Reason and tradition

I have an intelligent friend who wants to make reason always secondary to tradition or values. I think that this is a kind of relativism or nihilism or perhaps a kind of voluntarism (I’m not sure if that’s the exact word I’m looking for, but there’s some similar word I’m thinking of – perhaps decisionism? in any case, I’ll just say relativism from here forward but I’m also thinking of the willful choice of first principles).

When I gently accuse him of this sort of relativism, he disagrees with me, but I seem to recall that he disagrees not by showing how my accusation is wrong but basically by just claiming that his view is correct and that anyone who disagrees with him is ultimately doing the same thing and denying it. The logic seems to be that since he is right, and relativism is wrong (or is distasteful, and, since the true answer shouldn’t be distasteful, is by extension wrong), he must not be a relativist. In any case, when he goes to explain why he is not a relativist, he just entrenches himself more deeply in the account that led me to characterize him as one.

Obviously, this is a one-sided account of a long-standing and multifaceted discussion, and I’m summarizing on the basis of my hazy and biased memories, rather than going back and rereading with an eye to fairness. Still, I think that while I’m not describing it as he would, it is fair, and probably, in my view, fairer (less confused) than how he would describe it. In any case, for the sake of this post, let’s treat it as if it’s basically accurate.

This friend of mine is not the sort of unhinged rightwinger that I often take shots at in these posts, but he is definitely right-leaning, in a way that I have a lot of respect and sympathy for. And his relativism, furthermore, is deeply, and manifestly, rooted in that conservatism. Relativistic nihilism is often an accusation levelled against the left by thinkers on the right, but it actually has its origins in the modern reactionary right, and I think the case of my friend shows how this plays out. (He likes to reference Burke and Voegelin, which is no coincidence.)

He dislikes the enlightenment project, or at least some parts of the direction it has taken, and he wishes to have an account of where it went wrong. Enlightenment rationalism paints the societies that preceded it as merely irrational, parochial, religious, traditionalist, authoritative, and mystical, and thinks of itself, on the other hand, as a rationalist and universalizing project. If, then, the people before we’re correct, and the Enlightenment is wrong, then the easiest way to argue that is to bite the bullet, accept that what came before is exactly as the Enlightenment says, and then explain why that is better or truer (or at least more honest or self-aware) than what the Enlightenment alternative would claim as true. Thus, reason can’t do what it claims to, and nothing is really universal, as any number of apparent intellectual and practical disasters since the Enlightenment demonstrate conclusively.

The real issue here, though, is that the Enlightenment’s characterization of pre-enlightenment thought is only partly correct. Hardly any of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment were relativists like my friend. He might want to point at someone like Plato or Aristotle and claim that they are proto-Enlightenment thinkers and that the Enlightenment itself proves them wrong, but that is lazy and incorrect. Thinkers like Plato and Aristotle aren’t just earlier than the thinkers of the Enlightenment. They are different than the thinkers of the Enlightenment, in ways that are obvious and important.

Pre-Enlightenment thought did think differently about tradition, religion, and authority than Enlightenment thinkers, but not in my friend’s relativistic way, not as if there is no thought that can happen beyond the confines of a given social or political or religious tradition, and only one can be right and it has the entire truth, or something like that. They had more in common with one another, across religious/moral/political lines, than they did with their fellow-citizens, and they believed that’s how it should be. Traditional community isn’t bad in the way Enlightenment thought, but it also isn’t everything; to think so is to make the same mistake as the Enlightenment did but in reverse.

Defensiveness

I find defensiveness really makes me lose respect for a person.

I dislike defensiveness so much that I would rather remain actually (rhetorically) undefended than risk appearing too defensive. If someone’s being accusatory, I tend to feel like I should give them the chance to convince themselves that I’m innocent, rather than to try at all to convince them myself.

I’m not entirely sure how weird I am for thinking in this way, or how it came about that I think in this way. At this point it is a reflexive response. I don’t even need to think about it. But I have no idea if there are other people who see things similarly, or how many.

I do think it sometimes throws people off when I respond to an accusation with a shrug and an “I’m sorry you think so.” People often aren’t sure what to do with something like that. This suggests to me that even though I’m probably not absolutely unique, I might be at least a bit odd for being this way.

I think the reason why I am so resistant to seeming defensive, and why I find it so deeply not compelling when someone else is not managing (or is not even trying) to avoid seeming defensive, is that it comes across as whiny and weak. It gives the accuser power, and defensiveness almost makes it look more like the accuser is in the right and like the defensive person is scrambling to find excuses or believable lies, often.

