Recently there was something of a dust-up over the commenter Matt King at Dalrock’s blog. This is a storm that has been brewing for some time, I think, but the recent kerfuffle provides a useful opportunity for a bit of reflection. Escoffier and I have been in some dialogue about this privately, and it struck us that it might be useful to share parts of this dialogue here for others to read. This first installment is a post from Escoffier laying out his perspective. I will follow that with a post later today or tomorrow with my own perspective, and then a third post with some concluding remarks over the next couple of days.
I was absent during “l’Affaire King” but I read through it over the last couple of days and have a few thoughts.
First, I was always and remain quite sympathetic to his world view and find very little to disagree with. Your main criticism—that he needs to take his mission to his own platform and that his delivery needs a major overhaul—I completely agree with. I would add one that I think is more fundamental. King would often say that more talk was not the answer, the time for action had come. A fair point. However, he never said (unless I missed it) what that action should be, even at the individual level. Now, I myself, as we have discussed, have no idea what should be done now, as a matter of action (thought I will cover below). Which is why I have no practical or political program whatsoever. Not because I don’t care but because I don’t know what to do. I really have no idea. So I am not criticizing King for that, but for the harangues to action when he could not articulate any action.
This raises an interesting dilemma in and of itself. Not knowing what to do can be a temptation or excuse to inaction. That is certainly true in my case. I tell myself that I do nothing (to reform society, to be clear, not nothing literally, though I can be quite lazy) because I don’t know what to do. And to an extent that is true, I don’t know what to do.
However, I also believe that we in a downward cycle of civilization. I believe in the classical teaching on the cycle of regimes or sects. All civilizations have a life cycle. Ours appears to me to be in winter, in its dotage and decay and decline. If I am right about that, then there is nothing I or anyone can do. But do I hold that view out of genuine conviction or because, in my laziness, I prefer to believe that there is nothing I can do?
Despair is a sin. It is also, in a secular sense of the virtues, a vice. See, e.g., Churchill’s great but forgotten inter-war essay “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” Churchill was an agnostic (at best) and he makes an entirely rational case for why man has a moral duty to KBO (“keep buggering on”). The essay itself is great thought Churchill as an example might be bad in that there seems to be the implicit promise of a happy ending: be vindicated, chosen for high office, win the defining struggle of the age, go down in history as one of the greatest heroes ever …
This of course overlooks the ways he did NOT win: Britain broke, empire gone, great power status gone, half of Europe enslaved, etc. I suppose the best example I can think of, of a man who had a just and great cause, who was losing, who knew he was losing, who KBOed anyway and still lost, both personally and in his cause, is Cicero. (Plutarch is very hard on Cicero but leave that aside). Well, how many of us are prepared to be murdered with a sword in a losing cause?
King would no doubt raise his hand. I don’t disbelieve him. But I still don’t know what he would do or have the rest of us do.
However, I will say two broad things in his defense, regarding his ideas, which are the important thing here. First, his “teaching” or message was not merely more positive than those he attacked (and who attacked him) but also, in my estimation, closer to the truth. Too many of his critiques tend to see everything, including the high, in the light of the low. They are afflicted with what others have called intellectual vice of “probity” which is as it were the flipside of naïve idealism. “Probity” is the tendency always to believe the worst BECAUSE it is the worst, to see the noble always in the light of the ignoble out of a misplaced fear of self-deception. The pose is “I alone live without illusions.”
This is endemic to many red-pillers. They learn some truths about the sordid side of female nature—truths which are verboten not merely to say aloud but even to think in the modern West—and they think that is it, the end-all, a kind of Hegelian final wisdom. Counter-examples are dismissed with a curt wave, or a snarky “NAWALT” HawHaw guffaw, but of course we know they are, you moron, etc. Men who can honestly say they have long, direct experience with good women are attacked as delusional fools who got lucky, like some illegal Mexican gardener who won PowerBall.
This arises from two contradictory, but also complementary, modern response to or attacks on religion. Modernity of course at every step takes for granted that religion is false, the Bible is a poetic fable, written entirely by man, with the same cognitive status as (say) the Iliad, or better yet the Aeneid, which was known at the time of its writing to be a poetic fable written by a man. Modernity begins by considering religion the enemy, on essentially three grounds: 1) religion is false and men should not live by falsehood but by the truth; 2) religion terrifies man with the prospect of eternal torment; which, though false, to the extent that it is believed, is a terrible detriment to man’s happiness; and 3) religion takes men’s mind and effort off of earthly goods, the only real goods, and man’s only chance for happiness in this life, the only one he gets.
