Friday, April 15, 2005

The Long Truce by A.J. Conyers

How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit

Conyer's thesis is that the meaning of the word "toleration" began to change back in the 17'th century from a respect for other's values based in humility to its modern meaning, which is a radically solipsistic denial of universal values. This meaning has proved useful to governments interested in power and economic well-being, but inimical to all other social organizations; whether the family or the church or the city or the trade union.

At the conceptual level, what makes this process possible is the steady conversion of society, over a long period of time, but at an accelerated rate in the twentieth century to the notion that social life is framed by a national government at one end and the autonomous individual at the other--the bipolar vision of society. It is a vision that serves the interests of centralized power. This vision contrasts, as we have seen, with Johannes Althusius's understanding of society as a symbiotic relationship of many groups, some more comprehensive than others, from the family, to the collegium, to the community, to the region, to the state, to the church, to the human family as a whole. Each association or group has about it its own goals and its own internal discipline, each linking by degrees and in its own way the individual with the whole of the world, including the state. By this idea, and by the similar Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity,the state is by no means the only significant social association that an individual belongs to, nor does in constitute what it means for a person to belong to a society. The individual is not first and foremost, let alone exclusively, a citizen of the state.

What we have seen is that the modern doctrine of toleration plays a key role in this process of the bipolarization of society. It has done so, and continues in this role, for the following reason. Each association and group develops out of a sense of its purpose. The purpose might be quite practical and limited, such as one might find as the raison d'etre of the collegium or association of workers and professional people. Or it might exist out of a sense that is highly refined, transcendent, and even theological in nature, such as one finds in the case of the church or a religious body. The more the group exists on the basis of a telos or purpose that transcends in significance the practical purposes of the state (or the ideological vision of the state), it becomes thereby an indegestible, alien, and resistant object that frustrates the simple bipolar power arrangement.

The society that exists easily between the poles of state and individual is a society that has become featureless. It is a society in which "voluntary" organizations decline, as many sociologists have lately observed in the United States. It has become a "mass" society. Its mode of existence is a secular one. And the individual in such a society stands more or less defenseless against the demands of a powerful state. Commenting on the results of the French Revolution, Benjamin Constant saw this operation clearly: "The interests and memories which spring from local customs contain a germ of resistance which is so distasteful to authority that it hastens to uproot it. Authority finds private individuals easier game; its enormous weight can flatten them out effortlessly as if they were so much sand." The idea of toleration, in the modern sense, calls into question the validity and even the ethical appropriateness of attaching oneself too strongly to the kinds of loyalties and the kinds of transcendent convictions that are the very soul of the association. It targets the intractable loyalties, along with the intrinsic disciplines and moral commitments, of the family and the church or the synagogue. It does so not out of a commitment to a certain conspiracy to undo these institutions but out of the tacit and almost intuitive recognition that here are the most formidable barriers to the spreading efficiency of central administration and the centralization of authority. The passions must be harnessed to the larger agenda and not be distributed and made disorderly in the untidy natural associations that spring up so freely in a society not well organized, nor rational, nor subservient to the goals of commerce and power.

The cover illustration was selected to remind us why tolerance is important, now and far more so back in the 1600's. It shows a helpless man being piked by a gang of gleeful murderers: the monk and the cap with the cross giving clues to the motive. When the power of the state was put at the service of enforcing orthodoxy Europe suffered through truly horrible times; times of a cruelty not seen on that scale again until the power of the state was put at the service of enforcing ideological orthodoxy in the twentieth century.

Conyers illustrates the changes in the philosophy of government from Hobbes and Locke to Mill and Dewey: Hobbes' view of meaningless existence seems to have pretty much carried the day. And if there isn't any meaning, the state's purpose of maintaining order isn't limited. Certainly I hear very little of "natural law" in discussions about law: everything revolves around interpretations of statutes, as though the sometimes arbitrary decisions of government were the ultimate definition of law. The current debates about "homosexual marriage" reflect this reductionism: marriage is reduced to a contract (albeit an easily broken one) and the family is merely the company of those covered by such a contract. Does a family really involve no meanings or obligations beyond those spelled out by statute? You'd think people would recognize a reductio ad absurdum, but people can get used to anything, I guess, and it is always possible to make things worse.

Conyers does not offer a cure, exactly--he wants us to change our philosophies of government and toleration to recognize the natural human organizations and to, in humility, recognize that even someone obviously disastrously wrong may somewhere have some insights we lack.

I think he'd have done better to be more explicit in his definition and contrast of the different meanings of toleration.

Someone--I think C.S. Lewis--wrote that many things in a society are as invisible to the people within it as water is to a fish; and that a later historian would look back on the twentieth century and see such fierce adversaries as Hitler and Churchill standing side by side in firm agreement on some ideology. I suspect that Conyers has a piece of that picture here. The West has grown up around the notion of the centralized nation-state, with other institutions and power centers deprecated. Go read the book.

No comments: