Triumph of the antinomians

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.05.15Dalrymple writes in the preface to Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses that in much of the world, the miseries of poverty

are no longer those of raw physical deprivation but those induced by comparison with the vast numbers of prosperous people by whom the relatively poor are surrounded and whose comparative wealth the poor feel as a wound, a reproach, and an injustice.

Ronnie Kaufman's photo on a jacket by Jen Huppert Design

Photo by Ronnie Kaufman on a jacket by Jen Huppert Design for the Ivan R. Dee (Chicago) 2005 edition

In the 20th century,

the hope of progress has not proved altogether illusory,

but

neither has the fear of retrogression proved unjustified.

The First World War

destroyed facile optimism that progress towards heaven on earth was inevitable or even possible.

Then came communism and Nazism, which between them

destroyed scores of millions of lives in a fashion that only a few short decades before would have appeared inconceivable.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.47.50Many of the disasters of the 20th century

could be characterised as revolts against civilisation itself: the Cultural Revolution, or the Khmers Rouges.

Only recently, in Rwanda,

ordinary people were transformed into pitiless murderers by demagogic appeals over the radio. They achieved a rate of slaughter with their machetes never equalled even by the Nazis.

In the circumstances,

one might have supposed that a principal preoccupation of intellectuals would be the maintenance of the boundaries that separate civilisation from barbarism.

One would be wrong.

Some have embraced barbarism; others have remained unaware that boundaries do not maintain themselves and are in need of maintenance and sometimes vigorous defence.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.54.10The prestige intellectuals confer upon antinomianism

soon communicates itself to nonintellectuals. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient — the very people most in need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement. The result is moral, spiritual, and emotional squalor, engendering fleeting pleasures and prolonged suffering.

Civilisation

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.55.17needs conservation as much as it needs change, and immoderate criticism, or criticism from the standpoint of utopian first principles, is capable of doing much — indeed devastating — harm. No man is so brilliant that he can work everything out for himself, so that the wisdom of the ages has nothing useful to tell him. To imagine otherwise is to indulge in the most egotistical of hubris.

The disastrous notions of the underclass about how to live

derive from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics.

 

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