Alternate modernities: a retrospective

Political modernity is based on rejection of the premodern belief that man participates in some sort of higher nature. As such, it can take several forms. Liberalism is the form that has won, but not the only one that has existed.

If we get rid of the transcendent, we might view man as fundamentally biological or historical, or as self-created in some way. Moderns have therefore tried to base social order on biology, history, or the triumph of the will.


Modern natural science favors physical explanations, so the most obvious and direct response to modernity is the attempt to base social order on the physical aspects of man’s being. The usual physicalist view is that natural selection—in Darwin’s terms, “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”—explains human nature and behavior. For that reason, physicalists have often viewed racial struggle as fundamental. The physical flourishing of the Aryan race becomes the highest good, at least for Aryans, and similarly for other groups.

A basic problem with the view is that what men find worthwhile in life cannot be reduced to the survival and multiplication of an extended kinship group. For that reason, the latter cannot serve as the guiding principle of social order. That is why people who put nation and race first have ended up emphasizing arbitrary will more than biology, and relying on theatrics, irrationalism, and violence to overcome the intellectual weakness of their position.


Secular conservatives, who are moderate modernists, have tried to mitigate the effect of their basic antitranscendental commitments by basing social order on habit and history. They hold the modern view of man, but accept that we do not have an effective technology of social life. For that reason they accept experience as their guide, and with it the necessity of the inherited, informal, and prerational aspects of social order.

The approach has failed. Secular conservatives are proponents of traditional ways and attachments, so they favor particularity and the practices, conditions, and institutions that allow it to maintain itself and function. In present-day America, those include federalism, local autonomy, traditional marriage, restrictions on immigration, limitations on the welfare state, and respect for the right of families and religious and community institutions to run their own affairs.

Conservatives have continually given ground on all those issues. Their weakness has been especially apparent in connection with issues related to “inclusiveness.” Apart from illegal immigration and affirmative action, which are sore points for voters, conservative politicians have been willing to swear devotion to an antidiscrimination regime that is at odds with attachment to any tradition except that of liberal progress. Even opposition to affirmative action and illegal immigration has been sporadic and lukewarm, more a matter of opportunistic gestures than a genuine effort to change law and policy.

The failure was preordained. Belief in history doesn’t tell you anything helpful when trends are against you. As moderns, secular conservatives accept satisfaction of preferences as the rational guide to action, but as conservatives they need people to act on other principles. Why should people do so when it becomes inconvenient? Continuity and respect for traditional ways may be a good thing in general, but there are exceptions, and why should my case not be an exception?

Political reality is shaped by how the world is understood. Secular conservatives do not seriously dispute fundamental current understandings, and those understandings make any serious opposition to liberalism seem irrational and wrong, the sort of thing that leads to Nazism and whatnot. They’ve already surrendered in principle, so why expect their resistance to amount to much?

The triumph of the will

Abolishing transcendence abolishes the distinction between preference satisfaction and the good, so that satisfaction of preferences becomes the rational purpose of all action. From that perspective, the most rational political response to modernity is the attempt to derive moral and social order from maximum preference satisfaction.

Preferences conflict, however, and they are equally preferences, so whose should prevail? The obvious answer is to prefer one’s own, but “looking out for number one” is not, at least without severe limitation, a principle of social order. Since man is social, it does not even work in private life.

Fascism and bolshevism

It is not easy to make arbitrary will a principle of public order. Antiliberal moderns dramatize the paradox and then resolve it by emphasizing the conflicts and then appealing to collective power as their solution: the will of the people, party, or state, embodied in that of the supreme leader, overcomes all others and establishes order. The motive for participation in the effort, and thus the basis for loyalty to the regime, becomes the joy of smashing the opposition, together with comradeship in the struggle to make the willed order prevail.

A problem with the solution is that antiliberal moderns are moderns. As such, it is natural for them to view collectivities as arbitrary constructions. What is special about the proletariat or the German people? Who do they include and why? Why are Stalin and Hitler their perfect representatives? And why should my will and their will be the same? Such questions are unanswerable, so fascists and communists embraced irrationalism and relied quite directly on lies and violence as the basis for their rule.

The result was catastrophe. Antiliberal modernists took as their principle of social order worship of the power of the order itself. In the absence of substantive goods that principle could express itself only through self-assertion against opposition, the more extreme the better. In the end infinite victory in infinite war became the ruling ideal of social life.

