The Great Revolution, I: Introduction B

As human animals with large brain and capacity for conscious thought, we have senses that are attuned to the natural world.  While cultural and aesthetic traditions may vary, our musical sense is based on the construction of the ear which is tuned to hear the overtone series that Pythagoras first understood in the ancient world.  Our eyes perceive and prefer symmetry, balance, and form, and our minds delight, as we have progressed in our development, in coherent and balanced narratives.  

At our highest level of understanding—as represented by Plato and Aristotle, Confucius and the Taoists, and Christian writers from the Evangelists and Paul to Augustine to Thomas and the great reformers, we acknowledge the common humanity of all human beings to whom we owe a set of negative duties, not to kill, harm, rob, rape, or willfully deceive them.  Within our societies, we have a hierarchy of positive duties that arise from our particular relations as child or parent, kinsmen or neighbor, fellow-citizen or resident alien, but such duties are not necessarily reciprocal—children owe parents respect and obedience but not vice versa—or universal:  What I owe to my wife, I may not owe to my neighbor’s wife, and what I owe my law-abiding neighbor’s wife I may not owe to an unknown fellow-citizen, much less a woman who may be a resident alien, an undesired immigrant, or a criminal.

In other words, while as civilized human beings we acknowledge duties to our fellow-men, we do not amalgamate all our duties and share them out equally.  We do not, simply because we recognize the humanity of all human beings, surrender our peculiar affections and duty in the name of universal human rights.

The institutions generated by human nature—marriage, the family, rules of right and wrong, the worship of supranatural forces—are varied but share common characteristics.  Since I am describing man in general, my object is not to celebrate or support one or another major form of these institutions, and I have been content, to a great extent, to note their convergence on a common model, for example, on monogamy and the rule of tit for tat as human norms.  It is not my purpose to proclaim the supreme importance of Christianity, though that is certainly my belief, but to point out simply that there is hardly a society that does not practice its religion or pay reverence to its divinities.  “True” Buddhism may not have a god, but the popular forms of Buddhism are religious to the point of superstition.  E.O. Wilson, who was no believer, once observed that from the sociobiological perspective the universality of religion proved its survival value for the human race.

Man is, as I have been arguing, a hybrid creature: an ape with a brain, a beast with the capacity for conscious life that includes the capacity for rational thought.  Our species used to be defined, in the days before Linnaeus, as animal rationale, a rational animal, though as Jonathan observed so bitterly, this definition overstates the case.  Men so rarely use their faculty for rational thought that they might be more accurately termed, capax rations, capable of reason.  You will recall that the philosopher once pointed out that syllogistic methods (process of logical demonstration) are as inapplicable to ethics (the study of the morals, politics, and arts of man) as rhetoric is unsuited to logical demonstration.

Here we face a dilemma Aristotle was perhaps the first to identify.  While reason is among the highest attributes of the human race, the power of reason is like a dangerous weapon that a can be used for self-defense, for an unjustified assault against other human persons as worthy of respect as their attacker, or for suicide.  Human beings, endowed as they are with at least the illusion of free will and made in the image of God (as Jews and Christians believe) or of gods, as the Greeks thought, cannot be reduced to abstractions, put under microscopes, tortured by experiments, or subjected to purely rational analysis.  If physics has to confront the problem of the observer, whose very observation makes certainty impossible, ethical studies have to deal with the equally troublesome problem of the observed. 

The qualities that make us most human—our humanness—cannot be subjected to a purely rational analysis without being destroyed or at least being made invisible.  This has been the effect of most systems of ethical and political thought since Descartes.  To put it as succinctly as I can, the very process of subjecting human behavior to rational analysis not only makes it impossible to understand it, but in the process, both the rational observer and, if the observer has influence, the rest of mankind are diminished in their humanity.

A great deal more can and will be said on these topics, but we have to begin somewhere.  This brief list might be expanded by a telling a sort of myth of early men, taking care of wife (or wives) and children, defending the home, working with family members and kinsmen to procure and store food, and deferring to our superiors and demanding deference from our inferiors.  As individual aspects and phases of the Great Revolution are taken up, some of these points will require further elaboration.  It goes without saying that, in this series in particular, questions, comments, and objections are welcomed.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    The battle, as part of the Great Revolution, against balance and symmetry, as well as the destruction of music natural to the ear is of great interest to me. Its prevalence in every aspect of our lives astounds me. It must be programmatic. It is certainly Satanic. I once worked, as a house framer, on a mansion designed by a NASA engineer for the use of himself and his wife. You would think that a mathematician and literal rocket scientist would have some sense of order. Instead the house was an absolute horror the likes of which I hope to never see again; narrow hallways turning at strange angles ending in rooms stepping up or down with ceilings of an unnecessarily uncomfortable height (high or low) with no right angles to be found in many of the rooms. It was/is a complete travesty giving no comfort, quite the opposite. I can only think that he wanted to give them all of the impetus he could to spend as much time as possible outside. Thank God there was little room for a garden. I shudder to imagine what the monster would have come up with for that.

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    Many parents have opened their eyes, if only partially, to the horrors being programmed into their children in schools with regard to perversion and socialism and racial bigotry, but they still have their eyes firmly shut when it comes to media consumption aimed at young children. Not simply the obvious stuff, such as cloaking acceptance of sexual perversion and such, but the subtle and yet also more obvious attempts to destroy a child’s aesthetic sense before it has even developed. The trend, that has been going on for decades, has been to make “children’s entertainment” as ugly as possible. From books to shows to movies to music, everything is intentionally ugly, asymmetrical, abstract, and ill-formed. It not only desensitizes children to that which is ugly, even worse, it gives them outright nostalgia for ugly things which they will carry with them as the grow up.

