29 July 2015

Bill Watterson, (still) a philosopher for our times

Since returning to the United States last month, I decided it would be a good idea to revisit some of my old friends from when I was seven or eight years old: Calvin and Hobbes. No, not those ones; the comic strip characters! The recent sentimental tribute to the old Calvin and Hobbes comics by Pants Are Overrated, as well as the guest appearance by Bill Watterson himself drawing several days’ worth of Stephen Pastis’s comic Pearls Before Swine, rekindled my interest in a major way. And going back and reading my old Calvin and Hobbes collections, I continue to be stunned at how well they have aged. Or rather, perhaps, how badly we and our society have aged, that these comics drawn in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s can still be so relevant. Calvin and Hobbes was never an explicitly political or religious comic, but there remain some incredibly trenchant moments in the shenanigans and Ohio forest romps of the titular boy and his tiger, the travails of his parents and the more-than-occasional sesquipedalian discussions of advertising, consumerism, mass media, environmental destruction, regurgitation-oriented school ‘reform’, the pretentiousness of modern ‘art’, the cult of therapy, the battle of the sexes and other perennially-timely topics.

I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that Bill Watterson’s politics are similar to mine, except possibly to say that his comics are certainly to be counted as a deep early influence on my own romantic anti-capitalist and anti-war convictions. But the comics that strike home hardest these days are those that attain for his views on technology in general, and television in particular. One can see in Calvin’s cynical endorsements of the consumerist conformity brought about by television advertising and his deliberately-complacent attitude about being told what to think by the tube exactly where Watterson’s worries lie, though of course he was drawing just as the 24-hour cable news network was starting to become a phenomenon.

Also, he delved fairly deep into some of the classical questions of Western theology with his work: human nature, death, original sin, fate versus free will, the problem of evil, the harm principle, the nature of the good. And he did it for some serious chuckles, often with a sarcastic quip from Hobbes or a deliberately crass or hypocritical attitude from Calvin.

At any rate, lots to admire in Watterson’s work! Childish fun, of course, but obviously so much more than that.

22 July 2015

The Confucian self-institution dialectic

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

There has been some discussion recently over whether ‘institutional’ or ‘critical’ Confucianism is the genuine expression of the tradition. This discussion was ignited by Yu Yingshi, a liberal history professor who attacked what he saw as a reinvigoration of the Confucian tradition on the mainland owing solely to the sanction of a disingenuous and oppressive government. In Yu’s treatment, only the ‘critical’ Confucianism of post-1911 New Confucian reformers ought to be considered ‘real Confucianism’ – by which he means, of course, those Confucians who were most politically-inclined toward the atomising, rights-oriented ideology of the British and the Americans. Naturally, this sorting of Confucians into ‘real’ and ‘fake’ based on a modern standard imposed largely by colonial force has, shall we say, some serious limitations.

I do happen to agree with Yu on one thing, and that is that the Chinese Communist Party is not a Confucian organisation. But must one really resort to an appeal to an ideological construct – that of liberalism – historically and philosophically far-removed from Confucianism’s own native reasoning and intellectual resources to do so, in order to prove that the CCP’s version of Confucianism is not ‘real’? If one genuinely cares about the viability of Confucianism as a native alternative to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, then one should damn well hope not. But finding a viable native alternative to the Chinese Communist Party is not Yu Yingshi’s project. One is tempted, in looking closely at his attempt to bring Hu Shi (a pragmatist and a ‘New Culture Movement’ intellectual trained in America in the thinking of John Dewey) into the Confucian fold, to draw parallels between Yu’s project and that of John Courtney Murray.

First-order, Confucians are not so easily divided into ‘institutional’ oppressors and ‘critical’ oppressed. Dong Zhongshu, for example, is widely and correctly credited for turning Confucianism into a state-supported doctrine under the Han Dynasty: as such, he is probably the first ‘institutional Confucian’. But if one examines his life and career, as Dr. Michael Loewe does in his well-researched but slightly-contrarian read of Dong Zhongshu’s writings, one soon finds in Dong Zhongshu a fervent advocate for the oppressed, even at the cost of career advancement and occasionally at the risk of his life amidst Han court intrigues. Dong Zhongshu railed against oppressive rural taxation, berated a growing wealth gap between the richest and the poorest, fought against nepotism in Han recruitment practices and advocated against war with the Xiongnu tribes to the north. He advocated for a redistribution of land which, if it were set forth today, would undoubtedly be considered socialistic. His ‘institutional’ read of Confucius was hardly intended as an apology for the ruling classes.

