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The Selfishness Of The Self

Erin Manning left a great comment on the selfishness of the Self:

Anybody who has read any of the writings of the late 19th and early 20th century has seen a frequent expression of this one idea: the old order, whatever it was, was about to change, was indeed already passing away, and whatever would replace it would be something very different from what had gone before. Though you can find this expressed as early as the middle of the 19th century, I think that these ideas really got going after the First World War. Suddenly the old justifications for sending huge numbers of young men to fight and die didn’t seem all that compelling, especially to those who had to go and fight. What–fight and die, endure misery whether you lived or not, lose the best and brightest of a whole generation, for kings and political orders, for tribes and nations, for faith or family? What did it gain anybody, in the end? Another world war would raise those same questions, and leave people grappling with the same aftershocks, especially given the already-spreading rupture of the family through divorce, a thing considered shameful half a century before, but now apparently commonplace. Men who went to fight came home to find their wives had moved on to other men, and many women received divorce papers soon after their husbands returned home; it was a different age.

The age of the atomized individual, in fact, had begun to rise (as Carle Zimmerman said in “Family and Civilization”). In one way of looking at it, you can say that the trajectory of deterioration from the first deliberate detachment of the Self from home, family, tribe, nation, religion, community, and so on to the motto today of “I am my own,” which implies that the Self itself is a Thing which one owns like property and can make use of in pretty much the same way, was already set out in those early days of at least the early 20th century, if not before. When a man’s principle source of identity is located not in the Self but in something or many things outside of it (e.g., I am a Catholic, I am an American, I am a proud citizen of Nowhereville, U.S.A., home of the ABC Widget Corporation, I am a member of the Smith family–no, not the Yorkshire Smiths, but the Shropshire Smiths, etc.) there is a stability there that can endure, but when a man’s primary way of identifying himself is as a Self first and all those other things only superficially and tangentially, his identity takes on a different quality, as something malleable, shifting, ephemeral, and prone to radical restructuring.

This does not mean that one’s sense of self is unimportant or meaningless; it just means that the elevation of that sense of self above all else tends to invert those structures which help us find a place in the world that is bigger than we alone are–that, in a way of speaking, can help us to put ourselves at the service of others in that solidarity and brotherhood which is so necessary to human thriving.

To put it more simply, if a woman decides that her freedom to explore who she is as a person is so important that it means that she must leave her husband and children behind, she is abandoning that very kind of community in which the Self is protected and given the chance to grow. Plenty of people have decided their families of origin simply don’t measure up, and have cultivated a weary cosmopolitan attitude about the idea of any duty toward one’s aging parents–but one’s parents are aging, nonetheless, and the kind of Self who will do nothing to ease their final years is not a particularly good one in most cases. There are plenty of illustrations of the point we could examine.

Having said all that, and it’s too much already, I think it’s only fair to recognize that the atomized individual arose for what were likely just reasons. The young people of a century ago looked around them and saw hypocrisy, greed, a lust for power, a desire to control within all of those institutions which are supposed to allow for the nourishing and thriving of the individuals within. It is not too much of a stretch, for instance, to say that the Second Vatican Council had the problems of a sort of Pelagianism to deal with, in which the members of the faith community often seemed to think they were saved because they were members of the faith community and (after all, Father) they Did All the Things. God wasn’t going to condemn anybody who prayed the rosary and made the first Fridays, was He? That would be unfair. The danger of too much suppression of the individual, at least in a faith setting, is that the individual forgets he’s actually supposed to be cultivating a relationship with Jesus Christ–personally, that is, not relying on the priest’s prayers at the altar to do the trick on his behalf.

And that’s just one example: if the institution of marriage threw open the doors to divorce, let’s say, for how long before that did the individuals who came together to form a union remain really separated from each other instead? Or if a political party crumbled under the weight of a lifeless conservatism or an even more placid liberalism, was it the fault of the young voter who demanded to know what the party would do for him, or the fault of the party for forgetting that their job is to serve the people, not grow into a Leviathan for the sake of job security? There are lots of ways to illustrate the problems that fed the rise of the atomized individual.

And now, today, “I am my own,” meaning not only that the Self is all-important, but that the Self can be used for whatever purpose its owner chooses. Want to be a man today and a woman tomorrow? Want to live with a girl for five years and give her two children and then disappear with no obligations whatsoever? Want to change jobs every three months, or cut off your family for the crime of being the kind of Selves your Self doesn’t like much, or reinvent your racial identity à la Rachel Dolezal, or lie, cheat and steal your way to political power? It doesn’t matter-why should it?–so long as the Self remains appeased and temporarily content.

