A New Teleology

That which will be is to some extent the cause of that which is. What is going to happen tomorrow is already to some extent the cause of what is happening today; indeed, of what has happened yesterday. We are not merely the products of the past; we are also the creators of the future . . .

— John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past

Richard M. Weaver famously declared that “ideas have consequences.” His book of that title presents an argument that is somewhat more nuanced than the way in which the phrase has been used by decades of conservatives since; but both Weaver and those he inspired have largely seen the role of ideas in history as linear, a matter of cause and effect. Hold a certain set of ideas (an ideology), and you will act—or, at least, be more likely to act—a certain way. Ideas, in this view, are motives, pushing us along; change the dominant ideas of a culture, and you will change the future.

There’s something attractive, even comforting, in this understanding of the grand, sweeping role that ideas play, even though—or perhaps, to some extent, because—it denies personal moral agency. At its worst, it’s the conservative equivalent of the most simplistic form of Darwinism. If everything that has happened and is happening can be reduced to broad historical trends tied to one particular cause, then none of us can be held personally accountable for being carried away in that stream; and conversely, if we can spread the right ideas far and wide, that stream not only can but will be diverted.

But the role that ideas play in shaping human action and the course of history is more complex and more personal than the popular understanding of the phrase “ideas have consequences.” As John Lukacs often wrote, “Men do not have ideas; they choose them.” There’s nothing deterministic or mechanical about those choices. As Lukacs writes in Historical Consciousness, “in historical life events are not only ‘pushed’ by the past but ‘pulled,’ too, by the future; desires, aspirations, expectations, perceptions, premonitions, purposes, all play their parts . . . ”

Desiresaspirationsexpectationsperceptionspremonitionspurposes: These words aren’t the language of mechanical causality, nor words that would normally remind us of the phrase “ideas have consequences”; they are, instead, words that we associate with free will, with moral agency, with personal beliefs and actions rather than impersonal historical trends.

Every action is a moral action; and that includes our choice of ideas. The elevation of opinion—“that’s just your opinion; it’s not what I believe”—as the chief currency of intellectual life is, at root, an avoidance of our duty to conform our lives to what is true.

“[W]e are products, and creators, of the past,” Lukacs writes, “and also creators, and products, of the future.” The central word here is we: With respect to both the past and the future, we remain—both mankind as a whole, and each of us personally—at the center of history.

Such a recognition is not only liberating, freeing us from the grip that determinism holds on the mind of modern man, but also profoundly Christian, returning free will to its central role in the life of every person. And that brings with it a deep responsibility to choose our ideas, and to act on them, with care.

Every action is a moral action; and that includes our choice of ideas. The elevation of opinion—“that’s just your opinion; it’s not what I believe”—as the chief currency of intellectual life is, at root, an avoidance of our duty to conform our lives to what is true. Pope Benedict XVI called this the “dictatorship of relativism”; but it is a dictatorship imposed not from without but embraced from within, because conforming our lives to the truth is harder than not doing so. “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free”; but freedom comes with moral responsibilities that bondage allows us to shirk.

Weaver believed that the great intellectual break in the history of mankind was the rise of nominalism and the abandonment of the classical and Christian insistence that everything that exists takes part in a reality beyond this world. There are only things we call horses; there is no essential horse-ness. Yet from the standpoint of epistemology, our understanding of how we know what we know, the world of the forms was always an abstraction, a conclusion we reached through our empirical study of the world around us rather than a realm we accessed directly. The nominalists insisted that there were only horses because we can never directly experience horse-ness.

Yet, pace Weaver, the more important intellectual shift occurred somewhat later, when we began to apply the concept of mechanical causality in science to human thought and action. When men longed for heaven, their desires and aspirations could pull them forward; when they cast their eyes down to earth, they made themselves no better than the animals, acting on base instinct and physical necessity—yet seeing in this slavery to the material a kind of freedom from the need to seek the truth and to act on it.

What we need today is a new teleology, a recognition of the end for which man was created, and a desire to live our lives with that end in sight.

Returning to Earth

What lies at the root of the abstractionism that I discussed last month, which afflicts the modern world like a mania, especially here in the United States?  Walker Percy dubbed the phenomenon angelism, by which he did not mean that those who exhibit it have evolved to a state of moral purity but that we have individually and collectively cut ourselves loose mentally from the ties that bind us to the world and the people around us.  And yet (for reasons that should be obvious) we have not been able, through such abstraction, to overcome the limitations that are inherent in human life and the material world.  Stymied by our inability to overcome those limitations, we have come increasingly to despise the world and our place in it.  And so our response is not to become more human but less so, as Percy’s Dr. Tom More put it so clearly in Love in the Ruins almost 50 years ago:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man.  Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.

