Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Aristotle: Politics

July 9, 2017

Translated by Benjamin Jowett
(Everyman, 1941) [c.325 BC]
264 p.

Obviously this is a great book, and these notes make no pretence to be anything other than jottings. I might begin by confessing that I’m not, all things considered, very interested in politics or political theory, but I chose this of Aristotle’s works because I’d already read some of those more interesting to me (Ethics, De Anima, Physics), and because some of the others more interesting (Metaphysics, Logic) looked too hard to tackle in my current state of life.

It had been some time since I last spent any extended time with Aristotle. I know people say that his works as they have come down to us lack personality – and may well not be from his pen at all – but that lack of personality is itself a kind of personality, and it was nice to be back in his company.

Aristotle can be counted on to state basic principles clearly. Sometimes these principles are obvious, and sometimes not, but anyway it is part of his thorough method to state them. It feels good just to say them aloud:

The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. (Bk I)


A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. (Bk I)

Obvious, as I say, but contrary to the founding principles of much modern political philosophy, and refreshing. Or he says this of the rule of law:

Two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey. (Bk IV)

With this consequence:

In some states the good man and the good citizen are the same, and in others different. (Bk III)

Sometimes his declarations have the force of aphorisms:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. (Bk I)


The law is reason unaffected by desire. (Bk III)


To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls. (Bk VIII)

Or, in a claim that I am sure must be cited in The Abolition of Man:

Virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright. (Bk VIII).

Of course, the Politics is more than just aphorisms; it’s a set of arguments. His principle purpose, as I understand it, is to inquire into the nature of states, and to survey different models of governance, studying their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

Aristotle has a high view of the state. He writes:

If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. (Bk I)

This is broadly consistent with the political vision set forth by Plato in Republic, and once again at odds with the main trunk of modern political theory, which (insofar as I understand it) rolled back the state from pursuing a vision of the highest good, opting instead for a more modest role as custodian of peace and guarantor of certain individual freedoms. Of course, highest goods are hard to ignore permanently, and a reasonable argument can be made that those “individual freedoms”, which were originally an alternative to a politics of the highest good, have become in time themselves that highest good. But that’s another story.

Aristotle’s view that the state “embraces all the rest” gives his vision of politics an uncomfortably totalitarian flavour. Here, for instance, he comments on the place of the family and the individual in politics:

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” (Bk I)

The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives. (Bk VIII)

Neither must it be supposed that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state… (Bk VIII)

That first statement is the opposite of what I would argue: in fact the family is the most basic political community, prior to all others, because parts are of necessity prior to the whole. The second is less objectionable, and can be taken in a banal way – in a democracy, for instance, citizens should be virtuous, since they can hardly govern a polity well if they cannot govern themselves. But there’s something ominous about it too, especially that “should”. The third statement comes from his remarks on education, in which he criticizes the practice of parents deciding for themselves how to educate their children, and argues instead for public education specifically on the grounds that it is necessary to cultivate in children the virtues required for the preservation of the common good: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all.” One can see the force of the argument, of course, but I’m wary of any attempt by the state to form the souls of children — especially my children.

The principal forms of government Aristotle analyzes are monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government – rule by one, few, or many. He proceeds by looking at a number of real cases, as well as some theoretical ones (such as that described in Republic). He notes that each of these forms of government can become corrupted, with monarchy devolving to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and constitutional government to democracy. By “democracy” he doesn’t mean exactly what we usually mean, but specifically that form of “rule by the many” in which the will of the majority has the force of law (rather than operating under the law). He argues that, whatever the form of government, a healthy government is one that rules in favour of the common good.

As far as I could see, he took no strong position on which form of government was to be preferred, but he did express a mild preference for rule by the many, both because “passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men”, and because the many, on account of their wide variety of knowledge and experience, may be able to act more prudently and with better reason than the few. I do not find this entirely convincing.

Bad Aristotle makes a number of appearances in these pages. We get, for instance, his famous statement that slavery is natural (“the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master”). Those of us who admire Aristotle would like to chalk this up to limitations in the moral vision of the time and place in which he lived, and this is true to some extent, but he makes things more difficult by acknowledging (in Bk I, 3) that this view of slavery is contested. At least as reprehensible are his views on infanticide (“let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”). He would permit abortion, but only “before life and sense have begun”; he may be bad, but on this point he is, at least, not so bad as we are.

