The two things that qualify a person for being a conservative, he held, were having a passionate interest outside politics and a strong sense of mortality. And, dare one indite this in a political magazine: “A general interest and preoccupation with politics is the surest sign of a general decay in a society.” Still, politics is necessary to life lived among “people whom chance or choice has brought together.”
The problem, Oakeshott felt, was not only that “politics is an uninteresting form of activity to anyone who has no desire to rule others” but that those it attracts are, too often, unimpressive human beings. At one point he calls them “scoundrels.” What isn’t required, but is too often evident, in politics is “manufacturing curable grievances.” What is needed is the assurance of “the little things: to go where we like & when; having paid my taxes to spend my money on what I wish.” His final word is this: “Politics is the art of living together & of being ‘just’ to one another—not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life.”
So much of Oakeshott’s political thought is propelled by his unshakeable belief in the imperfectibility of human beings. Montaigne is his intellectual hero here, the Montaigne who understood that all human judgment and wisdom is fallible.
Polanyi was one of the most prominent physical chemists of the middle of the twentieth century. In the second half of his life he took up philosophy in an effort to understand his own experience of scientific discovery. His elaboration of “tacit knowledge” entailed a criticism of the then-prevailing ideas of how science proceeds, tied to wider claims about the nature of reason. The logical positivists conceived reason to be rule-like, whereas according to Polanyi, a scientist relies on a lot of knowledge that can’t be rendered explicit, and an inherent feature of this kind of knowledge is that it is “personal.” He explained:
“The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge; then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies.”
But the culture of scientific apprenticeship that developed in Europe, and then later in America, did so without warrant from the official self-understanding of modern science. As Polanyi writes, “To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.” This is intolerable if, like Descartes, you think that to be rational is to reject “example or custom” in order to “reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own.” The paradox of the Cartesian project is that from a beginning point that is radically self-enclosed, one is supposed to proceed by an impersonal method, as this will secure objective knowledge — the kind that carries no taint of the knower himself. Polanyi turns this whole procedure on its head: through submission to authority, in the social context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable.
Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests that there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of the Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation — from kings and priests — and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.
If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term “method” is that one merely has to follow a procedure and voilà, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures, no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant’s “rational beings”) that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.
It’s a delightful coincidence that I just encountered this same theme of trust last week in a book about a completely different topic. In fact, I’m just going to merge that post into this one. Here’s Saul Frampton talking about Montaigne’s understanding of experiential knowledge as opposed to that of Descartes:
But Montaigne can be seen to offer an alternative philosophy to that of Descartes, a more human-centered conception that lays no claim to absolute certainty, but that is also free from what some have seen as the implications of such claims: the totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, and the individualist anomie of modern Western life.
For at the heart of Descartes’ philosophy is the intellectual principle of division, an attempt to offer clarity in a world made uncertain by religious and political unrest. He thus states as part of his ‘method’ that intellectual problems should be ‘divided’ into ‘as many parts as possible’ and that we should accept as true only that which we can perceive ‘very clearly and distinctly‘ — i.e. separate from other things. And this principle provides the foundation for his division of mind and body: he sees the mind as all ‘one and the same’, whereas he ‘cannot think of any Corporeal or extended being which I cannot easily divide into Parts’. For Descartes, true knowledge thus amounts to a singular unambiguous vision: he uses the metaphor of a city designed by one ‘single master’, rather than evolving naturally and haphazardly through the work of ‘different hands’.
Montaigne, by contrast, operates with an older, less cutting-edge, yet perhaps more venerable intellectual instinct: that of proximity. Rather than defining and dividing things, Montaigne wants to bring them together, get near to them, close to them, not least to himself. And rather than searching for certainties that divide him from the commonality, Montaigne sees the principle of trust as of far greater importance; as he says at the start of his essays: ‘You have here a book of good faith.’ For Montaigne, human relations are the primal scene of knowledge: if trust is restored, agreement, tolerance and hence truth will follow; the search for constancy and certainty strikes him as merely obstinacy in another guise…For in the midst of these [French wars of religion] Montaigne begins to see such conflict as fueled by the search for political and religious certainty.
