Friday, December 19, 2014

Premodern and Postmodern: Extremists Meet

We are discussing the Invention of the Individual, which, like most of the best things in life, could not have been invented by man. As we know, the best things in life are free; but the individual is free in another sense, being that it is the basis of what we call "freedom."

Obviously, freedom makes no sense in a pre-individual context, because the very essence of freedom is personal agency. And personal agency is a quintessential example of what Whitehead was saying yesterday about fundamental assumptions that are unconsciously presupposed by everybody. Therefore, no one thinks about it. It's just part of the human package, like hands, eyes, and brain.

But the human individual is not an artifact of our biological hardware. At best, we can say that our genetic endowment permits it, but it most certainly cannot cause it.

We can know this with certainty because for most of human history and for all of human prehistory (which is by far the larger period of time) there were no individuals, only groups.

Now, we are all members of various groups -- family, workplace, country, etc. However, it is difficult for us to experience this in the same lucid way as our individuality. This is because our individuality is explicit, whereas our group identification has become more implicit, more of a background phenomenon. It is the context of our individuality.

What we need to do -- which I think is almost impossible -- is to imagine what it would be like to have no individual awareness (or a very attenuated version of it), and imagine the group identity as being primary, or at the forefront of consciousness.

No coon do. As it so happens, the other day I evaluated a person who had served as an interpreter and cultural liaison for our military in Iraq (he was severely injured in a terrorist blast). He was there to help our military avoid cultural "misunderstandings," but it really goes deeper than that.

To translate mere language is essentially a horizontal affair: I say beer, you say cerveza. But if you are Muslim, you might say kill the grog-swilling infidel!

The problem with cross-cultural contact is that it is not necessarily a horizontal translation. Although we are no longer permitted by the left to think in these terms, there is a vertical component as well.

To a certain extent we may understand lower cultures, but they have no way of knowing about the higher, since they've never been there. It is like trying to explain color to a blind man.

This is why multiculturalism is such a fraud. Someone like me, who is truly curious about other cultures, is called "racist" for being so. Thus, when a liberal wants to have a "conversation about race," it is like when a Muslim wants to have a conversation about your religion while staring uncomfortably at your neck.

I once read a book on the relationship between developmental time and cultural space. Since it is a two-way relationship, we can have chronologically contemporary cultures that are developmentally backward, or chronologically early cultures that are developmentally advanced.

Which is another incoherent feature of progressive thought, because the distance between culture and development is measured by, you know, progress.

In short, in order to say "all cultures are of equal value," one must eliminate any notion of progress. But at the same time, their Hegelian-Marxist leanings cause them to deny the importance of culture and to superimpose some abstract notion of material progress on top of it. As I said, incoherent.

Remember Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled? As good as that book is, I was never comfortable with reducing the Christian message to an implicit injunction against scapegoating and human sacrifice, a la René Girard.

On the other hand, I am very comfortable with the idea of seeing it as a God-given key to human development. Indeed, it must be a key, because we simply do not see this same development outside its reach.

Inventing the Individual is all about how Christianity managed to do this. Importantly, this was not an overnight phenomenon, and in many respects is still taking place today, and not just in backward places.

Rather, even here in the modern west, one might say that the essence of our political differences revolves around this question of collective vs. individual -- hence the left's insistence that "government is the one thing that unites us," or to which we all belong; or "you didn't build that," or no one ever got rich, or even got a job, without the help of the Elizabeth Warrens and Hillary Clintons of the world.

We see the same form in the pre-Christian world, only with different content. I don't want to repeat Siedentop's entire argument, but he demonstrates how the ancient family was a kind of barrier that had to be overcome, or broken out of, in order for the individual to emerge from it. It "constrained its members to an extent that can scarcely be exaggerated."

The father was a kind of totalitarian ruler who had even "the right to repudiate or kill his wife as well as his children." To the extent that there was law, he was it. Charitable sentiments for people outside the family would have been unintelligible -- one reason why the Jewish injunction to "love the stranger" was so revolutionary (let alone the later Christian injunction to love the enemy).

To be continued....


Yoinked from Happy Acres; if the family is the white base at the bottom, and God is the curved metal at the top, the blue flame of our individuality is ignited in between. We still need all three (and you could say that Jesus is the flame-come-down who first kindles the spark in the dark):


Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Racist Raccoons.

12/19/2014 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

This is why multiculturalism is such a fraud. Someone like me, who is truly curious about other cultures, is called "racist" for being so. Thus, when a liberal wants to have a "conversation about race," it is like when a Muslim want to have a conversation about your religion while staring uncomfortably at your neck."

Ha! That explains actual communication with leftists (and Jihadists) in a nutshell.
A leftist group-thinker cannot possibly relate to an individual thinker. To them, individual thinkers are heretics who blaspheme the group-think "truth" they so passionately embrace.

12/19/2014 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

LOL! From the link:

"These things think they live here..."

If they are there, then indeed they do live there.

