Quo vadis, Dalrymple?
Here is a short interview with Theodore Dalrymple from the Washington Times. He is promoting a new book entitled “In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.”
I have read a few of Dalrymple’s books and have appreciated a certain brooding, uneasy moodiness that he brings to the reader. But, like you, I am left wondering upon finishing his work, “Okay, now what?” His answer to the question below does not hold out hope that he has changed his modus operandi. I hope that I am wrong, as I have not yet read the book, but it would appear to be more diagnosis and not much prescription—other than changing the ” philosophical atmosphere,” which, he states, has been his intent all along. The final note of pessimism, “success is not guaranteed, indeed seems somewhat unlikely,” makes me believe that we will get a well probed dissection of what ails us without any of the hard facts of life by which we can start to save ourselves now.
Q: What, if anything, can be done to rehabilitate the notion of what Burke called “sound prejudice”?
A: This is a very difficult question. Obviously, it can’t be done by governmental fiat or legislation, because an enforced doctrine of healthy prejudice would be as bad as what it replaces. I think the only solution is to work to change the philosophical atmosphere of society, to try patiently to undermine what [Michael] Oakeshott called rationalism in politics. Success is not guaranteed, indeed seems somewhat unlikely. Be that as it may, that is what I have been attempting all these years.
Were we right about him, or were we right?
David G. replies:
You had him nailed, no question. Just how long do you think Theodore D. would need to change the philosophical atmosphere? About the same amount of time it would take to get 10 million more Muslims into the country? Great guns, is having a sense of urgency politically incorrect in and of itself these days?
He’s written innumerable articles about the impending end of British and Western civilization, and he has some idea of what is causing this. But instead of bringing his thoughts to bear on this imminent mortal threat, he’s working for some general philosophical change which (he probably hopes, but won’t say) will eventually be brought to bear on the real problems that he knows about but doesn’t want to specify.
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More importantly, the long-term philosophical restoration that Dalrymple seeks is the very thing that Britain does not need. I gather that what Dalrymple wants to bring back is an appreciation of non-conceptual Burkean prejudice, the wisdom of the accumulated experience of society, adherence to habit and tradition. The problem is that this Burkean outlook can only work in a society that has a sound and functioning tradition. In a society that has been transformed by leftist ideological radicalism, as Britain has been, Burkeanism is worse than useless, because the received habits and prejudices that it seeks to preserve are the habits and prejudices of the dominant left. It is for this very reason that British “conservatism” has been so helpless to hold back the ever advancing tides of cultural leftism since World War II and particularly in the ruinous period of Blair. Indeed, under the leadership of David Cameron, conservatism has defined itself as simply a type of left-liberalism, which is the natural destination of Burkean conservatism under a left-liberal order.
Read the newspapers columns of even the best conservatives in Britain today. They are unable to wage an effective intellectual and moral battle against the forces of destruction, because of that same British/Burkean dislike of first principles to which Dalrymple appeals—that distaste for conceptual thinking and clear distinctions that renders the conservatives so weak and watery.
Only a conceptual, rational conservatism, a conservatism that attempts to discover and articulate the essential truths of man and society, can fight back effectively against the dominant leftist ideology and its false principles.
That Dalrymple does not understand this shows his intellectual limitations, notwithstanding his stylistic gifts and his gloomy prophetic persona.
A friend I was just talking to on the phone said: “Dalrymple is pushing up against the lid of his box and has gone as far as he can go. He wants to be this literary gentleman who expansively notes the decline of his culture, but to do anything about it, no.”
John D. writes:
Dalrymple is a committed atheist. I don’t believe it possible to have anything but limitations in intellectual proficiency when one has never experienced the absolute Truth in the Transcendence. Is that not an insurmountable limitation in itself? It is my estimation that one cannot even begin to attempt to articulate the truths of man and society without the qualified knowledge of their Author and Creator, which would certainly exclude possessing the ability to resolve the complexities of the “human condition.”
Couldn’t an atheist have a sufficient understanding, based on commonsense and reason, that, say, Islam is dangerous to us and our way of life and has to be discriminated against?
John D. replies:
In the interview that David G. linked, Dalrymple states:
In a sense there has been an increase in the “philosophical worldview,” insofar as everyone is now expected, and expects, to be his own moral philosopher, so that even the most trivial of customs is examined from the point of view of first principles. One of the points of my book is that, if you insist upon examining questions such as whether people should put their feet up on the train seats in front of them from first principles, civilized conduct soon declines, because it is impossible to find definitive and indubitable reasons why people should not put their feet up on train seats in front of them. One does not learn good conduct by reflecting on first principles—which is not, of course, to say that good conduct is without any reason whatsoever.[Italics and bold added.]
In this case, “first principles,” I assume, should equate with the innate, instilled sense of moral conduct toward our fellows. It is obviously wrong for rudeness sake (and other reasons) to put your feet up on the train seat in front of you.
If Dalrymple finds it impossible to answer this simple question automatically out of that innate, instilled moral code which is conveyed through Transcendence, where would he find the proper moral conviction to denounce Islam as the pure evil that it is, from which the West needs to be protected? The only moral method for our protection (at this point) would be to discriminate against Islam, which Dalrymple seems to have the inability to find the moral understanding which would enable him to concur. One should have commonsense and reason, along with the ability morally and absolutely to discriminate between good and evil, having no misgivings about where they come from, and how to advocate for one and fight against the other.
