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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Concrete and the Ideal

"Kristor," who comments at Lawrence Auster's blog (and who I wish had his own blog, that I might encounter his thoughts unfiltered), recently made an interesting observation about what differentiates the mindsets of conservatives and "liberals:"
Drawing the line

Lawrence Auster: No matter how conservative a person may think he is, if he does not believe in America as a concrete thing, but sees it only as a set of principles, then when it comes to Third World immigration he will almost automatically do a Benedict Arnold to the open borders camp in order to distance himself from "racism."

And this is the ground on which genuine conservatives must take a stand: If you only believe in America as a set of ideas and values, if you don't believe in America as a concrete historical nation, people, and culture, then you're not a conservative, and you're not on our side. You're on the other side.

People will say my position is extreme and fascistic. But it is no more extreme and fascistic to say that America is a concrete nation, and not just a set of ideas, than it is to say that a human being is a concrete person, and not just a set of ideas.

Kristor: Amen! Ideas can't have themselves. An idea can't be actual except as a formal aspect of a concrete actuality. There is no such thing, anywhere, as "just an idea." It follows inescapably that one can't form a loyalty to a mere idea. In practice, what we think of as loyalties to ideas--e.g., loyalty to Christianity or to Existentialism or to Democracy--is always in practice loyalty to concrete persons, if only to the persons we ourselves have so far concretely been.

Further, unless an idea can be carried into practice in individual lives--as in, e.g., voting, or joining the Army, or praying, or working--it will survive only as noise in the mind.

Thinking that ideas are concretely real is a basic error of thought. Bateson called it mistaking the map for the territory. Whitehead called it the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Those who avoid this error behave perforce with respect for the ontological momentum of their fellow creatures, in just the same way that the woodworker accommodates himself to his tools and materials, even as he uses the former to shape the latter. Thus those who remember that their loyalties are owed to particular, actual things--to families, persons, nations, churches, farms, enterprises, animals, and so forth--end by respecting their concrete reality. In the inescapable work of creating their lives, they behave so as to preserve such values as already exist in their fellow creatures. They don't play with people as if they were merely imaginary.

But playing with people as if they were mere ideas is almost the definition of the liberal. In his blithe inattention to things as they are in themselves, and to the dignity and moral weight that inhere in concrete fact, the liberal reverts almost instantly to treating persons (and other creatures generally) as means to his own ends. Should he persist in this course without any compromises, without any unprincipled exceptions, he will end as a murderous totalitarian tyrant, whether great or small.

Conservatism is a commitment to the concretely real. That is why conservatives are so often orthodox believers, committed to the traditions of a concrete, living social organism--i.e., to the ideas it has consistently embodied and carried into practice in ritual, dogma, and secular policy.

Liberalism is a commitment to the ideal. That is why liberals are so often gnostics, repudiating the world as it is, rejecting its history and traditions as worthless or evil, and interested to destroy its form and structure so as to replace it with something more perfect.


MathewK said...

Makes sense, one must always be grounded in reality, not just ideas.

Rodak said...

I quite agree with you that Kristor's comments are intelligent and interesting. I also agree with Kristor that liberals tend to be "gnostics." But gnostics are not atheists, they are heretics (from the orthodox point of view.)
Man is a fallen being; creation has fallen with man. Matter is subject to inevitable change and no form can hold in the temporal universe. The conservative kicks against the pricks, but that which he wishes to preserve is beyond his powers to preserve. We await a new heaven and a new earth and hope for resurrection in a glorified body. Attachment to this world, and to the things of this world is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Conservatives suffer from a kind of cognitivie dissonance in which their social lives and their spiritual lives tend to be polar opposites, without this ever reaching the level of conscious realization. For this reason, conservatives are even more lost in the universe than are liberals.