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Conversion

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Donald Sheehan (d. 2010) was an American poet and academic who converted to Orthodox Christianity in the mid 1980s, and who spent much of the rest of his life, in intellectual and artistic terms, applying his poetical prowess, skill and knowledge to the holy scriptures, in particular the Psalter.

Sheehan’s widow, Xenia Sheehan, has posthumously published both his Psalter translation and a collection of his essays on various literary/religious topics.  Both are well worth reading (his essays are incredibly insightful into the psalms in particular), but especially his essay on what initially brought him to the church.  I will quote a bit from it here, with a few comments interspersed.

Sheehan begins by describing his early childhood, growing up with a violent and alcoholic father, and the deep trauma this caused him. Years later, as an adult, he developed a different perspective on his life, including his relationship with his by-then deceased father.  In his early 40s, together with his wife and young children he visited his father’s grave in Tennessee to offer him forgiveness and to reach some degree of what we might today call “closure”.

The long journey back to New Hampshire [from Tennessee] was peaceful. But because Carol and I needed to be at work Monday morning — and David at school – we drove as straight through as we could manage. So it was near midnight of Easter Sunday, April 3rd, when we arrived home. We got our sleepy sons out of the car and into their beds, and then we unloaded the car and, too exhausted even to talk, we sank into our bed like stones dropped into water. It was around 1:00 am.

At dawn on April 4, I was all of a sudden awakened, fully and completely. What awoke me were these words sounding in my mind: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  For an instant I thought someone had spoken aloud, but then I realized that the words were in me. I sat up, fresh and alert. The words repeated themselves. And then repeated again. I looked over at the window, and the first light of dawn was coming in. The words kept on being repeated.

So I got out of bed. The words in me were calm, neither slow nor fast, level in emphasis, each word distinct yet flowing into the next, with a tiny pause after the last words and then the whole beginning again.

I got dressed and went downstairs, faintly wondering why I felt so fine after such a long journey and so brief a rest. Only faintly wondering, because the prayer now occupied every tiny fraction of mental attention I had – for, perfectly and gently, without the slightest air of even the least compulsion, the prayer simply filled all of me.

I had no idea what was happening, but I was not even slightly disturbed. As I sat in our tiny kitchen, I knew that I could completely stop the experience at any instant I chose. But I did not want to end it, so peaceful and fresh I felt as the prayer kept flowing on in me, clear, substantial and real.

So it continued for weeks, until, on a trip to the library at Dartmouth College, where he was working as a professor, he came across a certain book:

The one afternoon, I was striding through the College library, and all at once I stopped and took a book off the shelf. It was The Way of a Pilgrim, an anonymous nineteenth-century Russian book.

Then I suddenly remembered. Years before I had read J.D. Salinger’s beautiful story Franny and Zooey, where Franny has a great desire to say this prayer, called the Jesus Prayer, and she carries around with her a little book with this title. I was stunned. Among other wonders, I never knew until this moment that it was a real book Franny was carrying. I’d thought Salinger had invented it for his story.

I found a chair, and I read the opening twenty or so pages of The Way of a Pilgrim. Here was this very prayer, and it was long known (so a footnote told me) in the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia. I had never even heard the name of such a church. But the book told me the essential fact that I most needed. My prayer had a home.

Several months went by, with the prayer continuing in him. About nine months later, Sheehan decided to visit a local Catholic monastery.

And I still wondered now and then what an Orthodox Church was. Were there any in this country?

Then, late in January 1984, I acted on a whim. I went to visit a tiny Benedictine monastery in Connecticut This was a place that a poet I knew and liked had visited and deeply loved. I found that the abbot, Fr. John Giuliani, was a warm and perceptive and reassuringly uncomplicated man. On the second of my three days at the monastery, I asked him after morning Mass if I could talk to him alone, my heart all at once in my mouth.

And so I told Fr. John the whole story of my now ten months of experience with the prayer. He listed to it all with a great depth of stillness, a depth that buoyed me up in this my first time of telling. I sat with my head bowed, looking down at my hands, talking for a very long time. When I finished, I looked up at him – and was startled. His eyes were bright with tears.

“You know, my dear, that your father has given you a very great gift. When you went to his grave, you found that it was open – the way Christ’s tomb always stands open – and that loving does not die but binds together all the worlds. He has given you this prayer, my dear, because such loving as this between you never ceases but keeps working on and on.”

He lifted his hand in a graceful gesture.

“You must keep going the way God is calling you. The gift of your father’s is a very precious seed.

Oh, and you know, dear one, the Orthodox Church is everywhere. Just look around.”

I returned home with something like the seed of a great understanding. And all that winter and spring, when I prayed the psalms and the prayer each morning and evening, I somehow felt the memory of my father’s presence as clear, light and essential. And I wondered what Fr. John meant by the Orthodox Church being everywhere. New York? Boston?

Then, in the middle of May 1984, I opened the phone book to look up a number I knew perfectly well, and my eyes saw a listing for Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in a nearby town to the north. It literally took my breath away.

