27 February 2016

The Renewal of Metaphysics and the Rebirth of Christian Society

Today we are facing what seems to be the total collapse of Christianity’s role in the political life of our country.  There are many signs of this collapse, including the rise of the “Nones”, the increasingly irreligious secularity of popular entertainment, and major defeats in the legal sphere.  Perhaps most telling, though, is the growing unintelligibility of hard religious claims and commitments to Americans, especially young Americans.  Young people can, to a large extent, no longer conceive of religion as something with a claim on their beliefs and behavior.  Instead they embrace what is popularly referred to as “spirituality”—a combination of therapeutic activities and positive thinking which provide a reprieve from the anxious nihilism of our secular culture.  Spirituality is replacing religion. Individually conceived and chosen ideas about morality and the transcendent are replacing objective, public views on the moral law, the truth, and public order.

To some extent all conservatives in America—or at least all conservatives engaged in thinking about the role of religion in public life—are aware of this phenomenon.  We talk about it constantly.  Conservatism itself has become an endless litany of laments over what has been lost: morality, culture, education, a sense of the objectivity of the law.  And, as conservatives, we are all engaged to some extent in the perplexing problem of combating this shift in our society.

Because of our religious makeup and history, one of the most prominent strategies in recent decades has been a shift toward the “Evangelical” as a way of reviving public Christianity.  What I mean by Evangelicism is a re-framing of Christianity in minimal terms—a mere Christianity, to borrow Lewis’s phrase.  This mere Christianity is stripped of most of the larger social and cultural elements of traditional Christianity, and consists instead of the bare minimum: a recognition of sin and fallenness, the disclosure of the good news of redemption in Christ, and a life of moral reform in the midst of a community of support.  Because Evangelical Christianity lacks many of the more ornate elements of traditional Christianity, it is much easier to inculcate.  Catechesis takes less time, and the demands on the convert or neophyte are less taxing, in terms of the transformation of their worldview and their participation in public life.  Evangelical Christianity is a quick cure, and in many ways an effective one—it offers the salve of redemption and the support of community without an unwieldy intellectual or cultural apparatus.

But the strengths of the Evangelical approach to Christian renewal are also its weaknesses.  This is difficult to appreciate because “culture” is such an abstract term, and because the average person in our post-metaphysical society has little sense of the importance of an underlying intellectual apparatus as stabilizing ballast for a community of faith. Because Evangelical Christianity is essentially a personal faith, lacking external authority (aside from Scripture, for which it lacks an interpretive authority), there is little to prevent the larger cultural drift from drawing sincere Evangelicals into a Spiritualistic Christianity which is individualistic, divorced from larger cultural commitments and the kind of social robustness necessary for an enduring Christian community.  Evangelical Christians can easily become “Nones”—not in that they have rejected Christ or the hope of salvation, but in that their faith, like the spiritualism of yoga practitioners or American Buddhists, is individually conceived and chosen, and has little authority with which to bind their moral commitments or public behavior.

Among members of more traditional Christian sects, a kind of renewal parallel to American Evangelical Christianity has appeared in the form of personalism.  Important truths about the dignity and ontological primacy of individual persons and experiences are emphasized, and transformed into the basis of Christian practice.  The evangelicization of American Catholicism is widespread—the public and moral aspects of the faith are downplayed, the cultural elements discarded, in favor of a Catholicism centered on the therapeutic care of the individual person and the cultivation of a robust Christian experience.

To be sure, many good things have emerged from the Evangelical renewal of Christianity in American life, including many good things for the Catholic Church.  Evangelical Catholicism points people toward legitimate truths.  The problem we face, though, is that the intelligibility of these solutions and their ease of implementation comes at the cost of their effectiveness in fighting the larger cultural drift toward individualism and secularism.

Faith is personal and individually chosen.  But a faith which transforms the society in which it takes root can never be primarily a personal and individually chosen faith.  It must also be a public faith, a faith which enters not just into the silence of spiritual experience, but into the language and fundamental assumptions which undergird our description of the ordinary world.  Metaphysics, i.e. an understanding of the nature and order of reality, is necessary for the survival of a cultural Christianity.  And if we want to stop losing the struggle for civilization and preserve the monuments of culture, law, and morality, we need to pursue a strategy based not on the appeal to individual experience or the therapy of sentiments, but on the transformation of discourse and the common vision of the world at large.

