What is the order of being?
Your analysis of Theodore Dalrymple’s essential liberalism is brilliant, and goes far towards elucidating your critique of modern conservatism.
However, where you lose me is when you make statements such as the following: “It is not attitudes and personal style that make a conservative or a liberal, it is whether one believes primarily in a substantive order of being, or whether one believes primarily in freedom, equality, and non-discrimination.” (Emphasis added.)
With all due respect, the phrase “substantive order of being” is either impossibly opaque or completely meaningless. What does this mean in practice?
A few days ago you toyed with the idea that, perhaps, women should not be allowed to vote (a non-starter, if there ever was one). Is this the kind of “substantive order” you have in mind? (Keep in mind that while single women are overwhelmingly liberal/Democratic voters, married women with children are strong conservative/Republican voters.) Moreover, while we can debate what these terms “freedom, equality, and non-discrimination” mean in practice, they are undeniably at the heart of the American historical and cultural tradition. If this is what liberalism means to you, then perhaps you have a different national model in mind.
You also routinely throw around terms like “British, Christian, white, Western, European.” You are much too smart to think that this string of adjectives tells us anything particularly meaningful about what it actually means to be “British” (or “American,” when you use similar terms to describe our country). Some of the most hateful, life-destroying, un-conservative people and communities, both today and in the past, fit this description. (Many don’t, of course.) There is nothing magical about white skin or the Christian religion or Western European culture that necessarily leads someone to “conservative” ideas (however you define them, and I’m starting to be confused on this point) or to “liberal” ideas. As I noted in my own piece on this question, millions of white male Christians of Western European descent in this country believe in communism, in socialism, in the New Deal and the Great Society, in multiculturalism, in “tolerance” and so on and so on.
I enjoy reading your pieces for the impressive analytical power you bring to bear on each subject. But I very respectfully suggest that you need to work through, in much greater detail and with much more thought, what it is you affirmatively believe in and what kind of society you actually endorse.
Thanks as always for one of the most thought-provoking blogs on the internet.
First, I wish you had assumed that I was speaking in shorthand ideas that have been worked out more fully elsewhere, instead of telling me, that I “need to work through, in much greater detail and with much more thought,” what it is that I am saying. It is a bit unsettling when people expect that a brief blog entry must have all the information of a long article or a book. This would make any shorthand reference to larger ideas impossible.
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By order of being I am speaking of what Eric Voegelin speaks of in the opening sentence of Order and History: “God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being.”
The order of being means the tripartite order of existence in which we live: the natural order, the social order, and the divine order—the biological, the cultural, and the spiritual. Everything that exists is a part of one or more of those realms, with man in the middle, a part of them all and experiencing them all.
The natural or biological would include such things as the sexes and sex distinctions, the family as a natural human unit. Growth and decay. Birth and death. All inborn human traits. and differences. Race and race differences.
The social includes human society itself, the political and cultural traditions, bodies of laws and customs, created by men in the past, and passed down to later generations who add to it and change it.
Then there is God, the transcendent, the divine source of all being.
The order of being forms us and exists independently of us. We participate in it. We as individuals did not create any of these things. They are the givens which form us.
A culture is a particular way of symbolizing and expressing the order of being.
Liberalism denies the order of being. It denies the structure of existence. It denies the givens that form us. It says we can be whatever we want to be, that only the human will and human desire matter. Liberalism says that there’s nothing outside of or higher than the human self, its rights and desires. Liberalism recognizes only the equality of all human desires. In fact, liberals get angry at the very idea of an “order of being” because it implies that there is something outside their own will which would limit their freedom.
The structure of the world is experienced philosophically, spiritually, through rational intuition, and through common sense. It consists of all kinds of natural distinctions and hierarchies, which liberalism systematically denies.
Are there differences in inherited human ability? Yes. Liberalism denies them.
Are there sex differences that matter socially? Yes. Liberalism denies them.
Are there differences between cultures that matter socially? Yes. Liberalism denies them.
Are there race differences that matter socially? Yes. Liberalism denies them.
Are there moral distinctions, between good and bad? Yes. Liberalism denies them and says it’s not possible to make moral judgments.
Are there differences between behavior which is higher, nobler, closer to God, and behavior which is lower, more base? Yes. Liberalism denies them. It treats the base equally with the noble or rather it favors the base.
The order of being is not a political platform. Each culture and society is a unique and imperfect way of expressing the order of being and putting it into a form to make possible the life of a people. Believing in the substantive order of being does not necessarily mean that one must be against the women’s franchise. Yet at the same time, people who recognize the order of being would be more open to the reality of sex distinctions and would not programmatically deny them as liberals do.
You write: “‘You also routinely throw around terms like ‘British, Christian, white, Western, European.’ You are much too smart to think that this string of adjectives tells us anything particularly meaningful about what it actually means to be ‘British’ (or ‘American,’ when you use similar terms to describe our country).”
