Beauteous Truth: On Literature, Culture, & Faith (Jared Zimmerer interviews Joseph Pearce, 5/07/24, Imaginative Conservative)

Jared Zimmerer: Throughout your collection of essays, Beauteous Truth (St. Augustine’s Press), there is a continuous message that culture and having a steeped understanding of authentic cultural approbations are of utmost importance and that Catholicism has helped shape a culture that can last. What advice would you give for others to be able to recognize those parts of culture that are worthwhile?

Joseph Pearce: True culture is a reflection of the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The authentic sign of goodness is love and its manifestation in virtue; the authenticity of the true is to be seen in its conformity to reason, properly understood as an engagement with the objective reality beyond the confines of egocentric subjectivism; the authentic sign of the beautiful is a reverence for the beauty of Creation and creativity, properly perceived in the outpouring of gratitude which is the fruit of humility.


Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes (Ernst Roets, May 12, 2024, European Conservative)

[Charles] Taylor’s remarkable book Sources of the Self was published in 1989—sixteen years before Revenge of the Sith. The book deals with the history of modern identity and the way we think about who we are. Even though Taylor does not claim to champion either liberalism or conservatism, he cautions throughout about the risk of modern disengagement. The disengaged self is an individual who has lost contact with his community, culture, and tradition, predominantly under the pretext of being an independent individual.

Taylor claims to endorse a certain version of the modern conception of freedom, while also expressing concern that a certain—we might even say, mainstream—strand of the modern conception of freedom is in important ways becoming unendurable from a philosophical perspective. The modern conception of freedom has become, in Taylor’s words, a “deeply confused” one. This is because it is built on two cornerstones that cannot be reconciled with one another.

The first is that the modern conception of freedom is primarily driven by a (new) conception of what constitutes the good. Where the traditional Western view teaches that freedom is bound up with the recognition of the common good within the context of the community, the modern view teaches that freedom is the result of liberation of the individual. It teaches, thus, that freedom of individual choice is the ultimate good that must be pursued. The second idea that underpins the modern conception of freedom is that it is ‘good’ to repudiate qualitative distinctions and to reject constitutive goods as such. The notion here is that it is not desirable for anyone to decide on anyone else’s behalf what constitutes the good, as this is something to be decided by every individual for themselves.

The problem here is that the former is in itself a qualitative distinction of what constitutes the good, while the latter claims that one should not work with qualitative distinctions of what constitutes the good. If the former is true, the latter cannot be true, and if the latter is true, the former cannot be true. Put differently, if it is indeed true that individual choice is the highest form of the good, then one cannot simultaneously claim that qualitative distinctions on what constitutes the good should be done away with. And if it is indeed true that qualitative distinctions on what constitutes the good should be done away with, then one cannot simultaneously claim that individual choice is the highest form of the good.

Or, to put it even more bluntly, to claim that every individual should decide for himself what constitutes the good, is not reconcilable with the idea that individual freedom is indeed the ultimate good. The liberal claim that individual freedom is the ultimate good is the logical equivalent of Obi-Wan’s claim that only a Sith deals in absolutes.

Of course, it is precisely because liberalism requires that our law-making be participatory and that all laws apply universally that it is neither absolutist nor individualist. Indeed, it is rather disinterested in individual freedom.


Safetyism doesn’t belong on campus: Conservatives have adopted social-justice tactics (Kathleen Stock, MAY 10, 2024, UnHerd)

In short, then, the past week served up ample material for riotous mirth or contemptuous eye rolls. Though many students are sincere and well-intentioned in their objections to what is unfolding in Gaza, watching self-appointed leaders role-playing at Left-wing radicalism in the hope of future glittering career prizes will never not be ludicrous. Equally, approaching a bloody war like a rabidly partisan football fan on matchday, as Taal seemingly does — automatically primed to deny atrocities committed by your favoured side, and to downplay the devastating effects on opponents — is hardly a sign of moral sainthood, albeit that the phenomenon is now near-ubiquitous.