A society that places itself on such a basis is not going to last. It will crash and burn like the Nazis, or sink into posturing, hypocrisy, and corruption that eventually becomes terminal, like the Soviets after Stalin.


Liberalism defers and defuses the problem posed by the sovereign will with its claim to maximize the satisfaction of all preferences equally. The will is to be tamed by the equal sovereignty of other wills and the demands of a technically rational system. Arbitrary power and social conflict vanish.

The peacefulness of its ideal has enabled liberalism to outlast communism, fascism, and Nazism. Nonetheless, those other forms of modernity responded to a real problem. By abolishing the idea of participation in higher goods and unities, the modern outlook separates individual goals from social needs. To re-integrate them some ideological myth is needed.

Fascists and communists proceed in a straightforward way by making the People or the State the only reality that matters, so the individual becomes insignificant. If that move is accepted—and those who reject it soon drop out of the conversation—the conflict between individual and collectivity disappears as an issue.

The liberal myth is more subtle. Instead of absorbing the individual into the collectivity, it absorbs the collectivity into the individual. It presents the liberal state as government by and for the people, here to serve them and acting only to promote their freedom and equality. What that state imposes reduces without remainder to individual desire and content-free public rationality. Obedience to its authority is not subservience but only intelligent promotion of what we already want.

Such is the official story. In fact, of course, liberal government is like other government. It is run not by the many but by the few. Those who rule try to make their life easier by accommodating popular concerns, but their guiding principle is less the will of the people than staying in power and running things in accordance with their own interests and understandings.

In fact, the liberal myth is no more true than the collectivist one. No government can favor equal freedom among men and their preferences, since some must lose in the event of conflict. Also, we often choose things other than satisfaction of desire: God, country, and family; adventure, struggle, and comradeship; the good, beautiful, and true. To the extent we prefer such things to getting our own way simply as such, hedonism makes no sense. It “gives us what we want,” but we reject the goal as unworthy.

To avoid such problems liberal government has to tell us what to want. We can have what we want, but what we are allowed to want—safe and moderate devotion to career, consumption, and various private indulgences—must suit the regime. That is supposed to be the perfection of freedom, but who believes it? The desires we are allowed to pursue leave out everything we care about most. And the authorities from which we are freed—family, prejudice, religion, particular people and culture—are what enable us to live and act independently of the formal institutions that constitute the liberal regime.

The freedom liberalism grants is the freedom to be dependent on liberalism and do, think, and feel what it wants us to do, think, and feel. Who wants that? And why trust a system in which we all place ourselves under guardianship, supposedly for our own good, to turn out well?

The moral of the story

It’s clear from what’s happened that the attempt to build social order simply on this-worldly empirical man doesn’t work. That’s true for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s part of the general modern effort to understand the world in a way that eliminates mystery and facilitates control, and if you deal with people that way you’re going to see them as less than they are and tyrannize over them.

The conclusion is that to get out of the political, social, and intellectual hole we’ve fallen into we have to go back to first things. For starters, we’re going to have to bring back something like the Christian soul, or at least an essence of the human that by nature is oriented toward the good. Otherwise we’re not going to be able to deal with man as he is or the problems politics actually presents.

That is not an impossible dream. Revolutions begin in thought, and the scheme of thought that makes people most functional and enables them to deal most intelligently with the world has a good shot at winning eventually. Advanced liberalism means mindlessness and incompetence on the part of rulers and ruled. It seems to me someone can do better.

17 thoughts on “Alternate modernities: a retrospective”

  1. [The Reductionist
    [The Reductionist Conservative] is also bound to see grey in at least some areas where the Realist Conservative sees black and white, since facts about economics, human biology, and the like, while very stable, are not quite as fixed or implacable as the Forms.

    Unfortunately for what Feser calls Realist Conservatives, the worldview of the Reductionist Conservative actually does seem to describe reality, including how conservatism actually works, much better than Realist Conservatism. Human nature does seem to be very stable, but when you look at the work on recent human evolution by someone like Greg Cochran or the work by various others on the average differences between different human groups, human nature just doesn’t seem quite as fixed as the classical view of man says it is.

