Amazon.com Widgets

 

Jules van Schaijik

The philosophy and politics of isolation

Dec. 1 at 10:04pm

The last chapter of the text for tomorrow's reading circle gathering is about the spirit of communion in the Liturgy. In it, von Hildebrand explains how all genuine values have a twofold unifying power: they unify the individual person from within (interior recollection) and they unify a collection of persons into a genuine communion.

It so happens that Anthony Esolen just published a piece in which this theme of the relation between objective values and interpersonal communion is also central. Like von Hildebrand, Esolen contrasts genuine communion sustained by value with its counterfeit rooted in mere pleasure:

Here we need not consider the sadness at the heart of pleasure seeking—the profound loneliness that settles upon young people drinking at a party when there is nothing to celebrate, as they warily circle about one another, checking one another out, reckoning and being reckoned... [T]he pursuit of such fleeting goods... is necessarily divisive. Here I mean more than that people compete for eminence in them. I mean that there is nothing in them that unites us; they presuppose that we are not meant for one another in love, but that at best we can get along beside one another, sometimes pursuing a pleasure we have in common, but otherwise acknowledging that people themselves are to be valued only according as they assist us in our own pursuits.

Esolen also makes an interesting connection* with the political sphere. Where people are united in and through objective values, they also "stand against both the state and the hedonistic isolation it encourages."

...a moral philosophy of isolation, of the autonomy of the individual pursuing his own pleasures, coincides with a politics of isolation, whereby individuals purchase that autonomy at the price of ceding to the state everything that people as social beings used to do for one another.

So, if you are participating in tomorrow's reading-circle, either at our home, or from a distance, and if you have finished reading von Hildebrand, Esolen's piece makes for a great supplement.

----

*While these political implications of the virtus unitiva do not come up in Liturgy and Personality, von Hildebrand discusses them in his work on the metaphysics of the community (not yet available in English)


 

Katie van Schaijik

Reading that Esolen article now. 

If solitude is the flower of life in community, then perhaps we may say, turning the equation inside out, that the terminus of a life that knows no contemplation, no higher good than the efficient pursuit of quantifiable objects, is isolation.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which depicts the souls in hell getting further and further apart, fleeing everyone else.  And that reminds me of the horrid conclusion of Satre's play, No Exit: "Hell is other people."

If we live only for what satisfies our appetites or gratifies our egos, then other people are a problem.  If we live for objective goods, then other people are great gifts.

#1 - Dec. 2 at 11:48am | quote

 

Laurence

I liked this quote from Esolen very much: "we might as well reconceive our republic as a vast archipelago of individuals, delimited by the only freedom we acknowledge: the freedom from one another."It's an interesting observation, especially given the frontiersman attitude that founded much of this country. The two points in American history when there was the least government influence in society and where there is the most government influence in society both coincide with periods of social isolation. Now many Americans seem to be working to disintegrate communities, or at least abide their destruction, whereas those other isolated individuals were working 250 years ago to build communities, for the most part, once there was a proper foundation.

Abstract pleasures and goods cannot be regulated or taxed or so much subsidized. As Esolen says, the lack of control over organic community values is very disturbing for the State. 

I am left wondering though about the earlier post concerning Thanksgiving and the government's responsibility in helping Americans live up to their own standards (or what their standards should be). Can a government that rejoices in the fragmentation of its people also hold them up to any standard but its own?

#2 - Dec. 2 at 12:38pm | quote

Jules van Schaijik

I like your observation, Laurence, about the two periods of social isolation in American history. Do you think there are lessons to be drawn from the comparison?That is to say, do you think that even though the earlier Americans sought to build communities, their efforts in this regard were infected by the frontiersman's desire to be free from others? If so, then perhaps the seeds for the later disintegration of community were already planted way back then.

Laurence, Dec. 2 at 12:38pm

I am left wondering though about the earlier post concerning Thanksgiving and the government's responsibility in helping Americans live up to their own standards. Can a government that rejoices in the fragmentation of its people also hold them up to any standard but its own?

Certainly, the government can't control or grow organic community values. Those can only come from the inner life of the communities themselves. But government can and should protect the space or environment in which such values can grow and thrive.

