The book popped into my head the other day, after I bumped into an old friend I hadn't seen in probably 25 years. Given all that has occurred in that span, how does one begins to "catch up?" We talked about this and that, at one point lightly touching on Christianity. He disapprovingly alluded to what Leviticus says about "homosexuality," while I attempted to explain that the deeper purpose of Leviticus is to transmit a set of values, not to be taken literally. I didn't do a very good job of it, but recommended Dennis Prager's Judaism's Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality.
The larger point is that we cannot anachronistically project ourselves two or three thousand years into the past. Or at least we cannot do so without... hesitating. People were different back then. How so? Glad you asked! (Titles of previous posts are in bold.)
Who Invented You, Anyway?
And now for a gear-grinding change of subjects...
No, that's not quite right, because deep down, the subject of this blog is always the same, that is, How did we get here? And with it, What are we supposed to do while we're here? And Toward what end? Or in other words, Origin, Present Being, and Destiny; or Creation, Freedom, and Judgment. Or Who, What, and Why.
I've mentioned before that the Book of the Same Name was essentially an extended meditation on this question of How did I get here? The question provokes any number of answers, all of them true; for example, there are genetic, historical, biological, evolutionary, psychological, anthropological, cultural, economic, religious and other factors that contribute to Who We Are.
Most people seem to pick one or two and say to hell with it, but I wanted to look around, dig down, peer behind, and stretch upward, in order to consider as many angles as humanly possible, and then found my own religion. In the end, I decided to up- and outsource the second part for reasons of comparative advantage. In other words, God knows better.
Chapter 3.3 is called Humans and How They Got That Way: Putting the Sapiens into Homo. You see, we were Homos for a good long while before we became especially sapiental (wise) about it. That chapter contains some dodgy and overly generalized "history" that traces the emergence of what we call the "individual" or personal self. This self is something we cannot take for granted, nor can we simply project it into the past, as if premodern humans (including contemporary ones!!!) experienced the world in the same way we do.
The question is, Who invented the individual? Long story short, Christianity; to be perfectly accurate, you might say that Judaism did a lot of the R & D, while Christianity focused on marketing. But without this radical new philosophy, we might still be pre-individual members of clans and tribes with no personal identity, no better than the de-individualized multicultural mob of today.
So, this book, Inventing the Individual, pretty much has my hair on fire. I'm only up to page 65, so I don't know the author's ultimate conclusions, but already there is plenty to playgiarize with, and more than enough to make my own theories almost seem plausible.
I'm just going to flip through the book and expand upon passages that arrested my attention. It begins with a quote from the 19th century historian Fustel de Coulanges, to the effect that the true object of historical study "is the human mind: it should aspire to know what this mind has believed, thought, and felt in different ages of the life of the human race."
Right. The problem here is that mere empathy is not only insufficient, but probably going to mislead. In other words, it is exceedingly difficult to simply project ourselves back in time, as if people of the past were "just like us."
Note that this doesn't just apply to the past. For example, I don't think it is truly possible for us to understand the mindset of Islamic terrorists, or pedophiles, or mass murderers.
(Coincidentally, yesterday's Best of the Web was on the subject of pathological altruism, in which Taranto cites an author who said of the Australian murderer that we face a "difficult test of our empathy," in that "While we do not know [the murderer's] story or his motivation, we know he was once someone just like those people whose lives he has now treated with such disdain. He must have loved ones, too. Forgiving him will be very difficult, and it will take time. Without forgiveness, though, we have to live with destructive hate." Liberalism. Is there anything it can't pervert?)
More generally -- and this is something I'll be expanding upon later -- to the extent that we misuse empathy, it will only "reveal" what we have projected into the subject. It will only tell us about ourselves, not the other person.
This was one of the most important lessons of my psychoanalytic study, first, that empathy is a tool of investigation, and second, that it must operate at the same level as the person under study. To take an obvious example, it requires empathy to understand an infant, a spouse, a friend, or a stranger, but in each case it is different.