Whereas Descartes’ division of mind and body separates him from other bodies and other people, Montaigne sees his own relationship to his body as opening a gateway to ‘the universal pattern of the human’, and as a consequence society at large. Self-knowledge thus leads us into ourselves, but then out of ourselves into others: we need to get to know ourselves before we can understand our fellow man — a logical paradox from a modern perspective, but not for Montaigne.
For Montaigne stands at the watershed of the two great intellectual movements of the past millennium: the darkened vaulting of medieval Christendom and the monstrous progeny of seventeenth-century science. In both of these, everyday life is, in a sense, relegated: in science into mechanism and matter; in religion into transitoriness and sin. Montaigne is like a man standing on a platform, waiting between these two trains. Yet during this silence, in the space of perhaps a few decades around the end of the sixteenth century, life begins to unfurl. For what Montaigne discovers is the power of the ordinary and the unremarkable, the value of the here-and-now.
Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic. In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness.
The quotidian quality of Montaigne’s essays, in fact, is their biggest appeal. They seem so drawn from life that they look effortless. Penso recalls that philosopher Eric Hoffman once tried to share Montaigne’s essays with some acquaintances, to no avail: “One man flipped through the book for a while and handed it back, observing that it was nothing special—anybody could have written it. Montaigne would have liked that.”
When Montaigne changed his mind about a subject, instead of revising his views seamlessly, he’d often just tack an addendum on his previous statement, leaving the original one intact. One can easily imagine a contemporary literary agent surveying this merry mess, then pitching it into the trash can.
If Montaigne doesn’t seem obviously concerned with pleasing an audience, it’s probably because he wrote his essays at least as much for himself as anyone else. Montaigne’s temporary withdrawal from public affairs came about because of what we might today call a midlife crisis.
…Others had written in the first person before Montaigne, but they typically offered their opinions from positions of authority. Montaigne simply wrote as himself: a guy at the apparent midpoint of his life trying to sort himself out. He called his compositions “essays,” which translates as a trial or attempt, and seemed like a shrewd way to lower expectations. Montaigne offered his prose as a first stab at wisdom, a work in progress rather than an intact philosophical system.
Someone writing randomly about what he’s thinking for hundreds of pages sounds pretty dull, but Montaigne pulls it off. “How does it happen that Montaigne is not ever, not on any of all those pages, even a bit of a bore?” Thomas asks, and then answers his own question: “He likes himself, to be sure, but is never swept off his feet after the fashion of bores.”
Montaigne, as I’ve said a few times, is probably my biggest role model here. He doesn’t come up often as a direct reference, or in the form of notable quotables (though this remains one of my absolute favorite posts I’ve ever written), but his spirit animates my whole understanding and practice of blogging. It’s always a delight to read another article about him. You should read it too. And then go pick up a copy of the Essays and read that.
In order to try to philosophically reconstruct Camus’ position, and to show why he has been so partially received, this book argues for a single hypothesis. We argue that Camus should be understood as a philosophe, in a neoclassical, humanistic, and also an enlightened French sense that it will be our task in the Introduction to preliminarily explain.
…Already we thus see how Camus’ oeuvre, itself an argument that “a man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once,” is as good as its word. Camus does not accept the accepted polarities of philosophy versus literature. His life and work contest the separation of wholly theoretical philosophy versus philosophising rooted in the Socratic gnôthi seauton. He equally challenges the opposition between reason and emotion. Our claim is that Camus‘ bridging of these accepted polarities goes some way to explaining how often he has been partially read hitherto. If we do not accept that Camus’ thought and activity challenges these inherited oppositions, we are bound to read him as either a philosopher or a poet, a sentimentalist or a rationalist, an atheist or a theological thinker, a rebel or a reactionary, an ancient or a modern, even when such readings can only be vouchsafed at the cost of overlooking countervailing evidences found elsewhere in Camus‘ diverse production. Srigley, for instance, argues that the evidence speaking to Camus‘ deep allegiance to Greek thought (evidence we have started to give here) speaks in favour of reading Camus’ work as involving a total critique of the modern age, since its key ideologies represent for him so many secularised or immanentised, Christian or eschatological doctrines. Camus at one point in his Carnets does declare that “no, I am not a modern,” and The Rebel is a famously powerful critique of Marxism-Leninism and elements of modern liberal societies. Yet in “Helen‘s Exile” and elsewhere, Camus is critical of figures like Saint-Exupery to the extent that they despaired of the times. Again, the closing arguments of The Rebel criticise nothing so much as people who turn away from “the fixed and radiant point of the present” in the name of idealisations of what the present is decried to lack, in more or less elegiac or apocalyptic strains.
