Half-knowledge is more victorious than whole knowledge: it understands things as being more simple than they are and this renders its opinions more easily intelligible and more convincing. –Nietzsche
Several years ago, I heard a scientist being interviewed on NPR declare that humans are “just sacks of rapidly degenerating amino acids,” or something similar. I sensed at that moment that I had come across the deepest fault line in American life—not the most evident and certainly not the best understood. Closer to the surface we see all manner of fissures that cleave Democrats from Republicans, secular folk from religious folk, and across which we perpetually hope someone will build bridges. But deeper than any of these visible chasms is a divide about how to understand reality and our experiences of reality. Hidden deep under our democratic culture are competing conceptions about mystery and truth.The scientist’s quotation is an excellent, if extreme, example of intellectual simplification—the stripping away of all complicating factors in order to isolate a defining “fact.” As we develop an intellectual habit of reducing things to their most elemental physicality, we both have the assurance that comes from knowledge and we can feel the liberation that comes from a certain moral plasticity. If humans are “just sacks of rapidly degenerating amino acids,” then we have utterly demystified them and we can dispense entirely with the questions about any transhuman purpose or meaning to our accidental existence. Freed from the most strenuous ontological journey, we can now think creatively: What do we want out [of] our lives? This ontological reduction both reduces humans and elevates them—makes them simple biological beings while it gives license to make whatever we want of ourselves and our environment. We may not eliminate moral considerations from our plans, but we greatly expand the realm of morally acceptable, making any moral choices truly moral choices.
This is an intoxicating form of anti-intellectualism that parades as hard-headed rationalism. It is a close cousin to Christian Fundamentalism since both seek to reduce complex things to a simple, declaratory, unambiguous “fact.” Each of these intellectual habits seeks something certain, unambiguous, so as to get the intellectual assurance that eliminates the need for a spiritual journey that would encounter more mysteries than uncover certain answers.
And here we discover the essential aesthetic difference between bohemian conservatives and the intellectual and moral simplifiers: conservatives find the most profound meaning in mysteries. The goal is not to solve mysteries, but to enter into them fully and to see what wonders our dim faculties might apprehend. Across a room, a conservative might spy a sack of rapidly degenerating amino acids, but rather than thinking of the elements that make up the body he sees, he wonders about this creature’s past, its network of relationships, its relationship with books. The conservative might wonder if this creature could be his love someday—and when he wonders this he is fully aware that the creature before him is not “just” a sack of rapidly degenerating amino acids. During the love affair that may follow, the conservative might read all manner of books on attraction, on chemical changes in the brain that make lovers altogether crazed humans, and he may come to see that the experience of love has connections to evolved mechanisms of selection, but he will never allow the various parts of the explanation become sufficient—for his experience teaches him that love is a mystery—painful and glorious.
The reader, by this point in the essay, has charged me with gross simplification, with creating a false dichotomy, and therefore of displaying the very failure that I criticize. And he is justified in his critique. Very few people are so reductive as the noted scientist and many people live comfortably with mysteries of one sort of another. And how many people allow the science of love to undermine the power of love? And yet, if we have a clear conception of the philosophical poles in this cultural field, we can identify tendencies, directions, and developed or habituated tastes that pull our culture toward ontological reduction, and the willingness to believe that simple is truer than complex. The trend may be ineluctable and therefore this essay testimony to truths rendered invisible by a myopic imagination.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted the democratic tendency to love abstract and general words as they made both thinking and communicating fast and easy. Because equality eliminated classes and tradition, both of which had provided authoritative beliefs, each person “withdraws narrowly into himself and claims to judge the world from there.” But as the individual person cannot know from his own experience the facts relevant to a large public matter and he has accepted the authority only of “the people,” he relies on “the public” which has “a singular power among democratic peoples.” And so, while equality has freed individuals from older forms of authority, like class and tradition, it also “leaves [the individual] isolated and without defense against the action of the greatest number.”
Public discourse, under conditions where almost no one can know the facts in their particular and eccentric forms, must rely on general ideas. In order for general ideas or abstractions to be useful or persuasive, one must already come to believe that the public is, more or less, a larger expression of one’s self—to assume that as one examines claims based on one’s common sense that the sense is indeed “common.” There is, in other words, a mutually reinforcing process by which the affirmation of the right and the ability of the individual to be a judge in large political matters necessitates the use of ever more abstract or processed slogans. In this way, very different people can express themselves, individually, on subjects that none of them can address based on particular evidence in context. A slogan makes a community–or it gives abstract consensus to particular and highly divergent beliefs. But slogans cannot foster deliberation.
And so the tendency of democracy, under the influence of “equality of conditions,” is to foster beliefs in abstract truths about large political matters. At one level, a bohemian conservative need not object to this reality of democratic life insofar as he wishes to embrace a large nation in which local and state political life is more robust than national politics. Under these conditions, he can expect local politics to possess the particularity and eccentricity of local conditions, local characters, and a scale of participation that encourages a particularistic vocabulary of politics without sweeping universalisms. But two trends have been warring against this accommodation: national politics is ever more important, detailed, and comprehensive; and the political vocabulary people employ locally borrows heavily from the sloganeering of the national politics. Even local politics trends toward the use of abstractions.
