitchens lose by believing? Of course, he can't bring himself to believe, it is not a Jamesian live option, but suppose he could. Would he lose 'the truth'? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. They bluster and whistle in the dark. But suppose 'the truth' is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this 'truth' be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system? How could truth be a value in a purely material world?
If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it? And if materialism is true, could truth even exist? It is not a physical thing or property. It is not empirically detectable. It is inherently mind-involving.
An abstract with the above title has been making the rounds. No doubt you have seen it, so there is no need to link to it, nor does it deserve a link. It is almost certainly a joke, and if not, then the author is a fool. But since I have just made a harsh allegation, perhaps you should see for yourself.
There have always been crises. Human history is just one crisis after another. The 20th Century was a doosy: two world wars, economic depression, the rise of unspeakably evil totalitarian states, genocide, the nuclear annihilation of whole cities, the Cold War that nearly led to WWIII (remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962?), and then after the Evil Empire was quashed, the resurrection of radical Islam. Should we conclude that philosophy has never been justified? But then science has never been justified and much of the rest of what we consider high culture. For they have their origin in philosophy.
Perhaps you don't agree with my 'origins' claim. Still, plenty in life is of value regardless of its utility in mitigating whatever crisis happens to be in progress. Or do you think Beethoven should have been a social worker?
"But I have never done anything that requires forgiveness." Really? Then please forgive me for considering you either a liar, or deeply self-deceived, or an amnesiac, or insane, or a joker, or someone unfamiliar with the English language . . . .
An appeal to reason works with a few, and an appeal to self-interest with most. But then there are the hopelessly recalcitrant for whom only the appeal to force is effective. The only argument that reaches them is the argumentum ad baculum. Herein yet another reason to uphold Second Amendment rights.
Those who call for the repeal of the Second Amendment not only fail to appreciate its importance but also vastly underestimate the difficulty of actually repealing it. On the latter point, see Charles C. W. Cooke.
It is sometimes said that there are only two kinds of philosophers, Platonists and Aristotelians. What follows is a quotation from Heinrich Heine which expresses one version of this useful simplification. Carl Gustav Jung places it at the very beginning of his Psychological Types (Princeton UP, 1971, p. 2.)
Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems: they are also types of two distinct human natures, which from time immemorial, under every sort of disguise, stand more or less inimically opposed. The whole medieval period in particular was riven by this conflict, which persists down to the present day, and which forms the most essential content of the history of the Christian Church. Although under other names, it is always of Plato and Aristotle that we speak. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures disclose Christian ideas and their corresponding symbols from the fathomless depths of their souls. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. Finally, the Church eventually embraces both natures—one of them entrenched in the clergy, and the other in monasticism; but both keeping up a constant feud. ~ H. Heine, Deutschland
Plato, on the left carrying The Timaeus, points upwards while Aristotle, on the right carrying his Ethics, points either forward (thereby valorizing the 'horizontal' dimension of time and change as against Plato's 'vertical' gesture) or downwards (emphasizing the foundational status of sense particulars and sense knowledge.) At least five contrasts are suggested: vita contemplativa versus vita activa, mundus intelligibilis versus mundus sensibilis, transcendence versus immanence, eternity versus time, mystical unity versus rational-cum-empirical plurality.
Heine is right about the battle within Christianity between the Platonic and Aristotelian tendencies. Trinity, Incarnation, Transubstantiation, Divine Simplicity -- these are at bottom mystical notions impervious to penetration by the discursive intellect as we have been lately observing. Nevertheless,"Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult." But the dogmatic constructions, no matter how clever and detailed, never succeed in rendering intelligible the transintelligible, mystical contents.
When are people serious? When money is involved — their money.
My mind drifts back to faculty meetings in which half-listening colleagues doodled and dozed. But when salary considerations came to the table, the dullest among them pricked up their ears. Suddenly they became sharp and serious.
Anyone who reveals what he’s learned, Chris told me, is not by his definition a true hermit. Chris had come around on the idea of himself as a hermit, and eventually embraced it. When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: "dilettante."
