Saturday, March 11, 2017

An ideology is a shelter

"We're sick and tired of your ism-schism game..." -- The Prophet*

I continually try to refine and clarify my thoughts about ideology, since the dominance of ideology in public life is the great problems of our age.

We have two complementary definitions of ideology we can work with:

1) Eric Voegelin characterizes ideologies as attempts to substitute a secondary, "dream reality," for our primary experience of confronting a mysterious universe which we did not ourselves create. (As The Poet* puts it: "Let it be known / there is a fountain / that was not made / by the hands of man.")

2) Michael Oakeshott's characterization of ideology is as a category error, where the ideologue attempts to use a theory to handle an aspect of life that can only be handled by paractical knowledge. I believe that in Oakeshott on Rome and America, I was the first person to note the connection between Oakeshott's essays on rationalism and the Aristotelian distinction between theoria and phronesis, although, as always, I credit Noel O'Sullivan, my editor at Imprint Academic and a brilliant academic in his own right, for cluing me in to this connection.

These two characterizations of ideology are complementary because the secondary reality in Voegelin's defintion can not be anything other than a theory (making Voegelin's definition compatible with Oakeshott's), while at the same time it is clear that an attempt to substitute a theory for practical engagement with the world is an effort to evade confronting primary reality (making Oakehsott's definition compatible with Voegelin's.)

But what do I mean when I say, "An ideology is a shelter"? Voegelin notes that ideologies arise in the wake of the destruction of traditional cultures. Traditional cultures differ from ideologies in that, while they are a way of viewing reality, they are not theories. (Of course, a traditional culture may contain some theories, but it itself isn't one, unlike, say, Marxism.) We eat meat with our fork (or with our hands) because that's the way things are done, not because of some high theory about how meat ought to be eaten. And people living within a traditional culture are comfortable, because that is the way life is.  (As Clifford Gertz points out, for the residents of Java, to be civilized was simply to be Javanese.) A traditional culture provides a shelter, within which one can live one's life in the comfort of knowing it fits into a pattern of birth, life, death, and renewal.

But in the wake of the destruction of traditional cultures, most often by invasion, people are left wihout the shelter  that traditional ways of living provided. And of course, a new tradition cannot be created "on the fly," so the most plausible substitutes for a tradtion that has been destroyed are theories. Thus we see, in the wake of Alexander's destruction of the traditional cultures of Greece, Egypt, and Persia, the rise of Stoicism, Epicureanism, materialism, Manichaeism, the cult of Sol Invictus, and so on.

Similarly, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation's destruction of the cultural unity of Western Christiandom, we get the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, Deism, materialism, idealism, Marxism, feminism, progressivism, libertarianism, and so on.

As Voegelin noted, after Hitler and Stalin, there is really no moral excuse for anyone being an ideologue. Nevertheless, many of our fellow citizens are ideologues, and it behooves us to understand why that is so. And the reason is, as one of our blog commentors kindly pointed out, that an ideology provides the ideologue with a "framework."

The loss of a traditional culture is profoundly unsettling. It leaves people empty, alienated, and confused. An ideology offers a shelter from this storm: people are filled with the mission of the ideology ("Overthrow the capitalists!"), they bond with their fellow ideologues ("Greeting, comrade!"), and are given books filled with easy answers to hard questions. So it is understandable, even if unfortunate, that so many wander into the ideological shelters.

* I follow Aquinas here, who used "The Philosopher" to refer to Aristotle, and "The Interpreter" to designate Averroes. An interesting sidenote here: The Poet was introduced to LSD by the CIA's MKUltra program, the existence of which was, for many years, denigrated as a crazy "conspiracy theory."


  1. The knife and fork thing is interesting, because of course now we do have a plague of people telling us how we should do such things based on what you call high theory: but a high theory about who is allowed to practice "the way things are [traditionally] done"! I mean the "cultural appropriation" peddlers. An idea so stupid not even MF could have come up with it.

  2. Interesting you say traditional culture is just about doing things just because, not because there is a high theory behind it.

    Am I wrong in understanding that apologists are then a threat to traditional culture? That C. S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Craig Evans, John Lennox,.etc are eroding the basis for traditional culture by trying to justify them with logic and reasoning, especially modern logic and reasoning?

    That this makes the Christianity of modern apologists itself an ideology, but a different one?

    It does remind me of what apologist turned atheist Robert M. Price said that it was learning how to defend the Bible that eroded his faith, since it was no longer held on faith but on evidence (and the unfortunate thing about evidence is that there is always more evidence).

    1. "Interesting you say traditional culture is just about doing things just because..."

      No! "Just because" belittles traditional cultures, and treats them as arbitrary. They are all-encompassing ways of living the embody of view of the cosmos, but one that is not theoretical.

      "Am I wrong in understanding that apologists are then a threat to traditional culture?"

      Yes, but on the right track. Apologists arise when traditional culture is already no longer a possibility. I made this point a number of times in _Oakeshott on Rome and America_: people simply live traditions. TraditionalISTs are ideologues of tradition.

      I note that there was no "traditionalist party" in Rome... until its traditions were dead or dying. Only then do we get the optimates giving speeches about returning to Rome's traditions.

    2. "It does remind me of what apologist turned atheist Robert M. Price said that it was learning how to defend the Bible that eroded his faith, since it was no longer held on faith but on evidence..."

      Yes, having misunderstood the Bible as some sort of theoretical thesis, he then sought to "defend" it... nonsense from the start!

  3. "the CIA's MKUltra program"

    Everyone of the agents who had a role in that program should have been shot.


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