Marriage Tactics

John Michael Wright

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose it must be theoretically possible to create an ethic without God or a god, but historically in the west it’s been a problem.

When Machiavelli developed the first utilitarian handbook on politics, that is to say, a book on politics that approached them without religion (except considered as a tool), he laid the foundations for Thomas Hobbes to develop his Social Contract.

Hobbes argued, following Machiavelli, that we are driven, not by reason, but by our appetites. That being the case, and to both it seems self-evident, though in Hobbes perhaps more explicitly so, society is not arranged around or by a moral law, but by people’s desires and passions.

The only way to organize such a society is through a continuous negotiation among its members. The fruit of this negotiation was the social contract. To maintain order, Hobbes argued, we need Leviathan.

Thus political tyranny and the whole western stream of politics-without-God walk hand in hand.

In the social contract we discern the basis of modern political theory, one that permeates economics as well, as it was applied by Adam Smith.

Without this notion of the social contract, we would have no Locke, no Rousseau, no American or French Revolution, no Marxism, and no special-interest industry negotiating their share of the social market with the representatives of the various parties appointed to oversee this great negotiation in Congress.

The reason the idea had such staying power in Machiavelli and Hobbes was twofold: one, much of the intellectual leadership of Europe was trying to escape the dominance of the Roman Catholic church and its appeal to a law of nature, and two, in a dynamic day to day sort of way, it is true that we are continuously negotiating the terms of our contract.

Under Machiavelli, Hobbes, and most other modern philosophers, the basis of that negotiation is personal advantage. We laugh at honor. We snicker at the idealist who would abandon his advantage for right and wrong.

Do not believe for a moment that I am referring primarily to financial transactions. On the contrary, I am talking about friendship, marriage, parent-child relationships, teachers and students, and so on.

Our underlying premise in every relationship is that we are engaged in a negotiation.

Think, for example, of the transition from the marriage covenant to the marriage contract. Think of the way people time their weddings to optimize tax benefits. Think of how parents are afraid to exercise their natural authority over their children for fear the children will reject the terms and hurt the parents.

I’m not sure, in such a context, good and evil are relevant terms. We have got “beyond good and evil,” to quote Nietzsche and Skinner.

Tom Wolfe expresses well the post-humanity of our condition in his 1998 novel A Man in Full:

Should he pour his heart?… Something told him that would be a tactical mistake. A tactical mistake. What a sad thing it was to have to think tactically about your own wife.

Sad indeed, and yet that is precisely how we are conditioned (and I use that word carefully) to approach these most foundational of human relationships.

Family, marriage, is a form. Form creates by limiting. We despise limits. Form is truth. Living in the form of the truth is virtue. Virtue is freedom.

We are no longer free to be married or to raise our children. Unless, of course, we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Then all is restored, no matter what is lost.

Two Kinds of Freedom

Human history and the human psyche reveal two conditions that we describe using the word freedom. They are, however, very different conditions.

The first is what I will call, borrowing the word from Kierkegaard, “aesthetic freedom.” This is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the right to avoid making choices.

For example, the unmarried man is free to let his eyes and mind wander among the unattached females of the species, the uncommitted quasi-philosopher is free to wander among schools of thought, pretending to “not want to narrow himself to one position,” the undecided music critic is free to say, “I like all kinds of music.”

In each case, what the person is saying is that he is guided by his emotions or immediate needs, which, in turn are guided by his appetites. He is functioning slightly above the powers of an animal, but, in a way, not very far. Neither his will nor his reason have been decisively engaged.

To summarize, aesthetic freedom is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the absence of willful decisions.

The second kind of freedom, and here again I borrow the word from Kierkegaard, is ethical freedom and is characterized the act of choosing.

Any time I make a choice, I am choosing more than just one of many options. For example, if I choose to go to a football game instead of a drinking party, I haven’t only chosen football over the party. I’ve also chosen a self that would go to a football game instead of the party.

