What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Sunday Guessing Game: The Animus of Reductionism

The reader's challenge is to tell me who wrote the following. The rules are simple and 3 in number:
1. No internet searches or research
2. Of any kind.
3. Period.

You either know already or are able to divine the answer. Or not:

G. K. Chesterton remarked that the murderer is the supreme spendthrift, wasting in a moment what he cannot re-create in a life-time. The freedom confusedly derived from the divorce of facts from values is like that: the abortionist destroys a thing he is incapable of reproducing, the skeptic breaks a tradition he could never have begotten. Most of the recently constituted freedoms we now enjoy - or pretend to enjoy - are not the measured liberties of human beings who understand their own nature and limits, but unmeasured irresponsibilities with immeasurable consequences. They are freedoms to renounce. We have begun to declare our independence of our own actions and choices, a declaration that militates against all those accumulated habits summed up in the word 'character.'
If this is freedom, it is not human freedom. It may be canine freedom. Santayana said that the only thing the modern liberal wants to liberate man from is the marriage contract; and this comes close to the hidden agenda of the progressive nihilist. Philosophically, one can doubt anything. One can doubt God, one can doubt matter. With such a rich field of options for doubt, it is instructive to notice which things the modern nihilists have chosen to doubt.

The animus of reductionism is specific,: it is against chastity, or sexual virtue - of all words the surest to evoke sneers. They are also the words that express the highest human refinement except charity. Even the licentious Romans respected chastity, and honored virginity even when they apparently had no virgins. Today the word chastity is almost taboo, except as a joke, because it affronts the values of those who profess to be value-free; it expresses a view of human nature, and of human perfection, that we are implicitly forbidden to act on. There is something almost risque nowadays in reminding people that character is most basically shown in the use of the body, and that the body's properly human use must be directed to something beyond promiscuous animal desire.

When the Reagan Administration recently launched a campaign to include the advocacy of chastity in its sex education program, it was greeted with progressive hoots. Progressives still uphold the fiction that sex education is, can be, and ought to be value-free. In actual fact, of course, they are using sex education as a vehicle for their own moral code, and the Administration's action threatened to convert the whole thing into the very opposite of what they intended it to be.

It is easy to see what they had in mind. They never wanted to destroy marriage or the family, as some of their critics charge. But they thought these could be demoted to the status of mere options among many other "lifestyles," which is to say, sexstyles. And they saw no harm in sexual perversion and promiscuity, so long as the young were told how to avoid certain practical consequences. Sex education, to their minds, meant simply accepting the whole field of sexual behavior and preparing the young to choose intelligently. They utterly failed to see that this in effect meant adopting more or less officially a whole theory of human nature and destiny - one which, if false, would have disastrous results.

It may be as well for dogs to mate as the inclination seizes them. The male has no responsibility to his offspring. With human beings it is different. Moreover, human beings know it. The act of sex naturally has a much richer meaning for them, even if they are too naive to realize it may result in children. They need an entirely different emotional orchestration, and it is also naive to affect ignorance of this.

Real human freedom, as against the canine sort, requires permanence. If there were no rules of property in land we might pitch our tents where we liked and pull them up when we liked; but we would not be free to build houses. The permanence we need also requires sustained intentions, and mutual guarantees of such intentions, which is why Chesterton called the promise the most basic human institution. How can a man keep his soul, he asked, when he cannot even keep his appointments? Chesterton also reminds us that the old English ballads celebrated not lovers, but true lovers. Even a wedding vow is a vow of chastity, a promise of fidelity to one's spouse and restraint toward all others.

PeopIe have always assumed that chastity is preeminently a woman's virtue. To dismiss this as a double standard is to miss the point that the masculine and the feminine differ in more than simple physical form. All societies are organized around the womb, the source of progeny and therefore of society's future, and a woman's body therefore demands both special consecration and especially strict conduct. The very people who complain of the double standard, however, are most derisive toward the idea of male chastity, and the day is past when a Milton would hotly defend himself against a charge of sexual levity - a charge that gave much of its sting by implying that he had used women dishonorably, that is, had been willing to bed them without the decency to wed them. His supposed unchastity would also be a form of uncharity. The other side of the double standard was that a man's honor depended heaviIy on his respect for women's honor.

