Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Should we call ourselves "conservatives", or those who seek the "authenticity of openness to transcendence", a.k.a. "openness to existence"?

Dag, who has recently taken to reading Eric Voegelin, likes to remind me that Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, does not mention Voegelin, though the influence is clearly there, because Goldberg's editor told him that if he went on about Voegelin, no one would read the book. Too difficult, the cautious man implied. I think Dag means to counsel me, but maybe also laugh with me, should I ever hope of attracting more readers to the blog.

Anyway, this is a commercial instinct we can't afford to follow. As Thomas Bertonneau notes in his latest Brussels Journal essay on Voegelin, there is a vocabulary developed by Voegelin - in his discussion of modern Gnosticism - that is particularly suited to discussing the political pathologies of our times. This is another rich piece from Professor Bertonneau, but one thing I will point out here is its discussion of Voegelin's caution to his friends not to call him a "conservative", a title he feared for its assertion of some false equivalence with the low religious world view of the "liberals":
The term “liberal,” like the term “change,” lends itself rather more to mendacious abuse than to just employment, especially when adopted as a label by the Left, which likes to hide its havoc-making program of transforming the un-transformable beneath the “L-word’s” ointment-like blandness. That the term “liberal” had long since devolved into something meaningless or misleading struck Voegelin already in the 1960s as a hindrance to transparent discourse.
When we examine the present scene in the United States, we discover just this conceit in the rhetoric of the sitting Democrat-dominated federal government. Vehement commitment to “progress” (“change we can believe in,” as Obama’s electoral slogan put it) differs hardly at all, perhaps only in a few small degrees, from vehement commitment to “permanent revolution,” quite as Leon Trotsky understood when he revived [Charles] Comte’s coinage in his new Bolshevik context. Voegelin writes: “The radical revolutionary must make the revolution into a permanent condition… for as soon as a plateau of stabilization is permitted, the revolution is over.”
Before continuing with Bertonneau, I'll just point out that another way of saying this may be that what today goes by the name of "liberalism" is not itself a complete or satisfactory religion to the degree it cannot articulate a coherent, transcendent, purpose; rather it is, as Bertonneau say, a vehemently apocalyptic religion that relies on introducing ever-more alien and destructive ideas into Western society as a way of asserting its superiority according to the key doctrine of "tolerance", the supposed guarantor of liberalism's moral superiority. As Bertonneau says, "liberalism" is really an agenda of destruction. But, he argues, this should not give license to those of us opposed to modern "liberalism" to call ourselves conservative, as if there were a neat symmetry between the two:
if those who stand in opposition to the radicals were not adequately described as conservatives, as Voegelin strongly implies is the case, how then would one describe them? Or how, in this connection, is one to describe the current “Red-Blue” division in American politics?

Voegelin’s answer to such questions involves his identification of the radical-revolutionary mentality with Gnosticism, that is, with baroque, reality-denying doctrines, sprung from acute anxiety about existence, that bespeak the cause in the fashion of an unquestionable Koranic pronouncement, deviation from which constitutes a punishable offense. (Think: political correctness.) The opposite of Leftwing doctrinaire-ism, as we might call it, is not, however, some antithetical second doctrinaire-ism, equally baroque and locked in Manichaean agon with the first; it is what, in Voegelin’s discourse of the 1950s and 60s, goes by the name, among variants, of openness to existence. The Montreal lecture, “In Search of the Ground,” later appearing as an essay, offers one of the clearest expressions in Voegelin’s massive authorship of this concept.

An element in existence to which the mature individual maintains his “openness” is the cumulus of historic “differentiations in consciousness,” Voegelin’s term from Order and History. The phrase is not obscure: it refers to the fact that the prevailing knowledge of the world in any given cultural continuum – that of the West, for example – sometimes deepens and becomes richer through an individual insight; a “Leap in Being” can happen, as in Western thought when it jumped from mythic to philosophic ideas of existence.
But, Bertonneau argues, these leaps in being are rare events, historically, and do not justify the "progressive" ideology.
what else, pray tell, is revealed in the assumption, lying at the basis of all radical political action, that a society, which also possesses a nature and is limited in its malleability by that nature, can be changed? This is not to assert that there is no discernible history of social development or that any given society continues to exist only insofar as it refuses to permit any internal alteration whatsoever. People tend, however, to exaggerate the extent of change.

I would argue, for example, that the abolition of slavery in the United States, while it abruptly and positively altered the condition of the ex-slaves, altered the larger society hardly at all, since only a tiny minority had ever owned human chattels; nor later on did the repeal of “Jim Crow” make much of a difference for the larger society even though it altered social conditions somewhat for American blacks in Democrat-dominated regions of the nation where anti-black feeling ran high.