Obviously "a government that rejoices in the fragmentation of its people" can't do this. But surely we can conceive and work for a better kind of government?

#3 - Dec. 3 at 8:55am | quote

 

Laurence

I can only guess at the correlations between early American isolation and the contemporary American who exists as an island unto himself. The frontiersmen were often pushed farther and farther west by the farmers and craftsmen that began to settle en masse and start their communities. There seems to always be a strain of yearning for solitude, if not isolation, in the American past. I wonder if, instead of supporting community morals and traditions (re: the Thanksgiving post), the earlier American government was too preoccupied or overzealous with enshrining individualism, a bastion of negative rights, as the supreme cultural indentity.

That would leave modern Americans in the peculair position of embracing either the older, traditional society that  encouraged isolated individualism, or the new, invasive nanny-state, which forces separation and isolation even more. 

I wonder, is it possible to work for a better kind of government, or just for a better kind of people? It seems like the ideal situation would be when virtuous Americans choose not to shop on Thanksgiving because they have better priorities. Their government, derived from this virtue, would be ready to support them in this restraint, but would seldom be called upon.

#4 - Dec. 3 at 11:06am | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Laurence, Dec. 3 at 11:06am

There seems to always be a strain of yearning for solitude, if not isolation, in the American past.

There's a fun triology of books by Conrad Richter (The Trees, The Fields, and The Town) touching on the tension between two strains in American yearning: the call of the wild, the frontiersman alone in nature eschewing the comforts and corruptions of civilization back east, and the strong impulse toward community, interdependence, neighbor helping neighbor.  I suppose it's a universal tension in humanity, though no doubt the individualist strain is stronger in America than elsewhere.

I wonder, is it possible to work for a better kind of government, or just for a better kind of people? 

Since we're a self-governing people (at least, we're supposed to be) this seems to me like two sides of the same coin.   

#5 - Dec. 3 at 11:40am | quote

 

Laurence

Indeed, I do not think it is possible to have a virtuous government without a virtuous people. If the population is virtuous, they won't abide a non-virtuous government. So, while the two are very connected, I think there is a particular order to it. The virtuous government cannot precede a virtuous people. While it can help protect their morals, it cannot create them.

I was recently exchanging comments with some self-proclaimed monarchists (a fashionable form of counter-culturalism in social circles frequented by Catholics who just took a history class or two). They were too disillusioned with the state of American morality, and would prefer to abrogate the democratic process (susceptible, as it is, to the crass fancies of mob rule) and install a virtuous monarch instead. I still see the virtue of the monarch, and likewise the possibility of corruption, being dependent on the virtue of his people.

#6 - Dec. 3 at 12:18pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

I was recently exchaning comments with some self-proclained monarchists (a fashionable form of counter-culturalism in social circles frequented by Catholics who just took a history class or two). They were too disillusioned with the state of American morality, and would prefer to abrogate the democratic process (susceptible, as it is, to the crass fancies of mob rule) and install a virtuous monarch instead. 

Yes.  There is a lamentable paternalistic streak in certain Catholic circles.  

As for me, I think Kant got this right.  A paternalistic government is in certain respects worse than a hostile dictatorship, because it involves infantilizing the citizenry.  

#7 - Dec. 3 at 1:24pm | quote

Jules van Schaijik

Hmm. I think I agree in general with the order Laurence proposes: a virtuous government being more the result of a virtuous people than the other way around. But it is not as if changing the people is all that is needed for the current system to be righted. For that the role of government also has to be rethought. Specifically, the role it has in upholding and nourishing the common good. Neither the statist left nor the laissez faire right seem to me to have the right idea in that regard.

#8 - Dec. 3 at 4:49pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

But we must consider, also, that the attraction to the wild is not always in and of itself a drive soley toward isolation from one's fellow beings:  sometimes it is a desire for what we might be called a "healthy" independence.  By this I mean an independence from the coercive forces of society from which one flees toward an independence as articulated by a new relationship to everything (if not everyone)--a re-calibration of the individual to society based upon a rediscovery of the real nature of human-being, one from which grows an appreciation of the power of the whole as coming from the natual power of its independent wills.  The coercive forces of society only come into existence when individuals abandon their own natures as acting, individual wills, and cede what power they have to the "state."  It is at that point--either as a result of suffering, tiredness, or mere laziness, that that State finds a way to become oppressive.  It is at this point folks begin to mispercieve their own paradigm for Being.