Personally, I don’t like the feeling of being defensive. It feels like I’m participating in an unwinnable, “he said, she said,” sort of situation, where no evidence will be decisive and everything comes down to which person seems more believable or trustworthy. And being defensive itself somehow looks untrustworthy, unbelievable.

So my impulse is not to be defensive. I will deny what’s not true, but I won’t protest. I won’t fight back if fighting back is unhelpful or even counterproductive. I’ll deny and then leave it to onlookers to judge me based on what they know of my character, which is what they would end up having to do anyway. Reacting in this way feels like the more dignified and noble way to deal with the sort of vicious character that would make untrue and unfounded accusations. It feels like the only available response that comes from, and shows, one’s strength.

I respect tact

I would never say that tact is the most important virtue. Of course it’s not. In a way, it can be quite a paltry thing, and at times it conceals a deeper moral ugliness.

But if I’m being honest, I have to admit: there are few qualities I respect and admire more than exceptional tact.

Anyone can blunder into the occasional tactful social maneuver, but to do it with particular consistency and deftness reveals a lot about a person.

For one thing, tact reveals an exceptional and subtle intelligence. You have to grasp all the dynamics (and probable dynamics, and possible interpretations and misinterpretations) of a situation, to be tactful in a way that is effective and not merely well-intentioned. Not only that, but upon sizing up the situation insightfully, it is also necessary to think quickly through a range of possible responses, and to think on your feet, adapting as you speak and as you read the responses of the people you’re speaking to. That by itself wins great respect and fondness from me.

But that’s not all it shows. It shows how perceptive a person is, how attuned to people and able to read the nuances of speech and gesture and faces.

It shows at least some level of moral sophistication, to care about others around and to wish to guide the conversation in a good direction. I think this might relate to what used to be called “good breeding,” that is, an upbringing that taught people how to care about the others around them and not focus solely on one’s own desires and reactions.

With all virtues that are not the greatest virtues, they (or perhaps some close facsimile) can be deployed for unsavoury goals. It is easy to imagine the businessperson who has learned to use something like tact to put people at ease in order to squeeze more profit out of them. I have at times found people whose tact I respected but whose character I ended up disappointed by in some way or another. But more often, I think, such tact seems to turn out to be an expression of a deeper virtue and goodness within an unusually perceptive and intelligent person. That’s why, when I encounter it, I always immediately take it as a sign of promise, and a reason for hope and celebration.

Selfishness and weakness

When I’m tired, I’m more selfish. When I was younger and less mature, I was more selfish. When I’m stressed, I’m more selfish. When I’m weakened by sickness, I’m more selfish. When I’m angry, I’m more selfish.

When I am strong and healthy and rested and clear-headed, it is easier to be less selfish.

By selfish, I mean relatively selfish. In the context of my family, I might be biased toward myself, but in the context of a larger community I might be biased toward my family.

And by selfish I mean interpretively willing to twist the facts of the situation to (what I short-sightedly take to be) my advantage. I’m not referring to outright lies, in general, but something less than completely honest. And it usually involves some self-deception as well that allows me to be genuinely indignant if anyone points out my unfairness, and which I am able to recognize, if ever, only after some time has passed and I’m less in the grip of that weakness.

When I am weak (and keep in mind, I don’t just mean morally weak, here; I’m talking about some literal, biological lack of health/strength/energy), I am not somehow suddenly fated to act badly. I can overcome my temporary tendency to selfishness. Many people in miserable conditions show astonishing nobility of character.

But it becomes much harder to see and act beyond those selfish limitations. It becomes more excusable to fall short – more excusable, that is, insofar as it is not my own fault that I’m in that state of weakness. If I’m in that condition because of some choice I made (eg staying up too late for frivolous reasons and finding myself very tired the next day), then I can’t pass the blame for my bad mood, just as the person who drives drunk is not excused for an accident by appeal to drunkenness.

We ought to make it as easy as possible to be the good people we wish to be. That means taking our health and the needs of our body seriously, from day to day and also over the course of years, so far as it is in our power.

Scientific materialism

We seem today have agreed to let something like what we might call scientific materialism be our default social assumption. People can believe what they want privately, but if we push beyond materialism even to some sort of deism it will grate on a lot of ears, including the ears of many people who are not themselves materialists.

There’s a similar sort of default in the debates of overzealous teenagers and college students (and those of us who never fully outgrow that stage). At one time in history it would have been the person who dissented from the dominant faith who would have been expected to make arguments to show why everyone was wrong to believe in miracles etc. Today, it is certainly the religious person of any faith who is assumed by all (including the religious person) to bear the burden of proof.

