Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The World Has Changed Us


My wife has been reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. She recently shared an interesting passage that is worth some thought:

Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the idea of duty, are things that, when in error, can turn hideous, but--even though hideous--remain great.  

As I thought about it, the idea reminded me of another idea that Eric Hoffer penned in The True Believer:



It is as if garlanded youths and ivied maidens were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse...

How is it that certain things can have so much rightness and beauty in them, and then they turn out so terrible and wrong in the end?

I have often thought that there is a difference between a beautiful platitude and a true one. There is an aphorism for you. It could also be that I sometimes mistake beauty for something else; maybe these ideas aren’t beautiful, only sophisticated. Or maybe the beauty is real and it reveals its source to be less wrong than I first imagined, and therefore I ought to consider that my own position might be the wrong one. Or perhaps some wisdom is only wise in a certain context; possibly it is always beautiful, but only correct as a second thing and not as a First Thing. Alas, we always think of beautiful things as First Things.

That last idea, which hearkens back to Victor Hugo, is most difficult for me to articulate properly, but also most intriguing. There is a tendency--I think I share it with everyone--to say that if one idea is correct, then its opposing idea is not. Or maybe it is a related idea, but there is only room in us for one “right” idea. Yet, all of these ideas are so eloquently expressed and apparently useful, and all so utterly debunked and dangerous at the same time. How now shall I believe?

This is always the joy and pain of philosophy; and you never arrive at the bottom of anything. But, you must make up your mind. For living well, at least, you have to make up your mind about something. For thinking well, perhaps it is best to remain undecided--ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth! That is what the apostle Paul tells us. The ever-learning maintain an open mind; there is no final answer for them.

The philosopher quickly comes to the realization that there must be an eternal and infinite progression of causes. As soon as he discovers some fundamental principle, as soon as its qualities and attributes have been committed to writing, he begins to wonder: whence came this principle? That was the ancient pursuit of truth.

Those seekers were like the Flatlanders1, as it were; trying to discover from within their two-dimensional geometric space (where they existed as paintings on a canvas) who it is that painted the painter. Where did it all begin? And it rarely occurred to anyone that the creator, who resides in an external and incomprehensible three-dimensional world, wasn’t painted at all!

Thus, on the periphery of our philosophy, there grew this notion of the unmade and the unknowable; some root cause that had to reside outside and beyond all other causes. This is where the intersection of philosophy and theology occurs, which I have attempted to explain through analogy.

Philosophy was anciently a pursuit of truth. It was about ontology, or what it meant “to be.” What is real and true? What is the good?

Then, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that pursuit changed focus. We started to ask instead, “How do we know?” The First Thing, which had been the Truth itself, became not truth, but Knowing. Knowing was a beautiful new thing that required a lot of attention, and so philosophy got another discipline called epistemology.  When that happened, all those who merely sought for truth, or claimed to have it, often became despised for being too primitive.

The theological field of Radical Orthodoxy, which has made up some of my reading lately, finds the crux of this change somewhere around the writings of John Duns Scotus, a theologian who posited an idea that the Creator must exist in the same way that His creation exists.
2 God created the universe, and then He stepped back to become a certain kind of co-equal with creation, which had become itself self-existent and sufficient. God and universe existed substantially in the same way. Radical Orthodoxy tells us that this principle came to be known as “the univocity of being.” 3

Then there was the friar Ockham (for whom the famous “Occam’s razor” is named), who came from the same scholastic tradition as Duns Scotus; and he helped to popularize the ideas of nominalism and conceptualism. We understand from those teachings that abstract things are merely ideas (or concepts) in the mind. They exist only subjectively--within the contemplating subject--and have no being in themselves at all. In other words, they are not objectively and absolutely true or real.  So, those scholastic monks were likely around at the birth of epistemology as we know it.