In the eighth and final Book, he has a very interesting discussion of leisure, and in particular of music-making and music-appreciation as leisure activities. As Josef Pieper argued in his wonderful book, Aristotle had a high view of leisure, seeing it not as a time for mere amusement, but for activities which are valued for their own sake. Precisely because leisure activities are intrinsically valuable, they are better than servile work: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end” (Bk VIII). I’m not sure just what he means by calling leisure “the first principle of all action”, but when he says that leisure is the “end” of occupation, he means that we do our servile work in order to have leisure. I remember that Jacques Barzun somewhere says that it is the sign of a healthy soul to hate one’s job, precisely because for most of us it prevents us from spending our time on what is intrinsically worthwhile; this chaffing against employment obligations, while wearisome and frustrating, is fundamentally sound. And leisure, on this view, should not be confused with “idleness”, but might be very vigorous and even exhausting. Philosophy, for instance, is a good example of a worthy leisure activity, as are the arts, religion, and maybe even sports. Music enters into this discussion because it is one of those things which we can enjoy for its own sake. It amuses us, but also gives us a kind of intellectual enjoyment which is the special purview of rational creatures.

Music can also serve instrumental purposes, and in this role is crucial to education, in Aristotle’s view, because it has the power to influence and shape the soul and the character of the hearer. He discusses the different musical modes and their effects on listeners, and goes on to argue that its capacity to evoke emotional responses makes music of special value for teaching virtue, which, as was already said above, “consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright”. That music can bear resemblance to moral qualities is almost unique among objects of sense.

I knew that Plato gave attention to music in Republic because of its power to affect the soul, but I was not, until reading Politics, aware that Aristotle had done the same. It would be interesting one day to sit down and compare the two treatments.


I’ve done little more in these brief notes than skim the surface, picking out a handful of things that most interested me. There’s a lot of detailed argumentation in Politics about effective policies, principles, and objectives of different types of government. For the most part this was more than I wanted, but naturally that’s a reflection of my own limitations.

Lecture night: psychology and politics

August 23, 2016

Jonathan Haidt is an unusually interesting academic. He is a psychologist who has in recent years turned his attention to matters of public import, and has especially emerged as an advocate of greater “viewpoint diversity” in the academy. To that end, he has founded Heterodox Academy, a forum for highlighting findings that run counter to received opinion in academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences.

Earlier this month he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assocation. His lecture is entitled “What’s Happening to Our Country? How Psychology Can Respond to Political Polarization, Incivility and Intolerance”, and in it he considers a number of long-term polarizing trends in American society and what to do about them.

He’s an engaging speaker. If you’re interested in understanding the Trump phenomenon, or fancy the thought of seeing a crowd of left-wing academics called out for bias by one of their own guild, this lecture might be for you. If you’re of conservative temperament, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear that an eminent academic considers you anything other than roadkill on the upward way of enlightenment. As he says in the lecture, every healthy society needs a party of order and stability as well as a party of change and progress. It sounds sensible to me (except the bit about change and progress). The lecture is about 50 minutes long, once the introductions are over.

If you enjoy this talk, you might also enjoy a TED talk he gave on the respective moral motivations of liberals and conservatives.

A constitutional right to palliative care

June 6, 2016

Starting today physicians in Canada can commit acts of assisted suicide and euthanasia without facing criminal penalties. The deeply flawed law proposed to regulate these “procedures” is still under debate in the Senate, so the present legal framework is murky. Looking for a silver lining in these dark clouds, I propose an argument I’ve not seen elsewhere.

In Carter v Canada the Supreme Court of Canada claimed to discover a right to assisted suicide (and euthanasia?) in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and more specifically in Section 7, which reads

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Initially — and perhaps also persistently — it seems mysterious that the Court would seek to ground a right to death in a constitutional provision protecting the right to life, but here is the Court’s reasoning in the Carter decision:

The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.

Focusing for a moment on the first part of the argument: the Court claims that a prohibition on assisted suicide violates the right to life because it forces some people to kill themselves before they otherwise would were assisted suicide permitted.

Let’s try to put this into the form of a syllogism:

(a) Forcing someone to kill himself violates his right to life.
(b) Failure to provide assisted suicide forces someone to kill himself.
(c) Therefore, failure to provide assisted suicide violates the right to life.

This reasoning is obviously tendentious — premise (b) is false — but for the moment let’s take it for granted. I want to suggest that this same reasoning implies that Canadians enjoy a constitutional right to palliative care.

