Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Pre- and Postmodern Extremists Meet

This is the last post on Inventing the Individual. I don't normally recommend myself, but I think it's pretty interesting, and worth a read:

The Great Disentangling

One theme that emerges from the book is that while it took centuries for the individual to be disentangled from the group, it has been the work of less than a century for the left to re-entangle us.

For both Siedentop and Berman, 1075 is a truly revolutionary, world-historical turning point, for that is when Pope Gregory insists on the independence of the church from secular authorities. As a consequence, the king, at least in theory, is demoted to a mere layperson instead of combining spiritual and temporal power in his person. Indeed, he can't do that, because only Jesus does. And Oprah.

As always, timelessness takes time: it was the work of centuries to incarnate "Gregory's vision of a social order founded on individual morality" instead of "brute force and mere deference" (Siedentop).

In this new humanistic vision, "relations of equality and reciprocity are now understood as antecedent to both positive and customary law." Thus, law is disentangled from custom, and seen more abstractly as a universal category. This constitutes a "reversal of assumptions," such that "instead of traditional social inequalities being deemed natural... an underlying moral equality was now deemed natural."

Moreover, this Great Disentangling "freed the human mind, giving a far wider scope and a more critical edge to the role of analysis. It made possible what might be called the 'take off' of the Western mind" (emphasis mine), vaulting mother Europe "along a road which no human society had previously followed." Vertical liftoff!

Here we can see how the left's regressive project involves a Great Re-entangling: again, it took thousands of years for "individuals rather than established social categories or classes" to become "the focus of legal jurisdiction." But now, thanks to the left, the individual is subsumed into race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and we're back to where we started: post-Christian necessarily redounds to the pre-Christian.

"The papal claim of sovereignty" furthered the transition to the "meta-role" of the individual "shared equally by all persons." Seen this way, the self is the essence, while social roles become mere accidents instead of being in the nature of things. Pre- and postmodern extremists meet. Not so much a self-styled Victim's Revolution as their reactionary counter-revolution.

This idea of disentanglement and differentiation is key; it reminds me of how the fertilized egg first divides into two, then four, eight, sixteen, etc., becoming more complex and specialized along the way. There is still unity, of course, but it is a deeper form of organic unity because the diversity is unified on succeedingly higher level.

Just so, once the secular-spiritual cell divides in two, this initiates further divisions and distinctions. For example, philosophy becomes distinct from theology, and more generally, "logical studies" develop "with astonishing rapidity during the twelfth century."

Likewise, a new distinction is seen between the moral and physical elements of crime. Because of the new interiority, the concept of "intent" or motive comes into play: "intentions had scarcely been distinguished from actions in 'barbarian' justice." "Degrees of guilt" are perceived, and punishment becomes distinct from mere vengeance and retaliation.

Marriage changes too, as measures are adopted to ensure that it is "based on consent rather than coercion." Politics as well: instead of authority flowing in one direction only, from the top down, "The authority of superiors thus became a delegated authority. Authority is again understood as flowing upwards."

If we stand back and look at the overall arc, we see that "under way was nothing less than a reconstruction of the self, along lines more consistent with Christian moral intuitions." This ushers in "a new transparency in social relations," for now we relate to another person, not just his role. Conversely, "in societies resting on the assumption of natural inequality," this interpersonal transparency is obscured.

Another major development is the distinction between free will and fate, choice and necessity. If human beings are personally accountable to God, then this emphasizes not only our moral freedom, but the need for political freedom so that we are free for the one thing needful, which is to exercise moral choice.

In other words, nothing less than eternity is at stake, so the freedom to do good becomes a matter of urgent necessity; for what is free will but "a certain ability by which man is able to discern between good and evil"?

Note that if people are fundamentally unequal, then we can make no generalizations about them: there is one law for the sheep, another for the wolf; or one law for us, another law for the Clintons.

