Speak Ancestors III: We Believe Because We Discover It, Composing, 03/12/2015

Continued from previous . . . So where exactly are we in understanding this myth of the golden age. Yesterday, one of my commenters I the Scientist talked about an article where a sample of right-wing media pundits were asked about when they considered their society’s golden age to be.

It worked out that each of their golden ages was a rosy memory of their society at about age 10.

Was that poll scientific? I highly doubt it. Was it even an interview-based qualitative study of a representative sample of remarkable test cases? Maybe in overlong-name only.

The joke suggests that there's a little immaturity to
modern conservatism in North America. I wonder who
could possibly ever think such a thing.
But you see the truth in it, even though you admit that the whole phenomenon of nostalgia’s power over conservative politics is way more complicated than this. It’s a metaphor that reads almost as a joke, but it expresses just enough truth to compel you to think about it.

So what does that idea say?

At first glance, it says that today’s radical conservative, at least the one powered by nostalgia for a golden age, is at heart a scared little boy who wishes he could still live in a world without realistic concerns or problems. 

Where all you needed was a hug from mom or dad to resolve any issue or conflict. Life as Growing Pains. But that’s not what all utopian politics are about, even the utopias I might find abhorrent.*

* That’s going to be another aspect of my Utopias manuscript when I examine the ideas and concepts of modern conservatism. Even utopian frameworks I find destructive and terrifying – like hardcore libertarianism, white supremacy, religious fundamentalism – has its governing concept of the perfect society.

That idea, that conservative nostalgia is really for life as a 10-year-old kid, has more to it, something that’s linked to real political revolution. And it’s a point Leo Strauss makes, oddly enough, given his reputation. 

When you’re 10 years old, you don’t really have a strong drive for rebellion, at least not if you were raised in a stable, relatively secure home environment. The authority of your parents is usually enough for you to trust. 

In other words, when something puzzles you about a moral or ethical issue, you go to your parents as the expert authorities. And their answer is authoritative. You have no problem believing them, your immediate ancestors.

When a son is closer to the traditional beliefs of his father
than he would ever have admitted as a youth. Not that
this photo and caption constitute any speculation on the
real identity of Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Kylo
Ren or Supreme Leader Snoke. Certainly not saying
something wildly implausible, like that one of them
turns out to be Luke Skywalker. I bet you one of them
turns out to be Luke Skywalker. I'd bet on it being Snoke.
Rebellion kicks in as a teenager when that ancestral authority isn’t enough. You probably won’t even end up straying far from your parents’ beliefs. Most people don’t. But their word isn’t enough to satisfy you. You look for something deeper.

This is what Strauss means when he talks about Socrates, and his role as an agitator in the culture of his Greece. Greek society was destabilized thanks to war. And at the same time, the culture was getting accustomed to regular peaceful interactions with many neighbours thanks to Mediterranean trade. 

They were meeting perfectly nice people who didn’t prescribe to any of the same myths or religions they did. Brotherhood and solidarity was building among people who would never have otherwise done so, as their ancestral traditions were too different.

Strauss writes about cultural collisions as engendering the first seeds of philosophy in a people. If people with different ancestral traditions and first principles about the nature of existence can also be decent people, then the traditions and their principles alone aren’t the necessary paths to truth and goodness.

This is the truth that would make a son kick the shit out of his father. The principles that mainstream culture believes to be true need a higher ground than the tradition of belief in them. Merely asking for that ground displaces and disrespects traditional authorities. 

Yet that role is necessary. We have to discover for ourselves the truths that our traditions (and all the different traditions) express in their peculiar, colloquial ways. We’d sound like total skeptics in the immediate term. 

But when we do discover them, they’ll have an even stronger foundation and a wider application than any other principle that’s come before them.

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