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From living order to transcendence

I mentioned marriage as an example of the antiliberal implications of the new science of complex order developed by writers on architecture such as Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros.

There are of course many other examples, because the new science goes to basics. It helps make sense of living systems, explains how their specific qualities are tied to their ability to function in the adaptive way they do, and insists on the severe disadvantages of simpler and seemingly more rational systems.

Liberalism—the view that puts equal freedom at the center of social and moral order—has good reason to oppose organic theories of society. The organic is the irregular and rooted, and things that are irregular and rooted aren’t equally free. Nonetheless, the new science makes it much harder to claim that such theories are based on a metaphor without analytic content, and indeed suggests that some such theory must be correct.

According to the new science, systems that are complex, evolved, and living feature:

  • Complex hierarchy.
  • Distinct stable regions with prominent boundaries.
  • Integration of elementary components into their environment, and through their environment into the system as a whole.

Sounds rather like Burke’s little platoons and the rest of the Old Regime. Such systems also resist detailed management and reconstruction, so comprehensive schemes of social betterment seem shut out. Goodbye, French Revolution.

Not just ideological liberals but modern people generally can find the resulting picture of social life rather alarming. Do the aristocrats get to run everything? Are the rest of us going to be bound to the soil? Isn’t there any room at all for concepts of freedom, equality, and simple rationality in social life?

A response is that it’s a mistake to reduce a picture to a caricature. To describe a system as living is to say that it’s adaptive and cooperative, and that it seeks harmony and equilibrium. Stability is not rigidity, and boundaries need not be impermeable to be real and functional. To say something is alive is not to say it’s tyrannical but the opposite.

In contrast, rule by simple concept is tyrannical by nature, and that applies to liberty as much as any other concept. Freedom is power. Unrestrained freedom is unrestrained power. Why is that necessarily a good thing? To liberate those at the top is to free them from restraint, to liberate those at the bottom to release them from personal obligations. The result is something that could pass for either advanced liberalism or classic tyranny, in which the unrestricted dominion of those who control society feeds on and compensates for the licentiousness of the people.

The point could be illustrated by reference to architecture. Architects complain that Alexander and Salingaros restrict their creativity. Why is that a bad thing? Creativity can’t be untrammeled. A creative solution should at least be a solution to a problem someone wants solved. Why should a designer have the right to stick the public with his idea of how he wants things to be?

Architects design the physical setting in which social life goes forward. If the material world is what there is, and there are no higher goods, then architects, who create the order of that world, take the place of God. In the modern world the creative visionary architect is therefore a natural totalitarian. Prominent pioneers of architectural modernism included Italian fascists, Bauhaus commies, and the American Nazi Philip Johnson. Others have been freelance tyrants, on a grand scale like Le Corbusier or a petty one like Peter Eisenman. Still others have been opportunistic tools of money and power who build buildings that glorify the rich, powerful, and well-connected and make ordinary people feel out of place.

To maintain its value freedom must be restrained by some higher good. But by what? Those who object to architectural modernism (including postmodernism), and want to sound sensible to modern man, often appeal to comfort and what pleases as a standard. That’s a good start, but not good enough. People don’t find satisfaction satisfying, not as a total way of life. We need something more from our physical environment.

The only solution, it seems, is a true religious architecture: one oriented toward an order that transcends both architect and society. Salingaros often speaks of comfort as a standard, but also notes the importance of sacred places in cities. Alexander concludes his 4-volume magnum opus with a volume on The Luminous Ground and ends it with a chapter on “The Face of God.” They are right to do so: living systems always point beyond themselves.

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