    This emphasis on a human essence leads Realist Conservatives to make generalizations about people that are in fact not valid. Realist conservatives often end up saying silly things like everybody who is sexually promiscuous is the worse off for it. Now, one could say that it is hard to control oneself in one’s sexuality, but it also seems to me that there are at least some of the winners under the current sexual regime are in fact genuinely happier. Furthermore, some people, for example, are totally unsuitable for marriage and should not get married. Yet at least some of these same people may be quite miserable without a sexual outlet. Therefore, for them, the current sexual regime is a genuine benefit. Take also the man who enjoys all the benefits of a loving marriage, but also likes to have the occasional discreet fling on the side. He gets the best of both worlds. Now keeping an affair secret may be difficult to pull off and overall the current regime may have ultimately bad results for most people. But it seems to me pretty obvious that many people actually are happier under the current system.

    But sexuality also provides an illustration of why Reductionist Conservatism often makes a really bad ruling ideology. Telling people that they really should restrict sex to marriage because it provides for the best possible tradeoffs for society as a whole just isn’t going to cut it. Most people are not cold blooded economists, especially in their romantic relationships. Your quote here is very telling:

    As moderns, secular conservatives accept satisfaction of preferences as the rational guide to action, but as conservatives they need people to act on other principles. Why should people do so when it becomes inconvenient? Continuity and respect for traditional ways may be a good thing in general, but there are exceptions, and why should my case not be an exception?

    In order to restrain such a powerful force as human sexuality and channel it into more benign channels you basically have to draw a very bright line: sex outside marriage is an evil thing, at variance with all that is good and beautiful in an ultimate sense. It will put you out of harmony with ultimate things and make your life miserable.

    Similar things can be said about political institutions. In order to function, they have to make well nigh absolute claims. Thus among throne and alter conservatives, you get people like Joseph de Maistre, at least in his later writings, saying that the only good political regime for all nations and for all times is absolute monarchy. This seems to me patently untrue. But it does seem true to me that in order for any political regime to work, it can’t just claim that it is the best compromise for this particular time and place between a bunch of competing considerations. No, in order to command loyalty, it has to claim that it is the only just and true way to organize a society. (It is ironic that we now do pretty much the same thing as Maistre did with monarchy, only for representative democracy, even though there is, in fact, a lot to be said in favour of monarchy, and in dispraise of our current political institutions. This isn’t a problem just for conservatives.)

    This remains the main problem of conservatism, that in order to maintain the authority of tradition one must imbue stable but not completely fixed institutions and practices with an aura of absolute transcendant value. One has to overstate their case. There has to be a gap between the ideology that motivates people to act and and the actual truth of how things work.

    On another note, I’d also make the point that hard essentialism was abandoned by philosophers not primarily because of some perverse desire to overthrow religion and the classical view of man or because they became addicted to some crazed hyperrationalism, but because there are real philosophical problems with the hard essentialist position.

    • Why not direct this to
      Why not direct this to Feser’s attention? It has to do with his arguments more than mine. Some random comments though:

      • I’m not sure what evolutionary theory has to do with the human essence. It might be true that Darwinian evolution turned electric eels into electric shock generators and may someday turn their descendants into something else. What does that have to do with the nature of an electric shock generator and how we should deal with it?
      • Do people really say “everybody who is sexually promiscuous is the worse off for it?” Lots of things can happen. The Good Thief probably thought that getting crucified for his thiefishness was a bad thing, but as it happened it turned out to be a good deal overall. I can easily imagine people saying “sexual promiscuity is intrinsically injurious” though, since it’s bad to do what’s bad (it makes us worse and less worthy people). The same applies to thievery I suppose.
      • There are real philosophical problems with all positions. Would you say that philosophers accept hard essentialism because of perverse motives?
      • Reductionist Conservatism as
        Reductionist Conservatism as defined by Feser seems to map onto secular conservatism pretty well, while Realist Conservatism seems to map onto religious conservatism pretty well.

        Do people really say “everybody who is sexually promiscuous is the worse off for it?”

        Yes, they do. Slumlord/The Social Pathologist, he who has posited absolute truth as the sole basis for conservatism, and the one who pointed out the Feser article to me, has made the argument that everybody is always the worse for having sex outside marriage. Plus, being raised in church and going to church schools, we were always being told about how the minute you had premarital sex, your life would just fall apart and you would be permanently damaged by it.