#9 - Dec. 5 at 10:21pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Gregory Borse, Dec. 5 at 10:21pm

But we must consider, also, that the attraction to the wild is not always in and of itself a drive soley toward isolation from one's fellow beings:  sometimes it is a desire for what we might be called a "healthy" independence.  By this I mean an independence from the coercive forces of society from which one flees toward an independence as articulated by a new relationship to everything...

I like this point a lot.  There are, I agree, right reasons for fleeing society: resistance to its coercives forces and also perhaps avoidance of its corrupting influences.  

Wojtyla once wrote that even revolution may be justified, provided it aims at the establishment of some real good and not just a nihilistic tearing down of the former order.  Likewise, it seems, the leaving of society may be motivated by a desire to achieve proper independence and wholesomeness, not merely to throw off the demands and responsibilities of life-with-others.

#10 - Dec. 5 at 10:34pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Chesterton made the same point, during his time--pointing out that (sometimes) "revolutionaries" (true ones) are always conservatives--because they love the truth so much they are willing to ruin the status quo in order to preserve it . . . .

#11 - Dec. 5 at 10:42pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Hegel's project is admirable in this regard--but fails, I think, ultimately (by the way).  Because it valorizes only the "grand" successes of individual wills as they act in concert with some force that he equates with Providence (as Ishmael suspects and expresses and indicts).  Hegel loves the individual will when it works in concert with the "body" that constructs the Arch at St. Louis--but he doesn't seem to recognize it in the person of a mother who raises a right individual boy--say, called, "Will Somerortheotherthing" who would have been loved and noticed by, say, Emily Dickinson . . .To me, it's not one or the other--it's both.  And neither at the same time.  So much of modern/post-modern metaphysics has preferred to argue about "either/or."  It's a trap.  It's fractal.  Which is a whole new philosophy--but, one that is sacramental, as it turns out.

 

#12 - Dec. 5 at 11:09pm | quote

 

Laurence

I think it's an excellent point that Mr. Borse made regarding a retreat from society as a strategic retreat from corruption and coercive influence. It isn't just some primordial call of the wild, nor is it misanthropy that pulls many people to the few remote places that can still be found.

More often we find real self-determination and freedom when we are farther removed from the state, removed from societal regulations.  One can see Truth and Beauty in the natural settings of the American landscape, and connect with  these higher Goods on a more visceral level, free from the pop culture and public opinion that rationalizes one stochastic pleasure or vice on a whim.

Conservative circles often refer to the traditional or historic America as the political and social ideal, or at least as a standard to measure our contemporary social and political failings. It seems like those frontiersmen and pioneers who set out into the wilderness 200 years ago felt like, even then, they could best represent themselves away from government and state-organized communities.

#13 - Dec. 6 at 10:36am | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Laurence, Dec. 6 at 10:36am

One can see Truth and Beauty in the natural settings of the American landscape, and connect with  these higher Goods on a more visceral level, free from the pop culture and public opinion that rationalizes one stochastic pleasure or vice on a whim.

I experienced this very vividly on our recent trip to Arizona.  Just seeing the vast and varied landscapes of one state in one portion of the country seemed to "put right" a mentality skewed by too much harried indoorsness.

We even went for a short horseback ride, which brought to mind a favorite Reagan quote: "There's nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse."

#14 - Dec. 6 at 11:00am | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Recommended reading for this topic:  William Faulkner's short story, "The Tall Men."  In fact, the more I think about him, the more I think that much of what Faulkner contemplates in his Yoknapatawpha fiction has precisely to do with the topic of this conversation . . . .

