GO LEFT, YOUNG MAN!
Kenneth W. Bickford
NOVEMBER 13, 2012
A STRANGE COINCIDENCE HAS REVEALED ITSELF between our quadrennial presidential election and the coincident year’s gridiron grudge match between the L.S.U. and Alabama football teams. For three decades now—going back to Ronald Reagan—an Alabama win has coincided with a Democratic victory for president, while an L.S.U. win has consistently favored the Republicans.
More than a few Alabama fans offered to say “Geaux Tigers” for this year’s match if, in exchange, they were allowed to win the following three years. More than a few L.S.U. partisans were inclined to accept that offer.
Alas! It was not to be. In a closely fought game during which the L.S.U. Tigers dominated every statistic—rushing yards, passing yards, time of possession, etc.—Alabama put together a miracle drive in the last ninety-three seconds to win the game in the only place that ever counts: The scoreboard on Saturday night said Alabama 21, L.S.U. 17. The scoreboard on Tuesday night said much the same: Democrats 51%, Republicans 48%.
Close football games always bring out the losing team’s critics, where every play becomes a turning point to be analyzed and fussed over and debated. Why didn’t we pass on third down? Why didn’t we run to the left side? Why…..did we use a prevent defense? In the game of football, it’s clear enough that wins and losses can hinge on an inch more here or a penalty less there.
A political loss, however, is something different.
No one at L.S.U. has—so far as I know—suggested that the best way to win that game was to switch sides and declare themselves an Alabama fan. Nor can it be assumed that when L.S.U. won last year’s game in Tuscaloosa that Alabama fans thought it best to call themselves winners by changing their allegiance to the purple and gold.
How strange it is, then, to find some Republicans who believe that the way to win a presidential race is to become a Democrat. It is a strange path to victory, no? A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by college student Sarah Westwood essentially proposes just such a thing:
Another leg up that the left has is its claim to the moral high ground. The party of pro-choice, pro-gay has such a hold on young people because those are issues they can care about easily. Not many 20-year-olds can hold a coherent conversation about Social Security reform or double taxation, but all of them can argue passionately for gay rights.
As a member of this all-important demographic, I know that neither I nor (almost) anybody else coming of age today supports the Republican social agenda. That’s the way the country is moving—so just deal with it. Modernize and prioritize.
It is because there are no moral victories in football that we regret our favorite football team ran right when the path to victory was clearly to the left, because in football winning is not about right or wrong—it is simply about winning. But can the same be said for our favorite political team? Our collegian seems to think so. She advises that we move left, for victory. This is wise counsel if the goal is political power, but rather terrible advice if the goal is political truth.
It was once the case that conservatism represented itself as the clearest articulation for truth, that indeed it’s primary advantage over progressive and liberal political ideologies was that conservatism more closely reflected reality, and that to live according to its principles was to reserve for one’s self and one’s family a stable right to pursue happiness.
But pursuing happiness is not the same thing as catching happiness, and in this regard the modern conservative is at a distinct disadvantage—for this is precisely what the Left promises: The capture of happiness. Which party would you rather support? The party that guarantees the pursuit of happiness, or the party that guarantees the capture of happiness?
As it turns out, the happiness being pursued and the happiness being captured are two very different kinds of happiness. Let us see them as they are, two competing and oppositional images of happiness. We stand between them as we might stand between two paintings in a stark-white and sun-bathed hall, able to judge them on their own merits.
THE FOUR CAUSES
ARISTOTLE SAID “Happiness, therefore, being found to be something final and self-sufficient, is the End at which all actions aim.”
What sorts of actions aim at happiness? And what differences can we detect between the happiness arising from politically conservative-actions versus the variety of happiness arising out of politically liberal-actions? Let us examine these actions and outcomes in the light of Aristotle’s four causes.
The four causes may be thought of as a unity found in all things rather than as separate things in and of themselves. Your dinner last night is an example of such a unity. It contained a material cause—potatoes, onions, and beef tips, for example; it contained a formal cause—a recipe which contained the idea on how to assemble the material ingredients into a stew; it contained an efficient cause—action taken by the hands that cooked the meal; and it contained a final cause—the meal itself which gave you both pleasure and nourishment.
The diagram below may be useful for thinking about these causes. The material and formal causes are at the bottom, forming the foundation; The final cause is at the top where the highest things are supposed to be; and the efficient cause is located exactly where the action is—in the middle of everything.
