The escape from uncertainty: a theory of liberalism
I learned something about liberalism driving to the train this a.m. from two highly intelligent drive time radio jocks on one of our local conservative radio stations here in the Bay Area. One asked the other, “Do you think that liberals really, really believe in their hearts that when the government runs our whole medical system it will be better than it is today? I mean, how can you be awake and believe that? How can they avoid the conclusion that it will be far worse?”
His partner replied: “It’s because they hate uncertainty more than anything. They can’t stand the thought of all these private companies and their messy, unorganized competition being in control of the economy. They want everything nailed down, controlled, determined, so that they don’t have to be afraid anymore, so that they know everything will be taken care of. They are happy to trade a reduction in quality for an increase in certainty.”
I thought, “That’s just true. It’s not so much their abstract philosophy that’s driving them, as it is their own fear. Which only makes sense. Because liberals believe that we can’t apprehend the truth (either because it isn’t out there, or because we haven’t the capacity—see my four philosophical types—or because they are themselves sloppy or lazy thinkers, and feel therefore that they themselves don’t understand things), they condemn themselves to uncertainty about everything, and thus to fear. The natural human response is to clamp down, to control everything that can be controlled. Interesting.”
This evening, driving home from the train, I reflected upon this notion of the liberal drive to rub out uncertainty, and remembered Twain’s aphorism that only death and taxes are really certain. What is the liberal platform? Taxes, of course, but mostly death: abortion, euthanasia, the destruction of the family, of marriage, of enterprise, of property, of gender, science, religion, the arts, and morality, national suicide, zero population growth, radical environmentalism, on and on, the familiar litany.
Eliminate the uncertainty in life and you eliminate all the adventure thereof, leaving only the certainties: death and taxes.
Who else hates uncertainty and mess more than anything? Gnostics. Interesting.
Congratulations. This is a new and exciting insight into liberalism.
Let me try to state in my own words what I think you’re saying.
(1) Liberals, being non-believing relativists, think that real knowledge is impossible [see note]; (2) therefore the world is both forever unintelligible to them and forever uncertain to them (a symptom of which is that they’re always being “shocked” by entirely predictable and lawful events); (3) to escape from the alienation that results from unintelligibility and from the powerlessness that results from uncertainty, the liberals must make the world intelligible and certain. They do this by acquiring ever greater control over the world. The planned society is both certain and knowable.
Further, as you suggest, this entire operation fits the pattern of gnosticism. To liberals, as to gnostics, the real world is variously senseless, meaningless, random, weird, off-putting, alienating, false, and malevolent. (As I said the other day, for Randians and liberals, normality is evil). To end the alienation, they must take control of the world and reconstruct it into a new world of which they are the masters and gods, controlling all, knowing all. They end their alienation by becoming themselves the all-powerful embodiment of all truth—again, a classic gnostic operation.
Further, are you aware that according to Voegelin the motivating impulse of gnosticism is the desire to escape uncertainty? The form this took in the early Christian period was a rejection of the uncertainty involved in the faith relationship with the transcendent God and the replacement of that relationship with complete possession of God, either through gnostic knowledge of the true God, or by becoming God oneself. One of the forms that the gnostic escape from uncertainty takes in the modern world is the replacement of the uncertainty of normal human life in normal society by the planned and controlled society.
The socialist, controlled society thus reveals itself as a typical gnostic phenomenon.
Now here are some questions. Is this liberal drive to eliminate uncertainty by constructing the perfectly planned and controlled society more primary than the liberal drive to end inequality and difference by constructing the equal and all-inclusive society? Or are the two drives simply two aspects of the same drive? Or do the two drives operate separately from each other as different aspects of the liberal system?
Yes. You have unfolded the insight in a most satisfactory way. All of what you have written was fully present, but inchoately, in my gratified reaction to the radio jocks this morning. Thank you for putting it into words so well.
Re ancient Gnosticism, it is important I think to remember that it was essentially a form of magic: an attempt to take control of the supra-human Power that rules over all things and is present in us as a divine spark, and to use that Power to the gnostic’s own ends. It was essentially Pelagian; a profoundly debased version of salvation by works. It was also—here’s the death and nihilism bit again—an attempt to kill the power over the soul of the created order; it was an attempt to leave that order altogether, in favor of a better, higher, purer plane.
Mysticism on the other hand is not at all interested in taking control of anything. It is, rather, interested in surrendering control to God, derogating all creaturely desires to His sovereign Will. Although mysticism and magic use many of the same techniques, and have many of the same results, they are diametrically opposed. The magician sets himself up against God, and for himself and his own salvation; the mystic sets himself up for God, does his best to make himself about God, and about nothing else at all. For the gnostic, it’s all about me; for the mystic, it’s not at all about me, but about God.