I waited three days so I could call calmly. The phone was answered by the wonderful priest who was to become my first father in Orthodoxy, Fr. Vladimir Sovyrda. I knew I was coming home.

By the time of my baptism as an Orthodox Christian on September 8, 1984, the prayer in me had entirely ceased. My little spiritual drama was over and the seed had vanished. But before me now stood open the immense and unending fruitfulness of the Orthodox way. And I knew at that moment what I know to this day: my father goes before me on that way.

God works indeed in various and mysterious ways, and differently in each of us. And He calls us to Him differently as well. But in reading through this story, even as regrettably hardened and even at times cynical as I have become in certain areas of my life, I felt at once chastened and renewed. And perhaps have regained some of that sense of wonder and awe that is appropriate for such things.

 

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The Benedict Option: Because Modernity is Acid

Transcribing a comment of mine from Rod Dreher’s excellent blog:

“As you say, elements of the fundamentalist approach are vulnerable to modernity, while other elements make it more attractive to moderns – it’s both at the same time, which is to be expected in some ways because it is a product of modernity itself. So, while its lack of historical grounding makes it vulnerable to the shifting sands of the culture to a greater degree, at the same time its easy discourse with the modernity from which it sprang makes it more “relevant” to individual moderns who are seekers. Moderns can embrace the faith in a fairly simple way, and basing it on a text is a very appealing thing to the typical American modern (the idea of a “governing text” is common to our way of thinking, in politics, commerce, education, etc.). The lack of ties to pre-modern times also permit the fundamentalist churches to go about worship in ways which are as unreservedly modern as they wish them to be, with no restrictions from the past – something which substantially ups the degree of fit and comfort and relevance that the average American seeker experiences.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy are more well grounded in history, but this leaves many contemporary moderns cold. It is very hard for most moderns to relate to a pre-modern mode of thinking about something like authority, for example, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why we see so much outright apostasy in these contexts. De facto, almost all moderns subscribe to a view of authority that, even for those who were somewhat formed by Catholicism/Orthodoxy, heavily skews toward individual conscience, and when that becomes the de facto model for authority in a religious context, we see what we see today. While this can also make the fundamentalist churches more attractive (being closer also in theory to the conscience of the believer interpreting scripture with the Holy Spirit), it isn’t a source of stability in either context because of the essentially capricious nature of the individual will, and the tendency for that to spill over into the realm of conscience in most human beings.

The bottom line is that modernity is acid in that it eats through almost everything which came before, both in an intentional way (i.e., through people who are actively encouraging this “creative destruction”) and in a more passive/absorbed way by simply providing the cultural presuppositions that virtually everyone born and raised in this culture ends up being equipped with by default. It is very hard for any church, traditional or fundamentalist, to resist this. The resistance has to take place on the level of the individual believer. Of course, for a Catholic or an Orthodox, that resistance would not be conceived of as being individualist in nature (by contrast to some of the Protestant soteriological ideas), but happening by and through the Church, yet each individual believer must be addressed as well at that level, similar to the case with sacramental life. I think in a very core way this has to be a central focus of conceptualizing the Benedict Option, at least for anyone who is Catholic or Orthodox – to create the context in which this resistance to the corrupting acid of modernity on one’s faith life and person can be actualized, fed, sustained and strengthened precisely so that one can thrive as a Christian and lead a Christian life in a context where the culture, both actively and passively, undermines (o)rthodox Christianity at every turn. This is done individually and collectively at the same time, as is the way of the Church, and as is reflected in sacramental life, and the sacramental world view. And as is the case with sacramental life, the goal is not to equip people to live a life which is separate and apart from everyone else in everyday life (unless one is called to that, as a monk), but simply to equip them to lead a life which is authentically Christian in the context of our post-modernity and engage the culture more effectively as a witness to this authentically Christian life.”

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Escoffier on “Was Marriage 1.0 Dysgenic?”

Nova has covered the religious objections to the “Marriage 1.0 is Dysgenic” thesis, and he asked me to say a few words about what (non-corrupt) philosophy might say.

The gist of the thesis seems to be another reductionist account of man. Two such ideas are equated, first the homo economicus or “rational actor” thesis of the economists—man always seeks to maximize his monetary well-being in the most efficient manner possible—and second, a kind of social Darwinism centered around “good genes”, the latter defined as more or less the brutish or assertive side of alpha.

In no particular order:

First—and this is a very common problem in ’sphere discourses—it is far from evident that characteristically “thug alpha” traits are in fact “eugenic.”  Yet too often the ’sphere seems to take this for granted: “alpha” is better.  Well, some is and some isn’t; and sometimes some is, and other times it isn’t.  And sometimes one kind of alpha is good while at other times it is bad, and other times other kinds of alpha are good or necessary, but harmful elsewhere.  In other words, it’s not so simple and depends very much on a range of circumstances.

It’s been pointed out many times that beta traits are the sine qua non of civilization.  If we hold civilization to be good (an important philosophic point to which I will return) then it must follow that those traits which are essential to the establishment and maintenance of civilization must also be good (in the sense of necessary to a higher good) and hence cannot be “dysgenic.”  That these traits are not always attractive to women, and are often even actively repulsive to women—this alone does not make them “dysgenic.”  Rather, what it suggests is that women’s attraction vectors, for whatever reason, sometimes and in some ways veer toward the dysgenic and way from the eugenic.