I am not suggesting that individual salvation hinges on the transformation of the public sphere, or that human effort in itself conveys grace to those who believe.  But, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously writes, “grace perfects nature and does not destroy it.”  The efficacy of gospel proclamation and the very right of Christians to exercise our faith in the public sphere—the right of Christ to receive worship from all people—is aided or hindered by the strategies of evangelization we choose to pursue.  For someone to whom sin is an unintelligible notion, the good news of a redeemer makes no sense.  To someone for whom the concepts of natural order or moral law are foreign, sin itself will seem bizarre.

We have progressed as a civilization to the point at which these basic human concepts—concepts like nature, truth, being, and perfection—have fallen away.  The average person experiences the world as a series of technological conveniences organized according to chance desires and experiences.  Being itself is lost to them.  Truth is lost to them.  At the same time, the metaphysical impulse is inextricable from human nature.  People want to know the truth.  Children, no matter how well-indoctrinated they have been into secular relativism, want to understand why things are they way they are.  The concept of right, though confused and distorted, remains a force in the public and private lives of our fellow citizens and neighbors.

The strength of Christianity, and its natural desirability, lies in its (at this point nearly unique) ability to present answers to these question which we have trained ourselves, culturally, not to ask.  “What is the meaning of life?”  “What is the purpose of existence?” “What is the origin of the universe?” “What is the nature of the cosmos?”  The common man no longer thinks to ask these questions, because he has been taught from a young age to despair of their answerability.  Or he settles for cheap answers that make no difference for his engagement with existence or his personal choices.  The meaning of life is what you make it.  The origin of the universe is the Big Bang.  The nature of the cosmos is “whatever science says”, though we know not what.  A metaphysical Christianity supplies answers (and struggles for answers) that are not cheap truisms or therapeutic salves, but which enrich our personal engagement with the world, and call us into definite types of behavior, definite strategies of education and political organization.  The metaphysical Christian raises his finger toward the still point in the moving world.

So, what would a metaphysical renewal of Christianity look like?  How would this kind of evangelism work?  It would begin by asking, and asking seriously, certain audacious questions:  What is being?  What is causation?  What is order? Is there such a thing as real perfection?  And, asking these questions, it would begin to answer them: that being is the act of what exists.  That “causation” is a notion that helps us answer the question “why” in various ways for an individual being or event. Etc. These questions and answers seem prosaic—unbelievably, perhaps unbearably prosaic.  But if we return to them as the foundation of our way of speaking, and we emphasize them as the basis of education and public discourse, we will gain a double advantage.

First, we will have a certain supremacy of intelligibility over the slippery relativism of the present age.  Not that we should polemicize against relativism (this is a battle which, taking place outside the bounds of reason, can never be won by reason), but that by simply asserting what is sensible and reasonable, we will possess a truth which is inherently desirable and otherwise unavailable.

Second, insofar as we achieve a renewal of metaphysical discourse in common culture, we will bring people to a place at which the basic notions prerequisite to the intelligibility of Christianity and Christian social and moral order are available to people.  With the notion of truth at their disposal, the question of first truth can once again arise for them.  With the notion of nature and natural order, they will be able to understand both the primitive meaning of God’s existence, and the reality of sin and moral failure.

But the greatest advantage offered by a metaphysical Christianity is its ability to lay claim not just to the internal forum of spiritual experience, but to the external forum of law and social order.  A metaphysical Christianity is capable, unlike a personalist Christianity, of asserting itself as a rational position within the public sphere, and creating a common culture and tradition within which Christianity is once again understood and accepted—if not personally, then at least as a strong contender in disputes over the truth.  Metaphysics and the metaphysical concepts constitutive of our understanding of reality, play a major role in the formation of political culture and education.  It is to metaphysics first, then, that we need to turn, if we want to reclaim our society and not merely retreat to shrinking enclaves amidst the dissolution of Western civilization.

25 February 2016

Conservative Despair

Food is conserved in conditions of scarcity.  Forests are conserved when they are being wiped out.  We conserve historical sites when they are in a state of disrepair or permanent disuse.  The word “conservatism” suggests the preciousness of what is being preserved and a will to defend it, but it also suggests a climate of decay and a general trend toward decrepitude.  Conservation, after all, is merely a way of staving off the inevitable.  

The source of conservative despair is a weakness not of principles or ideals, but of posture.  Our disposition toward the present context lacks adequate direction.  We fight for things like neutrality, and the liberty to be left alone. (Acedia’s plea.) We gripe about our losses and reminisce about the good old days (of fifty years ago or fifteen hundred).   We huddle together in increasingly isolated enclaves of fellow-thinkers.  And this posture of conservatism, which is merely conservative, primes us for failure.  The inevitable.