#15 - Dec. 6 at 3:56pm | quote

 

Laurence

I came across this pertinent quote from Robinson Crusoe today. To provide, context, Crusoe is commemorating his second anniversary of being shipwrecked:

"I gave humble and hearty Thanks that God had been pleas’d to discover to me, even that it was possible I might be more happy in this Solitary Condition, than I should have been in a Liberty of Society, and in all the Pleasures of the World. That he could fully make up to me, the deficiencies of my Solitary State, and the want of Humane Society by his Presence, and the Communications of his Grace to my Soul, supporting, comforting, and encouraging me to depend upon his Providence here, and hope for his Eternal Presence hereafter."

Beautiful

#16 - Dec. 6 at 7:38pm | quote

 

Laurence

Crusoe concludes a bit later saying: "From this moment I began to conclude in my Mind, That it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken Solitary Condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular State of the World; and with this Thought I was going to give Thanks to God for bringing me to this Place."

Here is where I stop relating. Maybe it's just because of the relative comfort and ease with which we normal persosn live today, and Crusoe had no prospects back at home. But I certainly would not trade civil society for Crusoe's island. Or rather, I wouldn't trade even the most corrupt society for total isolation on Crusoe's island. 

For me, personally, I can view all of the wonders of nature,  all of the glory of creation, and think of it as a rather wasted experience on me if I don't have 1 person to share it with. 

#17 - Dec. 6 at 7:43pm | quote

 

Laurence

This is turn makes me wonder, if a single man is in the elements of nature long enough, or if he is removed from all other men, does he stay 100% a man. If he stops using language, and gearing his thoughts and actions towards Goods and Beauties more complicated than survival, is he still a man?

Fortunately for Crusoe, he was rescued before this dilemma caught him up in full. For all of the vices and moral comprimises that come with society, and for all of the purity that the natural world offers to the isolated man, could he still exist apart from society, as a man?

#18 - Dec. 6 at 7:47pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Beautiful reference. I love Robinson Crusoe.

 "From this moment I began to conclude in my Mind, That it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken Solitary Condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular State of the World; and with this Thought I was going to give Thanks to God for bringing me to this Place."

I wonder whether, even having come to this conclusion, Crusoe wouldn't agree with you in never having chosen it for himself.  

When the chance to return to society finally arose, he took it.

#19 - Dec. 6 at 7:54pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Just came another beautiful, a propos quotation, from Raissa Maritain.  It's from the other direction, but doesn't disagree:

It is an error to isolate oneself from men because one has a clearer vision of truth.  If God does not call one to solitude, one must live with God in the multitude; make him known there, and make him loved.

But if one establishes one's life in the city, one must not saunter about with one's hands in one's pockets.  One must take part in the life of the city and try to "establish all things in Christ."

#20 - Dec. 6 at 8:32pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Shakespeare's "The Tempest" treads across a similar landscape.  Prospero comes to love his isolation from society and from other men and women--because of the apparent control of his own destiny it gives to him.  He even learns to direct the elements; to become a god unto himself on his own island.  Of course, his daughter, Miranda, (with the tangential help of the beastial Caliban) opens his eyes and recalls him to union with the human community that he has rejected, in saying, "O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!"  (Hearing this, Prospero responds, still unconvinced, "Tis new to thee," revealing his jadedness).  But he comes to understand that man's true nature is meant to be articulated in his relationship with his fellow man--and he acknowledges that he cannot be a god-unto-himself when he "owns" the beastial Caliban "my own" and breaks the spell that unnaturally holds everyone on "his" island, in thrall to the version of the perfect society he would impose.  The softening of his hard heart, of course, is an operation of the force of love. 

#21 - Dec. 6 at 8:43pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Thanks for that, Gregory!

More proof that Shakespeare, in his surpassing genius, seems to have intuited and illustrated in his art all the themes that were to be formally developed centuries later in philosophical personalism.

I noted a point from A Midsummer Night's Dream a few weeks ago.

#22 - Dec. 6 at 8:55pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

I'm beginning to suspect that all genius is Catholic--whether it acknowledges it or not . . . I'm half-kidding (but the half that believes it is kind of winning . . .).

#23 - Dec. 6 at 8:59pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Katie van Schaijik, Dec. 6 at 8:55pm

I noted a point from A Midsummer Night's Dream a few weeks ago.