Broadly speaking, three possible reasons for this seemingly perverse “veering” away from the stable and good are proffered: the ev-psych, the Biblical, and the classical-philosophic explanations.  The latter two have much in common.  The first seems to stand out.

The underlying assumption of the ev-psych explanation is that humans are simply bio-mechanical beings (“bio-mechanics is God”) seeking to reproduce and nothing else.  Hence, if thug-alpha traits are more effective at spreading seed, then they are “eugenic.”  If civilizational-beta traits are not as effective at spreading seed, they are “dysgenic,” full stop.  Now, the obvious problem with this is that it assumes that man is no different in kind, only in degree, from the other animals—we are nothing more than exceptionally clever apes.  This is incoherent on a number of levels which I will address.

The Biblical explanation for why women are attracted to thug traits is that women, no less than men, have a fallen nature, but that women have particular failings of their own.  That is, human nature is itself fallen in ways that are common to both sexes, and then it is also fallen in ways that are specific to or characteristic of each sex.  And that of course includes women as well as men.

This idea has been hashed through thoroughly in recent posts on Dalrock’s blog and I am semi-convinced that it is THE most important insight that the ’sphere has to offer our blinkered contemporary discourse.  We contemporary people have no problem whatsoever naming, describing, ridiculing, and reveling in all the ways men can be pigs.  It’s one of the most persistent themes of pop culture.  But we are in absolute full denial that there are any vices that are characteristic of the female sex. This may be THE biggest blind spot in our culture.

I and others have bumped up against resistance to this idea many times among nominally “red pill” women bloggers and commenters.  Many of them simply bristle at any suggestion that women have their own characteristic vices which men in general do not share.  They especially bristle at the suggestion that any of those vices were sexual in nature.  According to this view, which is really the broad cultural view, there human vices such as greed, pettiness, envy and such, which are common to both sexes.  And then there are some characteristically male vices, such as a propensity for violence.  But there NO corresponding or parallel characteristically female vices.  And, really, the acknowledgement that even females are subject to the basic human vices is often nothing more than lip service.  Women, like the culturati generally, know that the reality of sin in both sexes must be acknowledged to maintain credibility.  Like the way anyone who’s proud of a particular person or nation or institution says “Of course X has done some bad things, who hasn’t, but look at his fantastic record of A, B, C and so on and on.”  Everything before the word “but” is just rhetoric to deflect a likely attack or rejoinder.  What the culture really believes is that women are FAR less prone even to the vices common to both sexes than are men.  This fits in with Dalrock’s frequent criticism of Christian leaders who insist that women are inherently pure.

The truth about vice is, it seems to me, is that there are vices that are more or less evenly spread across both sexes.  Then there are vices which both sexes share but that are more prevalent in one or the other. And finally there are vices that are characteristic—not merely prevalent but characteristic—of one sex or the other.

The culture can admit the second and third points, but only when it comes to men.  This is a long digression and I’m going to make it slightly longer, but where does that come from?  The roots are deep but I want to examine one of the upper layers for a moment.  Basically, it’s obvious to anyone who’s not a complete idiot that men are responsible for nearly everything tangible that makes up civilization—whether that be technology, cities, sewage systems, running water, the arts, literature—everything.  Hence there is an implicit acknowledgement that men must be superior, at the very last at the non-trivial task of building and maintaining civilization.  You don’t even have to say this aloud or make any kind of argument.  All you have to do is be awake enough to notice that men have built and done all this stuff and women have not and the mind naturally admires these accomplishments more than their lack.  And so the mind defaults to admiring men more than women.

Or, look at it this way.  Imagine humans finally learn to do interplanetary travel and we find a plant with two very similar looking beings.  They look almost the same.  But one set of them has built cities and a civilization and the other set of them is living in caves and trees.  We would naturally, instantly, unconsciously classify the first set as superior and the second as inferior.

And the fact (if it is a fact) that men would not or could not have done all they have done without women around is irrelevant to this point.  The fact remains that men are the efficient cause of civilization.  Male hands built it and maintain it.  Everyone sees this with their own two eyes.

This sense then that men are winners or are superior collides with various late modern corruptions of certain older ideals, not least equality, humility and noblesse oblige.  The equality point is obvious.  If all people are equal, and if the sexes are equal, then only two conclusions can follow: either civilization is just not that important, not important enough so that the building and maintenance of it is enough to make men superior to women; or else the reason men have accomplished so much relative to women must be oppression.  I.e., either the alleged accomplishment is not really an accomplishment at all; or if it is, it is the result of injustice.  Actually there is a third response which is relatively trivial, and that is to troll through history to find examples of female accomplishment which demonstrate equality and allege that they are under-appreciated because of oppression.  The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that there just aren’t that many examples.  And once you exhaust the genuine ones that really are on a par with the peaks of male accomplishment (e.g., the novels of Austen or the statesmanship of Elizabeth I), you have to start elevating lesser examples and alleging that they are equal to men’s; for instance, Mary Cassat = Monet (nothing against Cassat, I like her work, but she is not a top-rank artist).  And EVEN THEN you run out of examples fairly quickly.  You become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of male accomplishment with respect to female, at every level.  See, for instance, Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment for a vivid cataloguing of this point.

