Contemplation and social order

I’ve been talking a lot about contemplation—what it is, why it’s needed, and why it’s at odds with the modern spirit. I should note down a few thoughts on what happens if you don’t have it.

To get rid of contemplation is radically to subordinate truth to action, word to deed. That tendency has developed in a variety of ways:

  • At the beginning of Goethe’s Faust, the protagonist proposes “In the beginning was the Deed” instead of “In the beginning was the Word” as a translation of the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John. Immediately thereafter the Devil appears.
  • In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx says that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” His followers have indeed changed the world, and his thought lives on even after the fall of communism.
  • The tradition of which that thought is part lives on most explicitly in the academic world, as manifested by the denunciations of logocentricity and the disintegration of literary studies and politicization of scholarship.
  • Apart from high and academic culture, one should note the lack of interest in reading today, the indifference to language and reasoning, the emphasis on spin and the public relations industry, and the general feeling that thought, literature and disinterested knowledge don’t matter. There’s no reason they should, if there’s no stable pre-existing public reality for them to be about.

In fact, of course, the Deed can’t possibly precede the Word. The Deed is mindless brute fact and can’t interpret or even identify itself except by reference to a prior scheme of meaning. Word and deed do go together, and word is a sort of deed, but Logos has to be understood as the more basic and authoritative of the two.

At bottom social order is a structure of meaning. It requires force, but force can only be ancillary. Political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. It depends on voluntary acceptance and cooperation based on what people understand as right.

One manifestation of the view that deed comes before word is the view that social order can be constructed. Fascism is a prime example. It was an attempt to make up for the disappearance of any recognized transcendent reality—of any Word prior to all deeds—by positing something, the State or the People or whatever, as a sort of willed transcendent.

Fascism failed because it viewed will and struggle as primary. It viewed its own transcendent as fabricated rather than self-existent and so in need of constant and increasingly violent assertion. It was an attempt to create a social order that pulls itself up by its own bootstraps by really trying hard and making the process as dramatic as possible—in other words, by sole reliance on the Deed.

That can’t work. There aren’t any supermen or infallible leaders whose will can substitute for prior belief in a transcendent principle. People don’t normally accept anyone as such, and even when things get odd the normal soon reasserts itself. The Thousand Year Empire lasted about as long as you’d expect. Nor are there actual Straussian elites cleverly inculcating understandings of the sacred recognized by the elite as hogwash. For starters, the elites aren’t likely to hang together through thick and thin and persuade others unless they believe their project stands for truths with a validity independent and more fundamental than the needs of their project. And that view has to be reasonable from the standpoint of the people.

So the Word has to come first. The common view today is that taking transcendent standards seriously leads to despotism and tyranny. The king or whoever will abuse those standards and in their name will enslave everyone for his own selfish purposes. In fact, the abolition of the transcendent leads to totalitarianism or chaos. The transcendent outranks the king just as it outranks everyone else and so provides a way in concept to limit the will of the powerful, the presumption of the people, and the knowledge of the purportedly wise. If there’s no transcendent then you still need a substitute, since every question needs a practical bottom-line answer, and the obvious substitutes that come to mind are the king’s will, fraudulent claims of incomprehensible expertise backed by obfuscation and force, and one’s own will or obsessions.

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