But let us examine the strongest arguments for a libertarian or anti-institutional read of Confucius, such as this one by political scientist Sam Crane of Williams College. He does not argue directly against the institutional aspects of Confucian thought, but instead focusses narrowly on an interpretation of Confucius which privileges the ‘micro’ over the ‘macro’, or the ‘bottom-up’ over the ‘top-down’. In his words, ‘[the Analects and the Mencius] are focussed on how individuals can and should live good lives’, and ‘the top-down, macro-political aspect of Confucianism is measured by how well it facilitates bottom-up micro-Confucianism’. He cites, primarily, verses from the Analects describing that a good ruler is firstly a good family man; and that a good government is one which, firstly, has good people working within it.

I don’t think either of these things are particularly in dispute, because obviously Confucius did value a government by good people much as classical Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle would have valued a philosopher-king to rule over them. But this is not an argument for liberalism, but instead an argument for virtue ethics. Calling both supportive Weberian theory to mind as well as critics like Pobedonostsev, secular liberal democracies very obviously don’t care, first-order, whether or not good family men are the ones fill government posts, as long as they can perform the procedural duties demanded of them. Indeed, it is more arguable that liberal democracies select instead for machiavels and sophists – people who are the most likely to sway the crowds in their favour with spin, pandering and craftily-chosen words (against which Confucius spoke both often and vehemently!). Dr. Crane is right on the money when he says that bureaucracies are universalising and impersonal; where he fails to convince is in saying that greater procedural liberty or ‘agency’ will in any way alleviate this impersonality. The track record of Kantian liberal democracies so far would suggest very strongly otherwise!

More glaring is the elision of difference between bureaucracies and institutions. It is a blatant (and completely unfair) misreading of Jiang Qing, for example, to suggest that what he wants is more law and more bureaucracy. Indeed, in A Confucian Constitutional Order he waxes quite eloquent against the Weberian-Rawlsian construct that reduces government to an impersonal mechanism driven by replaceable dehumanised cogs, and that is precisely because what he values is the character of the government and of the institutions within which people have to live.

And here we get to the dialectic in the centre of Confucian thinking. Think about this passage in the Analects, the beginning of the same twelfth chapter which Dr. Crane quotes, which on first blush looks like it lends its full support to his position:

Yan Yuan asked about the meaning of humaneness. The Master said, ‘To completely overcome selfishness and keep to propriety is humaneness. If for a full day you can overcome selfishness and keep to propriety, everyone in the world will return to humaneness. Does humaneness come from oneself, or from others?’ Yan Yuan asked: ‘May I ask in further detail how this is to be brought about?’ Confucius said, ‘Do not watch what is improper; do not listen to what is improper; do not speak improperly and do not act improperly.’ Yan Yuan said, ‘Although I am not so perspicacious, I will apply myself to this teaching.’
It is obvious here that Confucius is concerned with self-cultivation, and the idea that persons are capable of reforming themselves and overcoming their own selfish instincts. Indeed, many translators into English are wont to take the question ‘為仁由己,而由人乎哉? Does humaneness come from oneself, or from others?’ as rhetorical, and treat it as such. Of course benevolence comes from within oneself, as he insinuates early in the passage! But then Yan Yuan asks for clarification, and Confucius replies by telling him to watch, listen, speak and act only according to what is proper (that is to say, in accordance with rites). The practice of benevolence is not referred to a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, behind which one finds ‘everyone doing what they determine… they must do if they are to do the right thing’, but instead to something concrete and outside oneself, namely rites (li 禮). Keep in mind that a rite, both in ancient times and in modern, refers to a material code of behaviour which has been institutionalised, either by law or by custom. In this one passage, humaneness comes out of harmonising the self and the rites; which comes first, Confucius is content to leave as a question.