        I can easily imagine people saying “sexual promiscuity is intrinsically injurious” though, since it’s bad to do what’s bad (it makes us worse and less worthy people).

        This brings up the question of what is the basis for ethics. For most secularists, happiness and suffering tempered by fairness seem to be the sole bases for ethics. For the virtue ethicists (mostly religious) on the other hand, it is whether an act is noble or ignoble that makes it right or wrong. Now, it seems to me that any good ethical system incorporates all of these. Unfortunately, there is no easily reducible formula for how to choose between these aims when they conflict, so modernists have tried to simply dismiss the concept of the noble from the picture as barbaric and possibly dangerous religious relic. It is, after all, much easier to add up the happiness and the suffering of people (or at least eyeball it), tempered the calculation a bit by making sure the system isn’t too unfair to any particular individual, and call it ethics. However, a lot of secular conservatives and even some chastened liberals like Jonathan Haidt have recognized that aiming directly at producing happiness and fairness often doesn’t produce either of those things. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” You need to provide people with some noble, trancendent aim in order for them to be happy or for society to be just, even on purely secular terms. However, as you hinted at, for secular conservatives the aim is still just producing happiness and fairness, while virtue and nobility, necessary as they are, are only the indirect of producing those things. Now, on a personal note, it seems to me perfectly legitimate to sometimes pursue noble aims even when it doesn’t indirectly result in an increase in happiness, but in fact leads to some overall increase in suffering. But you still cannot ignore happiness and suffering. Consequences matter. If lots of people are going to be made massively unhappy by something, maybe it should not be pursued, no matter how noble. People who posit that noble aims, particularly those associated with religion or with national greatness, are the sole measure of ethics are rightly thought of as dangerous fanatics. How much happiness should be sacrificed for how much nobility however is a difficult thing to answer and there are no formulaic ways of making that decision.

        A lot of this is illustrated by the differences between Burke and Maistre. Burke himself doesn’t really clarify what the proper end of government is. He does, rightly, recognize that a lot of the goods that a government aims at are pretty mundane goods like ordinary happiness. But a lot of the time it seems as though he makes material flourishing the sole aim of good government. Traditional practice and religion are right because they produces the most happiness. Maistre with his recognition of the transcendant as having its own value is good corrective to this, but he goes to far. Late Maistre wants to ram through his program and doesn’t much care whether it produces massive suffering. Some of the St. Petersberg Dialogues are absolutely horrifying. The man, however brilliant, was insane.

        • The approach has failed.

          The approach has failed.

          This is true. But then religious conservatism has been a massive failure too.

          Not least because people turned out to be a lot less inherently religious than we thought they were. Most people are not atheists of course, but they seem perfectly content with only the merest vestiges of religion. Secondly, the religious have tended to take all sorts of positions on science and other things that have turned out to be patently false. Furthermore, one should point out that it was the economists, social scientists, and biologists who have provided the main impetus behind what few rollbacks of left liberalism there have been in our society. To quote John Derbyshire reviewing Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct;

          “There were two armies of intellectual resistance to the colonization process. One was manned by pre-modern supernaturalists, who reworked their theologies to accommodate key findings in the natural sciences, brought forward the more abstract notions of Godhead worked out by ancient and medieval theologians, and took up lines of defense behind appeals to tradition, absolutist ethics, and the natural inclination to spirituality posessed by most human beings.

          The other army of resistance was the biologists. Unfortunately, the slow unfolding of natural science equipped biologists with few indisputable insights into human nature until the later twentieth century. Biologists held only a different batch of promissory notes, most of them signed by Charles Darwin in his 1871 book The Descent of Man. Crank theorists tried to redeem those notes prematurely. Cruel dictators took up their theories, and the whole sociobiological project—the attempt to uncover biological explanations for human nature—was discredited by association. Blank Slaters held the field for an entire generation, not much bothered by supernaturalists sniping from behind their fortifications.

          Across the last third of the twentieth century, biologists regrouped. The steady accumulation and refinement of social-science data, the revealing of DNA’s stucture, new techniques for imaging brain activity, and results from novel inquiries like separated-twin and adoption studies, began to turn Darwin’s promissory notes into hard cash. The great nature-nurture battle commenced under formidable generals on both sides: Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin for the Blank Slaters, E. O. Wilson and Arthur Jensen for the sociobiologists.

