Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Road to Recess

"Recess" is the name of an estate in Virginia to which the young John Hartwell Cocke moved, with his bride, in about the year 1807. He left the Tidewater region of Virginia and moved to the ancestral lands in Fluvanna County, deeded to his ancestors in 1725.
I have told Cocke's story in my book, Stewards of History: The Covenant of Generations in a Southern Family, a book which I have made several unsuccessful attempts to publish. This book was an effort to propose a model of American spirituality that would be neither Puritan nor Transcendentalist (the two poles of American spirituality, according to a history professor I once had in college) but embracing the concept of stewardship. Cocke was an outstanding agriculturalist, and the stewardship of the land is easy to understand in his case. But there is more than that - it was particularly a stewardship of history that I was attempting to discover, enunciate, and describe.
Upon the loss of his wife in 1816, Cocke became a devoted Christian. He was active in the antislavery cause, even to the point of establishing a plantation in the deep South on which some of his slaves could work toward their own emancipation. It was a 20-year project only brought to an end by the onset of the Civil War. But some of his emancipated slaves became founding members of the new colony in Liberia, and the letters written by them to their former master are compiled in Randall Miller's book, Dear Master.
There is perhaps nothing quite like this story anywhere elsewhere in America. Sadly, it seems, publishers today only want to hear the politically correct versions of history. It doesn't fit their notions that Cocke, a white slave owner, was honored during Black History month a few years ago in Norfolk, Va. Nor why he became so deeply Christian after the loss of his wife - this too goes against expectations. It breaks the pattern. Many people, when they lose a beloved person, turn against God - like William Styron, the novelist, who used material on Cocke as the prototype of Samuel Turner, the slave master of his novel on the Nat Turner rebellion. Maybe that is why there is little religion in that book.
Cocke broke the stereotypes all the way. A younger contemporary of Jefferson (who thought highly of Cocke, once remarking that he is "rich, liberal, patriotic, judicious and persevering") Cocke esteemed the elder statesman but was quite aware of older man's irreligion. Cocke wrote to his son - "I would rather know that you were a disciple of the meek and lowly Jesus, and destined to pass your life in virtuous obscurity, than to have the assurance of your rising to the Presidency of the United States... and die an infidel."
I am in the process of changing my views on my life, and perhaps that "virtuous obscurity" is beginning to offer an appeal to me. Call it my own version of going to Recess, my own sense that I have arrived at a parting of the ways with the "intellectual life." Not that I will stop writing or thinking. It is an ingrained habit with me. But I also feel that the intellectual life needs to become grafted to a structure, what could be called a paradigm of stewardship. And if I feel opposition to intellectualism today, it is because I sense that "it doesn't matter" - it is unfolding in an abysm of void, it has lost accountability... it's in freefall, or worse, a Satanic plunge. Intellect unhinged from life becomes toxic. It is decreating the world.
What is the next stage of the journey? I am looking for the road.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Are Sex-Change Operations Worthwhile?

Today I wanted to install the most absurd title for this post, which (in contrast to several previous) will be short, spontaneous, and unrehearsed. The title arises from a recent incident in which some members of my son's generation were discussing the preparations then being undergone by one of their cohorts who was planning to get a sex-change operation. Robert (my amicable ex-husband, and ever philosophically willing to raise the temperature of any debate) happened to find himself in the midst of this, and he turned to one of the young women present (possibly a college student at Bryn Mawr College) and asked her, "What do you think about this?"

As he reported to me later, "She gave me this utterly blank look." As he put it, it seemed obvious that she had never been asked to think about what a sex-change operation means in terms of what is happening, instead it was as if whatever is happening is simply determinate - without dimensions of thought or urgency, and lacking any provocation that might entail a response or reaction, much less a judgment, on her part.

This incident seems to illustrate John McMurtry's "first rule of any group-mind" - that it cannot adopt itself as an object of critical reflection. The group-mind of today's Bryn Mawr and Haverford College students seems to be in the process of swallowing sex-change operations with no sign of discomfort or choking. But swallowings like this are going on all the time. For instance, the Philadelphia City Council recently passed a resolution declaring Philadelphia a "pro-choice" city. Certain people protested - notably, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, and a few political candidates. The City Council member, apparently deaf to such protests, said "this is a democracy," which in this tortured logic must mean that only people who believe in killing unborn children belong to democracy.

To believe that passing such a City Council resolution is an exercise of "democracy" falls somewhere under the heading of "intellectual catastrophe," while abortion and sex-change change operations fall somewhere between "biological and social catastrophes." I want to talk later about what these headings signify in terms of Robert Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality."
I wish to pursue this theme in later posts this month. Next weekend I will be visiting in Atlanta for a family wedding, and may not post anything for a couple of weeks.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


It seems to be one of the long-standing self-beliefs of our Western culture that reason as we come to know it has been inherited from Greek philosophy, and revelation has been inherited from the Bible, and that the particular genius of the West in its creative periods was that it was able to take account of both of these sources and to a degree, reconcile them.

Like any long-standing belief, this viewpoint carries a great deal of truth. One of the people who made this viewpoint something of a catchword or perhaps even something of an educated clich̩, was Leo Strauss, one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism. My post today aims to discuss what I think are some of the problems with this viewpoint. It is not solely motivated by my animus against neoconservatism and all of its works, but certainly I admit to having this animus Рfor I consider neoconservatism a bad tree that has produced rotten fruit. But before neoconservatism there was St. Thomas Aquinas, who labored mightily to define the respective spheres of reason and revelation.