That’s not to say that his students didn’t take sides, though. The famous contention over human nature, between Xunzi and Mengzi, is one example. Mengzi argues that our moral nature, our care for others, and the roots of benevolence, propriety, justice and wisdom are essentially embedded in our biology and psychology. Xunzi, on the other hand, argues that human beings are naturally driven animalistic and selfish desires, and require tutoring according to the rites in order to make them behave well. Though the arguments on each side are much, much more involved, and bring cosmological and ontological positions into the question, one can see in each philosopher’s stance one side of Confucius’s dialectic coming into play: do the rites come first, or does the self? In Xunzi’s view we can see the beginnings of a Confucianism which privileges institutions; in Mengzi’s view we can see those of a Confucianism which privileges self-cultivation. The historical irony, however, is that Mengzi’s partizans in the Song Dynasty – led by Zhu Xi – made his work canonical and relegated Xunzi to the sidelines, from the top down and in a highly bureaucratic way, by making memorising the former’s work a requisite for governmental civil service examinations!

Mengzi himself may have taken issue with this use of his philosophy. His approach mirrors localism and distributism in some crucial respects. He is the originator and defender of the well-field system, a model in which a village’s land would be divided into ninths, and one-ninth held and worked in common for the purpose of ‘mutual aid’ (zhu 助) with the rest divided into privately-held plots. He also does not suffer tyrannical rulers lightly, and has a tendency to believe that that government is best which lets farmers, fishers and foresters conduct their business in the proper season.

But all the same, it is specious to argue, as so many observers are wont to do, that Mengzi is some kind of proto-libertarian or proto-democrat. For one thing, he does not think that just anyone has a place in deciding questions of government – indeed, Mengzi’s somewhat ill-tempered diatribe against the agrarian philosopher Xu Xing shows that he makes a clear distinction between the governing and the governed, and that in his view governing requires more than just the cultivation (pun intended) of the virtues.

For another thing, Mengzi is also adamant that the government should not only reserve powers to itself, but also that it should use its power to aid the common people when they are in need. In the very first chapter of his book, he upbraids King Hui of Liang not for being a neglectful family man, but for allowing his people to die of hunger while his own dogs and horses eat well; for not ‘making restrictive arrangements’ (zhi jian 知檢) against, one presumes, the well-to-do; and for not opening his granaries so that those who are starving can eat. Evocatively, he calls such selfish laisser-faire governance ‘leading on beasts to devour men’ (shou er shi ren 獸而食人).

Even Mengzi is concerned with the character of institutions, not only individuals.

This is because in the last analysis, Confucianism is not a philosophy of rights. It is a philosophy of virtues, a philosophy of relationships and a philosophy of care. The person in Confucianism has worth not because she has autonomy or because she is an atomised deracinated constellation of abstract property rights, but precisely because she is always already embedded in a set of social roles and relationships that make her unique – first and foremost, as the daughter of a natural family. Subsequently to that as she grows and develops, she learns new relationships as a student, as a wife, as a mother, as a community member and subject of a particular polity. It is, indeed, her personal responsibility and no one else’s, to cultivate herself within those roles and within their corresponding rites to become a superior woman, a shunü 淑女 (or, if a he, a superior man or junzi 君子). But those roles and relationships are informed by a corpus of commonly-held social knowledge that the Kantian realm of ‘agency’ can neither comment on, nor protect.

15 July 2015

Simple and crude? You don’t say…

The argument that the Chinese Communist Party is not Confucian is, at least intellectually, not a particularly contentious one. So why Yu Yingshi is posturing so much over it now is somewhat beyond me. Honestly, I have no idea how many mainland Confucians the Chinese government has hoodwinked into thinking that it is on their side, but some very prominent voices - by no means all of them on the liberal side of the argument - have yet, let us say, to be convinced. Jiang Qing, for one, has been very clear in A Confucian Constitutional Order that he considers the CCP to be at the forefront of the world’s most modern state, and coming from him, that is not a compliment. And believe me, the CCP got the message loud and clear. It is highly unclear what ‘political benefits’ Jiang Qing has reaped from taking such a stand, as his book was officially banned at time of publication on the mainland, and most liberals subject his work to obscene levels of ridicule.

So no, the CCP is not Confucian. But that is pretty much where my agreement with Yu Yingshi ends. His rubbishing of ‘institutional Confucianism’ and furthermore calling it the ‘Confucianists who oppressed others’ is both inane and historically-illiterate, utterly unworthy of such a respected historian. Arguments can probably be made for Xunzi being the first ‘institutional Confucian’, but from what I can tell, a scholarly consensus holds that the first unabashed promoter of ‘institutional Confucianism’ was in fact Dong Zhongshu, and using the radical Gongyang commentary 公羊傳 on the Chunqiu 春秋 for support, he took very bold and indeed career-detrimental stands (as Michael Loewe makes clear in his somewhat contrarian and revisionist, but in many aspects well-researched history text on the man) against the Western Han leadership against nepotism, against oppressive tax policies, against massive wealth gaps, against war with the Xiongnu and for land redistribution that would benefit China’s poorest. Advocating for the oppressed very often means looking at institutions, respecting institutions and their power, and trying to reform them.

