Friday, 4 March 2011

Jim Kalb mini-discussion about tradition



James Kalb is perhaps the most insightful of current writers on political correctness, Liberalism, multiculturalism, non-discrimination etc. And I would regard myself as working towards the same general goals as him.

But of course I would not bother blogging on these topics if I believed that JK was completely right!

The link refers to a mini-debate we had at his blog over the last couple of days.


JK: "The problem is multifaceted and multilevel and the response must be so as well."

BC: "My feeling is that if the response 'must be' multifaceted and multilevel, then there will be no response - or, at least, the response will be ineffective.

"And this is indeed the probable future.

"If there is to be an effective (or even partially-effective) response it must be simple and immediately comprehensible.

"Simple responses are indeed simplistic, but that is the nature of politics, in my opinion.

"Complexity in policy is - de facto - either a distraction or merely self-contradictory, rather than truly complex."


Jim advocates a complex, hence intellectually-driven, approach to the situation.

My own view is that intellectual approaches have failed, indeed intellectual approaches are now the main problem and are a red herring. 

Intellectuals have proved themselves unworthy, have engaged in treason (of the clerks).

Intellectual approaches have created political correctness and relentlessly expanding bureaucracy: have destroyed art, music, literature, science, the military, and are currently destroying the world economy.

Yet by and large, in the vast majority, intellectuals are perfectly happy with their approaches and merely suggest that they need more money, more autonomy, and a little more time.

On the contrary, I believe that is anything is to be salvaged it will come from a non-intellectual approach: from holiness rather than reason (insofar as these can be contrasted) - or, as a stop-gap, temporary fix, from common sense.



Alex said...

Although you believe that salvaging something from the wreck of our civilization will be effected (if at all) by a non-intellectual approach, it's difficult to imagine a spontaneous order created by the piety of individuals. The endeavours of hermits and individual Christians are directed towards personal salvation rather than the public weal. From their point of view, the disorders of this world are a spur to greater spirituality.

Rebellions, revolutions, and mutinies can only be successful, as a rule, when a mass or a movement is inspired by an idea. Ideas are the primary concern of intellectuals and it was, as you say, the treason of intellectuals that got us into an amoral predicament in the first place. To make the point as crudely as I'm able: What the "clerks" got us into, they must get us out of.

Attempting to change the culture involves becoming a warrior in a battle of ideas; and the material considerations of intellectuals, perhaps in addition to holiness, seem indispensable to victory.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Alex - these are mostly reasonable arguments.

Except when you suggest that "The endeavours of hermits and individual Christians are directed towards personal salvation rather than the public weal"

If Christianity is really true, then this statement is false - since there is no such thing as a hermit or an individual - nobody is ever alone, we are all together spiritually.

"Rebellions, revolutions, and mutinies can only be successful, as a rule, when a mass or a movement is inspired by an idea."

Agreed. But that idea may be - indeed has to be - a simple one. The average middling Westerner is in fact very highly intelligent by current world and historical standards - it is possible, maybe even likely, that modern Western intellectuals (like you and me!) are 'over-intelligent' to the point of pathology.

"What the "clerks" got us into, they must get us out of." - well yes, they ought to, but they don't actually want to - and who can make them?

Indeed, the major motivation and effort of the majority of intellectuals is directed at neutralizing the very few intellectuals who do try to 'get us out of' things - and this is a job at which they can succeed.

"the material considerations of intellectuals... seem indispensable to victory."

If so then intellectuals are probably neutralized - since I cannot see how the material considerations of intellectuals can be preserved if the problmes are to be solved. Intellectuals seem set to regress to their old status as servants/ slaves/ outcasts or ascetics (but I hope - selfishly - that I am wrong about this!).

Alex said...

I said: "What the clerks got us into, they must get us out of". Well, as you imply, the present crop of intellectuals isn't going to volunteer to be 'harvested'. We shall have to wait them out, or shove them out.

Seriously, what I had in mind was a new generation of 'clerks' who alone can create the climate of opinion that's necessary for a restoration of sanity.

Until the universities, and the learned professions, and the bureaucracy (at the very minimum) are dominated by men and women who are guided by traditional modes of moral understanding, we are stuck in a politically correct and decaying civilization. I have no faith in rescue by institutionalized Christianity.

I have no clear idea how the so-called 'liberal' hierarchies can be given notice, or better still, dismissed. That's why I worry that the world can only be put right side up by violent upheaval or a natural catastrophe.

(On second thought, my remarks about hermits and individual Christians were too glib).

James Kalb said...