The opposition ancient-modern, we would rather suggest (one which always trades in unsustainable cultural generalisations) is one more opposition that Camus’ thought straddles. In fact, the French word ‘philosophe’ that features in our title, in Camus’ native French, is not only the generic term for philosophers of all times and places. It resonates specifically with the generations of French lumières spanning from Montesquieu through to d‘Holbach, led by Diderot and Voltaire, but looking back via Pierre Bayle to Michel de Montaigne. As Peter Gay in particular has argued, the thought and activity of these definitive “moderns,” the enlighteners, involved their attempt to revitalise the modern West‘s pagan, classical heritage in the context of the advent of the modern natural sciences. It is just such a project that Camus, his own still small voice, advocates for in the twentieth century.
I came out of Ms. McCarty’s Philosophy 101 with a deep, abiding appreciation of four thinkers in particular — Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Camus. The presence of the latter two, known primarily as novelists, indicates the broad scope of the class, in which we were taught to appreciate timeless and pressing questions about life, regardless of the academic pedigree of the questioner. The Dane and the Russian have faded in importance to me since then. Nietzsche, I dunno, I guess you could say I have something of an interest in his work. My affinity for Camus, though, has only deepened over time. His humane, pluralistic moralism, impressive even now, is even more so when considered in the original postwar context, where it was highly unfashionable and widely scorned by noxious Stalinist apologists like Merleau-Ponty and the execrable Sartre. Having just spent a good part of this evening reading and enjoying Sharpe’s introduction to his forthcoming book, I recommend it to you as well.
I am probably going to start posting less frequently from now on.
Now, now! I can hear you starting to hyperventilate from here. No need to assume the worst. Allow me to explain:
• TIME. I have three jobs — a “day job” and two of my own self-employed, working-mostly-from-home side jobs. There’s at least several days a month where I work something like a typical shift from nine-ish till four-ish, then come home, eat a quick meal, and put in another few hours on one of the other jobs until bedtime. I’m not complaining — I pretty much enjoy my work, it pays the bills, and it absolutely beats climbing on roofs in the blazing July sun or inching on my belly through a filthy crawl space, as I had to do a few years ago. But even an antisocial bore like me has other things to do sometimes, and a couple hours before bed isn’t always enough time to scour the web looking for things to write about.
Speaking of other things to do, I want to start devoting more time to my first love, music. Long before I ever considered trying to capture my thoughts in prose, I was writing and recording songs. Rheumatoid arthritis put that facet of my artistic expression on indefinite hiatus, and momentum, once lost, is hard to generate again. But now, personal technology being what it is these days, I no longer have to be content with my old, lo-fi, basement 4-track recordings. A friend of mine with a home studio and extensive recording experience has offered to help me if I need it, so I’m going to go through my old songs, rewrite some of them, and attempt to record final versions I can proudly listen to for the rest of my life.
• INSPIRATION. One thing I’ve noticed, when forced to go several days without much web browsing, is how difficult it is to get back into the swing of it. Some of it is information overload — there’s just too much stuff competing for attention, most of it ephemeral and worthless. For an introvert like me, it’s very similar to the real-life feeling of walking into a frenetic environment full of frivolous chatter. It takes a while to get used to it, and the temptation is always to get quickly irritated and walk off in a huff. Rolf Dobelli was correct — I’ve read books written twenty years ago that still provide more knowledge, context and perspective than anything I’m likely to encounter on the web. (And lord knows I’ve still got a two-foot tower of books waiting to be read.)