In this sense, because we are created persons with a will, we are continually choosing ourselves in every decision we make.

These choices can lead to ethical slavery, in which our decisions bind us to the appetite we indulge, or ethical freedom, in which our decisions create of us a free person who governs himself and walks the path of wisdom.

Perhaps most significantly, each choice we make can be a choice for the finite or the infinite. The aesthete tries to maintain an infinite variety of choices and in so doing limits his choices to only the finite options.

The ethical person chooses limits and commitments, and in so doing he chooses the infinite, for concrete love is the infinite act of an eternal being. Love gives life to the faculty by which we can love, and that faculty is not earthly, worldly, selfish, cynical.

Indulgence destroys that faculty, thus destroying the soul of the self-indulgent.

Ethical freedom is the act of choosing oneself. Aesthetic freedom is the act of indulging oneself. The former leads to finite but real life. In the act of an infinite choice to love another one is connected to the infinite. The latter is the negation of the self by virtue of the disempowerment of the will and reason.

Is it Time to Listen to Jeremiah?

When Israel was consistently unfaithful to her God, He sent prophet after prophet warning of judgment. Finally, He sent Jeremiah.

Jeremiah has always been one of my favorite Biblical personalities because he is of that more Romantic temperament that weeps over bad news but stays the course. But he was seen by his people as unpatriotic.

I can’t help but think of Jeremiah when I think of my country, which I love. Prior to 9/11 it was common to hear Jeremiads in the evangelical press about God’s coming judgment on America for her many sins.

Her abortion sacrifices were compared to the children offered to Moloch. Her homosexuality was compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. And so on.

Some things that were talked about less: her godless striving for a centralized State (cf. God’s warnings to Israel when they wanted a king and his response to David for numbering the people) and her murderous foreign policy.

Our fear of the Soviet Union after WWII convinced us that we had to have the most powerful military the world had ever seen with the most elaborate spy network ever imagined. Maybe we did.

But we compromised our integrity in so many ways and in so many places that we are no longer the same kind of nation. We meddle in affairs wherever we come up with any national security excuse to do so.

We are fundamentally a frightened nation who cannot trust in God to keep us safe and secure and we are making an awful mess of it ourselves. On the right, this fear seems to have become the test for whether one is patriotic.

On the left, it’s a resisted necessity – protested on the streets but lived on in the family room.

Many things have eaten the heart out of our country. The one thing that is big enough to bring us down is our foreign activity.

What will happen next? Nobody, especially not the CIA, knows. Except this: having sown the wind, we are reaping the whirlwind.

I said before that prior to 9/11 we heard plenty of Jeremiads. Once, after 9/11, I was in a meeting where America’s foreign policies came up for discussion. I pointed out that it may be that God is sending judgment.

The room was all Christians. The response was icy. I was surprised. It seems obvious to me that we are a nation confused. It seems obvious to me that we have lost our way.

But now that the consequences about which my parents warned me since I was a child might be actualizing, it’s unpatriotic to suggest that God might be letting His statutes and counsels and law play out.

Yes, it’s depressing. It’s an awful thing watching a loved one die. But I don’t see us making it if the household of God doesn’t stop preaching about the sins of the world and start repenting of her own sins.

I worship a God of mercy and grace, but I must say, we’ve had so many chances already. Why would we repent?

Anyway, all this was triggered when I started reflecting on this article, and I think in political terms he’s probably right. Putting an end to the American Empire is the only way the American Republic can thrive in the coming century.

Take a look. Like Daniel, let us repent for the sins of our people, but first, let us repent for our own sins.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part 2)

Click here to see Part 1

To understand how to cultivate wisdom, we need to understand what wisdom is. Now, any number of definitions are available, but I want to look at this from the practical angle.

In other words, if we’re going to think about “how” to do something, we need to think of it as the end of actions. If it can’t be seen that way, then there is no how to.