But there are more alarming aspects to this situation other than the presence of narcissistic millennials. Scorn should also be reserved for those supine university bosses who — having spent years positively incentivising an entire generation to think of themselves as pleasingly disruptive social radicals, acting on behalf of a variety of oppressed victim classes — have now swung to the other extreme without missing a beat, and are cracking down excessively on behaviour they used to tolerate or even encourage. At Columbia, university president and member of the House of Lords Minouche Shafik eventually gave up on negotiation and brought in police against protestors, resulting in more than 100 arrests. At the University of Texas in Austin, riot gear and pepper spray were employed against those camping out; the encampment at UCLA was also flattened by law enforcement, with 200 arrested there. There have also been large-scale arrests at Dartmouth, George Washington University, Massachusetts Amherst, Wisconsin-Madison, and other places too.

It is often remarked that the modern liberal quest to free both self and society from traditional cultural norms and boundaries tends to coincide with increased acceptance of state surveillance and authoritarian social control. Even so, it is rare to see institutions openly inciting both liberation and repression at the very same time. Small wonder that susceptible young people are confused. “I thought that this university accepted me because I am an advocate, because I am someone who will fight for what they believe in, no matter what,” mournfully recounted one Vanderbilt alumnus, originally lauded by faculty and administrators for making a stand against perceived oppression, but now expelled for the very same thing. You can laugh with enjoyable schadenfreude at the naivety; but you should probably also be horrified at the unprincipled ease with which Frankenstein has set the dogs upon the pious, guilt-ridden young monster he had a hand in creating.

Equally depressing has been the way that many conservative commentators, normally professional scourges of wokeness, have become apparent fans of safetyism for Jewish students (please note — not safety, but safetyism). Just as the modern Left either tends to cheer or stay silent as Right-coded views are eliminated from the academy either by stealth or by force, many on the supposedly freedom-loving modern Right apparently have little to say about the violation of the basic right to peaceful speech and assembly, when it comes to defending the perceived interests of Palestinians.

Separate out the rest of the nonsense certain students are saying: the call for self-determination is conservative.


The EU is turning into a Remainer nightmare: In a cruel twist of fate, Brussels has shed its progressive skin (Thomas Fazi, MAY 9, 2024, UnHerd)

All this clashes with the Remainers’ rainbow-tinted view of the European Union. But their vision was always predicated on a fantasy: everything that is happening across the Channel is not a betrayal of “EU values”, as they are probably telling themselves — it is an inevitable consequence of the EU’s architecture itself. Even though Remainers have always tended to view the EU as a bastion of social and workers’ rights, the reality is that the Rightward drift across the EU has its roots in the Brussels-driven assault on the post-war European social and economic model following the 2008 financial crisis. High unemployment rates, stagnant wages and austerity measures implemented in response to the crash exacerbated existing inequalities, fuelling resentment towards the political establishment. To make things worse, the EU attempted to prevent any democratic backlash to these policies by restricting the scope of democratic decision-making by democratically elected governments, focusing instead on quasi-automatic technocratic rules imposed by undemocratic bodies. The European Union effectively became a sovereign power with the authority to impose budgetary rules and structural reforms on member states — not exactly what you’d expect from the “bastion of democracy” often portrayed by Remainers.

The main geopolitical force in the world, as regards sovereignty, is centrifugal, not centripetal.


Comprehensive or Constitutional Politics?: Two broad political inclinations underlie and complicate our political practice and language. (John G. Grove, 5/09/24, Law & Liberty)

Comprehensive politics, therefore, elevates particular substantive outcomes over procedural rules and institutions. Political activity is to be judged by the extent to which aggregate social conditions match the preconceived vision of the Good Society. Procedural norms, constitutions, rights, divisions of power, and the rule of law can easily hinder this pursuit. At best, therefore, they are accorded a secondary status as constraints on the primary activity of politics.