    It really is abominable.

  3. Thomas Fleming says:

    I have inserted these two necessary paragraphs before the last paragraph of this post, and they will be the transition to our first topic:

    Man is, as I have been arguing, a hybrid creature: an ape with a brain, a beast with the capacity for conscious life that includes the capacity for rational thought. Our species used to be defined, in the days before Linnaeus, as animal rationale, a rational animal, though as Jonathan observed so bitterly, this definition overstates the case. Men so rarely use their faculty for rational thought that they might be more accurately termed, capax rations, capable of reason. You will recall that the philosopher once pointed out that syllogistic methods (process of logical demonstration) are as inapplicable to ethics (the study of the morals, politics, and arts of man) as rhetoric is unsuited to logical demonstration.
    Here we face a dilemma Aristotle was perhaps the first to identify. While reason is among the highest attributes of the human race, the power of reason is like a dangerous weapon that a can be used for self-defense, for an unjustified assault against other human persons as worthy of respect as their attacker, or for suicide. Human beings, endowed as they are with at least the illusion of free will and made in the image of God (as Jews and Christians believe) or of gods, as the Greeks thought, cannot be reduced to abstractions, put under microscopes, tortured by experiments, or subjected to purely rational analysis. If physics has koto confront the problem of the observer, whose very observation makes certainty impossible, ethical studies have to deal with the equally troublesome problem of the observed. The qualities that make us most human—our humanness—cannot be subjected to a purely rational analysis without being destroyed or at least being made invisible. This has been the effect of most systems of ethical and political thought since Descartes. To put it as succinctly as I can, the very process of subjecting human behavior to rational analysis not only makes it impossible to understand it, but in the process, both the rational observer and, if the observer has influence, the rest of mankind are diminished in their humanity.

  4. Dot says:

    I would like to know why I am not getting any notices from the Fleming Foundation to my e-mail address. I’m beginning to think the Foundation is a male only club.

  5. Thomas Fleming says:

    Questions of website management should be addressed to he webmaster.

  6. Kellen Buckles says:

    Dot, this man also has not been receiving the (mostly) daily emails for well over two weeks. I need to see what Mr. Navrozov has been saying….

  7. Kellen Buckles says:

    This comment may be only tangentially relevant or premature…

    In the Spring newsletter from the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts I find a brief description of a course on Northern Literature taught by Dr. Amy Fahey. It attempts to help students understand the influence of the heathen literature upon Christian writers such as Tolkien and Undset. According to Tolkien the Norse relied solely on “self and indomitable will” — godlauss / Godless. She quotes Gunnar of Njal’s Saga: “What I don’t know is why killing bothers me more than other men”, presumably after his exposure to the Christian ethos. Students learn how the “strengths of the Northern character – their hospitality, boldness, loyalty, and resolve in the face of hardship – are aimless without Christ.” I find godlauss as the term for indomitable will interesting.

  8. Thomas Fleming says:

    Kellen, thanks for the comment. Whether it is immediately relevant or not, you raise several issues.

    Let’s start with a minor point. I don’t think there is any evidence that Gunnar, either the historical or fictional character, became Christian. The saga, while it does not take an uncritical view of Norse ethics, does not appear, certainly not to me, to offer a Christian alternative. And Gunnar himself, whatever his sterling qualities, had little reluctance to kill. Here I am quoting from the second chapter of the second volume of “Properties of Blood”:

    “Gunnar Hamundarson, one of the heroes, dies an outlaw, but even in his cairn his spirit sings out to his son, Hogni, of the pleasures of a life well-spent:

    Hogni’s generous father
    Rich in daring exploits,
    Who so lavishly gave battle
    Distributing wounds gladly,
    Claims that his helmet,
    Towering like an oak-tree
    In the forest of battle,
    He would rather die than yield,
    Much rather die than yield.”

    It would take someone more learned in Germanic studies than I–or probably Mrs Fahey, though I may be doing her a disservice–to determine the range of meanings of “gottloss” across the great family of Germanic languages. Robert Peters might have a clue. Arrogance and contempt for god(s) are certainly combined in certain mythical heroes like the lesser Ajax, Aeschylus’ Capaneus, and Vergil’s Mezentius.

    As in English, the modern German “gottloss” can imply either atheism or wickedness, but at root, it indicates, as you imply, a willingness to live without the divine. As many atheists simply hate the God they actually believe in (because they think He is telling them what they don’t want to hear), so the heroic temperament–as in the case of Sophocles’ Oedipus–may take something like the Epicurean position that while the gods may exist, they have little or nothing to do with the way I choose to live.

    But, let us suppose you are correct in summaring Mrs Fahey, and she is correct in summarizing Tolkien, and Tolkien is indisputably correct in his interpretation of the Norse character, where we do we get? Certainly not that the good qualities of Northern warriors are “aimless without Christ.” Although I am not the warmest admire of the Norse, their culture, like every culture, chose–as Ruth Benedict might say–to emphasize certain qualities, some of which were good. It was not so much the Christian faith per se that made them less intolerable as it was the culture of the Mediterranean Christendom.

    In any event, we are looking here for the common human, not for eccentricities. And when there are eccentricities or exceptions, their usefulness will be the extent to which they test the general rule and demonstrate the danger of breaking it. For example, if we were talking about marriage, and I were to take up the question of marriage forms and say that the strong tendency is for monogamy with a certain propensity for male cheating that makes polygeny attractive to strong men, and someone instanced the polyandrous Toda, the point to make would be that the Toda killed baby girls, which led to a shortage of women, which caused brothers to share a wife. This more or less tests and proves the hypothesis. Thus for a society to adopt the feminist dream of one woman with several husbands, we first have to kill off female children.