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The Apotheosis of the Status Quo

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It occurred to me, reading through the comments from last night, that part of the problem here may be a matter of definition.   Robert says that once a society rejects the core principles of Western civilization, it should no longer be considered part of Western civilization.

I agree, I think I just don’t agree on what those “core principles” are.  Western civilization is uniquely the one that assumes that we can master the world “by reason alone,” that we should not simply accept morality or government or explanations of how the giraffe came to be on the basis of religion or tradition, but should apply our minds to those things instead.

Communism is as thoroughly Western as capitalism is, and the French revolution is as thoroughly Western as the American one.   No matter how different these things look on the surface, and they’re very different in vitally significant ways, they are still examples of societies that assume that the status quo is not sacred and that people can–and should–change even those things that seem most sacred or most anchored in a longevity of usage.  

I  think that what Robert is calling the “core values” of Western Civilization are actually the core values of the Anglophone sphere, which is a very particular branch of that civilization.  I  think a case can be made that it’s also the best branch, and the most useful, but that’s for another topic.

I don’t think we can split the history of political philsophy between one strain that just describes actually socieites and another that wants to change them root and branch. Even a quick look through Aristotle’s Politics will show you that Aristotle was not content with describing and cataloguing the societies around him.  He wanted to formulate principles for change, and did.  He differs from  Plato in that regard only in his essential pessimism.  Plato thought people could change a lot.  Aristotle thought they could only change a little, and that some things about human nature could not be cured, no matter how bad they were.

But you don’t even want a political philosophy that restricts itself to describing what actually is, or limits its recommendations for change to what already exists.  If that’s what we’d done, we’d still have slaves, and women would be unable to vote.  

One of the most interesting things about the history of politics (and political philosophy) is just this:  the most radical, lasting and successful changes to human society have come out of that very  pessimistic, theoretically-committed-to-the-here-and-now philosophical tradition of that same Anglophone sphere.  While Continental Durope was sneering at the British for being a nation of shopkeepers, and preening itself on its “real” (as opposed to the fake American) revolutionary tradition, the British managed to end slavery worldwide (for a time, at least), give women full political rights, and establish religious toleration, while their colonies and former colonies were moving on to full religious freedom and the first modern democratic states.

But besides that, it isn’t true to say that Plato didn’t look into the societies that really existed around him, and it really isn’t true to say that of Hegel.

Look through the Socratic dialogues, and you’ll find endless references to and discussions about the particulars of actually existing societies.  Look through the Laws and The Republic and you’ll see that Plato at least thought he was basing his suggested reforms on life in Sparta, which Plato tended to idealize in ways that were only possible to somebody who didn’t live there.

(Here”s an idea for a blog post sometime–I’ve just finished reading Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World, which is a history that begins in the first Greek city-states and ends with the Emperor Hadrian, and one of the things he kept pointing out at one point was that a lot of the enmity between Athens and Sparta came from the absolute disgust of the Athenians when they discovered that Spartans kept fellow Greeks, and even fellow Spartans, as slaves.  I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that Plato, in his old age, felt it necessary to decamp to the provinces to go on teaching.)

At any rate, Plato was not attempted to found a society from scratch using nothing of what he knew of actual societies to build it.  The Socratic dialogues are absolutely full of the investigation of the particulars of those societies, and criticism of them, and we really don’t want to do without the criticism.

But the thing about Hegel is this:  he not only wasn’t trying to design a society from the ground up, he wasn’t trying to design one at all.   Hegel’s political philosophy consists of a just-so story about how the very society he lived in represented not only the ultimate and final pinacle of civilization, but held that position inevitably.  History had a purpose.  It was a story of progress, which reached its goal in early nineteenth century  Berlin.

Hegel became important not because of blueprints he drew up for the ideal society.  He drew no such blueprints.   He merely described the society he lived in as ideal.

Hegel becomes important because of the way in which he justified his judgment of the perfection, the system he erected to explain why “progress is inevitable” and why that progress necessarily led to the world in which he lived.

It turned out that you could take that idea that “progress was inevitable” and put it to a lot of uses Hegel never even considered.

First, note what should be obvious here: the idea that history has a goal, that it is moving purposefully to a predetermined end, is not Hegel’s invention.   It’s standard Christian eschatology.  In Christianity, life on earth is a story that starts in the Garden of  Eden and ends at the Second Coming.  Its ending is predetermined, because God cannot lose. 

Hegel took God out and substituted History instead.   With Hegel, it always helps to capitalize History.  The role of History, however, is so like the role of  God in the Christian story that the two are largely indistinguishable.  History guides and directs everything we do, even when we’re not aware of it.  History cannot lose the fight to produce that ultimate civilization.  The victory has been predetermined.