Moreover, comprehensive politics may also transform procedural commitments into ideals to strive after. Democracy (itself a procedural practice for selecting governors) may morph into “Our Democracy”—a package of desired substantive policies and social outcomes that ought to be protected, even against the will of voters. Commitment to a constitution may slip into a pursuit of the never-fully-attained “ideals” or “Spirit” of the Constitution. A belief in equal treatment under law can morph into a quest to create by conscious choice a more comprehensive human equality.

While comprehensive politics starts with a dream of what could be, constitutional politics starts with what is: the actual people, institutions, and authorities of any given society. Rather than focusing on a constructed vision of the whole to be evaluated and adjusted, it sees aggregate social conditions as the byproduct of multiple sources of authority, ones which often pull in different directions. To protect that kind of plural society, governance must also be the product of multiple sources of authority that have found consensus.

Human beings may be capable of changing over time, and such change may come largely from their social circumstances, but those circumstances are so infinitely complex—and the human capacity for understanding so limited—that they cannot be explained by single, purposive causes, or consciously manipulated to attain certain desired ends. The planner, innovator, revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary who attempts to do so may succeed in destroying fragile institutions and destabilizing social order, but he rarely winds up with the society he set out to build.

Constitutional politics, consequently, presents political activity as a process of settlement, and a seeking after consensual order, acceptable to the various parts of society. Politics has neither the ability nor the moral authority to function as the conscious creator and molder of society at large. But it may establish procedures for living peacefully and productively together in a particular place. This notion of political activity allows for a great variety of other nodes of authority to flourish that need not all point one way.

The core Anglospheric insight is that Man is not plastic. You can’t mold him into your preferred shape.


A Nobel Polemicist: a review of The Road to Freedom by Joseph Stiglitz (Samuel Gregg, 5/09/24, Law & Liberty)

At this point, I wondered how much Stiglitz has actually read of Hayek and Friedman. I know of no text where they called for rule-free and regulation-free markets. Significantly, there is just one reference in Stiglitz’s footnotes to something authored by Hayek.

Yet one need only open books like The Constitution of Liberty to find Hayek, for example, pointing out that “a functioning market economy presupposes certain activities on the part of the state.” In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek even says that the “wooden insistence on … the principles of laissez-faire” did immense harm to the market liberal cause. So much, then, for unfettered markets.

More generally, anyone who has read the corpus of Hayek’s work knows that he wrote extensively about the laws and legislation best fitted for societies that take justice and rule of law seriously. That is the whole point of Hayek’s mammoth Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Stiglitz himself concedes that books like The Road to Serfdom show that Hayek was “aware of externalities” and “the need for government intervention when there are externalities.” But how can Stiglitz square this concession with his declarations that Hayek was committed to “unfettered markets”? The answer is: he can’t.

In fact, the debate between free marketers and interventionists is not about whether there should be regulation. The argument is really about what is the best way to regulate markets.

Is it through a combination of macroeconomic policies, specific interventions into particular economic sectors, the application of wide-ranging regulatory codes to economic transactions, and ongoing wealth redistributions through large welfare states and progressive taxation? Or: are markets better regulated through protections of property rights, adherence to rule of law, contract enforcement, commonsense health and safety regulations, a basic safety net, stable money, and the dynamic competition that promotes consumer sovereignty over and against vested interests like established businesses and their political allies? This is a key dispute between dirigistes like Stiglitz and those who believe in markets, and Stiglitz’s presentation of the latter’s position is a caricature.

This, however, is dwarfed by Stiglitz’s astonishing claim that the “free and unfettered markets advocated by Hayek and Friedman and so many on the Right have set us on the road of fascism.” I find it hard to believe that Stiglitz does not know that fascist regimes have historically been characterized by widespread regulation, endless interventionism, and corporatism: in short, the opposite of free market economies.

Republican liberty is the impediment to the Left/Right vision.