The argument is simple: absent effective palliative care some individuals will be “forced” to kill themselves — whether directly or through activation of our newly-minted right to assisted suicide — earlier than they would had they access to palliative care. Therefore failure to provide such palliative care to Canadians violates their right to life. In the syllogism above, just replace “assisted suicide” with “palliative care”.

The other arguments deployed by the Court in the section above, pertaining to the rights to liberty and security of the person, are just as relevant to the case of palliative care: without access to palliative care Canadians cannot truly “make decisions concerning their integrity and medical care” (for at least one option for which they might decide is unavailable), and failure to provide palliative care abandons patients “to endure intolerable suffering” and so “impinges on their security of the person”.

Today only 16-30% of Canadians have access to palliative care.

Euthanasia update

April 14, 2016

Today the Liberals tabled their proposed legislation to regulate assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago when a Parliamentary Committee issued a set of appalling recommendations to those drafting the law, and I had intended to return to the topic occasionally, but, alas, blogging is only my fourth job, and sometimes I don’t find the time.

The good news is that the proposed law ignores most of the recommendations from the Parliamentary Committee. It’s still a terrible law, inasmuch as it legalizes assisted suicide and euthanasia, but it is not as terrible as it might have been, and that is a significant victory. Almost all of the commentary in Canada’s leading papers over the past few weeks was critical of the original recommendations, and perhaps that helped. Many people have been working hard over the last month or two to convince Parliament to introduce safeguards and restrictions into the law, and they deserve some credit for the fact that we’re staring down a law that’s not quite as dire as it might have been.

The proposed law differs from the recommendations insofar as it restricts these “procedures” to adults, disallows advance directives, requires a minimum waiting period (15 days) except in exceptional circumstances, and places stricter requirements on who would be eligible (tending toward only terminal patients, although it doesn’t say so directly). The law — which I have not actually been able to find yet — is apparently silent on the issues of who will be coerced into participation and to what extent, leaving those details up to the provinces or the regulatory medical Colleges. The proposed law does apparently specify that regulations should “respect the personal convictions of health care providers.” What that will mean in practice is hard to say.

So, overlooking the fact that such a law cuts the heart out of the medical profession, undermines the oath each physician took, concedes that people have a constitutional right to require another to commit a grave evil, is confused about whether suicide is good or bad, accepts that killing is an acceptable response to suffering, and provides for a group of Canadian citizens to legally kill another group of Canadian citizens, we can be fairly pleased with this development.

UPDATE: Andrew Coyne, writing for The National Post, has been one of the most astute commentators on the euthanasia ruling and legislation. His column today is no exception. He argues that once one concedes that killing people (or helping them kill themselves) can be an act of beneficence it becomes impossible to impose restrictions on the practice. This is not even a slippery slope argument; it’s just a logical one:

For the logic of assisted suicide permits no other outcome. Once suicide has been accepted, as a formal matter of law, not as something we should wish at all times to prevent, but as relief from intolerable suffering; once it has been established that an individual has a right to such relief, not by his own hand but by another’s; once assisting in suicide has been transformed from a crime into a public service, there is no grounds to limit that relief, that right or that service to some sufferers and not to others.

I believe he is right about that. The sad game is, very probably, up. All in time.

Kalb: The Tyranny of Liberalism

April 12, 2016

The Tyranny of Liberalismkalb-tyranny
Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command
James Kalb
(ISI, 2008)
317 p.

To judge by its cover, and by its title, and especially by its subtitle, this is a book to which I would normally give a wide berth. I haven’t any interest in reading partisan political rhetoric. It was only on the recommendation of several friends whose judgment I respect that, with my eyebrows forming a skeptical arch, I sat down with it to have a look. I am glad that I did so. The book is not only good, but unusually good: perceptive and clear, written in a close analytical style, and devoid of partisan rhetoric. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

In a sense, it was easy for Kalb to remain non-partisan, because the liberalism he criticizes is found across the spectrum of contemporary Western politics. “What pass as battles between liberals and conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself,” he writes. This makes his critique a radical one, of course, and even perhaps quixotic, since it contests nearly every animating principle of contemporary political and intellectual life. But it is also an honest and incisive one, and worthy of a hearing.

Before getting into the details, it might be worthwhile to pause over an initial difficulty: the very word “liberalism” may be an impediment. I don’t know how it is where you live, but where I live (in the frosty true north, strong and free), “liberal” is a kind of synonym for “good”. “Liberal” means welcoming, generous, and kind. To be against liberalism is like being against smiles and free daycare. So I had occasion more than once while reading to wish that we could have replaced that word “liberal” and its cognates with “X”. It would be easier to see the thing as Kalb wants us to see it if all of the associations of the word weren’t creeping in from the margins. The reader must be prepared to make the extra critical effort to treat “liberal” as a mere descriptor, not a word with an aura around it.

