Sunday, June 3, 2018

Living in the Present

The present is the point at which the past is recollected and the future anticipated.

It is often urged on us to live in the now. That is, to live in the present. It is thought that this involves forgetting the past and avoiding paying attention to the future, for both the past and the future make us anxious. Instead, it is advised that one exist in the moment, what is happening right now.

This is a misunderstanding. For someone who does not recollect himself in the moment, or anticipate the future in the moment, is living nowhere rather than in the moment. It is true that he may be free of anxiety because he is not remembering the past or anticipating the future, but then animals live this sort of anxiety-free life. But to live as a human being means to live in relation to the past and the future.

And even when, for a time, he has this sort of anxiety-free existence (as, for instance, when he loses himself in a hobby in his basement, or becomes lost in the excitement of a championship game) he is not really experiencing the anxiety-free life of the animal; for, at any moment, the spell might be broken and his distinctively human recollection of the past and anticipation of the future will come rushing back in. He will suddenly find himself existing somewhere rather than nowhere, with all the anxiety that entails.

Truly living in the present is the most difficult of art forms. It means recollecting the past and anticipating the future in such a way that it has immediate decisive significance. Man acts in the now, but only as a bridge uniting his recollection of the past with his anticipation of the future. It is an art form because no science of living in such a manner is possible; for science of its nature abstracts from the decisive significance of the present in relation to the past and future.

Kierkegaard, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, takes monks to task for their distinctive dress.  The mistake, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is a false attempt to represent the inner determination of the spirit via an outward material sign. But the "knight of the spirit" is not so easily recognized; in fact, he is not immediately recognizable at all, for the inner determination of spirit may be married to any outward material circumstance.

SK is wrong, I think, in his understanding of the meaning of the monk's simple robe. For us, the robe is simply a witness to the vow the monk has made to a life of simplicity in the following of Christ. The inner state of his spirit is something else entirely; it may wax and wane in its dedication to that vow. It is similar to the ring of the married man, which symbolizes a vow the man has made, not the state of his success in living up to it.

More to the point of this post, for the monk the robe is a continual reminder of his vow, and his uniting of the past with the future in his vow of the simple life for Christ. It is an aid to the art of living in the moment, of giving every moment its due not by forgetting the past and the future, but by a unification of the past with the future in a blossoming of immediate decisive action.

For most of us, such immediately decisive action occurs only rarely. We make a decision on which college to attend, or to propose to our girlfriend, or to move to another city. In such moments we feel truly alive, as we see our past come together in a decisive determination of our future. And we are right, for in such moments we are truly living as distinctively human beings.

The task for our lives is to make more of the unfolding present alive with such decisiveness. This does not mean continually making the decision to move to another city; for that would only rob any particular decision of its decisiveness for the future. No, like the monk, we must find a way to unite all our actions, even the small ones, in the present and in light of the past and in anticipation of the future.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Suicide of the West: Ideas Are Not Enough