So, again, of these three options, the first blows itself out fairly quickly when thought through.  The idea that civilization is valueless, beyond being absurd, is contradicted every day by the way people live.  Nearly all of us don’t want to revert to “noble savagery” even though a small minority of intellectuals still romanticize it (it’s not a coincidence that the root philosopher of the noble savage, Rousseau, is also the implicit founder of the Romantic movement),  So that one goes pretty quickly.  The third is really just an exercise in tu quoquebean counting.  It’s enough to sustain some trivial academic careers and has been very corruptive of intellectual discourse but it’s ultimately not that powerful.

That leaves the second: oppression.  This remains very popular in our time and it plays into the other element that I mentioned.  If men are obviously superior—whether that arises from nature or oppression—then it must follow then men have an obligation to be gracious about that—self-deprecating, modest, humble, deferential, and so forth.  (I want to pause to point out another contradiction, namely that even if the differential in accomplishment is owing to oppression, then there must be SOME ways in which men are superior because oppression requires that.  The weak do not oppress the strong without the strong’s consent.  This argument can devolve into an apologia for tyranny and I don’t want to digress further, merely to point out the problem.)

 All right, so men are obviously superior to women in nearly all forms of human accomplishment, hence it’s incumbent on men to downplay or even deny their superiority.  This is akin to basic good manners of, say, a star athlete not treating all the rest of his classmates like ants, except in this case on a societal scale.

 What has gone horribly wrong, however, is that societally we have come to “believe our own bullshit” as the saying goes.  That is, what began is a kind of good manners—don’t rub women’s noses in the fact that men invented the automobile and everything else—has now reached absurd levels of denial and false counter-narrative. Now we are actually expected to believe the equality thesis even when our eyes see the opposite every day. (Again, this is a perverted idea of equality, but I won’t go into that now.)

The way this plays out in every day conversation and discourse is, we emphasize, exaggerate and even outright make up ways in which men are bad.  And we deemphasize, downplay, and even outright deny the ways in which women are or can be bad.  Tear down the strong, build up the weak.  The initial impulse to do so is again good manners, coupled with the idea that our belief in the moral principle of equality demands as much.  But naturam expelles furcatamen usque recurret.  No matter how much we try to equalize the sexes, natural inequality keeps reasserting itself.  So before long it’s evident that it’s not enough for men to be a little deferential and to help out the ladies on the margins.  No, we have to actively tamp men down and actively prop women up.  And even that doesn’t equalize things.  So the pressure is always on for more, more, more.  More punitive actions against men, and more subsidies and AA and so on for women.  What Dalrock calls the “massive pumping operation” to level the waters.  Even with the pumps running 24/7, the waters still don’t even out fully.

That is, in my view, the top-layer explanation of why we insist on bashing men in all public discourse and pedestalizing women.  The same dynamic incidentally works for every group which exhibits different (inferior) outcomes again and again across a range of issues: lionize that group’s achievements, elevate the trivial ones to the level of real achievement, deny all its shortcomings, attack anyone who brings them up.

All right, back on track now.  The third explanation for why women’s attraction triggers veer in unhelpful directions is the classical-philosophic, which rather frankly says that while women are no less human than men, they are nonetheless less rational, and rationality is THE defining trait of man.  This is all rather shocking to modern ears, which is but one reason why classical philosophy is either condemned, or else this point is simply skipped, as if it didn’t exist.  Or, dismissed as “a product of their times.”  I’ve been looking into this for a while now, after 25+ years of reading the classics, and while there is not much, I have found things that are highly consistent with ’sphere findings, above all that passage in Xenophon that I blogged about for this site.

So where is this going?  Basically, the Biblical idea that man is made in the image of God and the classical teaching that man is not a mere animal but the highest of the earthly beings precisely because of his reason or logos are highly compatible, not to say identical.  Surely, “image of God” does not mean that God has arms and legs and a head.  Rather, it means that God is a thinking being, a moral being, a contemplative being who grasps the whole—the material essence of the whole and the meaning or normative aspects of the whole—both the IS and the OUGHT.  Man is made in the image of God in that he can do the same things, obviously to magnitudinally lesser degree, but the scope of the inquiry, the outline of the things under study, is the same.

What this means, and I apologize for how long it’s taken me to get to this, the decisive point, is that man is not merely another animal but the difference between man and beast is fundamentally one of kind, not degree.  The same type of gap that separates man from the beast, and sets man above the beasts, also separates man from God and sets him below God.

Hence, civilizationally useful traits cannot be “dysgenic” for man as man but only for man as beast.  The very claim that the species thrives when thug-alpha traits rule seems implausible at best even on that idea’s own terms.  For, reproductively speaking, the human population has exploded with civilization, after millennia of being comparatively tiny.  So, even by the reproductive success standard, beta traits would appear to be evolutionarily eugenic and not the opposite.