The end-result of this new kind of thinking was a tremendous decline in the value of things in themselves, or the loss (though not complete) of intrinsic values. Eventually there came to be an egalitarianism where everything began to appear more or less equal to everything else, and this set the stage for secularism, nihilism, and atheism.

A thing that can exist in itself, univocal with the existence of God, no longer needs a god to keep it going, nor perhaps to even get it started--there could be a simpler explanation, as Dr. Hawking has recently explained, using Occam’s razor to defeat Ockham’s faith.
4 Furthermore, if the thing is merely known through its subjective representations, there need not be any universal purpose, either. You can no longer make value-claims about something, other than as personal opinion and not as matter of fact.

Due to this change in what the First Things were, people who had once enjoyed a great deal of substantial personal value within their cultures found themselves suddenly rather bourgeois--a tragedy for them! On the other hand, so were the least valuable and most despised members of society (traditionally slaves and women) raised up to a middling status. This was a great boon to that group of people, and a victory for justice.

The fault of hierarchical and ontological societies, it would appear, then, is the tendency toward social strata that run the gamut from Brahman to pariah, or even slave. That injustice began to be reversed when epistemology entered the stage, and so it looked a lot like progress was being made.

Also, this new idea of epistemology, in which all objects are simply named representations within the observing subject, made possible our advanced money economy5 which now easily extracts the subjective values of things into a transformative substance, typically greenish and papery when we can get it!

We can now apply scarcity laws to such values, including humanity itself; and we begin to play with them according to the rules of economics. People became free to specialize and to pursue their individual interests without worrying about other details, such as one’s duty and one’s commitments to others. Those things used to consume the lives of others in more primitive societies. So, freedom has increased along that continuum as well--by leaving us potentially free of our entanglements with other people.6 

This epistemic equivocation allowed all disciplines to stand on their own, just as creation stands apart from its creator. We will no longer mingle church with state, work with pleasure, mercy with justice, or ethics with economy. We separate those things by institutionalizing them, a fact that will become important near the end of this essay.

At the personal level, where we once lived one life, now we live a thousand. We have a work life, an intellectual life, a spiritual life, a love life, a family life, a social life, a financial life, a political life, and so forth. As with our institutions, we have most freedom in each of our separate lives the less those other lives intrude on them. Hence, we now have the man who appears outwardly loving and family oriented, who is honestly pious in church, who is generous to his wife and children, and who defrauds his business partners by day and does violence to his marriage vows by night. Each of his independent and co-equal lives are seeking for their maximum free expression, competing with each other to see which is fittest; which will finally define the man. The same goes for our institutions, wherever they contend with each other.

American society has become fundamentally individualistic, and at the same time (and seemingly paradoxically), very leveled and monochromatic due to the tendency of egalitarianism to make different things the same--and interchangeable--in actual fact. Culture has become all one big thing, and it almost appears that postmodernism will take us full-circle back to the primitive unity of being.

Fully differentiated individuals are right now competing with each other on an ideally level and egalitarian battlefield. In the coming age, the victors of today’s power struggles will once again bring forth the truth. The interesting thing, it would appear, is that the new truth won’t look at all like the old truth.

This is the fascinating and subtle tyranny of egalitarian and epistemic philosophy:7 because Darwin predicted that the self-interested would not be content merely to coexist, cooperation  became a very complex and perplexing phenomenon (I understand that biologists are still arguing about kin selection, altruism, and self-sacrifice). In the egalitarian arena of free individuals--whether they are people or entire movements--a victor must arise to subject or destroy all others.

So this leveled milieu is really all about survival, and in order to survive we understand implicitly that others will not. It turns out, in this new manifestation, that the final truth is somehow genetically embedded in the beings that are most fit. That is a sort of analogy, of course. What I mean is that all others will be subsumed or eliminated until the fractured and distinct role of individual is once again part of the glorious whole. One will not need to make up one’s mind in those days.