For our purposes, when a patient comes in for therapy, they are generally operating at a certain level of development, e.g., neurotic, borderline, autistic, narcissistic, psychotic, etc. If you try to deal with a borderline or paranoid patient the same way you would a neurotic, you'll get nowhere. In each case empathy is required, but in order to empathize with the borderline, you have to use it to reach a more primitive mode of experience, relating, and cognition (within both your self and the other person, the former facilitating the latter).
We have to do something similar to understand the people of the past, especially people who are or were swimming outside the Judeo-Christian stream. As Siedentop writes, "Deep moral changes, changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions." And very much contrary to postmodernists in all their nasty variety, "it seem to me that moral beliefs have given an overall 'direction' to Western history."
For me, a more interesting way to chart this progress is through the emergence and deepening of the individual. That is, if we trace our existence from the Big Bang all the way to the present post, what is most striking -- and most important to us -- is a gradual expansion and deepening of the subjective horizon.
In other words, our "mental space" -- the space in which we live -- expands and deepens along with our individuality; these are really two sides of the same process, as we shall see. Freedom, conscience, and personal self are all bound up together, but we also need to examine the religious and cultural conditions that made these possible.
What I would say is that God is of course the necessary condition -- the condition without which -- while various religious, psychological, and cultural factors provide the sufficient conditions -- the conditions with which.
Let's begin with pre-Christian antiquity. In order to even begin to understand these remote ancestors, "We must imagine ourselves in a world where action is governed by norms reflecting exclusively the claims of the family, its memories, rituals and roles, rather than the clams of individual conscience. We must imagine ourselves into a world of humans or persons who were not 'individuals' as we would understand them now" (Siedentop, emphasis mine).
Interestingly, this would imply that in order for God to save or redeem individuals, he had to first bring about conditions through which people could individuate from the group (just as humans had to first "speciate" from animals, life had to anim-ate from matter, and existence had to undergo creatio from nihilo). Thus, as we shall see, culture is the bread which shall gradually be leavened by some very wise men from the yeast, especially Paul.
Advanced Viral History
In the coon classic Science and the Modern World, Whitehead says that when considering "the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary to explicitly defend."
Rather, "there will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within each epoch unconsciously presuppose."
Thus, just as there is an unconscious "emotional" mind, there is an unconscious intellectual, or philosophical, or metaphysical, or moral, or even political mind. The problem is, people no longer know what they are assuming, "because the assumptions appear so obvious" and because "no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them."
And in my experience, the people most susceptible to this are the tenured (and by extension, journalists), especially those who have spent their entire lives in academia, and therefore have no idea how the world actually works. As such, their unconscious assumptions are not subject to any critique, whether from other minds with very different assumptions or from reality.
Another factor in their conformity is the narcissistic need for confirmation, prestige, and acceptance; between creatures of the university or of Hollywood, it is difficult to say which population is the most craven.
One thing that is so provocative about Inventing the Individual is that it goes directly to a number of those "fundamental assumptions" alluded to by Whitehead, and shows how flimsy they are, for the contemporary secularist who calls himself "liberal" is unwittingly "paying tribute" to the Christian "origins of [his] moral intuitions."
It is just that these intuitions have become detached from their proper object, with the result that we now see a dangerous combination of religious zeal in the absence of the channels provided by religious tradition. We may discern the same pattern in every revolutionary movement from the French Revolution to the recent mob violence around the country: moral righteousness without morality, or "immoral morality"; in a word... or two, moral insanity.
It would be difficult to find the committed liberal who doesn't imagine that "historical progress" involves the struggle to found a secular society out of an illiberal religious past. Siedentop (and he is far from the only one) shows that the progress vaunted by liberals is unthinkable in the absence of deeply Christian assumptions.
But because Enlightenment thinkers were motivated more by hatred of God than love of truth, they concocted a new narrative that made religion the enemy of reason and progress. It is bad enough what this did to history, but it also maims the soul, because it deprives it of its deep historical continuity and contributes to the resultant cosmic alienation. From there it is but a step to the perpetual resentment of the left.
As Siedentop puts it, "We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development." Rather, "things have just happened to us," as in the accidents of natural selection. Thus, the liberalism that was once a positive philosophy grounded in religious principles "has come to stand for 'non-belief' -- for indifference and permissiveness, if not decadence."
How did this happen? How was this positive philosophy drained of meaning and transformed into the unholy trinity of relativism, envy, and entitlement?
In order to answer this question, we must first ask whether it is "mere coincidence that secularism developed in the Christian West"; or in other words, whether we are dealing with continuity, or whether there has been an ontological rupture along the way.
One of the things those Enlightenment thinkers did was to fabricate a faux continuity with the ancient past, with Greece and Rome. In seeking to "minimize the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and Graeco-Roman antiquity," they maximized "the gap between the 'dark' middle ages and the 'light' of their own age." As a result, "the millennium between the fall of the Western Roman empire and the Renaissance became an unfortunate interlude, a regression in humanity."
But is this true? Or is it just a flattering narrative, a collective neurosis for the purposes of self-aggrandizement? This leads to another question: "just how free and secular were ancient Greece and Rome?" Because if the modern secularists are correct, Christianity must represent a dark departure from that idyllic world.
In the book, I discussed this, starting on p. 142, under the heading Viral History 101. I would consider Siedentop's book Viral History 201, or whatever the next level would be. He looks at some of the same things, only in a sober and scholarly way instead of in the spontaneous and freewheeling manner of the Raccoon.
Bottom line, when we look at that world -- at the average mentality, not the geniuses and luminaries -- "we find ourselves drawn back to an utterly remote moral world." It is so remote that I personally find it impossible to imagine what it must have been like, any more than I can imagine what it is like to be a frog. I mean, it's weird. And yet, for them, they did not regard it as such. In fact, if anything is weird, it is this recent and unexpected emergence of the individual in the Christian west. No one saw that coming.
"To recapture that world -- to see and feel what acting in it was like -- requires an extraordinary imaginative leap." For starters we must de-Christianize ourselves, which is probably impossible, as impossible as removing the yeast from the bread.
To begin with, not only was the family a religious institution, it was the religious institution, with father serving as priest, magistrate, judge, law enforcement, and executioner if necessary. Not only was there no separation of these domains in society, there was no separation in the individual, which, as we shall see, is a key point about the eventual impact of Christianity.
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 -- except the blind man wants to decapitate you for the blasphemy of claiming that color exists.
This is why multiculturalism is such a fraud. Someone like me, who is truly curious about other cultures, will be called "racist" for being so. Thus, when a liberal wants to have a "conversation about race," it is like when an Islamist wants to have a conversation about your religion while disconcertingly staring 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 cultures is measured by, you know, progress.
In short, in order to say "all cultures are of equal value," one must -- "ironically" -- 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 success, and in many respects is still taking place today, and not just in backward countries.
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." (This is the context to understand what Jesus means by "hating" one's family.)
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).
We'll leave off with a visual aid; if the family is the white base at the bottom from which individuality emerges, and God the curved metal at the top, the blue flame of our spiritual development is ignited in between:
A Liberal is Like a Christian, Only Worse
This subject of Inventing the Individual is too large for me to get my mind around. Normally, when I write, I like to do so from the center out. In this case, I need to start from the outside in. I have to pick a random spot at the periphery and try to start boring in from there. In so doing, maybe I'll even find the center -- the attractor -- at which point this rambly stream of consciousness will become more orderly. Don't count on it.
Perhaps I should begin with the idea that Christianity is the most important revolution in human history, and that Paul is its most important revolutionary (on our side of the veil). This is a consistent subtext of the book -- that Christianity initiated a turn in history that is still very much in progress (indeed it is progress). In Raccoon parlance, I would say that it is an extension the previous cosmic revolutions of existence, life, and mind, for it is the vertical prolongation of mind into spirit and God.