THE UNIQUENESS OF ACTION
ONE OF THESE CAUSES IS UNIQUE and merits special attention: The efficient cause. It is different because the moving cause is ordinarily invisible in the meal sitting before you. When you pass by a house or examine an origami swan or eat your supper at a restaurant you are immediately conscious of three of the causes. You can sense and observe the building materials, the plan and the purpose behind houses and paper swans and suppers.
But unless you were there to see the house being built, the paper being folded or the meal being prepared, the action which coordinated that home, that swan and that supper is invisible.
This places an interesting burden on our relationship with actions. Not because of any problems specific to us or the actions we pursue. The burden is on the relationship. That burden is the spirit of our age—our scientific mindset. It is a burden because it demands proof based on observation, and because proof is restricted to repeatable results. And it is a burden precisely because some of the very best parts of our lives are unique and, by definition, never repeated.
It was not always so. When Bacon, Galileo and Newton laid the groundwork for the scientific method, they fit it neatly into an older and broader approach to understanding. They could not foresee that the new method would come to supplant the broader approach, or that its narrowness would constrict sense and sensibility. In any event, the efficient cause was originally at home with men of science, and they with it.
When caught in the act, modern scientific observation can see action and describe it, but actions also confound science because of a second quality: Actions arise out of purpose and intentions. Science can describe what the cook is doing well enough, but seeing what the cook is doing is not necessarily to see why the cook is doing it. Action is directive and intentional—a manifestation of pure human will.
Our scientist knows this and is baffled on how to explain the cook’s intentions. Perhaps she is cooking because she’s hungry, or because cooking is a recreational activity, or because she wishes to feed her family, or perhaps even because she must bring a dish to tonight’s meeting. She may be cooking dinner for any combination of these reasons. But modern science has nothing to say about these intentions—because modern science has restricted itself to the narrow sphere of reason based on observation. The cook’s intentions—and the unobservable beliefs and inspiration underlying them—are forever separated from the conversations of modern science.
It wouldn’t do to run a home by the scientific method. When Timmy breaks the Ming Dynasty vase, it is of utmost importance that Daddy should know why the vase was broken because in the successful family, intentions matter. There is a great deal of intentional difference between accidentally bumping the vase and juggling with it. Fathers are keenly interested in the invisible intentions of their sons and insist on understanding why their children behave the way they do. None of this matters to the scientist because it cannot matter, and it cannot matter because the scientist’s reason is restricted to what he can see.
Asked to describe their actions, fathers would give reasons related to their intentions. It would not strike them that their reasons were unscientific or irrational. It is the scientist who believes otherwise. The scientist thinks this way because the reasons behind the father’s intentions are unexampled, specific and unique to the father. The scientist’s work requires examples—the father’s intentions provide none.
And yet it is action that defines us—we are always and finally known by what we do. We shall need to inspect action very closely if we are to discover the crucial differences in the two images of happiness.
A DIAGRAM OF HAPPINESS
HAPPINESS, for both you and your family, requires a unity of materials, ideas and actions—but which materials, which ideas and what sorts of actions cause that happiness?
Let us assume for a moment that you are awash in the materials needed to sustain yourself and your family. And let us assume that you have an idea about how these materials might be formed to deliver the final end of happiness and wellbeing. The question we wish to answer now is what should you do, for we will notice immediately that differences in political ideas necessarily lead to stark differences in political actions. The impact on happiness will be profound.
Our laws and our customs are far older than our science—to perceive them as they were we shall have to recall an older, pre-scientific understanding of ourselves. We will need to remember the stories we once told ourselves and see them with new eyes and hear them with new ears.
The two images of happiness are tied to two competing ideas on the origins of intention. Let us pause to consider what we are leaving behind so that we may better comprehend what we are rushing towards.
THE ORIGIN OF INTENTION
THE ACTIONS ARISING OUT OF OUR LAWS AND CUSTOMS are inspired by what we once believed to be true about ourselves. So what, exactly, did we once believe? Two ancient conversations shed light on our understanding of action inspired by belief. The first conversation took place around 400 B.C. between Meno and Socrates. The general subject of the conversation is virtue, what is it, and can it be taught? The specific passage below is concerned about what sort of thing “guides” or directs action:
Socrates: And in general, all that attempts or endures, when under the guidance of wisdom, ends in happiness; but when she is under the guidance of folly, in the opposite?
