On Charles Taylor (Again) and Mickey Mouse and Totalitarianism and Enchantment and the George Washington Bridge, and Why it Doesn’t Fall Down

Oh Charles Taylor.  You have disappointed me by tipping your hand in Chapter 13.  THOSE were the cards you were holding?  Common post-Vatican 2 modernism?  What annoying cards!  And you got so goopy in your analysis, when you started talking like that!

BUT.  You still are on to something (isn’t it big of me to admit that?) and thank you very much for the Enchanted World category.  Which I know you didn’t really invent but boy, you ran with it like Walt Freaking Disney.  Oh wait.  That was the Magic Kingdom.  Which was different, in that it had more people dressed as cartoon mice, and fewer intersections of the imminent and the transcendent.


Just after this week’s CTAG (Charles Taylor Accountability Group, natch) in which we were talking about this section, I came across this, from Natural Right and History:

There was only one fundamental objection to Hobbes’s basic assumption which he felt very keenly and which he made every effort to overcome. In many cases the fear of violent death proved to be a weaker force than the fear of hell fire or the fear of God. The difficulty is well illustrated by two widely separated passages of the Leviathan. In the first passage Hobbes says that the fear of the power of men (i.e., the fear of violent death) is “commonly” greater than the fear of the power of “spirits invisible,” i.e., than religion. In the second passage he says that “the fear of darkness and ghosts is greater than other fears.”1 Hobbes saw his way to solve this contradiction: the fear of invisible powers is stronger than the fear of violent death as long as people believe in invisible powers, i.e., as long as they are under the spell of delusions about the true character of reality; the fear of violent death comes fully into its own as soon as people have become enlightened. This implies that the whole scheme suggested by Hobbes requires for its operation the weakening or, rather, the elimination of the fear of invisible powers. It requires such a radical change of orientation as can be brought about only by the disenchantment of the world, by the diffusion of scientific knowledge, or by popular enlightenment. Hobbes’s is the first doctrine that necessarily and unmistakably points to a thoroughly “enlightened,” i.e., a-religious or atheistic society as the solution of the social or political problem. This most important implication of Hobbes’s doctrine was made explicit not many years after his death by Pierre Bayle, who attempted to prove that an atheistic society is possible.


From this, you could develop a pretty strong case that the disenchantment of the world (the breaking down of people’s belief in God, to be specific, although that’s not really what Taylor means, and the strange tin ear that both Taylor and Strauss have for actual theology and/or lived Christianity is amazing) was absolutely crucial for the development of a modern political science, or a modern system of totalitarian politics.

Which is pretty obvious in retrospect, and it’s not like Jesus didn’t talk about this dynamic: you either worship God who actually loves you and made you and has genuine authority over you, or you’re held captive to the fear of death, and thus to the fear of those who can kill you and aren’t that fond of you: which looks like the better situation?  And we see this play out when the Apostles refuse to stop preaching, saying “we ought to obey God rather than men.”

Strauss would probably say that this impulse is just exactly the same thing that led Antigone to insist on burying her brother in defiance of what’s his name, Creon?  <googles> Yes. Creon!  Yay long-term memory!  Weird: I wouldn’t have said I’d read Antigone, but maybe it’s one of those things that I actually did read, when I was assigned it Senior year of high school.  Anyway.  But would he say that, or would he want to identify Antigone’s decision with a fundamentally skeptical/zetetic/philosophical way of thinking, rather than one that belongs to the pious?

Here’s the deal: here’s what I think, or part of what I think.  The pious, the sense of enchantment, and the sense of the natural law are all in one big barrel.  They’re not identical.  But they line up on one side of my own experience, while the purely materialistic view that fears violent death above all things (or fears pain, or a lack of pleasure, or etc.) is on the opposing side.  In other words, unless Strauss is just secretly a Nietzschean after all– if he has ANY belief in natural law, including the law of non-contradiction– he is in that barrel with the believers in Christ’s resurrection. Who are also in the barrel with believers in pagan gods, IF those gods are believed to be actually good.  The existence of the Good, of deontology, of the ought, is the source of enchantment.