For example, if redness is simply a state of being and there is no way to become or make something red, we’d be wasting our time trying to think about how to become red.

Looked at from this angle, there are three ways to look at wisdom that all mean the same thing but are worth expressing in three different ways.

First, wisdom is the knowledge of causes.

Second, wisdom is the ability to order and to judge.

Third, wisdom is the ability to perceive the nature of things so as to know how to appropriately relate to them.

These definitions help us see that there are different kinds of wisdom.

There is what I call, for lack of a better term, mechanical wisdom, which is characterized by great precision and regularity. It is guided by the principle of effectiveness and its end is utility. The standard of excellence for this form of genuine wisdom is usefulness.

Then there is artistic wisdom, which is less precise and therefore requires more judgment. It is guided by the principle of propriety and its end is creative human production. The standard of excellence is the beautiful.

Next comes ethical wisdom, which is even less precise and requires even more judgment. It is also guided by the principle of propriety, but its end is human action itself. The standard against which human action is measured by this wisdom is virtue.

Even higher comes philosophical wisdom, which is amazingly imprecise though its foundations remain absolute. It is the knowledge of first causes or principles. It requires astounding judgment. Philosophical wisdom is guided by the principle of truthfulness and its end is knowledge of truth; therefore it is measured by the standard of the truth.

The highest wisdom of all is theological wisdom, which becomes knowledge of the unknowable. It is the knowledge of Him who transcends knowledge. No judgment can reach this knowledge and all other forms of wisdom are subject to it. The standard by which it is measured is, if there can be one for here I am speculating far beyond my capacity, the harmony of the useful, the beautiful, the virtuous, and the true.

If that is what wisdom is and if these are the kinds of wisdom, the next question becomes, “how do we get it?”

More on that in my next post!

A Tax on Fear (or For)?

Seth Godin has identified a tax that the age of anxiety imposes on us. Great analogy to make the point about restlessness – with some implied responses as well.

This Could be Something Small!

Last week, I posted a link to an article that celebrated identity politics. In this one, from the other side, the author argues that identity politics inevitably lead to fragmentation. He suggests that perhaps the terms left and right are no longer sufficient for political discussion because, for one thing, the right no longer knows what the right is.

The natural law works in our souls and through our environment to bring us back into balance, and its interesting to me that so much of what conservatism had meant since Edmund Burke has lately been adopted by the left, such as small business, small farms, etc.

Somehow the right has been identified with giant corporations and the left with giant states. Then who stands for propriety?

The long-term vision of the CiRCE Institute is to assist in some small way in the development of thousands and thousands of small entities that perform the small tasks that keep a society free and civilized. Education is at the heart of it, but can only succeed when it shrinks its ambitions and throws the ring in the fire.

Thank you for being a part of something little.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the essential difference between right and left is that the right believes in nature, natural law, and the limits imposed by reality (nature and nature’s law) while the left believes in a varying collection of ideals, all rooted in the self-contradictory notion of popular sovereignty expressed in the state.

They are compelled to believe in an activist state because what they want is not possible in a natural setting. For example, no healthy culture would ever allow easy divorce among its members.

Because we have a large state and can disburse the costs of divorce, the left imposes this moral commitment on the whole country – and children have their souls torn apart and grow up to pass their pain to the next generation. But what we know by nature is excluded from the discussion because the left doesn’t believe in nature or the law of nature.

To put it a little stereotypically and excessively, the left, believing in the impossible, makes a living by making impossible decisions and then dodging the consequences. They are required to pursue ideologies and cannot imagine somebody seeking anything else.

There is no other exercise of power than the pursuit of an ideology.

When people on the right make similar decisions, they have left the right.

Why I am a Yeomanite

One of the things President Obama is frequently accused of in the right of center media is blaming former President George Bush for our economic woes. His supporters point out, for example, that TARP was passed by Bush and that most people now blame President Obama even for that.

