Friday, November 04, 2011


Much conservative thought, particularly religious, is of the opinion that the great turning point in the West, the turning point which has led us to the current doleful social predicament, was the  West's embracement of the Enlightenment. Commentator Brandon, sent  me this link, where the author argues the superior intuitive case for Christianity. Here the author argues that Christianity becomes fundamentally weakened when it bases itself upon rationality. Now, I haven't singled out this author for any particular criticism, rather he is a good expositor for what is an increasingly vocal faction of the conservative movement; the anti-rationalist movement.

Somehow, there seems to be this idea floating about in conservative circles,  that native intuitive goodness is somehow corrupted by thorough rationalism.  My response to this line of "reasoning", to use an Australian colloquialism, is it's bullshit.

This idea, of the intuitive innate goodness of people, is what is at the heart of the most socially destructive impulse in our society: the cult of sentimentality.  Born of the Romantic movement, the cult of sentimentality, which places personal intuition above logical reasoning and empirical data is the main motive force behind moral relativism. Furthermore, it's the same claptrap as pushed by Rousseau and his hair brained friends: that of the noble savage. So it's somehow funny to see a conservative site, particularly a religious one,  push the crypto-Rousseauian Kool-Aid with its imprimatur.

The religious Right has a problem with the enlightenment, believing that it was the beginning of the great turning away from God. This of course is a superficial and incomplete understanding of the time. Reason, as St Thomas reminds us, is not opposed to the faith, rather the two are complementary.  Good reasoning, St Thomas argued, serves to illuminate the faith.  Bad reasoning, on the other hand, is the enemy. The Enlightenment would not have been a problem if its worst elements lived up to its ideal. Rather, many of it's chief proponents couldn't recognise a rational idea if it struck them in the head. The problem with the enlightenment, especially in the French instance, is that reason became subordinated to the romantic notions of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. It was in this era, that "feelgood" politics made its rebirth after being banished from Europe since classical times.

The Jacobin faction of the Enlightenment never had a problem suppressing an idea or fact that didn't sit with their political program. Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was perhaps the premier example of a good rationalist thinker in those times, yet the Jacobins -the great upholders of "reason"- had no problem having him guillotined. (Symbolic, don't you think?) The party of reason lopping of the head of society's most reasoned man

A critical eye will see that the enemy is not the good reasoning which came out of the Enlightenment but the bad. The Enlightenment didn't just give us atheism, but it gave birth to the forces that gave us anaesthetics, antibiotics, electricity and sewerage. Think about that for a while.

What people tend to forget is that the Enlightenment didn't just give birth to the scientific age it also gave birth to the Romantic movement as well. This my friends, is where the rot sets in. People tend to forget that the flame of the Romantic movement was lit by the enlightenment. The real damage to Western society was not made because of the the appeal to reason, but rather the retreat from it. The Enlightenment put a bullet into the head of the Classicist.

It appears that at the time of the Enlightenment, European culture underwent a bifurcation. 
Rationalism, after a brief period of universal vogue, was carried over into technical culture, where it made tremendous strides, whilst romanticism was carried over into the rest of Western culture.  Western society becomes schizophrenic at this point, on one hand it becomes hyper-rational in some of its facets (the facets where it is immensely successful) , and irrational in others.  The culture that could be quantified advanced, whilst the culture that couldn't declined.

The romantic movement was an justification of intuition over reason. Noble feelings trumped grubby details, and it was better to be agreeable and nice than disagreeable and good. Worst still,  was it to be right and boring. How you felt about anything is all that mattered. This movement has culturally entrenched and is one of the motive forces behind political correctness. Sentimentality is its public manifestation. Readers are urged to consult Dr Daniel's writings on the subject.

