Home/Rod Dreher/‘Organicism’


From the mailbag, this from a Catholic reader:

I recently discovered your blog, and I wanted to express my sincere appreciation for your work – it has really helped me to clarify a lot of my political / religious beliefs, at least in regards to where I ‘fit’ in the political spectrum.  I have become completely averse to both ‘labels’ (liberal/conservative) but I also feel that describing my views as “moderate” or “independent” is way too formless for comfort, even if I did vote for Gary Johnson in the last election.  I think your concept of “crunchy” may fit, although I wouldn’t label myself a “con” (or a “lib.”)

The word that probably would best describe my own views is ‘organicism’ – not (just) in relation to food, but in a sense of growth, development, or interaction that needs to be present in communities or concepts for them to be healthy and functional.

My concept of the ‘organic’ was highlighted by the time I spent in the Soviet Union during its final years (a lot of the following may seem familiar):  I have always said in reference to that trip that I “loved Russia” but that I “hated the Soviet Union.”  By that I mean that whereas I perceived a deep aesthetic presence underlying everything “Russian,” everything “Soviet” appeared to be a cheap cardboard cutout of culture, with very little redeeming value – as if over the 70-odd years of Soviet rule they somehow forgot to produce anything that was actually beautiful.    (If this sounds like a damning indictment, it is – perhaps not as much as the horrors of Stalinism, but nonetheless significant.)

I felt the spirit of Old Russia most in the Russian churches, and it was there that I would be challenged to re-evaluate my notion of “beauty.”  I won’t claim that the St. Sergius Lavra, for example, was my “Chartres” – it was more of an encounter in aggregate – but it was transforming nonetheless. The icons, candles, gilded domes, etc., were, of course, objectively beautiful on the surface, but I perceived an even deeper connection in those places – that there was a quality of “beauty” that went beyond mere artistic skill or presentation.

I would eventually attribute this to the fact that the churches – their form, decor, liturgies, etc. – arose organically  from an ancient seed of wisdom being planted in fertile soil aeons ago and slowly evolving over time into living forms in direct communion with the triumphs and tragedies within its surrounding societies, thus resulting in something containing a spirit or presence that could not be explained in a merely rational way.  The attempt to replicate this process artificially from above in response to some over-arching “theory” of “progress” would thus be futile – almost like attempting to design from scratch a “better” tree.  (This may be Burkean, but I don’t know – I’ve never studied Burke in depth.)

I have since come to see a healthy society as a network of overlapping “organic” structures like this.  This not only includes a layered system of government where all levels (federal, state, county, town, etc.) are of equally paramount importance, but also the presence of other social groups – families, churches, schools, clubs, interest groups – each of which are distinct from the other forms, but which coincide with, interact with, and reinforce each other.  Moreover, the older and more traditional forms are the most valuable because they have had a longer time to evolve and take on deeper levels of meaning and provide a stronger flexibility and resilience in the wake of cultural upheaval (provided that over time they have not become ossified or decayed.)  In an unhealthy society, however, these forms are withered or absent, leading in the extreme to a polarization between the atomized Individual and the centralized State with no healthy intermediary structures.

This view might at one time have been called “conservative,” but I’m not seeing any linkage with Conservatism as it is now practiced.  What bothers me is there really seems to be no acknowledgement in any  part of the political sphere that any levels of community identity even exist  except for the Individual and the State (and maybe some very generalized and ideologically-correct categories such as race or religion.)  Both Parties and both Ideologies have almost an identical underlying assumption that all political issues involve “America” as a whole and must me solved purely on a nationwide basis; the notion that problems can be seen as essentially local (or particularized), and can be solved on a local (or particularized) basis, is not even considered.  As such I have little inclination to ally myself with “liberalism” or “conservatism” as they are currently defined; both reject organic structures in favor of a doctrine of “imperial” standardization.  I see bits of organicism in various places, i.e. the urban design ideas of Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler, some forms of environmentalism, or (implicitly) in Tolkien fandom, etc., but it never seems to take on any wider political coherence.

I appreciated your post about Terrence Malick – I remember a similar experience I had a while back when I saw The Truman Show : I thought that the movie raised a lot of interesting metaphysical issues, only to read reviews that were somehow unable to get anything from it other than that it was a commentary on our “television culture,” or something.  I wouldn’t call The Truman Show  a specifically Christian movie, but I think this experience speaks to the fact that there is a part of our culture that has not only lost touch with a “Christian” framework, but has lost touch with anything remotely numinous.  There is an unquestioning adherence to a reductionist materialist ontology which is so convinced of its own self-evidence that it cannot conceive of anything else, regardless of religious tradition.