When the Left thought free trade meant peace (Alex Middleton, 5/10/24, The Critic)

The received wisdom, Palen suggests, is that the late-twentieth-century triumph of free-market thinking was a right-wing achievement, with its origins in the interwar decades. This consensus has cracked in the face of challenges from other, newer, equally formidable strands of right-wing anti-globalism. Put simply, the dominant economic cosmologies of our time have been defined by battles within conservatism.

Palen proposes to explode these myths. He says that things look very different if we go back to the 1840s, to Manchester Liberalism and to the political ideologies associated with Richard Cobden. With its overlapping commitments to free trade, peace and anti-imperialism, Cobdenism heralded a century and more of free-trade globalism being led — intellectually — by left-of-centre thinkers.

Socialists, communists and liberals were united by a conviction that free trade could, and would, promote democracy and justice. They also believed that it might produce, on the one hand, the end of war and, on the other, the collapse of the more pernicious imperial projects.

What the book basically wants to communicate is that the international peace movements active between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries were deeply invested in the policy and philosophy of free trade.


What would Thucydides say?: In constantly reaching for past parallels to explain our peculiar times we miss the real lessons of the master historian (Mark Fisher, 5/07/24, Aeon)

Thucydides was unusual among classical writers in stating directly what he hoped his readers would gain from his work. He would be content, he says, if History of the Peloponnesian War was deemed ‘useful’ by those who wanted ‘to scrutinise what actually happened and would happen again, given the human condition, in the same or similar fashion’ (my translation). The description nevertheless leaves readers wanting. How exactly such knowledge should prove useful is underspecified, and scholars have long disagreed over what Thucydides expected the utility of his text to be.

Most assume that Thucydides tried to offer his reader a type of foreknowledge that could potentially translate into active control over the politico-historical process. Taken to its extreme, this ‘optimistic’ interpretation reads History of the Peloponnesian War as a sort of ‘political systems users’ manual’, as Josiah Ober put it, capable of creating expert political technicians. Recognising regularities in the historical process, it is thought, should lead to predictive capacity, which in turn allows for political mastery. Proceeding in this fashion, Thucydides takes himself to be training master statesmen capable of solving the fundamental problems of political life.

Others detect a more pessimistic outlook in Thucydides’ stated ambition. They suggest that the lessons on offer are insufficient to produce control over events even if they can help the reader detect regularities in the political process. Unexpected events will often upset our expectations, as the plague did in Athens, and the ignorance of non-experts will often disrupt the translation of technical insight into effective policy. This problem will be particularly acute within a democratic context, where a popular eagerness to apply bastardised versions of such insights may even make matters worse. In this interpretation, Thucydides is ‘useful’ to the extent that he can temper the ambitions of those wishing to impose rational order onto political life. The best we can hope for, it seems, is to minimise our self-harm.

At issue between these two interpretive poles is the basic presumption of applied social science: to what extent can the recognition of recurring patterns translate into effective political policy? Yet, Thucydides was not writing social science as we know it. To the extent that his text articulated anything like fundamental laws of political behaviour, it did so through exemplary instances and carefully curated parallelisms. The Peloponnesian War served as a paradigmatic event for Thucydides: a particular instance that revealed general truths. It served this representative role, however, not because it was typical. Rather, it was exemplary because it was uniquely ‘great’. The war would prove useful, in other words, not because of history’s strict repetition, but by the pregnancy of similarity and the reader’s ability to parse analogies effectively.

Thucydides schools his readers in just how difficult such acts of analogical interpretation can be. A series of carefully considered verbal parallels, or what Jacqueline de Romilly has called fils conducteurs (‘guiding threads’), extend through Thucydides’ narrative like a web, ensnaring the reader in a constant and, at times, overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes, repetitions point towards important explanatory insights. But they also suggest likenesses that can lead the reader astray. Time and again, Thucydides confounds the expectations he has created. Even upon rereading, one can feel an internal tension between what one knows to be the case and what one is nonetheless led to expect will happen. Whether it is your first or your 15th read, you can still catch yourself thinking: this time surely Athens will win.