Over the last few years, I’ve been averaging slightly over a post per day. I found it useful to aim for that standard, because I could easily have been the sort of person to endlessly nitpick over a post otherwise. The relaxed, informal medium of blogging is good for countering that tendency — get the idea down with a minimum of fuss, publish and move on. You can always return to the topic again later if you think of anything else to add. But I think I’ve gotten all the benefits I can from that approach by now. And in all honesty, I’m not possessed of much depth or breadth to my knowledge. I have a pretty limited bailiwick, and I’ve covered just about everything within it, sometimes repeatedly. (See here, ferzample. What can I possibly add to what I’ve already said?) I’ve never wanted to write crap just to fill space, and I’ve never wanted to repeat myself just because it’s what I, or others, have come to expect. I’m not trying to create a personal brand here, or supply people with predictable entertainment. Calling myself an official “writer” would seem absurdly pretentious and overly serious, though, and calling this blog a journey of my personal growth and development would be nauseatingly sappy and New Age workshop-y, so I guess I’ll repeat what I said before: if anything, I’m aiming to emulate the informal, irreverent spirit of Montaigne’s Essays, while possibly becoming better as both a writer and thinker. I enjoy those things for their own sake, with no thought of recognition or reward. Now, though, I think I’d prefer to spend days, or even weeks, collecting my thoughts and writing them down, as opposed to hours. William Deresiewicz was also correct — eventually, you need to allow time for your reservoir to refill if there’s going to be any depth to your thought. (Coincidentally, that’s the topic of another book I’ll be reading soon.)
With all that said, let me reiterate: I’m probably going to be posting less frequently. I’m not quitting, and I don’t ever intend to. I truly love the amateur writing I do here. I just think the pace of my output will noticeably decrease, and thought it would only be polite to let you know in advance. I would not be at all surprised, though, if the Fates or some mischievous trickster deity arranged for me to look incredibly foolish in saying this by dropping a bunch of irresistible material on me at various times — indeed, I almost expect it. There may be bursts of activity punctuating fallow periods. And, who knows, if things continue to go according to plan, I may very well find myself with enough free time to make all this time-budgeting moot. So, we’ll see, but that’s how it’s shaping up at the moment.
Brian comments on the previous post:
Damian, by the time you are 40 I expect you will be patrolling your property with a shotgun muttering about the liberals and feminists and all those progressives.
He’s mostly kidding, of course, but still, this serves as a useful springboard to make a broader point, a sort of meta-musing about my ever-evolving worldview. My isolato manifesto, if you will. The implied question he poses is: am I morphing into a curmudgeonly conservative? The short answer is no, but the long answer is, as usual, more nuanced.
There’s a number of unspoken assumptions that inform the understanding of most people who read, write, and comment on sociopolitical issues in the blogosphere. The idea that we’re all, to some degree, political animals, and that a developed political awareness is the height of sophistication and maturity. The idea that all of us, whether we admit it or not, fall on one side or the other of the fundamental political divide, which in this country is understood as progressive/conservative, or Democrat/Republican. The idea that most such opinions should not be taken at face value, but rather interpreted in relation to this or that agenda, reduced to their supposed common denominator, examined for their hidden implications. The idea that we’re all speaking as if to the largest potential audience, with the intent of swaying or convincing as many as possible. The idea that heretical, offensive, or discomfiting opinions should be treated like outbreaks of contagion, to be quarantined and avoided for the sake of one’s mental health. Well. If these sorts of assumptions are the common coin of online discourse, perhaps my intent is actually to storm in, violently overturn the tables of those who trade in such counterfeit currency, and chase them away. (The megalomania implicit in that metaphor is entirely ironic and offered for amusement purposes only, I assure you.)
It is a fact: I am utterly insignificant and completely lacking in influence. This blog is a pure labor of love, a love of writing and foolosophizing for their own sake, which is a good thing, because I could probably count my regular readers on my fingers. To me, that represents freedom. If I have a role model here at all, it’s Montaigne — I am free to focus on whatever I want for however long I want, to follow my thoughts wherever they lead, with no concern for whether they advance or inhibit some arbitrary agenda, support or detract from some party line. And what the honest fuck do I know about anything anyway? My only responsibility is to tell the truth as I see it. The thing is, this medium, as far as I can see, offers that freedom to almost everyone. Not every blogger is as publicity-adverse as I am, and not every blogger is quite so invisible, but still, there is a lot of potential for experimentation within the blog format. And yet, so many of them hustle to their self-assigned seats and begin producing the same on-message content as everyone else. They couldn’t be more uniform and predictable if they were following orders from a drill sergeant. There are countless Jon Stewart-wannabes and countless amateur pundits covering the exact same viral stories. If I want to hear snark about the latest stupid thing uttered by a Christian/Republican, I’d watch the Daily Show. If I want to hear some yammering yob on WordPress pontificate as if the fucking President should hire his amazingly insightful ass to be the new Chief of Staff, I’d… well, I’d lie down with a cold compress on my head until I came to my senses, but still, the point is, such cardboard cutout opinions are ubiquitous and worthless. I am utterly baffled by the existence of so many people who can think of no more entertaining use of their thoughts and free time than to act as unpaid copywriters for the DNC. Eyes turned up toward the canopy, where all the important action is assumed to be taking place, they ignore all the potentially interesting growth taking place among the understory.