So, anyway, ancient Gnosticism, like modern Liberalism, was an attempt by the self to impose its control upon existence. This always tends in the end to a desire for universal death, because if God is not in charge of the world, no part thereof can be really good. Satan is the archetypal gnostic.
Is this liberal drive to eliminate uncertainty by constructing the perfectly planned and controlled society more primary than the liberal drive to end inequality and difference by constructing the equal and all-inclusive society? Or are the two drives simply two aspects of the same drive? Or do the two drives operate separately from each other as different aspects of the liberal system?
I believe the drive to eliminate uncertainty is more basic than the drive to end inequality and difference. The drive to end difference is an expression of that deeper drive; another such expression is the drive to eliminate free, messy, uncontrolled enterprise.
Why would ending inequality and difference reduce uncertainty? Because if everyone is just the same, then all my uncertainty about the anfractuosity, bewildering variety and unpredictability—the sheer, untamable wild danger of humanity—just goes away. If I can convince myself that everyone is the same, why, then, apart from a few superficial differences they are all really just the same as me, and will therefore like me; so I needn’t be afraid of Muslims or gangbangers or poor people or powerful bankers or anybody. So alluring is this idea, that it can overwhelm our commonsense apprehensions of immediate danger. Thus the civil libertarian who would rather die than admit to his politically incorrect impression that the Arab in the seat ahead of him is planning to blow up the plane. Thus the pretty young blonde who gets plastered and wanders alone and disheveled through the ghetto at 2 a.m. Thus the liberal inability to recognize his mortal enemy as such, instead focusing all his hatred on his fellow citizens who have the bad manners to disturb his equanimity by pointing out that we have enemies.
Laura Wood said all of this—all of it, and more—in three short sentences the other day at Thinking Housewife:
To believe in everything is to doubt everything. To doubt everything is to affirm nothing. To affirm nothing is to fail to love.
Laura’s “doubt” is the “uncertainty” of the radio jocks. I would add only one more sentence: to fail to love is to hate everything.
Re your last big paragraph, YES. Instead of the constant uncertainty of having to figure out, “Which people are more like the people of my society / more assimilable / more to be trusted / more readily to be included, and which people are less like the people of my society / less assimilable / less to be trusted / less readily to be included?”, the liberal has a simple formula that dispels all such uncertainties and questions: “All people are equal! All people (notwithstanding their superficial differences) are the same! And all differences, no matter how important or unimportant they may seem, are equally different and equally unimportant! And all people who care about differences, regardless of which differences they care about, are equally wicked.” By dispensing with the vertical axis of existence (the relations between better and worse) and the horizontal axis of existence (the relations between the less different and the more different), by banning discussion of the vertical and the horizontal axes of existence [see discussion here], the liberal has dispensed with multidimensional reality and constructed in its place a one-dimensional reality, or rather a zero-dimensional reality of no gradations and complete certainty.
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James P. writes:
I don’t think a desire to “escape uncertainty” drives liberal policy on health care or anything else. Liberal policy is most parsimoniously explained by a drive for power. They can’t stand the thought of all these private companies not because they’re “messy”, but because they (the Left) do not control them. Any power structure, such as a corporation (but also the family), that is not directly subject to the Left’s authority is a threat to the regime and thus intolerable. They are happy to trade a reduction in quality for an increase in their power and control.
Government-run health care means more jobs for (necessarily Leftist) bureaucrats, more money for the Left to redistribute in exchange for votes, and more people dependent on government largesse (and thus inclined to favor the Leftist agenda). This is not philosophically complicated.
In my view, the standard of parsimony, a by-product of modern reductionist science, is generally not helpful. It harms our ability to think about reality. The test of the truth of a theory is not how parsimonious it is, but how true it is, how well it corresponds with and explains things. Since reality is not one-dimensional, one-dimensional theories of reality cannot be correct. Reducing liberal politics to nothing but a desire for power is too simple.
Kristor has hit upon a very significant idea, you have unfolded it very well. I frankly cannot comment right now without pondering it some more. But I believe that I have a very clear example of this way of thinking to offer to you.
Was it not Canadian liberal-leftist Ken Hechtman who expressed a desire for a world in which all people have the same brownish skin tone? If I recall correctly, he had this desire not out of some wish to extinguish particular human groups, but to promote peace by wiping away differences. That would seem to be an excellent example of a wish, a longing to wipe away uncertainty.
Sage McLaughlin writes:
Your discussion with Kristor is so interesting I’m afraid I’ll take it off track here. But I can’t help observing something, which is that liberals and conservatives constantly accuse each other of the same things—“having an authoritarian bent” being the most obvious. They also accuse each other of trying to eliminate uncertainty. Traditionalists, religiously serious people, and conservatives generally, are supposedly seeking some comfortable refuge from fear and uncertainty. Religious people are afraid of the uncertainty which lies beyond death, conservatives are afraid of the uncertainty that comes with “diversity,” etc. You get the idea—simple categories like man and woman, white and black, make the world more intelligible. In an emotional sense I can’t say they’re wrong, either—it just is more comforting to think that there is order and meaning, and that my identity isn’t completely in my own hands to invent and to mold. Similarly, it just is more comforting to believe that human beings can manage everything without constraints like scarcity getting in the way. I’ve never found either argument especially convincing one way or another, because any compelling view of the world is sure to offer some kind of answer to the big questions, the big uncertainties.
Still, my impression is that you and Kristor are bringing out a strain of liberalism, namely the technocratic one, rather than liberalism full stop. Libertarians are, in most respects that really matter, liberals. But they’re also wedded to the idea of each human individual as a cosmic exile, and imagine a paradoxical synthesis of competing wills as the forge fire of order and prosperity. For the libertarian or right-liberal, individual freedom and procedural equality are what really count, and they offer the somewhat dismal view that the point of freedom is simply freedom, and not the freedom to achieve some particular set of human goods. They thus stop short of saying that the pursuit of desires is vain unless the will can be fully accommodated. For the technocratic liberal, procedural equality leads to substantive inequalities, which are barriers to the freedom to satisfy our individual wills, and that is intolerable. A frustrated will is vain. (Recall the old saw that the rich man and the poor man are equally free to sleep under a bridge.) So they agree on the ends, but not the means—and what are the ends? Equal satisfaction of desires.
At least part of what Kristor is pointing out, I think, is that the one leads rather naturally to the other. For, if the ends for which we use our personal freedom are irrelevant, then they are all equal, and if they are all equal (or at least if we are programmatically agnostic about them), then it is unjust that any of them should be realized while others go unrealized. Freedom for its own sake trivializes the ends to which it is put, and left-liberals reject this Pyrrhic victory. The technocratic view is thus more consistent in an important way, in addition to being more comforting, than the laissez faire approach.
LA to Kristor:
I’m absolutely excited by this entry. Thank you so much.
You’re welcome. I have had some further thoughts—again on my commute—but I won’t be able to get to them until this evening. I’ll just say as a way of jogging my memory that they take off from Sage’s comment by pointing out first that the animus against uncertainty is inherent in the human condition—indeed, in the animal condition. The difference therefore between the liberal and the normal healthy animal is that the former, having per his philosophy and intellectual history no confidence that there is any intelligible order to the world, has in the final analysis no way to feel comfortable in it. Sage is right that conservatives are accused, often rightly, of authoritarianism and a desire to control. But conservatives have confidence in the intelligibility and orderliness of the world, even if they are well enough aware of their own deficiencies of comprehension, so that they can afford to relax in the knowledge that whatever they cannot themselves master is mastered in the end by an ordaining providence infusing all things, that must in the end make all things well, and very well.
Put a different way, the liberal gnostic attitude is that the world is inherently problematic, with here and there a solution, a respite. The conservative attitude is that the world is basically a great thing, albeit corrupted.
James P. writes:
In my view, the standard of parsimony, a by-product of modern reductionist science, is generally not helpful. It harms our ability to think about reality. The test of the truth of a theory is not how parsimonious it is, but how true it is, how well it corresponds with and explains things.
In my view, the Left’s drive for power corresponds with reality precisely, and explains their actions clearly and correctly. The parsimony of this explanation is only relevant insofar as it explains more liberal actions on many different fronts more correctly than does any other explanation. [LA replies: Ok, then it’s the explanatory power of the explanation that makes it good, not its parsimony.]
To be sure, the philosophical and theoretical “political science” reasons behind the emergence and near-total triumph of modern liberalism are not simple, but as a practical explanation of the Left’s actions on a daily basis, “they seek to increase their power” works very well. To ignore this aspect of liberalism is to lose by default, and liberalism can never be defeated until it is no longer a viable path to power for aspiring young people. [LA replies: no one, certainly not here, is ignoring the fact that the left are seeking a massive increase of power through health care nationalization, Cap and Trade, amnesty, etc. At the same time, the drive for power does not explain it all. For example, what about ordinary Americans who are not part of the political elite, who have no power and no hope of acquiring power, but who support the left agenda? Obviously, they have other motives than power, e.g., the desire to escape the uncertainty of existence. ]
Steve R. writes:
I much enjoyed your explanation of how liberalism’s uncertainty is derived. Similar to seeing liberalism as driven by uncertainty, a year ago I wrote these thoughts, that viewed liberalism as an outgrowth of a lack of faith:
It seems axiomatic that whites have as much right to preserve their race and culture as any other race. Yet liberals have ruled that whites are not a “protected class.” They look at the whites’ dominant position in Western civilization and lack the faith that a white preservationist movement would contain itself from causing minorities undue harm.
And liberal’s lack of faith in charity to provide a social net is great—greater than their discomfort with morally destructive and ineffectual welfare programs. And their lack of faith in an uncontrolled marketplace prevents them from enjoying the proven superiority of laissez faire economics. They lack faith in the common man’s ability to contend with the evil strategies of greedy business people.
And their lack of faith in our intelligence and goodness leads them to impose politically correct speech, thus suppressing free speech and the truth. For instance, they fear we will become bigots if the truth comes to light that blacks murder and rob 8-10 times more frequently than whites.
Thus the faithless, driven by their lack of faith, have set in motion the decline of our liberties, our economy, our moral character and our race.
Asking what is the “primary drive” of a liberal is the wrong question. There is no “primary” drive, any more than there is a consistent liberal philosophy that can be applied universally by the liberal. The question that should be asked is, what is the dominant drive at any given point in time?
I suggested in an earlier email to you (regarding the media’s reaction to the Tiger Woods Affair), that there are multiple contradictory “reasons” for this-or-that liberal position where the “primary” stature of each is determined by the circumstance of each case.
Our mistake is to look for a rational reason for liberal positions on anything which are capable of being universally applied. This is why we constantly identify leftist hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. Fact is, liberals ultimately don’t care because they aren’t concerned about such things. They don’t believe in the consistent application of their philosophy because it is inherently self-contradictory if it were to be considered in globo, i.e. as a total, all embracing system. Instead, liberals will pick and chose whatever criteria for virtue they chose, depending on the circumstances of each case. This is only one example:
The desire for certainty is no less parsimonious that the desire for power, neither is it more or less “primary” or “core” to the liberal mind. To understand what animates the liberal at any given point, one has to look at (a) the liberal’s ultimate objective, and (b) the circumstance of each particular case at that point in time, to (c) understand what the dominant drive is, at that point in time only. Remember, the dominant drive will change as the circumstances of each case change.
Either they celebrate Wood’s nuclear family, and thus legitimise racial miscegenation, reinforcing multiculturalism and, I strongly feel also celebrating a union of a Negro man with a white woman (there is something triumphalist in such a coupling, which may be examined by you or your readers in a future post), or they celebrate the deconstruction of the “myth” of the nuclear family (part of their incessant social revolution).
The rational aspect of the liberal mind can only be identified when one looks at what it is ultimately geared to oppose: Christian culture, white consciousness or fraternity and traditional gender roles. One aim may be temporarily jettisoned for the sake of advancing the other. When ground is gained there, the mind switches to the alternative set of criteria, which allows more ground to be gained in the other area, all of which tend towards the same ultimate goal: destruction of the traditional order, however it is perceived.”
I said, in my restatement of Kristor’s idea: “(1) Liberals, being non-believing relativists, think that real knowledge is impossible.”
But why is this so? Why should being a liberal relativist make ordinary knowledge impossible?
Because, as Samuel Johnson said, “To think reasonably is to think morally.” To think reasonably about things is to reach conclusions about things. And, because an inherent aspect of things is that they are better or worse than other things in various ways, including better or worse morally, to reach conclusions about things is to reach moral conclusions about them. The result is that people who are incapable of thinking reasonably are also incapable of thinking morally. But the converse is also true: people incapable of thinking morally are incapable of thinking reasonably. To quote Leo Strauss, “The inescapable practical consequence of nihilism [i.e. of the rejection of the possibility of moral knowledge] is a fanatical obscurantism.” People who are determined to avoid moral judgments must close out of their minds all kinds of facts about the world.
Liberalism prohibits knowledge of two fundamental aspects of existence: moral differentiation (the vertical axis of existence), and cultural differentiation (the horizontal axis of existence). Liberals are required by their belief system never to see that some behaviors are morally worse than other behaviors (the vertical axis), and never to see that some people and cultures are more different from us than other people and cultures (the horizontal axis). To avoid seeing the phenomena that their liberalism prohibits them from seeing, the liberal must regard all kinds of areas of reality as uncertain and unknowable. So the liberal lives in a continual mental haze. Refusing to think reasonably about cause and effect, because such thinking would lead him to non-liberal conclusions, he believes that the world is inherently uncertain and that its phenomena are random. His stance of epistomological uncertainty about the world increasingly alienates him from the world. To end the alienation, he must end his epistemological uncertainty. But since his epistemological uncertainty can be ended only by looking at things as they are, and since his liberalism prohibits his doing that, the only remaining way to end the uncertainty is to construct a systematically false world view. The maintainance and defense of this systematically false world view requires in turn the construction of a planned society which embodies and enforces that false world view. Ironically, liberal gnostics become their own Demiurge.
Alan Roebuck writes:
Larry and Kristor: You two have make another excellent and fundamental point that I’ve sensed but never articulated: liberals (and many other people) are afraid of reality. That’s a big reason why they gravitate toward the reality-defying system of liberalism. And the fact that liberalism is currently the way the Establishment operates, and therefore the ambitious must worship at its temple in order to prospper, only adds to the allure.
Rick U. writes:
This is why it becomes necessary for liberals to resort to propaganda to bend the reality of the world through fabricated or omitted information to the masses. In this way, they obscure the true reasons for the current reality in order to hide the fact that they themselves have created the situation the culture/country is facing. At this point, they have “closed the loop” on their false world view by promoting it as true, which can only morph to enforcing their hold on power through violent means.
But since his epistemological uncertainty can be ended only by looking at things as they are, and since his liberalism prohibits his doing that, the only remaining way to end the uncertainty is to construct a systematically false world view. The maintenance and defense of this systematically false world view requires in turn the construction of a planned society which embodies and enforces that false world view.
LA, I love this thread and you can probably state the foregoing better than I did, but hopefully you get the point and can expound on why liberalism must end in violent oppression.
Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:
I’ve kept this as a draft for a couple of days, and have been mulling over it to make it as clear as possible.
Isn’t the world view of the liberal based on the belief that he thinks the world is unfair? Of course, unfair is a variation of uncertain, but liberals cloak their dislike of uncertainty with this veneer of morality, i,e. unfairness, although they’re quite sincere about it. They start off with the wrong (moral) premise, and their conclusions follow from there. That is why discussion is so difficult with liberals since their premise is moralistic. They are right, and we are wrong, they are good and we are evil—simple as that.
Conservatives, as Sage McLaughlin points out, also realize the world is uncertain, but their certainty lies in its fairness or at least in its resolution by a force other and bigger than their own, and thus they don’t spend their energy trying to make it certain.
Even gnostics, I believe, are taking a moral stand in their approach to their method: the world as they know it is immoral (unfair, uncertain), and they have to take the reigns out of God’s hands and make it right.
So, I don’t think it is the uncertainty that is the problem. All people of all types experience this, but it is the lack of faith in its resolution, its unfairness, that drives liberals in their activities.
I think that is why it is very hard to discuss things with liberals. Things always boil down to issues of morality—their version of right and wrong/fair and unfair. But, our discussions/confrontations with liberals should be ruthless in showing them their false conclusions. I.e., we should not be fair. Although, I personally think there is no discussion possible with liberals. We should simply not fall into their trap of sentimentality and victimhood, which is what I see a lot of conservatives doing.
One final thing, this overall sense of unfairness in the world that liberals declare that they feel so acutely is actually a manifestation of their own (often exaggerated) “unfair” situations. I think they’re the supreme projectors. So, my conclusion has been that liberals are the prime narcissists of our society. Psychology has morphed into morality.
LA to Kristor (12-11):
Talk about trying to end uncertainty, what is the anti climate change movement about? Its assumption is that the climate is not supposed to change! The climate is always supposed to be the same! If it does change, this is a horrible horrible thing. Climate is not supposed to change, it’s supposed to stay the same always. Therefore government has an obligation to prevent climate change. Then we will live again in a stable, secure, certain world.
LOL! You’re right, I never thought of that. Then think of the UN, which is intended to regulate international relations, stabilize borders, prevent conflict, etc. It’s all about reducing the massive uncertainty that comes with war. And what is the effect of this enforcement of current borders, and of all these UN peacekeeping forces? They prevent wars from ever finishing. They prevent peace.
Both these fools’ errands are instances of the liberal obsession with the law, that artificial constraint upon the wilderness we all inhabit, whose heart is our own. Obsessed with control of uncertainty, liberals are obsessed with law, and thus with power to make and keep law; as if evil could be ruled out by the legislature. It is to laugh.
So then I got to thinking some more. In one of my comments about uncertainty I tossed off a line saying that a gnostic attempt to wrest control of life from God always devolves to a desire for universal death. At the time, while I felt the truth of this statement viscerally, I had not thought it through. Your comment about the liberal desire to halt the natural evolution of the climate, and my response about the liberal desire to halt the natural evolution of world history, gave me a place to start.
The only way a mortal can eliminate uncertainty is to eliminate novelty. The only way a mortal can completely eliminate novelty is to die. Every step along the path that leads from a courageous, happy acceptance of the challenging adventures entailed in novelty to the ultimate rejection of adventure that is suicide involves deleting another being, thus eliminating it as a source of novel uncertainties.