But–and here is the problem–no society can endure for long as a mere collection of disassociated individuals who owe loyalty to the Self but no one else. The fact that we are not completely dissolved as a nation yet has more to do with the lingering echoes of the old loyalties to place and people and tribe and nation and religion and community, etc., than to some power of the Self to balance the paradox between doing what is in its own best interest and pleasing others. To put it lightly, so long as there is only one real Cosimanian Orthodox, the vestiges of the not-Cosimanian will keep things going; but when everybody is a Cosimanian, how is anything supposed to get done, if it involves inconvenience, cost (financial or otherwise) or any suggestion of the sacrifice, however temporary, of one’s own self-interest?

It is at this point that people generally point out that one doesn’t have to be a member of a family or tribe or faith or community to want the roads to get fixed (for instance), and that the Self will put up with taxes to get the work done, etc. That is true for now, but I think there is a danger of forgetting that even delayed gratification, putting up with the temporary loss of money or the temporary inconvenience of the bad road, is a life skill that has to be learned, and it is usually taught by those old forms of family and community. We don’t yet really know what it is like to have, in place of a community, a loose assortment of uncollected individuals who owe no loyalty to anyone but themselves, but I suspect that day will arrive.

I think most of us are free riders on the labors and sacrifices of others — those who live today, and our ancestors — who order(ed) their lives by something greater than themselves.

Just this afternoon, I got word that a volunteer firefighter in West Feliciana Parish was killed today [1]while working an automobile accident there. The roads were icy, and it appears that another vehicle trying to stop for the crash plowed into him. Officials haven’t released the man’s name, but everybody in town knows who it is, and my mother tells me folks are devastated. All the local volunteer firefighters know it could have been them.

In the 1980s, my late father was a founder of the VFD out in Starhill, the rural community where I grew up. A number of those local men got firefighting training, and devoted themselves to protecting their neighbors. Nobody got paid. They did it because they believed it was the right thing to do, and because they knew that by protecting their neighbors, their neighbors were protecting them.

That’s a small instance, but an important one. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam became almost a household name with his “bowling alone” [2]work documenting the steep decline in community involvement and “social capital.” I’m old enough to remember when almost everybody’s dad was involved in some kind of service work in the community. It’s not like that anymore. I’m as guilty about this as anybody else.

Patrick Deneen’s new book [3] argues that liberalism itself, in both its liberal-liberal and conservative-liberal versions, has brought us to this place. The book is not going to comfort either Democrats or Republicans, because what Deneen is doing is questioning the system itself. His basic thesis is that liberalism has done a great job over the past 200 years of liberating the individual, but that it has eaten up all the seed corn (the virtues and customs needed to run a self-governing liberal polity), such that it is on very shaky legs. The reason is that so very much in our culture trains us to think that the desiring, choosing Self is the center of the universe.

As Erin Manning points out, liberalism didn’t come from nowhere. It really did make life better for countless people. In my own life, it was because of liberalism, and liberal values, that I was able to leave my own small town, and follow my vocation to journalism, and realize other dreams. But my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming [4] runs up hard against the limits of that kind of individual liberty, by exploring the richness, the meaning, and the social capital my sister had by staying behind in our town and devoting herself to the community.

I returned, and ran up hard against some of the rigid family reasons I left in the first place. Life is hard. There are no utopias. Solving the problems created by advanced liberalism aren’t a matter of going back in time, if that were possible. The truth is, we are going to have to learn to live by limits, but nobody can agree on what those limits are, and who should be the ones to decide. This is why we can’t come up now with a plausible alternative to liberalism.

But we’re going to have to, or it will be thrust upon us. Watch. Meanwhile, say a prayer for the family left behind by that volunteer firefighter who died this morning because he got up and went out on an icy road to help people, not because he got anything out of it, but because that’s the kind of man he was.

UPDATE: Officials finally released the name of the firefighter: Russell Achord. [5] They also clarified an earlier report that mistakenly said he was a volunteer firefighter. In fact, he was apparently a salaried firefighter. Still, most of the parish’s firefighting squad are volunteers. It could have been any one of them, including my brother-in-law.

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74 Comments To "The Selfishness Of The Self"

#1 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 18, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

When reading this, for some reason I thought of the school of Rabbi Hillel of first-century Israel, the school that advocated a man’s right to divorce his wife “for any reason,” including that she’d burned dinner (once!) or that he’d simply found another woman who pleased him more.

No, that was Rabbi Akiva’s position. Hillel took the moderate position.

And if those social problems are unsustainable over the long term, what is your response if a critical mass of westerners would gladly submit to a much more authoritarian form of technocracy, just as long as they don’t get forced back into the kinds of “thick, solid” communities you idealize? In that eventuality, I think perhaps some orthodox Christians might come to wish they had spent more of their efforts shoring up the Imperium after all.