Society, then, seems to mimic the eternal round of causes that philosophers investigate.8 We go from one extreme to its opposite, then back again. We seem to be at a tipping point right now, as we were nearly a century ago, at the dawning of a new truth when all dissenting voices will be silenced in the same manner as they came into being: in the name of justice.

Richard Weaver was one who debunked this new direction in 1948 with his book, Ideas Have Consequences. He traced the progression of modern nihilism all the way back to the rise of nominalism in medieval times. Nominalism, where things are exactly the same as their names and nothing more, was among a handful of ideas that brought all of our modern meaninglessness upon us!

It seems that Radical Orthodoxy rejects nominalism too, contending that we can’t divorce one truth from another, that it is only the fully formed and comprehended god that can be effectively debunked, disbelieved, and thrown out of creation;9 and that therefore the univocity of being always moves us in the direction of individuality, secularism, nihilism, and atheism.

Strangely, I first heard about Ideas Have Consequences from Rick Koerber, a businessman known locally as the Free Capitalist (he is said to be a pious man, a member of my Church, undoubtedly sincere, and also under federal indictment on numerous counts of fraud). The title of Weaver’s book has passed into a pithy saying, it would seem, since Brother Koerber is very fond of it. But he is also a staunch disciple of Ayn Rand, who once said a very beautiful and true thing: that man is an heroic being who has his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life. This doctrine has become the First Thing for Brother Koerber and for others of his persuasion, whereas for Adam Smith--whom Mr. Koerber claims to be among the top 25 individuals most influential to his philosophy--it was certainly only in second place.

In spite of all its beauty, truth, and usefulness, we have seen the very same philosophy carried to its logical conclusion during the mid-twentieth century when it left us at the gates of hell. This all happened along the Darwinian lines I explained above, and I will not delve into it here.

Adam Smith wrote during a time when men were individually shaped by their relationships with others and where the modern money economy had not yet fully formed. For Smith, it was fellow-feeling10 that gave men their humanity, and when they sought for themselves, it was still within a hierarchy where they exercised their individual talents in relation to familiar others--a form of subsidiarity, if you like. Thus, the “invisible hand” could be a benevolent thing, because self-striving was also a deliberate form of group-striving. The heroism of the individual enriched the lives of others out of necessity. In addition to this tendency, one could simply not do with too much of some kinds of property. Some things simply went to waste when possessed in excess.11 This is because objects still retained substantial intrinsic value and were not transformed so easily into money. Certainly nobody thought of their own abode as an investment in those days; it was a place to live! So, the very nature of things in the more primitive economy contributed to the benevolence of the invisible hand itself, merely by reducing the repertoire of greed.

In a similar vein, the contemporary theologian, Simon Oliver, observed that an individual once found a role, place, and identity and was then free to become a particular person within a social context. This “personhood” was understood more as a gift (perhaps a culmination of social heritage, which might resonate in Jewish thought) rather than an achievement to be willed.12 This is an absurd notion in 2010, where you are only likely to become what is in your best interest (something dictated by the markets)! But it was once thought that one could only truly achieve this individuality in a unique place within society: within one’s church, community, or family; a spot that no one else filled.

In contrast, the modern and wholly differentiated individual can only be superficial and shallow, because all others are equally differentiated with similar means and opportunities, and also because the individual cannot completely commit himself in specific ways to other people without losing his boundless freedom.  There is a danger, it is thought, of becoming greater or less than one deserves to be. Anything that we become must be earned through the application of will and power, and never through gifts.

Rick Koerber is one who represents an entire species of thought in which the non-duty-bound, liberated individual inhabits the position of central importance, above the importance of the group (group primacy is labeled a Marxist doctrine), and it is this philosophy that has largely shaped American reality since the industrial revolution brought financial capitalism along with it, in spite of the fact that its modern libertarian proponents tend to eulogize the American Founding Fathers and to attribute this laissez-faire philosophy to those men.