Man is what he is by virtue of his reason and the product of his reason is civilization.  Because man has a body, he has appetites, some of them low, others neutral but abusable.  Because man’s reason is imperfect, he is tempted to focus on his appetites and passions to the exclusion of his higher self.  To the extent that civilizational restraints are weak or absent, he will do this more rather than less.

For the Bible, the meaning of life is to live in harmony with God’s word and to understand the meaning of God’s word and to experience His love.  For the pagan philosophers, the meaning of life is contemplation of the whole and of the idea of the good.  There is a kinship here which is light-years away from bio-mechanical determinism.  Civilization is therefore not the very highest thing; it is a necessary but insufficient condition of the highest life.  But it is truly NECESSARY, apart from being beautiful, majestic and wonderful in itself. Hence to say that civilizational-beta traits are dysgenic is to deny the nature of man.  It is to be in unconscious league with corrosive modernity.  I never ceased to be amazed at how nearly all persistent critics of our present corruption turn out to be moderns underneath it all.  Modernity runs deep, everywhere you look or dig.

There is implicit in the idea under discussion that “nature” means—and only means—“whatever happens without thought, deliberation, choice or constraint.”  So, remove all sanction, strip away reason, and let man act according to his base appetites and passions, that is “natural.”  But man acting rationally, morally, building civilization, getting and staying married, raising and education children, creating and appreciating great art, worshiping God and so on—these things are not “natural.”  Perhaps not actively unnatural or anti-natural, but at best ancillary to nature, purely man-made and conventional.  There is, again, something of Rousseau in this, for whom civilization is the “barnacles on the statue” (Discourse on Inequality, Preface) and the purpose of the social contract is to serve as a necessary evil, to restore to man those aspects of pre-political life that can be restored within the civilizational framework.  The “clock cannot be turned back” and for Rousseau, this is a tragedy.

Ironically, Rousseau thought he was restoring, to the extent possible in the modern world, a classical understanding of man.  But it appears to me to be flatly against the classical notion of nature and, I believe, flatly wrong.  What is natural to man, above all, is what is highest in man.  It’s absurd to insist that the one being who can build civilization, read and write, philosophize and worship God—the only being in the entire universe that we know of who can do these and many other things—is acting unnaturally when he does so. These activities are natural to man and to no other physical being.

The reason we moderns are so myopically stupid on this point is that we have spent 500 years in denial of two of Aristotle’s four fundamental causes, the formal and the final causes.  The only way out of the present morass is to see clearly that classical metaphysics is true and modern metaphysics is wrong.

Finally, and this is a related point, the whole notion of “dysgenic” v. “eugenic” is inherently incoherent except on ultimately classical grounds.  For what makes one outcome “good” and the other “bad”?  We need some standard for evaluating and judging and bio-mechanics does not provide such a standard.  Only classical philosophy and the Bible do.  And the conclusion they would come to is that a world dominated by the alpha thug traits is not “good.”

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The Varieties of Power

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(Image by JDHancock, used under Creative Commons License).

Nota bene:  I’ll be shortly publishing a follow-on by Escoffier about the topic in this post.  While that follow-on is being edited for publication, I’m posting this, which is a kind of organic response to a discussion that has been taking place across a few blogs recently.

There has been some interesting discussion recently on a few blogs regarding certain aspects of power distribution between men and women.

First, let me say as a preliminary matter that while I understand the argument that viewing such things in terms of power distribution effectively buys into, or gives too much credit to, arguments, paradigms, world-views and metaphysics which are all basically wrong, nevertheless I personally find it useful to address the perspectives within their own paradigms, if only for the purpose of understanding them more fully.

Essentially, the discussion has been about power, in relative terms, between men and women over different historical eras.

Donalgraeme’s post, which contained a number of helpful diagrams, argued that, due to a biologically-based tendency in virtually all human societies to protect the female sex and enhance resource transfer to women, the “baseline” setting in any society will slope in favor of the females.   The biological basis for this is the reality that from the reproductive point of view, women are the “scarcer resource” due to the constraining limits of womb space/time resulting from gestational periods as compared with the much more readily available sperm, which is not subject to such constraints.  A more crass way of describing this is that if, in extremis, a society had 100 women and 1 man, it could survive well enough, whereas a society with 100 men and 1 woman would face substantial difficulties.  Therefore, the “natural baseline” is to protect and provide for women more than men, because they are the more precious reproductive resource required to grow a healthy tribe, etc., and men are very expendable by comparison.

It follows from this baseline that, because there is a natural disequilibrium between the value of the sexes from the reproductive point of view, societies will generally tilt towards protecting the female members in many ways.   Because of that tilt, in order to maintain any kind of parity between the sexes, even one of a complementarian nature, certain safeguards must be socially/artificially inserted into the system in favor of the male members of the society to offset the natural disequilibrium/tilt that the society will have in favor of protecting and providing for the female members as the scarcer resource.  That is, the status of the male members of the society must be elevated in some way which is not strictly biological in order to have a stable order which somewhat balances the sexes in the society and, crucially, in order to get the male participation in the society in toto which is required for it to thrive — that is, in order to avoid a Hobbesian war of all males against all other males, even within the tribe, to monopolize womb access — a situation which is highly unstable and invites invasion and takeover by other, more stable and well-ordered, tribes.

