The July/August 2020 issue of Commentary contains a review (p. 54-56) of a book with the charmingly old-fashioned title Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life, by Ryan Hanley (Princeton UP). The reviewer, Tal Fortgang, begins by dismissing what he observes to be the current alternative sources of moral inspiration for “disaffected Millennials”: the “father figures who provide order and authority” such as Jordan Peterson, and, diametrically opposed, what he calls
the “dirtbag left,” a collection of self-righteous socialist trolls whose strategy for building a more caring society includes dancing on their political opponents’ graves. (54)
Fortgang categorizes—I think unfairly, although I see his point—these “post-liberal responses” as having more in common than they would like to admit, in the sense that they offer stereotyped answers to real moral problems rather than facing them directly. Fortgang is happy to follow Hanley in praising “a third way”:
The third way is that advocated by Adam Smith, the moral philosopher better known for his economics, but whose Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) provides all kinds of insight into the sources of youthful angst. (ibid)
Far be it from me to denigrate the moral wisdom of Adam Smith, who instead of proposing abstract ideals of “freedom” or “equality,” sees “every person [as] empowered to look inward and cultivate virtue.” And Hanley relates this otherwise abstract notion of “virtue” to the communal values encouraged by “capitalism,” that is, the sense of a market in which an individual’s innovations are of value only if they are useful for others. How many millennials are likely to be convinced by such arguments is an open question, but there is no doubt that such reflection is a definite improvement, at least in principle, over blindly following either Peterson or the “dirtbags.”
Yet as a work of moral philosophy, as Hanley’s work purports to be, I am sorry to say that, whatever its potential exhortative value, it documents precisely why today’s “conservative” thought is so politically impotent.
There are still many in the West who remain loyal to the Judeo-Christian virtues and their secular extensions. But exhorting those who are not to “return to the faith” is clearly a self-defeating proposition. I would not discourage the efforts of those who seek to rekindle the embers of neglected faith. But new problems cannot be met with old solutions. The churches remain out there, not all of which have followed the “liberal” stampede to the victimary credo. Why then do they not suffice unto themselves?
In order to induce the young to return to the traditional values that our current society has largely forgotten, and most of their generation never learned, ways of thinking based on these values are no longer sufficient. A more fundamental anthropological perspective is required to reground them in transcendence. It is no longer sufficient to evoke the Bible and Classical philosophy, the twin roots of the Western tradition, nor their later derivatives. We must return to the common originary source of both language and morality at the origin of the human.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 665, the originary hypothesis provides the only explanation of human morality that neither presupposes language (in order to formulate it) nor treats morality as a “natural” phenomenon independent of language—one presumably “evolved” from various strands of animal behavior, which came together in a “sense of justice” at just about the time that various other strands of animal behavior were “evolving” into language, along with religion/sacrifice, art, etc. etc.
The originary hypothesis allows me to explain the power of “woke” victimary thought while nonetheless not succumbing to it. It also allows me to articulate the central problem of the human community in a clear and simple fashion—which is in no way to provide it with a solution. On the contrary, the hypothesis is consonant with Hegel’s notion that history is its only “solution,” although the Hegelian notion of the “end of history” now appears even more fallacious than I had thought until recently.
The peace brought about by the originary establishment of reciprocal morality, which at first imposes equal sharing, permits humans to use the tools of language-mediated cooperation to “conquer nature,” and in the process, to invent new techniques and discover new knowledge. Inevitably, this process leads some individuals and groups to distinguish themselves from others, a relation to which I have given the name, first used in this context by Adam Katz, of firstness. Whether one holds a patent on an invention, or is hierarchically placed in the direction of others, the human community cannot function in the absence of some degree of “meritocracy.” The strongest, the wisest, the most intelligent—and the most sexually attractive, those most easily liked by their fellows, the most apt at seduction in every sense—cannot be altogether prevented from exercising their talents, and societies evolve insofar as this exercise can be made consonant with the minimum of moral equality necessary to ensure the coherence of the community. All history is the story of this interaction.
The reader has a right to ask why, if this idea is so powerful, has no one in any kind of authority, from René Girard to all our professors of Anthropology and Linguistics, even taken the trouble to try to refute it.
I believe that this is simply a sign of its historical prematurity. When I published The Origin of Language in 1981, I certainly did not expect such a reception, nor did Jack Miles, who sponsored the book, nor the UC Press, which, unbelievable as it may seem, actually purchased an advertisement bearing my photograph in the New York Review of Books.
Forty years on, I can understand this phenomenon much more clearly. It is not simply a matter of my not being in the field of linguistics, or my failure to flatter A, B, or C. Any such considerations merely mask the real problem of the incompatibility of the hypothesis with the “ways of thinking” of the West as they had evolved up to that point.
It is with the recent evolution of the victimary, having begun in the sixties with the New Left and, as they say, marched through the institutions of liberal democracy to attain a cultural dominance today not far from that of Mao’s Little Red Book, that the explanation becomes much more obvious, as well as more ominous.