So, it’s a long story to say how this happened and I don’t want to get too in the weeds here, but eventually, late modernity flips the script on parts of this. Religion becomes damned not because it is terrifying but because it is alleged to be “comforting.” Precisely the promise of eternal life and divine justice, both of which needless to say late modernity takes for granted are false, are attacked because they give man false hope. Man must learn to face his forsakenness, his solitude, his existentially terrifying situation without any comforting delusion. And it turns out that anything comforting is held to be an illusion, to the point that all truth is understood to be “bad.” So, all the Socratic concern with the noble, the good, the just, etc.—which the tradition for 2,000 took very seriously and believed to be metaphysically real—late modernity discards all this as myth, along with religion.
This is the root of “probity” and it’s quite amazing to see how successful it has been. E.g., the pop psych argument that noble deeds—such as charging into a burning building to save a little old lady—are essentially selfish because the rescuer only wants the praise, or perhaps the inner satisfaction of feeling like a hero. But there is nothing noble about it because nobility doesn’t exist, it’s just a resplendent mirage thrown up by selfishness. Amazingly cynical but what’s most amazing is the spectacle of a bunch of professed Christians essentially resorting to a profoundly anti-Christian argument with profoundly anti-Christian roots in order to attack a guy, whatever his faults, for trying to state an essentially hopeful Christian teaching. It’s yet another sign of how fundamentally modern our entire intellectual framework is.
Which brings me to the other point. King scored some good points about t the worst tendencies of the sphere comment zone. But, let me stick to what I think is the most impotant point: the seemingly permanent witch hunt for “enemies” defined as people who deviate .001%.
I am something of a student of the New Left. I really, really hate them with a mouth-frothing passion but I study them because I think they are important and influential. One of their hallmarks was to attack with the greatest vigor those closest to them politically and intellectually. They did not focus on their natural enemies but on their nominal (or natural or potential) friends. That is the sphere, to a “T”. Bill Bennett is a bigger villain that Betty Freidan. Not that I think their criticisms of Bennett are without merit, but the feminist left hates and wants to destroy them whereas Bennett means well but is deluded. Perhaps Bennett cannot be corrected but his followers and listeners could but certainly they will not be by the tactics now prevalent in the sphere.
I could understand this, sort of, a matter of intellectual or philosophical intransigence, the unwillingness to bend on certain points for the sake of comity or “being a good sport” or whatever. But that is not what is at play here. First of all, most of the discussion is simply not at that level. Second, the vitriol is completely inconsistent with the “truth before friendship” spirit that Aristotle propounded before stating his disagreements with Plato (to cite the highest possible example).
I got into it once over the issue of natural right, which is what alerted me to the fact that something in the sphere is very seriously messed up. Basically that is the idea that right and wrong exist by nature, independent of man’s will. This was attacked with some vigor. As if the God who created nature and pronounced the commandments somehow forged no connection between the two. As if he created a natural world in which might makes right, but then commanded a righteousness based only on His word or will, which could be changed at a whim. Aquinas of course saw it exactly the opposite way (as did Augustine, Dante and many others). But the idea of natural right is now so lost to us that even devout Christians reject it and rail against it when it is by rights their birthright. To say nothing of the American founders (“nature and nature’s God”).
This is where it gets to the main point. Modernity is the true enemy. Modernity culminates in the rejection of natural right. It begins with the rejection of religion, proceeds to the rejection of teleology and culminates in the rejection of all morality. The “Christian” rejection of natural right is really a product of modernity. Christians who oppose natural right are influenced (really, corrupted) by modernity and they don’t realize it. All the (just, correct) complaining that they do about “Churchianity” boils down to prelates following modernity rather than the Bible (and the Christian medievals). But they themselves also have the same problem, to a lesser degree, certainly, but it is not absent. The rejection of natural right is the core, the black heart, of modernity. Any “Christian” who shares that outlook is fundamentally a modern and his faith is corrupted.