Because people are now totally differentiated from each other, and do not retain obligations to one another that cannot be completely overcome through exchange, it is now the market that shapes who we will become. If we were to bend the market according to our own desires, that would run contrary to the theory. Thus, if the market demands violins, we become violin makers. If the market demands computer programmers, we become computer programmers. Human activity and purpose are sparked at the intersection of demand and profit, only as secondary phenomena.

There is no living in growing crops, as Father McNabb was once surprised to learn. You apparently couldn’t “get token” (as he puts it) for growing wheat in those days
; nor could people any longer conceive of consuming the products of their own industry. That takes too much imagination--therefore, we are foolish to pursue such interests where there is so little chance to get token. This is what Father McNabb means when he says that we are “delivered over to the token.”13

It is in this spirit that we begin to serve our secular institutions, which are beautiful truths in themselves. Our useful institutions are now First Things. What a strange result of egalitarian individualism, to become our slaves’ slave! If the primitive ontological and hierarchical society tended toward slavery, so too does the advanced epistemic and egalitarian society of leveled self-seeking individuals. It leads toward a new form of slavery and toward nihilism.14

The purpose of politics, where I live, is to improve education. That is what our politicians say is important to give our means to. The purpose of education is to serve economy. Education is good for jobs, I am told.  In other places, the purpose of politics is to protect national security, which is designed to increase military power, which is in turn designed to protect “American interests” wherever they may be. Those interests are predominantly economic ones. Other political motives seek to protect various industry and business interests. Even where politics appears to be focused on something allegedly altruistic, it is only through moving around “token” from one group to another in order to theoretically level the playing field even more (some are uncomfortable with the monopolistic tendencies of Darwinian economics).

The purpose of economy is to get “more token”, of course, which is the means to free us from everything disagreeable, and that is the purpose of life which constitutes the happiness of the differentiated individual, and therefore is central to his moral pursuits. There is no doubt that much ease and convenience has come to us through this commitment to the institution of economy. Yet, some of us remain unsatisfied. Our souls are not filled.

For people like Rick Koerber, even Jesus was fundamentally concerned with his own success above any consideration for mankind.15 As a divine being, Jesus must have clearly operated according to the immutable economic laws, which appear to be universal truths akin to the laws of physics for someone like our Brother Koerber. In fact, he has been writing an essay on the very subject, I understand. He can only imagine that “socialist” is at the other end of “individualist”. One envisions Marcion busily editing the gospel of Luke in order to make it more amenable to his own enlightened interpretations! But I read Jesus as fundamentally humanist rather than individualist.

Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. That is humanism. Jesus said that the first great law is to love God, and that the second great law is like unto it: to love our neighbor as our self. And then Jesus tells us that we show our love of God precisely by loving other people, so even the first great law refers back to people again. People matter, and “people” is plural. That is Jesus’ humanism.

I can see Jesus saying that economy is for man and that man is not for economy. Naturally, everyone agrees with that. Of course economy is for people! It gives us token and makes us wealthy and content! It proves that we are blessed and chosen! Why else would we have it? And then economy overcomes all other means; it becomes the all-in-all; we turn godly humanism on its head and the whole point is lost. Jesus throws his hands in the air and leaves us to our economy worship, just as he left the Pharisees to their Sabbath worship and sat down with publicans and sinners who would enter into heaven ahead of those who served their institutions and forgot mankind.

This is how the world changes us: It happens when we are governed by the secular institutions that are supposed to serve us, especially the economic institution (whether it is “capitalist” or “socialist,” or something else purely economic in nature), but also the institutions of government and military and so forth. When the world changes us, we have no purposes other than what the institutions make for us.

Now, In the middle of this march to nihilism, we begin to tell stories of past truths and to say that we need to “restore honor.”16 We claim that these past truths are coming under attack from the outside. It is the fault of activist judges! Licentious people with wicked agendas! People hostile to religion! We seem to understand that this is a fairly recent development. No one can see the long root of it, extending all the way back into the middle ages (and beyond), and thus we cannot discern our own complicity in the matter, as individuals overcome by a single overwhelming institution of money that is consuming all others.