Walker Percy did not live to see the rise of social media (he died in 1990), but the various forms that social media have taken and the conduct they have engendered among so many of their users would not have surprised him.  For all of the potential that social media have to draw people closer together, to rekindle ties with old friends and relatives, to keep us rooted in one another and therefore in the communities in which we are mutually a part, in practice they have all too often enabled the opposite: Social media allow us to engage in flights of fancy, to escape from the reality of our lives by imagining ourselves (consciously or even unconsciously) to be someone different, or even just to cast aside the manners and mores that are essential to civilized life in an actual community.

There have been dozens of investigative articles over the past several years on the phenomenon of “trolling”—people exhibiting behavior toward others with whom they interact online that would, in face-to-face encounters, skirt the line of diagnosable sociopathy, or even cross over it.  A common theme runs through all of them: When trolls meet the reporters, they behave much differently in person.  They are frequently shy, almost invariably polite, and express hurt when the reporters ask them about their actions online in tones that imply condemnation or disapproval.  The reporters themselves experience cognitive dissonance—they expect to dislike, even hate, the trolls but find themselves liking and even sympathizing with them.

The behavior exhibited by trolls looks increasingly like one extreme of a broader phenomenon that afflicts an ever-wider swath of users of social media, and I don’t mean just white nationalists and “social-justice warriors” on Twitter.  More and more of us find it both easy and a relief to create identities on social media that do not reflect the reality of our everyday lives—even if we use our own names.  (And I use us here not as a rhetorical device but as a recognition that I have strayed in this direction myself over the years before recognizing that I had loosed the bonds of earth and needed to return to reality.)

Were Walker Percy still alive, I suspect he would see in this parallels to the psychological condition of dissociation.  With our increasing use of social media (and other electronic media, such as email and texts) as a substitute for the hard reality of dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings, we create alternative unrealities that consume more and more of our attention and consciousness until, one day, we look in the mirror and no longer recognize the man we see there.  We become strangers to ourselves, but the ghosts we have created through our abstraction can never truly replace the creatures that God has made us to be.  Bound by time and ties to people and place, we have only two options: keep raging against reality and losing our true self in the process, or start recovering that true self by accepting the limitations inherent in it, and returning to earth.    

First published in the April 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Life Is Not a Fantasy

The reality of place has weighed heavily on me from a very young age.  My knowledge of self has always been inseparable from the place in which I live.  My understanding of who I am has been closely tied to those with whom I most often interact—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even those with whom I have a nodding acquaintance (a phrase that has become unfortunately abstract in a world that no longer values simple signs of courtesy and respect).  Remove me from familiar places, and I become a stranger in a strange land, longing for my home.

Even when, as a typical teenager, I longed to leave my hometown, my departure always ended, in my imagination, with my return.  A life elsewhere, among other people, is an abstraction: Home is reality.

Of course, I no longer live in my hometown—and yet, in fact, I do.  In Huntington, as in Rockford, as in Spring Lake, I have walked the streets until they have become a part of me, and found my place among a people who are not simply passing through but are deeply rooted in this portion of God’s green earth and the little bit of civilization that has been built upon it, for all intents and purposes autochthonous and autonomous, a true community made up not of individuals with entirely separate lives but of persons whose sense of themselves is tightly woven with their sense of their neighbor and of their place.

Chaucer was the first to claim that familiarity breeds contempt, and most (if not all) of us can point to concrete examples that seem to prove his adage true.  Yet these words are, at best, a half-truth, which makes them (as John Lukacs reminds us) more dangerous than a lie.  Because it is even more true to say that familiarity breeds community, and that civilization cannot arise among an agglomeration of rootless individuals, but only among men and women who are rooted in a particular place and in deep knowledge of one another.

These brief thoughts were occasioned by continued reflection on what role, if any, aphantasia—my complete inability to create mental images—may have had on the development of my theological, philosophical, and political understanding.  As I mentioned last month, I was initially dismissive of David Mills’s suggestion even to consider this.  But the centrality of incarnationalism in my theological understanding, my visceral rejection of abstraction in philosophy, and my preference for localism in politics, economics (broadly understood), and culture, taken together, do seem like the positions one might expect a person who can’t imagine an orange sheep with five legs perched on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse to have arrived at.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we expect a Catholic who has truly encountered Christ to place the Incarnation at the center of his theological thought and, therefore, to reject philosophical abstraction in favor of an epistemology resembling a traditional Aristotelian empiricism?  If even God must become man in order for us truly to know Him, why would we think that we can have true knowledge of anything else outside of experience?  Even book larnin’ must build on experience, moving from analogy to analogy, and the mental images created by people who are not aphantasic of things they have not directly experienced are still conditioned by their actual experiences.  Thus, the presentation of the Blessed Virgin in medieval art as more European than Middle Eastern is no more a form of cultural imperialism than images emerging from other Christian communities at roughly the same time of Mary with Asian or Ethiopian features.  We know what we know because we have experienced it.  Even those with the ability to create extraordinarily vivid mental images—hyperphantasia, we might call it—cannot conjure up a mental figment that does not correspond in some way to something they have experienced.

