Notes nov 29 2007 clash of civilizations and economic anxiety
November 29, 2007 § Leave a comment
A language for the world
Nobel economist Sen sees no “clash of civilizations” in an increasingly polarized world, rather, he searches for common threads that unite seemingly divided cultures and laments that “the rhetoric of a clash of civilizations is not only mistaken, but it is doing an enormous amount of harm”.
The problem is, when people feel threatened economically they look for what to align themselves with that offers security (and meaning). Religion, nationalism, “economic man” are some of those points of alignment. The clash of civilizations describes the result of this alignment and the underlying anxiety that causes it.
Cass Sunstein uses a book as an opportunity to go into the legal issues now before the Supreme Curt, on gun ownership. This article is worth mediation because it raises fundamental issues about person, society, historical change, culture..
Out of Range The Most Mysterious Right
By Mark V. Tushnet
(Oxford University Press, 156 pp., $19.95)
In 1991, Warren E. Burger, the conservative chief justice of the Supreme Court, was interviewed on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour about the meaning of the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms.” Burger answered that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud– I repeat the word ‘fraud’–on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” In a speech in 1992, Burger declared that “the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to have firearms at all. ” In his view, the purpose of the Second Amendment was “to ensure that the ‘state armies’–‘the militia’–would be maintained for the defense of the state. ”
It is impossible to understand the current Second Amendment debate without lingering over Burger’s words. Burger was a cautious person as well as a conservative judge, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court is unlikely to offer a controversial position on a constitutional question in an interview on national television. (Chief Justice John Roberts is not about to go on Fox News to say that the claimed right to same-sex marriage is a fraud on the American people perpetrated by special interest groups.) Should we therefore conclude that Burger had a moment of uncharacteristic recklessness? I do not think so. Burger meant to describe what he saw as a clear consensus within the culture of informed lawyers and judges–a conclusion that was so widely taken for granted that it seemed to him to be a fact, and not an opinion at all.
It only gets more intriguing an helpful from here.
Mo Tze, from
Exaltation of the Virtuous I:
Mozi said: Now, all the rulers desire their provinces to be wealthy, their people to be numerous, and their jurisdiction to secure order. But what they obtain is not wealth but poverty, not multitude but scarcity, not order but chaos – this is to lose what they desire and obtain what they avert. Why is this?
Exaltation of the Virtuous I:
Mozi said: This is because the rulers have failed to exalt the virtuous and to employ the capable in their government. When the virtuous are numerous in the state, order will be stable; when the virtuous are scarce, order will be unstable. Therefore the task of the lords lies nowhere but in multiplying the virtuous.
Winik vividly portrays the tumultuous times in which America embarked on the great experiment, testing whether a continent-size country could successfully establish representative government. (Montesquieu, for one, had thought republics only suitable to city-states.)
The hint is that the leap the founders made has little theoretical underpinning and yet we now all live on this ship of state. Our the current difficulties, such as the loss of sovereignty to the corporations, reflective of weaknesses in that understanding of politics of scale?
Peter Gay is an historian I have read always with anticipation, staring with his books on the enlightenment then Freud, then the Victorians. But I never could get past the sense that it was a collection of notes. But important ones whose message was obscure. So I am interested in this Interview Q&A with Peter Gay – The Boston Globe The interviewer is James Hamilton.
Gay’s new 600-page tome, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond,” is the fifth book to come out of his very active retirement, and his 25th book overall. Though it covers the revolution in creative thinking that flourished between 1890 and 1930, it doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive survey. Nor does it press down and address questions one might expect to vex an intellectual historian: Can the shock of the new persist in this postmodern age?
… GAY: Well, Wallace Stevens scared the hell out of me. I thought to myself: What would I do with him? Eliot, however, I could do something with, even if anti-Semites are not my favorite people.
GAY: You could write a book about modernism and start half a century earlier. I thought about starting with the Romantics. I used to teach all that stuff, and I certainly got very interested in them again – they’re very complicated – but though they might have rebelled against morality, they didn’t exactly rebel.