Free Northerner has objected to this analysis on the basis that because men enjoy the “hard” power in any society (they are the soldiers, the legislators, the wielders of public power), the idea that any society has a tilt towards female power, as a default setting, is nonsensical.  In this view, any power women have is simply given to them by men as an indugence, or exercised by men by proxy.  In the end, it’s the men who are in power, full stop.

In my view, that perspective, while not completely untrue as far as it goes in terms of the public aspects of power expression historically, is substantially misguided because it understands power among humans in a far too narrow way.

In other words, while that perspective is more or less accurate in the realm of direct/public/physical power, it overlooks the realm of indirect/private/influence power.  Humans are not just physical warriors, we are a social and familial species, and therefore power for us is not, and never has been, purely/only about physical power.

Under the old scheme, prior to the implementation of equality in terms of public forms of power, women had a large amount of soft power in the family/private realm, and thereby exercised not only the lion’s share of power in certain realms, but also a substantial degree of power in terms of influence over the direct realm, by means of influencing the men around them, especially in the context of families (extended, not nuclear — nuclear family is a very contemporary phenomenon). For background on this, Chinweizu Ibekwe’s book “Anatomy of Female Power” is instructive.  A PDF copy of the book is available here: http://therawness.com/anatomy-of-female-power-download-and-discussion-page/.  While I do not agree with everything Chinweizu argues in his book, nevertheless the discussion on pages 9-12 in the Introduction is a useful, and provocative, read for anyone interested in these kinds of issues.

The fact that many men have tended historically to overlook this real power by focusing instead on their own direct, “public” power has only served to augment the indirect power that women have (by providing no recognized counter) and, ultimately, led to men supporting feminism out of “fairness”.  In other words, if the only real power is the direct kind of power men generally have and express, it is only fair for this direct, public power to be shared with women, because to do otherwise would perpetuate a very unfair distribution of total power between the sexes.  It is precisely the mindset that “direct power is the only real power that matters” that has led to widespread support among men for feminism on fairness grounds.

Feminism, despite its stated goals, has not actually resulted in equality for various, and widely-disputed, reasons, but a main one is precisely because the realm of female power, which pre-existed feminism and which continues to exist today, has been overlooked or considered unimportant in the entire analysis about power between the sexes.  I would argue (although this is not the subject of this post — perhaps something to address in greater detail in a subsequent post) that this, in turn, happened because the predominant worldview in the West switched to a huge degree towards emphasizing the individual and such individual’s public self-expression, or self-actualization — a development which devalued most of the existing female spheres of power, which were more hidden, private, and influence-based, while elevating the existing male spheres of power, which were more public expressions of the self, in perceived importance.  That this would eventually necessitate a balancing of power within that specifically emphasized realm, given the concurrent devaluing of the other realm in relative terms, seems unsurprising.

So, what happened with feminism is that women were invited to share equally, more or less, in the bases of male power in the context of a society which is no longer based on raw, brute strength, but advanced technology, money and so on.  However, women retained 100% of their own pre-existing power base: sex/family/influence/culture.  The result was the disempowerment of most men vis-a-vis most women, not in the public sphere, but in the sense of total power, taking into consideration both public and private power.  The old system, which is now for the most part pejoratively dubbed “patriarchy” (again, not surprising in the context of a culture which was moving towards a one-sided emphasis on individual self-actualization and power) actually was quite equitable when viewed from the perspective of total power, because it granted men power in the sphere that made more sense for the physically stronger sex and the one with more testosterone and drive, and the only sphere in which they could actually exercise power, for biological reasons, while granting women power in the sphere that made the most sense for that sex, being the one that bears children, and in spheres where biology dictates that women will virtually always enjoy a primacy of power.  In addition, by granting men power in the public sphere, the general tilt toward favoring women as the more precious reproductive resource was offset to some extent.  However, if you allow one sex to share in the power of the other, and not vice-versa (or even admit that there IS a vice-versa to begin with), you end up with what we have today: women having a share in what was previously the male power space, but at the same time retaining virtually all of the power over the female power area, which means, in effect, on average more total power, taking into account both realms, than all but the most powerful men.

The typical feminist objection to that analysis is that they are more than happy to have men share in the female power space if men would but show sufficient interest in doing so.  Even if that were true (which it isn’t for most women in practice, leaving aside statements made largely for the sake of maintaining an argument), there really isn’t any way to “fix” that, because the female power areas largely arise due to biology, as outlined above.  The male area does as well, of course, but in a highly advanced technological society with the rule of law and so on, the natural base of that power is well circumscribed, and mostly for the good (no-one in his right mind should really want a world of Mad Max).  These changes are why women have been invited to share in the male power space to begin with:  they can now do so without the heavy lifting required in previous eras, because that has been relegated now to certain spheres in which most men themselves no longer participate en masse.  The Men’s Rights guys efforts would blunt some of the worst abuses here, but only slightly so — they can never really “make things equal”, because the female base of power is more or less completely off the table for biological reasons and, in many ways (sex/influence/culture) not subject to being manipulated through legal changes anyway.  Most men, due to the biological differences involved, simply can’t partake in the female power space, period, even if most women were willing to grant them this (which they most certainly are not).