          Fighting still sputters on. Blank Slaters hold strategic territory in the humanities and politics, while supernaturalists still venture an occasional foray, most recently under the banner of Intelligent Design. Biologists have made important gains in anthropology, genetics, and the mind sciences, though. As data comes in from close studies of the now-decoded human genome and from broad surveys in population genetics like the HapMap, biologists sound increasingly confident. Blank Slaters are correspondingly more shrill, with periodic descents into gibbering panic, as in the 2006 flap over Harvard President Larry Summers’s remarks concerning women in science, or the 2007 debagging of the geneticist James Watson following his outspoken skepticism about progress in Africa. With rising confidence on the one side and rising hysteria on the other, a betting man should put his money on the biologists at this point.”

          • What’s the basic issue?
            Things have been going rather badly, so the issue isn’t what has worked but what in principle could work. My argument has been that modernity in principle has basic problems that mean you aren’t going to be able to understand and deal with politics etc. in a sensible way. On that issue I have no idea what Derbyshire thinks he’s going to get out of advances in genetics. Even today it can no doubt be shown that some disabilities have a genetic basis. Does that mean that the laws that say you have to do stuff for disabled people to make them equal don’t apply?

          • Our elite don’t much suffer
            Our elite don’t much suffer from the ill effects of liberalism, so I am not sure that pointing out the philosophical contradictions of their position on basic issues is actually going to have much practical effect. They are quite happy with the things as they are and can live with the contradictions. However they have invested so much into science that it is really embarrassing for them to have it outright falsify their positions on a host of issues, from gender equality to innate differences in intelligence between races to all sorts of other inconvenient truths about human nature. Of course, because so many people have invested so much into our current equalist ruling ideology, you’re going to need more than just good evidence, you’re going to need virtually ironclad proof.

            But in the end our elite just isn’t going to be able to climb down from its exaltation of science, which, through its practical application, is what they make their money off of. Which means it is going to have to painfully admit that much of the ideological justification for its social policies has been based on falsehood. In the absence of such embarrassment, however, I don’t see how anti-technocratic thought makes much of a difference.

            I’m also quite doubtful about a return to religion as the basis for any technologically advanced society. Not that I don’t sympathize, but as I pointed out earlier, I think it relies on the assumption that people are a lot more religious than they really are. I’m also doubtful that any current religion could hold the intellectual assent of our elites.

            As for the relatively muted impact of evolutionary theory on politics, things happen slowly in politics. It took almost 40 years from Hayek writing The Road to Serfdom for there to be a real change in economic policy under Reagan and Thatcher. And it has been only since the mid to late 90s that evolutionary psychology has started to make an impact on public consciousness.

            I begin to suspect that from some time in the mid 1800s up to the mid 1900s or so we had, through an unintended confluence of traditionalism on one side and liberalism on the other, a fleeting balance which resulted in a society among the best in human history, at least in much of the West. But then liberalism started to eat its own, which is why we have such a corrupt regime buttressed by an absolutely ridiculous official ideology. But then corrupt politics under a ridiculous ideology has been the general state of human societies, so perhaps we ought to ask what went right during those years, rather than view it as the norm. Anyway, while traditional societies weren’t, and aren’t, nearly as bad as they have been made out to be by our current regime, the more I read and think about them, the less sure even I am that I’d actually want to live in any of them.

          • A few random comments:

            • You seem to think of our elites and their outlook as eternally self-identical and self-sustaining instead of as an outcome of various histories, influences, and ways of thinking. The latter can cohere into a rather stable functional pattern that goes on for quite a while, which is what’s happened in the case of managerial liberal society, but why think that pattern will last forever?
            • Philosophical contradictions lead to practical malfunctions, so a basic issue is how bad the malfunctions get. If you’re trying to set up a global rationalized society then basic design problems can cause big malfunctions indeed.
            • One reason that’s so is that it’s hard to get rid of really basic design problems. In the case of the present setup I’d say that technological promotion of equal freedom is absolutely basic to the design. That principle survived Reagan and Thacher—we still have lots and lots of ideological intervention in social life—and it will survive HBD. Complications like genetics and free market economics just mean the system of intervention becomes more complex and its ambitions more overarching because it’s more conscious of what must be overcome. Post-1989 liberal egalitarianism is more far-reaching and destructive than 1950s social democratic egalitarianism.
            • You seem to view religion as a sort of policy add-on to deal with problems appearing in a system, and you observe correctly that it doesn’t seem to fit the present system. That’s not the point though. Religion is the basic grasp of reality, not a fix or add-on. It changes when an existing view of things doesn’t seem to work at a very fundamental level and people feel the need to approach life on a different footing.
          • “People say to me, that it is
            “People say to me, that it is but a dream to suppose that Christianity should regain the organic power in human society which once it possessed. I cannot help that; I never said it could.” – J.H. Newman