So I said no, what I want is someone who really says the hell with it all. And Baudelaire says never mind the dignity of literature – I’m going to write about my mistress. The court thought it was obscene. And of course Flaubert was doing the same thing. So I thought these guys would be good to start with.
It doesn’t go much further. The book mught be quite good.
In the 17th century, Lilla argues, “a Great Separation took place, severing Western political philosophy decisively from cosmology and theology. It remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.” Lilla applauds this Great Separation, precisely because it removed what he calls “political theology”—defined as “discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus”—from the discussion of human governance.
Another book, reviewed in Refighting the Wars of Religion
The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea, by the French historian of ideas Rémi Brague.3
As he put it in his Times Magazine article:
Hobbes planted a seed, a thought that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. He knew it was impossible to refute belief in divine revelation; the most one can hope for is to cast suspicion on prophets claiming to speak about politics in God’s name. This new political thinking would no longer concern itself with God’s politics; it would concentrate on men as believers in God and try to keep them from harming one another. It would set its sights lower than Christian political theology had, but secure what mattered most, which was peace.
This is the Voegelin antithesis.
If Hobbes thus created modern political philosophy, it was John Locke (1632-1704) who, Lilla argues, in effect “humanized” and sold this new product. Locke agreed with Hobbes on the necessity of changing the subject of politics from God to man. But he had a less dyspeptic view of the human condition, and he did not much like the idea of tyranny. So, Lilla writes, he
began to imagine a new kind of political order in which power would be limited, divided, and widely shared; in which those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; in which public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; in which many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; and in which individuals would have inalienable rights to protect them from government and their fellows.
This “liberal-democratic order,” Lilla continues, is “the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today.” And thus we in the West are the political heirs of the “good” Hobbes: the Hobbes who, by demolishing “the Christian conception of man” and by completing “the most devastating attack on Christian political theology ever undertaken,” enabled post-Hobbesian moderns to “escape” from their intellectually barren, socially disruptive, and ultimately lethal theological patrimony. With help from the kinder, gentler John Locke, Hobbes made possible democracy, the rule of law, the constitutional defense of human rights, and religious freedom.
By my reading of Locke, he is more religious, in the sense of “of course god” but then draws no conclusions. The key point is how important this history is, and how still contested.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) intervened to set in motion what became a nasty intellectual mess. Rousseau shared Hobbes’s caustic criticism of clerical ignorance and theocratic authoritarianism; but, Lilla notes, he was also a “friend of religion.” And thus, rather than bracketing the human religious impulse when the subject turned to public life and politics, he insisted, in his romantic way, on honoring it. Even more consequentially, Rousseau identified this seemingly ineradicable impulse with an “inner light” that shapes our moral intuitions, including our moral intuitions about society, our obligations to others, our philanthropy, and indeed every other aspect of our lives as citizens.
Mst people I know beleive in some vague sense of the Russeau view, inner light, transcendence. but it stops there, leaving open democracy still attractive.
Meanwhile, as the Savoyard vicar puts it in Rousseau’s Emile (a novel that Lilla explicates at some length): “I believe all particular religions are good when one serves God usefully in them.”
Sorry to quote so much, but it is good.
Both Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) followed Rousseau rather than Hobbes. The former, while attempting to salvage universal and rationally defensible principles of morality by appeals to a “categorical imperative,” also argued for a kind of universalized Protestantism as the apex of human religious development. The latter took an even more dangerous turn by promoting religious conviction as the vital core of any authentic Volksgeist (national spirit or “idea”). Where that could lead was demonstrated when the liberal Protestant theology of the 19th-century German academy so thoroughly identified itself with the Wilhelmine Volksgeist that it vigorously defended German aggression in World War I and, almost until the very end, the slaughter in the trenches: a civilizational catastrophe far worse than, if weirdly reminiscent of, the earlier wars of religion.
