Thursday, March 08, 2007

In Keeping with the Times

Deogolwulf lurks beneath the erudite and highbrow Joy of Curmudgeonry up in Lancashire and is wont to opine: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað, which I'm sure you'd agree has a certain ring to it. So read on, intrepid reader, then get you over to his site for your daily dose of curmudgeonry with an edge:

"Nothing avails: one must go forward—step by step further into decadence" [1]. Nietzsche was never one to understate his case; but if one has not yet succumbed to the doctrine of the proverbial ostrich, one might still see that customs, old institutions, anything that smacks, in a word, of tradition: all such must now be cast aside in keeping with the times, that is to say, in keeping with a political passion and a public temper that cannot tolerate anything that might hold it back; for there has crept into the mind of modern man a quite pathetic submission to the practicalities of political power.
The dangers we have to fear may roughly be summed up in the single word — disintegration. It is the end to which we are being driven, alike by the defective working of our political machinery, and by the public temper of the time. [2]
The odd thing about modern "progressive" man — what sets him apart from his forebears — is that when some old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial, is said to be not in keeping with the present times, then it is not the present times to which he directs his critical eye, so as to see what therein makes it intolerant of that thing, but rather his eye fixes narrowly on that thing itself, as though it were the wild and dangerous upstart, the foreign interloper — and this in an age that quite ludicrously prides itself on its tolerance! It is an age, however, in which the greater part of tolerance is given over to that which destroys.
Nowadays it is enough that any idea or proposal be meant in the conservative’s sense for it to come to nothing; only that which disintegrates and levels has any real power now. [3]
The present merits of an old custom or institution, its historic service to ideals such as harmony, authority, liberty, or justice — always imperfectly realised — cannot bear scrutiny in a mind that has been seduced by the promise of perfection, still less in one that has been flattered into believing that this perfection is a birthright soon to be realised in the practical application of political power.
Devices laboriously set up to keep popular passions within bounds are now derided as little better than superstitions. [4]
The hubris with which modern "progressive" man proceeds will likely lead to all the adverse consequences which experience relates, unless, that is, there will be something new or hitherto unseen in the unfettered but harnessed expression of popular passions, something that leads to more than just a practical, brutish, and uncultured system for the accrual of power and wealth. One would have to be quite the hopeful fool to believe it likely — and quite in keeping with the times.
.....
[1] F.W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §43, p. 547; original emphasis.
[2] Lord Salisbury, "Disintegration", in Quarterly Review, October 1883, quoted by Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London: Phoenix, 2000), pp. 274-5.
[3] ["Es genügt heutigentags, daß irgendein Gedanke, ein Vorschlag im Sinne der Konservativen gemeint sei, so ist es praktisch nichts damit; nur das Auflösende und Nivellierende hat jetzt wirkliche Kraft."] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 17. November 1876, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), p. 421.
[4] Richard M. Weaver, "Review of Betrand de Jouvenal, On Power: Its Nature and the History of its Growth", The Commonweal, Vol. 50:19, 9th August 1949; reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, ed. by T.J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p.514.

5 comments:

james higham said...

Took me three readings but I finally saw what you were driving at and how well it relates to the previous post. Thank you, sire, for your contribution to the intellectual claims of this blog.

Cirdan said...

The odd thing about modern “progressive” man — what sets him apart from his forebears — is that when some old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial, is said to be not in keeping with the present times, then it is not the present times to which he directs his critical eye, so as to see what therein makes it intolerant of that thing, but rather his eye fixes narrowly on that thing itself,…

The first premiss is false: Socrates spends most of Euthyphro showing the bankruptcy of old Greek piety; the critical examination of tradition in light of present knowledge is not a recent invention. In any case, an 'old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial' can still be an evil. See: slavery, female circumcision, and chinese foot binding for starters. That something is evil is sufficient reason to seek its end. No age is morally infallible; every age is obliged to eradicate those evils that lie in plain sight.

james higham said...

Of course there is the other side of it - that the tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater loses that which was fine and workable, in the name of modern expediency.

not_saussure said...

Byrhtwold's last words in The Battle of Maldon, Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað ('Thought must be the harder, heart the keener, mind the greater as our strength fails') certainly do have a ring to them, but I can never quite forget the circumstances of his and Duke Byrhtnoð's death, along with their hearth-companions, at the hands of Danes.

Backstory: August 10, 991. Danes, led by Olaf, have sailed up the River Blackwater, in Essex. Byrhtnoð turns out the levy to repel them. Danes, with a considerably larger force, at least according to the poem, end up landing on a small island in the middle of the river (probably Northey Island) that's connected to the land by a causeway at low tide. Try to cross the causeway, but can't make much headway against Byrhtnoð and his chaps.

So far, so good. Olaf, however, recalls he's dealing with Essex men (my gloss on the situation) and uses guile (the poet's gloss) by suggesting that this isn't much of a battle and it would be far better if Byrhtnoð were to let him and his army cross the causeway unopposed. That way they could have a proper battle once the Danes had formed up again.

Byrhtnoð for his ofermode agrees. 'Ofermode' is untranslatable -- some people say pride or arrogance, others excess of courage (hubris?). Danes, one imagines, can't believe their luck. However you translate it, Byrhtnoð's ofermode leads to the defeat of the Men of Essex (after inflicting heavy casualties on the Danes) and his and his comrades' death.

james higham said...

Fascinating, Notsaussure, Is there anything you don't know? Where are the Gracchi?