Nature and reason in politics during this time of “wokeness”

All traditional boundaries, distinctions, and hierarchies must, we are told, be abolished. That insistence is the essence of “wokeness,” which is basically a matter of taking today’s official ideals seriously.

(Image: Andy Feliciotti /Unsplash.com)

The relation between nature and reason is complicated, especially in politics.

It is human nature, for example, to notice connections and distinctions among people that seem innate and organic. Looking around us, we see a world made of men, women, and families, young people and their elders, my people and your people, those who are closer to us in various ways and those who are more distant. We see people who are higher and lower in the social world, and some people who mix with each other and others who don’t. And we also see, by and large, that good fences make good neighbors, and blood is thicker than water.

Such things are traditional as well as natural. They grow up without planning, and cannot be completely explained, so they are not entirely rational. They result more from feeling than thought, and create a world of daily life in which we feel at home, in which we know where we are and what we can count on. That world differs for different people and different times and places—religious differences aren’t the same for clergy and laity, or for Iraqis and Iowans—but general features are similar.

Modern thought doesn’t like these features of the human world. It contrasts nature with reason, and prefers what it calls reason—the more conceptual and content-free the better. So it emphasizes universal abstractions like freedom, equality, and efficiency. It thus tries to do away with particular connections and distinctions, except those that can be justified on purely rational and functional grounds.

Everything has to be planned or specifically contracted for, so what is traditional or merely natural—let alone transcendent—has to go. That is why we have doctors, auto mechanics, and department heads in everyday life today, while kings, queens, and increasingly even priests seem vestiges of a different world.

The results, however rational the intention, don’t always satisfy. Children, who are closer to nature, still prefer stories that feature older sorts of characters, along with country cottages, walled gardens, homey neighborhoods, and exotic foreign lands. They would rather hear about Vikings than drone operators.

That worries their elders a little, so they ply their offspring with right-minded stories about strong single mothers working in a day care center and studying at night for professional certification. And if they tell a story about Vikings the longboat captain is likely to be a princess from Mali who’s somehow ended up in Scandinavia.

It’s a bit reminiscent of Soviet B movies from the Stalinist period—boy loves girl loves tractor—only more so.

But what to do? Justice is rational, and we owe political allegiance to it. It may be natural to do special favors for friends and relatives, but that’s not what someone should do as a judge or police officer.

Even so, politics is a human way for human beings to carry on their lives, so it has to fit our nature. And the world is too complicated for everything to be planned and made systematic and rational. The collapse of socialism finally persuaded people that economics doesn’t work that way, and there are parts of life that are far more complex than economics. The networks of beliefs, attitudes, habits, and expectations lumped together as “culture” provide an obvious example.

Such issues have long provoked discussion. Edmund Burke’s discussion of the need for natural, evolved, and inherited institutions in his Reflections on the Revolution in France is a famous example. Basically, he says the only way to get a social and political order that people will attach themselves to, and will serve the immense variety of human concerns in a reasonably adequate way, is to rely heavily on traditional arrangements in which the practical issues have been worked through in ways people mostly approve. When reform is needed, and changes have to be made, they should be as nondisruptive as possible so that fixing one problem doesn’t cause a hundred others.

Similar issues arise in a variety of settings. In our own time, the late architectural theorist Christopher Alexander and his followers have explored the reasons for the all-but-universal preference among ordinary people for traditional architecture. To explain what’s going on, they’ve produced a theory of living form that adds something to Burke’s account of tradition, but is less historical and more analytical.

According to that theory, what distinguishes traditional buildings and towns is that they seem alive. The question is why that is. These writers say the life of a built form is a matter of wholeness defined by “centers” that contribute to each other in complex ways as part of an interlocking hierarchy. It thus involves—among other things—strong local centers divided and linked by well-defined border regions, and hierarchical levels of scale with somewhat similar forms at each level.

Think of the facade of a cathedral, with its peaked roof and great peaked or arched door and smaller windows, doors, and niches, also peaked or arched. Or an oriental rug, with its borders within borders and patterns within patterns, or a tree, with its limbs, branches, twigs, and leaves with branching veins.