The conservative defense of complexity and particularity in our political and moral discourse has been evolving since Enlightenment thinkers claimed to identify and articulate universal laws about human nature. In the United States Enlightenment, political ideas concerned rights primarily—and in the beginning, “natural rights.” By declaring simple human rights as grounded in nature, people could employ clear, unambiguous, and universal moral slogans. The conservative response to natural rights was not to reject them, but to reject the simple, cavalier, and universalistic expressions of their meaning and application. The most famous, and still the best, critique of the abstract use of rights came from Edmund Burke. Asserting that humans do indeed have natural rights, Burke noted that the reductive expression of them is prone to error. He wrote that “these metaphysical rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of nature, refracted from their straight line. Indeed in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original directions. The nature of man is intricate….”
Our moral obligations to one another are made easier if we make a list of natural and universal rights, such as life, liberty, and property. Of course, we can add various liberties and call them rights, such as free speech, free exercise of religion, and so forth. Over time our “rights talk” become part of our common sense—abstract truths we can apply at home and abroad, or at least abstract claims that help us know how to feel about the nations of the world—because we possess a simple, easy to articulate, universal standard by which to judge. Once rights have become part of our common sense, then our public moral vocabulary becomes simplistic as we debate over whose rights trump. Each camp in the debate gets to take the moral high ground and declare themselves in slogans.
The trend lines in America all lead, then, toward simplification in political language and, especially, in the moral discourse about human nature and human rights. But, from the point of view of a bohemian conservative, the problem is deeper and pre-political. I can illustrate my point with a neglected passage from Walter Lippmann’s 1914 apology for Progressivism, Drift, and Mastery:
[The] uprooted person is the despair of all those who love the flavor of words, for his language has gone stale and abstract in a miserly telegraphic speech. That is why literary men are forever hunting up folk songs and seeking out backward peasants in Galway or Cornwall. Among country people words still taste of actual things: contact with sun and rain and earth and harvest turns the simple prose of the day’s work into poetry for the starved imagination of city-bred people…. For the slow movement of the seasons we have substituted the flicker of fashion. The old world changed, but it repeated itself. Birth and youth and age, summer and winter changed the world and let it unaltered. You could think of eternal ideas, for there was beneath the change some permanence. But in our day change is not an illusion, but a fact: we do actually move toward novelty, there is invention, and what has never been is created each day.
Lippmann here noted two facts about the America of a century ago. First, the contact with the natural world that gives language the “taste of actual things” is fading with urbanization and industrialization. The artificial and standardized environment of industrial society fosters a standardized and abstract language and imagination. Less in need of particular individuals, moderns are more dependent on society as a whole—a condition that encourages people to think in general terms–of classes, types, groups, rather than particular people. Second, Lippmann stressed that the life of the villager (or anyone whose life and work put them close to nature) witnessed changes in the context of an underlying constancy. Moderns see constant change and anticipate that change is the new normal. The villager possessed both the experiences and the language to ponder metaphysical truths. The modern lives in such flux that he is fixed on what is next rather than what is always, and his language reflects the experience of living in the midst of constant change.
At the risk of approaching a definition, a bohemian conservative believes humans ought to appreciate, live amidst, and even love the eccentric particularity of physical nature, of distinctive persons, of local culture, of odd traditions that reach back before memory, and more generally of the person rooted in time and place–a historical expression as unique as the proverbial snowflake. The bohemian conservative appreciates less the abstract beauty of the woman on the billboard and more the peculiar beauty of the woman who works at the diner. The bohemian conservative does not love the individualist as much as the eccentric person who is rooted in cultural soil unprocessed by sanitizing consumerism. The bohemian conservative admires the unique and peculiar over the abstracted perfection of a universal form.
The person, understood as a being rooted in history, culture, and tradition, is not any one thing. He isn’t defined by the composition of his body. He isn’t defined by his individual experiences. He isn’t defined by his accomplishments, or failings, or abilities, or limitations. The complexity of his person, as contextualized in a living culture, allows him to think of himself as physical and spiritual, as an individual and part of a group, as living in the flux of existence that is nonetheless situated in the timelessness of reality.
I began by expressing my fear of the tendency to simplify all complex things and to break apart complex things into component parts and think of the parts abstractly, separated from their complementary context. I referenced an extreme version of this tendency whereby humans become nothing more than a constellation of amino acids. To be sure that degree of abstraction is not typical in our society, but the tendencies of democracy and modernity are toward reducing all things—physical, social, spiritual—to their elements.
My concerns are political. The democratic tendency to speak in the simplistic language of rights, the propensity to trust the attenuated “common sense” of the “public” has reinforced Nietzsche’s claim that “Half-knowledge is more victorious than whole knowledge: it understands things as being more simple than they are and this renders its opinions more easily intelligible and more convincing.” Because the undermining of federalism, the expansion of the size and scope of federal power, is part of the problem and is theoretically reversible, we might hope to improve things. However, the underlying conditions are pre-political and reach to the way we moderns experience our world. These are not reversible by any political choice.
Underneath this complaint, however, is an assertion that reality is truly more complex than our language allows and that humans have souls–they can, therefore, experience themselves alienated from reality. Over time, our ersatz reality (i.e., our constructed reality of simple truisms) will no longer satisfy our deepest longings and the desire to be enveloped in a true mystery will spur a reaction to our disordered times and foster a new language of experience that is truer to its complexity. In the meantime, we must endure simplifiers to the left of us and reductionists to the right, fully aware that no deliberation is possible.
Republished with gracious permission from Front Porch Republic (July 2009).
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