I’m not interested to consider here whether that’s been a good thing or bad. It seems to have had some good effects. I think there are interesting arguments maintaining that it has had bad effects as well.

I’m more interested here to think about whether it’s a good position to hold privately. We can all fall into line socially, or try to change society if that’s your thing, but while most of us in our private thoughts will probably accept something approximating the public orthodoxy, it’s an easy thing (at least in this sort of society) to dissent privately.

Scientific materialism is self-refuting, in a way. It might be true (though I don’t honestly see how anymore, but hypothetically), but even if it were, we would never be able to know. Scientific materialism, as a way of thinking about the world, is not a material thing, and it cannot be confirmed scientifically. If only material things exist, and the only meaningful knowledge is scientific knowledge then the consistent scientific materialist, it seems to me, has to hold scientific materialism not as something knowable but as an article of faith.

And that’s a fine thing to do. If that’s what you want to do, I can respect that.

Still, if what we want to do is more than just willfully assert to be completely true what we cannot know to be true, then we find ourselves opening out into a world full of mystery. Perhaps it is a world of ghosts and sorcery. Perhaps it is a world of saints and demons. Perhaps it is a world of silent darkness.

But certainly the uncertainty itself makes for a very, very different world than the one we take for granted now. This may be a matter of taste, but personally, I find it a far more attractive world to live in.

Dune prequels

When I was a teenager, I early on read Frank Herbert’s Dune books and found them compelling. Around that same time his son, Brian Herbert, began to write (or ghostwrite?) and publish books and books in the Dune universe of his departed father.

I remember they seemed to be quite a success. You would see them in the small book section found in a random aisle of grocery stores. My dad and I liked the Dune universe and we bought and read several of Brian Herbert’s books.

Just this past year I’ve rediscovered those books and reread several of them. They’re fun to read, and they strike me as an impressive achievement, in one way.

It’s been some time since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune books or watched any of the movies (I haven’t seen these latest Dune films, though at some point I would like to). Still, I remember enough to know which characters will be alive and which deceased by the time those books begin. I know many of the families that will be in power by that moment in the history of that universe, and which planets they are associated with.

Of course knowledge of that sort takes a great deal of the dramatic tension away. Paul Atreides, for instance, might as well be immortal; I know that no matter how dangerous a situation he might seem to be in, it is impossible for him to die, is certain that he will escape.

And yet Brian Herbert (or his co-author) has written an entire series of prequels that hold the attention, that keep the reader in suspense, even under that severe sort of authorial restriction. The characters that we know from the later books see their fortunes rise and fall and the reader doesn’t know exactly how a particular situation will turn out. Other characters are introduced that play a large role, and the reader cares about them, but their fate is entirely unknown.

Orson Scott Card works under a similar set of constraints in some of the offshoots of his Ender series, where a story is being told in one book that is contemporaneous with the storyline from an earlier book and changes the meaning of some of the events and conversations in that earlier book. Card does this with mixed results, sometimes working too hard to fit a round peg in a square hole, or seeming to forget some incompatible detail from an earlier book that ruins his attempted reinterpretation, but it is still quite pleasing and impressive overall to experience.

It’s a cool thing to see authors producing such enjoyable books even while facing restrictions that do not hinder other authors. The things people are capable of! I think it highlights a set of skills and competencies that are not always visible in other kinds of writing. I’d love to be able to do this thing that they do. It unfailingly reminds me of the incredible possibilities of the human mind.

Greek pedagogy idea

I’d love for my children to learn Greek. If they also learned another language, say French or German or Latin etc, that would be wonderful. But for some reason I especially hope they can learn to read ancient Greek. If they never do then I won’t be bothered or disappointed, but I at least want to take a shot at encouraging them to begin learning it.

So I have an idea for how I might want to go about helping them learn it, when it seems that they’re old enough, if they aren’t too resistant to it.

I want to pay them to study it. Every week they can earn, let’s say up to ten dollars (for the sake of this discussion, but when they’re younger they might be happy with somewhat less), for doing a particular task before the week is over.

The first weeks might have to do with pronouncing the letters. This might well stretch over several weeks, and that would be okay. There’s no rush. We might make use of Duolingo for this, since it has a good alphabet teaching system, and it teaches modern Greek pronunciation, which I like.

Once they can comfortably pronounce words, then it will be about translating words. I provide them with a sentence and a glossary, and for each word that they can find the gloss for, they earn some amount. But there’s no pressure to figure out how to rearrange the words into something that makes sense in English. Over time, as they get more comfortable, they’ll have to do more to get the same payout; instead of two dollars per word, it might be one dollar, and then one dollar for two words, and then one dollar for four words, seeing how far they can comfortably go. The volume assigned might also change depending on what else is happening in the child’s schedule that week.