Again I am astonished by the wild diversity of human types as between, say, Zelda Kaplan and Dolores Hart. Who or what is man that he should admit of such wide diversity?
Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue ends on this ominous and prescient note:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead –- often not recognizing fully what they were doing –- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 244-245.)
This was written 34 years ago, 20 years before 9/11. It is the charter for Rod Dreher's recent talk of a Benedict Option. Excerpts from an eponymous article of his:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.
A recent Pew survey found that Jews in America are in an even more advanced state of assimilation to secular modernity. The only Jews successfully resisting are the Orthodox, many of whom live in communities meaningfully separate and by traditions distinct from the world.
Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?
The broader topic here is that of voluntary withdrawal from a morally corrupt society and its morally corrupt institutions. There are various options. One could join a monastic order and live in community. This is the monastic cenobitic option. There is also the monastic eremitic option: one lives as a hermit within a religious context subject to its rules and having taken vows. Both the cenobitic and the eremitic options can be made less rigorous in various ways. One could attach oneself as an oblate to a monastery visiting it from time to time and participating in its communal prayers and other activities (Ora, labora, et lectio are the three 'legs' of the Benedictine 'stool.'). This could also be done in an eremitic way. (From the Greek eremos, desert.)
Spiritual withdrawal is of course greatly aided by physical withdrawal from cities into deserts and other remote locales; but one could voluntarily withdraw from a morally corrupt society while living in the midst of it in, say, Manhattan. (I cannot, however, advise setting up as the resident monk in a bordello in Pahrump, Nevada.)
What of the Maverick Option? As I have been living it since 1991 it does not involve drastic physical isolation: I live on the edge of a major metropolitan area which is also the edge of a rugged wilderness area. Ready access to raw nature (as opposed to, say, Manhattan's Central Park) may not be absolutely essential for spiritual development, but it is extremely conducive to it (in tandem with other things of course). Nature, experienced alone, removes one from the levelling effects of the social. (Henry David Thoreau: "I have no walks to throw away on company." That sounds misanthropic and perhaps from Henry David's mouth it was; but it can be given a positive reading.) It would be the height of folly to suppose that man's sociality is wholly negative; but its corrupting side cannot be denied. Encounter with nature in solitude pulls one out of one's social comfort zone in such a way that the ultimate questions obtrude themselves with full force. In society, they can strike one like jokes from a Woody Allen movie; in solitude, in the desert, they are serious. Nature is not God; but the solitary encounter with it, by breaking the spell of the social, can orient us toward Nature's God.
I will have more to say of the Maverick Option, its nature and pitfalls, in a later post.
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
We need to catalog and examine all the options. A man once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was the wisest of mortals.
Conservatives answer in the negative, liberals in the affirmative. This may be the most important difference between the warring parties. Dennis Prager explains the difference very clearly here.
Liberals will object to the 'radioactive' Man in the above title borrowed from Prager. They think it excludes women. It does not. It only excludes women if you are a liberal.
This points up another key difference between liberals and conservatives. For a liberal, nothing is immune to politicization, and everything, including language, can be pressed into service as a weapon of culture war. No word or phrase is safe from being distorted for an ideological purpose. A particularly egregious recent example is the absurd suggestion that 'thug' is code for 'nigger,' so that if one rightly describes the behavior of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, on the night he died as 'thuggish' one is hurling a racial epithet. Conservatives, by contrast, aim to preserve and protect the language as a neutral means for the exchange of ideas.
One of the first things I did after seeing the depressing election news this morning was check to see which of my Facebook friends ‘like’ the pages of the Conservatives or David Cameron, and unfriend them. (Thankfully, none of my friends ‘like’ the UKIP page.) Life is too short, I thought, to hang out with people who hold abhorrent political views, even if it’s just online.
Should one break off contact with those whose views one finds abhorrent?