Hunter C,

Your entire comment here is really excellent, but this bit is probably the best, and it lines up with something I’ve felt for a really long time.

I’m not conservative, although I am in a deep sense anti-liberal. I put this in kind of a pithy aphorism a while ago, but if it comes to the four major creeds of the last century I’d say the following: traditionalist conservatism is mostly false, but liberalism is simply meaningless and empty, that doesn’t even ask the right questions, much less provide any serious answers. Socialism and ethnic tribalism both get some very important things right and answered some questions well, but they went very wrong when they were extended into fields of human endeavor that went beyond the problems they were meant to address.

I have no doubt that liberalism will eventually collapse, because it doesn’t really address the deepest questions of what makes life worth living and how we should set up society to optimize those things. (One of the greatest failings of liberalism is that it doesn’t think sufficiently about work and the place that it has in a fulfilling life, and so liberal capitalist societies have been totally incapable of dealing with the threat posed to people’s working lives by automation). There’s no guarantee however that whatever takes the place of liberalism will be conservative, and there’s no guarantee that it will restore institutions like the family and the church to the position they once had. The new order that replaces liberalism will be regimented and controlled, but maybe that social control will not come from family or church or feudal lords, but from the state. (Which I would be quite cool with: I’d be less cool if the new authorities turned out to be large capitalist corporations, but that’s a separate issue).

There are lots of social orders that could take the place of liberal capitalism, after all. Some kind of revivified communism or socialism would be one. Ethnic nationalism would be another. An Iranian-esque theocracy would be a third (the Iranian Revolution might failry be called reactionary, but it wasn’t in any sense traditional or conservative, and the social order it installed was one that had never existed in Persian history before). Some kind of authoritarian, scientific technocracy on the Chinese model would be yet another.

If it came down to it, like you suggest, I’d probably opt for the “authoritarian technocracy” rather than the “thick, solid” authorities of church and family, mostly because I have a lower view of the church and family and a higher view of the state than Rod has. So, maybe traditionalists should take a second look before they become too optimistic about the coming fall of liberalism (which I certainly agree is coming).

#2 Comment By Aloevera On January 18, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

The kind of “Me-Centrality described” here is not entirely new–and has been developing at least since the middle of the 19th century when John Stuart Mill identified the notion of a “life-plan” (which, by itself, we don’t necessarily find a bad thing), although looked at broadly, it was always an implied development out of the Western-Christian sense of interiority (see the bibliography in the Appendix at the end of this post). It is impossible to understand the trajectory of (Western) individualism without an understanding of the development of the Western sense of selfhood. During the course of the later 20th century that sense took a particular turn which has been much discussed in political and philosophical literature (see the appendix below). Put in a nutshell: where the “self” used to be a part of some group or groups, the groups now became parts of a Self. The whole conception of the individual in society has been turned inside out. Group affiliation–along with much else–is now only important to the self insofar as that enhances the fulfillment of selfhood, as any one person may understand “fulfillment”. We live in an age of the seeking of some sort of personal uber-fulfillment (of which the campus “snowflake” phenomenon is manifestation). It is easy to blame Liberalism for this development–but we might want to ask why this has become such an elaboration and problem only recently, while Liberalism has been around for some time. I suggest that increasing social complexity–that is, the expansion of arenas of interaction (nationally or worldwide), and the increasing juxtaposition of people with great differences among themselves (aided by the recent enormous social connectivity enabled by the internet), has resulted in a breakdown of older group boundaries and their rules for many–with the concomitant turn to Identity as a pole around which to organize one’s connection to the world (along with a lot of the brutish vulgarity that characterizes so much of social media). And, it is just a short hop-skip-jump from a focus on Identity to an adherence to the “inside-out” selfhood or version of individualism which I just noted. But nobody or no thing (such as Liberalism) “caused” the increase in social complexity–it happened “naturally” as the world developed and humankind expanded. That does not mean we cannot work to overcome some of its more toxic features. But that can be done within the Liberalist fold, as well as without it. What is necessary is to find a way to strike a balance between some of the better features of Liberalism and some of the more contemporary toxic elaborations.


Appendix–selected items on the development of Western selfhood

* “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor” by Peter Berger –article in European Journal of Sociology vol 11 (2), Nov 1970

* “Atomism” by Charles Taylor, chapter in Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit (editors) Communitarianism and Individualism (1992–original 1985)

* Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist by Phillip Cary (2003)

* Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Societyin the Late Modern Age by Anthony Giddens (1991)

* The Tyranny of the Moderns by Nadia Urbinati (2015)

* On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859)–section on the “life-plan” ( [6] ). A life-plan was not possible for most people before the Industrial Revolution with their shorter life-spans and various other restrictions:

“This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong…”

#3 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 18, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

I know someone in this precise situation right now, and my wife and I are both preparing to Have This Talk with her. She’ll lose her family, church, employment, and likely 90% of her social connections (it’s a small rural county). She won’t be liberating herself, she’ll be tying herself even more tightly to whatever is left.