Then the goal will be to learn how to translate not just words but sentences into meaningful English. At first it will be ten dollars for a single sentence for the week, with no penalties for mistakes, although they won’t get paid until we’ve discussed any mistakes and they’ve understood why it was wrong. Over time, they might begin to lose a small amount (say a dollar) for making errors that they have already learned how to avoid, if this seems necessary. The sentences will be pretty straightforward at first, and over time will depart more and more from normal English sentence structure, and the sentences might get longer as well. (I will just draw the sentences from some standard Greek textbook throughout this project.) Eventually they will get two sentences per week and can earn five dollars per sentence. Then eventually they might get four sentences at a rate of $2.50 per sentence. As before, this will continue until we find how much they can comfortably do. As time passes, they will be introduced to new words and new grammatical concepts, always with lots of support and an effort to make it minimally confusing. It could very well take years to reach this point, for all I know. Again, I think it’s better not to rush, best to take as much time as feels necessary.

Periodically, we will circle back around and repeat passages that they have already done. When repeating, there might be higher standards: bigger penalties for errors, and/or expectation to be able to read the sentence out loud in Greek and then translate it on the spot?

My goal throughout will be to make sure that what I assign in a week is not too difficult for them to do. If I undershoot by too much and it is an especially easy week for them, that is fine and they’ll still earn what was promised, and I’ll simply adjust for the following week. Better to make it too easy than too challenging, though slowly of course they should be somewhat challenged, so that they can slowly improve.

I don’t plan to tie all their learning to money (eg I don’t think they’ll earn money for good grades at school, or for doing their homework, although the latter might be something I’d contemplate if they’re particularly struggling). Still, for something that’s not tied to schoolwork and that they might otherwise have little motivation to do, it seems like a tool worth employing.

It seems to me that by following a plan like this one, and just by being consistent and continuing to do it over months and years, they could become quite skillful over time, without ever needing to be stressed or unhappy about the process. They would gain a skill, and also a way of thinking about grammar and language, that would be of value to them for life. Maybe I’m wrong and this will never work. But it’s definitely something I’m hoping to try once they seem ready for it!

Right and left meet not only in totalitarianism

When I was a high school student, I remember being told by a social studies teacher that the ideological right and left should be thought of, not as a line, but as a circle. When you get to an extreme enough position in either direction, you end up with totalitarianism, as twentieth-century history has demonstrated.

There is some truth to this. I think that my teacher must either have been influenced by Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, or have been taught by someone who was influenced by it.

Totalitarianism is indeed one place where right and left can meet and become so similar that their differences are all but unimportant. I’ve grown more and more convinced, however, that it’s not the only place.

In another sense, the centre is of course a place where the two sides can meet, where equality of opportunity and inequality of outcome and freedom to do your own thing while material conditions will (all else being equal) improve is a place where one particular version of left and right could intersect quite comfortably.

There’s also a homesteading, hippyish, intentional community, back to nature approach to politics (or perhaps withdrawal from politics, on some accounts) where the two can look very similar.

I think often of a 2016 movie called Captain Fantastic. A homesteading family grows their own food, perfects their bodily strength and health, and voraciously studies classics and economics and languages. It could sound like it is written as a right-wing utopia, but it is actually a vision generated from a pretty far left approach to the world.

Belloc and distributism were the source of my first attraction to this sort of politics (although Belloc’s own economic vision is closer to industrial capitalism, in some respects, than this). There are old romantic economists (especially German ones, from early in the history of capitalism) who advocated something closer to this. There was a movement called “crunchy conservatism” several years back that I found quite compelling. I was interested recently to learn about a little cult of Covid-deniers who bought a large parcel of land in the UK to withdraw from modern society together. I’m not saying that people on the left and people on the right who do these sorts of things would entirely agree with one another on everything or even that they would be able to tolerate one another, just as the Nazis and the Bolsheviks deeply disagreed and disliked each other. But they do, still, end up looking a great deal like one another.

Conspiracists and religion

In my experience, it feels like ninety percent (or more) of people who do a pretty good job explaining and criticizing nutty rightwing conspiratorial movements or figures all eventually do the same really annoying thing.

“Wow, these terrible people are also really religious, aren’t they? They really take their religion seriously, don’t they? They really let their religion inform the way they perceive and interact with the world, huh? They actually pray, and they think God talks to them and tells them what to do, like absolute lunatics, you know?”