The real howler, though, is when Yu Yingshi tries to rope Kang Youwei in as an ideological support for his position. It’s true that Kang Youwei was a huge admirer of the West, as indeed were many Qing scholars of that time, and also a democrat of sorts. But he was also very much an ‘institutional Confucian’ who wanted Confucianism to become a state religion comparable to the Church of England in Great Britain, and who wanted to retain the Qing monarchy in perpetuity. In reality, Kang Youwei was hardly the staunch advocate of Western universal values Yu Yingshi wants to make him out to be, and indeed, Kang’s thought is taken as a great inspiration for some of the left-traditionalist mainland Confucians (like Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing) whose work Yu Yingshi is denigrating here. Yu Yingshi’s citation of Hu Shi as a ‘critical Confucian’ is another low point. Hu Shi was, in fact, not any kind of Confucian at all either in his beliefs or his practices; he was, in fact, a Pragmatist and a student of John Dewey, who was responsible for propagandising his professor’s thought to Chinese audiences, who welcomed it readily. And, as I have argued before, if you really want to look at the ideological underpinnings of the modern-day post-Deng Xiaoping CCP, John Dewey and William James, rather than Lenin and Mao, are actually at the centre, though of course their work has been taken well out of its native representative-republican context and interpreted in a more authoritarian way.

As can be seen here, the questions for mainland Confucianism are actually not the ‘simple, crude issues’ Yu Yingshi wants to make them. The tragedy of Confucianism in the mainland now, is that on the one hand it has become an ideological prop for those in power who do not respect it, and on the other it is once again becoming a scapegoat for China’s ills, the way it was in 1911. The trust Confucian philosophy has traditionally placed in the scholarly elites, and the sympathy and support it traditionally offered to the impoverished peasantry, place those who take it seriously in an awkward position in modern intellectual debates. At the same time, though, it has a vast wealth of intellectual resources to offer, to development critics, to agrarians, to socially-minded reformers on the Chinese New Left, and to critics of globalism more generally - a wealth of resources that is being quickly hushed up and buried by liberal scholars who desperately crave the kind of court favour (in the West!) that Yu accuses mainland new Confucians of seeking in China. However, Yu’s use of such language to describe Confucianism’s modern dilemma, and China’s intellectual landscape more generally, is both disappointing and telling. ‘Simple’ and ‘crude’ perfectly describes so much of modern Chinese right-liberalism of the sort Yu Yingshi champions, with its kneejerk support for the imperial Anglo-American West’s every heinous blunder in its quest to remake the world in its own image.

14 July 2015

Eastern pro-life

Qingshui Temple (艋舺清水巖) in Taibei

Belated thanks to the Western Confucian for clueing me in to this old news story, about Taiwanese Buddhist and Daoist temples performing rites for the souls of unborn children who have been aborted. And particularly interesting is this part:
Religious groups were once at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement, railing against the legalization of the practice in 1985. Now, with the battle effectively lost, some temples are trying to spur soul-searching among women who have had abortions.

Ching Shui Temple is a leading proponent of the new approach.

It touted its elaborate “baby souls mourning” ritual as a chance to help unborn children be reincarnated, possibly into well-to-do families, provided the mothers pray hard enough, says temple priest Chen Chun-kai.

“We tell the women fetuses are complete with souls and must not be removed on a whim,” Chen said. “In the old days, babies only died at birth or through natural deaths, they were not aborted.”

While most young women dismiss the baby souls mourning ritual as superstition, a vocal minority appear to embrace it, Chen said.

“When they ran into mishaps in their lives or careers, they began to wonder if the aborted babies were taking revenge,” he said.
It would be fascinating to observe if similar prayer rituals take place on the mainland, or if the cultural and political climate is just too different. At any rate, Daoism is an incredibly interesting philosophy that I have long felt has strong links to existentialism (apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so), though I had no idea that Daoist temples took such strong moral stands on these kinds of issues. I shall have to crack open that Peerenboom translation of the Huanglao Silk Manuscripts I’ve got lying around somewhere, and while I’m at it revisit Zhuangzi!