Frankly, President Obama is right to blame former President Bush for much of our economic situation.

However, that is beside the point.

President Obama has presented himself and the government as the means to economic growth. Behind all his policies is the assumption that the state knows best where our energies should be directed to grow the economy.

Yet, for nearly 18 months nothing he has done to move the economy has caused anything like a recovery. Furthermore, his predictions have been off, which demonstrates that the economy is not as simple as his promises, or at least his implied beliefs, indicated.

In other words, in the end, just like Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, et al et al, President Obama does not know how to grow the economy.

Of course, it is premature to say that what he has done won’t help, but I am among the multitudes who are beyond skeptical of the efforts of the present government to do the right thing.

Beyond skeptical, because I positively believe that they have done and are doing the wrong things.

But even that is beside the point. Let us suppose that President Obama does know best what our economy needs. There is no possibility that by the time he presses it through congress, his solution will look anything like what he knows we need. Only a dictator could overcome that reality.

As long as people hope that government decisions will lead to a recovery, as opposed to allowing one, our government will be permitted to make decisions that can’t possibly work.

Economic recoveries happen when people who make small scale economic decisions are able to use their own intelligence based on the conditions before them to do what best enables them to fulfill their responsibilities.

When everybody is sitting around waiting for the next big decision from Washington about who gets the next dollop of corporate, social, or economic welfare, nothing happens.

When people are unwilling to take the risk of opening a new restaurant or expand their warehouse or sell a new product because they are afraid the state will have something more intelligent for them to do, the economy can’t grow.

What leads to economic recovery is not a mystical force in the market or the intelligent hand of the state planner. It’s people being allowed to attempt to fulfill their duties according to their best lights. The recovery comes because so many fail, but quite a few succeed.

The harder it is to fail, the harder it is to create new jobs.

It may be worth noting here, though it is an  aside, that it is not “enlightened self-interest” repackaged as greed that grows a healthy economy. It is fathers who want to provide for their families. Everything else feeds off that basic duty.

That is why I’m a Yeomanite. Nobody is smart enough to intelligently direct an economy, but many, many people are smart enough to figure out what to do in their circumstances.

On Hunger

In Matthew 6 our Lord expresses his much recited and much neglected promise. Laying out, as it were, the foundational principles of the life to which He calls those who would follow Him, He says:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

…Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

Some people, for whatever reason, treat this passage more like a command than a promise. When they do so, the tone changes, the meaning of the passage, though not the content. A barrier is created between the disciple and Christ, because the disciple’s attention is directed to himself instead of to the words of his Lord. Something inside us always wants to take on the burden, but the whole point of this passage is to put it down.

It is instructive that Matthew 6 is part of the sermon on the mount and that the sermon on the mount follows Matthew 4, in which we read of Christ’s temptation.

“Command these stones to become bread.”

“All these things I will give you…”

Christ knows what it is to be tempted. In fact, the temptations He endured make a joke of the ones we confront. He knows how to deal with temptation.

In each case, He appeals to the word of God. But notice something else. In each case, we can see that He is looking in a different direction. He isn’t seeking bread. He isn’t seeking “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” He isn’t even seeking to prove Himself or His God.

He is seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, so He is not worried about these other things. He knows that His Father knows His needs, so He is content to say that “Man shall live… by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Jesus was tempted at the beginning of His task because He is the second Adam. Look back to Genesis 3 for a moment and compare what happens there in the light of Matthew 4 and Matthew 6.

God the maker has created an all-good creation and placed the man in a garden, which he is to tend. The only restriction He gives him is that he must practice the tiniest of fasts: don’t eat from this one tree.

Mind you, this was one spectacular tree. When Eve looked at it, she saw that it was good for food, but it was also pleasant to the eyes and could make one wise.

But they were to fast from this one fruit. They were to believe that man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. They were to seek first God’s righteousness and to trust that the other things would be given.

