How Should Decisions be Made in the Family?

Fr. Joseph Gleason of Christ the King Orthodox Mission, on authority in the family and the monastery:

The Orthodox Life

St. Benedict of Nursia

When an important decision needs to be made in the family, should the father make the decision unilaterally? Or should he get input from his wife and children?

The same question can be asked in a church, or in a monastery. Should the Abbot or Bishop make all decisions unilaterally? Or should young church members be allowed to provide input?

Dictatorship or Democracy? It is often assumed that these are the only two options. Should the man in authority make all the decisions? Or should we vote on everything?

The Orthodox Church teaches us to do neither. It is a false dichotomy invented by the devil, and we should not fall for it. There is a third option which is advocated by Orthodox Saints. It is possible for all people to have a voice, without having a vote.

St. Benedict of Nursia is…

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On The Trad Blogosphere and the Prodigal Son

On The Trad Blogosphere and the Prodigal Son

 

Lent is now upon us. Once again the season approaches when we fast, pray, and hopefully increase our works of mercy in order to prepare to recapitulate the Passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord.

 

In the Byzantine Christian tradition, the second to last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. And this year that parable hit home for me more than ever before, and I had cause to reflect on the state of the trad blogosphere.

 

When I speak of the trad blogosphere, I refer mainly to traditionalist Roman Catholics, though certainly similar factions exist in every communion, including my own. And I think particularly of a recent event that occurred involving Pope Francis.

 

Now, everyone knows that there is no love lost between myself and Pope Francis; I have criticized him at length before, and I have no doubt that I will do so again in the future. However, in this case, I think criticism of him is entirely misplaced, and the purpose of this post is to explain why.

 

First, the facts of the case, as near as I can tell:

 

  1. There was a couple, on their way to get married. They were to get married in a church not near where they lived, presumably because their families lived there or something. I think it was in the Philippines. Not really important.
  2. This couple, who up to this point were not married, were living together. Presumably, they were also having sexual intercourse with some degree of regularity.
  3. The church they were going to get married on unexpectedly became unusable. I believe it was destroyed in a flood or something. Again, the details aren’t terribly important.
  4. The Pope was on the same plane as this couple and became aware of their situation.
  5. The Pope married this couple, on the plane, in lieu of the church wedding they had planned, which was no longer practicable.

 

Now, trad Twitter and the trad blogosphere more generally were, shall we say, incensed (pardon the pun) by the Pope’s action. As near as I can tell, there were a number of objections to the way this was done, but the most salient and the only one I’m going to address is the claim that since this couple was “living in sin,” they should have been required to prove their repentance really hard before they could get married. In trad Twitter’s eyes, a couple that has been living together without being married, and now seeks to regularize their situation, should not be allowed to do so until they’ve undergone some serious punishment. The main one I heard is that they must separate for several months. This is, no doubt, a hard thing to do when they’ve already built a life together, don’t have separate homes to go to, etc.

 

I want to highlight a few things about this:

  1. Pastorally, this is foolishness. What you are dealing with here is people on the edge of the Church. They have been living, granted, the wrong way. But now they wish to live the right way. Presumably, the Holy Father spoke to this couple and did his best to determine where they are in their spiritual journey. You did not. Who can know how deep their repentance is? Certainly not I. But I do know this. If their repentance was fragile, such that a harsh penalty would have pushed them away from the Church, then it is better to receive them gently, and guide them along the path to a fuller and more robust virtue gradually. While pastors should never tell people their sins aren’t sins, they should certainly soften the punishment for sinners who have turned away from their sin and might turn back if treated harshly.
  2. On a deeper level, trad anger over this issue recalls the attitude of the prodigal son’s older brother. Recall that the prodigal son first demanded of his father the portion of the inheritance that fell to him, then received it, and then proceeded to waste it in “riotous living” “in a far country.” After hitting rock bottom, as it were, the prodigal son comes to himself and realizes that even his father’s hired servants live better than he is now living, having spent all his money and living in destitution. He resolves to go back to his father, confess his sin, and ask to be received back as a hired servant, as he is no longer worthy to be called a son. It is clear that the prodigal son is humbled and repentant. It is equally clear that his motive, on some level, is selfish. Nonetheless, he certainly does not have a mentality of entitlement – he does not believe that he deserves for his father to receive him back to the status of son which he had before.