So, my point being that the reason-revelation divide goes a long way back into Western history, and there could be little debate in asserting that the pillar of reason exemplified in the Dialogues of Plato and the works of Aristotle – and the pillar of revelation of the Bible, form the major signposts through which Western thinking has always navigated.

Yet there may also be a sense in which signposts can become blockades that squeeze the unwary navigator, asphyxiate and choke, prevent movement, subvert development, and sink the vessel. The image of shipwreck has long formed a sober reminder of the perils of the voyage, and I have always been fond of quoting Ortega y Gasset about this, where he said, "I am only interested in the thoughts of shipwrecked men."

Perhaps every culture has thrown up reminders in its own way – Ortega y Gasset, the Spaniard, was alarmed by the decline of Spain, and thus chose to unfold his reasoning powers to the revitalization of the Spanish – and ultimately European – intellect. Herman Melville, the American, on the other hand, wrote an epic about a shipwreck, at the end of which his hero-martyr and witness, Ishmael, floats to safety by clinging to a coffin. At its depths this profoundly Christian image of life-through-death is borne by the narrator, Ishmael. Ishmael in the Bible was the first son of Abraham who was cast out, and who became the progenitor of the Arabian peoples. To take a leap: one could say that true Christian revelation in America is "Ishmaelitic" – that is, "cast out" by the Puritanic, and later Judaic, image of the "chosen people" or "favored land."
Perhaps Melville had a deep sense for the "Ishmaelitic" character of true Christianity in America – something quite other than its public doctrines. For genuine Christianized thinking has barely been able to establish itself in America, and to the extent that it has, it has always had the character of a "dispossession" or "unbelonging." Southerners at their heart know this, as well as Catholics. The thought was epitomized in the title of Albert J. Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man – the "visionary intellect" is, in America, "superfluous," super-added, super-natural, not in line with the American pragmatic vision and craving for efficiency.

Well, perhaps I stray from my subject, and must needs return to the matter at hand – the polarization of intellect into a ‘reason’ and a ‘revelation’ component. In a certain sense I believe this idea is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. In my view, reason and revelation exist on a continuum which can be, as Coleridge put it, distinguished but not divided. Revelation comes from higher plane of inspiration, but it is nevertheless the source of all intellectual understanding. There is no case of people learning to reason spontaneously, just as there is no case of "spontaneous language." Both faculties of speech and reason imply imitation, instruction and teaching.
Likewise with "natural reason" or "unassisted human reason." In acknowledging the Greek source of this kind of reason, we tend to overlook how Greek reason was born and developed out of the Mystery tradition. It developed from the "revelatory" tradition.

Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) emphasizes this qualitative or revelatory aspect of reason. And yes, I think that Pirsig was one of those "dispossessed Ishmaelites" who challenges the American hostility to metaphysical thought. It is not so essential that such a challenger call himself a Christian. What matters is that one develop the capacity to perceive the christianizing impulse in thinking. Anyhow, Pirsig was in hot pursuit of the trail of the ancient Sophists, who, he thought, had received a bad press in Plato’s dialogues. According to Plato, the Sophists claimed to "teach virtue," or to claim that "virtue can be taught" and they were dismissed - in centuries forever after - as "ethical relativists." But what, Pirsig asks, if this is not the case, and that in fact the Sophists were in pursuit of the Good? The Sophists were concerned with quality – and quality has to do with man’s primordial response to the cosmos.

Thus, the Sophist aimed to teach awareness of the "quality-event," the encounter with quality, that underlies the act of cognition. Arete, virtue or excellence, is the prerogative or privilege of man, who is thus dignified by virtue of his response to quality.

There is a sense in which "quality" may be understood as the "revealed cosmos" – and here I am building on Pirsig, not quoting or paraphrasing him. But in any case, subject and object are the results of the encounter with "Quality." Here we see the outline of a basic threefold dynamic, which is the idea in which Christianity was born, which it developed and elaborated – the threefold being the indispensable concept which enables us to navigate between the pillars of reason and revelation. In one sense the quality-event may be viewed as the ground of the Father, that is, ultimate Reality. In another sense it may be seen in the work of the Holy Spirit, that which enables human beings to respond to one another, the "quality of responsiveness." And in still another sense, "Quality" may be seen as Christ, the "I Am" as the cognitive principle.

There may be such a thing as "natural reason" or "unassisted human reason" (i.e. not revelation-dependent) but insofar as it is "natural" it is not reason, or not much to get excited about, and to the extent that it is reason it must participate in the quality-event – which is to say, it must be based upon something originally disclosed or revealed to us.
Perhaps the divergence between reason and revelation has outlived its natural life. Modern reason is apparitional. Having been free for so many centuries to develop itself apart from the last Platonic resonances of the Good and the Beautiful, modern reason has become a demonstration of the deterioration of standards. And this, in essence, is my critique of neoconservatism: it subverted Reason to become an enabler of Human Power instead of faithfully adhering to reason’s historic vocation as limit and check to Human Power. Or, as Chesterton put the logical case against fascism, “...that it appeals to an appetite for authority without very clearly giving the authority for the appetite.”

For there is a great difference between Divine and Human Power. Divine power creates by renunciation, leaves an opening for the future. Human power refuses to renounce anything, and moreover seeks to add to its domain by sheer accretion. But ultimately nothing grows by accretion, which is why modern reasoning (and its correlates in art, manners, buildings, statecraft, education, landscape, etc.) is a garrulous, garish, structureless monumentalism – as if by sheer will power men could obliterate within themselves that tiny infinity, that infinitely small opening, granted by the Creator, that enables them to reason.