The institution of marriage and the code of chastity, now derided as middle-class morality, actually served to protect women, including the poorest, from exploitation, to give them a publicly supported right to say No. All of us deserve love, really human love, and since human nature shows no automatic tendency to supply the need at all times - as witness the facts of desertion, divorce, and abortion - social order consists in guaranteeing certain minima of respect.

"Values" are not really vague entities arbitrarily superadded to "facts"; the distinction is artificial. In an essay renowned among professional philosophers, John Searle used the promise to show how to derive "is" from "ought." A promise, he argued, constitutes an obligation. It is something quite distinct from a statement of intent. Intentions may change; promises should be kept. Or there is no such thing as a promise.

It is interesting that Searle should have chosen the same action Chesterton named as basic as a fulcrum for reconstructing the values recent philosophy has done so much to debunk. But as we all realize, at least in practical life, there are some acts with built-in obligations, whether an actual promise is made or not. To have a child is to have duties as a parent. To have sex is to have duties toward one's partner. Such duties spring from what we as human beings are and what as human beings we can foresee. It is no good pretending we are quasidogs, conscious only of "facts."

Yet that is pretty much what we officially pretend nowadays. Society no longer dares to expect virtue, especially sexual virtue, from its members. At the level of law this may seem like a happy increase in freedom, and a welcome decline in busybody government. And certainly government should be modest about enforcing virtue.

But by an unfortunate development, not only government but all of society has grown modest-morbidly modest - about even recognizing virtue. I had a personal glimpse of the truth recently when a young woman, upon two hours' acquaintance, confided to me that she was having an affair with a man slightly older than herself; and it transpired that she wanted badly to marry him and have children, but didn't dare raise the issue. She was miserably afraid he would eventually leave her, as he had left the woman - slightly older again than he - who had formerly been his lover and her best friend. In short, she wanted some assurance of constancy - a vow - but had not the least sense that she had any right to expect it. Though highly intelligent, she took for granted that in the modern world we are, as Sartre put it, condemned to be free. Or, to paraphrase it a bit, condemned to be value-free. We live, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has put it in a brilliant book, "after virtue" - having abandoned any "concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function."

Neither men nor women have a clear sense of identity, unless they manage to achieve it more or less on their own; at any rate society can't tell them what they are. And now it even transpires that the abortion debate isn't really about facts at all. It turns out that we can agree that a human fetus is a human being. But unhappily, we can't agree on what a human being is.

Comments (23)

I have no clue, but it's a really good message!

If I've read it correctly, though, he (she?) isn't using "double standard" as most people use it. He advocates chastity for both men and women; when most of us say "double standard" we mean that women are expected to be chaste while men can act like dogs . . .

Very minor quibble, though. Protection of women: what a quaint idea! (She says as she thanks the Lord for a husband who believes in this.)

I guess Joseph Sobran, may he rest in peace. BTW, I guess Joe knows now who wrote Shakespeare. I suspect he is disappointed.

Wow, what a Chestertonian style. Esp. the bit about not being free to build houses. That might have been written by Chesterton himself.

A few guesses. I have a feeling none of them are right.

Elizabeth Anscombe

Anthony Esolen (probably too young for the time period when this was written, but I'm _really_ guessing at how old Esolen is)

Allen Bloom

Are we allowed to do internet research if we promise not to say what we find? :-) You've really got me curious this time, Bill.

American - Catholic - columnist

I suspect William F. Buckley or one of his close associates.

It's a remarkable essay, Bill, and I think that TGC is correct in supposing it to be by Joseph Sobran, RIP. There was an issue of National Review -- I think marking an anniversary of their founding -- that was written almost entirely by Sobran. I don't think that William Buckley ever extended such an honor -- or so much space -- to any other writer.

The Guardian Angels feast yesterday, and may each of ours be vigilant. And patient.

All the best, Francis

I agree that it sounds like Sobran. It does NOT sound like WFB to me, but I could be wrong. There are a lot of good authors whose style I don't know off the cuff, so I would not be surprised that it is not Sobran.

