There’s probably a better word—but hippie just works for me. They’ve won by the way—the hippies I mean. Not the unkemptness thankfully, but the outlook. You can see them everywhere now—where you might expect, in Hollywood, and where you probably don’t, Silicon Valley and Wall Street. It is their appearance on Wall Street that tells you they won. When Monsanto does its best impression of an environmental advocacy group and Kimberly Clark, the diaper maker, comes out for gay marriage you know hippies now run America.
What makes you a hippie? After thinking about it a good long time I’ve come up with this: it is a faith in uncultivated things and a mindset that equates impulses and warm sentiments with all that is both natural and innocent that makes you a hippie. In the hippie lexicon artificial is just another word for bad. And civilization—particularly Western Civilization—is a blight.
The Nature of Artifice—or Why Art Comes so Naturally to Us
It is about time someone stood up for artificial things. Just because something is artificial does not mean it is unnatural. On the contrary it is in the very nature of human beings to make artificial things.
How can something be artificial and natural at the same time? The word, artificial is our clue. It grows out of another word, the word, “art”. Art is a small but very fertile word and it crops up in a lot of places. It means “something made” or “making something” depending on whether you are speaking of the result or the process. Art also goes into the making of a number of words—“artist” for instance, and “artisan”, not to mention: “artifact”, and “artifice” and, yes, “article”—the thing you are reading. There are many permutations because making things comes so naturally to us. We need a plethora of words to describe all of it. And the reason we are so creative is because we are made in the image of a Creator who loves making so much he made creatures who love to make things too.
Social Institutions and the Making of the Hippie Brain
Social institutions are one of those things that people make. What appears in the mind of a hippie though when the term social institution comes up is the image of a large, impersonal, and inflexible organization—in other words IBM, or if our hippie is a Libertarian, the IRS. But social institutions do not need to be large, impersonal, or inflexible—they can be small, intimate, and even highly responsive. It all depends.
If we look back to the Middle Ages, and even back to Aristotle, we see that social institutions were once considered a natural feature of human life. But a rift has grown between the works of man and those of nature. The modern outlook is skeptical, and essentially atheistic. Today people assume that since human institutions are purposeful and natural processes are not, it is not appropriate to speak of things that men make as “natural”. (This is question begging, of course—but few see the question and even fewer are willing to ask it.)
When it came to politics modern philosophers disagreed about many things—but one thing philosophers as different as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau could agree upon is that freedom is natural and in some sense social institutions are not. To the medieval mind freedom was a moral achievement perfected with the aid of social institutions. The reason for the disagreement is that modern thinkers tended to focus on actions and how society constrains them while medieval thinkers focused on character and how social institutions help to develop it. Put another way—modern thinkers were concerned with freedom to do as you please while medieval thinkers were concerned with being pleased by the right things.
We can see three general attitudes in early modern philosophy. One attitude is exemplified by the aforementioned Mr. Hobbes. For Hobbes a man in his free and natural state is an amoral animal struggling to survive. This drains both nature and freedom of much of their charm. Famously he said the natural life is: poor, solitary, brutish, and short. In other words, if wealth, companionship, culture, and longevity are what you are after you need to give up natural freedom to get them. Accordingly he promoted a strong central government. Without one he believed a society will descend into the chaos of natural freedom. Unfortunately, political minorities have learned from painful experience that a strong central government is as likely to leave you brutalized and impoverished as natural freedom ever did.
John Locke tried to soften things up a bit. He believed there is more to natural freedom than a freedom to do as you please, a moral warrant comes with it. Locke had to bring God back to warrant the warrant, but after that God pretty much drops out of the picture. It is up to people to get a government to bend over backward and tie itself up like a contortionist. When they’ve done that they have bound it in much the same way governments bind their subjects. This allows people to enjoy their natural freedom in the spaces that are opened up. While Locke’s more optimistic outlook is closer to the way hippies look at nature and freedom we still have a way to go. We do not truly see the first hippie, at least when we are talking about political philosophy, until Jean Jacques Rousseau comes along.