Which leads to one of my own conclusions, that some of the most important blessings Christ brought into the world are unappreciated and even unseen because they are now so ubiquitous. So much of the context of our (western) world was only made possible by Christianity, and yet, because it is in the background, we don't notice it. One of these, of course, is "the individual." But with the individual comes freedom, equality, rights, dignity, consent to rule, civil society, the marketplace, and on and on.
Another critical point is that these blessings were and are very slow to come into being. It is not as if they occurred overnight; although the yeast came into the world some 2000 years ago, the bread is still rising.
Thus, it has been a gradual process of applying the moral intuitions and insights provoked by the Christian -- especially Pauline -- message. For when Paul says that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, this is every bit as world-shattering as contemporary revolutionaries who insist, say, that in leftism sex is just a human construct, so if you're a man you can shower in the girls locker room if you like.
In fact -- strange as it seems -- this left wing perversion of Christianity is unthinkable in the absence of Christianity, because it is just an inversion of its egalitarian message. It has been clear to me for a long time that leftist moral appeals are rooted in a perversion of Christianity, but this book provides the full story (even if unwittingly) of how this came about.
For example, the last four months of police-bashing by the left would have no traction at all if it didn't appeal to some distorted sense of Christian morality. For if police are racists for whom it is open season on blacks, then it is as moral to kill them as it would have been for Jews to kill Nazis. A Marxist such as deBlasio is like a Christian, only worse (but from his perspective, better). Ideas and rhetoric have consequences.
Jimmy Carter too is like a Christian, only worse. Sultan Knish: "Carter couldn’t save the Soviet Union, but he did his best to save Castro, visiting Fidel and Raul in Cuba where the second worst president in American history described his meeting with Castro as a greeting among 'old friends.'” In turn, "Raul Castro called Carter 'the best of all U.S. presidents.'"
Castro is a revolutionary, as is Obama. In fact, Obama is our first revolutionary president, the first president who has overtly attempted to undo our original revolution, which was really the political application of the Pauline revolution (although I suppose that Wilson was a pre-Obama). Siedentop asks the question, "Was Paul the greatest revolutionary in human history?" You could say that the book is one extended and thoroughly documented Yes.
"Through its emphasis on human equality, the New Testament stands out against the primary thrust of the ancient world, with its dominant assumption of 'natural' inequality. Indeed, the atmosphere of the New Testament is one of exhilarating detachment from the unthinking constraints of inherited social roles. Hence Paul's frequent references to 'Christian liberty'" (emphasis mine).
This essential liberty is prior to our existence, and is the ground of being: it is "pre-social," and comes "to serve as a criterion of legitimate social organization." Therefore, anything that attacks or undermines it becomes false by logical entailment. If liberty is axiomatic, it is like dynamite at the foundation of tyranny, oppression, inherited privilege, etc. It may take centuries to blow apart the structure of lies, but blow it will. For "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."
Beneath this cosmic subversion is "the invention of the individual, the introduction of a primary social role" which begins "to undercut the radical differences of status and treatment" of existing societies. This revolution "sent Europe along a road which no human society had previously followed," for from the perspective of the old orders, this dangerous message of liberty would have been regarded as the essence of dis-order and societal chaos. Which it still is by the left, hence their attempt to re-exert control from the top-down.
But once the ball began rolling and the yeast rising, it was very difficult to arrest. "Under way was nothing less than a reconstruction of the self, along lines more consistent with Christian moral intuitions." For if Christ is truth, then those many pretenders to truth are rendered transparently false. Every emperor is suddenly seen as more or less naked. Along these lines, Siedentop quotes the historian Guizot:
"With the church originated a great fact, the separation of spiritual and temporal power. This separation is the source of liberty and conscience," for it "is based upon the idea that physical force has neither right nor influence over souls, over conviction, over truth. It flows from the distinction established between the world of thought and the world of action, between the world of the internal and that of external facts."
Which leads to one of our most cherished pet ideas, that the leading edge of cosmic evolution is into and over this subjective horizon, into the cosmic interior. Among other things, Christ shows us the way into this interior, or rather, he is the interior made exterior, or word made flesh.
This is getting too long even for me. To be continued.