So, to turn briefly to the “what is to be done” question. Cane Caldo (I think) made the argument that Western Civ should not be a concern of any serious Christian. His argument played right into the hands of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Gibbon and the most effective and influential of the anti-Christians. Basically he said that the next world is what matters, this world does not. Well, that is EXACLTLY the argument that the early moderns made AGAINST Christianity. It makes men fatalists and passive. Indifferent to the here and now. You can say, that’s an incorrect interpretation, and I won’t fight you. But it’s a PLAUSIBLE interpretation, which is why it had great currency, both among Christianity’s nominal adherents and especially its determined enemies.
Because, let’s face it, the moderns won the argument. Philosophy picked a fight with religion. Religion didn’t know what hit it. Religion lost. At least, it lost in the temporal realm. A believer would say, (Matt King often does say) it cannot lose in the final analysis because truth is truth and truth will out. I can’t dispute that.
But it is indisputable that religion has lost in the temporal and has been losing for 500 years. And, contra Cane, the temporal matters.
First, because, the Bible is to a very large extent a set of commands about how to behave in the temporal, in this life, on this earth, in the here and now. So God rather obviously cares about that. Thus it is absurd for man to say, only the next life matters, when God Himself says, “This is how you MUST behave in the earthly life.” One might rejoin, “put not thy faith in princes,” etc., (which is really identical to the classical teaching on moderation, but leave that aside for now). But that is not a case for disengagement but for realistic expectations about what is possible in the flawed world, a world which is not yet and may never become fully Christian, and even if it did, will always be governed by flawed men.
Which leads to: disengagement makes the world worse, not better. Disengagement may be prudentially necessary in certain circumstances, but it is never desirable for its own sake. The more that God’s word is in retreat, the fewer people will live righteously here and be saved later. How this is good or is what He wants is, to say the least, not evident.
Christianity then must be concerned with the temporal for the same reason that philosophy must. Its own health and even survival depends on it. Christianity “won” by engagement with “this world.” It waged spiritual warfare against paganism and, to a lesser extent, against classical hedonism. It won. It did not sit on its ass or bitch on the ‘net (whatever the ancient equivalent might have been).
The moderns appropriated spiritual warfare and used it against Christianity. The faith and especially its institutions proved too corrupt and sclerotic to resist. The modern interpretation of course is that Christianity was false and was always false. It was a “sect” like any other, of purely human origin, subject to the cycle of regimes. It came into being, matured, and would inevitably die. Modernity gave it a hard push, and more importantly, formulated its replacement.
In a way, Christianity’s situation today is analogous to its beginning. It is once again the minority, a persecuted minority, persecuted more “softly” but not less intently. And today it has a disadvantage that it didn’t have then: so many, perhaps even the majority, of people who now claim to be Christians are in fact moderns. Whether they know it or not. (And most do not.) There is an “enemy within” today whereas in the beginning there was confidence and coherence.
Modernity is the true enemy. Modernity is a perversion of philosophy. This argument cannot be won on religious grounds alone. Religion already lost. It did not lose because it is false. It lost because it was totally unequipped to fight the fight that was forced upon it. Religion, as it were, brought a knife to a gun fight.
[EDIT: For some reason I had omitted the conclusion to this, likely due to a transposition failure — it follows now …]
Victory in the temporal must be a philosophic victory. It means overcoming the errors of modernity and returning to the true and correct understanding of philosophy, which is an ally of if not a brother to religious faith.
You could say that none of this matters because Christianity shows the truth and the true way and as such has “already won.” But that, I think, is King’s deepest error. Not that he is wrong about the fundamental point. But he is wrong in the way he discounts the temporal. The truth can lose in the temporal. It already has. And the temporal matters. If the temporal is lost, all is not lost, to be sure, but far fewer people will have access the eternal.
Which is a tragedy. For both Jesus and Socrates.
Finally, I note one thing that has preoccupied me for many years. Machiavelli finished his two great books in 1517. Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door in Wittenberg in 1517. Whatever one may think of the Reformation, it is I think indisputable that as a practical matter that Luther’s action launched a fratricidal war that blinded Christendom to Wicked Nick’s atheistic spiritual war and weakened it in the face of its true enemy.
ALL our problems grew from these two fateful (and seemingly unrelated) acts. There is no direct evidence that either knew of the other. To the secularist, it appears to be the most amazing coincidence in the history of Western thought, or even in all of history. To the believer, it appears to be the strongest evidence available of Satan’s power in the temporal realm.