If indeed we are now witnessing the first stage of, not the “decline,” as Spengler’s title is usually translated, but the Untergang, the going-under, the defeat of the West, then the current wave of “woke” victimary fanaticism and generative anthropology have one essential thing in common: they both reflect and “express” this defeat.
But whereas GA, like all Cassandra-like prophecies, offers an open-ended explanation in which hope is balanced with despair, victimary thinking, the sterile heir to the resentful/revolutionary thought that has dominated the West since the Enlightenment, is intellectually bankrupt. Wasting the least energy in refuting its nonsensical affirmations, as do most of our “conservative” publications, is avant la lettre a sign of defeat. A mathematician does not waste time arguing with those who insist that 2+2=5, or that knowing how to solve a differential equation is a manifestation of “whiteness.” And neither should we.
Thus the question for Western civilization must be, not “how can we remind young people of the universal value of the masterpieces/moral ideas of our civilization?” but “why it is that our civilization itself cannot maintain them?” That it is precisely our “seats of learning” that have since the 1960s led the way in this deconstruction of Western culture is anything but fortuitous.
Why has it become virtually inevitable that teachers from kindergarten to graduate school would be conveying the same anti-Western message to their charges? The answer cannot be found in “disloyalty,” let alone some kind of communist/fascist/Islamist conspiracy; it can come only from the emergence of what increasingly appears as the central defect of Western culture itself.
The understanding of generative anthropology as the synthesis of the two currents of thought that were at the base of “French Theory,” even if the Girardian strain was never given its due—today this trend has been partly reversed—allows us to analyze this development in terms of the fundamental constituents of the culture of the Judeo-Christian West.
In essence, Derrida and the mainstream of French Theory formulate a critique of metaphysics in an attempt to escape from the “prison house of language,” which Nietzsche intuitively understood as the problem, not primarily of the “Greek” side of Western thought, but above all of its Judeo-Christian element: the ressentiment he associated, not altogether incorrectly, with the Jews.
To refer to Nietzsche is to recall that the opposition between Greek reason and Judeo-Christian revelation is not absolute, as it seemed to the Enlightenment. The original synthesis of these elements that the Enlightenment sought to destroy has been so far the most successful way of advancing the interests of the human community. The Enlightenment drive to replace divine with worldly “reason,” thereby fetishizing language as a neutral instrument whose “discovery” by humanity became impenetrable, provides the simplest explanation for the political disasters of the 20th century, disasters whose potential for renewal has gradually revived since the 1960s, and has now been accelerated by the COVID19 crisis.
Defining the problem is not solving it, but it offers the possibility of rethinking the fundamental constituents of what we call our “system of values,” the ethic that underlies the variants of liberal democracy practiced in the nations of the West. The anthropological foundations of this ethic were not, which is to say, could not have been discovered at any previous historical moment.
Nor could the new way of thinking that is generative anthropology have been formulated at an earlier time. Before WWII and its revelations of mankind’s maximal potential for physical and moral violence, the insights that revealed its component elements were not yet available. But before going back over its past history, it is more urgent to apply its lessons to our present predicament, which it has so to speak been “designed” to explain.
To witness how easily the whole edifice of Western culture can within the space of a few decades become an object of ridicule and vilification among its own elites for having been the creation of (mostly) white males forces us to seek a “fatal flaw” in the foundation of the ethic that has allowed this.
This mindless condemnation of the culture’s works on victimary grounds does not deserve the least intellectual or moral respect. If this tactic, put forth by openly racist organizations such as BLM, suddenly appears unanswerable, so that the least attempt to express a timid doubt of its full justification, say, by claiming that “all lives matter,” is met with savagery and left undefended by the liberal establishment—such a calamity reveals the equivalent of a seismic fault that had lain deep within the Western ethos from the beginning, but whose destructive potential had remained hidden so long as its causes were producing other, beneficial, effects.
It is significant that many people react with annoyance to my use of the Gallicism victimary. The term’s implication of “blaming the victim” evokes a knee-jerk response that overrides even the most obvious abuses. It is easy to mock the proliferation of victimary categories employed by the “woke,” but if they are indeed ridiculous, why then has their evocation been so effective?
As I have been pointing out in these Chronicles, resentment, which is as close as we come to a “human instinct,” is an inevitable by-product of the moral model initiated in the originary event. It became a permanent anti-social force upon the usurpation of the ritual/communal center by the first “big-man” or his equivalent.
No society can survive if such resentment is considered legitimate. We may presume that in early egalitarian societies, acts motivated by resentment of someone’s real or imagined violation of reciprocity were tolerated as the means of maintaining the egalitarian order, even if they frequently led to feuds and tended to make such societies much more violent than apparently “less just” hierarchical societies.