Which is not to say that all things in that barrel are equally true, or equally false. Clearly they are not.  They are in contradiction to each other: one may be true, or none may be, but all cannot be true.  But what you start sensing as you consider these various metaphysical representations of, or assertions about, an enchanted universe, is that they all partake in something– something shining, something beyond, something that is a breaking-in and yet is deeply homely and familiar– something that you see in your response to the beauty of a sunset over the Palisades, and in your response to your own conscience if you do something wrong, and even in what goes on in your head and heart when you understand the logical relations of a math problem.  These things, these responses, are real: and the math is real, too, and intersects in our material reality enough to launch rockets and build the George Washington Bridge.  So we know at least that ONE of the things in the Enchanted World Barrel is correct, although we may not know yet which one.


And at this point, your Reality Investigation Program might do worse than to consider whether one of these hypotheses, one of these metaphysics swirling around in the Enchanted World Barrel, seems to be– oh, call it the distillation of all the others, the one that brings everything else into it.

And when you’ve identified what that one hypothesis might be, then what you’d do– or what I would do, if I were you– is to start some serious forensic history.  I say forensic, because at the heart of the hypothesis which I consider to be this distillation is a crime.

And your job could be described at this point as CSI Jerusalem.  Because something happened there.  And something happened after that, which was even more surprising.  And– under the enchanted ought-ness which we have seen must be part of the truth– you should find out what it was: this is a call, an assignment, a cold case that has landed on your desk.

You might ignore it.  But if you do, don’t be surprised if your ability to think clearly about other things suffers, because a dodge is a dodge, and changes the dodger, and as clever as Charles Taylor is, it is no coincidence that the section in which he starts disagreeing with Christian ethics in one area is precisely the section in which he starts flinging around some serious vagueness, some seriously fallacious arguments.

Be willing. Think, research, investigate– and act on the truth you have.

Secular Age High-Context Braindump Thus Far: Probably Not the Only Charles Taylor Blogpost With a Harry Jaffa Reference, but Almost Certainly the Only Charles Taylor Blogpost With A Rick Moranis Reference


in response to Artur Rosman of Cosmos the in Lost.  I’m only about half way through but this is the impression I’m getting, confirmed by book group members who meet regularly in what we are calling a Charles Taylor Accountability Group to eat Sim Johnson’s brie, and try to figure out what Taylor’s getting at:

Secular for Talyor isn’t about being non-Christian or non-religious, it’s about having a public sphere where there are all kinds of menu options, of which Christianity is one. He doesn’t necessarily think that it’s bad for Christians to live in a secular age, or that we should be trying in a revanchist way to hike back to the Age of Faith. He’s not pulling an “it’s all gone downhill from the 13th century.” And he actually seems to see a lot of the religiosity of various bits of the middle ages as pagan, and (by implication, although he’s very good at keeping his own opinions out of things) problematic for genuine Christianity.

There’s another thing that’s going on too, which we haven’t talked much about at the brie-fueled jam sessions.  (If I bring actual jam to the next one I suppose they could become jam-fueled brie sessions.  Perhaps I will, in a nod to Rosman’s earlier Dark Helmet reference, although given this blog’s tagline I shouldn’t be encouraging anyone to “Jam the transmission.”)


That other thing is the fact that along with the religious secularity Taylor talks about, and the massive pluralism that he describes as a “nova” of new philosophies or ways to understand the world (kicked off in the 17th c), there’s a kind of… you might almost call it a philosophical secularity.  Or philosophical loss of coherence.

From what I can tell (and here’s where I stick my standard disclaimer about really feeling not well read enough in the primary sources to talk about this, and then my standard secondary disclaimer about how maybe I actually did read a lot more than I think I did, in college), a lot of people who discover what might be called the Great Tradition in political philosophy love the coherence of the Classical philosophical story that existed prior to Descartes: it was all one big philosophical project, building on itself, moving forward in precision, maybe, but not in the sense of progress-as-rejection-of-the-past.  Especially Christians who see continuity between classical and Medieval philosophy, who see providence in Plato’s ability to write what he wrote, see this coherence unambiguously.