Rousseau was a maddening bundle of contradictions as well as a deadbeat dad, and a paranoid—but don’t let that color your opinion. (Strange as it sounds, he gave some good parenting advice.) What made him the first hippie though was his conviction that natural freedom is neither moral nor amoral, instead it is altogether innocent. The amoral man can be a brute; the moral man can be a conformist; but the innocent man is neither. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, men that generally present human institutions in a positive light, Rousseau developed the idea that social institutions are instead sources of corruption. For Rousseau, in spite of being born in Calvinist Geneva, there is no fall from grace. If anything there is a fall into civilization. In retrospect it is probably unfair to attribute the excesses of Woodstock to him but when it comes to natural freedom we can at least say he was guilty of encouraging a naïve and sentimental monism.
While the Hobbesian view never truly caught on, the Lockean view certainly did. And for the longest time Rousseau’s outlook was considered a sort of “alternative lifestyle”, something for world-weary children of privilege. There were some colorful proto-hippies—William Blake for example, Lord Byron also comes to mind, later on this side of the pond there were Thoreau and Emerson. But for all their literary prowess they lived on the margins, often off the wealth of other people. Not to be too dismissive, there were some starving artists, van Gogh is an exemplar; still marginal though—all in all these early flower-children were a tiny, if noteworthy, fraction of a much larger population. But after a long gestation there was a birth in the 1960s. The alternative went mainstream and the hippies were born. Whereas creative genius once excused a flight from responsible living, now hoi polloi took it upon themselves to abandoned jobs, spouses, even small children in order to find their inner bohemian. Initially there was alarm and accusations of narcissism, but that’s changed; the buttons have been loosened. Wingtips have been traded-in for Birkenstocks. Standards have been lowered. Attitudes have softened. And Stoic stricture has been replaced by therapeutic guidance. Even religious institutions have adopted a policy of appeasement. Now many of them inform us that they are not institutions at all, or even religious. According to the latest Evangelical shtick Christianity was never a religion to begin with; it’s just a relationship—relationships being genuine, spontaneous, and authentic and religions, of course, being Pharisaical and corrupting.
Social Institutions, Where Can We Flee from Thy Presence?
Those modern philosophers seem to give us a stark either/or. We must choose between freedom and society: more society, less freedom—more freedom, less society.
As I mentioned before, this is not the way people used to look at it. Marvelously the very modern institution of social science can serve as something of a bridge to get us back to a premodern way of thinking about nature and society.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia a social institution is “…any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community:….Institutions are identified with a social purpose, transcending individuals and intentions by mediating rules that govern cooperative living behavior.”
Translation: everything from the water wheel to the Papacy is a social institution. If we think of social institutions in this way not even Daniel Boone could escape them. He took them with him in his head and in his pack when he went into the Kentucky wilderness. They governed his actions even when he was alone. Here’s one way they did: Daniel Boone was an heir of that marvelous social institution known as the English language. Language is a great aid to thinking—it is doubtful that thinking can exist without it. Words are needed for more than just labeling things, they link things together in practical ways. Take the word tree for instance—a word I am sure Daniel Boone took with him into the wilderness and a word he found extremely useful. Now the word tree did more than provide a label for all those tall plants in Kentucky—it came with hooks and on those hooks hung other words, nouns like fire and cabin. The hooks that linked the nouns together were verbs and those were linked to practical know-how, verbs like make and build. And that doesn’t even get us to modifiers like oak, blazing, and comfort.
Only Adam knows what it is like to live outside of social institutions; and according to the record he didn’t like it. We could say he never really lived outside them, they lived in him and were born into the world through him. Any attempt to posit the existence of a natural man free and independent and outside society is merely a tendentious academic exercise. It actually denaturing us because it treats our social selves as something we must choose.