            Well, people like Newman have been pointing out the contradictions in liberal thought for a long time and it hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference. But even he never claimed that religion would be able to return to the centre of civilized life, like it once was.

            I guess I am saying that I am not sure that it is possible to return to a traditional, religious society and I’m not sure that you have really shown that it actually is possible. Showing the inadequacies of what we have got is easy, but showing how we can go back is quite another. Furthermore, I would add that I am not even sure that it would even be desirable. Perhaps the best we can hope for, with some help from HBD, is to rein in some of the worst excesses of liberalism and muddle through.

          • It’s not a matter of going back
            You’re assuming nothing radical will change, and what look like basic tendencies will remain basic tendencies because that’s what’s real and we’re all sensible level-headed men here. So you want an explanation how some moderate change in the way things are can bring about X, Y, and Z.

            Bubbles burst, though. Systems really do collapse, and I don’t think liberalism allows muddling through. As it advances it becomes ever more insistent on explicit universal rationality. “Muddling through” means common sense, accepting practices that can’t be logically defended but people accept anyway because they trust each other and they feel they have something in common that precedes reason. It’s an English expression, and it goes with the English tendency on their tight little isle to avoid theory. It doesn’t sit well with a litigious society, or a society run by experts who believe in professional standards, or a cosmopolitan and multicultural society where people don’t have common practices that go without question.

            The basic question I think is how defective you think liberal modernity is at the level of basic principle, and how much it will insist on basic principle in the long run. I suppose at a less grandiose level there’s also the question what the West will look like when it’s mostly Third World.

          • A few more thoughts
            “And it may be that the only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is — like a Rome without an Attila to sack its palaces, or a Nineveh without Yahweh to pass judgment on its crimes.”


            Are you really so sure that liberalism doesn’t allow for muddling through? I agree that trying to rationally manage the whole world will lead to all sorts of horrible mistakes that will hurt a lot of people, but I am not sure that there is any of them will lead wholesale system collapse. Most liberals are not the fervent ideologues who insist on following things through to the end. Most of them are pretty pragmatic, they want to manage things as much as possible to create, as you have put it, equal preference satisfaction. But most of them also realize that we live in a real world where human nature puts limits on how far you can go. (This is the reason why I am not at all impressed with Auster’s idea of the unprincipled exception. What exactly is so unprincipled about trying to get as much equal freedom as possible, but realizing that human nature puts limits on how much actually is possible?) Again, I think the Reagan/Thatcher years are instructive. It was clear things couldn’t go on as they were with regard to state intervention in the economy, no matter how much people in managerial positions wanted them to, so they didn’t. Your right that all sorts of other liberal currents went on unabated, but when one particularly problematic part of managerial liberalism became untenable, there was a course correction.

            Also, in general, actual collapse tends to come through conquest not internal dissolution. Decadence may make societies vulnerable to conquest, but it isn’t often for them to spontaneously implode.


            I’d also add that for a whole host of reasons, from the discoveries of biblical scholarship to the theory of natural selection, religion will never have the authority it once did, at least in any technologically sophisticated society. And the problem is not that any of these things necessarily entail disbelief. However:

            a. they do require considerable modification of traditional belief for any reasonable person to assent to them, which often means:
            i. you end up undermining religious authority.
            ii. you end up with some bloodless abstract of a religion.
            b. they make disbelief a viable intellectual option.

            Take for example, natural selection. Before this theory was established it was actually pretty hard to be an atheist, even if your temperamental inclinations were that way. You had all these really complex living things walking around, especially us. If there weren’t any supernatural agents, where the heck did they come from? After Darwin, that’s all gone. Again, none of this entails disbelief, but it does introduce serious doubt, and doubt is all that is needed.