.I saw that--and it dovetails with the point I made earlier in this thread with the idea that reality itself is fractal and sacramental--sacra-fractal, for lack of a better word . . .

#24 - Dec. 6 at 9:00pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Gregory Borse, Dec. 6 at 9:00pm

Katie van Schaijik, Dec. 6 at 8:55pm

I noted a point from A Midsummer Night's Dream a few weeks ago.

.I saw that--and it dovetails with the point I made earlier in this thread with the idea that reality itself is fractal and sacramental--sacra-fractal, for lack of a better word . . .

That point, I fear, went right over my head.

#25 - Dec. 6 at 9:10pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

You wrote (among other good things): 

"Clearly she is experiencing and asserting her own soul's natural right to choose for herself.  She makes the point even more strongly a few lines later, when she and her true love are left alone:

O hell! to choose love by another's eyes."

Exactly.  It is "hell" to "choose love by another's eyes," which is what Prospero wants Miranda to do.  And she refuses, quite naturally because, well, she's a real person.  And so is everyone else.  Prospero must learn that the root of his suffering is the same root that makes joy itself possible:  if there were no joy, there would be no suffering (not the other way around; like Augustine, at first, Prospero, in keying on evil, has everything backwards).

But my larger point about your citing Midsummer is that Shakespeare has posited a Faerie-world that is exotic precisely because the Faeries themselves are unfallen.  That is what makes them seem so despicable--and yet, in the end, they are right.  The Faerie world, being unfallen, is without ethics.

But my larger, larger point is that the personalist profect itself reveals something very special about the fallen world. 

#26 - Dec. 6 at 11:31pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

God so loved his creation that he gave his own son to save it.  But He also loved his creation so much He made it unlike Himself.  He made us capable of failure.  And thereby provided for Joy out of suffering--which is an uniquely human experience . . .

That's Chesterton worthy. . . .

#27 - Dec. 6 at 11:50pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

What I mean by "fractal" is perhaps more complicated than it ought to be--but, think of it this way:  we were always told that snow-flakes were special because each one is unique.  That, in fact, made them special.  But that's not true--that's what makes snow-flakes like everything else.  Nothing is "like" anything else.  No two hairs.  No two leaves.  No two people (even twins).  Nothing.  This means that each thing in existence is unique--special.  I don't leap, with Ockham, to the conclusion that there are "only" substances and no "universals," so, I avoid heresy.  But I do think that JPII's personalism acknowledges a huge truth about the nature not only of persons, but of reality itself.  That God never merely duplicates (Faulkner agrees, by the way).  "Age of Reason" science makes its mistake in the "insight" regarding an "atomic" theory for the foundation for the physical universe.  It's wrong.  Everything is different from everything else.  And, in a biological sense, as everything really does touch everything else, the key to understanding reality is in process and relation.  Mandelbrott (sp?) posited a "fractal" basis for reality and I think he was right.  Our model ought to be biologic; not material.

#28 - Dec. 7 at 12:03am | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Gregory Borse, Dec. 7 at 12:03am

Everything is different from everything else.  And, in a biological sense, as everything really does touch everything else, the key to understanding reality is in process and relation.  

I felt a little ambivalent about this point when I first read it, but couldn't quite say why.  Jules makes the point I was feeling over on the member feed today.

#29 - Dec. 13 at 7:34pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Where do I look to find that to which you refer, Katie? (Still figuring out how all this works . . .).

 

#30 - Dec. 13 at 7:38pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Click on the members tab under our logo at main page.  Make sure you're logged in.  (I suppose you must be or you couldn't be commenting.)

#31 - Dec. 13 at 7:40pm | quote

 

To comment, please sign in or register first. (It's free and easy, and helps us prevent spam.)

 

Stay informed

Latest comments

  • Re: The Weary World Rejoices
  • By: Gary Gibson
  • Re: Assessment Run Amok
  • By: Devra Torres
  • Re: Assessment Run Amok
  • By: deb
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Gary Gibson
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Rhett Segall
  • Re: Cutting ties
  • By: Leonie
  • Re: Cutting ties
  • By: Leonie

Latest active posts

Reading circles

Lectures