 

But – and this is the key point – that is exactly how the father receives him. And moreover, the father does not wait to hear the son’s full confession. No, our Lord says “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” All this happens before the son launches into his little prepared speech, which the father does not even let him finish. To the father, only a very minimal repentance is as yet apparent – the repentance of a son who has wasted his father’s living, run out of money, and now wants to come back. But, to the All-Merciful God, this suffices to provoke Him to run the rest of the way and embrace his wayward son, and there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”

 

The older son, however, does not share in this joy. At first he does not know what is going on; he is out in the fields, working for his father, and he hears the sound of music and dancing. When he asks about this, he is told that his brother has returned, but he refuses to go inside. So the Father comes to him, as our Father always does, and asks him why he will not come in. And the older son’s answer is that he has served the Father all these years, obeying him, working in his fields, and so on, and no party was thrown for him, but now that the prodigal who wasted his inheritance returns, there is a great feast. In other words, he resents what he perceives as the reward given to his brother’s bad behavior and the overlooking of his right behavior.

 

At various times we can all identify with both the prodigal son and the older son. I personally have long identified with the older son, but it is important to realize that no commendation is given him in this parable. In fact, his sin is greater than the prodigal’s. He is so focused on justice (as he perceives it) that he misses the point, the point the Father patiently explains to him: “It was meet that we should make merry, for this thy brother was dead, and now is alive; and was lost, and now is found.”

 

This situation parallels the case with the Pope and the couple he married. I think – and this is unstated, so it’s speculation on my part, but I definitely think – that trad anger has an undertone of this sentiment: “Well, I abstained from fornication and my wife and I were virgins when we were married, and I did things the right way and everything, and it was hard! I was tempted to sin! But I didn’t, damn it! I did it by the book, and those people didn’t, so they need to be punished!” Basically, the focus is on the perception that those who didn’t do things “right,” the way you did them, are getting “rewarded.”

 

But this isn’t at all the right attitude. In another of the Lord’s parables, we read of a master who hires servants to work in his vineyard, and some of them work a full day, others come in halfway through the day, and still others come in when the day is almost over, yet all receive the same pay. Those who worked the full day are upset by this, but the master tells them that they have nothing to be upset about; they agreed to work for a particular wage, he paid them that wage, and whatever generosity he showed the others is his business.

 

What both parables illustrate is that we do not have the right to resent the mercy shown to others. While the “trads” -and I include myself here- rightly defend the traditional standards and moral teachings of Christendom from attack, we must not forget that mercy and forgiveness are ultimately the Church’s mission, and that “fairness” is not on the agenda. And let us all remember the occasions we have to be grateful for the “unfairness” of the Church and of God. As St Isaac the Syrian said, “Do not say that God is just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you.”

 

“Two Families” of Orthodoxy

“Two Families” of Orthodoxy

 

In our time there is much confusion about where the Church, to allude to a popular aphorism, is and is not, and in what sense, and this even within the communion of Holy Orthodoxy. Debate rages about, for example, whether Roman Catholic priests are real priests, whether Christ might, despite Cranmer’s best efforts, be present in an Anglican Eucharist, whether babies baptized by Methodist priestesses are in fact baptized, and so on. Can we say that some amount of ecclesiality subsists outside the canonical boundaries of the Churches in communion with the Ecumenical See? Some say yes, others no. That’s not a question I plan to address here.