Of course, History was a blind force and not a conscious being who could answer prayers–but that distinction is less significant than you’d think.  Even most devout believers don’t expect  God to actualy talk directly to them.  Instead, they expect to have to interpret messages from the Almighty through signs and signifiers.  Hegel thought we could do the same with History.

What Hegel produced was not so much a new political philosophy as a form of Christian heresy–and no, I didn’t think that up.   I wish I had.  I think it was probably pretty obvious.

But here’s the thing–if Hegel constructed what was essentially a Christian heresy, then all the philosophers who followed him and used his ideas as their starting point produced Christian heresies as well.

I got into a lot of trouble on a newsgroup once by pointing this out in regard to  Marxism, only to be told that Marxism might be an ideology, but it couldn’t be a religion, because in order to be a religion it had to have dogma and rituals.  Leaving aside the fact that there are several world religions without dogma, this was a person who apparently wasn’t paying much attention to  Marxism either.  I mean, dogma?  Rituals?   Yes, absolutely.

The apotheosis of history led to two superficially divergent, but actually nearly identical, political philosophies–fascism and communism–and they’re both Christian heresies.  Fascism looks less like one, because it’s so concerned with the will to power, but in fact there’s an entire strain of  Christian theology that concentrates on the power and the glory of the Risen Christ, of Christ triumphant. 

Marxism managed to take over not only Hegel’s apotheosis of history, but Christianity’s revolutionary redefinition of the status of the victim. 

We’ve become so enmeshed with this idea, it’s so much a part of the everyday fabric of our lives, that we don’t even realize that it’s unusual.  It is, however, very unusual indeed.  The idea that victims are have moral status because they are victims, that suffering is valorous and to be admired, is thoroughly Christian and was spread throughout the West along with its conversion from paganism.  It properly comes out of one strain of Judaism, but its force is a result of Paul’s mission, to “preach Christ, Crucified.”

The Romans and the Greeks would have thought this idea was nuts.  So would most present-day Muslims.  It was the part of Christianity that both Nietzsche and fascism rejected, and that rejection is, I think, part of why fascism has had a limited appeal in the West.

Marxism took Christ off the cross and nailed the Proletariat up there instead, and by doing so made it possible for a secularizing people to transfer their allegiance from the old religion (Christianity) to the new one (Marxism) without missing a beat. 

I don’t think that this is the only reason Marxism has had such staying power in the West, but it’s part of the reason, and I would think a big part.  I don’t think Marxism as a phenomenon, as it has played out in the West, makes any sense except as a religion, and as a specifically Christian religion.  

Maybe the word I’m looking for is “Christianoid.”

Whatever the word is, or should be, we come down to this:  Plato and Hegel and Rousseau and Marx are not only indelible parts of Western civilization, but they have and will continue to influence us all in a lot of ways.   Ideas have consequences, but those consequences are not always entirely straightforward, or unmarked by divergencies.

Both the American revolution and the French one derived from the same sources.  Both the ideals of the Anglophone sphere and those of Continental sources derived from the same sources.   If  I set a two balls rolling down a hill, they won’t necessarily take the same course. 

If you want to keep the particular strain of Western civilization that resulted in the ideals and assumptions of the Anglophone sphere, you have to know all of it, even the stuff that didn’t lead to what you want, because if you don’t, you’re going to get hit in the face b the newest variation coming down the line.

And even if you know it, you might still get blindsided.

And here I am again, and not a word about the Durants.

Ack.  Big day. 

See you all later.

Written by janeh

June 25th, 2009 at 5:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Apotheosis of the Status Quo'

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  1. Christianoid, not Christian, definitely!! I don’t really think you can call a movement Christian unless it has the Trinity in it (and I know I’m making that claim in the face of some modern Christian theologians who don’t believe in anything resembling the … if I don’t pick the right word, they’ll complain … more traditional Christian views of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit).

    But it’s always been perfectly obvious to me that a great many movements, most noticeably the political ones, operate in exactly the same way as many religions do and call upon faith in the very simplistic way I was taught to as a child. I’ve had lengthy arguments with people who disagree with me, so there are people who don’t see the comparison.

    You have your scripture and your approved interpretations of it in the form of the writings of the originator and the early (and, if the ‘ism’ has been on the go long enough, later) followers. You have an organization to propagate and develop the ideas. You have methods of dealing with people who disagree with the dogma – see the infighting in the feminist movement, the animal rights (not welfare) movement, and of course, the various branches of communism. Even the process by which the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party was replaced by the Conservative Party could be construed in the same way!