But non-Christian classicists see it too, even if they have to pretend that later Christian philosophers who drew on Classical sources were more classical than they were Christian, and couldn’t possibly have believed all that about Jesus rising from the dead.

We are– as Taylor describes it– now at a point of massive philosophical pluralism– that’s why you get textbooks of philosophy organized by philosopher, each of whom spawned his own system which doesn’t necessarily relate to any of the others.

But this may be another reason that secularity, in Taylor’s sense, isn’t a bad thing.  There’s something unChristianly tidy about a lot of scholastic philosophy, and so anything that shakes that certainty, shakes our smug tendency as Christians to think that we have a system that started with Plato and continued uninterrupted through to Aquinas, might be good.

And certainly anything that shakes the smug certainty of the medieval and early modern non-Christian (whether explicitly or otherwise) classicists who enjoyed their Platonic playground, enjoyed feeling superior to the rabble of believers, enjoyed their “enlightenment” the more because their brothers were still in the cave looking (as they believed) at shadows… almost anything that smacks THAT kind of certainty upside the head is probably a good thing.

Almost anything.  I still somehow feel like Platonism is a step up from nihilism, the nihilism that you sometimes get with massive pluralism in philosophy.  It is, it is, it is better.  It’s just not going to save you.

P.S. You may have noticed that there was in fact no Harry Jaffa reference in this blog post.  That’s ’cause I redacted it. :)

The Power Vertical Up to Its Old Tricks? Or…? NYT confoosed about Russia. So confoosed.

Lots of coverage today (and someone thought to call Mark Galeotti, who gave his Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty-friendly analysis.)

The interesting thing is that the theses of the three main articles seem to be as follows:

Article 1: “Russia is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine,” by David Herszenhorn.  Thesis: Well Medvedev is just a wacky Kremlin propaganda CRAZY person to say that there is violence in Ukraine and that there are threats of more violence!  Wacky Medvedev.

This is the line that Brian Whitmore, Galeotti, Nina Khruscheva, Kirill Kobrin, and other RFE/RL type Kremlin-watchers have been consistently taking.  How goofy, they say, how paranoid, Putin is to say that there are neo-Fascist far-right groups involved in the Ukrainian nationalist movement!  How utterly bizarre to think that the US might have some kind of stake in destabilizing Russia’s hold on the area!  And how goofy to paint Eastern Ukraine as some kind of Mad Max -like landscape!  “It’s all lies,” Herszenhorn quotes Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shvetsova as saying.  And the article makes fun of the “breathless,” “alarmist” Russian news claims of imminent hostilities by the Ukrainian government.

Herszenhorn does, it is admitted, take a half-pargraph to be Fair and Balanced, mentioning that “There is no question that the new Ukraininan government and its Western allies, including the United States, have engaged in their own misinformation at times,” but that the silly-Medvedev line might be an aspect of this misinformation is not something that is taken seriously.  Which makes it all the stranger to turn to:

Article 2: “Ukraine Sends Force to Stem Unrest in East,” by Andrew Kramer.  Thesis: The new Ukrainian government is sending more military units to the East, preparing to crack down even more on the “Russian special forces, terrorists, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens…who were tricked by Russian propaganda,” as Kramer quotes Ukrainian acting president Turchynov, which situation, says Turchynov, constitutes a “colossal danger.”  And meanwhile, the head of the Ukrainian National Security Council, Andriy Parubiy, is tweeting about rallying veterans of the Kiev uprising, including members of Right Sector, a neo-Nazi group. (Right Sector itself is highly tech-savvy, having recently launched a sort of fascist-tactical-rallying-and-kickstart-fundraising smartphone app, available for your downloading pleasure through Google Play.)