For example: if successful, the liberal attempt to freeze in place the current configuration of national borders, so as to prevent wars, would have the effect of killing history. Liberals (and some neo-cons, like Fukuyama) see the end of history as a good thing. But it would result in a universal death of nations and peoples. History just is the jostling competition of different cultures, expressed in tribes, folkways, nations, races, families, and so forth. The only reason we are interested in history is that it bears lessons for our own culture as we engage in that jostling. Now, implicit in the UN project of locking down national borders is the presumption that once wars were made impossible through legal means, and through the global enforcement mechanism of the UN, the jostling of cultures would thenceforth proceed by means of economic competition and emigration. Free trade and free movement of people across borders would mean that a failing nation could be peacefully infected by a more successful culture, surrendering its outmoded ways and adopting the more efficient ways of its competitors.
There is much to recommend this vision; it is, after all, the vision of business enterprises competing for sales in a free, open, and uncoerced market. That model has been shown to work. But note that in the market economy, firms remain distinct. In the global order promulgated by the UN, nations would wither and homogenize, just as the states of the United States have withered before the onslaught of the Federal behemoth. What good is a border anyway, or a nation, in a world without war where people can move about freely? Nations exist primarily for the defense of their peoples. Borders are apposite only when nations are vibrantly alive, differ, and contend with each other. In ending the conflict of nations, a successful project of UN globalization would end nations.
Likewise, the liberal project of ending the risk of poverty can succeed only by eliminating the effects of differentials of enterprise; that is, it can succeed only by controlling economic activity more and more, eventually destroying enterprise and impoverishing everyone.
In general, then, the liberal drive to freeze things in some ideal condition, so as to eliminate the uncertainties they might otherwise generate, entails killing them. The fixity liberals desire is rigor mortis. When the liberal social policy is completely implemented, there will be no society left. There will remain only a relatively small number of isolated individuals. But even then, their certainty will not be complete. Suicide is only way they will be able to perfect their certainty.
Death is the only way a creature can make itself perfectly safe from death and pain.
But then this is a predicament equally for all men, liberal or conservative. What is the difference between the liberal and the conservative approaches to this predicament? It is that the conservative is not concerned to eliminate all uncertainties, because unlike the liberal nominalist he is in the first place aware that such a project, being impossible to him, is unwise (to wit, the liberal attempt to end the evolution of the climate), and is in the second place confident in the basic order, goodness, and intelligibility of the world, however grievous its corruption. He is confident that whatever he himself does not understand is at least understood by someone (even if only God), and that everything fits together for good reason, and toward a good end. In this transcendent context, the inevitable disasters of his worldly life can be handled with greater equanimity. He can trust the transcendent factors of reality to make themselves felt throughout. In short, the conservative can relax.
Paradoxically, then, conservatives are more comfortable with differences than liberals, because they are more comfortable with the fact of difference, and with the danger it necessarily portends. Conservatives are more tolerant than liberals.
Kilroy notices the chaos of liberal behavior, and doubts its irrational saltations can be explained. Yeah, point taken. But what else would we have expected from minds that have rejected the notion that the world is essentially ordered and intelligible? Reject orderliness, and nihilism and chaos are the immediate result. While you can’t explain the logic of chaos, you can certainly understand that it is the derogation of order.
I should have said also that I loved the connection you drew between moral reasoning and reasoning in general. Absolutely spot on. You can’t even perceive without at the same time engaging in an aesthetic and utilitarian evaluation of the data, and of what they tell you about the state of your environment vis-a-vis your near-term objectives; and an aesthetic or utilitarian evaluation is a moral evaluation. Reasoning about the data, then—data processing in general—presupposes that it is better to process the data than not, better to orient oneself properly in relation to an orderly world than not. Thus the whole project of animal life presupposes an objective, concrete moral framework expressed in every instance of existence, that feeds back pain to error. The real is the moral.
In Atlas Shrugged, the government proposes exactly the kind of universal death of which Kristor speaks. They propose that since the economy is in such terrible shape and getting worse, they will freeze everything in place, not allowing any9one to leave a job or be hired for a job (unless of course the person has special pull with the government honchos), not allowing anyone to buy a business or sell a business, not allowing any new patents or inventions.
But, liberals love change, adventure and uncertainty, “progress” in many cases. But, they hate unfairness. Exotic, spicy foods are uncertain, treks in the Himalayas are uncertain (adventures), picking up different languages and religions are uncertain. Even immigration is uncertain.
I don’t want to hinder Kristor’s very interesting train of thought, but, I still think it is the moralistic “unfair” veneer that sets liberals off. Even the Marxists froze their society in an attempt to right the wrongs of capitalistic hierarchies. Everyone has the be right to be the same in order to eliminate unfairness.
Like I said, “unfair” is really a form of uncertainty, a part of moral outcome that liberals cannot control. To make things right (and certain), they have to eliminate and clamp down on this runaway unfairness. The world view of liberals is tinted with their indignant morality.