Meno: That appears to be true.
Socrates: If then virtue is a quality of the soul, and is admitted to be profitable, it must be wisdom or prudence, since none of the things of the soul are either profitable or hurtful in themselves, but they are all made profitable or hurtful by the addition of wisdom or of folly; and therefore if virtue is profitable, virtue must be a sort of wisdom or prudence?
Meno: I quite agree.
Socrates: And the other goods, such as wealth and the like, of which we were just now saying that they are sometimes good and sometimes evil, do not they also become profitable or hurtful, accordingly as the soul guides and uses them rightly or wrongly; just as the things of the soul herself are benefited when under the guidance of wisdom and harmed by folly? (emphasis added)
Socrates: And the wise soul guides them rightly, and the foolish soul wrongly.
Mark down the fact that Socrates and Meno both agree that the thing which guides one’s actions is something called the soul.
Now, let us consider the fifth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written some 450 years later. I quote from the King James Version:
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.
Now, mark down the fact here that Paul identifies actions arising out of two very different kinds of desire, flesh-desire and soul-desire.
Between Aristotle’s four causes and these two ancient passages, I believe we have now assembled enough elements to reconstruct two types of action which result in the two competing images of happiness.
THE CAUSES OF ACTION
WHEN YOU AND I PONDER OUR ACTIONS, we are inevitably confronted with a most unscientific question: Why? Why did I do that? It is an unscientific question because no scientist can answer it. It is a question that can only be answered by the agent of the action—in this case, you or me.
The answer to that question begins with the material cause of desire. We want things. What do we want? We want food and friendship, rest and security, novelty and sex. Left to themselves, the ancient view was that such desires became “fornication,” “revellings,” and “drunkenness.” All of us are filled with desires of the flesh, and these desires are the raw material of our actions. By acting on these desires, we achieve happiness of a kind.
But the story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, doesn’t stop there. If it did we would be indistinguishable from the beasts of the field. The ancient story we tell ourselves—and the story upon which hangs our entire history of laws and customs—also includes our potential to develop desires of the soul. Soul-desire begins with the raw material of our flesh and perfects it by directing those needs towards a happiness that goes far beyond the eating of a meal or the orgasm of a tryst. Together, flesh-desire and soul-desire result in actions leading directly to a lifetime of happiness—the life of virtue.
Soul-desire aims higher than flesh-desire. When one has it, one can never be satisfied with gobbling a meal as one’s dog does. Soul-desire causes dining.
Flesh-desire unites one man with a momentary orgasm. Soul-desire unites one man with a relationship that is lifelong, sexual and parental.
Flesh-desire wants wealth. Soul-desire wants wealth with honor.
In every case soul-desire begins with the reality of flesh-desire and perfects it. Our laws and our customs assume the existence of soul-desire—of the ability of every man and woman to choose, and in choosing, to be higher than the choice-less beast. It is part of the reason we hold criminals accountable—they acted like beasts when they should have acted like men.
Arranged as causes, these desires look something like this:
You can perhaps begin to see where I am leading this discussion. In the classical conception of a fully developed man and woman—and I emphasize again that our laws and customs are based upon just such a conception—lifelong happiness is achieved only when the material of flesh-desire is guided by the ideas and forms of soul-desire. The material itself is inherited—either by nature or nurture—whereas the ideas which form the material are subject to our choices. In the classical conception of the fully developed man and woman, the unity in our being arises from a compound of chosen and unchosen elements.
Our modern collegian would simplify that compound by building a rational political society on the choice-less and inevitable desire of the flesh. She thinks this way even as she believes that soul-desire is the deepest and truest part of her identity. How strange it is to believe in something high and noble about one’s self while denying its existence to society. How fickle to think that soul-desire brings out one’s best but that animal instinct brings out society’s best.
And how odd is it that any of us should possess deeply held beliefs and then work to eliminate those same beliefs from our political life.
The scientific method is attuned to knowledge that can be repeated. It tells you how to repeatedly lob a cannonball and hit a target a mile away with precision. But Napoleon Bonaparte—whose existence I do not doubt—is not reproducible. His uniqueness places him—and you and me, for that matter—beyond the pale of scientific inquiry. Walker Percy made an interesting observation about the relationship between the individual who finds himself embedded in a scientific society:
There is a secret about the scientific method which every scientist knows and takes as a matter of course, but which the layman does not know. The layman's ignorance would not matter if it were not the case that the spirit of the age had been informed by the triumphant spirit of science. As it is, the layman's ignorance can be fatal, not for the scientist but for the layman.
