Some Humility, Please

I have nothing prepared for publication tonight — I was too busy all day, and I went to the VDare Christmas party this evening — but I’d hate for you to go away empty-handed, so I’ll offer you this excerpt from Richard Weaver’s essay Up From Liberalism:

The attempt to contemplate history in all its dimensions and in the fullness of its detail led directly to the conviction that this world of substantial things and substantial events is the very world which the Leftist of our time wishes to see abolished; and such policy now began to appear egotistical and presumptuous. I am disinclined to the view that whatever exists necessarily has a commission to go on existing. On the contrary, I have a strong tendency to side with the bottom dog, or to champion the potential against the actual if the former seems to have some reason behind it; and I am mindful of the saying that God takes delight in bringing great things out of small ones. To this extent, I am a reformer or even a subverter. But I feel that situations almost never present themselves in terms so simple. They usually appear in terms like these: We have before us a tremendous creation which is largely inscrutable. Some of the intermediate relationships of cause and effect we can grasp and manipulate, though with these our audacity often outruns good sense and we discover that in trying to achieve one balance we have upset two others. There are, accordingly, two propositions which are hard to deny: We live in a universe which was given to us, in the sense that we did not create it; and, we don’t understand very much of it. In the figure once used by a philosopher, we are inhabitants of a fruitful and well-ordered island surrounded by an ocean of ontological mystery. It does not behoove us to presume very far in this situation. It is not a matter of affirming that whatever is, is right; it is a recognition that whatever is there is there with considerable force (inertia even being a respectable form of force) and in a network of relationships which we have only partly deciphered. Therefore, make haste slowly. It is very easy to rush into conceit in thinking about man’s relationship to the created universe. Science paved the way for presumption, whether wittingly or not; and those political movements which appeal to science to vindicate their break with the past have often made the presumptuous attitude one of their tenets. I found myself in decreasing sympathy with those social and political doctrines erected upon the concept of a man-dominated universe and more and more inclined to believe with Walt Whitman that “a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”

You can read the whole thing here. It is well worth your time.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting that he quotes Whitman, who was a big supporter of “progressive democracy.”

    https://s-usih.org/2015/03/thomas-carlyle-walt-whitman-and-the-foes-of-democracy/

    “Leftist of our time wishes to see abolished; and such policy now began to appear egotistical and presumptuous.”

    Prince Metternich said exactly the same thing about the left of his time:

    “This evil may be described in one word — presumption ; the natural effect of the rapid progression of the human mind towards the perfecting of so many things. This it is which at the present day leads so many individuals astray, for it has become an almost universal sentiment.”

    And:

    “Religion, morality, legislation, economy, politics, administration, all have become common and accessible to everyone. Knowledge seems to come by inspiration ; experience has no value for the presumptuous man ; faith is nothing to him ; he substitutes for it a pretended individual conviction, and to arrive at this conviction dispenses with all inquiry and with all study ; for these means appear too trivial to a mind which believes itself strong enough to embrace at one glance all questions and all facts. Laws have no value for him, because he has not contributed to make them, and it would be beneath a man of his parts to recognise the limits traced by rude and ignorant generations. Power resides in himself; why should he submit himself to that which was only useful for the man deprived of light and knowledge ? That which, according to him, was required in an age of weakness cannot be suitable in an age of reason and vigour, amounting to universal perfection, which the German innovators designate by the idea, absurd in itself, of the Emancipation of the People ! Morality itself he does not attack openly, for without it he could not be sure for a single instant of his own existence ; but he interprets its essence after his own fashion, and allows every other person to do so likewise, provided that other person neither kills nor robs him.

    In thus tracing the character of the presumptuous man, we believe we have traced that of the society of the day, composed of like elements, if the denomination of society is applicable to an order of things which only tends in principle towards individualising all the elements of which society is composed. Presumption makes every man the guide of his own belief, the arbiter of laws according to which he is pleased to govern himself, or to allow some one else to govern him and his neighbours ; it makes him, in short, the sole judge of his own faith, his own actions, and the principles according to which he guides them.”

    Later, Michael Oakshott expounded on the same thing with his politics of “faith” and “skepticism”. Then, more recently, we had Thomas Sowell and his “tragic” v “utopian” visions of politics.

    Weaver:

    “There are, accordingly, two propositions which are hard to deny: We live in a universe which was given to us, in the sense that we did not create it; and, we don’t understand very much of it. In the figure once used by a philosopher, we are inhabitants of a fruitful and well-ordered island surrounded by an ocean of ontological mystery.”

    What would be required to deny these two claims, however?

    Is it a mystery or a problem?

    Pivoting then to a related point, there is a presumption that modern science (as understood by most philosophical naturalists) leads to progressive political conclusions.

    One of our claims is that while we agree with many naturalists on questions of basic “ontology”, we draw opposite conclusions – reactionary conclusions.

    What do you think? Do you think that philosophical naturalism leads to reactionary ethical and political conclusions or progressive ones?

    Posted December 9, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink
  2. Jason says

    I like especially Weaver’s espousal of both provincialism and internationalism, which seems to me a healthy balance. Think of someone like Orwell, who fought in Spain and lived with the “down and out” in Paris, yet also maintained a particular patriotism for his England. Perhaps such paradoxical thinking though is difficult for most people in our modern age.

    Posted December 9, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I.E.,

    Pith, please!

    You ask:

    Do you think that philosophical naturalism leads to reactionary ethical and political conclusions or progressive ones?

    Progressive ones. Indeed, that’s been rather a theme around here. See, for example, this.

    Posted December 9, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  4. That’s an interesting argument and one we were thinking about in similar terms, though our thought was more along the lines of will and desire overcoming biological laws.

    However, your argument there does not necessarily follow from the premise.

    Posted December 9, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

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