Architects have applied these principles to produce buildings and communities people actually like and want to live and work in. Similar principles have turned out to be useful to software designers, and I have noted that principles that apply to architecture seem relevant to liturgy as well.

So the idea that living form tied to nature and tradition is important not only aesthetically and emotionally but practically seems to have something to it. It would be very strange if something as complex, all-embracing, and utterly human as politics and social life could be divorced from the usual forms life takes.

But it’s not clear what to do about that in an age that wants to treat society as a rational machine, with influential voices insisting that “deeply rooted social stereotypes”—that is to say, patterns of life that are traditionally expected—must be destroyed as a matter of fundamental moral necessity. All traditional boundaries, distinctions, and hierarchies must, we are told, be abolished. That insistence is the essence of “wokeness,” which is basically a matter of taking today’s official ideals seriously.

The obvious response to such assertions is that wokeness, in spite of its widespread acceptance, must be rejected as antihuman. The Church’s profoundly unwoke natural law understanding of sex, the sexes, and the family should tell us as much, as should the principle of subsidiarity, which becomes useless if people are not free to form cooperative local relationships in ways they easily and naturally form them.

But how far should the rejection of woke views go? Our nature is fallen, not all traditions are good, and reason and equity are also part of the natural law. Some difference in the roles of the sexes, and some preferential attachment to friends, relatives, and cultural community is right, but when and how much?

The answer no doubt varies somewhat by time, place, and circumstances, but it’s rarely demonstrable. We can, of course, point to some general rules. Judges and police officers should be strictly disinterested when performing their duties. As citizens, though, they should be preferentially loyal to their country, and in private life to their family and friends. But how far should that go?

All we can do is keep basic principles in mind. The first principle is evidently the concept of the good life. That involves enduring realities, like the differences between the sexes and the need for stable families and settled functional communities. It also involves adjustment to changing realities. How to apply those considerations will always be a difficult question that calls for good will, caution, and respect for experience.

Ultimately, though, the concept of the good life points to God as its source and its binding and coordinating principle. And that is yet another reason social order must always be based on religion. Without it, there is no good way to focus the myriad considerations and judgments that go into a way of life. And that leaves no alternative to a social order based on arbitrary decision and thus the simple will of the powerful. Current developments, it seems to me, are making that more clear than ever.


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About James Kalb 134 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

10 Comments

  1. This is a very fine article, and lucidly presented….In summary, “wokeness” is another word for schizophrenia. But also, the concluding appeal to “religion” is no longer enough. Three points:

    FIRST, the very high-ranking Catholic sociologist/historian, Christopher Dawson, does fully develop your conclusion—religion at the center of any real culture—but now in a globalized world (global here as an interconnected fact, not as a political One World ideology), overlapping and contradictory religions at the same table are also divisive (Islam as a culture v Secular Humanism now as an anti-culture, v cultural “Christianity,” however with its roots in authentic Judaism).

    SECOND, the appeal, then, to “transcendent” religion really points to real (not merely cultural) Christianity—and to the self-disclosing Triune Oneness (not our own expression as in all natural religions) and, therefore, to faith in the Incarnation and the reality of Jesus Christ.

    THIRD, the Church, then, is not reducible to another expressive something that “we do,” as in “project Church” or some versions of “synodality.” Nor is the Consecration at the center of the Liturgy, instead a pure gift of the Holy Spirit only through the hands of the ordained priest. Nor is fully human morality, as in the signaled intention to gut sexual morality by obfuscating word-merchants Marx, Bats-sing, Grech, Hollerich & Co. and their “experts.” The same Church “but in a different way”? Such a de facto paradigm shift is for medicine-show charlatans, not real witnesses to the historical, real and even alarming Incarnation. There is no transcendent/indwelling Holy Spirit without complete oneness in/with the Father, and in/with the self-disclosing Second Person: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).

    But, yes, wokeness is schizophrenic narcissism against all of the above, and against every human fabric you mention, especially including the family, and ever since the beginning of human history. Beyond “synodality” and “fraternity,” then, where we go from here in a globalized and very fallen world is a calling not yet clearly affirmed nor very well-understood.

    Real ressourcement and real aggiornamento are perhaps an embryonic and good start…not to be aborted.