12 July 2015

The sad explanation

It’s a strange sight to see, but a certain number of my Facebook contacts seem adamant both that a.) systemic racism is somehow not real, and b.) Northern white liberals have been historically, and still are, somehow more racist than Southern white conservatives. It’s an odd, defensive, wagon-circling set of views that has been cropping up with increasing prominence, I think largely deriving its power from a reaction to Charleston and to the Confederate flag controversy of late.

I can understand to a certain extent the temptations of each view, because each of them runs counter in some way to the received attitudes of political correctness. But, put bluntly, both cannot be true. In fact, I’ll go further. The former view fundamentally undercuts the latter view and renders it completely nonsensical. I think those who express both views are engaging in a particularly insidious form of self-deception. Now, I personally happen to be of the opinion that Northern white liberals will and do get ‘passes’ on racist behaviour that Southern white conservatives frankly often do not. But these ‘passes’ can be explained only within a framework that treats racism not as the product of individual intellectual or emotional proclivities but as the product of a systemic bias that allows ‘white’ individuals to approach the secular authorities on their own terms, whilst denying that approach especially to blacks.

This thought came to mind whilst reading this article by John Metta on Medium. I could pick at some of the minor details, but the main thrust of his argument is dead-on accurate. He says it best when he opines that ‘racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America’. But what does he mean when he says racism is ‘deeply embedded’?

Metta means that well-meaning, well-spoken Northern white liberals will still move out to ‘better neighbourhoods’ and send their kids to ‘better [public] schools’, which are of course funded by property taxes on ‘better real estate’: where ‘better’ is code for ‘whiter’. He means that Northern white liberals will still opt to live in communities segregated by design. He means that well-meaning, well-spoken Northern white liberals will still make excuses when white youths screw up – excuses that they would not make for black youths. Northern whites will not undergo as easily as Southern whites the sometimes psychologically-messy realities of propinquity with their black neighbours.

But none of this matters if you aren’t willing to see racism as something other than a matter of individual moral hygiene. As Metta says, he does not think of his upwardly-mobile, Northern white liberal aunt as a racist, and he goes further, setting straight-out that putting the conversation in those terms goes nowhere. It goes nowhere because white people have gotten accustomed to thinking in baldly-individualistic, atomistic terms (possibly because we whites of working-class immigrant backgrounds have traded our own deep-rooted birthrights for a mess, not of pottage, but of vague legal privileges, but that’s an issue I’ve written about elsewhere). But any critique of an ontology in which we have been made complicit is construed instead as an existential attack on me, the individual, as an indictment of my own moral standing; and the argument is relegated to the internalised contest between memory and pride. Small wonder such arguments go nowhere – Nietzsche tells us how all such contests end up.

I’m somewhat tempted, in fact, to give this a theological gloss. The cultural Puritanism of New England which gave way to its liberalism, for example, rests on a cosmology wherein the vast mass are predestined to perdition and only a few individuals are elect and worthy of being saved. Because the Puritan runs straight for the assurances that he, personally, is one of the ‘good guys’, one of the elect, it becomes offensive to a Puritan mindset to consider that we all might be partaking in an ontology of death.

And so it becomes the easier to dismiss the racism of the North when white Southern conservatives are busy both decrying Northern racism and undercutting any method of examining it, and thinking wrongly that they’re shielding themselves from criticism in the process. But the sad reality is that we’re still living in the ontology of death. American racism is systemic, and our Northern liberal ease has been borrowed on the cost of police bullets in young black male bodies, of missing young black female bodies, of unborn black bodies destroyed in utero, of black credit denied, of black schools underfunded, of black churches attacked and torched.

Lord, have mercy.

04 July 2015

Case for the Crown

This Vox article by Dylan Matthews has a few points I probably could quibble with, but in the broad strokes it mirrors quite well my own sentiments on the War of American Independence. Great Britain at the time was also a liberalising imperial power, but there were elements within it - namely, the High Tory elements which would go on, in a Canadian context, to form the basis of George Parkin Grant’s Red Toryism - which militated against the worst and most egregious abuses of a burgeoning capitalist empire. (Amongst which were the chattel slavery of West and Central Africans as well as the theft of the native lands of the American Indians.) Though the aims of a few of the intellectual and legal minds of the thirteen colonies were varied, and a few of them even admirable, what they ultimately accomplished through revolution was the dissolution and exile of any such countervailing, conservative-moralist force.