Per your suggestion I watched Tree of Life  last night (a very intense and powerful film!) and subsequently read some of the reviews. I wouldn’t claim that all reviewers missed the point, but there was a repeating theme of “this movie is so unconventional” and then noting the surreal sequences without really understanding that there was anything to be gleaned from them.  I acknowledge that the movie was unusual – if it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t feel so alienated from movies in general.  I do realize, though, that to some (it depresses me to say “most”) people, pictures of nebulae or dinosaurs or people milling about on the beach are just that – pictures of nebulae or dinosaurs or people milling about on the beach.  What can you do?

You could, theoretically, introduce students to the main tenets of Christianity or philosophy; you could have them read the Bible cover-to-cover or memorize the Nicene Creed – but that would be useless in introducing them to, say, the sacred grace of ordinary existence, let alone the Mysterium tremendum  or the Dark Night of The Soul or The Great Cloud Of Unknowing or the “love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love.”  These things must be – experienced directly? Felt?  Bestowed by grace?  Procured over a long period of spiritual struggle?  One could argue that it is nonetheless important that connections to the numinous, however they may arise, not be squelched by overwhelming exposure to a reductionist culture of oversimplified, resigned emptiness, which is what I am afraid is (in places) occurring.

Thoughts? If this letter appeals to you, let me suggest Prince Charles’s book Harmony. Read my TAC essay about Charles for more. Excerpt from that piece:

Others, though, see in Charles a visionary of the cultural right, one whose worldview is far broader, historically and otherwise, than those of his contemporaries on either side of the political spectrum. In this reading, Charles’s thinking is not determined by post-Enlightenment categories but rather draws on older ways of seeing and understanding that conservatives ought to recover. “All in all, the criticisms of Prince Charles from self-styled ‘Tories’ show just how little they understand about the philosophy they claim to represent,” says the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

Scruton’s observation highlights a fault line bisecting latter-day Anglo-American conservatism: the philosophical split between traditionalists and libertarians. In this way, what you think of the Prince of Wales reveals whether you think conservatism, to paraphrase the historian George H. Nash, is essentially about the rights of individuals to be what they want to be or the duties of individuals to be what they ought to be.

The most complete statement of Charles’s worldview is his 2010 book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, co-written by Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. In its opening line, England’s future king declares, “This is a call to revolution.” Against what? Nothing less than “the current orthodoxy and conventional way of thinking, much of it stemming from the 1960s but with its origins going back over 200 years.” Charles believes Western civilization took a wrong turn at the Enlightenment, is headed toward destruction (especially environmental), and cannot save itself without an abrupt change of intellectual and spiritual course.

His criticism of the Enlightenment has nothing apparently to do with monarchical politics. It is chiefly a matter of philosophy. According to the prince, modernity occasioned a loss of vital wisdom that had been discovered, developed, and preserved in a number of ancient civilizations. The essence of this wisdom lay in seeing the world as cosmos—characterized by order, hierarchy, and intrinsic meaning. Moreover, the cosmos has a spiritual dimension, the existence of which is intuitively present in natural man. These principles are denied by modernity, which recognizes no meaning in the natural world aside from what man imposes on it, and the empiricism of which marginalizes “the non-material side to our humanity.” Writes Charles:

Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamorized convenience, and this is why we have ended up seeing the natural world as some sort of gigantic production system seemingly capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit. … We have become semi-detached bystanders, empirically correct spectators, rather than what the ancients understood us to be, which is participants in creation. This ideology was far from benign or just a matter of fashion. The Marxism of the Bolshevik regime totally absorbed, adopted and extended the whole concept of Modernism to create the profoundly soulless, vicious, dehumanized ideology which eventually engineered the coldly calculated death of countless millions of its own citizens as well as entire living traditions, all for the simple reason that the end justified the means in the great ‘historic struggle’ to turn people against their true nature and into ideological, indoctrinated ‘machines.’

Strong stuff from the future king of one of the world’s great industrial powers. The Prince of Wales says the West reached a turning point in the High Middle Ages, when integrative scholasticism gave way to nominalism and Western man began to think of God as separate from Creation and humanity distinct from nature—a point also made by the American conservative Richard Weaver in his landmark 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. Though Charles concedes this paradigm shift paved the way for the emergence of science, it also “effectively shattered the organic unity of reality.”


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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