I'll give the answer later today, just in case any others want to chime in.

Francis! Good to hear your voice. I need to know now and then that you're still out there.

Oh, Lydia, yes, you can do research if you don't post the results.

No clue.

But the remarks about "the promise" as "the most basic human institution" are interesting. They remind me of an earlier writer, pretty easily guessed, after the first sentence or two:

"The task of breeding an animal with a right to make promises contains within it, as we have already grasped, as a condition and prerequisite, the more urgent prior task of making a human being necessarily uniform to some extent, one among many other like him, regular and consequently predictable. The immense task in what I have called the "morality of custom," the essential work of a man on his own self in the longest-lasting age of the human race, his entire pre-historical work, derives its meaning, its grand justification, from the following point, no matter how much hardship, tyranny, monotony and idiocy it also manifested: with the help of the morality of custom and the social strait jacket the human being was rendered truly predictable.

"Now, let`s position ourselves, by contrast, at the end of this immense process, in the place where the tree finally yields its fruit, where society and the morality of custom finally bring to light the end for which they were simply the means. We find - as the ripest fruit on that tree - the sovereign individual, something which resembles only itself, which has broken loose again from the morality of custom - the autonomous individual beyond morality (for 'autonomous' and 'moral' are mutually exclusive terms) - in short, the human being who possesses his own independent and enduring will, who is entitled to make promises - and in him a proud consciousness, quivering in every muscle, of what has finally been achieved and given living embodiment in him: a real consciousness of power and freedom, a feeling of completion for human beings generally.

"This man who has become free, who really has the right to make promises, this master of free will, this sovereign - how can he not realize the superiority he enjoys over everyone who does not have the right to make a promise and make pledges on his own behalf, knowing how much trust, how much fear, and how much respect he creates (he is worthy of all three) and how, with this mastery over himself, he has necessarily been given in addition mastery over his circumstances, over nature, and over all creatures with a shorter and less reliable will?

"The 'free' man, the owner of an enduring unbreakable will, by possessing this also acquires his own standard of value: he looks out from himself at others and confers respect or withholds it. And just as it will be necessary for him to honour those like him, the strong and dependable (who are entitled to make promises), in other words everyone who makes promises like a sovereign, seriously, rarely, and slowly, who is sparing with his trust, who honours another when he does trust, who gives his word as something reliable, because he knows he is strong enough to remain upright when opposed by misfortune - even when 'opposed by fate,' so it will be necessary for him to keep his foot ready to kick the scrawny unreliable men, who make promises without being entitled to, and hold his cane ready to punish the liar who breaks his word in the very moment it comes out of his mouth.

"The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, this power over oneself and destiny have become internalized into the deepest parts of him and grown instinctual, have now become a dominating instinct. What will he call it, this dominating instinct, given that he finds he needs a word for it? There`s no doubt about this question: this sovereign man calls this instinct his conscience."

Roger Scruton.

I do not know, but I will be very surprised if it is WFB -- not his sort of eloquence. Sobran's my guess, but it's just a guess.

Steve, I don't know who wrote that Randian, Nietschean, Machiavellian garbage, but it's not polite to post another guessing game inside of this one.

Steve's is Nietzsche. I googled it, and I'm not sorry. There. Saved you the trouble of looking it up.

TGC was the first to get it, so all you who thought Sobran thought right. I was a bit saddened when Jeff posted news of his death. He was my favorite back when he wrote for NR, and when they kicked him to the gutter I could hardly believe it. I think some of his writings were supposed to have been tainted with anti-Semitism, though I could never figure out whether this was true or not. Later he got cranky on certain issues that didn't interest me, but as far as I know he remained steadfast in the Faith, and the good work he did was really good and ought to be remembered.

He had a wonderful, deeply resonant speaking voice which made his appearances as guest interlocutor on WFB's Firing Line anticipated events. I remember one debate in which he and WFB took on Harriet Pilpel and a couple other feminist fascists over the ERA, in the course of which some aspect of Sobran's traditionalism (on abortion, or women's roles in general) got him accused by one of the participants of being sympathetic to rape. Even as he ably defended himself, you could see the befuddlement in his face, and the hurt, that someone could stoop so low as to injure an opponent in quite this way. From that moment on, I knew what feminism was because of the way Joe Sobran had to suffer for opposing it. I wish that debate were archived somewhere on line, but it probably isn't.