I'm not sure what we agree and don't agree about. Anyway, it seems to me that:

1. There is One Necessary Thing, a reorientation of loyalty and understanding toward God.

2. How the ONT comes about and what happens when it arrives is a complicated matter involving all aspects of human life.

3. "All aspects" includes understanding as well as loyalty. Faith involves the whole man, and man is a rational animal. That's why Saint Paul makes lots of arguments, Saint John includes the metaphysical stuff about the Word, Saint Thomas Aquinas is a Doctor of the Church, etc.

4. Saying that reason and intellectual stuff matters doesn't mean everything gets planned in advance and it doesn't mean the present intellectual class is going to do anything very useful. There's no overall plan, but it's helpful for people to think about what's involved and comment on it. That's an intellectual activity, and the better and more intelligently it's done the better. It was a Big Deal when Augustine, the number one intellectual of the time, converted. People who find comments worthwhile can make use of them in their own efforts.

5. We have no way of knowing how or when any of this stuff is going to have an effect. Bubbles can burst and things can look very different overnight. The reason bubbles exist after all is that no one can imagine that whatever line of thought they're based on ("houses only go up in value," "equal freedom is a possible and the only correct basis for social order") has limitations.

a Finn said...

I think both are right. We need both approaches, the simple mass approach and more complex fine-grained methods. In principle the simple mass methods can be used as a sledgehammer, which breaks and dissolves some of the existing structures, and builds a little bit of new things. The more complex approach is oriented more towards building new societal structures, which increasingly displace the existing structures, and less oriented towards breaking the old structures.

But we have to describe the system more thoroughly, so that our prescriptions become more effective. Modern people are too one-dimensionally technical, simplistically contemplating linear processes. Modern people can't produce such multi-dimensional depth and fine-grained nuances, as the great thinkers of older time, like C.S. Lewis here:

May God bless C.S. Lewis and be benevolent towards him in heaven, amen.

I am, of course, one of those one-dimensional modern thinkers. That is why I need a break from writing in blogs etc., so that I can grow at least a modest second dimension to my thoughts. I hope others take my place as commenters.

A quote from David C. Grabbe reminding us that Christianity is a religion of congregation and community, and why it should stay that way:

"God gives us a standard by which to measure the words of a prophet: the law and testimony—His Word. If the prophet's message contradicts what is already established as God's Word, it is evidence that he lacks spiritual understanding. If his words do not line up with God's law and testimony, he is not speaking the truth.

In summary, the hallmark of a true prophet is his upholding of the law of God, while false prophets dodge moral teaching and instead preach a message that appeals to the masses. God's truth—and His law in particular—is abhorrent to the natural mind (Romans 8:7), and thus it is quite common for God's prophets to be killed, while the false prophets enjoy widespread popularity and support.

The current trend of outcome-based churches serves as a good example. Their leaders preach a widely popular message, and thousands of people follow them. Yet, Jesus says in Luke 6:26, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets." Popularity is not a good measurement of God's pleasure with a leader!

Jesus Christ, the most perfect Spokesman for God who has ever lived, only had about 120 true followers when His ministry ended (Acts 1:15). This was not due to failure on His part, but because His Father's message could be wholeheartedly believed only by those whose minds God had already prepared to accept it.

"Purpose-Driven" church leaders will not preach the unadulterated Word of God because they know it is divisive. It would also thwart their goals of a large following and a large income. Thus, their messages do not involve repentance, sound doctrine, or God's law, except where it may serve to further whatever purpose is driving them. Their messages do not remind people of their moral responsibilities to God and brother, and thus if they claim to speak for God or say that God sent them, we can know from biblical patterns that they are, in fact, false prophets. Their large churches, as amazing as they might seem, are not accurate indicators of God's involvement or blessing."

Bruce Charlton said...

My thanks to Alex, JK and aF for a marvellous set of comments.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Jim Kalb: "Saint Paul makes lots of arguments, Saint John includes the metaphysical stuff about the Word, Saint Thomas Aquinas is a Doctor of the Church, etc.
...It was a Big Deal when Augustine, the number one intellectual of the time, converted."

Probably you already know this - but Thomas Aquinas is not a Saint in the Eastern Orthodox church, but is regarded negatively; Augustine is not a Saint either but is revered by many (Fr Seraphim Rose wrote a book on him and called him Blessed - however the book was written because Augustine was being excessively attacked for a few specific 'heresies', disregarding his great piety and wisdom).

Naturally St John the Apostle and St Paul are accorded the highest reverence - but there are three additional Holy Fathers of lower but similar authority to Orthodox which are not so much attended to by the Western Church: St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian.

My point is that Saints in the Western and Eastern Churches overlap somewhat but there are marked differences too.