Kidist is absolutely right about the high dudgeon liberals characteristically adopt about the unfairness of things. She is right also that liberals enjoy such things as spicy food, adventure travel, and things foreign, all of which would seem to increase the uncertainty of their lives. So how are we to reconcile these facts with the theory that liberalism springs originally from the conviction that the moral order of the world is obscure to us, either because it doesn’t exist, or because we haven’t the capacity to apprehend it?
The thing is that if you are a nominalist, you have no basis in reality for any argument that any one thing is better than another. But as I have pointed out several times at VFR, one cannot live as if that doctrine were really true; one can’t live as if in reality it didn’t matter whether a state of affairs was fair or not, good or not, preferable or not. To live is to feel that life matters. This is why nominalism carried into practice tends toward universal death—toward suicide, even if carried out only through lassitude in maintaining one’s health.
The real is the moral. Our animal bodies are moral endeavors, through and through. Life proceeds by moral judgments. The only way to be absolutely amoral is to die. Thus to the extent that a liberal is going to live, he must enact a contradiction to the nominalist principles he avows. He must prefer his own children to those of other men, must prefer that his wife sleep with him alone, must prefer to keep his own property, and so forth. And he must, like all normal people, believe that some states of affairs are unfair, and must prefer the fair to the unfair.
One cannot be a liberal unless one believes that liberal nostrums are better than others. That belief is illiberal. So no one living is a liberal through and through. To the extent that they live, people are somewhat conservative, however loudly they espouse liberal notions. People are a mix. When I first encountered VFR, I thought I was to the right of Attila the Hun. Not! Lawrence soon disabused me of that idea! Yet despite all I have learned from him, and from the other commenters here and across the right wing blogosphere (my thanks to all of you), I know for a fact that I am still a mix of liberal and conservative.
This accounts for the difficulty of applying my taxonomy of the four philosophical types to a living person. John Paul II is obviously at his core a Theist Conservative, but he espouses some liberal ideas. Most Theist Conservatives probably do. And, as I’ve been saying, liberals mostly run their own lives as if they were basically conservative. The grid is a taxonomy of pure types that are almost never seen in reality, which is always a mix of purities. That’s OK; reality is always more multifarious than any theory about it. This has to be the case, or the theory would be just as hard to handle as the reality it interprets, and would therefore do us no good.
So then, when a liberal gets up and passionately argues that racism is unfair, his act of argumentation is conservative, and even the ideal he advocates is conservative. Fairness is a conservative notion; it is built into reality, in the form of conservation laws. But his notions of how to achieve that ideal of fair play between the races is not conservative, nor is the argument he proposes; for they both proceed from a nominalist basis that eviscerates “argumentation” and “ideals” per se.
What about the spicy foods and the trekking in Nepal? Well, lots of people like those things. I think it is a mistake to think that conservatives are less adventuresome than liberals. That’s liberal propaganda. I’m a conservative, and I used to be a professional in the adventure travel business; and I do enjoy a latte and a slice of quiche from time to time. Not to mention a glass of really acrid hoppy ale from a local brewery. Kidist is right that a monomaniacal focus on eliminating uncertainty should prevent a liberal from even considering a trek. But no one—no one who is prosecuting a minimally successful life—is that monomaniacal. We aren’t talking about maniacs here, but about basically normal, sane people who have taken on an insane, incoherent philosophy that, at the margin, can prompt them to do really stupid things (e.g., pretty young blonde staggering plastered and disheveled through the ghetto at 2 a.m.; e.g., voting for chiliastic “hope and change”). The totally consistent, monomaniacal liberals do things like shoot a bunch of their high school classmates.
What about that liberal mantra of change, progress, revolution? We must remember that the change liberals desire is a change from novelty and uncertainty toward a static ideal. They want to get to utopia and never afterwards leave it. It’s Babel all over again. Because their nominalist doctrine is at war with reality, they can see no way forward other than out. So they are happy to tear down all the old reliable moral certainties and institutions we inherited from our forefathers, in the name of a new, untried utopia. As Kilroy said, you can’t expect them to be rational about all this.
Richard P. writes:
In this discussion Kidist says:
“But, liberals love change, adventure and uncertainty, “progress” in many cases. But, they hate unfairness. Exotic, spicy foods are uncertain, treks in the Himalayas are uncertain (adventures) … ”
Well, there are some caveats there. Liberals love exotic spicy foods, as long as FDA and local health department apparatchiks have ensured it is completely safe, and they become unhinged over the most minor outbreak of food related illness. You should see how liberal colleagues have cringed when I have eaten food from street vendors in South Asia. Their expressions are always delightful. Liberals also enjoy treks into the Himalayas and other remote settings, as long as there is some government agency willing to swoop in with their helicopters and rescue them at the first signs of trouble.
In other words, liberals love all of the trappings of adventure and uncertainty, but without all of that pesky danger. A good way to visualize much of the liberal project is to imagine a nation covered in bubble wrap and disinfectant.