So Dylan Matthews makes an excellent point about Britain having had, in the latter 1700’s and the early 1800’s, more humane and dignified policies with regard to the rights of black men and Indians. And slavery continued to be a profitable option for Britain well up until the Civil War, making its decision to abolish slavery throughout the Empire between 1833 and 1843 one of the rare examples of a disinterestedly altruistic act on the part of a modern state. As Howard Temperley put it,
Britain’s behaviour [in suppressing slavery and the slave trade] is particularly hard to account for. As Davis points out, the British are not thought of as having been particularly humane in other respects, including the treatment of their own working classes… It would appear that Britain's interests would have been best served by expanding the slave trade. … Instead of seeking to suppress the save trade, it could have dominated it, and in the process outproduced Cuba and Brazil, increased its own wealth, and contributed to the economic growth of the Americas. … In his History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), W. E. H. Lecky describes England’s crusade against slavery as “among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.” … Davis believes that Lecky was basically right.
But this virtuous act could not have taken place without the vocal, persistent moralisers across two generations drawn from both the radical and the conservative ends of Britain’s political field who agitated for abolition: on the conservative end, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteus, Richard Oastler, Granville Sharp and (most famously) William Wilberforce are the primary representatives; on the radical end, the Quakers and Dissenters, William Cobbett, Thomas Clarkson and Robert Wedderburn.

By contrast, the conservative voice in the Americas, which gave rise to the Loyalists of the American Revolution, was extirpated through theft, murder and deportation by the revolutionaries. There were no John Strachans left south of Upper Canada both to rail against the evils of slavery, expropriation and exploitation of the working classes on the one hand, and to uphold peace, order and good government on the other. And so the task of ending slavery in the newfangled United States fell to the radicals, who grew to be opposed by an equally-radical (not conservative!) opposition from the slaveholders, who would sooner jettison the principles of good government and lawful, God-ordained order than the profits they derived from their ‘peculiar institution’. The bloody slaughter which ended slavery in the United States (a bloody slaughter whose historical meaning we are still fighting over in various forms to the present day) was therefore the result of the untimely death of the native tradition of moralistic conservatism among white Americans, at the hands of the revolutionaries.

With regard to the Indians, also: the bloodletting and the starvation marches on the frontier were the result of the victory of revolutionary ideology, and the extirpation of the voices of constraint. For this case we need to turn to Canada, which, though it has a far-from-perfect history of relations with its own First Nations, nevertheless managed to accomplish its westward push without the kind of brutal rapine, outright theft and genocide which characterised American frontier policy from Thomas Jefferson onwards. The sanguinary revolutionary slaughter Jefferson advocated against the colonial governments was carried to fruition largely by his equally-radical political protégé Andrew Jackson against what remained of the traditional agricultural and nomadic ways of life on the North American continent. I must agree with Mr. Matthews that, ‘[a]bsent the revolution, Britain probably would’ve moved into Indian lands [in the same manner Canada did]. But fewer people would have died’.

Where I begin to differ from Mr. Matthews on his reading of Britain, though more in the particulars than in the essentials, is in his appraisal of the Westminster parliamentary system. The success or failure of parliamentarianism lies not in the overt structural differences with the American government, but rather in the careful maintenance of the intellectual and moral habits which sustain it. Parliamentary democracy ought to grow organically out of the shared elements of the national life, rather than being considered a set of abstract written rules of government that can be imposed from the top down without any regard for the depth of that national life. (This is the problem, in fact, which I have with the American constitution and how it has been employed, often forcibly from without, as a standard for governments and nations to which it is culturally ill-suited.) Absent the habits of mind and soul, parliamentary governments are every bit as likely to devolve in as dysfunctional and unhealthy directions as ours has.

That said, Mr. Dylan Matthews, though his reasoning is more in the terms of governmental procedure than in the terms of spiritual and economic needs, says perfectly that which I have been saying for years, that ‘[m]onarchy is, perhaps paradoxically, the more democratic option’.