With the institution of organized hierarchies, everyday resentments were simply repressed by force. The early “compact” empires were not happy places for most of their population, and agricultural technology in particular was very slow in evolving. As Rodney Stark points out in his excellent How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books, 2015), a work that provides a worldly supplement to Eric Voegelin’s narrative of spiritual liberation in Order in History, it was the “chaotic” variety and rivalry of the Greek city-states that permitted the economic as well as intellectual breakthroughs that led, along with the Hebrew experience of Exodus, to the Christian synthesis that produced Western civilization.
Far from opposing, as has been virtually universal since the Enlightenment, Christianity to the rational interpretation of empirical data that led to modernity, Stark demonstrates that the source of this modernity is to be found in Judeo-Christian culture itself, in contrast to the Platonic idealism that dominated even the Aristotelian branch of ancient thought.
I have referred several times to Michael Tomasello’s Voltairean “explanation” of religion:
One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way. . . . A major source of wonder in human experience is where are [sic] our venerated ancestors who founded our society, and indeed, a key foundation of a religious attitude is the veneration and worship of deceased ancestors and traditions whose spirit somehow lives on (Steadman et al, 1996). Leaders then took advantage of this attitude and claimed supernatural sources for their leadership.
A Natural History of Human Morality, Harvard, 2016, p. 131. (The remainder of this paragraph is cited in Chronicle 519)
to illustrate an egregious blind spot in the minds of today’s social scientists. But this paragraph provides an equally mindless description of social hierarchy. It implies that any form of leadership is the result of deception. The leader, presented as sole agent of his leadership, legitimizes his rule by instilling and/or exploiting supernatural/irrational ideas in a credulous populace.
Yet without the firstness of “leaders,” no society would survive to compete with others. The only more or less egalitarian societies are those which have not experienced the Neolithic revolution. The moralism that condemns inequality a priori is, precisely, the product of the epistemology of resentment whose flourishing is currently giving the lie to the West’s espousal of individual freedom.
It is crucial to understanding the current crisis that what is fast becoming a bug in the Western tradition is a derivative of what had been its most significant feature. It is precisely the reversal of the worldly and the transcendental, God and Caesar, this world and the next, that has made the West great, a dichotomy that Christianity, rooted in Judaism, takes to the point of paradox: “the first shall be the last.”
For a couple of millennia, this spiritual and institutional separation of church and state has allowed the individual, even be he a slave, to assert his human dignity. It was from an anthropological perspective a highly insightful recognition of the fundamental nature of the moral model at the foundation of the human, one that was eventually given substantive political realization in the American Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal.
But the flaw in this noble model is that, because (moral) equality and (ethical) firstness are not on the same level, they cannot be reconciled within the individual in the absence of loyalty to an ethical community. The Christian sense of the sanctity of the victim was not intended to be directly applied to the social order. The ancient slaves who became Christians were not demanding worldly equality, but asserting their fundamental humanity. To the extent that their faith had a political component, it resided in the hope that shared belief in moral equality would eventually make slavery ethically unacceptable as well, as occurred, as conservatives like to remind us, only in the Judeo-Christian West.
At the moment of the success of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s, the elimination of obstacles to the advancement of blacks was heralded as the moment when they, along with everyone else, would be judged by the content of their character. But this was immediately taken to imply that if they were less successful, for example, on standardized tests, then the tests were instruments of racial oppression “by other means.”
The question this poses is, why, after Dr. King articulated this goal in Christian terms, which had always been seen as consonant with the American idea that each individual (“created equal”) should have a chance (“life, liberty”) to prove himself (the “pursuit of happiness”), the situation was immediately reconfigured in terms of outcomes, requiring in effect open-ended compensation for past discrimination. And the answer is that, whereas the focus on individual “happiness” is founded on the transcendental value of the moral equality we derive from God, the loyalty of the individual to the community—what is due to Caesar, or to a putative American republic—is, significantly, not referred to in the Declaration.
Caesar was an external force, not one included within the Christian orbit. Christianity extended the originary Hebrew vision of God to the whole world, but in so doing, it separated the sacred from the community, which was seen as external to the individual, save within the hierarchy of the church itself. Not that the Church ever set the individual in rebellion against the public authorities. But as now appears, this promotion of the individual soul over the community, which underlay the vast achievements of the West, also bore the seeds of its potential downfall.
Let it suffice for the moment for me to repeat René Girard’s diagnosis of the result of WWII:
Far from snuffing out concern for victims, [the Hitlerian enterprise] only accelerated its progress, but has left it completely demoralized. Hitlerism has avenged its failure by making the concern for victims despairing and caricatural. (Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair, Grasset, 1999: 271; my translation)
I need only add that what has made Hitler’s “vengeance” possible is that the Christian concern for victims (le souci des victimes) denies—as the Hebrew did not—the transcendental connection between the soul’s moral equality and the body’s dependence on the worldly community.
We can only hope that the coming to consciousness of the critical nature of this problem can return us to the Judeo-Christian principle of national unity on which our liberal-democratic polity was founded. E pluribus unum can function only if the union it describes is experienced as a recreation of the originary unity of the human community.
To be continued…