 

No, the question I plan to address today strikes deeper at the heart of Orthodox ecclesiology than that. Because in the case of the Roman Catholics, everyone (everyone Orthodox, that is) agrees that they are outside the strictest boundaries of the Church. Whether some sacramental grace persists is open for debate (my own views on the matter are widely known) but no one claims that they are somehow just as legitimate a Church as we are. They are, at the very least, “schismatic,” a term which is often misused. A schismatic is a person who differs on no dogmatic point from the Holy Church and keeps her practices, but does so in union with an alternative and unlawful hierarchy, though one which has at least the outward form of valid Holy Orders. A heretic is a person who, though having the form at least of baptism, differs on dogmatic questions from the Church and is separated from Her for that reason. The term “schismatic” is often used incorrectly as sort of a kinder way to describe heretics, but it has a technical meaning which ought to be adhered to.

 

At any rate, while it would be a stretch to say that Roman Catholics are schismatic rather than heretical, it is a stretch no one in the Orthodox Church attempts to say that they are neither, and that their Church is just as valid as ours.

 

And yet, when it comes to the matter of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” (henceforth, for the sake of brevity, “the Copts,” though I am of course cognizant of the distinction between Coptic ethnicity and Monophysite religion), you hear the rhetoric that our two churches are “two [equally valid] families of Orthodoxy.”

 

This is branch theory; it’s not Orthodox. The defenders of the Copts argue that Coptic Christology is identical to Orthodox Christology. I would point out that neither our Fathers nor theirs believed that in 451. But even if that’s true, it can only mean one of the following things:

 

    1. Their Christology was heterodox in 451, but has since changed and become identical to ours. If this is the case, good for them, but then they need to submit to the Church’s canonical hierarchy, accept Chalcedon, and become Orthodox.

 

  • Our Christology was heterodox in 451, and has since changed and become what theirs was all along. In this case, we are the schismatics and ought to submit to their hierarchy, since they are the ones who kept the faith all along.

 

  1. Our Christologies were never different and this was all a big misunderstanding. Again, if that’s the case, great. I’m glad they’re not Monophysites in the sense we long thought. But, if Chalcedon is an Orthodox council, then the canonical hierarchy is the one that emerged from it, and if it’s not, then the canonical hierarchy is the one that rejected it. Either way, one side is Orthodox, and the other is schismatic at best.

 

Thus, there can be no talk of “two families” of Orthodoxy. The “Oriental Orthodox” are less Orthodox than the Old Calendarists and even the Old Believers. They are arguably less Orthodox than the Roman Catholics. And yet I’ve never heard anyone say that these groups are another “family” of Orthodoxy.

 

Now, my view of Holy Orders, the defense of which is the topic for another post, is not such that I would claim that any of these groups are utterly without grace. The Church’s practice of receiving these schismatics and heretics without repeating their sacraments of initiation indicates that their juridical, canonical, and even doctrinal separation from the Church has not made their sacraments null and void. But equally, it is simply false, and it does a disservice both to the Church and to those who are inquiring about the Church to deny the schism and heresy that our Fathers clearly knew was there.

On the Spurious Dichotomy of ‘Natural’ and ‘Artificial’

 

I recently sent out a series of tweets critiquing the concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ as they’re commonly used. I recorded a video on the topic, or tried to, but my computer failed to save it, so I’m returning to the medium where I actually know what I’m doing and writing a blog post about it.

 

It should be said at the outset that I do acknowledge that ‘natural’ has a proper meaning that we would do well to recover. This is the meaning that it has in the works of Aristotle and Aquinas, a meaning bound up in teleology. In this sense, we speak of things as having particular natures: there is a nature of a dog, of a cat, of a hammer, of a man, and so on. What is ‘natural’ to a thing is what is in accordance with its nature, with the sort of thing that it is.

 

In this sense, we can speak of ‘natural’ as meaning something very close to ‘good’ or ‘proper’ or ‘fitting’, and we can speak of ‘natural law’. It is from this ‘natural law’ that Catholic ethicists derive their opposition to contraception and to lying. The contention is that contraception violates the nature of the human sexual faculty, and that lying violates the nature of the human speech faculty, and that these things are therefore wrong.

 

Thus far, no real problem. However, there is another sense of ‘natural’ that has come into vogue. Where the antonym of ‘natural’ as I have explained above is probably ‘perverse’, the antonym of ‘natural’ as used in common speech by moderns is ‘artificial’.