Kalb argues that liberalism is committed, at bottom, to one principle: equal freedom. Liberals believe that governance committed to equal freedom will be just and rational, and Kalb acknowledges that their intentions are, by and large, good: “Liberalism is inspired by the dream of political principles that rule without oppressiveness because they have the universality, transparency, and power of logic.” However, the very simplicity of liberalism means that it lacks balance:

Freedom and equality are abstract, open-ended, and ever-ramifying goals that can be taken to extremes. Liberals tend to view these goals as a simple matter of justice and rationality that prudential considerations may sometimes delay but no principle can legitimately override. In the absence of definite limiting principles, liberal demands become more and more far-reaching and the means used to advance them ever more comprehensive, detailed, and intrusive.

The trouble is that human life is complicated, and resistant to liberal requirements. There are things people think are important, such as ethnicity, sex, religion, nationality, and family ties, all of which liberalism cannot permit to matter because they treat people unequally. Since we have a natural tendency to behave as though such things do matter, a liberal social order requires constant nagging interference to ensure things run “correctly”. And because there are always new things to “correct”, and because liberalism has no built-in moderating principle, it cannot help but go on “correcting” them:

Liberalism loosens and disorders the connections and particularities on which it depends. It cannot keep from doing so, because it is progressive and idealistic… As liberalism develops, consciousness is raised, the remaining illiberal aspects of the social order become plain, and liberals, in order to remain liberal, must attempt to eradicate them. Attempts to get rid of particular inequalities bring to the fore others, so that liberalism continually radicalizes itself.

The result is the creation of a politically correct managerial regime to ensure that traditional social distinctions and institutions give way before rational ones: a liberal tyranny. This, in a nutshell, is the argument of the book.


It is worth taking a closer look at the reigning principle of liberalism: equal freedom. It implies that within a liberal framework all preferences, being equally preferences, must be accorded equal value and respect. This means that hierarchies of preferences, or moral evaluations of preferences, have no legitimate place. Hence liberalism must deny the value of both tradition and transcendent authorities, both of which typically favour certain desires and disfavour others. Only individual desire — the will of man — enters into consideration for liberalism, and the goal of a liberal social order is to ensure that as many as possible of these individual preferences are met: in Kalb’s words, mature liberalism is “a universal, technically rational system for the equal satisfaction of desire.” Thus it comes about quite naturally that the basic moral goods in a liberal society are “equality, autonomy, and hedonism” (this latter being understood in the literal, rather than the pejorative, sense).

Because liberalism admits no substantive or transcendent goods, appeals to such goods must appear, within the system, as mere power plays, rhetorical ploys intended to disrupt the system. “Traditional morality, which makes some desires superior to others, is thus understood as a devious effort to control others and becomes a stock example of immorality.” The world is upside down.

Of course, in practice not all desires can be satisfied without conflicts, and so some measure of control and discrimination is necessary for peaceable governance. In cases of conflict, liberalism gives preference to “neutral” goals which interfere minimally with others. In this way, “neutrality” becomes a secondary, but crucial, substantive principle within liberalism.

Kalb’s Dictionary

discrimination: “the recognition of serious nonbureaucratic and nonmarket distinctions”

tolerance: “indifference or aversion to traditional distinctions not required by liberal institutions”

intolerance: “the recognition that not all values can be turned into mutually independent and interchangeable commodities”

fundamentalism: “recognition of an authoritative principle that cannot be reduced to a unified rationalized process”

multiculturalism: “the comprehensive effort to detach social life from particular culture and inherited community”


Certain institutions are characteristic of liberal societies. The liberal stress on satisfaction of preferences makes it friendly to markets, and the need to manage social life so that it respects liberal principles generates bureaucracies. Courts are required to enforce the standard of equal freedom. The usual political form in liberal societies is representative democracy, but, Kalb argues, the democratic process is required to operate within definite and, if the argument about the steady creep of liberalism is sound, steadily reduced limits. The abstract commitment to freedom and equality overrules the commitment to democracy:

The insistence that concept trumps substantive choice has consequences that are greatly at odds with claims that liberalism is democratic. It means that liberalism has right and wrong answers. Since the people often choose the wrong answers, their actual views cannot be taken seriously and must often be ignored.