With this new self, there is a kind of interiorizing of the logos: instead of the logos being only a an exterior reason that controls events, it is "understood as an attribute of individuals who are equally moral agents." Here again, in the post-Christian world we see a regression to determinism, for example, the idea that we are controlled by genes, or neurology, or poverty, or race. The left always controls its victims in the guise of a pseudo-liberation.

The empirical becomes distinct from the general, induction from deduction: "The Christian preoccupation with 'innerness' and human agency," or "between the will and the senses," leads to "a growing distrust of the coercive potential of general terms or concepts, if an extra-mental reality is attributed to them."

Conversely, leftism is always rooted in the projection of an abstraction onto the world, thus giving it the illusion of an "extra-mental reality" or self-evident fact. Scientism, materialism, metaphysical Darwinism -- each elevates an uncritical naïveté to the highest wisdom.

Come to think of it, this is one of the major themes of The Great Debate: conservatives begin with the world as it is, whereas the left begins with the world as they wish it were. It all comes down to an atavistic desire on the part of the left to undo the work of centuries and re-entangle mind and world, individual and group, state and citizen, time and eternity, freedom and compulsion, messiah and politician, executive and legislature, class and guilt, etc.

The Past: An Interesting Place to Visit, But I Wouldn't Want to Live There

Let's race through the last 100 pages of Inventing the Individual in order to mine any final insights.

Insights into what? Into how something as utterly strange and unlikely as "you" or "I" came to exist. There are so many necessary conditions for the eternal I AM to manifest in time that it bobbles the Bob.

Which raises the question: would different conditions have caused another "subjective entity" to emerge, something so different from our familiar selves that we can scarcely imagine it?

This is similar to asking if it is possible for a different form of life to exist, something not based on carbon. What would it be like? Who knows? Likewise, what would a universe with different laws be like? It is unimaginable, because for one thing, imagination is only a feature of this universe. It is very unlikely to exist in other universes.

It's the same with the desire to discover "intelligent life" elsewhere. The necessary conditions for life to emerge on this planet are so insanely specific, that I can't imagine they are found anyplace else. You may find one, or ten, or a hundred of these variables, but they all need to be proportioned to one another. For example, earth has a much larger planetary wingman, Jupiter, to attract all the cosmic debris, so it won't plow into us and destroy our little floating biology lab.

Even knowing as much as we do about antiquity, or about the Middle Ages, our ability to project ourselves into these periods hits a kind of wall that we cannot venture past, for the same reason we cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat or a cow. The reason why we can't break through the wall is that we have to jettison a part -- the central part -- of ourselves that wouldn't have existed at the time, or would have only existed in a weak or nascent form. This probably sounds more controversial than it is, but it strikes me as self-evident.

For example, we all know that it makes no scientific sense to ask what came "before" the Big Bang, because time is supposedly a function of the Big Bang. Therefore, there is no before, so ignore that man behind the curtain of tenure and stop asking childish questions.

What is actually going on is that the scientific model simply breaks down at that point. It is similar to what happens at the quantum level: anomalies and conundrums arise because our common sense models simply don't apply. Thus, with no model, there is no way to imagine what is going on down there. We can invent purely mathematical models to try to tie up the anomalies -- which is what string theory is all about -- but these are more like pre-Copernican speculation about planetary epicycles. In other words, the 26 (or whatever it is) dimensions of string theory "save the appearances," as did epicycles for geocentrism.

The point is that naively projecting ourselves into the past is more problematic than we may realize. For me, reading history often provokes WTF?! moments of stark incomprehension.

I'll give you a little example. I'm reading in Berman what pre-Christian law was like. While I understand the words, I find it impossible to actually put myself in the mind of a person for whom the following form of justice would have made perfect sense:

In pagan Germanic society there were two types of ordeal to determine innocence or guilt, trial by water or trial by fire -- fire for elites and big shots, water for the rest of us. "Originally these were invocations of the gods of fire and water.... Those tried by fire were passed blindfolded or barefooted over hot glowing plowshares, or they carried burning irons in their hands."