And when he’s not shouting out to his “Maidan self defense” paramilitary buddies, he’s shouting out to Damon MacWilson of the Atlantic Council.  “We have to stop Putin together!” he tweeted on March 27.

Hey, I’m all for strategic coalition building, but don’t then go calling poor Dmitry nuts for seeing some kind of pattern of far-right-and-Western-establishiment-thinktank-facilitated pressure campaign against Russian-speaking Ukrainians.  Especially given:

Article 3: “General and Former Defense Official Urge Nonlethal Military Aid for Ukraine,” by Michael R. Gordon.  The upshot of which is…. ok, we probably shouldn’t give weapons, but if we’re NOT already doing what Medvedev says we are, we SHOULD be.

Fukuyama: Project for the New American Century basically just “Bill Kristol and a fax machine.”

Hee hee.  See here.  FF speaks at Stewart Brand’s terrifyingly Tower of Babel-like Long Now Foundation, spills the beans.  (Please note: seriously, I think that the LNF is the closest thing going right now to the NICE in That Hideous Strength, so don’t get suckered, guys.  Also please note, FF is apparently trying very hard to distance himself from All That, and has used this line elsewhere, and it is very calculated.)

Market Clearing in Friend Groups: A Cambridge-Area Case Study

So, I’m doing this copyediting project for a friend who’s just translated a book on monetary theory from turgid German, and in the midst of the author’s discussion of how households might arrange to do a little bills-of-exchange shuffling around in order to settle accounts between themselves, I am reminded of a practice in which I used to engage with friends in the graduate school and church planting years (I’m not sure how much we ever actually employed the practice: I think we mostly just felt pleased with ourselves for thinking it up.)  Here’s how it worked:

When you’re part of a friend group, this is what happens: you go out to Ruby Foo’s, and you go to the place with the great brownies near Porter Square, its name started with a C, and then you rent a movie (remember renting DVDs???), and then one of you is meeting another of you outside the Div School, and the one who is being met wants a venti soy latte, and inevitably someone (the identity of this person varies) doesn’t have cash, and so someone covers, and this happens ALL THE TIME.  And there has to be a very informal, and yet not completely loosey-goosey way to keep track of it.

And so we invented the cowrie shell.  A cowrie shell is a purely notional unit of currency, pegged to the local value of a grande regular-milk latte (which varies between New York and Cambridge and Northampton– but was usually, at that time, around $3.50).  And so when you don’t have cash, or your friend doesn’t, you say “I owe you a cowrie shell,” and you kind of kept in mind how many cowrie shells you owed, and then when one was owed to you by someone else, what might happen is that if they were owed a cowrie shell by the person to whom you owed one, you might cover their portion of renting Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that would clear the market.

It would not stand up to auditing.  But it worked for us.

Margaret Atwood and the Post-Human Future


I have a thing about The Handmaid’s Tale, of course: it was what formed my beliefs, aged about 12, about what “the religious right” was, and what the agenda of men who claimed to be Christians was, with regard to women.  I’m not sure I ever actually finished it, but I got through enough for my emotions about a “right” to abortion to be colored by a rejection of a system that made women into breeding stock.

I’ve written about this elsewhere; I came to realize that what pro-life people were arguing was that actually, the violation of the integrity of un-powerful people that is represented by abortion can only weaken the safeguards against the exploitation of other un-powerful people.  “As I would not be a slave,” said Lincoln, “so I would not be a master.”  What women who are conscious of the fact that women in general have less access to power than men ought to say about abortion is, “as I would not be discarded and abused, so I will not discard and abuse others.”

I know this now, and it really does seem to me that the Handmaid’s Tale view of what evangelicals are, and are up to, is not one that can survive a close encounter with an actual evangelical– just an actual conversation, I mean, let alone a conversion.

But I did love Atwood’s writing, and I have a copy of Oryx and Crake somewhere, that I’ve maybe been wanting to read.  Or possibly my stepmother has a copy.  Someone has a copy, anyway.