I think the problem is nicely illustrated by an introduction that I recently read in the local news. It seems that a certain notable Catholic, Robert P. George, has joined the news editorial board.17 In his introductory sketch, we learn that he holds sacred truths, among them the idea that the family--which is being eroded by evil--is the fundamental unit of society and must be advocated and defended. A few scant paragraphs later, we discover that this intelligent and well-meaning man spends his “rare” family hours pursuing his own personal interests!

There you have it: a man who believes that Family ought to be a First Thing, and he is rarely at home. 


I can imagine this typical scenario being played out: Dad is away serving glorious secular (or even religious) institutions that are not The Family, and (I speculate) his kids are likely at school learning how to get a good job--also away from family and neighbors--working for somebody else. 

I may be wrong about Mr. George, but that is the apparent shape of our advanced society, even among the most religiously inclined. Indeed, I am certainly not exempt from the thing I criticize. If this criticism in any way accurately describes Mr. George's shortcoming, then he is in good company (or poor company, as the case may be). And that, in the end, is the whole problem: too much company in shortcomings.

So, Robert P. George isn’t helping to build a culture of family; he is building a subculture18 with a compelling true story of family as its backdrop. The new sort of family is supposed to get by with a few hours of “quality time” each week. That is how we restore honor in 2010. This subculture exists within a greater, inescapable macro-culture of non-family individualism where any automaton can send the kids away to become well-adjusted so that it can be free to go out in the world to mechanically earn its fair share of someone else’s money in the pursuit of self-interest. The traditional arrangement of mom, dad, and children don’t matter one bit to the economy.

This good and sincere Catholic defender of families will be offended if any judge tries to point that out to him! Any attempt to square legal stories with the observable reality in which we all participate (where families are only second things to the individual) will be viewed as judicial activism. We blame activist judges when it is we who have fallen short of our ideals.

“In the world, but not of the world.” That phrase seems to have been distilled from various passages in the New Testament. It could mean a number of things, among them a suitable definition of subculture, such as what our defeated religions are building today. In this sense it must be rejected as a beautiful platitude and an untrue one. Instead, we appear to have adopted it to mean that we can still serve God and Mammon.

The truth is that these nostalgic, story-telling men need to stop building subcultures if they want to change the world. In the important sense, true culture isn’t in the world at all, it is the world. If you are only in this world, you will always lose. The world will eventually overcome you. Ideas only have lasting consequences when they are made First Things through actual praxis, not left to languish as a subculture. Sub-things are second things at best.

I am not Catholic, but I find that Father Lawrence Smith has some good advice for people who want to restore honor and who desire to return to a real culture of truth-seeking: 

 

Where will we find the means to transform the world from the den of Mammon to the House of God? Go home!19

Until we see that, we will not change the world. Our legacy will be filled with furious rallies that accomplish little more than to leave behind them a remarkable absence of trash on public lawns. Garlanded youths and ivied maidens will not change the world with pretty speeches if they, in their deeds, remain servants to the secular institutions that have turned hideous even as they remain great. Such efforts only serve to demonstrate the ways in which the world has changed us.