First, obviously, when I speak of “British, American, Christian, white, Western, European,” I am referring to the actual historical, cultural existence of the peoples, nations, cultures, and religions described in that list. At this very moment the historically British, Christian, white country of Great Britain is going out rapidly of existence. How can we talk about it without using words?
If you’re going to attack the very use of such words, conversation is going to be difficult, because you are implicitly denying that there are general, understood categories that have reality and that we can talk about. The liberal, nominalistic approach is to say that the overlap and the grey areas between different categories, and the different meanings that are often attributed to the same category, means that categories are unreal, a mere human convention. Traditional thought recognizes that categories are real.
You write: “here is nothing magical about white skin or the Christian religion or Western European culture that necessarily leads someone to ‘conservative’ ideas (however you define them, and I’m starting to be confused on this point) or to ‘liberal’ ideas.”
I certainly never said anything of the kind. I am saying that, for example, the Western world was the creation of the white race with its unique qualities. and was populated almost solely by the white race until very recently. The notion that the whiteness of the West is irrelevant to the West, and that Western societies would remain in existence if they became black or Chinese, is a typical expression of the liberal mind which denies the reality of the larger categories, including race, that form our existence. The white race with its characteristics was not sufficient to create Western civilization; but it was indispensable.
For you to believe that I’m saying that whiteness by itself is enough to create civilization is silly. What is more a part of the Western experience than tragedy, the fall of men and societies? The ancient Athenians created a peak of culture, then rapidly destroyed themselves. So obviously we are not speaking of some racial determinism here. Please don’t simplify things like that.
Also, here is an excerpt from my 2003 booklet, Erasing America: The Politics of the Borderless Nation, where I touch on the question of the order of being.
Another reason this revolution is not seen as such is that it represents the logical culmination of tendencies that have always been present in our society, but that used to be held back by other tendencies.
- end of initial entry -
From the earliest days of the Republic, the American mind has been divided between two opposing world views: the classical and Christian understanding that had been the basis of traditional Western culture and of American culture itself up through the Founding period; and the secular and democratic consciousness that was released by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and has been growing steadily stronger in the Western world ever since. To speak of these conflicting visions is not to imply that everyone simply subscribes to one or the other. The consciousness of most Americans over the past 200 years, including that of the Founders, has been an inconsistent mixture of the two perspectives.
In the traditional or Classical-Christian view, life is experienced as participation in (or as rebellion against) a comprehensive order of existence—natural, social, and divine—that precedes the existence of the individual. The basic values and institutions of society are affirmed by its members because they see them as grounded, not in the arbitrary will of men, but in truth. Freedom, creativity, and progress unfold from within the natural and transcendent orders in which man is situated, not in complete rejection of them.* At the same time, though capable of good, man is inclined to every kind of evil, particularly the lust for power. This realistic understanding of our flawed human nature was embodied in traditional morality, with its constraints on inordinate desire, and in the U.S. Constitution, with its system of checks and balances preventing the concentration of power in any one part of the state.
In the modern or Secular-Democratic view, life is experienced as an expansion of the unfettered human will into a reality created by man himself. Man is essentially good, and there is no higher truth from which he receives the order of his being. In effect, man’s preferences define what is good. The basic institutions of society are not grounded in any natural or transcendent order, but in human desire, and therefore must be continually reshaped to satisfy ever-changing human needs and demands. According to liberal democratic theory, the only thing needed to hold such a desire-based society together is a neutral system of rules and procedures to which everyone gives his assent. In reality, as people’s needs multiply and their desires grow more peremptory in the absence of any shared tradition or belief in higher truth, they cease being willing to abide by rules, even those to which they have freely agreed. So they attempt to erect a new society based not on law or contract but on the naked assertion of will—whether it be the will of each person (as in our present culture of radical individualism) or the will of some self-seeking or vengeful minority (as in our system of group rights and racial shakedowns), or the will of “The People” (as in the Jacobin-style rhetoric indulged in by Democrats during the 2000 post-election controversy), or the will of some unaccountable bureaucracy ruling over a post-political order (such as is now taking shape in Europe). Asserting the absoluteness of human will constrained neither by traditional culture nor by divine revelation, the Secular-Democratic consciousness moves simultaneously toward moral anarchy and totalitarianism. Experience shows that if secular democracy is not to become completely destructive of human goods, it must be held in check by surviving elements of the Classical-Christian consciousness or of some other viable social ethos. Through much of modern times, particularly in Britain and America, it was so held in check.