This is also posted at

Jonah Goldberg summarizes the argument of his recent book this way:
It is my argument that capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. We stumbled into them in a process of trial and error but also blind luck, contingency, and happenstance a blink of an eye ago. The market system depends on bourgeois values, i.e. principles, ideas, habits, and sentiments that it did not create and cannot restore once lost. These values can only be transmitted two ways: showing and telling... Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude - and the effort that gratitude demands -- all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. (p. 277)
Jonah wants to stay away from arguments about God -- the very first sentence of the book is "There is no God in this book." But he doesspend considerable time acknowledging the extent to which Christianity is responsible for putting the circumstances in place that allowed the Miracle to occur. ("The Miracle" for Jonah is our modern systems of constitutional democracy and capitalism that have unleashed prosperity since the 18th century.) He even allows that Christianity was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the Miracle to happen:
Despite all this, the case is often made that Christianity gets the credit for the Miracle. And, in broad strokes, I am open to the idea that without Christianity, the Miracle may never have happened. But that is not quite the same argument as Christianity caused the Miracle (and it certainly did not intend it). However, the lesser claim, that Christianity was a necessary ingredient, certainly seems likely. (p. 109)
For Jonah, it is far more important thatthe Miracle happened than whyit happened. But this inclination to avoid drawing conclusions concerning the causal origins of the Miracle has implications for his prescription for sustaining the Miracle. For then the only thing we can do is maintain those circumstances as best we can, as we have no way of knowing what other circumstances might also support the Miracle. That is the price of an ignorance of causal origins. (There is irony here insofar as the hallmark of Western civilization, and perhaps necessary to the Miracle itself, is the Western determination to not remain satisfied with material circumstance but seek and find the causal origins of those circumstances.)
Jonah's solution for what ails us is:
Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma. The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment. (p. 344)
The problem is that, unlike our forebears, Jonah is a fideist with respect to liberal principles:
We tell ourselves that humans have natural or God-given rights. Where is the proof -- the physical, tangible, visible proof? Don't tell me a story; show me the evidence. The fact is we have rights because some believe they are in fact God-given, but far more people believe we should act as ifthey are God-given or in some other way "real." (p. 83)
The simple fact is that the existence of natural rights, like the existence of God Himself, requires a leap of faith. (p. 142)
The Founders did not hold the existence of rights as a matter of faith. They either offered arguments for their existence (that's the whole point of Locke's exploration of the state of nature), or took those rights to be self-evidently true (as in the Declaration of Independence). To hold something self-evidently is not to hold it on faith; quite the opposite. It is to hold it as so obviously true that it is in no need of argumentation.
Jonah misunderstands the role of dogma. The object of dogma is not ideasbutfacts. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." are not proposed as useful ideas to support a liberal dispensation, but as significant facts about the world that must be respected - and from which various ideas about the proper relationship of man to his government may be drawn, among other ideas.
The point is that Jonah's prescription does not recreate the circumstances under which the Miracle was born: Those circumstances involved holding things like natural rights as facts, not as the useful fictions Jonah proposes. Since Jonah denies knowledge of the causal origins of the Miracle, he owes us an explanation of why the circumstances he proposes will support the Miracle as well as did the original circumstances under which it occurred.
This question extends to the cultural background of the Miracle. Jonah lists many of the cultural legacies of Christianity that contributed to the Miracle:
I have tried to keep God out of this book, but, as a sociological entity, God can't be removed from it. I start the story of the Miracle in the 1700s, because that is where prosperity started to take off like a rocket. But a rocket doesn't materialize from thin air on a launchpad. The liftoff is actually the climax of a very long story. (p. 331)
Christianity, in other words, introduced the idea that we are born into a state of natural equality (p. 332)
Christianity performed another vital service. It created the idea of the secular. (p. 332)
But Christians do not hold natural equality and the division of the sacred from the secular on the grounds that they are really good ideas. They hold them because God Himself walked this Earth and showed that He is no respecter of persons, and this same God ordered us to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. How will those ideas be sustained absent the convictions that made them historically relevant? Jonah recounts the famous account of Henry IV and his penitential trek to Canossa, but would Henry have submitted if he thought the secular/sacred division merely an historically useful fiction rather than the command of the living God? Jonah calls on us to close our eyes, grit our teeth, and simply believe really hard in liberal principles. It's unlikely such a will to believe can successfully replace historic Christian faith (or the Deistic faith of the Founders).
There is evidence of this in Suicide of the Westitself. Jonah recognizes the benefits of the traditional family:
Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude - and the effort that gratitude demands - all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. Few actually hatethe traditional nuclear family or the role it plays. But many are indifferent to it. And indifference alone is enough to invite the rust of human nature back in. (p. 277)
But of what use is Jonah's gratitude for the traditional nuclear family? His support for gay marriage -- "marriage equality" -- is well known. But if two mommies are as good as a mommy and a daddy, then fathers are dispensable to the family. And if they are, indifference to the traditional family structure seems entirely appropriate. Jonah's gratitude for the traditional family offers no resistance to the most basic attacks on that family. How different it is for those who hold that the family, composed of a mother, father, and children, is an institution ordained by God, one that is prior to the state and that does not depend on the fickle will to believe of man for its existence.
Jonah ends the book with a declaration of the choice before us:
Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore. p. 351
I prefer: Principles die when no one believes anymore in the God who sustains them.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Random Notes on Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

I'm reading Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. Herewith are some random notes:

p. 234 - Pinker is discussing knowledge and sociology:

Do better-educated countries get richer, or can richer countries afford more education? One way to cut the knot is to take advantage of the fact that a cause must precede its effect. (emphasis mine)
It's clear from earlier in the book that Pinker has no brief for metaphysics as classically conceived.  The thing about classical metaphysics is that it is necessary whether you like it or not. The consequence is that metaphysics-haters cannot avoid metaphysics no matter how much they try, and must eventually let metaphysical concepts slip in, consciously or not. A cause must precede its effect is a 100 proof metaphysical concept. And as Pinker's example inadvertently admits, it is more surely known than any scientific conclusions because it is part of the intellectual framework that makes science possible in the first place.

A metaphysical analysis might reflect on a cause must precede its effect and note that it is not precisely articulated. Causes and effects are actually simultaneous. The effect of education is an educated person and it happens at the moment of education. Later on, an educated person may be the cause of riches, so we may loosely talk about education causing riches.


p. 235 - "Better educated girls grow up to have fewer babies, and so are less likely to beget youth bulges with their surfeit of troublemaking young men."

The thrust of Pinker's book is that Enlightenment values and methods have contributed to unprecedented progress over the last few hundred years. And that is certainly true. But, as Chesterton has pointed out, the only way to measure "progress" is to have a stable measure of progress over time. In Chesterton's example, if we decided the world would be better if it was painted green, and we all began to splash green paint everywhere, what would happen if we then decided the world would be better if it were blue? Then all our work painting it green was wasted and we had really made no progress at all.

Up to the time of the Enlightenment (and actually, until very recently) , there was universal agreement that children were a blessing, and  indeed among the greatest of blessings. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous of the stars, and Abraham didn't think it a burden. One of the great achievements of the modern era (one that Pinker emphasizes) is the massive reduction in child mortality over the past 200 years.

And yet, if you had told an Enlightenment philosopher in the year 1770 that one of the great achievements of Western society in the year 2018 would be that many people desired few or no descendants, he'd be puzzled. How is that progress? And if you further told him that mothers would regularly kill their unborn children in order to avoid having a child, he'd be even further puzzled. And he would be positively flabbergasted if you told him the replacement rate of France, Spain and Italy was such that in a few generations Frenchmen, Spaniards and Italians would disappear altogether.

The thing is, the notion of progress is a philosophical one, and those who refuse to reason philosophically end up in places they never dreamed of.