  2. And if they tell a story about Vikings the longboat captain is likely to be a princess from Mali who’s somehow ended up in Scandinavia (Kalb). A nucleus of the equanimity mindset that affects our liberty oriented politics.
    Krauthammer was correct, politics is everything. Today no longer reasoned from above by Church and faith, politics reflects the practical all embracing mood of the time. Theoretically not actually the party in charge. Plebeian affinity for traditional architecture echoes the natural law within and the conscientious inner conflict with absolute freedom.
    Kalb identifies the anomaly of an amoral culture’s interior echoes finding solace in ancient, especially medieval church architecture, spires, stained windows. Wokeness, the aberrant reaction of loss of faith, the pseudo religiosity that censures sound reason which always leads to God, the deadening conflict that determines politics and everything about life that politics presently decides and determines.
    With certainty this dilemma that conflicts nature with reason may be resolved solely by right reason, that the product of faith, not simply in God [a varied concept for the multitudes] rather uniquely in the person of Christ. That is our challenge, that is, those who hold to traditional faith in the revelation of Christ, not, and opposed to the faux Catholics who now preside politically in secular politics as well as ecclesial.

    • Very well said, Father. “Krauthammer was correct, politics is everything.” “Wokeness [is indeed] the pseudo religiosity that censures sound reason which always leads to God.” And “the faux Catholics who now preside politically in secular politics and well as ecclesial” are well known for what seems to be their prime faux-ecclesial Dogma that God is a Liberal Democrat. It’s beyond sad that the faux Catholics seem to have the encouragement of the prime faux Catholic “who now presided[s] politically in … ecclesial [politics}.” Should “those who hold to traditional faith in the revelation of.Christ,” perhaps, shout the names of these highly influential faux secular and ecclesial Catholics from the housetops?

    • You (and Peter Beaulieu) suggest an important point: the greater the disintegrating factors the more necessary the True Religion becomes.

      In remote antiquity, before the rise of the great empires, the seeds of the Logos inherent in local traditions were enough to support civilization.

      Afterwards, with the growth of cultural conflict and mixture, something more distinct, formal, and authoritative – the Higher Religions – became necessary.

      Today, with the destruction of boundaries and growth of technocracy, nothing less than truth will do.

  3. This is a well thought out piece to be sure. In many spots it’s a tad over my head, but that’s nothing new.

    I notice, though, the continued absence of a word that seems to be missing in virtually all pieces of this type concerning the current problem of ‘wokeness’, and that word is – stupid.

  4. EWTN’s ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ video will show you how the, ‘Liberal’ ‘Progressive’ ‘Democrats infiltrated the Catholic Church to destroy the Catholic Church and America. The Progressives started after WWI and have grown to become 800 covert organizations world wide, with the goal to destroy Christ’s Church, and America. The Progressives have many operatives at top positions of power in our Catholic Church, and, of course the American Democratic Party, today.

    https://youtu.be/ZnKB9NzgD4k

  5. The Liberal, Progressive, Democrats goal is to achieve World Power, by causing hate, destruction, and conflict. When they win the victory, they move on to another carefully organized cause to use hate, destruction and conflict, till they win World Power. There is never any building up, in the Progressives ultimate plan, only continual tearing down and causing hatred and division, in their agenda to gain world Power.

  6. Good stuff, Mr. Kalb. Thanks. One caution, however. The so-called woke and their allies have successfully co-opted in many respects the meaning of “equity” as part of their economic and cultural Marxism. Accordingly, whenever people of good will and right reason promote and/or pursue moral equity, it must be made clear that this has no connection with the “woke” meaning of “equity” wherein any inequality in outcomes among people is deemed to be unjust, and so some people who succeed must have at least some of their success forcefully removed and/or redistributed to others for “woke equity” to be achieved. Moreover, “woke equity” insists that traditional, Western values and principles help perpetuate injustice because of a lack of equality of outcomes that frequently come about, and so “woke equity” can only be achieved by also dismantling traditional, Western values and principles, and institutions (or similar ones from other regions of the world) wherever they allow people to flourish and exceed the achievements of others.

  7. The Protestant Reformation separated faith from authority. The Enlightenment separated faith from reason. And Woke has separated reason from reality. Chesterton was right: a lunatic is one who has lost everything but his reason.

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