02 July 2015

Pobedonostsev – personalist, populist, perennialist, patriot, peacenik

Cross-posted from Oriental Review and Solidarity Hall:

If one studies late Romanov Russia, or the Golden Age of Russian thought, poetry and literature, there is one name in statesmanship and political philosophy that, alongside the literary giants Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky and Dostoevsky, you probably can’t get away from. Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, the éminence grise of Russian statecraft under Tsar Aleksandr III and Tsar S. Nikolai II, and Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, was probably the most influential figure in Russia’s civic, cultural and political life toward the end of the long 19th century. A close friend to Dostoevsky and a bête noire to Tolstoy, Pobedonostsev is still considered the foremost proponent and representative of an ‘unshakeably’ autocratic Romanov rule. His name is very often synonymous with monarchical absolutism.

Yet, his Reflections of a Russian Statesman, a broad-ranging work of essays and literary sketches that primarily explores questions of political philosophy, education and statesmanship, paints a somewhat more nuanced picture. It would be foolish to deny that Pobedonostsev’s politics are reactionary, but it is a reaction grounded in an instinct which closely resembles that of the Slavophils whom he occasionally critiques. Through each page of his Reflections burns an ardour, what reminds one of an all-consuming erotic lust for truth, as defined by and as borne out in the integrated whole of lived experience. This romantic ardour is matched only by a detestation of those falsehoods which present themselves as thin facsimiles of truth – logical formulae, abstract theories, ideological credos and oversimplifications of complex issues. He rightly points out the hypocrisies of the intellectuals of his time who seek to perform public obsequies for the idols of voluntaristic rationalism, materialism, utilitarianism, modern education, free love, eugenics, the ideology of capital, church-state separation, press freedom and democracy.

It would be a mistake to cast Pobedonostsev as a simple reactionary. His Slavophil intellectual tendencies give his ‘reactionary’ positions a paradoxically radical cast which resembles quite closely Ivan Illich’s diagnoses of modernity. When he attacks the institution of the press, it is not on the grounds that a free press dangerously promotes free expression. Indeed, his entire line of attack turns on his argument that the press in fact stifles free thought and free expression: that the newspapers narrow the scope of vision of their readership; that they substitute simple political formulae and quick, glib explanations for substantive or measured analysis; that they foster scandals and instigate gossip; that they ‘foment irritation into enmity, and [bring] about devastating wars’i; and that they police the outer limits of acceptable opinion with every whit of the viciousness that they ascribe to their censors. According to Pobedonostsev, the newspaper ‘offers to each [man] a ready-made judgement upon everything, in such a seductive form that, little by little, by force of habit, the reader loses all wish for, and feels absolved from the duty of, forming his own opinions… The harm that results from this is too visible, especially in our time when powerful currents of thought are everywhere in action, wearing down the corners and distinctions of individual thought, reducing to uniformity the so-called public opinion, and weakening all independent development of thought, of will and of character’ii. In our subsequent age of the 24-hour media cycle and the ascendancy of the Roger Ailes model of scandal- and outrage-driven infotainment, it is difficult indeed to deny the justice of his charge.

Pobedonostsev’s critique of education, very similarly, rests on the argument that modern pedagogical methods do not help children to thoughtfully examine their own real lived experiences; but rather, ‘seduced by the fantasy of universal enlightenment, we misname education a certain sum of knowledge acquired by completing the courses of schools, skilfully elaborated in the studies of pedagogues. Having organised our school thus, we isolate it from life, and secure by force the attendance of children whom we subject to a process of intellectual training in accordance with our programme.’iii His writing, it should be noted, is peppered throughout with references to Xenophon, Plato, Livy, Cicero, S. Augustine and Rūmī, to name but a few; he does not hold learning in contempt at all, but rather wants to see it pursued to the ends proper to life.

Yet he notes quite rightly, and with no small twinge of irony, that the key heliocentric insight of Copernicus and Galileo has been denied anew by the apostles of the modern social sciences. ‘The system of Ptolemy has long outlived its day, yet in our time its errors obtain in a new sphere of ideas and conceptions. For does not modern philosophy, which deals with man as the centre of the universe, assuming that all existence revolves around him as science once made the sun revolve around the earth, fall into a similar pit?’iv