Let me mention one bad reason for not breaking off contact. The bad reason is that by not breaking off contact one can have 'conversations' that will lead to amicable agreements and mutual understanding. This bad reason is based on the false assumption that there is still common ground on which to hold these 'conversations.' I say we need fewer 'conversations' and more voluntary separation. In marriage as in politics, the bitter tensions born of irreconcilable differences are relieved by divorce, not by attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Let's consider some examples. In each of these cases it is difficult to see what common ground the parties to the dispute occupy.
1. Suppose you hold the utterly abhorrent view that it is a justifiable use of state power to force a florist or a caterer to violate his conscience by providing services at, say, a same-sex 'marriage' ceremony.
2. Or you hold the appalling and ridiculous view that demanding photo ID at polling places disenfranchises those would-be voters who lack such ID.
3. Or you refuse to admit a distinction between legal and illegal immigration.
4. Or you maintain the absurd thesis that global warming is the greatest threat to humanity at the present time. (Obama)
5. Or you advance the crack-brained notion that the cases of Trayvon Martin and Emmet Till are comparable in all relevant respects.
6. Or, showing utter contempt for facts, you insist that Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri was an 'unarmed black teenager' shot down like a dog in cold blood without justification of any sort by the racist cop, Darren Wilson.
7. Or you compare Ferguson and Baltimore as if they are relevantly similar. (Hillary Clinton)
8. Or you mendaciously elide distinctions crucial in the gun debate such as that between semi-auto and full-auto. (Dianne Feinstein)
9. Or you systematically deploy double standards. President Obama, for example, refuses to use 'Islamic' in connection with the Islamic State or 'Muslim' in connection with Muslim terrorists. But he has no problem with pinning the deeds of crusaders and inquisitors on Christians.
10. Or you mendaciously engage in self-serving anachronism, for example, comparing current Muslim atrocities with Christian ones long in the past.
11. Or you routinely slander your opponents with such epithets as 'racist,' 'sexist,' etc.
12. Or you make up words whose sole purpose is to serve as semantic bludgeons and cast doubt on the sanity of your opponents. You know full well that a phobia is an irrational fear, but you insist on labeling those who oppose homosexual practices as 'phobic' when you know that their opposition is in most cases rationally grounded and not based in fear, let alone irrational fear.
13. Or you bandy the neologism 'Islamophobia' as a semantic bludgeon when it is plain that fear of radical Islam is entirely rational. In general, you engage in linguistic mischief whenever it serves your agenda thereby showing contempt for the languages you mutilate.
14. Or you take the side of underdogs qua underdogs without giving any thought as to whether or not these underdogs are in any measure responsible for their status or their misery by their crimes. You apparently think that weakness justifies.
15. Or you label abortion a 'reproductive right' or a 'women's health issue' thus begging the question of its moral acceptability.
Standing on a hill behind my house, looking down on it, the thought occurred to me: It's enough. One modest house suffices. And then the thought that the ability to be satisfied with what one has is a necessary condition of happiness.
Satisfied with what one has, not with what one is.
Perhaps it is like this.
The fool, satisfied with what he is, is never satisfied with what he has. The philosopher, satisfied with what he has, is never satisfied with what he is. The sage is satisfied with both.
There are many fools and a few philosophers; are there any sages?
It is troubling that our lives will end. But for some of us it is even more troubling that they are constantly ending. It is not as if we are fully real now and later will not be; it is rather that our temporal mode of existence is not fully real. At each moment our lives are passing away. There is no completion, no rest, no final satisfaction, no fullness of being, in any moment. For this reason, living forever in this mode of existence is no solution at all. It is not as if what exists in time fully exists, but in time; rather it is that temporal existence is a deficient mode of existence.
One associates loud, domineering, and aggressive behavior with a 'big ego.' But a long memory for wrongs done one, a fine sensitivity to slights and slurs real and imagined are also signs of a 'big ego.'
Help a man, and he may be grateful to you. Or he may resent it that he needs your help, or envy you your ability to provide it, or act as if he has it coming, or become dependent on you, in which case your 'help' is harm.
Absolutely, one must do no harm. (Primum non nocere.) But when to help and when to leave well enough alone require careful thought.
