Mindslaughter and the united front

Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (delivered as a lecture in 1958) begins with a meditation on political ends and means. “Where ends are agreed,” he writes, “the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.” It is simply a matter of political engineering. This is of course what Oakeshott calls “rationalism in politics.”

Berlin then comments that if a stranger visited a British of American university, he would surely think that all the questions of ends has been settled, “for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.” That is, our professoriat act as though they believe that all the old debates about the social and political order, debates that go back in the West at least to Socrates and in the East at least to Confucius, have been decided. In Berlin’s view, this habit of mind “is both surprising and dangerous.”

Surprising because there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings, in both the East and the West, have had their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.

I think it was an awareness of just this danger that made the great historian Robert Conquest write, in one of his last books, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), that in an age dominated by what he calls “mindslaughter” — the destruction of intellect by ideas that have “grown too violent to be affected by rational criticism” — Yeats’s description of the state of affairs just before the Second Coming might not be right. When Yeats wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he implied that the best needed to acquire a “passionate intensity” of their own — but Conquest isn’t so sure. Maybe what the world needs is more people who are skeptical by temperament, inclined to suspect certainty, wary of passions and their resulting intensities.

Conquest says, citing Orwell, that he wants to resist “the lure of the profound.” I have not been able to find that Orwell ever wrote that, though perhaps he said it to Conquest — I believe they knew each other, and Conquest wrote an incisive poem about Orwell. Why resist profundity, or at least the quest for it? There’s a hint at the beginning of Christopher Hitchens’s book Why Orwell Matters, which is dedicated to Conquest with these words: “premature anti-fascist, premature anti-Stalinist, poet and mentor, and founder of ‘the united front against bullshit.’” What the desire for profundity lures us into is bullshit.

Maybe we don’t need any more passionate intensity for a while. Maybe we need to revivify the United Front Against Bullshit.

the moral ideal

When the guide of conduct is a moral ideal we are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies. It may even be said that the moral life, in this form, demands a hyperoptic moral vision and encourages intense moral emulation among those who enjoy it…. And the unhappy society, with an ear for every call, certain always about what it ought to think (though it will never for long be the same thing), in action shies and plunges like a distracted animal….

Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is indeed no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path. Every admirable ideal has its opposite, no less admirable. Liberty or order, justice or charity, spontaneity or deliberateness, principle or circumstance, self or others, these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making a see double by directing our attention always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable.

— Michael Oakeshott, “The Tower of Babel”

converging on rational standards: not always bad!

This is a follow-up to my just-posted essay on my unchosen-but-apparently inexorable declining interest in baseball. My chief point there is that baseball has increasingly converged on a set of Best Practices but that convergence has made baseball less interesting to watch. (And my secondary point is that this is ironic because the practices now being converged upon are the ones I used to cheerlead for when they were far less common.) 

That’s the way it has turned out in baseball, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Take basketball, for instance, and more particularly all the controversy in the last NBA season about Lonzo Ball’s peculiar jump shot: I can remember a time when Lonzo’s technique wouldn’t have been unusual at all. When I first started watching basketball, in the 1970s, there were some weird-looking shots, let me tell you. The most notorious of these was the Jamaal Wilkes slingshot, but Jamaal had a lot of competition. Gradually, though, coaches at all levels came to understood that certain ways of holding and releasing the ball simply made for far greater and more consistent accuracy than others, and players started getting the relevant guidance even in their first organized games. So we have seen a very widespread convergence on the Best Practices of Shooting a Basketball. 

And the result has been great for the game. It wasn’t just implementing the three-point line that created the free-flowing, open, spread-the-floor offense that the Golden State Warriors delight us with; it was the rise of a generation of players who have the shooting technique to take advantage of that line. In at least this one situation in this one sport, standardization of technique has led to increased creativity and possibility; in baseball, I fear, just the opposite has happened. 

(I am now thinking that I ought to write a short book or long essay called “Rationalism in Sports” to serve as a counterpart to Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics.”) 

politics

Politics is the art of living together and being ‘just’ to one another — not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life. The art of peace; the art of accommodating moralities to one another.

— Michael Oakeshott, in a notebook

Oakeshott on education and culture

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

— Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning.” The idea that “a culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers” is one of the most beautiful and illuminating depictions of historical understanding that I know.

Thinking, for Hobbes, was not only conceived as movement, it was felt as movement. Mind is something agile, thoughts are darting, and the language of passion is appropriate to describe their workings. And the energy of his nature made it impossible for him not to take pleasure in controversy. The blood of contention ran in his veins. He acquired the lucid genius of a great expositor of ideas; but by disposition he was a fighter, and he knew no tactics save attack. He was a brilliant controversialist, deft, pertinacious and imaginative, and he disposed of the errors of scholastics, Puritans, and Papists with a subtle mixture of argument and ridicule. But he made the mistake of supposing that this style was universally effective, in mathematics no less than in politics. For brilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment. Always to play to win is to take one’s standards from one’s opponent, and local victory comes to displace every other consideration.

— Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association. Emphasis mine.

The engagement of understanding is, then, a continuous, self-moved, critical enterprise of theorising. Its principle is: Never ask the end. Of the paths it may follow, some (we may suppose) will soon exhaust their promise. It is an engagement of arrivals and departures. Temporary platforms of conditional understanding are always being reached, and the theorist may turn aside to explore them. But each is an arrival, an enlightenment, and a point of departure. The notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but it has no part in the adventure…

Here, theorizing has revealed itself to be an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.

— Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (1975);  cited here as a possible, rare instance of an ‘absolute secularity’, incorruptible by revelation, only for a commenter to point out at once how similar it is to both some kinds of reading and some kinds of religious belief. (via unapologetic-book)