An important plank in the enforcement of liberalism is “human rights”. I remember reading an essay some years ago by, I think, Joseph Bottum, in which he remarked that during the Cold War the prevalence of Communist organizations bearing the word “peace” in their name gave rise to a wry observation: “Peace is a Communist plot”. Something similar might be said today about human rights vis-à-vis liberalism. Human rights are the legal form under which “equal freedom” has taken shape, and in our society they have the highest authority. Who could be against human rights? But according to Kalb such rights are understood today in a peculiarly liberal way: the dignity of the human person is rooted in the ability to satisfy desires, the freedom which human rights protect is the freedom to pursue the satisfaction of desires, and justice means equal claim of desires to be fulfilled. I don’t doubt that human rights function today to enforce liberalism and advance the liberal vision of the good, but it is not entirely clear to me how that advance is connected to “preference satisfaction” specifically. But Kalb’s main conclusion is clear enough: “As now understood, human rights are religiously and culturally intolerant in a peculiarly radical way.”


Obviously liberalism is the dominant force in contemporary Western politics. As I said earlier, it applies across the spectrum, albeit with different emphases. There do not seem to be any alternatives; liberalism’s position is unassailable. But Kalb believes that it is not so strong as it appears, not because there is an able challenger at present, but because it has intrinsic weaknesses. For one, it is not possible to govern without exercising authority, but liberalism has trouble making sense of authority: “if man is the measure it cannot be right to tell him what to do”. This was fine so long as liberalism was a critical perspective, but as it moves into the driver’s seat the tension between its ideals and its social role grows. Therefore liberalism must disguise the fact that it exercises coercive power. It does this, typically, by declaring alternatives out of bounds and itself the default winner, but this is a rather weak defence.

One very obvious problem with liberalism is that making freedom the highest good is non-sensical: “Freedom is always freedom to do something, so it must be subordinate to some other good that motivates it and makes it worth having.” We all know this to be true in our own lives. Of course, the whole idea of liberalism is that it is agnostic about questions of the good; it lets everyone pursue his or her own vision; and this is, with some justice, held to be one of its great merits. But the corollary is that all those visions of the good, no matter how passionately held or how compelling, cannot be allowed to really matter. They cannot be allowed any influence over social life, and, in practice, can only be contained by a battery of regulations, re-education, stigmatization, and bureaucracy. Many aspects of individual identity — “sex, religion, historical community, particular culture” — which have always been important to friendship, love, and family, and have been enduring features of most societies, are consistently suppressed and marginalized in a mature liberal culture. This makes it narrow rather than broad.

Kalb believes that the internal contradictions of liberalism, and its inability to moderate itself, will weaken and destroy it in the end: “The principles of liberal modernity are too simple and authoritative and their implications too clear to allow for changes even when those principles become obviously self-destructive.” Granted, this seems a long, long way off.

In the later part of his book, Kalb presents a case for an alternative to liberalism. He reviews various flavours of conservatism — this is actually one of the most interesting sections of the book — and, weighing their relative strengths and weaknesses, opts for a kind of traditionalism as the most promising option, principally because a social order rooted in traditions provides social continuity, can accommodate the complexities of lived experience because it doesn’t try to articulate clear abstract principles, is independent of any one group of people and so takes the focus off party politics, and can recognize standards of right and wrong, personal obligation, and so on.

But the main value of The Tyranny of Liberalism, it seems to me, is in its clear and systematic treatment of how a liberal order takes shape from the seed of its primary commitment to “equal freedom”, and its account of how that commitment gradually spreads to affect more and more aspects of life, inexorably undoing traditional, nuanced, and intuitive ways of doing things and replacing them with rational ways, narrowly understood, with a rearguard of regulations, education programs, speech codes, and stigmas to shore up its position. In the end, “only committed liberals are allowed to live as they choose”.


As interesting as Kalb’s argument is, there are naturally reasons to be critical of it too. Here is a summary, with links, to an interesting symposium on the book in which a variety of critical arguments are raised, to which Kalb himself responds. (Thanks, Maclin.)

Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

January 14, 2016

weaver-consequencesIdeas Have Consequences
Richard M. Weaver
(University of Chicago, 1948)
175 p.

“This is another book about the dissolution of the West.”

