Monday 12 August 2019

There is no such thing as a traditional Western society (at least, not for hundreds of years)

What I was looking-for was a system that was stable, self-sustaining, and self-defending - generation after generation. What I found was never this.

When I became a Christian, I was profoundly aware that this state of permanent revolution was not 'progress' but instability and destruction - and it could only end in collapse. So I began to look for a prior point of stability (and goodness) that we might realistically aspire to return to. But the more closely I looked, the more I realised that there was no such point.

The Roman Catholic church seems superficially to be a candidate; but in reality the history of the church has been one of continual and radical change - generation upon generation. A particularly striking example of this was that Thomas Aquinas produced the greatest-ever synthesis of philosophy, done in support of Scholastic theology - yet just a generation afterwards, it began to be picked apart by Duns Scotus, Occam and the like.

Eastern Orthodoxy claimed to be a much more tradition-orientated type of Christianity; yet again this was superficial. In the history of the Eastern Roman Empire, there was crisis after crisis of theology and practice; and the same applied to Holy Russia.

The same applied elsewhere. Indeed the insight originally came to me while writing a book about Medical Education (The Making of a Doctor, 1992). That was when I first became aware of the fact that there never had been - for two generations consecutively - a traditional system of Medical Education. As soon as the modern concept of a doctor began to be defined in the middle 1800s, the system was always changing. Specifically, every generation of doctors had a significantly different educational system than the previous one. And the same applied to medical health services.

I later noticed that exactly the same applied to science - and wrote about it in Not Even Trying (2012) - as soon as there was the job of 'A Scientist'' the system of training, and the lived professional experience, of a scientist began changing such that each generation was different from the previous one - there was continual specialisation, expansion, extension of the training, increased size of 'teams'. There was orientation towards publication numbers as a measure of professional success, then 'impact', then a primary focus on grants. And so on.

My conclusion is that - at least in recorded history (and perhaps it is linked to social conditions leading to the the record-ing of history) there has never been a stable system; there had never been a Tradition in the sense I sought - and so many other people have sought.

Tradition is an illusion - produced partly by our own, uni-generational, experience as a norm; and partly by the assumption that it is how things work. Our method of analysis and explanation is one that is cross-sectional, and with a built-in assumption of stability.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why - in practice - it never happens that a society 're-sets' to an earlier stage; even when it acknowledged that later states are worse and earlier was better. It would only be possible to re-set if there was a stable system - but if the system had always been in a permanent state of transition, with all its component causes changing - then of course a re-set is impossible.

This is an important lesson for Christians. In most ways, past societies were more Christian than the present; and modernity (especially since the Industrial Revolution, but arguably since the Great Schism, Renaissance or Reformation - according to taste) there has been a zig-zag but progressive decline in Christianity in the West. And no system has lasted more than a normal human lifetime.

Yet we cannot go back to a traditional past, because it Never Was - the past was always fundamentally unstable. It is not just that we cannot undo what has been done, cannot put the genie back in the bottle - and of course most people do not believe (as I do) in an historical change and development of human consciousness...

But aside from those reasons, there is also this reality of generation upon generational change, such that 'tradition' is a moving-target, a dynamic and unstable flux, as impossible to grasp as a barrel of eels.

My point is that answers to the question "where should we go from here?" cannot include 'backwards'.

We can and should learn from aspects of the past, and can reintroduce practices from the past; but only piecemeal, and the later context will make them work differently. To re-emphasise; we cannot return to any earlier 'set-point'.

I personally have found this helpfully clarifying. History does Not repeat itself (except partially or superficially). There may Have-been cycles, but that doesn't mean that there Will-Be cycles.

Anything that is possible will start from here; and whatever happens will be unprecedented.

Those are the framing constraints on speculation and action; and apply to all alternative futures.


J. B. said...

I agree with your observations here. I wrote a post giving my take on the same point in 2014, after doing a good deal of reading on economic and social history:

I believe I got the term 'fixes' (pl. noun) from reading Giovanni Arrighi, who wrote some very interesting articles on global economic history in the '80s and '90s; they are summarized better by David Harvey than by Arrighi himself. I don't agree with their Marxist politics/metaphysics but they drove home the point you are making in this post. There has never been a stable 'state' of society which persisted for more than one generation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ JB - And another way of looking at it is that this mortal life is meant to provide experiences from which we can learn what we most need. A continually changing and varied world would be best for providing the widest range of souls with the experiences that each individual needs.

David Smith said...

