Sunday, March 6, 2011

Individualism and Collectivism

I'm using those words in a looser sense.

A friend recently showed me an article about some Russian Orthodox cleric who has suggested legislating a national dress code to stymie a rising tide of whorishly immodest fashion.

I responded that I don't like using the Law to enforce that sort of thing civilly. I'm not saying that people should be immodest, nor even that there shouldn't be some sort of social pressure in place to create modesty collectively (as opposed to unrealistically expecting everyone to just coincidentally choose it individually), but I think this should only ever be as a cultural-taboo thing, at least primarily, not a matter of State enforcement.

No man is an island, and I do think it's definitely easier to be a good man in a good polis, where those support structures (even in the form of cultural or social taboos) incentivize doing good while discouraging bad. Shame or the threat of dishonor or embarrassment or shunning can all function as actual graces in that sense. As long as there is a correct prioritizing of values, I think it's fine that, in a given cultural context, our relationships with family or friends (and our fear of social disapproval) can provide incentives for doing good and avoiding evil.

But any time the culture has lost its innate sense of mores and then the coercive power of the State is used to try to re-impose or mandate them "by force" like's a recipe for fundamentalist theocracy. If the culture of those mores already exists, then the State reflecting them in its laws can be fine and make perfect sense, and the two can mutually support each other. But if the State is being used to try to artificially engineer such a culture where it never or no longer exists...that sounds like a disaster.

Of course, it's a bit of a Catch-22. State support or official sanction (especially in the form of funding) does help maintain the hegemony of various mores in a culture, but that culture has to actually exist simultaneously; the two reinforce each other. Trying to "impose" it by State force when the culture opposes it...doesn't usually work, or has terrorizing results.

We simply don't live in an age where, if the King converts, all his thegns and thus all the peasants also convert just as a matter of course. For better or worse, we (in the West, at least, though I wonder about other places) live in an age of individual conversions, not national conversions. The only way to get back to such a notion of national (as opposed to pluralistic individualism) shared religion/values (other than secularism) would be if most people in many given areas converted as individuals first. The irony, however, is that this would be converting from individualism to collectivism, but only as an individualist choice to do so! There's the rub.

We can always hope for a miracle, of course, or that the existential malaise of the current secular culture of death will cause it to simply mentally and emotionally collapse, leading people to re-embrace in droves such collective shared horizons spontaneously and willingly, with the State organically becoming more Christian only gradually as this process occurs (as happened the first time, in the Christianization of the Roman Empire).

But, for right now at least, it seems that without some horribly oppressive transition government forcing people away from individualism back into collectivism, it's simply not going to happen by an accumulation of purely individual choices or conversions. And I suspect the evils of such an oppressive transition (which would have to embrace all of decadent Western civilization, not merely one nation, unless that nation made itself totally isolated to avoid "corruption" from outside ideas) would not be outweighed by any good it accomplished.

So, for now, I'd advise anyone against dreaming up political solutions for what is really a massive spiritual problem. It may be that we're nearing the end of the world, or more probably just the end of this civilization, and that there is no remedy. Certainly, I feel like apocalyptic spirituality (always relevant) is especially pertinent in our situation. Either way, we can continue to pray and work for those individual conversions (always including ourselves!) and who knows, maybe the "spiritual desert" that our culture has become will reach a critical mass and collapse, and the Spirit will sweep through, and there will be a surprising spontaneous rebirth.

Or maybe not. I understand why some people want, need even, to dream of restoring a Christendom politically (at least within the Church, if not without), or why the idea of a "Catholic ghetto" is romanticized by some: it really is easier to be a good man in a good polis, and I think these people genuinely want to be good. But for now, given the current fragmentation, that is often just a pipe-dream and distraction.

Of course, that doesn't mean that fighting for institutional reform is a bad thing or pointless. Vigilance about reform, especially within the Church itself, but also even in government and the economy, can be a very valuable and constructive effort. It's certainly better than cynicism and apathy and despair (which are pathetic and contemptible).

Though man has never achieved a utopia, the efforts at making things better throughout history have benefited countless individuals, and ennobled countless souls, and for those reasons seem to be worth it as ends in themselves, regardless of whether they finally "succeed" permanently or collectively. Complacency is certainly not the solution; we should not be happy until everyone is. I know that simply being a malcontent without doing anything constructive, grumbling about the world all the while being safe and risking nothing, is perhaps the most arrogant and decadent thing of all. And yet part of me also knows, at the deepest core of all my being and convictions, that if there are people left who are miserable, I should rather be miserable with them than comfortable with those who dare to eat while their brother is starving.

The implications of that are terrifying. And ultimately, in order to bear the perpetual crucifixion in our own lives to which we are called, we need to learn to hold on to orthodoxy and tradition without the crutch of social or institutional support at that polis level. We need to live and function in radical holiness without relying on the State (or even the institutional church) to create a climate (even just psychologically) that makes virtue easier. Instead, like the early Christians, or those in Japan for 300 years without any priests, we simply need to support and rely on each other and on God alone to make it possible. And if we do that, who knows, maybe, like the first time, our love will save the world. At the very least, it will save ourselves.

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