The secret is this: Science cannot utter a single word about an individual molecule, thing, or creature in so far as it is an individual but only in so far as it is like other individuals. The layman thinks that only science can utter the true word about anything, individuals included. But the layman is an individual. So science cannot say a single word to him or about him except as he resembles others. It comes to pass then that the denizen of a scientific-technological society finds himself in the strangest of predicaments: he lives in a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.
To believe in soul-desire is to simply have the ordinary belief that we possess agency and choice—and it is also to believe in something for which there is no scientific proof.
I am told that the Yąnomamö Indians of the Amazon have three numbers: one, two and many. In the same sense that one may not discuss the number “seventeen” with a Yąnomamö, one may likewise not discuss intention, belief or inspiration with a scientist—his vocabulary is not up to the task. Likewise, when we are tempted to speak in the exclusive language of science, we must necessarily excise words and ideas that describe the thing we most believe to be true about ourselves: Soul-desire. It is like discussing the number seventeen with a Yąnomamö.
The two images of happiness require two very different languages. The ancient tongue speaks broadly of things inside and outside of reason, whereas the modern tongue can only speak in the narrow and exclusive language of reason.
Science speaks with confidence and precision and certainty. It is an honest and purely human inclination, this desire for certainty. It should be no surprise, then, that our collegian, wishing to “modernize and prioritize,” finds herself caught in quite a pickle because the world that is exclusively made of flesh-desire is the animal kingdom. It is all very fine for dogs and hyenas but it isn’t nearly good enough for human habitation.
Her victory over soul-desire is a pyrrhic one—for it is her fully developed human happiness that she has vanquished.
THE CAUSES OF SOUL-DESIRE
IF YOU CAN STAND ONE MORE DIAGRAM, I should like to speculate on the four causes of soul-desire. In doing so, we shall leave the narrow realm of modern science behind the cosmic curtain enveloping human sense.
To the extent that you possess happiness greater than your dog, it is because you possess knowledge that is unavailable to your dog. It so happens that this knowledge is also unavailable to the modern scientist. This is not a problem for you unless you happen to find yourself embedded in a scientific society that treats your beliefs as non-existent.
What are the causes of belief in things that cannot be seen? The answer is simple, ancient and deeply personal: Revelation. We believe in some things because they were revealed to us. We believe in the grandfather we never met because his person was revealed to us by his daughter and our mother who loved us both. We believe in a past we never experienced because it was revealed to us by persons who did experience it. Revelation relies on something accepted in every court of law—the testimony of witnesses, both human and otherwise.
And there’s something more: Where revelation leads to belief, belief leads to inspiration.
No amount of mathematical precision has successfully predicted the future, and yet we believe in the future and act on that belief as though it were as real as a brickbat. Belief leads to an act of inspiration that carries us beyond the mathematical models of science into a future that is permanently uncertain. Without inspiration we would find ourselves paralyzed in the present moment, with very little use for the future and no use at all for soul-desire. For the sake of a future, then, we may paraphrase Voltaire and say that if soul-desire didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.
Soul-desire comes into existence when the action of inspiration is formed by beliefs that coordinate the material of revelation. None of it is subject to measurement or observation or verification in the scientific sense—and yet we all act on beliefs and find inspiration in them. A world without such beliefs and inspirations would be a mechanical world bereft of soul-desire, its citizens mere automatons.
Various socialist and communist regimes have been formed on the assumption that soul-desire doesn’t exist. But soul-desire cannot be ignored anymore than gravity can be ignored. All such regimes have failed at some level because soul-desire is a real and ineradicable part of the human constitution, totalitarian assertions notwithstanding.
Ancient narratives that assumed the existence of soul-desire—of which I mentioned the Meno and Galatians—have played a powerful role in shaping the deepest paradigms in our laws and customs. It is no exaggeration to claim those laws and customs begin with Genesis where “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.”