Over the last couple of years, especially following the appearance of the schism in online New Atheism, I’ve been more interested in things like the psychological roots of ideology than the irrelevant details of ideologies themselves. This has led to me writing more on topics like identity politics, campus-style radicalism and free speech, issues which, to a perspective that sorts everything through a political filter, tend to “code” as conservative, if not reactionary. This isn’t actually a new thing for me — my views haven’t really changed since the early days of this blog, when I was equally scornful of shallow progressive pieties. The only thing that has changed is that I’ve shrugged off any meaningful political identity and thus shed any inclinations to muffle such criticism for the sake of some broader loyalties. A lot of liberals/progressives would probably agree with me privately that the sort of lunatic feminists who populate Freethought Blogs, Tumblr and the like are ridiculous, but, so goes the thinking, at least they’re not Republicans. It’s the flip side of the lesser-evil strategy they employ during elections — as long as there’s a greater evil to fight, i.e. reactionary Republicans, it would be counterproductive and misguided to expend any serious effort on attacking people on “our side”. Well, this is a perfectly reasonable and valid perspective to hold, but I reject it nonetheless. I reject it because though it may be valid, it’s not the only valid perspective. I especially reject the dubious political calculus which pretends to know exactly which compromises need to be made for the sake of securing some vague greater good. There never will be a “convenient” time to have such battles. There never will be a time when reactionaries have been neatly and completely dispatched, allowing us to turn our full attention to our own lunatic fringe. Both types of malignant personalities will always be with us. Dishonest ideologues are dishonest ideologues regardless of which button they push in the booth on Election Day, and, not being a politician, I have no interest in trying to manipulate one set to my advantage.
If anything, I’ve just sidestepped the false binary of partisan political identity and returned to the Zen/Taoist sensibility I’ve been nurturing since adolescence. Zen taught me a lot about mental discipline and dispassionate objectivity; Taoism taught me that authoritarian busybodies are a perennial (and bipartisan) occurrence, and that the best response to them is mockery and a refusal to counter their harebrained dogmas by asserting your own. Topping that off is a genuine antisocial instinct, a mild misanthropy, which has me daydreaming about counterfactual histories where humans somehow evolved from a less-social species (orangutans, perhaps) to become much more solitary, instead of our current existence as meddlesome chimps obsessed with monitoring and regulating our neighbors’ behavior. And finally, to reiterate, I’m fully aware that none of this sound and fury is anything more than entertainment. Nothing written here (or indeed, most anywhere else in the blogosphere) is changing any minds or influencing any policy. It’s just something to skim over while killing time at work. There’s no need to read more than that into it.
Another one of Hoffer’s reflections:
Francis Bacon: “Does any man doubt that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor, shrunken things, full of melancholy and indispositions, and unpleasing to themselves?”
Hoffer: Can souls be purified? To Milton, “Good and evil we know in the world grow up together almost inseparably, and the knowledge of the good is so interwoven with the knowledge of evil that the two cannot be sorted apart.”
Montaigne saw “our being so cemented by sickly qualities that whoever should divest men of them would destroy the fundamental condition of human life.” Renan feared that we can get rid of the bad only at the sacrifice of what is excellent, remarkable and extraordinary.
Bizet believed that a purified soul cannot make music. Frederick Meinecke was so disconcerted by the dark and impure origins of great cultural values that it seemed to him as if “God needed the devil to realize himself.” The protagonists of reason, who set out to cleanse minds of the irrational, released demoniac forces beyond the control of reason.
Pascal, a scientist who saw it as his religious duty to study man, was staggered by the contrast between the simplicity of things and the fantastic complexity of man. He discovered that we do not remain virtuous by our own power, but by the counterpoise of two opposite vices: we remain standing as between two contrary winds. Take away one of these vices and we fall into the other. To Pascal, cleansing souls was, indeed, a risky undertaking.
Two more additions to the stack. This is just a fun-sized edition of ATBIDR…, you might say.