As far as employment goes, I’m strongly opposed to the idea that someone should lose their job because they make sexual choices of which other people disapprove. Stronger labour laws would address that problem.

That being said, it’s probably true that the more ‘traditional’ attachments get weakened, the more we latch on more strongly to those identities that we have left (which usually end up being race/ethnicity, class, or political party).

I think the future of secular societies don’t look much like Sweden, they’re going to look a lot more like the Czech Republic. Both are fairly prosperous societies with among the lowest levels of economic inequality in the world, and both have among the world’s lowest levels of religiosity, but one people has found their collective identity in liberalism and openness, and the other has found their identity in fierce ethnic tribalism (by some measures the CR is the most ethnocentric country in Europe, in spite of being very liberal on the sex, drugs, and religion axis).

#4 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 18, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

The TLDR version of what I’ve been saying is this: there’s no such thing as a genuinely selfish society, in the long run. If you get rid of traditional attachments, ties and sources of meaning, people will find those loyalties and sources of meaning somewhere else. There’s no guarantee thought that they will go back to the sources of meaning and loyalty that they had in the past.

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On January 18, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

Considering that the US was started by people who insisted on their right to worship as they pleased (and imposing their beliefs on everyone else in the vicinity), I guess we’re all descended from liberals, no? Otherwise our ancestors would have stayed back in Europe and put up with the situation rather than emigrated.

You can’t complain about egoism and self-determination and at the same time get upset about the lack of religious freedom.

By the way, in my opinion the guy who really started the avalanche moving downhill was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Talk about overly-bright individuals who was totally clueless about how humans actually interact with each other. His theories were tosh and his suggestions on how to organize society were bunk. Unfortunately they ended up taking Europe by storm…

#6 Comment By catbird On January 18, 2018 @ 4:01 pm

“if we see the ancestral sin of Adam and Eve as not being sexual desire, but simply the selfish desire for power”

Uh, hate to tell you Hound, but no one but you thinks the Adam and Eve’s sin was “sexual desire.” And it wasn’t “selfish desire for power” (although that guess is a lot warmer).

It was simply coveting what God had forbidden.

[NFR: The knowledge of good and evil. Say, does any church teach that the sin of Adam and Eve was sexual desire? I’ve never heard that. Curious to know if anyone else has. — RD]

#7 Comment By Youknowho On January 18, 2018 @ 5:32 pm

The emphasis on “selfhood” is a natural offshot of a more affluent society.

To put it bluntly, in straitened circusmtances, your survival depends on being part of a group. And to be a part of a group you have to agree with their beliefs and practices, no matter what you think of them, no matter if you think they deal unjustly with you, no matter if you think things could be better if they listened to you.

When you can survive outside of a group, you do so. You form attachments based on emotional reasons, not mere survival reasons. You are willing to walk away from groups whose rules do not make sense to you. You can pick and choose what rules to follow.

Call it what you will, it is only when faced with members walking away that group start to question if their rules make sense, and if they should have dealt with situations differently.

#8 Comment By Erin Manning On January 18, 2018 @ 5:41 pm

What a terrific discussion! I’m grateful to Rod for it.

First things first: prayers for Mr. Achord and his grieving family.

Rod, I was thinking a bit more about your conflict with your family and especially your father. I think it ends up illustrating, in a way, why the question isn’t “Should we have community or should we have individualism?” but “How do we find the proper balance between the community and the individual?”

Your father believed deeply in his home, his place, his values, so much so that when you physically left home it was to him an act of betrayal. But you realized, rightly, that your particular gifts needed to be cultivated in the wider world. Had you been a brilliant physicist or a ground-breaking doctor it would have been the same thing: your community could not be the place that nurtured those talents.

A healthy balance would have let you leave home without your father’s disapproval (on behalf of the community). But plenty of authoritarian structures–families, churches, communities, governments, etc.–become unbalanced in that the survival of the community becomes the only goal, even if it means stifling the individual. Anything or anyone who threatens that survival is a traitor.

This is, obviously, not the ideal. A really healthy community has room for individual variations, so long as those variations are within the community’s general purpose (e.g., one would not expect to find registered Republicans in the local office of the Democratic Party). But today we more often see the lack of balance on the other side, because a really healthy Self will see its own relationship with the community as a part of who and what he is, not as a chain keeping him from the fullness of his own self-expression.