I’ve gotta say, though, that after listening to Atwood’s recent interview with Tim Wu on his Stranger than Fiction podcast, I’m a little less inclined to take it up.  She’s biohacked her characters so that they “come into season”– you know, like baboons do– and turn blue to indicate this fact.  This eliminates a lot of ambiguity and heartbreak, as you might imagine.  It also, Atwood admits, eliminates romance.

Tim Wu said something like, “I mean, I see how that society is less violent, but it just… it feels kind of boring.”

“Well,” said Atwood, “it feels boring to you.  A snail’s life would seem boring to you.  But it’s terribly exciting for the snail.”

Oryx and Crake is, officially, dystopian: Atwood doesn’t approve of or like the genetic tinkering that has resulted in this future.  But she doesn’t really have a reason for disliking it.  “I’m old-fashioned,” she says, “I’m biased in favor of humanity,” as against modifying human nature to make it more tractable.

But would she consider the idea that there might be a stable human nature on behalf of which it is in fact good to be a partisan; that the wisdom of her repugnance at this dystopia she has made corresponds to a moral reality?  I suspect not, and I understand why.  In our culture, those who say things like, there is a stable human nature; we are in favor of it; there is a good way to treat people and a bad one: the voices that say things like this would be linked in Atwood’s mind with those “fundamentalists” who were the bad guys in A Handmaid’s Tale.

Or at least they were linked in my mind, when I was younger.  Moral absolutism, a suspicion of infinite malleability, was the province of the right– those blinkered anti-science types.  The natural allies, at least in the logic of ideology, of the corporate biohackers of Oryx and Crake are women like Offred’s mother, who championed the absolute right of women to do what they want with their own bodies (and the bodies of their children).  The natural allies in terms of ideology of anyone who posits something eternal, sacred, unhackable about human nature– someone who regards the world of Oryx and Crake as indeed a dystopia– are those who are parodied as theocratic fascists in The Handmaid’s Tale.

All of which makes me actually want to read O&C now.  Because what this means is that the wisdom of fiction may run deeper than ideology.  And that novelists like Atwood paint a more accurate and humane picture of human nature than the ideologues who might use her fiction to make a cheap point.  Science fiction– all good fiction– lives in complexity: not infinite moral relativism, but the complexity of trying to see, and seek, the human good in the face of whatever forces that attack it, whether those forces are pseudo-Christian fascists, or corporate gene-hackers.  Fiction allows both the writer and the reader to be human rather than flatly ideological, but it also requires anyone who is philosophically a moral relativist to check her moral relativism at the door for the duration of the story, because to work, a story must contain characters who are seeking some good– even if that good is clouded.

You may be in favor of IVF, but when you read Brave New World, you may see something you don’t like.  You may be outraged at any restrictions on human genetic experimentation, but when you write a novel about the post-human, you may find your old-fashioned biases in favor of old-school human persons, with all their messiness and romance, bubbling to the surface.  Despite your best efforts.  And that’s all to the good.

Cakes and Ale

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Just got done with a matinee of Twelfth Night, with Stephen Fry as a somewhat un-malevolent Malvolio.

Interesting.  I’d remembered him as a straight-up satire of a Puritan, with the implication being, if you scratch these Puritans they’re just as vain as everybody else, and hypocritical to boot, but that’s not it, actually.  We’re told explicitly he’s not actually a Puritan; and the character who expresses anti-Puritan bigotry is the most complete idiot in the play, the cavalier, Sir Andrew:


Possess us, possess us; tell us something of him.


Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.


O, if I thought that I’ld beat him like a dog!


What, for being a puritan? thy exquisite reason,
dear knight?


I have no exquisite reason for’t, but I have reason
good enough.


The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing
constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,
that cons state without book and utters it by great
swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work.

It’s not that Malvolio is a Puritan and therefore he doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.  It’s that he affects, inconstantly, to be a Puritan.  His “ground of faith”– and surely Shakespeare knew what he was doing in using this kind of phrase– is his own worthiness– the opposite of a Puritan’s ground of faith.  It’s a hypocrite, not a Puritan, who is the killjoy in this play.