In summary, from my perspective, to overlook the very real female power base, its enduring strength, and its continued presence up to this very day essentially plays into the mindset of the people who support(ed) feminism, because it sees only the male base of power as meaningful and significant, and therefore something which it is “unfair” for one sex to hoard.  It’s tempting for men to view it this way, because when we do, we emphasize our own power base — that’s understandable.  But it’s incorrect, and it’s also a flaw in thinking that actually enhances the female power base, precisely because it overlooks it and underestimates it, thereby permitting it to grow and retrench its power essentially without check.  It’s a mistaken approach for that reason.  In my view, when a holistic approach to power analysis is taken, a rather different picture emerges, and one which presents clearer opportunities, as well as clearer obstacles, rather than a perspective which argues that “men need to take back their power and take away the power of women”.  That isn’t going to happen in the context of human society, because of how the power bases work.  What could happen, if articulated properly, is a greater realization of the importance of total power, taking all elements into account in a holistic way, but this would require leaving behind the loyalties of many, including many in this space of the internet, towards individualism as a kind of prime directive.  It is that which has largely been our undoing here, and it is that which will need to be addressed in order to move past the current difficulties.

 

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Escoffier on Modernity and the Embarrassment of Christians

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Escoffier recently posted a comment at Dalrock’s blog which seemed useful as a standalone post.  It deals with the issue of why so many contemporary Christians appear to be embarrassed with the moral teachings of Christianity.  I’m posting it here in full for comment.  (EDIT:  I see that Donal has also posted it — that’s good, it deserves a broad audience).

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I want to add a supplementary / alternative reason to explain this embarrassment over the text of the Bible. It’s been touched on but not really fleshed out.

That is, that these nominal Christians under discussion are all moderns first and Christians second (if second). Worse, they don’t even know they are moderns, or what it means to be a modern, or what modernity is.

Modernity, to say the least, conflicts with the Bible. It was designed to, on purpose. Yet it has been so successful in taking over nearly all conscious and sub-conscious thought that hardly anyone any more recognizes it for what it is. That includes most contemporary Christians, to whom “modernity” is simply synonymous with “reality” or even “morality.”

There’s a particular strand of modernity that’s particularly relevant here, namely historicism, and specifically rational historicism (as opposed to radical or irrational historicism). This is the idea of “progress.” “Progress” is cooked into the original conception of modernity, but it came to take on a different meaning much later. Originally, it more or less just meant “We can improve the material condition of man on earth; human beings have a lot more power than either the Bible or classical philosophy will admit.”

Rational historicism takes this idea much further and posits a unidirectional progress, which is worked out through impersonal forces (the so-called historical dialectic) over which man may be an unwitting instrument, but which he didn’t design, doesn’t direct, and can’t control. “History” is nonetheless rational, moving “forward” (with occasional, necessary steps back) to ever-“better” states and eventually to an end state in which all dialectical conflicts are resolved, all moral and political problems solved, and final wisdom achieved (if not necessarily accessible to all). In pop-culture terms, the Star Trek universe is basically the cartoon version of this end state.

Nearly everyone today believes in this “arc” at least in a simplified way. The present is believed to be inherently more enlightened that the past. We Don’t Do That Anymore Because We Know Better. And the future will be inevitably more enlightened than the present.

The source of this impression is ultimately perverted or corrupted or mistaken philosophy, but one does not need to have studied philosophy at all to have been affected, even “convinced.” The astounding success of modern natural science and its offspring, technology, serves to “prove” to such people that “progress” is real and that the present is superior to the past. Technological progress is assumed to be coeval with moral and political progress.

But it is never explained why this should be so. Actually, certain modern philosophers did try to make such a case, but they hardly proved it and their case is open to serious theoretical difficulties which have been pointed out by other philosophers. However, that whole dialogue may as well never have happened as far as the average modern person is concerned. He is simply unaware of it and takes on faith that the present is morally superior to the past.

This, then, is a significant source of the embarrassment. The modern Christian (modern first, Christian second) is embarrassed by the evident conflicts between his nominal faith and his actual, if unconscious, modernity. Modernity trumps. So the offending Scriptures have to be dealt with one way or another. There are many possible ways: insist that it doesn’t say what it seems to say, come up with Rube Goldberg interpretations to square it with modernity, call it “metaphoric,” say that it was right for that time but not our time, and so on. The latter is a kind of “Living Constitution” framework for the Bible. It assumes that God has left to us the task of “updating” Scripture as the “times change.” The changing of the times is held to be the true constant, and really the true God, but only implicitly.

