Wednesday, December 22, 2010

One-Trick Pony

No politics, no polemics, no messiahs, no mangers, no magi, no stars or stables or kneeling oxen. Just a small performing horse...

When I heard it on the radio years ago, I liked this song. A hymn to minimalism.

I like it still.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Taking stock

So where have I/we been? And where are we going with Conservative tendency?

1. Interaction. I want the site to be more interactive, so, if you have an interest, please click on the followers gadget and/or comment or email me (engmar3 [at] gmail [dot] com). And thank you to those who have already shown their interest, and I hope you will continue to find the time to drop by.

2. The human condition. My interests are various but are centered around fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it. I see our situation in fairly bleak terms, actually - no religious comforts. Which is why social and intellectual comforts - a compliment, a probing question, a shared interest - are so very important.

3. Randomness. I'm interested in developing my knowledge of the philosophy of mathematics and logic, especially aspects of these subjects that may relate to fundamental questions. The various types and levels of randomness which appear to underlie physical processes is my current focus, as it has potential relevance to how we see ourselves and our lives.

4. Politics. My inclination is towards quietism, not activism; but I respect activists and those more politically engaged than I am at the moment. I think the long-term political trends we are witnessing are unfortunate - especially to the extent that they involve government-initiated solutions (or supposed solutions) to social problems. Generally it is a healthier situation if individuals and families work out their own solutions to their problems as far as possible.

5. The decline of the West. I am fascinated  by the rise and fall of civilizations, and there is an awful lot of rising (in the East) and falling (in the West) going on at the moment. Cultures must be underpinned by political stability and economic prosperity and arguably we are witnessing the last throes of a two-and-a-half thousand year cultural and intellectual tradition. What can be salvaged from the wreckage?

6. Minimalism. My conservatism is a minimalist conservatism - or perhaps my minimalism is a conservative minimalism! I seek out simplicity and clarity in matters of the mind and in aesthetics. I may try to develop this idea explicitly in the new year, but it is implicit in everything I write.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jesus the Greek

Ernest Renan... Nassim Taleb (whom I have written about recently) is a fan of his. Friedrich Nietzsche was most decidedly not.

Renan was a seminarian who famously renounced his Roman Catholic faith to become a leading scholar of Semitic languages and a literary celebrity in 19th century France. Much of his fame was due to the spectacular success of his Life of Jesus which rejects the miraculous but which betrays a continuing religious sensibility built around philosophical idealism and a sentimental attachment to the figure of Jesus. For Renan (as one of his biographers put it) religion was expelled from the front door but came in again through the back. Nietzsche saw Renan's perspective as not only religious, but priestly.

Renan had a deep knowledge not only of the languages of the Holy Land but also of its geography and he traveled widely in the region with his beloved sister while researching the Life. What he has to say about the ethnic background of Jesus of Nazareth is interesting, though it probably says more about the (relatively mild?) anti-Semitism of Renan's cultural milieu than about historical reality. There was a great vogue at the time for all things Indo-European, and, though Renan saw the Indo-European and the Semitic peoples as "the two great races which, in one sense, have made humanity [read: European civilization] what it is," he is not altogether even-handed in his treatment of these two traditions. Clearly, Renan is ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with a Jewish Jesus, and the infinite delicacy with which he expresses himself on this matter is nothing short of comical.

He points out that, at the time of Jesus' birth, the population of Galilee was racially diverse and "there were many who were not Jews (Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, and even Greeks)." Since many of these non-Jews converted to Judaism, it is impossible, asserts Renan, to "ascertain what blood flowed through the veins of him who has contributed most to efface the distinctions of blood amongst mankind."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inciting hatred?

This witty little piece is worth pondering for the light it throws on changes that have occurred in the social, cultural and legal environment over recent decades. The song (as the text on the video notes) ruffled a few feathers when it was released more than 30 years ago.

But would such a song have been written today? And, if it had, would it have been given a mainstream release? I doubt it.

Individual ethics and manners once bore a far greater load and played a more central role in the functioning of society. But now, as Western governments seek to modify behavior through 'education programs' and a progressive legislative agenda, the role of private judgement in morality, manners and professional life has been downgraded.

Legal systems, once perceived as staid but respected, have become pro-active players in an intra-societal struggle, as an ever-expanding inventory of groups and sub-groups and categories of individual seek to benefit from their minority or 'oppressed' status.

I have the strong sense that Western societies were not only considerably freer, but also considerably saner in previous decades.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Religious influences on political views

Religious background - whether or not it has been renounced - clearly plays an important role in determining the shape and tenor of a person's political and social views. Even people who have not had a religious upbringing are often influenced by religious elements of the broader culture.

I am interested not so much in survey data etc. about links between particular religious traditions and particular political ideologies (interesting though this can be) as in the logic behind the links. For example, it seems to me that the left owes a huge debt to Judaic sources insofar as its basic project is an attempt to make real a religious vision of a new earth, a promised land of harmony and prosperity.

Protestant churches and sects are generally closer to Christianity's Judaic roots than churches in the Catholic tradition (e.g. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian and Anglican). These latter traditions are not so much Christian as Christian-Platonic, following Plato in seeing the soul as essentially spiritual rather than essentially embodied and earthy. Judaic notions of the resurrection of the body and a (mass) last judgement sit uneasily with the belief of most traditional Catholics and Episcopalians in a soul that leaves the body at death and makes its individual way to heaven. (The Pythagoreans and Platonists believed something like this.)

But, ultimately, all traditional Christians and religious Jews believe in a spiritual - or at least in a supernaturally transfigured - realm, and such a belief is very compatible with political conservatism (and with political quietism which could be seen as a non-activist form of conservatism). Clearly, for religious people the main game is to get things right for the long haul - for the spiritual or transfigured realm - and secular institutions, political or otherwise, are of secondary importance.

Those who have lost their faith in a supernatural solution may or may not retain the moral priorities and ideals of the renounced religion. They may, like Nietzsche, find inspiration in the aristocratic values of classical Greek and Roman culture, so different, as well-known passages from the New Testament and related works make clear, from Jewish and early Christian social and moral teaching. Though non-religious conservatives will have various views on these matters and may retain many elements of Judaic or Christian ethics, they will not, as a rule, attempt (like the non-religious, left-leaning liberal) to implement a secularized version of Judaic or Christian moral and spiritual ideals.

In this the conservative - non-religious though he/she may be - shows more realism than his/her 'progressive' equivalent, and, in fact, a more profound understanding of the holistic nature of religious thinking.

Of course, the dramatic rise of Islam and, in particular, of militant Islamic fundamentalism, has changed the whole dynamic of the interplay between religion and politics in the West. But that is another story. For now I merely observe that these developments have highlighted the close links between Western religious traditions and our more general notions of freedom. The exploitation and abuse by Islamic extremists of Western conventions of religious freedom not only put those conventions at risk, but, with them, other freedoms which we have taken for granted but which are in fact the delicate fruit of a long historical process.