The Personalist Project

For our June Reading Circle, we read a couple of articles on the problem of virtual relationships.  One was by the great British philosopher, Roger Scruton.  He develops the theme further today in a sobering article about the future of western civilization at American Spectator about the consequences of the trend toward virtuality.

Virtual space is Mercurial, demonic, a space of transformations that we cannot control. Living with your eyes fixed to that space, you acquire a mentality that has no real precedent in the annals of mankind. Young people therefore find it hard to envisage the future as something for which they are accountable, and which requires them to make sacrifices on its behalf.

For social developments of this scope and magnitude, sound philosophy is not enough, he says.

The problems we confront cannot be solved by philosophy, since they lie deeper than thought. Even if we defeat the liberals in debate, refuting to our satisfaction the labyrinthine arguments of Rawls and the clever-dick challenges of Dworkin and company, it cannot conceivably change what most concerns us. No doubt it was perfectly reasonable for conservatives, at the time of the New Deal, to warn against the growth of state power and the erosion of individual responsibility. Looking back, we can feel the pull of their arguments and recognize there was much truth in what they said. But we must also recognize that their arguments made no difference, just as the arguments of Hayek in postwar Britain -- so manifestly superior in power and scope to the arguments of the paltry figures like Harold Laski, who packed Hayek off to America -- made no difference. State power continued to grow.

Being (I gather) less animated by a lively confidence in God's Omnipotence and the perfect economy of Redemption, Scruton is less hopeful about the situation facing the western world in the new millennium than John Paul II was. But he shares the late Pope's deep conviction that the solution lies in the realm of culture, not politics.

We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural -- an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

Really, I think our work is first of all religious, since religion is the wellspring of culture.  It's evangelization.  It's re-connecting ourselves and others with the Source and Redeemer of personal existence.

None of which is to suggest that I don't think there's reason to hope that we might (even in our lifetime!) real successes in the political and philosophical arenas.

Comments (1)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Aug 6, 2012 9:26pm

Perhaps your idea, Katie, that "our work is first of all religious" can be combined with Scruton's about the priority of culture. It seems that, besides the evangelization of individuals, our religious work must include, as an urgent priority, the attempt to create a strong and lasting Christian culture.

A passage in Bad Religion draws the contrast between a strong and a weak culture.

A strong culture exerts influence commensurate with its demographic strength... [It] inspires admiration, imitation, and respectful engagement from those outside its confines. It establishes parameters for debate, supplies a common moral language for many of the great questions of the day, and influences millions of people's ways of thinking without their even necessarily knowing it.

A weak culture, by contrast, [enjoys] only marginal leverage over the institutions with the greatest power to shape the culture as a whole. A weak culture is always embattled, always back on its heels, always resentful of its enemies and uncertain of its friends. It imitates but doesn't influence, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backwards toward a better past instead of forward to a vibrant future.

Christianity in America right now seems numerically pretty strong, but culturally very weak.

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