Saturday, 24 May 2008

Some Improving Reading: George Grant on the Nihilism of "Values"

I came across the passage found below in David Cayley's George Grant In Conversation a few days ago. In it, Grant asserts that it was Nietzsche who inaugurated the use of "value" as an ethical concept, in a peculiarly modern evisceration of what had been the core of the Western ethos--the "Good".

Later, Grant goes on to explain how amusing it is that so many who believe themselves conservative (i.e. the defenders of "values") are utterly unaware that they are using an ethical grammar invented by an ideological arch-enemy--the man who stands most firmly (even more firmly than Marx) for everything they hate. As you know, I consider "conservatives" opposed, not just linguistically but philosophically, to most of what's been best in the Western tradition. I coined a term, "Steynian", to describe this phenomenon.

I confess that I simply fail to see how the ethical premises of anything that spews out of Ann Coulter's mouth can be extracted from the Sermon on the Mount, The Republic, or the Reflections of the Revolution in France. I will say, though, that, in the art of ingeniously employing shameless casuistry to contort arrant solecisms until they attain a marginal plausibility in the eyes of precocious undergraduates (and inattentive adults), free-market fundamentalists and utopian libertarians have no peer.

Anyways, I think Grant's explication of the concept of "values" is apposite to a society that builds its communities around Home Depots rather than churches. I am particularly interested in Grant's last sentence. It has never seemed coincidental to me that the post-war, U.S.-dominated world over which the grammar of "values" has triumphed has endured the most anti-intellectual era since the beginning of the Dark Ages (actually, that's not entirely fair: druids, scops and bards likely enjoyed the esteem of Celts, Angles, and Saxons on a scale far grander than our own thinkers have had cause to expect over the last few generations). Here goes:

It seems to me that Nietzsche is clearly saying there are no inherent purposes in the world. What people previously meant by "good" was what anything was fitted for: a horse as good if it could run fast or pull. "Good" was what we were fitted for, or what we are fitted for. That implies purpose...Nietzsche no longer believes that there are these purposes; the purposes have been destroyed. He wants a new language to express how we decide what we should do, and therefore he substitutes for the language of good (what we are fitted for), the language of "value".

Nobody has ever been able to tell me what a "value" is...It seems to me an obscuring language for morality once the idea of purpose has been destroyed, and that's why it is so widespread in North America--everybody talks about "our values"...Clergymen talk of values. Everybody talks about values, night and day, when they're trying to make pious, secular sermons; and yet it comes from the greatest enemy of all this, Nietzsche. The language of value is above all the language of Nietzsche. It is what is left once you have eliminated the idea that there are purposes that intrinsically belong to Being...The ancients called thinking a good because it belongs to human beings to think--that is their nature.


Peter Burnet said...

Very good. Political conservatism is often touted as a big tent, but how it reconciles combining angry, foul-mouthed secular libertarians with those trying to drink from the well of traditional wisdom, reverence and morality is beyond me. It seems some days to be more like a big circus complete with a large freak-show.

Still, I'm confused as to where you want us all to go. The only thing these people have in common is a common adversary. The postmodern progressive's combination of angry militant secularism, bureaucratic rule, amoral transnationalism and the relentless mocking and deconstruction of faith, family and community strikes me as much, much further down the nihilistic Nietzschian road than the the Saturday morning crowd at Home Depot, who are at least there in response to the imperative of family. If the others were in church or doing charity work for a community service club, I'd see your critique more clearly, but aren't many of them more likely to be doing something defiantly solitary like running a triathlon or taking in the latest offering at the GLBT repertory theatre?

Aeneas the Younger said...

I read Cayley's collection some years ago (and it resides in a box in my unfinished basement, along with my Grant collection), and it helped steer me in the direction of opposing (liberalism) modernity.

Value(s) - by its very definition - is a RELATIVE term. What one man values is held in contempt by another man. The value of a consumer item is valued by one man, and ignored by another.

(Allan Bloom covered some of the same ground (much after Grant) in his "The Closing of the American Mind.")

Nietzsche is the great satan in that he pointed in a direction that seemed to justify an abandonment of the "good" as a necessity.

"Peter" seems to miss the point of conservatism.

Real conservatives are - or should be - engaged in the activity of putting their hands-up in the air and yelling: "STOP!"