Re-reading "Saving the Appearances" just now finished Chapter XIII where I was struck by:

"Once again, it is a lost world—although the whole purpose of this book is to show that its spiritual wealth can be, and indeed, if incalculable disaster is to be avoided, must be regained. No good can come of any attempt to hark back to the original participation from which it sprang."

Andrew said...

I think this is correct and a recent discovery for me. And I agree that it is freeing. Only now do I realize how much time I spent looking back when I believe what God wants is for us to look up (on Him) and to look forward (in Him). This requires trust and faith, to let go, which can be scary.

-Andrew E.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - It was Barfield who first convinced me about this.

David Smith said...

@Bruce - I worked extensively in the 1990s with a number of US Native tribes, and 4 of my 5 great-grandsons are half-Squamish (Canadian West Coast) Band members. I've been struck by all of their efforts over these years to recapture their languages and traditions, and Barfield, and particularly Saving the Appearances, has strengthened my sense that, while it's not necessarily a pointless undertaking, it's certainly more complex than simply learning old words and memorizing old songs and dance steps.

Cererean said...


I suppose you're not trying to recover a pattern, but reboot a process. A culture is something that is living - copying the past won't restore it to life, especially if you become so focused on what it used to be that you resist the change that is part of any living culture.
On the other hand, as the Neoreactionaries at Social Matter put it, "LARP til you make it". If you're trying to restore a culture, you will be LARPing for quite a while until it catches light again and returns to being a living culture. The zeroth generation won't have the advantage of growing up in said culture either, so they'll be chimeric between their culture of raising and their new/restored culture.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C - ""LARP til you make it"" As advice, that's nonsense. Absolutely the wrong attitude. But Social Matter are Leftists (I've always assumed that that website is a front, 'controlled opposition'), so I would expect nothing else!

Faculty X said...

It looks that way, not for anything remotely moderate even by the standards of Christian conservatives. The conditions of the time shape everything else.

It's struck me as an investigator of Christianity over the last few years how odd modern Christianity is with its very rapid capitulation to Leftism, now mostly pro-Islam, pro-gay, mostly pro-female priests and ministers, and acceptance of the sexual revolution in deeds if not in declaration.

We all have the Bible. I can read it too yet there is very little adherence to the Word.

Even among supposed serious religious people I meet I see little import on marriage before sex, for example.

Perhaps traditional (but not Traditional?) for the West is an adherence to institutions that displace the people in similar ways and create an illusion of change while changing nothing substantial. For example, parliamentary democracy creating an illusion of rule by the people, institutionalized financialism's trickery, media and academia's deliberate disregard of Tradition, manufacture of wars outside the country. These have lasted over a few hundred years.

Still, some branches that are closer to historical Traditionalism may change things on Earth in surprising ways in the future. It's just they are very extreme. Even fairly Traditional systems like Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, those middle ground options that would be thought to be suitable for regular people concerned about society, are not nearly extreme enough.

I am thinking of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Amish as example. No middle ground. All in or not at all.

Time will tell.

David Smith said...

@C - Well, in regard to my great-grandsons and their culture, I'm not trying to do anything other than observing - I live on the other side of the continent and only get to see them now and again, and I'm very aware that I'm an Old White Guy. I just can't help thinking of them while I'm re-reading "Appearances", and how what I'm absorbing from Barfield clarifies my intuitions over the years.

I don't really know anything about "the Neoreactionaries at Social Matter", but if Google is right and "LARP" stands for role-playing, using it to try to restore a lost culture sounds like foolishness for all the reasons discussed in "Saving the Appearances". Trying to role-play one of the stories from "Canterbury Tales" while utterly misunderstanding what most of the words mean...

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - "modern Christianity is with its very rapid capitulation to Leftism"

You need to consider causality, and that means paying attention to the sequence of events. In fact, Christianity *lagged* in capitulation to Leftism considerably compared with the secualr world (atheists led Leftism; arguably it was the first form of Leftism); those churches abandoning Christianity (e.g. unitarians, quakers) were the fastest to Leftism; and the more really and seriously Christian was a church or a person, the less Leftist it was and is.

But my understanding is that modern Leftism works by top-down corruption of institutions - because all the social institutions are part of the same linked bureaucracy. Since churches are institutions, linked to the others (government, finance, law, media, health etc. etc) I think churches will continue to be corrupted by Leftism; although some continue to lag a lot, while others are only a few years (or months) behind the secular leading edge.

But as things stand, the only way to extract-from and avoid-future Leftism is to take full personal responsibility for spiritual matters.