In the end, I think you and your father wanted the same things, the survival of the good things about your home. But you recognized that the tares were choking off the wheat, in a manner of speaking, and that a new variety of wheat might need to be planted to restore the health of the old, while your father shut his eyes to the possibility that the wheat ever could or ever would fail.

In saying this I’m responding a bit to those who think it has to be either/or: either we have strong, healthy communities, or we have strong, healthy selves. In a way, that sense of constant conflict between the self and the community is a very modern way of looking at things. Tension, yes; it’s unavoidable to have tension when you are seeking balance. But conflict implies that there can only be one victor.

I think it’s true in a somewhat obvious way that to get healthy selves you have to have healthy communities, and to have healthy communities they should be made up of healthy selves. (I’m using “healthy” here in a general sense.) The breakdown of the community preceded the rise of the self in this age of history, but it has happened the other way too. The problem for us today is that we’ve inherited this situation, a time in history when the old institutions that stood at the center of people’s communities have disintegrated or disappeared. Even the best seem to have lost their authority, or communicate weakly, uncertain trumpets in a hostile world.

And the one thing a self can’t do on its own is restore a community. You need a whole lot of other selves choosing to come together to make something new. You can’t merely make-believe that the old order is returning, and you don’t have the luxury of ignoring those seeds of destruction that lurked in the institutions of the past that for all their problems you find admirable and worth re-creating. You can’t pretend, either, that the tares won’t still grow among the wheat, but the wheat must be the kind that will not be choked off by them.

And what does it look like, when enough individual people decide that, after all, there is something true, and good, and beautiful about centering one’s life around something that is bigger, finer, more real and more true than one’s own self–that there are things worth fighting for, even worth dying for, regardless of the fact that that impulse to fight and die to preserve the good has been exploited again and again by evil people who just wanted more power? What does it look like to want to educate your children toward hope and away from jaded cynicism, to value beauty, to reject the consumerism that makes a person into a “human resource” to be used and discarded, to seek stillness, to repair broken familial ties, to set down roots in specific places, to stand firmly against those forces in society that insist that virtue is outdated, chastity ridiculous, self-sacrifice foolish, and brotherhood an illusion?

What does that look like? Why, the Benedict Option, of course.

#9 Comment By elizabeth On January 18, 2018 @ 8:54 pm

[NFR: The knowledge of good and evil. Say, does any church teach that the sin of Adam and Eve was sexual desire? I’ve never heard that. Curious to know if anyone else has. — RD]

My uncle, former Lutheran Minister (in the LCA- which is long gone) told his catechism class, when I attended it as a guest, that the Roman Catholics consider sexual intercourse to be the Original Sin. So, while he didn’t believe it was, he was sure that RC’s did. One of many bits of ignorance about the RCC I have heard from Protestants. I have also heard considerable ignorance about Profs from RCs. And complete ignorance of Judaism from both. Why don’t you all start the Grand Project of prepping for the Fall of the Liberal Order by trying to understand one another?

QJon: your understanding of the Buddhist teaching on not-self could use some better instruction. Look up “No Self or Not Self” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on Access to Insight. Buddhists do not at all deny sentient. In fact, we work for “the liberation of all sentient beings” – a frequently used phrase. Read “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright. He writes from an evolutionary and neurological perspective, I believe. It is not a religious treatise.

In fact, the only part of Erin’s moments with which I partially agree is that the Concept of a Self, one which we haven’t on continually recreate in our minds, feeds a neurotic absorption with the pursuit of personal pleasure or power or whatever. There is no actual Self in the way we think there is. That is not to say that we are not here experiencing things. Not at all.

#10 Comment By elizabeth On January 18, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

Oh, get us an edit function!

#11 Comment By Ryan Booth On January 18, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

Say, does any church teach that the sin of Adam and Eve was sexual desire? I’ve never heard that. Curious to know if anyone else has. — RD]

Ah, Rod, you’re so ignorant of racist theology. You should read up on the “Serpent Seed” theory, which argues that Eve had sex with Satan, and that Cain was thus the son of Satan, and Cain’s descendants are (naturally) those evil Jews.

Besides the racists, I’ve read that the Moonies also teach that Eve had sex with Satan.

#12 Comment By Hound of Ulster On January 19, 2018 @ 2:07 am

The Eastern Church also rejected St. Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin, which is heavily focused on sexual desire as the locus of Man’s fall. I am not familiar with the reasoning of the council in question, but my guess is that, in the hands of theologians not as skillful, this doctrine contradicts free will, and renders the salvation offered by Christ and his death and resurrection effectively meaningless because of Original Sin negating the free will of believers. The Original Sin doctrine also poses problems for the role of Mary as Mother of God, which is why the West created the additional error of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to effectively nerf the Original Sin in Mary.