    I confess I tend to think of ‘Western Civilization’ as ‘Anglophone Civilization’, even though I know better. It’s just sloppy thinking on my party – as when I made some comment on the historical economic position of Ireland in Europe to an African who stared at me bewildered for a minute, and then said ‘Oh! You mean ‘Western Europe’!’. Which I did. I know intellectually that Western Europe isn’t the whole continent, but I tend not to talk as though I do.

    I think I’ve got a magpie mind – I pick up and remember and use odd bits of information – weren’t the Durants once considered an example of a rather indecent marriage because she was so young at the time – but of course it turned out to be successful? I must go and google…


    25 Jun 09 at 6:19 am

  2. You know, a few posts back, the primacy of the individual, objective truth and free speech and debate were core Western values. “By reason alone” as you’re using it would make Mao and his successors (not to mention Pol Pot) part of the Western tradition, and St Augustine and Homer–something else. I think we can do better than that.

    I refuse–I point-blank refuse–to spend my old age debating how much of Plato’s accounts of Socrates are accurate, and now much Plato piggybacking on Socrates. I do think the observation that Plato was using as a model Sparta, and didn’t know Sparta very well, is telling. It is not a thing which could be said of Aristotle, who was my counterexample. All the “root and branch” society builders seem to have a better society somewhere else they don’t know very well. Contemplate Rousseau’s first-hand knowledge of child-rearing. It seems typical of the breed.

    And I have not opposed reformers. Aristotle too had an idea of an improved polis, but it was based on a study of 300 constitutions, and how things worked in existing ones. Many good things have come from reformers. You change one thing, and see what happens. Emancipation worked. Prohibition didn’t. Careers for women worked. The Federal government regulating private train schedules didn’t. It’s called pragmatism, and it’s heavily based on real-world experience.

    Our disasters have come when someone decides he can imagine a complete society–obviously, because of his brilliance, a vast improvement on existing ones. I can’t think of a major effort along these lines which hasn’t slaughtered children as enemies of the improved state, and they all seem to have body disposal problems. There is a story that Gallifet in 1871 made a point of shooting the oldest communards, because THEY ought to have known better. He may have had a point.

    Now, Jane would like to make Communism, Fascism and, logically, the French Revolution, Christian heresies,but that’s not the entire picture. Each of them required not a variant Christianity, but REJECTING Christianity–moving Heaven from the next world to this, and binning a whole slough of commandments which would only have gotten in the way of the new world–and surely, one can just think up a suitable code of ethics instead of defering to superstition or tradition, anyway! That’s when the body count starts to rise–mostly overseen by bright fellows who went to good schools.

    The sort of people who think they can imagine a completely new society have had a run of better than two centuries now, and the body count is in the low eight figures. I think it’s time we stopped regarding them as decent people. Of course they should be studied–like cancer in a medical school.

    But a good grounding in History is sufficient for practical purposes. Let the Philosophy departments seek willing victims.


    25 Jun 09 at 5:06 pm

  3. One more try: ‘Western civilization is uniquely the one that assumes that we can master the world “by reason alone,”’ No troublesome God in the analysis. Right! BUT

    “Hegel took God out and substituted History instead. With Hegel, it always helps to capitalize History. The role of History, however, is so like the role of God in the Christian story that the two are largely indistinguishable. History guides and directs everything we do, even when we’re not aware of it. History cannot lose the fight to produce that ultimate civilization. The victory has been predetermined.

    Of course, History was a blind force and not a conscious being who could answer prayers–but that distinction is less significant than you’d think. Even most devout believers don’t expect God to actualy talk directly to them. Instead, they expect to have to interpret messages from the Almighty through signs and signifiers. Hegel thought we could do the same with History.”

    So Hegel and his philsophical followers, having let God sneak back under the tent, have blown a humongous hole in the “by reason alone” bit. Indeed they–and for that matter the Philosophes–are “Christian heretics” even though they’ve denied the divinity or even the existence of Christ, Creation and Sin, because they still believe in progress. Anyway, having admited religion back to the debate, Marx & Co have flunked “by reason alone,” and so are outside today’s definition of Western Civ’s core values, EXCEPT:

    “Communism is as thoroughly Western as capitalism is..”

    I don’t think these statements are consistent with one another.

    Oh! And please note that the Anti-slavery movement, and the Civil Rights movement to follow, are led by those not quite-Westerners who keep using God in their thinking–specifically, in both cases, Christian ministers.

    You can make the belief in progress rather than “reason alone” the core Western value. It saves the Communists–but it also lets us Christians back in. Can’t have it both ways.


    25 Jun 09 at 6:21 pm

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