            I mean sure, I suppose if our whole society reverted to a much more primitive state, then religion would probably regain some of its authority. But if we want those kinds of societies, there are already plenty of them in the Third World and they hardly seem something to emulate.

          • We’re not talking secondary matters
            Radically ideological societies collapse. The Soviet Union is an example.

            The people who inhabit the society don’t have to be radical ideologues for that to happen. How many people are fervent anything? It’s not a matter of the psychology of particular people but the basic understandings that tell them what’s rational, what’s thinkable, what the world’s like, what makes sense, who wins if an argument really gets pushed.

            The modern understanding of nature makes it a simple conceptual impossibility to conceive of the person as subject to nature. Hence Cartesian dualism, hence Berkeleyan idealism, hence reductive naturalism, and hence the coming requirement in LA that students pass Algebra II in order to graduate:


            The problem’s basic enough, and it touches people close enough to home, that developing the issues doesn’t lead people to fudge them for practical reasons. It leads them to get crazier and more extreme (in their concepts, not their psychology). Their consciousness gets raised, and once that happens you can’t go back.

            You seem to think of religion as something that’s layered onto some sort of common sense this-worldly understanding of things that works OK by itself. That’s a mistake. It’s more a matter of the basic categories for understanding the world. So talking about “religion regaining its authority” is like talking about understanding of what’s real regaining its authority. Something of the sort is always there and always has the greatest possible authority.

            In any actual religion those categories will of course be articulated and developed in various ways, so it can look like it has to do with secondary matters, but it really gets as basic as whether you need four causes to explain reality, or you can get by on two, or there really aren’t any causes just statistical correlations.

          • You seem to think of
            You seem to think of religion as something that’s layered onto some sort of common sense this-worldly understanding of things that works OK by itself.

            No, I think you’re right that for things to work well, there has to be some transcendence which can only be provided by religion. I’m just not sure that religion is available to our elites in anything like the form it used to have. We can’t unknow what we know. So, we may have to make the best of what we do have and while that may not be all that great, but it might be enough to stave off total disaster. I just don’t see the return of religion as any more viable a strategy for any technologically advanced society.

            I genuinely think you underestimate how long things can limp along. You’re line of reasoning seems to be, it’s awful and ridiculous, therefore it can’t go on. You use the example of the Soviets, but if they hadn’t of panicked and started really thrashing about in things they could have kept on going for a long time. A few moderate course corrections and Russia could still be communist. The last time I checked the Chinese Communists seem to be doing fine. Heck, even the Cubans are keeping on keeping on in their way.

            Anyway, perhaps you are right that liberal society will collapse under its own contradictions and that any secular conservatism will be impotent to stop it from doing so or to return us to where we were. But even conceding that, my original point remains, the return of religion in a technologically advanced society will not happen. Religious conservatism is a failure, every bit as much as secular conservatism. It will not save us and it is incapable of returning us to what we once were.

          • The above sounds very
            The above sounds very negative, so I suppose I should make something clear. I would very much prefer if religion were able to again take the lead in a technologically advanced society. I just don’t think it is possible. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is available.


          • The present world is one that
            The present world is one that has blinkered itself so it is no longer capable of recognizing obvious basic problems. People think the world is atoms and the void with subjectivity somehow splatted in, and somebody will somehow someday explain that rather odd situation away or else we will all stop worrying about it so it won’t be an issue.

            An inability to see obvious problems is not the same as an inability to unknow what’s known. Basic problems are important when you’ve got a comprehensive rationalizing system. So why assume that our elites will endure as elites with their present outlook and social position? The Chicoms are still there but not as communists, and the Cubans have publicly noted that their system doesn’t work.

            (Incidentally, the “new password” facility at Turnabout works again. There were a couple of software glitches that I’ve fixed now.)

    • Realist Conservatism
      Very good post Mr Kalb, and good comments Thursday.