Exactly what does this have to do with justice? What, it's not obvious? "If their burns healed properly they were exonerated."

The other type of ordeal involved either freezing or boiling water. "In cold water, the suspect was adjudged guilty if his body was borne up by the water contrary to the course of nature, showing the water did not accept him." Excuse me, but WTF? Accept him?

"In hot water he was adjudged innocent if after putting his bare arms and legs into scalding water he came out unhurt." Again I respectfully ask: WTF?

Yes, this form of justice is "one way of looking at things." But is there any part of you that can really look at it this way and agree that it makes perfect sense? Nevertheless, the folks were content with it. Even with the influence of Christianity, "there was considerable resistance to the abolition of ordeals in the thirteenth century." You know, why mess with a system that is perfectly adequate?

That is just one teeny tiny example of how the past is a very different country. I could easily find more extreme examples, but you get the point: we can only pretend to understand much of the past.

"It is difficult for us to re-enter a social world where so little was shared." In other words, not only are these people different from us, but they were all different from each other. There was no "universality," because "In the twelfth century each group -- whether of feudatories, serfs, or townspeople -- was a world unto itself. People did not locate themselves in a world of commonality."

This has direct contemporary relevance, because, for example, we do not live in the same world as the Islamists. Here again, we can only pretend to understand people who torture children, burn Christians alive, and decapitate journalists. Well, maybe we kind of get the last one, but the point is that they are "missing" something we take for granted. Liberals pretend the terrorists simply want what we have, or are angry at us for something we did 500 years ago, but they are actually motivated by an entirely different mentality. The terrorists too.

Speaking of the moral insanity of the left, look at how they equate Chris Kyle -- the Sniper -- with Nazis and terrorists, as if he shares the mentality of our enemies and is motivated by the same ends! For Michael Moore, the imaginary sniper who murdered his make believe uncle is no different from a real sniper who kills evil people who want to destroy civilization and every person in it.

It is no different than equating trial by fire to trial by jury. But if you are a multiculturalist, that's what you do. We are "invaders," "occupiers," and "torturers," just like ISIS.

So, that's about the size of it. We'll end this series with a quote by Siedentop:

[T]he defining characteristic of Christianity was its universalism. It aimed to create a single human society, a society composed, that is, of individuals rather than tribes, clans, or castes.... Hence the deep individualism of Christianity was simply the reverse side of its universalism. The Christian conception of God becomes the means of creating a brotherhood of man, of bringing to self-consciousness the human species, by leading each of its members to see him- or herself as having, at least potentially, a relationship with the deepest reality -- viz., God -- that both required and justified the equal moral standing of all humans.

You say you want a revolution? That is a revolution, the most consequential ever. And it is ongoing, because there are reactionaries everywhere.

1 comment:

julie said...

Here again, in the post-Christian world we see a regression to determinism, for example, the idea that we are controlled by genes, or neurology, or poverty, or race. The left always controls its victims in the guise of a pseudo-liberation.

Except, of course, when it can be determined that somehow nature got it "wrong." Then it's okay to declare oneself what one is patently not, provided that what they declare is politically acceptable. It's acceptable to declare oneself "non-binary," but not acceptable to later change one's mind and declare oneself normal.

Re. trial by ordeal, I remember reading a while back that the reason the system worked is that it was so rarely actually used. Most people, believing the ordeal would reveal the truth, would admit their crimes long before it came to that point. Conversely, if the person were innocent, as often as not the presiding magistrate knew and thus rigged the trial in order to protect the innocent from harm. It made for a good show and usually ended the matter. It was perfectly adequate for the time, but not by our standards.

There was no "universality," because "In the twelfth century each group -- whether of feudatories, serfs, or townspeople -- was a world unto itself. People did not locate themselves in a world of commonality."

I'm reminded of stories told by missionaries about remote tribes in the Amazon. Lots of different bands of people, but even those in proximity may have very different lifestyles and languages.