Perhaps that is why our Lord fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before He was tempted.

They listened to the tempter.

Now here is something that seems worth noting: our Lord told us in Matthew 6 not to worry about what to wear. It seems to me that most of us, when we read that, take these words rather literally, which we should. In other words, we take Him to be talking about being anxious about having clothes to protect us from the cold.

But take a look at Genesis 3. Do you notice the role of clothes in that context? Why do Adam and Eve cover themselves?

Because they feel shame.

No wonder. This goodly frame the earth had come to seem a sterile promontory, this brave o-erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, had come to appear no other thing than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

And worse, The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals, noble in reason and infinite in faculty, has become the quintessence of dust.

Adam could say, Man, that is, I, delight not me. No, nor woman neither.

We who are born with shame and practice hiding it in some dark corner of our soul from the day our mothers greet us with their tears, we cannot imagine what it must have felt like to feel shame for the first time.

Oh what a noble mind is here o-erthrown.

The primary purpose of clothing has never been to keep us warm, but to keep us invisible, undiscovered – covered.

Clothes are the means by which we hide our shame.

It seems to me, therefore, that our Lord’s words in Matthew 6 go deeper than we might have thought. The greatest fear we have in following Christ is that we’ll end up ashamed. People won’t respect us. But worse, it might not pay off. We might fail. He might fail.

We would never say it that way; we only make decisions as though it might happen.

This fear of shame drives the conventional school and compels us to grunt and sweat under a weary life, to bear the whips and scorns of time, and all for what?

For words. For nothing.

For air that spills from others’ mouths and evaporates into the air, forgotten.

If we want to see the coming of the kingdom of heaven, then we must abandon the kingdoms of this world and all they offer. We must turn from bread and clothes as the way to validate ourselves, and we must seek Him.

Or maybe it would be more fitting to say, we can seek Him. He calls us to it. He promises to attend to the things we worry about most: hunger and shame.

Conservatism, Ideology, and the Death of Seeds

Our country is being pulled further and further in two directions, one that can be safely described as progressive and the other as conservative, though not in a way intended by many who use that term now.

To see a nice summary of the progressive position, take a look at this article.

Progressives see the world in terms of ideologies in conflict, each trying to achieve what they consider a just representation. It is a politics rooted in relativism and one that, historically, tends toward centralized planning and thus to tyranny, though in varying degrees.

Conservatives, in the sense that I use the term (rooted in Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk’s writings, not the Weekly Standard or Rush Limbaugh), regard ideology itself as a poison. We don’t see the world as the battlefield of ideologies unless people are foolish enough to embrace an ideology.

Conservatism in this sense is opposition to all ideologies. Conservatism is not an ideology itself for one simple reason: it acknowledges a law of nature and of nature’s God to which everybody is bound.

Ideologies may begin within the constraints of natural law, but they possess an inner impulse to break down those constraints. They turn to the identity of the group instead of human nature.

In general, they join the money-lovers in their assault on nature itself, but they attack it from the other side. Thus, while the money-lover comes from a position of strength and thus strives to establish an oligarchy in which he uses his capital to build a fortune and then buys the state to secure it, the ideologue usually arises from or uses those in a position of weakness.

He organizes the oppressed into a force that rises up against the oppressor, whether that be the Roman Republic of the era of the Gracchi (2nd century BC), the English peasantry under Richard II (late 14th century) the French peasantry under Louis XIV (18th century), the unorganized forces of labor during the railroad years (late 19th century), or the descendants of the slaves in our own time.

The advantage of the ideologue is that he always has justice on his side. In other words, oppression is always wrong and people always absorb guilt into their souls and their communities when they practice it.

The other advantage of the ideologue is that the oppressed are excluded, by definition, from both the centers of influence and the means to those centers of influence of the wider culture. In every case I can think of, that means education. In other words, the oppressed tend to be illiterate.