That tour guide last year tried to tell me that William Penn was the first to create genuine freedom of worship in the colonies. The jacket copy of Barry’s book says, however:
For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by “reason of state”-i.e. national security-and its perceived “will of God” and the “ancient rights and liberties” of individuals.
This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams’s interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop’s vision of his “City upon a Hill.”
Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.
I haven’t really read much about Williams since my school days, so that should be interesting. As for John Gray, whose book I’m already half-finished with and enjoying as usual, I thought this interview with Nick Talbot was one of the better ones I’ve seen of his, with Talbot’s questions actually adding to the quality:
I was surprised to see you so often characterised as a conservative thinker – you certainly don’t hold any positions that characterise, say, the “paleo-conservative” American right. (You have identified strains of utopianism in free market neo-liberalism and liberal interventionism and your embrace of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is anathema to most on the right.) Is your conservatism more in the mould of David Hume, perhaps? A sceptical caution over the human tendency to see patterns where there are none.
JG: I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk of conservatism these days. Certainly I share the view, often held by conservatives in the past, that there is such a thing as human nature, that it’s relatively constant and in some ways inherently flawed. (Thinking this way is one reason why I’m not a post-modernist.) It was this type of conservatism that the painter Francis Bacon had in mind when he said he always voted for the right because it made the best of a bad job. The poet T.E. Hulme said something very similar. But that kind of conservatism scarcely exists any more: Today conservative thinking oscillates between neo-con progressivism – a species of inverted Marxism – and paleo-conservative reaction, which amounts to not much more than a collection of ugly prejudices (racism, homophobia, misogyny). Both these versions of “conservatism” seem to me hostile to the conservation of civilised life. The genuine scepticism of David Hume is much preferable to anything that passes as conservative today.
At the same time I doubt if Hume’s rationalistic Enlightenment variety of scepticism is enough – for one thing, he had the good fortune to live before the age of militant political faiths and modern fundamentalism. Montaigne is a better guide, possibly the best, to living in a time of modern wars of faith.
…You argue that popular music’s trite language of self-realisation owes much to the Romantic movement’s emphasis on originality, but I see it as a logical result of the culture of individualism perpetuated by the New Right; instead of thinking how they can contribute to their community, young people have been encouraged to indulge egoistic fantasies. Is there any hope for encouraging a communitarian ethos in young people?
JG: I wonder if communitarianism means anything any more – think of Cameron’s big society. The prevailing individualism runs much deeper than anything owed to the New Right. Maybe we’re in a time akin to those in which the Buddha and Epicurus lived – in which it’s up to each individual, along with those they care about, to live as well as they can. To be sure, political and other types of collective action may be necessary to defend civilised values. But I don’t think any collective project can or should be viewed as providing meaning in life.
Hume, Montaigne, Buddha and Epicurus. Now there’s a dinner party to fantasize about hosting.
I have no pretensions to any special knowledge, let alone anything like wisdom; I am just some guy, a PERSON IN WORLD looking around and noticing things and saying what I think. If what I say doesn’t reflect your own experience, it’s possible that it isn’t about you. It’s also possible that something that’s not About You might still be of some interest or use. There is even some remote possibility that I am oversimplifying, missing something obvious, or just speaking ex rectum.
I’ve lately been rereading Montaigne, generally considered the first essayist, inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s literary biography “How to Live.” Ms. Bakewell singles out the end of one passage in which Montaigne suggests that being self-aware of your own silliness and vanity at least puts you one up on those who aren’t, then shrugs, “But I don’t know.” It’s that implicit I don’t know at the heart of Montaigne’s essays — his frankness about being a foolish, flawed and biased human being — that she thinks has endeared him to centuries of readers and exasperated more plodding, systematic philosophers.
My least favorite parts of my own writing, the ones that make me cringe to reread, are the parts where I catch myself trying to smush the unwieldy mess of real life into some neatly-shaped conclusion, the sort of thesis statement you were obliged to tack on to essays in high school or the Joycean epiphanies that are de rigueur in apprentice fiction — whenever, in other words, I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
A raised glass to both Kreider and my old pal Montaigne. Too many smart people, especially online, are more concerned with winning arguments than actually saying anything insightful or interesting. Punditry, both professional and amateur, has become intolerably boring for me.