Yet there are Catholics today who intellectually accept the Incarnation as a reality but whose theology is otherwise maddeningly abstract, and philosophical abstraction ism, like centralism in politics, economics, and culture, has become more the norm among the intellectual classes than the exception.  Over the last century—and accelerating exponentially in recent years—those tendencies have spread beyond the intellectual classes into the broader populace.  Mass communications, and now social media, have turned abstractionism into a form of mania, a type of mental illness no longer confined to individuals but affecting society as a whole.

Walker Percy saw it coming nearly 50 years ago, and it’s no coincidence that this Catholic convert made the hero of Love in the Ruins (1971) and its sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), both a psychiatrist and a descendant of St. Thomas More.  The answer to the abstraction that’s making us all mad lies in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Far from abstraction, that faith is an experience, a personal relationship with the God made Man; not a fantasy, but the ultimate ground of reality.

First published in the March 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Picture This

Last year, just before his 21st birthday, my son Jacob learned of a condition called aphantasia.  In its strictest form, aphantasia is the inability to create mental images.  Like many such conditions, aphantasia affects those who have it to varying degrees.  In Jacob’s case, his mental images are very fuzzy and indistinct.  In my case, they are utterly nonexistent.  When I close my eyes and try to conjure up an image, all I see—all I have ever seen—is blackness.

I was a few months shy of 50 years old when Jacob made his discovery.  I had never heard of aphantasia, and my first reaction was disbelief—not that such a condition could exist, but that it wasn’t universal.  From the time I became aware of language implying that we should be able to create mental images (at will or involuntarily), I had always assumed that such language was metaphorical.  I had never thought that “Picture this” was meant—much less could have been meant—as a literal command.

The next several days were both disconcerting and exciting, as I experimented with family and friends and coworkers.  I discovered that the ability to make mental images is not consistent—while almost everyone else, it seems, can conjure up a vivid image to some extent, there is a range of detail, as the difference between my experience and Jacob’s had already indicated.  My daughter Cordelia has a very active and extraordinarily malleable ability to create mental images, and she quickly grew tired of my interrogations:

Me: Imagine a sheep.  What color is it?

Cordelia: White.

Me: How many legs does it have?

Cordelia: Four.

Me: Are you sure it’s white?  Isn’t it purple?

Cordelia, with a nervous laugh: It is now.

Me: And doesn’t it have six legs?

Cordelia, exasperated: It does NOW.

At 13 years old, Cordelia has just won two local prizes for her art—hardly, it seems to me, a coincidence.  In a similar interrogation, her older sister Grace, now 18, saw an orange sheep with five legs standing on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse, once I told her it was there.  Grace’s images, though, are more cartoonish, while Cordelia’s are vividly realistic, even when they cannot exist in reality.

Assuming you haven’t turned the page already—since, in all likelihood, you have no trouble visualizing images and you find my inability to do so an uninteresting defect—the point of this column is not to introduce you to aphantasia, much less to declare myself special for having this condition, and even less to excite your pity.  Rather, it is to explore the implications of a question that the quondam Chronicles author David Mills raised when I discussed aphantasia on Facebook.  In response to my self-diagnosis, David asked whether I thought my condition may have affected my politics, and how.

Because of the way in which David phrased a portion of his question (“For example, does this make you more rational/more principled/less swayed by emotion or [as a critic of your politics would say] less sympathetic/less caring?”), I responded a bit churlishly at the time, but I’ve thought a lot about his question over the intervening year, and I think that David may be on to something.

My political views, as well as my religious ones, have always been deeply connected to my epistemology—my understanding of how we know what we know.  Epistemologically, I am an empiricist—not in the modern, limited sense that excludes any experience that is not reproducible and quantifiable, but in the Aristotelian sense: We have no knowledge of reality except through our experience.  Even our leaps of intuition depend, at base, on prior experience.