The evident lesson behind all of this is that we must learn how to choose the right parallels if we are to judge well in politics. But Thucydides also knew that we did not have full control of the analogies that shape our deliberations, especially in public life. Our analogical vocabulary is woven directly into the cultural fabric, a product of the contingencies that shape collective memory. We choose them no more than we choose the language we speak. (Once again, Marx: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’) Some events, such as the Persian Wars in Thucydides’ day or the Second World War in our own, simply loom too large to avoid, and we are easily held captive by the emotional weight of their cultural significance. Thucydides measured this gravitational pull also in terms of ‘greatness’, a concept that he identified closely with the production of collective trauma.

The danger inherent in this, of course, is that emotional resonance is often a poor guide to explanatory power.


‘It should be satirized’: A Q&A on ideological extremism, identitarian infighting and CanLit conformism – with the Vancouver novelist Patrik Sampler (TARA HENLEY, APR 28, 2024, Lean Out)

TH: Your novel is about a pseudo-Marxist, anti-authoritarian performance art group that implodes … The group undertakes “actions” that are entirely symbolic, totally divorced from material conditions — and really from any political impact. Naked Defiance reflects currents in our contemporary culture, and satirizes them in nuanced and funny ways. Anyone coming from the progressive left, and dismayed with the turn it has taken, will find lots to recognize here. You were writing this novel at the height of the identitarian movement. In Vancouver, where I’m from and you live. As far as I can tell, Vancouver went all in on this. What did you see, during the years that you were writing this, as you were looking around at our culture?

PS: I saw identitarianism ramping up and ramping up. The question in my mind was always: When are we going to reach peak identity? I don’t know when it’s going to stop, but I think there’s starting to be some questioning of it now.

There’s always been a focus on identity in Canadian literature, but then it kept getting even more and more specific over time. Whereas it used to be, “I’m going to write a novel about my identity,” it became even more circumscribed — the parameters for identity kept shrinking and becoming more specific … There started to be some fear that if you questioned this trend, then you were going to be ostracized as a writer. In fact, there are writers who experienced that.

I have always just tried to do my own thing and have tried to ignore it. And maybe even have tried to promote my writing outside of Canada, for that reason. But I think a lot of writers felt that writing what they really wanted to say would be risky.

TH: There’s a moment when your narrator provides his exact lineage, and notes that it corresponds precisely with that of the character he is writing about: 50% Ukrainian, 37.5% Irish, et cetera. This is a send-up of that trend, but it also seems to be a comment on what you’ve referred to as “the anti-literary focus on the person of the author,” something you’ve written about in the past. How do you see that trend impacting the Canadian cultural scene?

PS: I questioned my assessment of how prevalent that mode of thinking is — is it really as bad as people say? — so, I wrote an item about this very extreme focus on identity. And when I was researching it, I went and looked at various publishers’ websites in Canada. Are the author bios really all that focused on this very minute idea of identity? If you look at it objectively, I don’t think most Canadian writers are all in on this. But that kind of a mode of being an author really gets highlighted in a lot of the mainstream places.

Where I think it’s impacting Canadian writing is that I don’t think we’re seeing a lot of progress in CanLit, as a form of literature — as opposed to writing being seen as a kind of a platform for a political notion. The writers who are my heroes, people like Robert Walser and Abe Kobo … Robert Walser said that the role of the author is self-effacement. Whereas now we see this strong idea that your writing has to be connected to who you are as a person. I think that’s really a step backward. And maybe it’s disrespectful of the readers.

TH: How so?

PS: Because I feel that it’s promoting the idea that the writing is so closely connected with the author, that it is the author — and there is really no room for interpretation, or having one’s own take. It’s just a platitude, but Andrei Tarkovsky wrote that “a book read by a thousand different readers is a thousand different books.” I feel strongly that we’re being told quite differently here in Canada, in many cases.