The doctrine of the East is Ancestral Sin, in which sexual desire plays only a second-or-third order role. We as human beings are cursed by sin and death as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobeying of God’s command. But we are not directly responsible in perpetuity for their error. Augustine saw even sex between a man and woman in the context of marriage as morally damaging, directly contradicting Paul’s famous teaching that the marriage bed is undefiled. The East holds to Paul, and rejects Augustine on this point.

Question for the room: Which doctrine is easier to understand and less prone to mis-interpretations? Original Sin or Ancestral Sin?

#13 Comment By galanx On January 19, 2018 @ 2:09 am

” Officials finally released the name of the firefighter: Russell Achord. They also clarified an earlier report that mistakenly said he was a volunteer firefighter. In fact, he was apparently a salaried firefighter.”
Volunteer firemen are being replaced by professionals for the same reasons professional militaries are replacing draftees, day-care centers are replacing bringing the kids to your sister’s, volunteer nurses are being replaced by people who do it for a living- what they may lack in heart is more than made up for by superior knowledge and experience.

#14 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On January 19, 2018 @ 3:12 am

Liberty&Virtue writes: “…I find the view that there is no Self to be simply ludicrous and anti-human.”

What is anti-human about the concept that human have no-self? It is not saying that humans do not exist, but rather that they have no self. In addition to what elizabeth linked to in her comment, here is an extract from a book by the Dalai Lama that might help:


> What would it take to make the former more prominent and practiced?

It would take a turning away from the inward focus/emphasis of Western culture to an outward-facing approach. In the Western tradition, one could look to the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, and there is also the writings of thinkers from both India and the Far East.

> Leading by example, though for that to be
effective, we’d need to find ways to change the dearth of life-mentoring in our society

But people are indoctrinated from an early age to cultivate their inner selves and warned that if they neglect to “Do you,” only horror will follow. But such are the logical and expected consequences of valorizing the self above all else, that there is a dearth of life-mentoring.

#15 Comment By JonF On January 19, 2018 @ 6:21 am

There have been suggestions ever since Augustine that Original Sin was somehow sexual, but it was never remotely an orthodox teaching.

#16 Comment By Jon On January 19, 2018 @ 10:16 am


To clarify, sentience without a center is no more than the reaction of protoplasm to stimuli. Are we as reasoning beings with the capacity to will no different than plant life? Thus the task of eliminating this center qua ego is futile and nonproductive and possibly deleterious to one’s health.

Reading about what is popularly called Buddhism but better understood as the Buddha Dharma (Buddha Dhamma)does not provide one with direct knowledge of its practices and the insights it might provide. Like possibly all religions, it must be explored from within it. This talk of egolessness then is misleading. It would seem that what this particular dharma instructs the practitioner is to see one’s self in the correct perspective. It then constitute a path or rather walkways for seeing who one really is — not an illusion and not a concept but who who one is.

You and I will disagree as there appears no common ground and no bridge for reconciliation on this point. Anyway, I am a monotheist of sorts and therefore even further removed from that particular theology (Therevada and Mahayana).

To relate to the topic at hand, my point was that abnegation of self is no solution to a society riddled with egotism. Perhaps a solution must always remain a personal quest, that is, up to the individual self (ego). Then there could very well be choices stemming from this personal quest to reach out to others and build alternative (intentional) communities.

#17 Comment By March Hare On January 19, 2018 @ 10:49 am

” there’s no such thing as a genuinely selfish society, in the long run. If you get rid of traditional attachments, ties and sources of meaning, people will find those loyalties and sources of meaning somewhere else. There’s no guarantee thought that they will go back to the sources of meaning and loyalty that they had in the past”

Yes, yes. Very little is actually hard wired into human biology. But the tendency to agglomerate into social groups of one kind or another is one of them. Whether those groups resemble chimpanzee war parties or their more laid back Bonobo cousins is what is at stake. The groups will form around something–the local coffee shop, a Facebook group, hatred of foreigners, who knows what. But they will form.

One of my sons, 21, is the kind of Aspie who simply does not like face to face interactions with people all that much. I could easily throw together some words that make him sound hopelessly adrift and lonely. But I won’t, because it’s not true. He won’t be joining the local volunteer fire department, but that’s not due to a lack of social obligation. It’s because he dreads the kind of personalities that hang out in firehouses.

He does indeed live his life largely on line. But that is in itself a developing type of community. We older people find it weird and personally dissatisfying. I certainly feel that way. But I also think we need to back away from generational judgment, at least a little bit. The world has never been in the position its in now, and I don’t feel confident predicting just how this is going to develop.

#18 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On January 19, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

Jon writes: “You and I will disagree as there appears no common ground and no bridge for reconciliation on this point.”