Christ did not send out the apostles to have them gather in the upper room and share morose reminiscences about the time they spent with the master.  He did not tell them at the ascension to “Go out and cooperate with the Roman authorities, so they will give you tax exemptions and allow you to associate freely.”  He sent them out like laborers into the field, to gather in the harvest.  He sent them “like sheep among wolves”, and promised them an abundance of persecution and contradiction.  He sent them, not to receive this persecution and contradiction with loathing and hesitation, or groan beneath its yoke, but to rejoice in it.  

Christianity is a progressive, forward looking doctrine.  What are we fighting for? Certainly not merely to preserve the lukewarm compromises of last century's democratized Catholicism.  Not to work out a new modus vivendi on the world's terms.  

Then what are we fighting to accomplish?  What are our concrete plans? 

16 February 2016

Donald Knuth

Read more.

11 February 2016

Federalist 62

HAVING examined the constitution of the House of Representatives, and answered such of the objections against it as seemed to merit notice, I enter next on the examination of the Senate. The heads into which this member of the government may be considered are: I. The qualification of senators; II. The appointment of them by the State legislatures; III. The equality of representation in the Senate; IV. The number of senators, and the term for which they are to be elected; V. The powers vested in the Senate.

I. The qualifications proposed for senators, as distinguished from those of representatives, consist in a more advanced age and a longer period of citizenship. A senator must be thirty years of age at least; as a representative must be twenty-five. And the former must have been a citizen nine years; as seven years are required for the latter. The propriety of these distinctions is explained by the nature of the senatorial trust, which, requiring greater extent of information and stability of character, requires at the same time that the senator should have reached a period of life most likely to supply these advantages; and which, participating immediately in transactions with foreign nations, ought to be exercised by none who are not thoroughly weaned from the prepossessions and habits incident to foreign birth and education. The term of nine years appears to be a prudent mediocrity between a total exclusion of adopted citizens, whose merits and talents may claim a share in the public confidence, and an indiscriminate and hasty admission of them, which might create a channel for foreign influence on the national councils.

10 February 2016

The Democratic Man

And so the young man returns into the country of the lotus-eaters, and takes up his dwelling there in the face of all men; and if any help be sent by his friends to the oligarchical part of him, the aforesaid vain conceits shut the gate of the king's fastness. . . . There is a battle and they gain the day, and then modesty, which they call silliness, is ignominiously thrust into exile by them, and temperance, which they nickname unmanliness, is trampled in the mire and cast forth; they persuade men that moderation and orderly expenditure are vulgarity and meanness, and so, by the help of a rabble of evil appetites, they drive them beyond the border. 

Yes, with a will.

And when they have emptied and swept clean the soul of him who is now in their power and who is being initiated by them in great mysteries, the next thing is to bring back to their house insolence and anarchy and waste and impudence in bright array having garlands on their heads, and a great company with them, hymning their praises and calling them by sweet names; insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage. And so the young man passes out of his original nature, which was trained in the school of necessity, into the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.

Yes, he said, the change in him is visible enough.

04 February 2016

Goldman Sachs

Two things:

1.  I'm currently reading John Kay's Other People's Money, which is a critical overview of different aspects of the global finance system, focused on financialization.  Check it out.  It's very informative.

2.  Remember the ground breaking for Goldman Sachs's new building in 2005?  It was so nice that Hillary Clinton was there to participate.  No doubt she just happened upon the party.  Or something.

03 February 2016

Ruminations on the Role of Liberalism in the Collapse of American Undergraduate Education

The following essay is related to thoughts I expressed here.  Please note that this piece, like the previous one, is a sketch, not a manifesto, and that precision is proportionate to specificity.

The curricula at liberal arts colleges in America fall along a spectrum between Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) and Amherst College. Students at TAC follow a strict program of intellectual formation, rooted in the Catholic tradition and committed to a specific philosophical outlook. Ideas are freely debated on campus, but the curriculum is fixed, and the intellectual profile of the successful graduate is clear from the outset. Amherst, on the other hand, prides itself on the openness of its curriculum. At Amherst, there are no common requirements, no universal prerequisites for graduation. Students are allowed to form themselves and to choose their coursework based on personal interests. Thus the graduate of Amherst is not directly formed by any supervisory program outside of his or her chosen major.