 

The word ‘artificial’ is used to designate the set of things created by humans or existing in the form they do as a result of human influence, while the word ‘natural’ is used to designate the contents of the world, minus humans themselves and those things designated ‘artificial’.

 

The assumption is that there is some overarching thing called ‘Nature’, a category that unites all the non-human things in the world, as they exist and operate without human interference. Humanity, then, is some kind of interloper, bringing with it its ‘artificial’ things and interfering with the pre-existing harmony of ‘Nature’.

 

This is, of course, nonsense. Indeed, I will argue that it is man’s unique calling to impose harmony on the rest of the created order.

 

There are two errors that can arise from this false way of distinguishing man and his products from ‘Nature’.

 

The first is to view ‘Nature’, which again is a catch-all term not designating a real category, as an enemy to be destroyed, something to be simply crushed and shoved out of the way. This is the attitude that leads to Brutalist architecture, to heartless, soulless fields of asphalt, and this is the attitude against which the defenders of ‘Nature’ are really reacting, to the extent that there is a kernel of goodness and truth in their ideas.

 

The second error, however, is to view ‘Nature’ as a unified and sacrosanct whole, with which it is man’s duty to refrain from interfering. On this view, humanity, by its very existence, but most especially by its deplorable habit of clearing forests, erecting structures, planting crops, hunting animals, putting up fences, etc. constitutes a meddling with or a violation of the sanctity of something called ‘Nature’. This meddling ought to be minimised, on this view, or, if the most extreme interpretations are taken, eliminated altogether through the outright self-annihilation of man.

 

Both notions are perverse, though perhaps the latter is more so. In truth, man’s role is best compared to that of a gardener. What must be understood before the gardener analogy can be clear, however, is that while the dichotomy of ‘Nature’ and ‘artifice’ is spurious and an impediment to clear thought, there is a useful dichotomy that can to some extent take its place. That is the dichotomy of spirit and matter.

 

In the modern age, it is easy to subconsciously internalize the false premises that surround us, including that matter is all that ‘really’ exists. Of course, as Christians (or even pagans), we know that there is more to the world than matter. Specifically, there is spirit.

 

Some beings exist which are pure spirit. Christian cosmology enumerates angels, demons, God (of course), etc. as spiritual beings without bodies. But man is unique in that he possesses a rational soul animating a body of flesh.

 

The cosmic significance of the miracle that is humanity cannot be overstated. I’m borrowing freely from CS Lewis’s classic Miracles when I say that man is an outpost of spirit in the world of matter. Each living human being represents an imposition of the rational, spiritual order into the material world.

 

The spiritual animating principle first gives form and life to the body, imposing an order on it, compelling the muscles to move, the heart to pump, and so on. Then the spirit gains control of the higher functions of the body, learns to order its movements toward chosen purposes beyond immediate physical survival.

 

When the body is sufficiently mastered, the spirit then uses it as a tool to impose its chosen order on the rest of creation. The material powers of the body are directed toward the service of the ends chosen by the spirit, and they arrange the matter that exists in the world into tools to serve those ends.

 

At its core, this is humanity’s mandate and mission. This is what is meant in Genesis when God tells our first parents to ‘be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it’. But this cosmology leaves no room for a thing called ‘Nature’ that we can have some purely external relationship to.

 

As embodied creatures, we are intrinsically and inseparably part of the material world; this is why the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body is so important. Therefore, there isn’t a ‘Nature’ external to us; if ‘Nature’ means the physical world, we are part of it.

 

At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, we are both rational and spiritual beings. As such, if there is to be order, if there is to be harmony, if there is to be purpose and beauty in the material world, it falls to us to impose it, to govern it, and to preserve it.

 

We are therefore not ‘above’ the creation, nor below it, nor beside it, but rather at the head of it. The things humans make, if they are made well and serve both utility and beauty according to their particular roles, are the pinnacle, not the negation, of ‘nature’ in the only sense worth caring about.