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The Struggle Is Spiritual

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As I have mentioned in certain comments on various blogs over the past year or so, I have gradually come to the conclusion that the current “struggles” we face concerning the “culture” — whether we are discussing the impact of the sexual revolution, the decline of religion in the public square, the increase of all kinds of license, the coarsening of society, the decline of family life, etc. — are primarily not cultural struggles at all.  And neither are they political struggles, although certain aspects of these elements have been aided and abetted by political action and legislation.

By contrast, it strikes me that the cultural and political elements we are seeing are merely manifestations of a broader spiritual struggle — a larger element which underlies these other manifestations, and unites them into a larger, cohesive, and more dangerous, whole.

This seems an odd charge to make, given that the loudest and most enthusiastic proponents on the “other side” tend to be either atheists or agnostics.

The key, however, is understanding that while these people are not “theistic believers”, they nevertheless are following what is essentially a system of moral “good” vs. moral “evil”, with the “prime moral directive” being not following the will of God, but rather removing all obstacles to the not-directly-harmful-to-others exercise of the personal volitional will.  That is, human will, or, rather, the autonomous freedom of the individual to act in accordance with his or her individual will (provided not directly harmful to others — let’s call that the “legitimate exercise of the individual will”) has become the supreme moral principle — the “god” of a non-theistic moral system, if you will.  Because of this, actions or inactions are viewed primarily through the lens of whether they promote this legitimate exercise of the human will or whether they restrict it (again, other than in ways that are necessary to prevent harm to others — which would be cases where the exercise of the human will would be considered “illegitimate”), and assigning “moral” to the first category and “immoral” to the second.  This has given birth to a new kind of “pseudo-religion” — a religion without God, centered on the individual will.

From the traditional Christian perspective, of course, this seems to be upside-down (i.e., personal will elevated to that of a pseudo-god in place of the Divine will of the actual God), but also perhaps the inevitable result of removing a supernatural God from the equation.

There is, however, a bit more to the story.

Joseph Bottum has written a new book entitled “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America“.  An interesting review of the book by Spengler can be found here.

Bottum, formerly an editor at First Things and a longtime writer of columns in various publications, advances the thesis that contemporary progressive secularism is simply the current manifestation of mainline protestantism, albeit this time without God in the picture.  This will sound somewhat familiar to those acquainted with Moldbug’s ideas (Bottum describes, for example, the continued influence of Puritanism on the intolerant and fanatical mindsets of many in this secular progressive camp), but it also goes beyond them in asserting that the driving force in this movement is spiritual — that is, the desire to be among the “good” in some kind of transcendent way, and identifying this “good” with the public “goods” of non-discrimination, wealth distribution and the like.  That is, there is a desire to support and help achieve the “good”, for moral reasons, and thereby to become or at least be considered to be “good”, again in moral terms, by means of social activism, social progressivism and the like — all quite apart from anything relating to a transcendent, supernatural God and what His own rules might hold for personal behavior regarding things such as, eh, sex.  In effect, it is replacing those “old moral rules” with the more “enlightened”, more “evolved” morality which emphasizes personal volitional freedom (as noted above) plus these social “goods”, which are seen as moral in and of themselves.  I would add this to my own notions described above about the moral priority of the legitimate self-will, and say that the new pseudo-faith emphasizes both that *and* the furthering of social goods (many of which tend, at the same time, to further the exercise of the legitimate self-will, but which are also seen as moral ends in and of themselves).

I have not finished the book yet (more on that when I do so), but it’s highly recommended reading for anyone who really wants to understand the struggle currently taking place, and what it really is about.  It’s a spiritual struggle, a religious war, much more than a cultural or political one.  I think that this is also why the  culture war and the political war have been so generally unsuccessful.  The underlying issue — the underlying morality, the underlying war about what is moral and what is the basis for that — is a spiritual and/or religious conflict, and one being waged with all kinds of weapons as well: artistic, cultural, political, educational, bureaucratic/corporate, etc.  I think this is often missed by many on “our side” of this conflict, because we tend to see the other side as “Godless narcissists”, when in fact they view themselves as the truly moral people who have progressed beyond the morality we have, which they consider to be primitive, obsolete and practically Neanderthal in nature.  In other words, far from perceiving themselves as Godless narcissists, they instead see themselves as morally more advanced, and see our side as being retrograde, backwards, and obstinate in both of these, in moral terms, and therefore, by their own moral standards, fundamentally immoral and evil.

That is the nature of the fight.  It’s why the fight has been, and continues to be, so uncivil.  Religious wars are generally not very civil for the precise reason that the enemy is not merely wrong, but morally wrong and therefore not only personally evil but furthering the cause of evil in the world at large — something that therefore cannot be tolerated in the least, but which must be totally defeated and preferably annihilated from the face of the earth, for the earth’s own good and the good of everyone everywhere.  This is precisely the kind of “totalism” that characterizes this struggle, and which has done so for some time.  It will continue to do so in the years ahead, as the new pseudo-religion — which is rampant among the rising millenial generation — becomes more brazen, hegemonic and increasingly aggressively intolerant of the moral evil (in its view) posed by traditional Christians.

More to come in subsequent posts once I have finished the book.