These two schools represent two ways of understanding the function of a college education. On the model employed at TAC, college education is a process of cultivating a particular set of intellectual abilities, in order to lead young people toward a certain kind of wisdom. Among alumni of the school, Marcus Berquist, a founder who long taught Aristotelian logic and metaphysics there, is held up as true sage—a master of philosophy who achieved wisdom by diligent study of the authorities (primarily St. Thomas and Aristotle). This wisdom is not the stuff of gnomic truisms or mystical paradoxes, but an active intellectual grasp of the nature and order of existence and the place of humanity within it. Students at the college aspire to that wisdom, and their coursework is explicitly directed toward its attainment.

The Amherst model of college education shares some common ground with the TAC model. Amherst, too, wants to form good intellectual habits in students and make them capable of higher academic pursuits, but Amherst suspends judgment about the nature of wisdom, the truth about humanity, and the requirements for sound judgment. Where TAC functions as a four-year apprenticeship in the guild of wisdom, Amherst is a free market of ideas, and the institutional structure is based on the hope that the forces of free discourse and curiosity will create an intellectual environment in which good ideas are discovered and shared—whatever "good" may mean.

The Amherst model of education has many problems. Like any structurally indifferent "marketplace of ideas", Amherst's success in forming students depends on the stability of an underlying intellectual consensus. That consensus determines the parameters of discussion, accepted standards of rationality, and a range of commonly held goals and metaphysical commitments (to truth, to moral goodness, to God, to the political order, etc.). Free discourse without any common foundation quickly degenerates into a war of all against all, concealed behind social niceties.

Today, the cultural and intellectual consensus that has sustained liberal institutions like Amherst for the past three centuries is dissolving. European Christianity, regardless of whether and how it was individually practiced, supplied the moral, legal, and metaphysical "common sense" in America which set the parameters of public discourse and gave us a range of universally held goals and metaphysical commitments. The dissolution of this consensus can be attributed to many causes, but one of the primary culprits is the widespread preference for liberal institutional structures, in which basic metaphysical commitments are not allowed to direct the course of discussion or set absolute priorities in the formation of students.

Liberal institutions are parasitic on metaphysically robust, non-liberal traditions, but the very survival and proliferation of liberal institutions tends to erode the non-liberal cultures and traditions that allow them to survive. This is because liberalism operates on a "least common denominator" model of public discourse, where the "neutral middle ground" favored by institutional structures consists of what the vast majority of people engaging in public discourse agree on. As time goes on, liberalism tends to dissolve divergent traditions into an ideological community defined by their least common denominator, and gradually (with the help of intellectual fads and the glorification of transgression, inevitable in any system of free discourse) the consensus erodes to nothing.

What is left at the end of this process is an empty ideology committed to nothing more than the procedural principles of liberalism itself: free discourse, mutual toleration, and the struggle for liberation. This final level of consensus within a liberal regime accelerates the destruction of the system by encouraging its members to fight to defend it. Like an autoimmune disorder, the ideologization of liberal procedural principles leads liberals to attack the vital non-liberal traditions within liberal society, attempting to exclude from public discourse all metaphysical commitments, all normative parameters for discussion, and all objective standards of rationality. And this development within liberalism (which seems to me to be structurally inevitable) transforms institutions designed to protect debate over important ideas into communities of guarded intellectual silence, in which everyone is an interested tourist, and no one is willing to make hard claims or defend a substantial cause.

The implications of this collapse within educational institutions are felt across the spectrum from TAC to Amherst. Today at the University of Chicago, the origin of the model on which TAC is based, students are still required to complete the famous "Common Core" curriculum, which was conceived by Robert Maynard Hutchins in the 1930s as a way of renewing public commitment to the European philosophical tradition (Hutchins himself, like his friend Mortimer Adler, was inclined toward Thomism) and directing undergraduate education toward the formation of good human beings and citizens. Hutchins's goal was noble, but the intellectual dissoluteness of the ambient culture gradually overwhelmed the commitments he wanted promoted in the program. By the time of his retirement in the 1950s the core curriculum was already being reduced, and today it remains more as a token of the University's commitment to broad philosophical formation than an actual guarantee of it.