12/19/2014 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I like that sparkplug analogy. Plus it looks cool.

12/19/2014 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Re the photo, you could also say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in between.

12/19/2014 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

And the Gap has to be there. Space, again.

Raccoons are not kosher, but I have some friends who would see that and wonder why they aren't eating them. Free food, man.

12/19/2014 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger John said...

Not meant to be a refutation of your post, but most all ancient cultures have a strong stranger welcoming tradition. Indeed, when you travel to the 3rd world, one of the things you immediately notice is how friendly people are to you as a stranger. Much less so here. Not at all, say, in Paris. In other words, it's not a sign of the development of the individual. Quite the opposite.

12/19/2014 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Siedentop is specifically talking about the ancient context in which Christianity appeared, mainly Greece & Rome.

12/19/2014 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

And I'm still only a third of the way through, so we'll see where he goes with this....

12/19/2014 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

John, not so in Bahrain. I have never felt more unwelcome than when I visited there.
In fact, if looks could kill that port of call would've killed me.

12/19/2014 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Singapore was also not very friendly, generally speaking.

As for the U.S., rural folks are much more friendly than city folks.

12/19/2014 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Without a doubt, the most friendly port I ever visited was Perth, Australia.

12/19/2014 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. welcoming the stranger, there's a whole section about that in Exodus. Apparently, at some point in history it needed to be stated explicitly.

Also, I'm reminded of a form of tourism Westerners used to engage in (I don't know if they still do), where they'd travel to someplace like Egypt and be "abducted" by nomads. During which time, they were generally treated exceptionally well, even though nominally held captive.

All well and good to a point, but I doubt many people are willing to engage in that sort of tourism in the Middle East today.

12/19/2014 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

John -- You may want to check out the recent anthropological scholarship in books such as Constant Warfare, Sick Societies, War Before Civilization, Noble Savages, etc. Seems like Eden wasn't very edenic, or at least not for long.

12/19/2014 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Slavery, for example, was not only universal, but entirely morally unproblematic.

12/19/2014 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. Western friendliness, I've heard it said that many foreigners find Americans to be almost startlingly friendly.

It depends where they come from. Also, there can be a certain amount of confusion when unexpected geniality is misunderstood as an extension of deep friendship; in lots of places in the world, one doesn't extend kindness or warmth to people one does not know. Not even a smile. Or if they do, they take it to the opposite extreme, giving to excess. Then again, in those cases there are certain expectations on the part of the stranger as well, which if not met can be considered quite offensive. (For instance, in China I've heard it is good manners to constantly and almost aggressively offer gifts, etc. to visiting guests - but extremely bad manners for the guests to accept.)

12/19/2014 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

The vast majority of Islamic countries are very close to the ancient world. Particularly if you are a Jew or a Christian I wouldn't expect any warm welcomes, with very rare exceptions.

12/19/2014 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger John said...

People in India, Morocco, Thailand, Vietnam, etc, incredibly warm and friendly. I'm not saying it's a rule, I'm merely saying it's not a sign of valuing the individual. Not arguing that friendly is necessarily superior either.

12/19/2014 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

There are still, what, 25 million slaves in the world? At the peak of slavery in the US in 1860, there were under 4 million.

12/19/2014 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

If you are in a relatively undeveloped area, there are no hotels, no cafes. Where do people stay and where do they eat?

Welcoming non-enemy strangers is a necessity because you want help if you are traveling.

12/19/2014 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Siedentop is basically describing a process that took place within the west. Even so, a book came out a few years ago called... what was it... The Geography of Thought, which documents significant differences in cognition between east and west. In particular, they really do perceive things in a more "embedded" manner in the east -- like they see the forest first, where we see the trees first.

12/19/2014 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

In the era discussed by Siedentop, no one ever travelled. Too dangerous.

12/19/2014 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous neal said...

Origins of personality, from the collective. Mythical bandits ate my homework. And bred in public. There ought to be a law.

12/19/2014 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Are all Thais this friendly, or only the monks?

12/19/2014 03:56:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Iwas just talking about this with Mushroom a few days ago.
Buddhist Monks can be very violent, but usually it's against Monks from different temples.
Apparently, they have long running feuds among many of the monasteries there,

This monk obviously has an anger management problem.

12/19/2014 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger ted said...

Didn't Churchill once say that the "Arab is either at your throat or at your feet." Makes me leery of some cultures that are too friendly right from the start. Reminds me of a borderline ex-gf too much.

12/19/2014 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

If your traveling clothes are a pink shirt, Capri pants and flip flops, you might deserve to be monk-slapped.

12/20/2014 06:37:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Rick, you almost owe me a new keyboard. And yeah, I did wonder what he was wearing. Figured maybe he was going for the "aging rock star" look.

12/20/2014 07:04:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...


Here we have the pimp slap. There they have the monk slap.

12/20/2014 07:24:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Speaking of Kaboom!.