Actually, it is, here. To correct my memory, they were debating "Resolved: That Women Have It at Least as Good as Men." Sobran was accused of finding rape "amusing," when all he had done was attack Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Says Sobran:

Miss Brownmiller's audacious thesis is that the rape is far from being an aberration; it's actually a pillar of patriarchial society, and rape itself is "nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear." Now, did this cockamamie notion get Miss Brownmiller laughed out of the feminist movement? On the contrary. It made her a star. Soon she was on all the talk shows, expatiating on the idea that all men are rapists at heart. And how did the oppressors take it? Well, Time magazine made her one of its 12 women of the year. Far from angrily disputing her, the male reviewers generally responded in effect, "Yes dear" - the classic male response to henpecking--tnat conscious process of intimidation by which all women keep all men in a state of fear. (laughter) Last night, by the way, I read an article by Mrs. Pilpel herself, documenting the fact that in one collection of poems, "There were 22 poems about male animals, including a male robin who laid eggs, and only two poems about women." I thought this must be the first time anyone ever came away from a reading of Peter Rabbit singing "Let My People Go."

The Hoover Institution at Stanford maintains the archives of the Firing Line program, Bill, and the transcript of the debate you mention is available at their site: http://hoohila.stanford.edu/firingline/ Entering Sobran in the search box -- the ban on Internet research having ended for the day -- brings 7 results and it looks as if a DVD of the program is also available as a special order.

Like you, I hadn't much contact with Sobran's work in recent years, but had he written nothing but his essays in the Human Life Review in that first decade after the curse of Roe v. Wade, we'd still be in his debt. I have his book Single Issues, which collected many of those essays, and I'm glad that you posted a reminder of the quality of his thought and writing. I just checked Amazon, by the way, and hardback copies of Single Issues are available for less than the cost of a sudsy pint.

Thanks for your work, Bill. Best, Francis

Thanks, Francis. That's where the link goes in my comment above yours. I clicked on the link to order the DVD, but it's not at all clear that they actually have one available. And it's good you mention Single Issues, because that's where the excerpt came from. It was published by the Human Life Press.

Joe Sobran understood better than anyone why the Left is authoritarian about everything except sex.

WL - if that's "garbage," then it's really *interesting* garbage. I've been puzzling over the meaning of that passage (Genealogy of Morals, second essay) for years. So I thought it was really interesting that Chesterton nominates the "promise" as "the most basic human institution." What a weird & unexpected congruence between him & Nietzsche! It makes me want to explore both writers further.

I guess it doesn't have the same effect on you. *Tant pis.*

btw - For better or worse, Nietzsche is now a canonical figure, in Western philosophy, as it is being taught, in the major schools - "analytical" & "continental" alike. If anything, he is taken much more seriously than, say, St. Thomas (just to choose a name at random). (Believe me- I've been there & done that. Bring up Nietzsche amongst an ugly crowd of philosophy grad students, and they're all, like, "oh, how interesting!" Bring up Aquinas, and they're all, like, "wtf? is there something wrong with you?")

It does not, of course, follow, that Nietzsche's remarks about the fundamental institution of "promising" are necessarily insightful, or even cogent. But it does follow, I think, that dismissing his thoughts as "garbage" simply won't do.

Continental and analytic alike, Steve? Really? To the same extent? To even close to the same extent? I realize my anecdotal info. is about twenty years out of date, but it was _far_ more a continental phenomenon back then where I was observing things. I suppose the fact that, er, Brian Leiter is analytic and is (I'm told) an N. specialist doesn't exactly commend its analytic wing, either.

Lydia - no, not to the same extent.

But I'd be surprised if there's an analytic department anywhere today that gives Aquinas as much or more respect as/than it gives to Nietsche.

So much the worse for contemporary analytic philosophy. And I say that as no Thomist, by a long chalk, as of course you know. Popularity is IMO not only a poor test of truth but even a poor test of "should be taken seriously."

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.