On the Trump Phenomenon And the Collapse

The internet far right has certainly grown and expanded its reach since 2013. It is likely I now have readers who dont remember the theoretical work #NRx was doing at that time, and especially the work surrounding the predicted ‘collapse’.

I think some combination of our own initial naïveté and an overly simplistic interpretation of ‘the collapse’ that filtered down to the people who joined the movement later has made us blind to what is really going on in front of us.

Think about it: What did #NRx say? What did the best theorists of the collapse, folks like Anomaly UK, think was going to happen?

They were very clear that there was going to be something called a ‘collapse’, after which the ideologies — that is, the justifications of power, which always serve to frame and set the limits on how power is exercised — would lose credibility and be replaced by new ones.

They also painted some, in my current view, rather fanciful pictures of what this collapse would look like. There were talks of military coups, of the complete failure of existing governments, etc. Moreover, I think the idea of the ‘collapse’ grew even more cartoonish in the popular imagination of the Alt Right as those talking about it grew further and further removed from the original theories.

I propose that the collapse is subtler than we’ve been lazily imagining. In fact, I propose that the collapse is already ongoing, and that we may be, in reality, on the way out of the collapse already. As Aaron Jacob said to me in a conversation we had on Skype, ‘the collapse is that people no longer let their kids go more than a few hundred yards from their homes. The collapse is that you dont know who your neighbours are.’

We are seeing in many ways a repeat of the early 20th Century, but there are crucial differences. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ Once again, in the wake of demographic threats and impending economic collapse, a wave of nationalist populism sweeps over Europe and America, winning massive support from ordinary people and confounding the political establishment.

‘That Bohemian corporal will never be Chancellor’, President Hindenburg declared until January 1933, the month he appointed him chancellor. Similarly, the cuckservative media, the beltway establishment, and the NRO set wail that Trump is damaging the Republican brand but nervously try to reassure themselves he will never be President. Meanwhile in France, socialists and ‘conservatives’ collude to keep the National Front out of power. In France, in Greece, and even in Sweden, we see the rise of a new political movement. It doesn’t have an official name yet, but it’s characterized by nationalist sentiment (particularly anti-immigration and protectionist) and championed by charismatic individuals appealing to the frustrated, temperamentally conservative mass of the nation against elites perceived as alien, out of touch, and even hostile.

In other words, it’s fascism, in the broad sense. By analogy with feminism, we can call this “second-wave fascism.” Like first-wave fascism, second-wave fascism is a social immune response designed to stave off immediate death. And like first-wave fascism, the rise of second-wave fascism is an indicator that the collapse we’ve been waiting for is upon us.

First-wave fascism, however, had the world’s greatest military powers arrayed against it.

Things are likely to go a little differently this time.

On False Tribes

On False Tribes

One of man’s most natural impulses is the tribal impulse. Few things come more easily to human beings than dividing other human beings into us and them, in-group and out-group. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this behaviour; in fact, it’s essential to the functioning of any society. People naturally cleave to others who are like themselves in any number of different ways, spending time with other members of the same groups as themselves, structuring their identity and self-image around those group memberships, and banding together with other members of the group to advance shared goals and promote shared interests.

Historically, the tribal impulse has typically been directed toward what I will call genuine tribes. A genuine tribe is an identity group capable of self-perpetuation and some level of self-sufficiency. A nation, such as the French, is the example par excellence of a genuine tribe, but subgroups within a nation, such as particular regional communities or ethnic subgroups, or even religious groups, can also qualify as genuine tribes.

For a tribe to be healthy, it needs a certain amount of social cohesion. The members need to identify themselves as members of the tribe and be willing to make sacrifices to advance the interest of the tribe. If the first element is missing, the tribe effectively ceases to exist — if the second is missing, it will not be successful.

One might say that tribes are ‘social constructs’, and this would be largely true, but they tend to be social constructs whose members are bound together by some objectively shared reality. Tribes stake out their territories, for our purposes not so much geographically as in the allegiances of individuals, and this means a lot of competing identity claims.