The problem with Romanticism is that habituates an individual towards irrationality. Once again to quote Theodore Dalrymple:
an important feature of sentimentality — one that is disastrous in deciding policy — is the mistaking of a wish for the fact. We would like there to be some better method of dealing with criminals than imprisonment, therefore there is, and must be, such a method. Another important distinguishing feature of sentimentality is that it often manifests itself in a conspicuous display of feeling greater than that which is actually felt by the person displaying it. The sentimentalist often wants to deceive himself as well others. One might almost say that sentimentality is the tribute that indifference pays to compassion
The disregard of the most obvious but disturbing reality in favour of wishful thinking and the desire to appear, both to oneself and to others, as more compassionate than one really is, in short sentimentality, has been characteristic of British social policy for decades. It has led to the police being more assiduous about victim support than about preventing crime or detecting those who have committed it; it has led to the admission in our courts to the ultimate manifestation of psychotherapeutic kitsch, the victim impact statement, in which the victim of a murder is turned by his close relatives into a martyred hero, ex officio as it were, as if what were wrong with murder were the loss of a charming smile or a wonderful sense of humour, with the unpleasant and brutal implication that the murder of charmless or humourless people is a lesser offence. There has long been a dialectical relationship between sentimentality and brutality. 
Sentimentality is hardness of heart, or even contempt, masquerading as feeling. It is to sympathy what incontinence is to urination (except, of course, that it is voluntary, and is vastly more destructive). It is mental and emotional laziness, a refusal to discipline the gratifying glow of self-regard by deeper reflection.

Now it's important to introduce another strand of conservative thought at this point. Amongst the New Right there is a notion that Christianity is one of the corrupting forces of the West, and surprisingly, it's a line of reasoning that I have some sympathy with. However I don't think it is Christianity which is the problem, but the romantic interpretation of it. Christianity becomes a societal toxin when enough of its members stop being good and start being nice.  To the romantic Christian, Jesus talks about Hell but never really means it, because he is a nice person and intuitively, how can the God of Love send anyone to Hell? Jesus is always accepting, despite biblical texts clearly demonstrating that acceptance was secondary to repentance.  But as the good theologians of the past recongised,  Hell and judgements are logical necessity which flows from a common sense reading of the biblical texts. Jesus is not nice, Jesus is Good:There is a difference.

Soft Christianity is not Christianity, it's sentimental pseudo-Christianity. It's a Christianity which places no demands and gives no rebukes; it's a Christianity without balls, and in the end, facilitates evil. The thing about good Christianity, is that it is a bit like instrument flying, in that it is counter-intuitve. Turning the other cheek rubs against the grain, but so is refusing to the feed the dogs with food that is meant for the children. The thing is that Christianity is not a wholly intuitive religion, and resting it on the foundations of intuition, corrupts and eventually destroys it. From the above mentioned blog.
I vividly recall a public debate I witnessed as a twenty-year-old college student. The debate was between an Ivan Karamazov-styled atheist and a Thomist. I was quite prepared to side with the Thomist, because I was a very reluctant agnostic at the time, but I had to admit at the end of the debate that the Thomist had not made a very good case for God. By relying solely on the Thomistic proofs for God’s existence, he left the more human side of the argument to the atheist. When the Thomist took the panoramic, philosophic view of Ivan Karamozov’s seven-year-old girl being beaten with a knotted rope, he left me and most of the audience with a decidedly hostile opinion of religious faith. “Apparently,” I thought, “there is a type of atheism that is purer and cleaner than some people’s religion.”[Ed] It was some years later before I saw a different side of God, through the good offices of Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare.
Our author's "logic" in this instance was purely emotional and naturally intuitive. His disgust at the Thomist was intuitional, not logical. A world without pain can only exist if God takes away the freedom of men to be bastards. Sin is the logically corollary of freedom, no matter how disagreeable this logical outcome is. The existence of a God in a world of pain is counter intuitive and repulsive, whilst an atheist who rambles, no matter how incoherently, against pain in the world is agreeable. Guess which side wins when the culture justifies the validity of emotion above rationality?See where intuition leads?

The problem is though, that sometimes that the early stirrings of religion seem intuitive and valid. And it appears that the early Church fathers worried about this a lot. Their answer seemed to be that our intuition was very unreliable, and hence intuitive insights should be put to the test. The test here being a thorough analysis, and not some uncritical acceptance or primacy of feeling. They wanted to logically analyse the phenomenon to see if it had any validity.

Faith, as I have asserted before, is not a product of cognition, but a vague empirical perception, and it is a perception which must maintain coherence with our understanding of reality. This implies  a test both for rational and empirical ontological coherence of the phenomenon. An intuition which disregards reality is not the faith, it's fantasy. A religion which therefore disregards reason or even slights it, is likely to be wrong.

I mourn for Cambria. Cambria has yielded.