My impression is that the Eastern Saints are mostly ascetic mystics who are regarded as having achieved communion with God while still on earth (by theosis); while the Western Saints are more diverse but include 'ethical Saints'; Saints of Church wisdom, power and organization; and Saints of learning and theology (the scholastics, or John Henry Newman as perhaps a recent emerging example).

Brett Stevens said...

I'm going to side with BC on this one: intellectualism is good for intellectuals. The future of change in our society lies in reaching out to the middle class, many of whom are alienated from "intellectualism" because it has been so useless since the leftist takeover of academia.

Clear, simple logic and strong statements of aesthetic preference are best. Personally, I favor endorsing a kind of crypto-transcendentalism which fits with any tradition (or Tradition) as well. It keeps focus on the right elements, and lets the reader pick the interpretation most familiar to them at the time.

They grow, over time, those readers -- at least the good ones do.

James Kalb said...

I thought the attitude toward Aquinas was more complex, see e.g. the brief OrthodoxWiki discussion.

Bruce Charlton said...

Re: Aquinas - I'm sure you are right! I don't really know much about it, and of course there is no unified authority in Orthodoxy to define things even theoretically.

Peter Arnold (Australia) said...

Clear, simple logic and strong statements of aesthetic preference are best. Personally, I favor endorsing a kind of crypto-transcendentalism which fits with any tradition (or Tradition) as well. It keeps focus on the right elements, and lets the reader pick the interpretation most familiar to them at the time.

I'm fully conscious that the 'West' is already dead, in any sense, from 1789 or 1914 at least it has subsisted as a putrefying corpse; actually since it renounced the peculiar religious appellative which time and professed fidelity had entitled it to, that of Christian, it virtually ceased to have an animated particularity - it was a charnel vault busy incinerating its distinctive parts with Freedom, Commerce, Progress, Democracy and Reason as substitutes.

But, even supposing as an imaginary case that the civilised society of Justinian and Charlemagne, the Knights-Templar and the Lindisfarne monks, had descended to us unbroken, is Mr Stevens not abashed that his counsel tends to aggravate and protract the evils we deprecate?

Hasn't the Protestant, American and Encyclopédiste enthronement of private judgment in every department of life from the most paramount, religion and politics, to the daily modes of living and conversation, reducing everything to 'making choices' and 'having experiences', reached its natural end of dissolving the bonds of society?

I should like to enquire how Mr Stevens conceives national or local society will perpetuate itself if every one is following the dim, delusive lights of their own 'reason' - even in the election of what to obey and believe - pursuing selfish worldly ends which change with the fashion and preclude the continuance of a particular people and their ways. By means of a self-adjusting mechanism? Smith's Invisible Hand?'

'Do as you feel like', having repudiated adherence to a concrete pattern of life, spontaneously is productive of order, continuity, the public happiness and safety? Mr Stevens, how is this possible?

Peter Arnold (Australia) said...

Upon reflection I found that my argument may not have been as clearly inferable from my remarks as I desired.

In short, some traditions (peculiar ways of perceiving and acting in the world) were laid with very unsound foundations which have caused their ruin. Protestantism, the American political creed of 1776 and its ideological preconceptions about absolute rights existing independent of circumstances (the very colonial settlement of America itself, and Australia too, proceeded upon the noxious grounds of individualism and want of established authority), Scientism, Rationalism, Democratic constitutions, and the 'free markets' and 'economic growth' devilries which sustain the idol Progress (annihilating the spiritual and genuinely communal in our lives; converting families, neighbourhoods and nations into atomic aggregates)- Liberal Modernity entirely - are false, corrupt and foredoomed.

These are - however pleasing in the moment as they seem - as Mr Charlton has deduced, irrecoverable. The counterfeit brilliance of the past half-millenium (perhaps even since the Great Schism in 1054?); Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment were, despite their own harmfulness only supported by the very structure Bruno, Luther and Voltaire were destroying.

The only wholesome remnant of heritage for the various discrete European peoples, is enmeshed within the dogma and hierarchy (literally, the 'sacred order') of the Catholic (both pre-1962 Latin West and Greek East) Church.

Cicero's correct and philosophic etymology of religio is instructive: to bind together, a married couple, a family, a clan, a city, an entire national people by the conformity of ancient rites and faiths.

Anonymous said...

Jim Kalb: "The future belongs to the anti-moderns. The question then is which form of anti-modernism makes most sense and seems most likely to turn out best."


But I think the answer is: that form of anti-modernism will turn out for the best which helps the best people to survive, thrive, dominate, expand and sustain and improve themselves in the long run.

The law is for the people, not the people for the law.

- Daybreaker