But a powerful modern narrative has risen up to challenge soul-desire. It is championed by twins of the Enlightenment, the scientific mindset and the political narratives of Rousseau and Marx. The new narrative was present at the American founding—present but not yet powerful enough to conquer. We see the conflict in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, where the modern narrative favored a different beginning for the nation in Jefferson’s first draft:
“that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness…” (emphasis added)
But the final draft of the Declaration showed the power of the ancient narrative was not yet broken—for a season yet, soul-desire would define and shape the American founding:
“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (emphasis added)
In the intervening centuries the modern narrative has advanced and taken ground from the classical world. We are living with the consequences of that advance, because the modern narrative tells a radically different story about human nature, and because of it, a radically different story about human happiness. The steady advance of science is mirrored by the steady advance of this modern narrative where happiness can be coldly and mechanically captured as easily as a quark.
THE TWO IMAGES OF HAPPINESS
MODERN CONSERVATISM ASSUMES THE EXISTENCE OF SOUL-DESIRE. It therefore begins its account of the world with a broad view that lies both within and beyond the powers of verification. This is why the conservative has a special place for tradition, memory, and imagination—all of which lie beyond observation. It also explains his need to integrate reason into that broad and ancient view, which the scientific mindset thinks to be impossible in the same way that one may not discuss higher numbers with a Yąnomamö.
Strangely enough, ideologues for the scientific mindset believe in their own personal soul-desire and live as if it were the truest part of their selves while denying it for their political community. This peculiar internal schism baffles even them.
It all gives to conservatism a completeness lacking in the modern scientific-political narrative, which attempts to cover the world with the constricted view of reason alone—and by doing so fails to envision a future worth defending.
I am thinking here of a 2007 study at University College in London which compared the imaginations of ordinary volunteers with those of persons suffering from amnesia. Each group was asked to imagine a day at the beach and describe it. Those whose memories were intact imagined the whiteness of the sand, the vibrant colors of beach balls, the blue of the sky and the turquoise water, as well as the squawking of seagulls overhead and the rhythms of the surf. The amnesiacs—each of whom had suffered damage to the hippocampus where space, navigation and memory are coordinated—were at a loss. They mostly saw sky. Their inability to recall the past left them without the materials needed to create and imagine even an ordinary scene. This absence of a past left them bereft of a future—the present moment enclosed them like a coffin.
By itself, flesh-desire is the philosophy of the present moment—and it goes a very long way towards explaining the loneliness and alienation of its adherents. Those who are faithful to its principles find themselves enclosed in the cold crypt of verification.
Conservatism proposes an escape from the tomb of the present moment. It does so by embracing unverifiable soul-desire. It is the viewpoint that gives what’s due to tradition and memory, and because of that it also gives what’s due to an imagined future.
Lately, some conservatives have expressed embarrassment over this extra-scientific approach to political truth. I myself have experienced this type of embarrassment before. Long ago I was among a group of fraternity boys who bragged about the women they had ravished and remember feeling somewhat embarrassed that I couldn’t share in their stories because I had treated women better. My victory seemed, to them, a defeat. Our modern political moment may bring defeat because loyalty to truth could well lead to the slaughterhouse.
If so, this is the price for taking a side.
OUR YOUNG COLLEGIAN ADVISES US TO TURN LEFT, and thus, to victory. And if the victory weren’t hollow and empty we could do it, too. But the happiness it so readily captures is cheap and common and short. If only our collegian could see that the capture of happiness requires both a machine and a machine culture for its success—none of which is fit for citizens. If she did, she would understand fully the elation that Whittaker Chambers expressed when he decided to leave the cold machinery of Communism and return to the warm blood of liberty. It was the strangest of elations:
This elation was not caused by any comparison of the world I was leaving and the world I was returning to. By any hard-headed estimate, the world I was leaving looked like the world of life and of the future. The world I was returning to seemed, by contrast, a graveyard.
I wanted my wife to realize clearly one long-term penalty, for herself and for the children, of the step I was taking. I said: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat. Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast. But nothing has changed my determination to act as if I were wrong—if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable.
The Left’s “claim to the moral high ground” is a claim on short-lived animal happiness. It is a claim on feral grunts in the bushes and mocking laughter in the casino. It is a claim on the short-term use of flesh to satisfy trivial and perishable wants. Like Cerberus in Dante’s Inferno, it simply wants. It is a claim that will mindlessly consume whatever it is fed—including slime and filth. And if that was all there was to men and women, it would be enough.
The Left proposes that we capture happiness, and it succeeds because it aims low. Conservatism proposes something harder—the pursuit of happiness which is high and slightly beyond our reach. It is a happiness that cannot be captured except when we no longer need it—with the dying breath of the life well-lived.