For example, take a Black American man. There are (at least) two tribes claiming his allegiance: the Black tribe and the American tribe. He has to choose how he is going to reconcile these two competing claims on his loyalty. The extreme position would be simply to choose one, and reject the other. More likely he will attempt to balance his identity as a Black man with his identity as an American, favouring one or the other to various degrees based on any number of factors. The two identities will exist with a certain degree of tension. If the Black and American tribes get along well, in general, this may not be a problem. However, the more friction there is between the two, the more dissonance he will feel, and the more he will be tempted to embrace one tribal identity to the exclusion of the other.

Nevertheless, although among genuine tribes there can certainly be competing claims to the loyalties of particular individuals, and although tribes are certainly in competition in the world for status and resources, nevertheless different (genuine!) tribes are certainly capable in principle of peaceful coexistence as well. Though they can, potentially, present existential threats to each other, there is nothing in their fundamental nature that implies that they must do so.

Moreover, genuine tribes need no excuses to justify their existence, their cohesion as tribal units, or their efforts to advance their own collective interests. No one blames (or at least, no one should blame) a Frenchman for wanting France to be successful and get ahead relative to other countries, nor for working toward that goal by any honourable means available to him.

However, in more modern times, there has been a proliferation of what I will label false tribes. False tribes are groups of people to which individuals direct their tribal impulses, but which lack some or all of the necessary elements to function as a self-sufficient society. Women are the example par excellence of the false tribe, and the defining feature of this social unit is its fundamental incapacity for independent cohesion. This classification also includes such groups as ‘homosexuals’ and ‘workers of the world’.

Notice that I do not say a false tribe is any tribe that does not exist totally self-sufficiently; by that standard any number of ethnic minorities would have to be considered false tribes. Rather, the group in question must be in principle incapable of cohering as an independent social unit.

Because they cannot separate from the wider societies of which they are a part, or even become subsidiary elements of them in the way that local communities are to larger states, the identity claims of false tribes always serve to undermine the healthy functioning of those genuine tribes which allow the memeplexes on which false tribes are built to infect their members.

False tribes are also distinguished from genuine tribes by the need for a narrative of oppression. Because false tribes are not natural social units but only parts of them, it is naturally felt as unjust to advance the interests of such groups over-against the whole. This is easily seen if a man proposes some law or social change and says it should be adopted because it would be ‘good for men’, while admitting that it would harm, for example, women. The normal reaction, even from men, to a proposal, for example, to automatically give the father full custody of the children in all divorce cases, on the grounds that it will make men’s lives better, is disgust (NB I am not here discussing the merits of such a policy, but rather the reaction to the idea of adopting it on the specific grounds here mentioned). It is seen as selfish for a man to promote the interests of men over-against women, in a way that it is not seen as selfish for a Frenchman to promote the interests of France over-against, say, Greece.

To overcome this natural revulsion at the attempt to undermine the cohesive social ties in a functioning genuine tribe by appeal to a pernicious constructed in-group, it is necessary to appeal to a sense of objective justice. Recall that the genuine tribe, as we stated earlier, needs no justification for its collective existence or its recognition or advancement of its own collective interests as a tribe. But the false tribe does. The false tribe constructs a story of the injustices its members have suffered, and insists that ‘all it wants’ is to right those wrongs.

Once the wrongs are righted, in theory, the tribe should be disbanded and its members should return to their natural loyalties. However, the reality is a little different. Tribal loyalties are deeply ingrained. Giving them up is psychically painful, especially when the false tribe in question has been occupying the psychic space that genuine tribes would otherwise have filled and thus has prevented a person from forming the kind of natural tribal ties that should replace the false tribe when it disbands.

It is far easier, instead, to manufacture continually more contrived claims of continuing oppression, to justify the continued operation of the tribe. And indeed this is exactly what we see, for example, with women. Feminism created a false tribe out of the female sex with a claim of oppression on the basis that women lacked certain rights that men had. Whether they ought to have had these rights is debatable, but it is certainly true that men had them and women did not.