In a slightly different way, Voegelin cites the case of Utah, when it petitioned for admission to the Union. The Union stipulated its condition: Membership in the federal polity or polygamy, one or the other for the Mormons, not both. The larger society would not assimilate change of that sort or the precedent it would set.

The limits of change for any society are much smaller than liberal or radical or Gnostic zeal ever admits. To be reconcilable with the society, such change as occurs must reflect a spontaneous consensus, because coercive change, as I have already argued, is tantamount only to annihilation. In the Eighth Century BC, Hellenic society was happy with the symbolism of the “intra-cosmic gods” and the world they implied; by the Fourth Century AD, Mediterranean humanity, by a long-gestating like-mindedness, found the old “intra-cosmic gods” no longer convincing or meaningful and began to reorient itself, either through Alexandrian Judaism and its offshoots, or through Neo-Platonism, or through Gospel Christianity to the later-emerging transcendent Divinity.

As country custom and as household ritual and as semi-comic superstition, the “intra-cosmic gods” lived on and they survive, attenuated in their potency, even to this day. As the image of divinity, wistfully, they perished, a new image replacing them that offered to its recipients a richer understanding of existence. That image, representing the discovery of a new depth in reality, has stood in place in the West for two thousand years.

It follows that sensible people should behave with extraordinary circumspection where it concerns cavalier, wishful, or resentful programs of “change” because, as Voegelin so poignantly shows in his essays, radical “change” based on passions is definitely not the “progress” that it claims itself to be: It is not the “Leap in Being” but the frightened, dangerous opposite – a lapse into primitive thinking and myth.

Opposition to “change” for the sake of change, and to “change” as goalless indefinite regress, which is what the vaunted “progress” really is, will likely take the name of Conservatism, the very label that Voegelin wanted not to descend on him as the sign of his political identity. Voegelin knew that words, like ideas, have consequences. Under this admonition, a number of cautionary remarks can be made about the word “Conservatism” and what it implies. For one thing, as soon as one posits Conservatism, one has created an inevitable verbal artifact – Conservatism versus Liberalism – that is structurally Manichaean. This should give us pause. Manichaean, dualistic structures are a characteristic Gnostic appurtenance, which philosophers should avoid.

I recall here my earlier argument that the opposition to ideological doctrine cannot be another ideological doctrine, for that would be ideological rivalry without meaning rather than engagement in debate for the sake of truth. It would be other than the dignified quest, as, to use Voegelin’s essay-title, “In Search of the Ground.”

What the organized Right-leaning opposition to the Party of Destruction does is, finally, more important than what it calls itself even though words have meanings and usages signify something. I am encouraged, slightly, by the way in which spontaneous demonstrations of popular ire against overweening big-government schemes – like “bailouts” and socialized medical insurance – have surprised and actually checked the dictatorial bullying of the Obama regime. When an amateur journalist-reporter, FOX News Channel’s Glenn Beck, publicized the curriculum vitae and words of Obama adviser Van Jones, a nutty Marxist-racialist, it led to the first departure-under-outside-pressure of an Obama appointee. It is a sign of the times that actual investigative reporting is now done by someone like Beck, who previously was little other than a radio-comedian whose main shtick consisted in making prank telephone calls to predictably dimwitted people in a recurring feature called “Jeopretardy.”

Far from being offended, currently one of the most offensive words in the political jargon, by the silently mouthed “That is not true” – uttered by Supreme Court Justice Alito when President Obama gratuitously insulted the court during his State of the Union Address – I take heart in it because Obama’s disrespect was rooted in a falsehood and Robert’s quiet but visible contradiction was rooted in truth. There should be a good deal more clear articulation of the fact that the deconstructors of society have doctrines, false doctrines galore, and that we, by contrast, have an interest in truth, to the objectivity of which we remain open.

Cultic doctrines kill freedom; they demand its immolation in the sacrificial flames of their causes. Truth and free will – truth and freedom – by contrast require and nourish one another. We must vigorously remind our friends and neighbors of these facts.
By coincidence, Gil Bailie has just posted a couple of quotations that provide another way of articulating this kind of argument. Under the heading, "More on the real counter culture", Bailie first quotes Philip Rieff:
Here we now see, with startling clarity, how little our established political distinctions between left and right, conservative and radical, revolutionary and reactionary, matter nowadays. Rather, any remaking of political distinctions will have to ask, first, whether there is in fact a discipline of inwardness, a mobilization for fresh renunciations of instinct; or whether there is only the discipline of outwardness, a mobilizing for fresh satisfactions of instinct. Such a distinction will divide contemporary men and movements more accurately; then we shall find fashionable liberals and fascists on the same side, where they really belong.
And then he quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The road to authenticity demands the renunciation of immediacy -- that is, it demands ascesis. No great life can reach maturity without ‘great sacrifice’.
And finally, if you are not yet clear on what is being attacked in this post, and you want a concrete example, take a look at Barry Rubin's latest on the "education" his son is receiving:
The teacher told the fourth grade class in the midst of the greatest snow storm in Washington DC history: "Just because it's snowing doesn't mean that there isn't global warming. All scientists agree that there's global warming."