Experience of the world can be the common ground. A great book was published last year, “The Monastery and the Microscope,” which chronicled an event where “the Dalai Lama gathered with leading scientists, philosophers, and monks for in-depth discussions on the nature of reality, consciousness, and the human mind.” It is a good companion work to read beside the one Elizabeth noted, “Why Buddhism is True.”


> “To relate to the topic at hand, my point was that abnegation of self is no solution to a society riddled with egotism.”

But egotism arises if, and only if, a belief in a constant self is posited and manitained. In fact, the maintenance of such a belief demands the practice of egotism be entered into in order to shore up the idea of a consistent self. Just as cancer occurs when cells grow unchecked, so egotism–a cancer on society–grows when the desires that prop up a person’s sense of consistent self are indulged unchecked. But many people do not want to unattach from their desires, but rather either satisfy or repress them, thereby, keeping the illusion of a consistent self going.

There is an article about Mark Epstein’s new book, “Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself,” in the New York Times today:


Epstein points out that “Freud and the Buddha both identified the ‘untrammeled ego’ as ‘the limiting factor in our well-being.'” The convergence of Western sciences with Buddhist teachings is fascinating.

#19 Comment By Joan from Michigan On January 19, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

Many years ago, I read a science fiction story set in the kind of dystopia that the conservative author imagined liberals creating. Its basis was “What is now permitted shall be required,” and that mainly meant transitory relationships. The government actually assigned the protagonist a different wife and different children every day. No explanation was offered for the development of this future, no steps by which we might plausibly get there from here. It was just an extension of certain trend lines out to infinity.

I kind of have the same reaction to the Erin Manning quotation here. Life doesn’t require as much self-sacrifice and delayed gratification from us as it did from previous generations. She asks what would happen if we lost all our capacity for self-sacrifice and delayed gratification, if we became, psychologically, a nation of toddlers, and predicts the complete dissolution of society.

This sounds, to me, about as likely as the dystopia. Middle class parents and schools still have plenty of reasons to develop those qualities in children starting in preschool. The simple fact of being raised in groups and having to be concerned with retaliation from peers will also tend to rub off the rough edges. And so the age of puberty keeps going down but the age of first partnered sex is rising.

What I think has actually happened is not that we are getting more selfish; it’s that we don’t value the traditional things like we used to. We don’t see having a baby as “renewing the world,” in Anthony Esolen’s phrase, but as burdening the ecosystem. We and our elderly parents are tired of each other (they never stop comparing us unfavorably to Cousin Royce who got into Yale and is now a surgeon) and would prefer that their needs be met through pensions and programs. Our neighbors? They’ll move on within five years, or we will, swept away on the economic wind. Why form bonds with them that are just going to be ripped out by the roots? Churches? Volunteering? Extended family? We work 60+ hours a week; what little free time we have, we need to spend decompressing.

Military men have historically been famous for swearing a lot. Separated from family and respectable society, freedom to use foul language is one of the few they gained by joining up, and they used it heavily to make up for all the freedoms they lost when they put on the uniform. So it is with us. In signing up for liquid modernity, we pay an enormous price in stability, support, and all the other things that local community used to provide. In return, we gain enormous freedom in the area of identity and self-definition, and we use it to the hilt.

#20 Comment By Jon On January 19, 2018 @ 3:43 pm

Brian in Brooklyn,

To put it succinctly, who is responding to your comments?

Or to put it in another way, who is Brian in Brooklyn?

And this gets into a theological discussion: Is the self a mere summation of experiences? The difficulty with that notion — that of indoctrination (comprising of course experiences) is that experiences cannot be devoid of a self which experiences which feels, judges, thinks and sees and hears. For one to be indoctrinated there has to be a self as object for that indoctrination. And thus it is necessary for there to be in situ a self given for any possibility for indoctrination.

And since names are being bandied about, let’s take Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology: For any experience to be studied and thus analyzed (hence treated as phenomenon) there has to be noema (a complex array of meanings comprising that which is perceived) and noesis (the act of perceiving). However without the transcendental ego (ego cogito), there can be no possibility of noesis or the noema perceived. There has to be a perceiver perceiving that which is perceived. That transcendental ego transcends experience and in that separation enables experience to happen.

Again, in reference to the topic at hand, this this endeavoring to nullify the self as a solution to our societal problems concerning acquisitiveness and the lust for power is a non-starter.