The revolution of our time consists in the virtual disappearance of any remnant of the Classical-Christian consciousness from the leading institutions of American and Western society, and their takeover by liberal and radical elites who have converted them to their own illegitimate purposes. Having elevated the counterculture into the dominant culture while reducing traditional beliefs to the category of thought crime, these elites enjoy unbridled sway over public life. Yet, by skillfully preserving a “mainstream,” “middle-class,” even “patriotic” facade, and by keeping the economy going, they have prevented most people from realizing that the revolution has occurred, and have thus avoided the immediate prospect of large-scale resistance to the new order. The instinctive conservatism of many Americans has also helped consolidate the new regime. Since the essence of small “c” conservatism is to uphold the established ways of one’s society, whatever those ways may be, and since the revolution is now fully established, America’s small “c” conservatives have in large part legitimized the revolution, insensibly adopting many of its values and fashions and giving them the seal of the “normal” and the “traditional.”
Bill Carpenter writes:
Great synopsis on the substance of existence. I often found Voegelin frustrating in his failure to spell out what the substance of a people’s existence was. I think you have filled that gap very nicely.
Thomas P. writes:
Your very interesting reply to Steven Warshawsky’s question about the “order of being”—and from which I learned a great deal—had an echo of Thomas Sowell’s analysis of the ideological origins of political struggles in his book, A Conflict of Visions.
As you no doubt know, Sowell discusses the elements of two competing visions that shape debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power. One vision (“conservative”) sees human nature as essentially immutable and selfish, while in the other vision (“liberal”), human nature appears to be infinitely ductile and perfectible.
Dylan H. writes:
I enjoyed reading your response to Steven Warshawsky. A couple of points that occur to me:
Firstly, in your juxtaposing higher truth vs. personal or collective will, or divine/traditional vs. secular-democratic, you have attached “Christian” to the former categories yet you do not use the “atheist” label in your characterization of the corresponding groups. Many non-Christian groups have contributed significantly to the development and maintenance of traditionally structured American society and this is reflected in the variable language you use for such social contracts. It seems to me that by omitting the use of “atheist” for the other, superficially dominant movement, you have failed to identify one of the principal and direct causes of that which has not incidentally but deliberately sought to undermine and destroy the former. Would you have us believe that atheism itself is but a side effect of more integral causes? If so, I would like to hear that argument.
Secondly, you state in general terms that the secular-democratic social swindle has fostered the now predominant belief that the absolute equality of individuals is a foregone conclusion. I think it is worth noting that one can reject the idea that individuals in relation to others are literally equal in social or even personal terms, at the same time recognizing that equal treatment and equal opportunity are a good foundation from which to start our dealings with others. To start with a level playing field should not confer any guarantee of the nature of the terrain as the game progresses (this is the opposite of the condition we now suffer under). The more religious idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God also deserves consideration, since it is vital to cleave this spiritual tenet from its corrupt usurpation by the secularists.
Interesting. However, you are not acknowledging that I use the words “secular,” and “secular-democratic consciousness” (a phrase that comes from historian Page Smith’s multi-volume history of the United States). I guess we could say that secular encompasses a range from, say Thomas Jefferson, who sort of, kind of, believed in some kind of God, to a full-blown atheist like, I suppose, Oliver Wendell Holmes. But I don’t bring out atheism specifically because, prior to just the last 15 years or so in this country, atheism was the non-belief that dared not speak its name. People have only very recently become explicitly and publicly atheist. So I think that “secular” is a better word for this tendency, it’s a broader word that includes atheism but is not limited to it. Secular might mean: “Well, maybe there’s a God, but he doesn’t have much to do with human life, so we don’t have to think about him. In fact, even if there is a God, any strong belief in him is so dangerous that it must be rigidly excluded from our society.”
(Of course, this secular view breaks down as soon as the “strong horse” of Islam rides into town; then suddenly the erstwhile liberals fall all over themselves to make Islam a publicly recognized religion, to teach it in the schools, and so on. But that’s another subject.)
On your second point, you are right that I could have put more emphasis on the older, less noxious idea of equality before launching into my critique of its modern, radical version.
Dylan H. replies:
Thanks for replying. I had always thought of “secular” as having no indication whatever regarding belief in God. In fact, one could speak of the secular and the religious concerns of society at the same time, regarding the same (religious) people.
Thank you for the work you do on VFR. It has helped a great deal to sharpen my thinking (maybe even reasoning) and bring clarity to some critical ideas.
Yes, secular does have the meaning you mention. In medieval society, secular meant for example the “secular powers,” the king and the nobility, the state, as distinct from the church. But the king and the nobility were of course devout Christians governing a Christian society. Secular simply meant that their power and responsibilities were of this world, while the power and responsibilities of the Church were of God’s world.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 11, 2007 04:43 PM | Send
But when people today describe our society as a “secular society,” they mean a society from which religion has been effectively removed. Whether or not any individual secularist is an atheist, all secularists share the agenda of weakening the role of Christianity in Western society. So in my opinion the broader and more accurate term for this movement that has existed since the 18th century is secularist, rather than atheist.