Then, something happened that feminists weren’t prepared for: they won. They got everything — all the rights they had been clamouring for. But rather than pack up, go home, and return their loyalties to their families, where they belonged, they then decided they needed even more rights. And when those were gained, they had to have yet more rights. And so it continues into our day of ‘microaggressions’ and ‘consensual rape’ and other such absurdities. Similar phenomena can occur with economic classes; ‘workers of the world’ are definitely a false tribe, as I mentioned earlier. Give them their labour unions, and they will demand higher wages. Give them higher wages, and they will demand more political power. And so on, ad infinitum, as long as they remain a tribe in their own collective mind.

The great issue with false tribes is that they undercut the cohesion of genuine tribes. Natural societies contain both sexes for the fairly obvious reason that without both sexes, a society cannot self-perpetuate. For the same reason, natural societies contain all social classes. Workers and capitalists, peasants and aristocrats are all necessary, in their proper role, for a fully functional, organic society. When the French peasant is made to feel that his class solidarity with the Russian peasant is more important than his local, feudal fealty to his French lord, French society breaks down.

In a well-ordered society, there can be no battle of the sexes, no class warfare. By the same token, however, there will always be some degree of hierarchy in place between different groups. Where the prevailing culture does not foster a sense of noblesse oblige, such that, in the words of Macaulay, the great man [helps] the poor and the poor man loves the great, the ground is fertile for the rise of false tribes.

The solution is for every tribe to see itself as the equivalent of an extended family. Within a family there is hierarchy and diversity. Some command and others obey. Yet all recognise that their collective interest inheres in the family. The parents have no legitimate collective interest against the children, the aunts none against the grandparents. But this can only happen when all the necessary parts of a society are represented in the tribes that occupy the people’s psychic space — and when those with power in the tribe recognise that it is to be used for the good of the whole.

On Moral And Economic Ownership

On Moral And Economic Ownership

or

Against Private Property

by Arthur Richard Harrison

 

When it comes to the matter of ownership, there are two very different things the term can mean. It’s peculiar that these two are lumped together under the name of ownership, given that the incentives and behaviours they produce are very different.

 

Let us call these two concepts economic ownership (as opposed to economic stewardship) and moral ownership (as opposed to moral stewardship).

 

As you are no doubt aware, the owner is the one to whom a thing belongs, while a steward is one who administers property for the owner. What effects do these have on the behaviour of the person who holds these positions?

 

Let us consider first the hypothetical homo economicus. This is a man who deals only in economic value — money and the equivalents of money. He’s also purely self-interested. The best way to get such a man to take care of a piece of property, to maintain it in good condition, to avoid destroying its long-term value for the sake of short-term profit, is undoubtedly to give him ownership of it. If he is given ownership of it, he expects that he will have it for life, or at least until he should choose to sell it. In other words, he owns the value of the property itself and will thus, ceteris paribus, seek to maximise the same. He will exploit the property for short-term gain, but his exploitation will be limited by the desire to preserve the value of the property so that he can continue to exploit it in the long run.

 

By contrast, the economic steward — the man who has a lease or similar arrangement — owns, or at least has access to, the use of the property in the short term, but not the value of it. Thus he seeks to exploit it as much as he can as someone else will ultimately pay the price of his devaluation of the property. This, of course, has been extensively covered by Hoppe and so should be old hat to most of my readers.

 

However, it shouldn’t take long to observe that real men are seldom homo economicus and that there are all manner of other motivations at play in their behaviour — motivations we might even broadly call ‘incentives’ — beyond economic ones. These incentives might be called ‘cultural’ or ‘honour-based’ but I will use the term ‘moral’ for them in the broadest possible sense, that is, so as to include considerations not only of morality per se, but also of the desire to please God or the gods, to be seen as honourable or noble before other men, to be positively remembered by history, etc.