Such is the desultory opening sentence of a book that has, I think it is fair to say, achieved the status of a minor classic of contemporary conservatism. It is a curious book in some respects, rather uneven, but at its best it’s very good indeed. The title serves as an apt reference point for the book as a whole: ideas do have consequences, and Weaver takes us on a tour of the generally bad consequences that have followed from the generally bad ideas that animate the contemporary West.

The structure of the book is fairly loose. The chapters are arranged thematically: one about the modern aversion to hierarchy, another about the fragmentation of culture, one about modern media, another about political entitlements, and so forth. To the extent that there is an over-arching argument, it proceeds roughly as follows: key intellectual developments in late medieval Europe gave birth to a set of ideas that have animated the West for the past half-millenium, and those same ideas are progressively destroying the culture to which they gave rise. At the end, he speculates on what we ought to do about it.

The book is better on the small scale than on the large. Weaver must have been a world-class grouch, and he has a deliciously acerbic wit. His writing is often pungent, and cries out to be quoted. I’ll append a string of my favourite quotations to the bottom of this post.

Weaver famously identified the canker at the heart of Western culture with the nominalism of William of Ockham in the 14th century. Nominalism denied that things have real natures apart from the human mind, or at least denied that we can know them. This made possible the belief, at the heart of modernity from the beginning, that “man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals”. Weaver sees following in its train a host of distinctly modern ideas: a new theory of nature as a self-operating mechanism, the rise of empiricism, materialism, dialectical materialism in economics and politics, behaviorism, and on down the line.

Weaver is particularly good when he plucks at our culture’s aversion to social hierarchy and the making of distinctions: “The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” The problem has only gotten worse since he wrote, so this is prescient. Conservatives have long argued that when equality is taken as the highest good, the result, intended or not, is likely to be strife and conflict, for expectations of equality give rise to envy in the face of even natural and spontaneous degrees of distinction. Moreover, if all desires are held as equally worthy then the clash of conflicting desires can only be understood as a contest of wills, a struggle for power, rather than something judicable by a higher authority or standard. Weaver cites Shakespeare to this effect:

O, when degree is shak’d
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!…
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. [Troilus and Cressida, I.III.]

And he is himself quite good on the relative value of equality and fraternity as social ideals:

The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality, but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it (equality) in history because it (fraternity) goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights — that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.

In any case, the emancipators attack social hierarchy but tend to then replace it with bureaucratic hierarchy. This we have in abundance.

Some of Weaver’s other points, such as his observation that specialization cuts against the ideal of the well-integrated mind and contributes to the fragmentation of a common culture, or that we lose perspective when immersed in a clamouring media environment, are quite obvious and have by now become commonplace. There are times when his disdain for modernity gets the better of him, as when he describes jazz as “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.” Far be it from me to give a positive defence of jazz, but this does seem excessively grouchy. But even this comment takes place in the context of an overview of the trajectory of serious music since 1900 which is, on the whole, astute and defensible.

Toward the end of the book he considers resources for renewal. He stresses the importance of private property rights, which he, rather surprisingly to me, describes as “the last metaphysical right”. He explains: “We say the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness.” It is interesting that he sees private property in this light, rather than simply as a buttress against governmental power.

But even more than this Weaver recommends a revival of piety, which he defines as “a discipline of the will through respect”, arguing that piety is necessary on three fronts: toward nature, toward others, and toward the past. Modernity, conceived of from the beginning as a means to power through knowledge and of emancipation from the past, has always had intrinsic difficulty with the first and third. Piety toward nature would include a sincere concern for the integrity and health of our natural environment (and thus a corrective to the political right, broadly speaking) as well as, for instance, respect for the human body and the legitimate differences between the sexes (and thus a corrective to the political left, broadly speaking). Hostility toward the past is practically a defining feature of modernity: “I would maintain that modern man is a parricide. He has taken up arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration. He has not been conscious of crime but has, on the contrary… regarded his actions as a proof of virtue.” This pride that modernity feels in its destructive actions is a real phenomenon, and it makes the case for recovery seem hopeless. But for those of us who must live our lives in this particular time and place, we must salvage the fragments we have shored against our ruin, and Weaver’s counsel, though limited, does seem very much on point.


Now let me gather up some of the juicier quotations that I gleaned while reading:

“The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite.”

“Comfort becomes a goal when distinctions of rank are abolished and privileges destroyed.” (De Tocqueville)

“The very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper.”

“Fanaticism has been properly described as redoubling one’s effort after one’s aim has been forgotten.”

[Lost perspective]
Our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases with their degradation. Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens. It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself; and this, I suspect, explains why medieval thinkers were extremely agitated over questions which seem to us today without point or relevance… We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.