The sentence, “Ironically, liberal gnostics become their own Demiurge,” was included in the original posting of the linked comment, but I felt the idea was too obscure and weakened the end of the comment, so I deleted it. Kristor, who had read the original comment, urged me to re-include it, and so I have.
The thing is, it’s a complicated joke that needs explaining.
In ancient gnosticism, the Demiurge is the false god who has created the false universe in which we live. For example, the gnostics say that the God of the Old Testament is not the real god, but a Demiurge, and the universe he created is a false universe. The aim of gnosticism is to escape the Demiurge and the coils of the false and beguiling universe he created and attain knowledge of the true god which is beyond that false universe.
However, even if one is familiar with the idea of the Demiurge, the sentence, “liberal gnostics become their own Demiurge,” can be confusing. Remember that gnostics oppose the Demiurge. So to say that liberal gnostics become their own Demiurge, to say that liberal gnostics have set up their own false, Demiurgic reality which we non-liberals must see through, is to cast ourselves in the role of gnostics who are exposing and penetrating the false, Demiurgic universe of liberalism. And I do not mean that. Yes, liberals have constructed and imposed on us a false reality. But it doesn’t require any special gnostic knowledge or techniques to see through it and to see things as they are. It requires common reason and common sense, which liberalism prohibits.
So the sentence is an in-joke too far. But for the moment I will leave it in.
In reply to my concern that the sentence was too obscure, Kristor replied:
Here’s the thing, Lawrence: VFR just is a challenge to the reader. That’s its competitive advantage. The whole site is an armor gauntlet thrown down at the feet of the innocent, chthonic liberal who thinks he is a conservative. Almost every day, you challenge us to re-think something all over again at a deeper level.
I reply to Kristor, I hope that this doesn’t make me a gnostic.
Exchange December 14 between LA and Kristor
LA to Kristor:
I just stuck back in the sentence, as you recommended, and was thinking of linking to a brief explanation of “Demiurge” that I would add to the entry, plus maybe a link to Wiki’s article on Demiurge. However, having stuck it back in, I realize again the reason I took it out and I wonder if you understood fully the reason I took it out. There is a complexity in my playful use of Demiuge there which can overwhelm meaning.
Here’s the problem: the sentence, “Ironically, liberal gnostics become their own Demiuge” is confusing even if one understands the concept of the Demiurge. This is because gnostics are seeking to overcome and escape from the work of the Demiurge in his creation of a false, conspiratorial universe, and to get to the true God beyond the Demiurge. Repeat: gnostics oppose the Demiurge. So to describe liberal gnostics as being their own Demiurge, meaning that liberal gnostics have set up their own false, Demiurgic reality, is to cast myself in the role of gnostic who is exposing and penetrating the false, Demiurgic universe of the liberals.
In other words, it’s an in-joke too far, which makes me look like a gnostic.
Well, that’s interesting, indeed. And amusing. “An in-joke too far”—love it. That’s the twist of the knife that inflicts no additional damage, right?
I don’t think that seeing through false or wicked doctrines makes one gnostic in the bad sense, but in the good. The Gnostics took a perfectly good term, that had been in use throughout Magna Graecia for centuries, and twisted it just a tad too far, thus polluting it forevermore. The early Fathers could still use “gnostic” to refer to the advanced Christians, without fear of being interpreted as speaking pejoratively. The Christian gnostics of St. Clement and Origen were the same entirely orthodox elders whom Paul called “spiritual athletes.” We would probably refer to them as mystics, or adepts. But thanks to the heretical gnostics, Origen’s generation was probably the last that could use the term in its original, innocent sense.
In just exactly the same way, the Sophists ruined the perfectly good term “sophist.”
As animals, humans are basically conservative. Animal life presupposes that the world is orderly, and that its order is apprehensible, and that animal nature is capable of that apprehension. If any of these propositions were untrue, animal behavior would not be possible, because animals would not then be able to plan, or to search.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 10, 2009 09:40 AM | Send
Liberalism then is properly seen as a disease of the animal nature, for it denies at least one of these basic presuppositions of its own existence. The liberal is at war with his own animal body, and with his innate loyalty to his own, to his hearth and home, his kith and kin. Therein lies the conservative hope. Deep in his guts, the liberal wants to believe in the old verities—or, rather, still does believe in them. He still pesters his kids to do their homework and tell the truth. His sophisticated irony and cynicism, his skepticism and disdain for his own culture, is a veneer. Underneath, he is lost. He remembers his homeland with longing, and feels it still working in him, for good, at every step. He may therefore from time to time be recalled to his senses, and to a recollection of his original self—to the pure boy he was, before the sophists got to him.
But he may not be able to shake off his pride until that moment when he realizes that he has squandered his patrimony, and looks about to find himself living in a sty, eating the food of pigs.