We are not free by nature, we are born into debt. We enter a ready-made social world. It isn’t perfect, but it is absurd to think it should be. Only immaturity could make that an excuse for ingratitude. When you feel proper gratitude you also feel a need to make a return. This is the mother of piety. Piety in the ancient world began with parents but it extended to ancestors, and ultimately it reached beyond even them and was offered up to God. The fact that people today think piety is owed exclusively to God shows how nimbly modern people can make welshing on your debts a pious act. But let’s say you want to make a full return—how do you do it, seeing as many of the people to whom your debts are due are no longer with us? Paradoxically the way the pious have always paid their debts is by paying them forward. We are all stewards and we all have a responsibility to God and our ancestors to pass on what we have received to our children and improve it if we can.
Hippies Get Real and Unreal with Social Institutions
The impossibility of living outside social institutions is something even hippies have had to accept. It would be amusing for the rest of us if they had returned to a more Neolithic way of life—you know, hunting and gathering. We could have set aside some land. It would have made good television. Instead we must endure their efforts to liberate us, apparently for their schemes to work everyone must go along.
Liberation gets foisted upon us in two ways. First by softening institutions, making them accommodating to uncultivated impulses, especially sexual ones. Instead of serving a common good, or the glory of God, social institutions are now engines of self-actualization. Every inchoate urge that bubbles up from the id must be gratified. These urges mustn’t judged or suppressed or redirected toward higher ends. This would be oppressive. And being able to locate their origin in a biochemical process—well that’s like a free pass these days. Not only is the authority of sentiment there, the white coated Bunsen burner crowd gives its blessing. The only acceptable limit to all this promiscuity is a utilitarian version of the Golden Rule—“Only have sex with those who would like to have sex with you.”
The second trend appears to be completely incompatible with the first and at odds with the whole hippie ethos. But in a back-handed way it compliments it and is the true secret of its recent success. It is the enlargement of the bureaucratic state. The secret is ubiquity, if the state can at once be everywhere and yet invisible—like air—it can at once foster an illusion of natural freedom even as it makes its subjects ever more dependent upon it. The old truth that winning a debate begins with framing the question has a parallel here. If you want to run the world, define it, further, instantiate the definition with social institutions. When you can get an employer to withhold taxes, especially social insurance taxes, then you relieve people of the need to care for the elderly directly—or even to prepare directly for old age. The natural relationship of the generations is interrupted so that individuals can unnaturally indulge any natural urge that comes along. Hippies redeem large institutions by having them cater to desires formerly regarded as antisocial and by mitigating the deleterious effects of those desires by spreading their costs over the general population. Liberation now means freedom from consequences. Formerly it would have been called Free Riding. Anyone with any robust sense of self-reliance would call it enervating.
Thinking about Nature and Human Nature for the Non-Hippie
To this point I have purposefully been imprecise in my handling of the term nature. I have sailed a sea of ambiguity but now it is time to divide the waters. There is nature and then there is human nature and that is a distinction that makes a large difference. When I speak of what is natural for human beings I am saying there are certain things that are naturally good for us but do not naturally apply to other members of the natural world. When hippies speak of nature they refer to nature as an undifferentiated whole. They consider the line that separates human nature from nature-at-large to be illusory and even harmful. They want humankind to be re-submerged into nature and completely lose the modifier, human. We should not be surprised at the popularity of Eastern religions among hippies, nor their irrational animus toward traditional theism. Conservatives on the other hand not only believe that there is something unique about human beings—something to our nature that can only be attributed to the transcendent—we believe that the natural world is in some sense is incomplete without us. The Apostle Paul said creation waits with eager longing for the Sons of God to be revealed. We believe we were made to dwell here and that we are the stewards of the natural world, further we know we are part of it and there are things about it that we must accept—things that we must conform to. One of those things is the tie that binds the generations. We enjoy granola and we are grateful for the plentitude of nature. But we also remember the many people who have tilled the earth for centuries, and cultivated the grains over the generations, to make the granola we enjoy.
How to Fight Hippies
Hippies now control much of the media, the federal government, and nearly everything in academia. They have made inroads in the business world—especially in the multinational corporations through strategically taking control of human resource departments. (You really have to give them credit, they truly have a nose for opportunity and leverage.) They are even making progress in their attempts to rework the military—a world that has been almost impervious to them until very recently. Where should traditionalists invest their very limited resources? Where should we make our stand?