The illiteracy that the oppressor imposes on the oppressed is the very weakness that leads to the overthrow of the oppressor. It’s simple. Illiterate and oppressed people (they need not be the same) feel vulnerable and weak. They are looking for someone to protect and strengthen them. They become, in varying degrees, gullible.

The ideologue thus becomes the demagogue. He promises peace and prosperity and delivers violence and suffering.

But in so doing he adds a meaning and a hope to the lives of the oppressed that fuels the revolution the seed of which was planted by the oppressor himself.

Then sets in the law of the catastrophic continuum. Once the ideologue is able to gather power to himself, he is attractive to anybody who wants a share of his power. More and more people find themselves oppressed. They establish an identity for themselves. They form a group and feed off the ideology.

And who is not oppressed?

But here is the fatal problem with both money-loving and ideology. Both of them, having built their kingdoms on greed and envy, are idolaters. Both of them are trying to overthrow nature. Both of them, to do so, need ever-expanding power.

The money-lover buys out the established government. The oppressed threatens it.

Both expand it and then find themselves unable to control it.

This is why amoral capitalism leads to socialism and why democracy always leads to demagoguery. The forces of greed and envy unleashed are demons of violence and suffering. Both are impatient. Both deny limits. Both centralize power.

This is where we sit as a nation today, on the knife’s edge between the money-lover driven by greed and the ideologue driven by envy.

Conservatism has been taken over and redefined by the money-lover. Liberalism has been taken over and redefined by the ideologue.

Conservatism has become a sounding brass and liberalism a tinkling cymbal.

The one sure thing is that we will continue to watch our government expand and intrude relentlessly until either we repent and assume responsibility for our lives, our families, and our communities, or we will find ourselves under a “benign” tyranny that stultifies every genuinely human ambition or impulse that does not meet the narrow goals of the ideologue.

What solution, then? Practically, I don’t know. But certainly if we don’t acknowledge truth and a law of nature that governs all of us, including the ruler, the merchant, and the revolutionary, then there is no solution.

The always insightful CS Lewis put it this way in his most important book:

Only the tao* provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

The Abolition of Man

* by “tao” Lewis means what the west has commonly referred to as the natural law.

Because our people have formally rejected this natural law for over a century (as seen, for example, in the maxims and decisions of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), the oppressed have nowhere to turn but to the direct quest for power themselves.

When the powers that be determine that they are the ones who determine what is right and wrong (the practical definition or at least effect of moral relativism), even their best intentions leave no genuine hope for the oppressed.

This happened to slaves in the pre-civil-war era and it has happened to workers and to descendants of slaves since then.

But if the oppressor does not acknowledge a higher law, then how can the oppressed be expected to?

We are driven by ideologies in conflict, each seeking enough power to protect themselves and to overthrow the oppressed.

But, says St. Paul, if you bite and devour one another, take heed lest you be consumed by one another.

Let us learn not to trust in the deceitfulness of riches, nor to allow envy to drive us into ever new forms of slavery. Perhaps we can model again what Gandhi and King imitated:

Unless a seed falls in the ground and dies, it abides alone.

Looking For Something Better

The apprentices have gone home and I am preparing a hot bath to slow my mind down and absorb the experience we’ve just shared.

At the end of his moral classic, After Virtue, in which he describes the failure of the modern moral (and therefore political) project, Alisdair MacIntyre writes:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history [the gradual end of the western Roman Empire] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead… was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

I sense that something parallel is occurring even now in our American imperium, though the parallel must not be forced. MacIntyre continues:

If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the dark ages which are already upon us.

I’m not stretching too far when I say that the apprenticeship is a feeble attempt to at least empower people to contribute to such communities. It can’t be such a community because it is not local. But perhaps it can help others to build them.

And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another –doubtless very different — St. Benedict.

Turn your heart to your family and your church. Turn your heart away from this free-falling world and its honors. Something better beckons you.