I'm with Gray. This July will be the 50th anniversary of Barry Maguire's Eve of Destruction. It has been a long and lucky half-century eve, and by chance, if not by divine providence, the morning of destruction has not yet dawned with the light of man-made suns. Now take a cold look at the state of the world and try to convince yourself that we are making moral progress and that war and violence and ignorance and hatred and delusion are on the decline. I won't recite the litany that each of you, if intellectually honest, can recite for himself.
The 'progressive' doesn't believe in God, he believes in Man. But right here is the mistake. For there is no Man, there are only human beings at war with one another and with themselves. We are divided, divisive, and duplicitous creatures. We are in the dark mentally, morally, and spiritually. The Enlightenment spoke piously of reason, but the light it casts is flickering and inconclusive and its deliverances, though not to be contemned, are easily suborned by individual passions and group tribalisms. And just as it is certain that there is no Man, it may doubted that there is any such thing as Reason. Whose reason? There are two points here. The first is that reason is infirm even on the assumption that there is such a universal faculty. The second, more radical point, one that I do not endorse but merely entertain, is that there may be no such universal faculty.
The 'progressive' refuses to face reality, preferring a foolish faith in a utopian future that cannot possibly be brought about by human collective effort. As Heidegger said in his Spiegel interview, Nur ein Gott kann uns retten. "Only a God can save us."
You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether or not God exists, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn't and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, goes off half-cocked with schemes that in the recent past have employed murderous means for an end that never materialized. Communist governments murdered an estimated 100 million in the 20th century alone. That says something about the Left and also about government. What is says about the latter is at least this much: governments are not by nature benevolent. It may be that man is by nature zoon politikon, as Aristotle thought: a political animal. But what may be true of man cannot be true of the polis.
Human desires regularly show themselves to be highly competent when it comes to the seduction of reason and the subornation of conscience.
A man murders his wife and the mother of his child in order to collect on a life insurance policy. Why? So that he can run off with a floozie who shook her tail in his face at a strip joint and then pledged her undying love. Upshot? The man does life in orison prison, the child grows up without parents, and the floozie moves on to her next victim.
(O felix erratum! Actually, prison would be a good place for orison if you were 'in the hole,' where I would want to be, and not in the general population ever having it proved to one that "Hell is other people." (Sartre, No Exit))
Pace the Buddhists, the problem is not desire as such, but desire inordinate and misdirected.
Buddha understood the nature of desire as infinite, as finally unsatisfiable by any finite object. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman, nothing possessing self-nature, he made a drastic move: he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire itself. Desire itself is at the root of suffering, dukkha, on the Buddhist conception, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself.
"Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris. This warning, from the Catholic liturgy for Ash Wednesday, is based on Genesis 3, 19: In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.
How real can we and this world be if in a little while we all will be nothing but dust and ashes?
The typical secularist is a reality denier who hides from the unalterable facts of death and impermanence. This is shown by his self-deceptive behavior: he lives as if he will live forever and as if his projects are meaningful even though he knows that he won't and that they aren't. If he were to face reality he would have to be a nihilist. That he isn't shows that he is fooling himself.
Yesterday I quoted Christopher Hitchens. He's dead. In Platonic perspective, what no longer exists never truly existed. So here we have a man who never truly existed but who denied the existence of the Source of his own ephemeral quasi-existence. Curious.
Both animal and thinker, he faces two sorts of threats. Among the first, hardening of the arteries. Among the second, hardening of the categories. Which is worse depends on your categories. Either way, categories rule.
After socializing I often feel vaguely annoyed with myself. Why? Because I allowed myself to be drawn into pointless conversation that makes a mockery of true conversation. The New Testament has harsh words for idle words:
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. (MT 12:36, King James)
A hard saying! Somewhat softer is Will Rogers' advice:
Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.
The social lifts us from the animal, but in almost every case impedes individuation which is our main spiritual vocation. Individuation is not given, but to be achieved. Its connection with theosis ought to be explored.