[Importance of sentiment to reason]
When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest. In the cultural life of man, therefore, the fact of paramount importance about anyone is his attitude toward the world. How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justify itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good.

[Conservatism as respect for existing forms]
We invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other. The truth can be expressed in another way by saying that the man of culture has a sense of style. Style requires measure, whether in space or time, for measure imparts structure, and it is structure which is essential to intellectual apprehension.

[Psychology of progressivism]
Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.

[Majority rule]
The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent.

[Metaphysics and sentimentality]
our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.

It is just as if Plato’s philosopher had left the city to look at the trees and then had abandoned speculative wisdom for dendrology. The people who would urge just this course are legion among us today. The facts on the periphery, they feel, are somehow more certain.

[A man of understanding]
The man who understands has reason to be sure of himself; he has the repose of mastery. He is the sane man, who carries his center of gravity in himself; he has not succumbed to obsession which binds him to a fragment of reality. People tend to trust the judgments of an integrated personality and will prefer them even to the official opinions of experts. They rightly suspect that expertise conceals some abnormality of viewpoint.

[Modern provincials]
Many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in time to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.

[Rights and obligations]
Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his actions to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.

[Medieval ego]
Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality. Dante’s “In la sua voluntade e nostra pace” is the final discovery. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.

[Modern media]
In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition… Here, it would seem, is the apothesis; here is the final collapsing of values, a fantasia of effects, suggesting in its wild disorder the debris left by a storm. Here is the daily mechanical wrecking of hierarchy.

[A mental habit]
The habit of judging all things by their departure from the things of yesterday is reflected in most journalistic interpretation… The touchstone of progress simply schools the millions in shallow evaluation.

[Reflection and judgement]
The absence of reflection keeps the individual from being aware of his former selves, and it is highly questionable whether anyone can be a member of a metaphysical community who does not preserve such memory. Upon the presence of the past in the present depends all conduct directed by knowledge.

[Mind and religion]
The Greeks identified God with mind, and it will be found that every attack upon religion, or upon characteristic ideas inherited from religion, when its assumptions are laid bare, turns out to be an attack upon mind. Moral certitude gives the prior assurance of right sentiment. Intellectual integrity gives clarity to practice. There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.


Farney: Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States

August 7, 2013

farneySocial Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States
James Farney
(University of Toronto Press, 2012)
208 p.

This book (written by a dear friend) examines the history and changing fortunes of social conservatism in North America since the Second World War. Generally speaking, social conservatives have had better success in the United States than in Canada, and the author argues that this has been only partly due to relative differences in opinion among the electorate; he stresses, in particular, differing views among the political classes about appropriate borders between the political and the personal (with the Canadians, influenced by British models, placing stricter limits on the scope of politics) as well as differences in party structure and discipline (with the Canadian parties subject to stricter discipline from party leaders).

These basic claims are illustrated through a thoughtful rehearsal of the history of social conservatism on both sides of the border. I found this tremendously informative, and valuable too for the perspective it brings to an appraisal of the current role of social conservatives in North American politics. For instance, social conservatives sometimes express disappointment with Stephen Harper (the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada) for his aloofness from matters of concern to them, especially abortion policy. Reading about the history of the conservative wing in Canadian politics, however, made me realize that Harper’s behavior is actually quite consistent with the mainstream of conservative politics in this country. That may not make social conservatives less disappointed, but it may make them less disappointed with him.

Another surprise was the generally positive appraisal of the efforts and accomplishments of Canadian social conservatives. I have generally considered the political wing of social conservatism in Canada to be weak and sickly, especially in comparison with its American counterpart. Though there is some reason in that assessment, this book helped me to see that, given their respective histories and differing political cultures, the Canadians have actually used fairly intelligent political tactics and achieved some notable successes — even if those successes have not extended to actual policy victories.

The book closes with a brief prediction about the future course of social conservatism. Although social conservatives have succeeded in influencing party platforms and political rhetoric, they have mostly failed to achieve their political objectives. This, together with the observation that public opinion is trending away from the social conservative positions on several issues which most interest them, leads to the prediction that the influence of social conservatism is likely to wane in the coming decades. This may well be true, but I am not wholly convinced: abortion, in particular, is an issue that seems to refuse to go away, and survey data indicate that public opinion lies somewhere on the social conservative side of the status quo; as such, there seems little reason for them to abandon the fight. Furthermore, the social conservative movement is reactionary — and I use the word in a descriptive, not a pejorative sense: it mobilizes around particular issues only because those at the other end of the political spectrum have raised the issues in the first place. Considering that the left seems in no mood to rest on its laurels, it may well serve as a source of continual rejuvenation for social conservatism.