Real conservatives - like Grant - are consumed with the idea of lamentation, because the rot has set-in too deeply to reverse. Because we are heading towards inevitable collapse, the tory can only shake his head and recall that there once was a life worth living.

We lament that which has been lost. We know - to a great extent - that what has been lost is perhaps well nigh irretrievable.

Brokerage politics cannot bring us back, because brokerage politics are part of the problem. A technocratic authoritarianism cannot repair the damage, because it uses the language and methods of technocratic society.

It is all tyranny. It is all opposed to the idea of virtue.

We don't expect you to understand Peter, as you accept the underpinnings of Lockean liberalism. One needs to have retained a pre-capitalist ethos and sensibility to understand such things.

( ... on a side note, Google's spell-checker is always confused by the word "tory." It only seems to recognise the word (Tory) as a proper term referring to a formal political party. In this, one can see Grant's point about liberalism.)

Aeneas the Younger said...

Capitalism (as a social system) is antithetical to the good.

That is the problem the so-called "Christians" have in this day and age; they have been brainwashed into believing that Free-Markets are in alignment with Christianity. The have bought into an IDEOLOGY - that is, a grocery list of political "must-haves," that have nothing to do with Christianity.

Capitalism is the very force that destroyed the good. Yet, the so-called "conservatives" of today venerate mammon as the cardinal virtue and litmus test of their orthodoxy.

Please keep up - this stuff is very basic.

Ti-Guy said...

Still, I'm confused as to where you want us all to go.

I think this is a clue:

Nobody has ever been able to tell me what a "value" is...It seems to me an obscuring language for morality once the idea of purpose has been destroyed.

Perhaps a meaningful dialogue in real language (as opposed to verbose and mystifying dilations on amoral transnationalism and post-modern progressivism and a contest to determine who's the Worstest Nietzsche-ist) might a good place to start.

Purpose has always been tied into my understanding of values. When people can no longer think about that critically, when they are so burdened by a false consciousness of National Greatness that any explanation of purpose can be imposed on them with little resistance, then almost any discussion of values is meaningless, particularly that of "family values" or the dead-end that proposes that value can only be determined in the marketplace, be it the one of goods and services or the one of ideas; two mechanisms that have been so distorted by the power abuses of capitalism as to to make them fit for the rubbish tip at this time.

What separates me from Tories is that I consider a greater diversity of styles valid as long as they're tied to some purpose and that it's the lack of critical thinking about purpose that has resulted in the ridiculous counter-culture, identity and 'liberal' or 'leftist' politics that have plagued America since the 60's; something the establishment could not have wanted more, and I suspect, has largely engineered. Panem et Circenses is afterall, a brilliant strategy.

Remember, Canada, liberals, leftists, progressives and traditional Tories still talk about politics in terms of practicalities. Such discussions are premised on the idea that poltics are meant to lead to something: better health care and public education, reduction of poverty and greater social and economic justice, more opportunities for real entrepreneurship and advanced research leading to useful applications, better environmental protection, more sustainable capitalism, economic and political sovereignty, etc. etc. They're not intended to be stages upon wich one exhibits his or her commitment to noble, meaningless myths about Freedom and Democracy and the Pursuit of Happiness and to deride/denounce those whose commitment is lacking.

Ryan said...

I think Peter has nicely illustrated the difference between a reactionary and a conservative.

Ryan said...

And draws no distinctions between a handful of social or economic libertarians as the vast majority of the hated secular "left," nor notices the explosion of "bureaucratic rule" by multinational corporations (what Grant would call private governments) that far exceeds that of any "liberal" form of economic democracy.

Sir Francis said...

...the Saturday morning crowd at Home Depot...are at least there in response to the imperative of family.

I should think that the "imperative" of family is most properly satisfied by engaging with one's family--through such old-fashioned techniques as enacting sustained conversations with its membership--rather than shopping for yet another electronic gewgaw (like an airplane-hangar-sized plasma TV screen to replace that embarrassingly déclassé, barn-door-sized piece of crap). Families cohere through their spirit, not their stuff. You're right, though, to imply that North America communicates the opposite message; I find consumerist materialism as morally corrosive as dialectical materialism--perhaps more so.

The only thing these people have in common is a common adversary.