My son raised his hand and said: "That's impossible. Not all scientists agree."

"Ok," said the teacher, "I meant to say that the majority of scientists agree."

Is there man-made global warming? I have no idea whatsoever, lacking the expertise to make such a judgment. But I do know this isn't the way to teach kids about the scientific method. Rather, it is the way to train them always to yield to peer pressure, that dreaded syndrome supposed to lead young people to drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Or, as summed up comically by the character Yossarian in Catch-22, "Just because everyone thinks that way how could I think anything different?"

Indeed, the teacher didn't have to say anything at all, since no child had claimed the heavy snowfall was proof that there was no global warming. They had already spent around three full sessions pounding home the idea that there wasn't any question that global warming is a huge problem on which trillions of dollars must be spent. Presumably, the class was convinced already.

Rather, the attitude evined is that they must be made to believe in this and even the possibility of any doubt existing had to be squelched. And to ensure this the teacher told a lie, which was only retracted because there was one student there who had the knowledge and courage to question it.

This kind of "everyone agrees" argument is the stuff of indoctrination, not learning. The teacher could have spoken about how data is collected, experiments are made, hypotheses are questioned, and out of that debate--if it goes on long enough and all the facts line up--comes a consensus truth which is itself subject to further testing and constant examination.

But that isn't how most schools teach today. Rather they say--in an approach sounding like the worst "progressive" stereotype of a traditional "America is always right" old school system--This is the truth. Everyone says so. Shut up and believe it.
Indeed, there is nothing "liberal" about modern liberalism; so perhaps we should question those who would take up the mantle of conservatism.


Anonymous said...

Liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, or red vs. blue are always simplifications of a complex reality. Individuals are all a bit idiosyncratic in their views, but I most people are relatively consistent on the big issue areas. The labels we use are useful indicators because they are widely understood. Fighting against long-held patterns of political identification seems useless. My eyes typically glaze over when someone starts explaining to me why they don’t fit into any category (politicians courting the ‘median voter’ are the worst on this).

There are a few major issue areas (attitudes toward economic intervention, attitudes toward social/cultural issues, attitudes toward foreign policy, etc) that divide people are drive political loyalties. When I read the clipped musings you have in the post I was continually waiting for a discussion of issues people actually give a shit about. And there are little bits here and there, but most of what is discussed is disconnected from actual public discourse about politics. Which is fine, it’s intellectual stuff. In the public realm, any discussion of left-right (and, in the American context, liberal-conservative) should quickly address attitudes towards economic affairs. If you are friendly toward more taxes and more social services, you’re probably on the left; if you want less tax and fewer social services, you’re probably on the right. Simplified, sure, but these are categories that reflect actual patterns of political attitudes that have both stability and consequences. In the US, it basically explains why the lower income brackets vote liberal and the upper brackets conservative. So the left-right divide tells us something society’s structure of political competition and helps us orient our own views in this context.

The challenge for those who chafe at the established terminology is to come up with something better; something more accurate and more meaningful. Again, there is an alternative understanding of society of the posted clips. For my part, I don’t get much traction from the ‘everyone vs. the Gnostics’ conflict that is being forwarded. The right-leaning intellectuals that inhabit Brussels Journal and allied blogs can adopt a fancy-dancy yet vague alternative to ‘conservative.’ As a left-leaning commenter, my response is simply: why bother? We live in a world where most people have never heard of Voegelin, but they are able to instinctively understand conservative and liberal positions on a large number of issues. Among intellectuals it might be fine to identify as pro-Voegelin or something of the sort, but in the public realm the traditional political labels ease communication.


truepeers said...


First, your factual claim - In the US, it basically explains why the lower income brackets vote liberal and the upper brackets conservative. So the left-right divide tells us something society’s structure of political competition and helps us orient our own views in this context.

Is this really true? Of course some rich and poor vote the way you suggest but many don't. We can see that the wealthiest American cities, for example, are what are known as "blue castles" (hardcore Democrat) - i.e. Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco. Wealthy people, especially inherited wealth, often go left or "liberal".

And on the other hand, many people not content to be wards of the welfare state and yet not at all wealthy themselves vote Republican - hence the so-called "red states". Red used to be associated with commies but it is kind of appropriate that it is now the colour of American "conservatives" since it is originally the blood colour of the common folk.

I'd say the American political scene is one where rich paternalists seek out poor, usually "racialized", clients and these two gang up against the productive middle, in order to insure the middle never get too far away from the poor and too close to the rich. The rich tell the client poor that they are voting their "self-interest"; meanwhile the elite media of America can never stop telling middle America that in voting Republican they are voting against their self-interest, without any coherent argument to back them up, in my opinion.