Nor was that the end of it, as Lilla does not fail to point out. The liberal Protestant cave-in to Prussian militarism and German nationalism in turn triggered a messianic or apocalyptic reaction among religious thinkers in the interwar period—a period deeply marked, Lilla reminds us, by a thoroughgoing disgust with modernity and a new quest for authenticity among many European intellectuals. Some, like the Jewish thinkers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and the Christian theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pulled up on the reins before they came to the political brink. But others soon found a vessel for their fantasies in the man whom Winston Churchill once described as “a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository and expression of the most virulent hatreds that have ever corroded the human breast—Corporal Hitler.”
This whole sorry history, Lilla concludes, “served to confirm Hobbes’s iron law: messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics.” The Great Separation, to which we owe our very lives as the beneficiaries of liberal democracy, can never be taken for granted; and neither can the liberal-democratic order itself. Lilla formulates the task before us in terms different from those proposed by the new atheists but tacitly in tune with their agenda:
Rousseau was on to something: we seem to be theotropic creatures, yearning to connect our mundane lives, in some way, to the beyond. That urge can be suppressed, new habits learned, but the challenge of political theology will never fully disappear as long as the urge to connect survives.
So we are heirs to the Great Separation only if we wish to be, if we make a conscious effort to separate basic principles of political legitimacy from divine revelation. . . . This means vigilance, but even more it means self-awareness. We must never forget that there was nothing inevitable about our Great Separation, that it was and remains an experiment.
Difficult. Can we be a democrat and believe in some form of transcendentalism?
In The Law of God, Rémi Brague, a scholar of Plato, Aristotle, and medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy who divides his time between the Sorbonne and the University of Munich, agrees with Lilla to this extent: contemporary thinking on religion and politics is “dominated” by “one of the grand narratives in which modernity tries to explain itself: an escape of the political from the domain of theology.” This master narrative, in turn, contains several sub-plots: “the secularization of a world supposed to have been ‘enchanted’; the laicization of a supposedly clerical society; the separation of church and state, supposed to have been originally one.”……“theoi-political” problem: the problem of the intersection of the divine, however construed, with our ideas about the right ordering of society. That problem is an enduring feature of the human condition, and one that has been extensively addressed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam over the past three millennia or more.
In his discussion of the High Middle Ages, Brague adduces both important Jewish thinkers (Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides) and a Christian approach to the religion-and-politics question stressing that law, even divine law, must be both rational and intelligible.
The political and the religious are two independent sources of authority; they have crossed one another’s paths more than once, but they never have merged in spite of efforts to fit them together, sometimes to the advantage of one, sometimes to that of the other. Although there has been cooperation between the two, there has never been confusion about which is which.
Brague’s important book
By widening the historical lens, Brague also reminds us that the Western accomplishment of distinguishing in both theory and practice between religious authority and political authority, sacerdotium and regnum, was in fact a Christian accomplishment, which in turn drew on ancient Jewish convictions about the dangers inherent in the idolatry of the political. Without question, both the European wars of religion and the Enlightenment played crucial roles in creating the modern political forms by which we acknowledge the distinction between religious and political authority. But the arguments for such a distinction had been made long before, and in explicitly theological terms, by Augustine, Aquinas, and many others standing in the biblical tradition.4
The overwhelming majority of Americans accept the truly great separation—not the separation of religion and public life but the separation of religious authority and political authority—because they believe themselves religiously obliged to do so, and because enough remains of the old natural-law grammar and vocabulary for us to conduct the debate over the “oughts” of public life in a genuinely ecumenical and interreligious fashion, rather than by playing denominational trump cards or by claiming direct guidance from divine revelation.
Mark Lilla wants his Hobbes without the English philosopher’s dark view of man. Rémi Brague, I suspect, knows that there is no such thing as Hobbes Lite, and that so thoroughly grim a view of the human condition runs the very real risk of underwriting an ignoble and ultimately vicious politics. There is a sense, then, in which the debate over religion and politics is a tale of two Thomases, Hobbes and Aquinas, with their deeply divergent views of human nature and the human prospect, and thus of politics and its pitfalls and its possibilities. One cannot imagine a more consequential debate for the future of democratic freedom in America, throughout the West, or in the intellectual and cultural struggle between the West and its enemies.
Yes, reluctantly, I agree.