At Yale College, the Directed Studies program was founded in the 1940s with the goal of establishing a common intellectual background against which undergraduates could discuss ideas in their upper-level coursework. The goal, again much like the goal of Thomas Aquinas College, was to cultivate a specific sort of wisdom, and to develop in students certain intellectual habits and habits of discourse which would promote rigorous thinking in the humanities, without being confined to the hyper-specialization of disciplinary guilds. Students were organized into small cohorts, each of which followed a set reading schedule filled with philosophical and literary classics.

When I passed through Directed Studies in 2007-08, the program still had some echoes of these goals. It still functioned as a common reference point for a significant minority of students, and gave its graduates a wide range of philosophical tools with which to approach problems and ideas in their later studies. But Directed Studies has departed fundamentally from its original conception. In the 1970s and 80s, as Yale fell under the sway of post-structuralism, the program ceased to be seen as an apprenticeship in interdisciplinary wisdom and the formation of an integral intellectual culture, and became yet another example of intellectual tourism. Directed Studies gave up the project of student formation, and now functions primarily as a collection of highly intensive survey courses in intellectual history. Students tend to finish the program, not grounded in a robust, critical philosophical vision, but disoriented and inclined toward relativism, having been subjected in a short period, without adequate guidance, to dozens of contradictory texts spanning thousands of years.

The University of Chicago and Yale College are just two examples of how the liberal dissolution of an intellectual common culture has affected the understanding of undergraduate education. Both cases originally tended toward to the "Thomas Aquinas College" end of the pedagogical spectrum, but were overwhelmed in time by the advancement of liberal principles. I suspect that the vast majority of American undergraduate programs tend toward Amherst, and even more aggressively. In large public universities it is very difficult to promote a common formation program, and most students are divided up into insular intellectual communities defined by discipline.

Within individual disciplines, the same phenomenon is repeating itself. Students who study literary theory are no longer presented with a comprehensive understanding of the nature of literary objects, but are given an array of contradictory perspectives, and trained to employ and discard each in turn, without preference. Faculty tend to be divided up into micro-specializations, leading to fragmented pedagogy and departmental curricula which are not founded on "classic texts" or formative reference points, but tend to produce more micro-specialists who lack an overarching grasp even of their own disciplines.

Fragmentation and cultural dissolution are pushing the system of higher education in America toward a crisis. The lack of institutional clarity about the meaning or purpose of undergraduate study (the sense, even, that the system no longer believes itself to have a genuine purpose) has transformed the bachelor's degree into an extremely expensive social ornament with rapidly diminishing value. It is only a matter of time before the education bubble bursts and the masses of aspirants to middle class prosperity currently being swindled by it realize that the existing system is based on a collection of bad promises, social myths, and echoes of an educational culture that no longer exists.

Meanwhile, within the system, the advancement of liberal ideology is taking its course. Hysterical outbursts over such absurd notions as "cultural appropriation" and "micro-aggression" are symptoms of institutional morbidity. More telling than student protests over these things is the extent to which institutions themselves consistently join in the hysteria and embrace it. Administrators see liberal ideology as the sole governing criterion for the intellectual formation they are trying to give students, so that it makes sense for them to congratulate aggrieved students who have found new ways to fight for "liberation" and "tolerance". Thomas Jefferson held that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing". Intellectual liberals, once they have exhausted the existing cultural supply of virtues and traditions against which to rebel, have to invent new oppressions to keep the spirit of liberty alive.

So far I have talked a good deal about the dangers and faults of Amherst-like schools. But Thomas Aquinas College's model of education is not without its dangers. The goal of educating for wisdom is lofty, and a good deal of institutional courage is necessary even to attempt it. The possibility of error looms large over such an undertaking. But the greater risk for programs like Thomas Aquinas is that, by training students in a specific tradition, with narrow goals, they leave graduates without adequate conversance in the alternative ideologies they will encounter in society at large. Lacking familiarity with other ways of thinking, alumni can end up intellectually isolated and incapable of understanding the opinions of others, or negotiating intellectual common ground when the need arises.

There is something good about the "free market of ideas", and the liberal practice of training students to think in multiple contradictory intellectual frameworks. I am very glad that in the course of my own intellectual formation I passed through several different systems of thought before ending up a Thomist. But liberalism has developed to a point at which it no longer makes sense for us to hearken back to the olden days, when the Christian consensus still undergirded public discourse and educational institutions could safely be run on liberal principles. The consensus is gone. Today, in order to defeat the menace of liberal anti-intellectualism that is taking over our universities and our society, we need to admit that liberal principles only functioned because they were bolstered by the non-liberal Christian moral and metaphysical commitments we still hold dear.