But seriously, since when is the welfare state in anyone's self-interest, in the long run? Yes, in the short-run someone might be saved by welfare; but any long-term dependency is a blow to truth and freedom. And what better proof of that than the present Democratic Party?

Second, the focus of Bertonneau's essay is not on denying the use of "left" and "right", or any such labels, but rather is specifically focussed on "liberal" and "conservative". I don't know but I'd guess he'd agree with you that some kind of left-right distincton is probably inevitable, even if it too obscures much and it too is a leftist invention, self-identification, a product of the French Revolution. But what is so galling about the word "liberal" today is that it stands for politics that are in fact so often totalitarian in nature - e.g. the policing of so-called "hate speech" - and so it is incumbent on honest people to fight Orwellian language. And the idea that "conservatives" are those merely resistant to change is also nonsense, since in reality it is the "progresssives" who are the most reactionary/destructive force in society while the "conservatives" are the most open to the freedom by which society actually evolves.

truepeers said...

And it is not "everyone vs. the Gnostics"; in North America, the largest number are the Gnostics. America is a predominantly Gnostic society. To identify it as such is to be a bit of an outsider: the terminology any social system uses to describe itself is never the best set of terms to give a truly revelatory account of how the system works (an insightful account will pay attention to how the system works, how it describes itself, but will not limit itself to that worldview). No system, no market, wants to know just how it works because that knowledge erodes the existing market relationships, the uncertainty, on which all exchange depends. Only those who want to challenge an existing order seek out new language and ways of seeing. Voegelin was exemplary in this respect. The left pretend to do this but they are in fact now a deeply ritualistic force having been saying the same romantic thing for nearly three centuries.

When I was your age, I worked myself into some awful intellectual and personal muddles. One of the moments of revelation that helped me find some way out of that was when someone told me, quite casually, that I was a Gnostic. The idea was novel and at first didn't make much sense. But in retrospect I think it was something of a trigger for an unfolding process of deeper self-understanding. It was the key to helping me understand so much of the "thinking" of academe that had gotten me into such a muddle. I had been sufficiently critical to intuit that much of what passed for expert "thinking" wasn't really thinking at all; but I never really knew what to do with that intuition and so the muddle grew. I had no faith in anything. The Voegelinian idea that one must learn how to become open to the actual order or structure of existence, that one must begin with some kind of philosophical anthropology in order to understand what Being and existence are made of, and why humanity cannot function well absent faith in the structure of existence, helped clear my mind.

I am under no illusion that this isn't mainstream discussion, that the Voegelinian vocabulary of Gnosticism is not about to jump into CNN punditry. But if one believes in the truth of something, one has to start where one can. Real change comes one person at a time, and not through the genius of the Gnostic Great Leader.

Eowyn said...


The title of your post opened a certain door of "aha!" -- that is, confluence of cognition and intuition --

But had to ask myself why.

Then I read your post, in its entirety. Each point, with its corresponding external corroboration, neatly underlining the previous. Elegant logic, as is always your wont, my friend. (And usually always right *grin*)

But, well ... having only recently argued on another thread just why conservatives need to rethink who joins the tent -- and, being me, an undying acolyte of William of Ockham --

I truly do think it's time to simplify things, at least in the short term. As long as we agree that the only thing we need is a skeleton scaffold of government, the rest -- as is our libertarian wont -- is live and let live.

(Not sure if this makes sense at all. I'm known for obtusity.)

P.S. to the Dag-Man:

(last two lines of Shakespeare's 23rd Sonnet) --

"O learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit."

Peace out :)

Anonymous said...

On the empirical point, I should have used the word ‘tend.’ As in, the upper-brackets tend to vote conservative (Republican). That’s a pretty stable finding. It’s complicated by the fact that the class divide is sharper in some states than others. Class matters a lot in Red states, where wealth is a very good predictor of vote choice (wealthy go Republican) but not as much in Blue states. My understanding is that this basic pattern can’t simply be explained with reference to ethnic voting patterns (black preference for Dems, white preference for Republicans). Just Google ‘Red State Blue State, Rich State Poor State.’ Lots of good discussion on income and voting in the US.

I do consider many aspects of the welfare state in my best interest over the long-run. I am opposed to radically scaling back social security, health care, EI, and other useful programs modern countries should have. My dependency on the public healthcare system doesn’t bother me a bit.

On Gnosticism, obviously I’ve erred in my interpretation. I’ve been reading this as the In House term for either ‘elitist’ or ‘technocrat.’ I probably shouldn’t touch the term until actually reading Voegelin.


truepeers said...

Thanks for your notes guys; things to think about...