I’m laying it on a bit thick, but this is the move. The big unveiling of how terrible and stupid the people are has to do with the conspiracists’ faith.

Now, it’s true that there’s a big correlation between conspiratorial thinking and some kind of religious faith, and probably even some sort of (undoubtedly complicated) causal relationship as well.

It’s true that the conspiracy theorists are wacky, often somewhat dangerous, and always quite sad to behold.

But it’s not in virtue of their religiosity that they are wacky and awful. And when that is the big punchline, a religious audience of non-conspiracy theorists (which is, to be clear, most religious people) are going to feel sympathy for and solidarity with the conspiracy people. We do not need more of that.

Debunker people, I appreciate you. I get that you’re not religious and that you don’t have respect for people who are, and I’m okay with that. I disagree, but you can do what you want. But please, if you want to do your job well, stop making religion part of the reason why conspiracy theory people are bad, and especially, especially never make it the top item on that list. Just don’t do it.

Capitalism and the right

There is a huge mistake, a blatant falsehood, that is sincerely believed on both the right and the left, and it leads to all sorts of consequent analyses and conclusions that are profoundly misleading. What is this untruth?

Unbelievable numbers of people, including people who are otherwise very intelligent and well-informed, think that capitalism is essential to the ideological right, and that opposition to capitalism is exclusively the province of the ideological left. This is just not true. It’s deeply mistaken to see things this way.

You can see this exemplified on the right by the insistence that Hitler and his movement were socialist. Contrary to the memes of the left, this is not simply a matter of the right being ignorant of history and reading too much into the name of the party. Rather, those on the right who say this will look at Nazism and see a big, powerful state that directs and limits the economy according to the goals of the state, and they think the problem with the Nazis is precisely that they are too far to the left, are insufficiently capitalistic and libertarian, and therefore that Nazism is not so much opposed to communism but is just one more example of what happens when a leftist approach to the state and the economy goes too far. If you assume that the right is defined by capitalism, then this is actually an understandable position to hold.

On the left, this same mistake is exemplified by the claim that fascism is precisely capitalism run amok, is the secret motives and mechanisms of capitalism displayed out in the open for all to see. This is based on a similar line of reasoning, which says that since we know capitalism is essential to the right, and since we know that fascism is about as far to the right as it is possible to go on the ideological spectrum, fascism must be the purest and clearest instance of the workings of capitalism. The problem is, as we saw in the previous paragraph, unless we start with a deeply idiosyncratic and amorphous definition of capitalism, fascism is a clear departure from capitalism, is in fact an explicit repudiation of the aims of unfettered capitalism. Indeed, the antisemitism that’s characteristic of so much of fascism is most often, even today, a dressed-up criticism of the globalist and materialistic assumptions tied to unfettered capitalism.

Capitalism is today often most loudly defended on the right, but that is newer, and it is certainly not universally true on the right. There are genuinely rightwing movements and ideologies that are opposed to capitalism from top to bottom, and this is as true today as it has been for centuries.

No, here is how the ideology of left and right should really be divided: The left is always, always comparatively and progressively egalitarian, and the right is always comparatively inegalitarian. Rather than the right being united around capitalism and the left resisting that capitalism, it is the left united around egalitarianism and the right resisting egalitarianism. It seems to me personally that there is much more actual diversity on the right than the left, an alliance of disparate kinds of hierarchical inegalitarianisms against the levelling egalitarianism of the left. This isn’t to deny that the right can sincerely embrace equalities of one sort or another to some extent (eg equality of opportunity, among some factions); I only mean to point out that they always place limitations on equality and egalitarian aspirations, and that it is precisely those limitations which separate them from the left.

The right today often represents the left as enacting an agenda that will lead to terrible authoritarian inequalities (of the sort seen historically in communist regimes), which might muddy the waters, by making it seem like the left is secretly anti-egalitarian or like the right is actually motivated by a more egalitarian agenda than the left, but this is not correct. In fact, this is an instance of the right engaging in tu quoque whataboutism, trying to pronounce the left deficient according to the left’s own ideological standard, not actually of the right opposing some comparatively egalitarian agenda of their own to the left’s inegalitarian one.

What counts as left or right changes as the years pass, which is to say the dividing line shifts (generally leftward, in “advanced economies,” but not exclusively). What separates one side of the line from the other is always relative attitudes about equality. Capitalism exists on both sides and the shifting line can move capitalism to be more on one side or the other. Anti-capitalist views exist on both sides of the ideological spectrum, even if, in the wake of the Cold War, we are today more habituated to associate capitalism with the right.