#21 Comment By grumpy realist On January 19, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

P.S. The inability to create communities and to work for the greater good of all is why psychopaths can never really access the power that theoretically is available to them. Basically, their power stops with their death, because they will never have created anything outside of themselves which is larger than themselves. (Even Hitler’s 1000-year Reich only lasted 7 years–for good reason.) That isn’t to say that they can’t poke some pretty big holes in history, of course…

Right now in modern society I would worry most about the license we have given to those things called corporations to act like psychopaths activated only by greed–and given that corporations are essentially immortal, we better find a good way of controlling them–or rather, the individuals running them.

The same man who thinks of himself as a Good Christian can also as a businessman arrange for a takeover of the main business in a town, the transfer of all production to Mexico, and the trousering of the pension fund supporting said ex-employees, because hey, making money is the only thing a company is legally required to think about. It’s insane. Both sides, liberal and conservative, must push back against this incessant greed and say “hey, families and communities count and well and you as a business MUST think about them.”

#22 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On January 19, 2018 @ 5:45 pm

“So, maybe traditionalists should take a second look before they become too optimistic about the coming fall of liberalism (which I certainly agree is coming).”

Hector, your entire comment was fantastic. While I am far from a historian, I have now read enough Western history to be persuaded of two things:

1.) The fall of liberalism is coming, but the current tensions could nonetheless drag out for a very long time.
2.) I am both supportive of the fall of liberalism, due to its many failures and denials of human nature, and terrified of the coming fall of liberalism, hoping it is delayed or (miraculously) prevented.

After all, as you say, we don’t know what will replace it. Something far worse could replace it! A restoration of humane civilization after a collapse can take decades, and sometimes centuries. Despite knowing how rotten the liberal West has become, I don’t look forward to experiencing its fall (if I live that long).

Soviet Communism was quite terrible, and its rather short lifespan is just one component that can be used to build such a case. But what replaced it in the immediate aftermath made things even worse for a time. It is still arguable whether Russia is starting to find stable footing, and it is certainly a long way from being a striving civilization again. Yet, we are only 30 years past the fall of Soviet Communism. Sometimes the echoes of a fall extend many decades more than that. As bad as it might have been to live under Soviet Communism during its latter years, it would have been worse to live in Russia in the years immediately following.

The one thing that seems to be accelerating the fall of the liberal West in quite unexpected ways is the degree to which modern liberalism now seems adamant in its denial of two fundamental aspects of human nature:
1.) Male/female differences, and the valuable purpose of those differences.
2.) The critical roles religion and ethnicity (combined) play in society. People groups are not strictly interchangeable, no matter how much the policies of modern liberals seem to believe this is the case.

In both instances modern liberals proclaim to love diversity while at the exact same time and in the exact same areas of life deny its very existence. The modern liberal says, “We must comingle all people groups from all over the world onto the same small spaces of land because diversity is one of the greatest goods. And, we can comingle all people groups of all types on the same spaces of land because people are not really that diverse or that different. We are all humans.”

The same sort of mental retardation is seen in their view of males and females. This sort of thing created a total disaster in Iraq (believing that all people can thrive in democracy because all people long for freedom). I believe our worship of diversity is our way of lying to ourselves that we haven’t actually denied it in its deepest and most valuable sense. And, it is creating a disaster of even larger proportions by advocating the mass migrations of incompatible humans on a scale never before attempted, or frankly even imagined.

The fall is coming, it is only a matter of when. And it is terrifying. If the fall can be prevented, it will make the Miracle at Dunkirk look like the kind of cheap miracle like finding a dollar in the couch cushion precisely when you wanted that cup of coffee.

#23 Comment By Anna On January 19, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

“The Eastern Church also rejected St. Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin, which is heavily focused on sexual desire as the locus of Man’s fall.”

What? Augustine did not blame sexual desire for the Original Sin, whatsoever. In his account, man in the Garden of Eden had perfect self-control – i.e., his body was completely obedient to his spirit. The loss of that control – and hence the sin of lust – only began, on Augustine’s account, after the Original Sin, when God took away the preternatural graces man had previously been endowed with. Which is why according to Augustine the Original Sin was a sin of pride, a sin of spirit alone, that does not need any bodily temptations to explain it; for him, that’s the only sin it could have been, in fact.

#24 Comment By JonF On January 22, 2018 @ 6:34 am

Re: The one thing that seems to be accelerating the fall of the liberal West in quite unexpected ways is the degree to which modern liberalism now seems adamant in its denial of two fundamental aspects of human nature:
1.) Male/female differences, and the valuable purpose of those differences.
2.) The critical roles religion and ethnicity (combined) play in society.

I think you are confusing the two senses of “liberalism” here. This post is about liberalism in the broad sense (which embraces American political conservatism too), but the two things you note above are specific to the political Left. Also, I am scratching my head a bit by what you mean by “combined”. Some religions (e.g., Hinduism) are closely tied to ethnicity, but Christianity is and always has been a universalizing religion.