Thursday, October 05, 2017

Do the Dead and the Unborn Have a Say in our Society?

In his thoughtful work, Moral Matters: A Philosophy of Homecoming, Irish Roman Catholic writer and philosopher Dr. Mark Dooley makes an eloquent, nearly poetic case for cultural conservatism, based in part on a Chestertonian sense of a cultural and filial duty to the dead.

Dooley sees our lives in a great chain of continuity with our ancestors and with our future descendants rather than the way narcissistic post-moderns - with shockingly short time preferences - only see their immediate desires, with no gratitude and with no consideration of those yet to be born.

Conservatism (Latin: conservare, "to preserve") allows the dead, as it were, to have a say, as G.K. Chesterton famously quipped about tradition being a "democracy of the dead."

In the current battle between traditionalist conservatives who wish to preserve American and Western history - warts and all - versus the largely-socialist iconoclasts who tout grand Utopian dreams of a new "Socialist Man" liberated from so-called "oppression" at the hands of those very traditionalists seen as "oppressors," we are seeing this philosophical clash.  Even if conservatives and radicals can't themselves articulate why they seek to either keep monuments in place, or topple them, I believe Dr. Dooley is spot on about the cultural forces that are smashing into one another, like great tectonic plates, in the current seismic shifts in Western Culture. 

The following comes from Chapter Three ("Dealing with the dead") of his book Moral Matters (2015).  I'm still reading it, but find it not only illuminating but inspiring.  If you are looking for an apologetic for cultural conservatism, one that not only captures our current malaise by connecting it to the Great Tradition of Western thought, look no further.

The last word belongs to Mark Dooley:

"When [Edmund] Burke wrote that great book [Reflections on the Revolution in France], the Jacobins were laying siege to the cultural, religious, and political patrimony of France.  They were doing so in the name of 'liberty, equality, and fraternity', the guiding slogan of all subsequent liberalism.  However, in disconnecting France from her past, the Jacobins favoured the living above the dead and the unborn.  Their aim was to destroy those established institutions which conserved the social, spiritual and historical capital for what Burke called 'absent generations'.  This meant actively forgetting that ours is 'not a partnership in things subservient to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishing nature', but a partnership 'not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are to be born'.  Burke called this 'the great primeval contract of eternal society'.

"Burke's essential point was that what we have, and who we are, is not something that we (the present trustees of society) make or choose.  Rather, it is a gift transmitted from the dead to be conserved in trust for future generations.  The gifts of the dead are embodied in our customs, values, institutions and cultural monuments, all of which pre-exist the individual and through which his sense of self is nurtured and formed.  It is though these monuments that the dead continue to dwell among the living, thus ensuring intergenerational continuity.  Deconstruct those monuments, however, and you sever the unborn from their 'canonised forefathers' and the world they created.  You silence the voice of the dead, silence their wisdom as it is transmitted through the ages....

"The world contains the consciousness, what Hegel again called the 'spirit' (Geist), of those who went before.  Everything, in other words, has a history which is manifest in and through the object.  If we can tell stories about our homes, belongings, and artefacts, it is because they contain the spirit (Geist) of previous generations.  They contain traces of the dead which animate them for the living.  The dead, as it were, live on through their work and possessions.

"A principal objective of the communist system, as indeed that of the Jacobins, was to exorcise the ghosts of the dead from the land of the living. It did so by attempting to scrape from the surface of the world all trace of the old order.  Art, architecture, and religious iconography were all drained of their character, smashed by the sickle until such time as the world could be redesigned in the image of the 'new socialist man.'  The purpose of this vandalism was to disconnect the living from the dead, to empty the world of its spiritual (Geist) significance.  In that way, or so the communists believed, the people would embrace the future instead of perpetually looking to the past as a guide to the present.  Rather than genuflect before 'canonised forefathers', they would now become subservient to the State and its hollow promises of socialist utopia.  By severing people from their heritage, they sought to deplete the storehouse of memory until such time as it no longer existed.  At its most diabolical, this took the form of Pol Pot's 'year 0', in which the Cambodian dictator sought to erase all vestiges of human history.

"As subsequent events proved, however, the spirit of the past is impossible to completely vanquish.  No matter how hard the advocates of of progress endeavour to silence the dead, we remain haunted by their ancestral voices.  We can, of course, pretend that the dead do not dwell among us.... [w]e can become convinced that we are what we make of ourselves, that we are fully self-sufficient.  That, however, leads only to alienation and a false sense of identity.  By contrast, when conservatives look at the world, they see an omnipresence of ghosts. For them, all objects bear witness to their creators.  Even the so-called 'natural world' is imbued with consciousness, with the signs, traces and marks of those who planned, settled and worked on the surrounding environment.  Understanding the world, and thus oneself, requires learning from the dead, incorporating their consciousness into one's own....  [T]he family and education provide children with their first glimpse of ghosts, their first encounter with a world shaped by absent generations and the debt they are owed.  Hence to undermine the family and traditional education is, once again, to detach from the dead....

"Liberalism has been often criticised for promoting a 'culture of death'.  I prefer to say that it fosters a culture of amnesia or one of denial, in as much as it actively strives to forget the dead by cutting its links to the past.  By driving the deceased out of our mind, we are thereby relieved of having to answer their summons to sacrifice.  We no longer have to undertake the hard work of mourning, memory or recollection.  And when that happens, we can simply ignore 'the great primeval contract of eternal society' between the living, the dead, and 'those who are to be born'.  We need only answer to ourselves, for life begins and ends with us.  But that, once again, is to live in a condition of self-deception.  For, it is only by recognising the dead and by honouring their sacrifices that we can establish who we are and where we came from.  It is only by acknowledging that... we are nothing without those who laboured hard so that we might live in relative ease.  It is only by giving new life to our ghosts, by following their direction and continuing their work, that we can find our way back home.  

"To conserve is to remember and cherish with 'the warmth of their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars' (Burke). It is to gaze upon the world as one fashioned by our forbears, one abundantly imbued with their spirit and wisdom.  It is to recognise that the rootless, self-sustaining identity which liberalism advocates is an illusion predicated on a denial of dependence, dependence on those who nurtured and shaped us.  It is to foster a culture of thanksgiving in which we offer grace for all things, knowing that they bear the trace of those who sacrificed on our behalf.  However, it also involves the responsibility to ensure that we uphold and maintain existing monuments so that others may one day enjoy their benefits.  

"When looked at in this way, we see that the core message of genuine conservatism is this: standing, as Eliot put it, at the intersection of 'the timeless and time', we, the living, serve to unite, in Burke's majestic words, the 'visible and invisible world'.  That is why conservatism rejects rejection in favour of love: love of those absent others within oneself and of the world they bestowed to us: love of those others who depend on us for their survival and who, one day, will look upon us as their dead, love, in other words, of all those things which can never be made 'the object of choice', and which, when denied, lead not to 'progress' but to an 'antagonistic world of madness, discord, vice, confusion and unavailing sorrow'."

~ Mark Dooley, Moral Matters, pp. 49-56

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