The book is based on the author’s doctoral thesis, but it is written in an engaging and accessible style devoid of jargon. A reader like myself, with little background knowledge of the subject, has no difficulty following the argument. Many of the details in the book’s historical sections are based on the author’s interviews with the people involved, making it a particularly valuable resource for understanding a political movement so often misunderstood. Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of the book is its even temper: one could hardly imagine a more fair-minded and disinterested account. I can heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand North American social conservatism in historical context.

Unhappy anniversaries

January 30, 2013

This week marked two major anniversaries in the political struggle for legal protection for the unborn in North America: the twenty-fifth anniversary of R v. Morgantaler, which struck down all abortion laws in Canada, and the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which effectively did the same in the United States. This is not a subject that I enjoy writing about; the terrain has been covered so many times, over and over, that it hardly seems worth the effort to try again. The pro-life side has the moral high ground and the stronger arguments, but the pro-choice side has the power and the status quo, and, especially in Canada, nothing seems to budge one way or the other. Sometimes I feel like I am living in Louisiana in 1840.

Today, then, I will simply draw attention to some of the more noteworthy commentary that I have seen on this issue in recent days. Before doing so, however, I would like to briefly comment on the media coverage of these anniversaries.

The media coverage has been, putting it as kindly as I can, incompetent. Many pro-lifers have complained, for instance, year after year, that the mainstream media ignores the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. This year was no exception: hundreds of thousands marched, and most of the major US news outlets ignored it. Search Google News for “March for Life” and you’ll come up with articles from the National Catholic Reporter, Lifesite, the Nashua Telegraph, the Greene County Daily World, and other heavy hitters. The New York Times’ coverage was both minimal and biased (critiqued here), and the story filed by the AP was riddled with errors both factual and grammatical (fisked here). As has been noted, the day after the March for Life approximately one thousand people marched in favour of gun control, and the media was all over them. The disparity speaks for itself. If you want to see what actually happened at the March for Life, try YouTube.

In Canada the coverage of our anniversary was similar. The Canadian Press ran an article about how Canadians “don’t want to reopen the abortion debate”, a refrain heard so commonly up here that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone (probably from Quebec) would propose putting it into our national anthem. ([Snip: removed parenthetical comment.]) The National Post, our allegedly conservative national paper, seems not to have run a single article or column about the anniversary. The Toronto Star, our reliably left-wing daily, ran one column, by the odious Heather Mallick, celebrating Henry Morgantaler, Canada’s most prominent abortion activist. The CBC, our state-owned national broadcaster, reported that some barriers to abortion in Canada have yet to fall: namely, in Saskatchewan women seeking an abortion must make two separate visits to their doctor, rather than just one. And the flagship CBC radio news program ran a segment in which they interviewed Henry Morgantaler’s lawyer and an abortion clinic founder. How is that for fair and balanced? (Although it is nice to see the Morgantaler decision described as merely “historical” rather than lauded as “historic”, a subtle but significant difference that I am sure could not possibly be a mistake). All told, it amounts to a shameful lack of moral seriousness about the most important human rights issue of our time.

Let me point, briefly, to a few things worth reading from sources outside the main news outlets:

  • No-one should miss Mary Elizabeth Williams’ article in Salon, “So what if abortion ends life?” It has the courage to abandon the usual evasions of the pro-choice side of the debate. Of course, it is also blood-curdling. (And how much worse to hear it from a woman bearing those names.)
  • In “The Paradox of Persons Forty Years after Roe”, Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame Law School examines the way in which the debate about abortion addresses the foundations of our legal order. It’s an illuminating essay.
  • In “Bringing Marx into the Abortion Debate” Russell Nieli looks to an unlikely source for pro-life arguments. Couched in a reminiscence of an abortion debate at Princeton, Nieli emphasizes Marx’s insight into the ways in which material interests can distort our moral judgements, which is surely a significant factor underlying this issue.
  • In a review of Christine Overall’s book Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy L. Wax draws attention to the way in which liberal abortion laws undermine the rationale for child support laws. It is an obvious point, but one we do not hear very often.
  • Finally, a reprise of Richard John Neuhaus’ important address, given a few years before he died, “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest”:

    We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person — of every human person.