In Russia, apparently, robbing churches is right out.

12/20/2014 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Incidentally, assuming the video there is at all real, I kind of suspect that wasn't so much "lightning bolt" as "rocket strike." Which makes me wonder just what they took. Maybe it's just a super bad idea to piss off the Orthodox on their home turf...

12/20/2014 07:46:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Most of the ancient western cultures, the Greeks, Romans, Celts, even the Norse, had elaborate rules about giving hospitality to travelling strangers, one of the possibilities a bad host feared, was that the traveler was a god in disguise, and then Zot!

There's a bit on that guest-host tradition, xenia (same root as xenophobic I think. Natch.) in the Iliad, where the two warriors Diomedes and Glaucus meet on the battlefield, and in their pre monk-slap boastings, it slips out that Diomedes' grand father once hosted Glaucus' grand father, making them still obligated as guest friends, and so obviously they couldn't kill each other. Duh. That sets off Diomedes quickly offering his bronze armor as a gift, and with the help of Zeus, wheedling Glaucus' more valuable gold armor in return. Beware Greeks wheedling gifts.

However, I don't think that - the injunctions about hospitality to travelers - applies to, or in any way reduces Siedentop's point about general hostility to strangers or harms the point. It might seem odd to us, but the two would have been thought of as differently as night and day to them and baffling to even consider.

"Whu? Whaddya mean? Feed the guest, kill the stranger. What?"

12/20/2014 08:58:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

" might say that the essence of our political differences revolves around this question of collective vs. individual ..."

My guess is that's where Siedentop is driving towards, that without having developed the Christian depth, that the individual was seen as a representative of the collective, rather than as an Individual. The traveler was seen as a Traveler, and it was the group Traveler, that hospitality was due to.

And with the stranger, their thoughts didn't make it down to 'I don't recall seeing this person before, I wonder if the fellow needs help?', it was still circling around the surface of 'here is Stranger, guard against or kill if can, Stranger Danger!'.

12/20/2014 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Rick, bravo zulu, LOL!

12/20/2014 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Van, that's good points.
I've been in some places where that translates to ganger danger.
Of course, in ancient times brigands were the gangs, and they were not isolated geographically. They were everywhere, which is why prudent travelers travelled in large groups, with armed escorts.

12/20/2014 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Julie, I cooncur, don't mess with the Orthodox Church.

12/20/2014 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Ben, maybe to translate the traveler/stranger into terms a leftist could understand, they could judge their own reasons on meeting folks they'd not meet before, by:

"Hi, I'm an agitator here passing through with Jesse & Al's race pimping coalition, can you help me out? "


"Hi, I'm a conservative passing through discussing the Constitution with the Heritage Foundation, can you help me out? "

See? Travelers to be welcomed, vs strangers to be beaten. You don't know either individual, but you know what to do with them based upon their relative collective.

12/20/2014 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Argh "own reasons"-> "own reactions"

12/20/2014 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12/20/2014 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Still blown away by Inventing the Individual. Now up to p. 250. Head-spinningly good.

12/20/2014 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger ted said...

I just spent the last 20 minutes watching this 1970 interview of Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones and was blown away. It wasn't so much what he said that was so new, but how it was said. He was definitely in touch with the flame.

12/20/2014 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Man is a rrrrrrrebel.

12/20/2014 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I see that Siedentop also wrote Tocqueville (Past Masters).
As well as some other interesting looking books.

12/20/2014 07:27:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I have never been able to rrrroll my R's. Except when I'm typing.

12/21/2014 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

This is, by far the best article I have read irt the Cuba fiasco:

12/21/2014 11:02:00 PM  
Blogger Rogelio Bueno said...

My personal experience of 5 years in Mexico City is that 1. Translation is never completely horizontal. Yes, one can make themselves understood with some basic words and phrases but genuine communication requires one to come out of their own culture mentally. 2. There is a big difference between being friendly and being a friend. After 5 year we found that most everyone was friendly and helpful but in a city of 30 million only 5 or 6 have become friends.

12/22/2014 08:32:00 AM  
Anonymous DougieFranklin said...

"I don't want to repeat Siedentop's entire argument, but he demonstrates how the ancient family was a kind of barrier that had to be overcome, or broken out of, in order for the individual to emerge from it. It "constrained its members to an extent that can scarcely be exaggerated." "

I often think about the dichotomy between individualism and the community. Some of the more interesting left-leaning thinkers (Charles Eisenstein would be a good example) seem to focus on the loss of community and the pain and unhappiness that that appears to cause - were one to look - in the modern world. There is an aspect of human nature that is deeply communal, but on the other hand modern free people now have an unprecedented amount of choice and life potential at the expense of community ties.

I speculate that there is a teleological nature to the trend towards individualism in the west. And I wonder further if the next step is a deeper synthesis between individualism and the community.

Great post and that looks like a great book. Thank you for writing about it.

12/23/2014 06:26:00 AM  

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