Pobedonostsev is very clearly, and very stridently, not a socialist. But in an age of rapid industrialisation and proletarianisation, very much less is he a friend of capital, or of the ideology of credit (both of which he repeatedly refers to as ‘base’ and ‘vulgar’) which diminishes the knowledge of the labourer of his own work, which hems about the labourer on every side with conditions he doesn’t understand, and utterly demolishes the labourer’s every sense of security in his vocation. More generally, he fears the mechanisation of government itself, of jurisprudence, of justice itself. He dreads the loss of a living spirit in the instruments of the state, to be replaced only with a formalism divorced from all proper human sentiment. ‘We find a machine for the artificial execution of justice,’ he writes, ‘but justice itself is dumb in the triumphant turmoil of mechanical production, its voice stifled in the tumult of the wheels of the great machine.’v

And when he comes to the subject of democracy, he directs his outrage at the parliamentary system, on behalf of the people whose interests it is meant to represent. One might be forgiven for thinking his suspicion of democracy is far more populist in flavour than autocratic: ‘To [the parliamentarian], his constituents are a herd, an aggregation of votes… The people loses all importance for its representative, until the time arrives when it is to be played upon again.’vi

But underlying all of these trenchant critiques, turning each of the modern shibboleths on their heads in turn, is a deep concern for the whole person in her whole depth; this is a concern he shares with the younger generation of Russian political and moral philosophers, including Berdyaev and Solovyov. ‘Men must not be regarded as intelligent machines to be disposed as the general disposes his troops when he forms a line of battle,’ Pobedonostsev writes. ‘Every man embodies a world of moral and spiritual life, from which proceed the impulses which determine his activity in all the spheres of life; but the chief, the central impulse springs from faith and from the conviction of truth. The theorist only, reasoning independently of actuality, or ignoring it, will be satisfied by [Pilate’s] ironical question: what is truth? In the souls of men this question lives as the gravest question of life; a question, requiring not a negative, but a positive answer.’vii Prefiguring in particular Berdyaev’s The Meaning of History (and possibly Lewis’s That Hideous Strength), Pobedonostsev recoils instinctively from the whole edifice of the myth of progress, and particularly when it comes to the ideology of eugenics. The statesman is repulsed by any ideology which can so casually override the person as so much fodder for the future flowering and ‘perfection of the race’ as a whole, which can remove the moral floodgates for the exercise of ‘violence and arbitrary power’, and for which ‘the very idea [of conscience] will be denied’viii.

One major, unfortunate and ugly flaw in Pobedonostsev’s thinking, and one which raises its head thankfully only twice throughout the whole work, is his anti-Semitism. To be fair to him, it is a flaw which he shares with many other figures of his time: T. S. Eliot, C. H. Douglas, Karl von Vogelsang, even F. M. Dostoevsky himself. In context, it is clear that his animus is not driven by an active race-hatred so much as by a suspicion of intellectuals and journalists as possible subversives (amongst whom many Jews figure prominently), and particularly those who weren’t Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, the anti-Semitic language is there, and it is jarring.

Konstantin Pobedonostsev does not simply use his Reflections to stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop’ – though occasionally he does do this as well. But his instincts are far more creative than that. The archconservatism for which he has been both famed and deplored since the days of the Tsars is in actuality informed by a series of nuanced convictions: by turns prefiguring the radical personalism of Berdyaev, reflecting and possibly critiquing on its own grounds the populism of Herzen, absorbing the organic patriotic romanticism of the Slavophils and declaring the necessity of statecraft to stand upon something other than the naked force either of the strongman or of the mob. His essays, however true they must have rung to a literary audience of the 19th century, have lost none of their potency or value being read in the 21st.

  1. Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev. Reflections of a Russian Statesman, including the Manifesto on Unshakeable Autocracy, trans. Robert Crozier Long (Newark: Newark Press, 2013), location 906. Kindle edition.
  2. Ibid., location 942.
  3. Ibid., location 1014.
  4. Ibid., location 1240.
  5. Ibid., location 1349.
  6. Ibid., location 544.
  7. Ibid., location 408.
  8. Ibid., location 2195.

Back in the United States

Actually, it’s been a while since I’ve been back to the United States – just in time for the national festivities in which I’m unlikely to have any part. I’ve primarily been involved in doing end-of-term paperwork, moving out of my old apartment, repacking, travelling for 48 hours at a stretch and making trips all around the Eastern seaboard on family business as well as on business business. So… I’m back home, this time probably for awhile at least. My apologies to my gentle readers for the slow blogging month last month; hopefully things will pick up this July.