The answer to your question sadly is, it doesn’t seem so.
To begin with, this is not, at least on the first view, about Dalrymple and his personal beliefs. He’s making a general point which is either true or not true. What he seems to be saying is that everyone today demands a rational reason for obeying every rule. By “first principles” he does not mean an innate or instilled moral sense; he means something that is supported by pure rational argument. And if every single custom and rule must pass through the test of “Does this satisfy [my] reason,” then it becomes impossible for society to have common mores and standards. Now I think this is true. The reason not to put your feet up (and we’re not speaking here of putting the sole of the shoe directly in contact with the seat as many people shockingly do today, since that is dirty and the reason for not doing it can be readily explained to people) comes from a sense that that is rude and offensive, and that in turn does come, as you point out, from a transcendent or intuitive sense of what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate to human beings living together in society; or else it comes from an accepted rule. It does not come from unaided logical reason. Now if people do not automatically obey the rule, and do not have the transcendent or intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, but demand a reason why they should not put their feet up, observance of that rule is going to break down. That’s why Dalrymple is arguing for the need for shared prejudices that everyone more or less accepts without demanding a reason for them.
In Gods and Men: The Origins of Western Culture, Henry Bamford Parkes argued that no society can survive based on pure reason. Every society requires shared adherence to standards and customs that are based on faith or transcendence. If people demand a reason for obeying every rule, the society breaks down. An example Parkes gives is the difference between the Athenian polis at its height in the early to mid fifth century B.C. as reflected in the tragedies of Aeschylus, in which there is a shared moral sense of truth, and Athens as reflected in the plays of Euripides in the late fifth century B.C., in which the characters have become egotists basing everything they do on what appears to be reasonable to them, and any social order disintegrates, as was actually happening in the time of Euripides.
A society cannot survive based on pure reason. All healthy societies have shared standards that are not instantly explicable in terms of pure reason. This doesn’t mean the standards cannot be explained. But to understand such explanations still requires an innate or instilled moral sense.
However, this is where Dalrymple’s atheism—his typical English atheism—becomes the issue. Where Dalrymple goes wrong is that apparently he can conceive of no alternative beyond either obeying a rule out of pure prejudice, or disobeying it out of pure reason. Because he lacks a sense of the transcendent, he doesn’t see a third possibility: that people obey a rule out of an innate moral sense, an innate attraction to the good. He also doesn’t seem to see that in any society the prejudices he would rely on are themselves based on an innate moral sense. He doesn’t think that society’s rules are based on anything higher. For him, the rules can only be supported by unsupported prejudice.
And, to return to an oft-stated theme of mine, someone who does not believe that the rules and ways of his society proceed from something higher, cannot ultimately defend his society when it is challenged. Which helps explain why Dalrymple can only describe Britain’s moral and cultural crisis, not resist it.
Finally, since England seems to be the Western country in which atheism is the most advanced, England is also the Western country that has most lost its will to exist, as shown by its outright surrender to jihadist Muslims and its lack of will to place any limits on immigration. Traditionalism means belief in transcendent truth as transmitted through a particular culture. The British today believe neither in transcendent truth, nor in their particular culture. And to the extent that they do believe in these things, they are diffident and apologetic about it. Those are the “conservatives.”
The problem affects the entire West, of course. It’s just that the British seem the worst in this regard. (But maybe I have that view simply because I know more about Britain, speaking the same language.)
A reader in Brazil writes:
I agree with you about Theodore Dalrymple. He criticises the deleterious effects of the Welfare State without understanding why it is harmful. He is an atheist who believes in evil. [LA replies: I don’t see your basis for saying that he believes in evil.]
In Britain it has reached the stage that if an academic professes a belief in God he loses all credibility. What a change from even 50 years ago when people like Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, etc. could talk about their faith and be respected. As I have said before, I believe that a large part of the blame for this widespread atheism can be laid at the door of the Welfare State.
For me one of the most telling differences between the United States and Britain is on a programme like American Idol where the contestants always thank God, then their family for an success they have achieved. If a contestant said that in Britain he would be greeted with howls of derisive laughter.
I wonder though, if one of the reasons that contributed to the generalised atheism in England was the Reformation with the expulsion of the Catholic Church and consequently popular expressions of religiosity on Saints days etc.
Here in Brazil, ordinary people make beautiful carpets of flowers at Corpus Christi, engage in plays and processions on Good Friday, the Epiphany and Whitsun. We have the popular Saint John parties at our winter solstice with typical food, dances and music. These festivities are an opportunity for ordinary people to express their faith visually and musically; opportunities that are denied them in Protestantism.
Unfortunately, with the spread of the Evangelical Churches here in Brazil these expressions of popular culture are also dying out. Liberation Theology and the Catholic Church itself after Vatican II are largely responsible for the growth of the Evangelical Churches.
“These festivities are an opportunity for ordinary people to express their faith visually and musically; opportunities that are denied them in Protestantism.”
Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 29, 2007 12:48 PM | Send
That’s a profound observation.
But your idea that Protestantism leads to the loss of faith we see in Protestant England is contradicted by your observation that in the (Protestant) United States people publicly and unembarrassedly express their thanks to God, even on a silly or degraded tv show like American Idol.