      This emphasis on a human essence leads Realist Conservatives to make generalizations about people that are in fact not valid

      Thursday, I think you criticism here is, to a certain degree, valid. However it is not the realist metaphysic that is the problem, rather, the insistence by many realists that they have grasped the “essence” of a thing perfectly and that they are inerrant in their understanding. Take for instance, the traditional Christian prohibition against usury. (forgive me if my chronology of events are wrong). But prior to late medieval period, it was felt that all taking of interest was usury; this was the Traditionalist understanding. The “essence” of usury being the taking of interest. The reformist view was different; it argued that there were morally legitimate reasons for interest. Slowly, and against much traditionalist opposition, this view won out till our current understanding of the “essence” of usury is that it is an “exploitative financial arrangement”. It took a while for a correct understanding of the nature of the thing or essence to occur.

      The intellectual development of this doctrine is of interest, since clearly the traditionalist position on usury was seen to be the cause of many legitimate problems: Real world butting against theology. Human understanding of the doctrine was modified by taking account of legitimate real world phenomena in a way that was logically consistent.

      The real problem, as I see it, is that we grasp these “essences” of the faith imperfectly, literally through a glass darkly. The thing is, the essences are real; our knowledge of them, sans Divine illumination, imperfect. So whilst I’m a realist conservative, I realise that I may be erroneous in my understanding of things and give others a fair amount of a latitude. It’s also why I have a bit of a beef with the “natural lawyers”. Although I think natural law is reasonable it’s not without it’s problems. A lot of the lawyers have “essential certitude’ and front load their respective teleologies by stealth. Natural law then becomes a psuedo-objective way to justify their position.

      The thing is though, faith cannot contradict reality, and using this cognitive tool one can see more clearly the essence. The problem with a strong Traditionalist viewpoint, is that it resists the testing and modification of our conception of the essences. Take for instance, our understanding of female sexuality. Both you an I have written about how the traditionalist understanding of it is wrong. Now it’s not wrong because it teaches things I don’t like, but because it teaches things which are flatly contradicted by reality. The problem is not that there is such a thing as a female essence, rather the debate is about what constitutes that essence and real life experience contradicts the traditional view. It is false “essential certitude” that is the problem.

      Now, one could say that it is hard to control oneself in one’s sexuality, but it also seems to me that there are at least some of the winners under the current sexual regime are in fact genuinely happier.

      From a strictly Hedonic point of view, once again, you are correct, but only from a sexual point of view.(Even then, based on my experience I doubt it.) To achieve this sexual happiness they seem to have sacrificed others other aspects of it and it appears that whilst the sexually promiscuous may be better off sexually they may be worse of in other ways. The thing that horrifies me the most is not the sexual promiscuity but the death of symbiotic love. Let the world become a brothel if people would care for each other but it appears the opposite is happening and social atomisation is becoming more prevalent. It’s easy to find sex but what appears to be the real problem is finding devotional love; a love that sticks with you through thick and thin. Yet, this type of love seems also essential to happiness and perhaps it is that practice of promiscuity and this type of love that are incompatible:So that while you may gain in one area you will loose in another.

      Human beings are a mass of competing desires and needs. It may just be that given our natures, it is impossible to harmoniously satiate all the passions and the best that can be achieved is an optimisation: Earthly happiness being just that optimised state. That of course implies that some appetites go unsatiated, and this chafes to people who believe that they can have it all. It also riles those who blame all their problems on a lack of satiety of an appetite.

      The problem is those “realists” who deny that chastity sucks, that temperance is boring and hedonism is fun. They, of course, are ridiculous and and such idiotic statements repudiate their “realism” and by association their metaphysics.

      Although the social utility of transcendentals are clearly evident, they are useless for the intelligent reductionist conservative because they are nothing more than a “noble lie”, a glue to keep the proles in line and reasonably happy. The intelligent reductionist will recognise these transcendentals as unreal and what happens eventually is that we get a libertine upper class which slowly corrupts the lower. The noble lie forestalls but does not stop the inevitable.

      If as a realist conservative, you believe in the Christian God, then even the above points are moot, because, by proclaimed Divine ordinance, He has announced His intention to punish the sexual libertine. Perhaps this may be tacit admission that it is possible to live contentedly in defiance of His laws on earth. But it’s cold comfort since in the end He is going to send you to Hell.

    • Have you even read Maistre?
      Have you even read Maistre? He didn’t believe that Monarchy was the best form of government in all cases. Maistre stuck to the Aristotelian view that the best form of government for a nation depends on its history, customs, character, and so forth.


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