By my early 20’s, as a grad student in political theory at The Catholic University of America and long before I learned of aphantasia, I had become a dedicated foe of philosophical abstraction—and the social and political consequences of the modern embrace of it.  Reconstructing society on the basis of theories that have no basis in the lives of real people living in real places makes as much sense to me as worshiping an orange sheep with five legs perched on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse would.  I have no use for economic “laws” based in “self-interest” that are contradicted by the everyday experience of family and community life.  I recognize that men and women and even children routinely set aside their “self-interest” out of love for others, and that characterizing such actions as exceptions to the norm is, in fact, an attempt to redefine the norm.

The love of a mother for her child, family ties, the bonds that bind a community together—all of these are things that we can and do experience, but they are not quantifiable in ways that translate into economic laws or political systems.  They are, however, all experiences that remind us, as Christians, of our encounter with the One Who created us, Who mourned our fall, and Who died to save us from ourselves.

A god who does not become man must remain, in a very real sense, forever outside of human experience.  Those who are not aphantasic may conjure him up, but they risk creating him in their own image.  A God Who becomes man, however, is like the angel whom Jacob faced at the ford of the Jabbok: someone with whom one must wrestle—a reality, and not an abstraction.  And wrestling with Him must inevitably affect how one views the rest of the world.

First published in the February 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Chronicles of Culture

“Culture does not exist autonomously,” wrote Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community; “it is set always in the context of social relationships.”  The implications of Nisbet’s statement should be obvious, but in the age of “social” media, when we speak of “long-distance relationships” with “friends” we have never met, the obvious too often gets lost in a cloud of abstraction.

For there to be a “context of social relationships,” there must be at least two people.  And those people must be part of a society, because that is what social, as an adjective, not only implies but demands, the fantasy worlds constructed by Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams notwithstanding.  And a society is a community, and a particular type thereof: not simply a random collection of people thrown together in time and bound by geography, but one ordered to the common good, and sharing a common history and customs.  Those customs, deriving from and informed by that history, form the barest skeleton of what we call culture.

Culture, then, is built from the ground up, and from the basic human community—the family—outward.  A culture is resilient to the extent that the society which gave rise to it is healthy, and that health implies a certain stability.  Too much mobility, in the form of either immigration or emigration, disrupts the social relationships that make it possible to order a community to the common good.  Shared history is lost; shared customs break down.  The common culture collapses.

Culture develops organically; it cannot be imposed from the top down.  Anything that we call a culture that does not arise “in the context of social relationships” is at best an ideology.  It takes years, even generations, of social stability to develop the common history and customs that make a true culture possible.

Thus, a true culture has an upper limit as well as a lower one.  Just as an individual cannot a culture make, so too a mass of men among whom any social relationships are tenuous at best cannot truly share a common culture.  Most people would probably recognize that to speak of a “global culture” is abstraction at its worst; but to speak of, say, “Christian culture” is not much better.  There are cultures that are Christian, but each arises from a shared faith in Christ among a people who share a common history and customs within a true community bound by space and time.  Two Christians from different Christian cultures obviously share much; but a single common culture is not one of the things that they share.

I once wrote in these pages that,

The subtitle of this magazine notwithstanding, there can be no single, deep, and lasting “American culture,” but there have been and still are many American cultures, local and regional, and the stronger they are, the more likely it is that the country as a whole will manage to survive.

Furthermore, in a country that spans a continent, there can be no single nation, since a nation is bound together not only by common descent and geography but by a common culture.  That does not mean that there cannot be a governmental confederation (or, more strictly speaking, an empire) that extends over such a large span of territory, nor that the many American cultures do not have more in common with one another than they do with other cultures beyond the physical boundaries of the North American continent.  But unless the word culture is to become the kind of abstraction that Robert Nisbet abhorred, it must always be bound by the limits of a true society—limits imposed by geography, shared history and customs, and social relationships.

In our continental empire, anything that pretends to the title of a national culture is by its very nature a threat to the real cultures that continue to exist (and sometimes even to thrive) in such places as Spring Lake, Michigan; Rockford, Illinois; Huntington, Indiana; and thousands of other villages, towns, and small-to-medium-sized cities across the United States, as well as in neighborhoods within cities that are too large to sustain a true culture of their own. Such cultures are dismissed as backward and parochial not only by liberals, for whom culture must give way to abstract universalism, but by putative conservatives whose nationalist abhorrence of cultural patriotism is less universal but no less abstract.

America, such conservatives say, is not a “proposition nation”—except when the proposition in question is not that “All men are created equal” but that a culture does not need a specific soil and a particular people to give it birth.  But this, too, is a type of abstract equality that denies the importance of the actual social relationships that give rise to and sustain true cultures.  The person—a word that always implies a relationship to another—is replaced by the individual, whose only relationship (tenuous as it is) is to the mass known as the nation.

And thus does culture die, at the hands of those who should be its protectors.

First published in the December 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.