 

In this context we can see that there is a certain sense of entitlement that comes with moral ownership. This is the sense of entitlement we see in a child whose idea of ‘mine’ is along the lines of ‘the teddy bear is mine and I can tear it to pieces if I want to’ (hat tip to C S Lewis). This incentive to maximum exploitation, or at least this justification for the removal of restraints on exploitation, is inherent in moral ownership and stands in direct opposition to the economic incentive to limited exploitation. Thus the decision between the two will largely depend on the enlightened self-interest — that is, the time preference — of the individual entrusted with this ownership.

 

By contrast, moral stewardship affords a rather different incentive. Though, economically, the steward has every reason to despoil the property committed to him, nevertheless morally he will likely not see himself as entitled to do so. The conception of the steward from a moral point of view is that he is merely the caretaker of the property, and as such he has a fiduciary responsibility to the real owner to maintain it in good condition. He would be derelict in that duty if he were to ruin the property for his own benefit.

 

Of course, none of these incentives are 100% effective. Just as a man can be given economic ownership and thus a strong economic incentive to preserve the value of the property thus committed to him, and nevertheless because of his own high time-preference end up laying it waste, so also a man can have impressed upon him all the profoundest ideas of the duty of a steward and, neither fearing God nor regarding man, despoil the property of others and spend the profits on wine and whores.

 

No conception of property will ever change the fact that man is fallen, and some men are quite bad and/or stupid and if given the opportunity will do bad things. However, on the basis of the ideas outlined above, it would seem that the best chance we could have to ensure that property were taken care of as well as possible would be to combine, somehow, the notions of economic ownership and of moral stewardship.

 

This combination will seem alien to the modern mind, raised on the numismolatrous dichotomy of capitalism and communism, where the moral and economic notions of ownership are almost universally coincident. This is why the subtitle of this piece is Against Private Property.

 

But there’s no reason why it must be so, and indeed in traditional, organic societies, it often was not so. In feudal Europe, in particular, a nobleman’s ‘property’, if you want to call it that, was held, most often, from a higher nobleman, who held it from yet another, and so on up to the king. But even the king was considered to hold his land from God and not truly in his own right. This notion is that to which I was appealing when I wrote, as I have several times on Twitter, that I am uncomfortable with the notion of ‘divine right’ kingship, preferring such framings as ‘divine trust’, ‘divine calling’, even ‘divine duty’.

 

So the notion that all property is ultimately held from God, and that the holder will answer to God for its use or misuse, is one that allows one to have long-term control (perhaps even including the right to sell, though more below on why that particular aspect of ‘property’ might desirably be limited or excluded) — that is, economic ownership — while minimising the ill effects of moral ownership. And in the feudal system, the many fractal layers of hierarchy reaching down from God, through emperors, kings, and dukes, and eventually down to margraves, viscounts, knights, and the peasants who worked their lands, served to reinforce and emphasise this conception of property, to strengthen its influence on the mind.

 

Let me suggest, however, that the duty understood as emerging from a nobleman’s role as steward of God is not the only sense in which moral stewardship impressed itself on his mind. There was also a concept of the family, stretching out across generations, in which each generation would hold what it had in trust from its ancestors and for its descendants. Those of my readers who watch the ITV period drama Downton Abbey (and I recommend it highly to all of you) will recognise this way of thinking in the character of Lord Grantham, who reminds his daughter Mary in an early episode that he cannot rightfully destroy the dynasty his ancestors have worked hard to build and of which he is the caretaker for his successors by breaking the entailment of the estate to the Earldom of Grantham. This attitude is, of course, far more likely to obtain if the property is entailed — that is, if the succession descends by operation of law within a particular family and the owner is not entitled to sell it off.

 

Thus we see that in an organic society it is possible — indeed, it is likely and desirable — that there be no such thing as ‘private property’ in the sense moderns typically understand it. Rather, there is some mixture of economic ownership and moral stewardship, which gives everyone a set role to play in the cosmic drama that is human life. Thus is order established on earth, thus can a sense of noblesse oblige be built. Thus is civilisation made, neither in the Utopian madness of communism nor in the atomising, amoral shark tank of capitalism. Thus are bonds of mutual dependence and affection to be made among the members of a society and across class lines. This attitude is what must be recaptured if we are to build a healthy and functional social order.