There has been a very long debate about the subject of social change in the western world. Some think you should go big and work downward. Plato and Hegel were advocates. But others say you should start small and work your way up. Aristotle and the Bible agree on that. But beginning with the individual is what got us in this mess to begin with. What we need to do is start one step up—with the household. It is the place to start because it is the first institution.
In households many things living together: body and spirit, man and woman, work and rest, young and old, what is made by the art of God and what is made by the art of man, all those things and others. Because everything we need for a good life is found there in seminal form the household is the seedbed for every institution. Because fathers teach their children at the dinner table, education can be perfected in a university; because mothers bandage little knees, bones can be set in a hospital; because we have a rocking chairs on the porch that we can have vacations at the beach; and because a man and a woman work together at home, a man can justify spending eight hours outside the home each working day.
Hippies at Home
While hippies flatter themselves about the revolutionary character of their household practices, they are just the latest iteration of the modern household. Modernity long ago reduced the life expectancy of households to a single generation. The thought that a household could shelter several generations—even over hundreds of years—never occurs to modern people. But it is especially out of accord with the hippie imperative to self-actualize and to leave sexual desires undirected as much as possible. A household that persists over generations requires formal roles and self-control by its members. Even fidelity loses its objective basis in the hippie household, what force it retains is justified solely by psychology.
There is no piety in a hippie household. And there is certainly no practical reason to enlarge the household either for protection or the care of the aged, the State appears to have made both tasks redundant. If anything the goal is to reduce its size in order to “reduce its carbon footprint”.
In one sense hippies are revolutionaries, but the revolution is an old one. They continue the long revolutionary tradition of undermining authority. The hippie household is radically democratic. This has largely been made possible by transferring tasks historically performed by fathers to the state. This leaves men without much to do. Traditionally they were absolutely essentially to the establishment and maintenance of households. When a house lost its male head, and there was no mature male heir, women and children by force of necessity were either adopted into other households or were left defenseless and destitute. In the hippie household there is little to no justification for men as men to even be present. So a man either becomes soccer-mom, second-class, or he is reduced to the status of Homer Simpson—in other words, he is little more than grown child. Why should we wonder that many women find it easier to go it alone?
A Prophesy—the End of the Hippie and a Return to Nature
But it is beginning to fail—this hippie fantasy. It is just so unnatural, there is no way they could keep it up. The State has burdened itself with obligations it is finding more and more difficult to meet. For the longest time the economic growth that underwrote it came from the higher productivity made possible by the division of labor and the industrial revolution. But the division of labor was made possible by loosening household bonds. But the snake can only eat its tail for so long. Productivity does not live on the division of labor alone. You also need laborers to divide. And by severing the dependence of the generations upon one another by interposition of the State children are no longer seen as assets—they are liabilities.
This is how the State has disincentivized child-bearing and brought about a decline in western populations that now appears to be irreversible. It is so evident, even the Wall Street Journal has been emboldened to editorialize about it. It is no longer possible to take population growth for granted. It turns out children are assets after all.
Certainly there will be brinksmanship, half-measures, attempts to bargain and buy time, and lots and lots of shrieking about the unfairness of it all. But the hippies will not change their ways because they will largely not have to live with the consequences of the social decay they have encouraged. They are banking on what Lord Keyes said, “In the long run we are all dead.” The State will have to adapt or it will also die. This is another way of saying it will have to admit it has been wrong all along. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not banking on any such admission, I’m banking on death.)
But for conservatives of the paleo-type this is the dawning of a new world—one that bears a conspicuous resemblance to the old one we have always championed. And at the center of it will be the household—a natural household—vindicated and stronger than ever. It may even come with organic gardening and people wearing Birkenstocks. (I like Birkenstocks, they’re comfortable.) But it will certainly come with a father, and a mother, and an aunt, uncle, or grandma thrown in, and lots and lots of children—especially those. That is a natural order I can believe in. Pass the granola.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1. Romans 8:19
2. America’s Baby Bust, The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2013