  1. Edwin A. Abbot wrote Flatland in 1884. The book describes a two-dimensional geometric world.
  2. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, edited by John Milbank and Simon Oliver. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: from participation  to late modernity. p . 23
  3. Ibid. p. 22
  4. BBC News, September 2, 2010. "Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe". http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11161493
  5. The Philosophy of Money, Exchange as a form of life. Georg Simmel. Kindle Edition. Locations 3796-826. Also see Location 4493. "For the value of things, interpreted as their economic interaction, has its purest expression and embodiment in money." This is also described in the section entitled "Money as the autonomous manifestation of the exchange relation."
  6. Ibid. See the section entitled: "Money is responsible for impersonal relations between people." Locations 8,373-404. In particular, this passage is relevant: "...we are remarkably independent of every specific member of this society, because his significance for us has been transferred to the one-sided objectivity of his contribution, which can be just as easily produced by any number of other people with different personalities with whom we are connected only by an interest that can be completely expressed in money terms."
  7. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader. Radical Orthodoxy: A conversation. p.40
  8. The Philosophy of Money, The objectivity of truth as well as of value viewed as a relation between subjective elements. Location 4297. Here Simmel says "the development of philosophy, and of individual thinking, moves from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity."
  9. Radical Orthodoxy. p.28.  For those few of us Christians who do not come from an orthodox background, and who sometimes criticize this philosophical account of the being of God, I found this discussion in Radical Orthodoxy to be very helpful in understanding this orthodox view.
  10. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Adam Smith, 1759. See Part I, Chapter II: Of the pleasure of mutual Sympathy.
  11. Ibid. Part IV, Chapter I. For instance in this passage, "The capacity of his [the proud and unfeeling landlord's] stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of." This is where Adam Smith first develops the ideas of the Invisible Hand.
  12. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, p.8. Simmel also points out that a "personality is almost completely destroyed under the conditions of a money economy. The delivery man, the money-lender, the worker, upon whom we are dependent, do not operate as personalities because they enter into a relationship only by virtue of a single activity..." (see the section entitled "Cultural development increases the number of persons on whom one is dependent").
  13. Capitalism and Communism. Fr. Vincent McNabb.http://distributistreview.com/mag/2010/07/capitalism-and-communism/
  14. I wrote to some extent about this in my essay on Leisure. See http://survivingphalaris.petermccombs.com/2009/09/leisure.html.  Georg Simmel also writes of wage laborers in a money economy that, "it seems as if the wage laborer is nothing but a disguised slave." See locations 8405-35.
  15. Jesus is a Capitalist, Rick Koerber, July 23, 2010. http://www.rickkoerber.com/2010/07/23/jesus-is-a-capitalist/615
  16. Here I refer to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on August 28, 2010. There is apparently no available transcript of the event in this illiterate age, but you can get the video and something like a transcript here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/295231-1
  17. 'Most influential Christian conservative thinker' Robert P. George joins News Board. Sarah Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News. Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700064817/Most-influential-Christian-conservative-thinker-Robert-P-George-joins-News-board.html
  18. This idea about subculture is something I received indirectly from James Davison Hunter and his book, "To Change the World." I have not read the book, but I read a review of it by James K. A. Smith on The Other Journal at Mars Hill Graduate School. The review was entitled How (Not) to Change the World, and it is a great essay in its own right. In fact, the title for my own work was taken from one of Smith's sentences in his essay. Smith also mentioned the phrase, "ideas have consequences." One of the ideas discussed is the idea of "faithful presence," which is very relevant to my point. About it, Smith writes (reviewing Hunter): "What’s wrong with both the Christian Right and Left, Hunter rightly notes, is that they have unwittingly bought into the will-to-power that characterizes disordered political life in late modern America. As a shorthand, one can say (as Hunter sometimes does) that they have fallen prey to a Constantinian desire to run the world (or at least America). The problem is that, in the name of “reclaiming America for Christ,” their “Christ” has been assimilated to what we might call “Americanism”—or what Hunter will sometimes describe simply as “nihilism”. Faithful presence, then, is not simply playing will-to-power for Jesus such that Christianity wins the culture war. Indeed, faithful presence will often run counter to the strategies of religious politics as currently played. Instead, faithful presence is the church carrying out the creational mandate to “make culture” (Gen. 1:26-31) in a way that is faithful to God’s desires for his creation." See the complete review here: http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1021&header=perspective
  19. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, LTD Publications, 2008. The Economy of Salvation. p.124