It's worse than that, I'm afraid. Insofar as they are purveyors of an "angry militant secularism" and an "amoral [corporate] transnationalism", libertarian "conservatives" are the adversary against whom they believe themselves engaged in mortal ideological combat. North America's "culture war" is largely being shadow-boxed.

If the others were in church or doing charity work for a community service club...

As a professor, I've had much to do with young people over the last decade. My own experience suggests that youth from the lib-left spectrum account for the overwhelming majority of non-retiree community service personnel and that right-wing youth tend to see their taxes--low as they are (and which they still resent)--as abundant satisfaction of their debt to their community.

Still, I'm confused as to where you want us all to go...

So am I. If you're looking for a political programme, you're wasting your time here (though you're probably already aware of that!). Politically, I tend to oscillate between despair and despondency, like Aeneas, and probably for the same reasons.

As someone whose scholarly instincts are Modernist and who's a slavish acolyte of Eliot, Hulme and Pound, I tend to aestheticise my politics, and I am thus dangerously attracted to extremes.

I remember listening to a radio interview with Leonard Cohen conducted in the early '90's (just before he began his Buddhist training) during which the poet mentioned how attractive the rhetoric of political extremism was starting to sound to him.

I can relate to that. The more vivid my disgust with our status quo becomes, the less critical and discriminating becomes my reading of the European authoritarian tradition (De Maistre, Cortes, Bonald, Schmitt, etc.) and the more I see even Burke, Bagehot and Lord Acton and having been the pimps for a fatally compromised liberalism. Then again, I find myself assenting entirely with even the most sweeping and ill-documented of Noam Chomsky's systemic critiques and concurring with much of what I've read in Sing a Battle Song, my recently-acquired collection of Weather Underground communiqués. Are these forces pulling me in opposite or identical directions?

My ideal society, a Catholic monarchical guild socialism, obtained roughly between the reigns of Edward the Confessor and Mary Tudor and have not had a recent expression outside the pages of Christopher Dawson, G.K. Chesterton, and R.H. Tawney.

If it be objected that my political desideratum is an impracticable tissue of Tolkienesque medievalisms that could never be established through the democratic mechanism of an advanced post-industrial capitalist society, I could only agree wholeheartedly. Yet its impossibility does nothing to lessen my commitment to it. I suppose I follow a "political theology", with essentially Platonic (rather than utopian) features.

Sir Francis said...

What separates me from Tories is that I consider a greater diversity of styles valid as long as they're tied to some purpose...

I hope I've not written anything that implies an hostility to diversity. On the contrary, I believe diversity to be crucially at stake in and under threat by the homogenising advance of messianic liberal technology.

So, for example, I do not consider the menu of channels available to me via my TV remote to be representative of an authentic "diversity", as this spectrum merely comprises a metaphysically indistinguishable bilge. An intelligent Toryism is quite able to recognise when the illusion of choice is being peddled as the real thing.

Ti-Guy said...

I hope I've not written anything that implies an hostility to diversity.

Not at all. I know you well enough to know you're not hostile to diversity.

The key here is tied to some purpose. It is disheartening to me to see people acting without purpose, or without thinking about purpose. I think that's fundamental to a lot of what I find particularly mystifying about this worship of laissez faire, freedom, and increased technological "sophistication," and consumer choice.

You can have endless discussions with people about the value of these things, and what you notice is that you never get a sense of purpose motivating any of it. I'm sure if they thought more about that, they'd prioritise better, and we'd cease to be confronted with this flotsam of trivialities that are held up to critics as robust challenges or as issues we've somehow failed to take into account.

Where we might differ is in the value judgement of such purposes others have determined motivate their own behaviour (I suspect we wouldn't disagree much with each other). I can't stand tattoos, for example, but I can't argue with someone who explains, persuasively, that there is some substantive reason (esthetic or spiritual or whatever) for having them done. I suspect if more people thought this way, the extremes of liberalism would remain on the fringe, engaged by those who are genuinely creative and original and among whom true innovation develops.

As it stands now, no one even seems to recognise what true innovation is anymore. If everything is novel, then nothing is novel; even ugly-for-ugly's-sake isn't novel anymore.

It's a slightly different issue when people are in their formative years, when they need to be exposed to a diversity of experiences to develop a firm sense of self to become mature and interesting adults. And therein lies the problem these days, particularly when it comes to the dull and irritating conformist Harper Conservatives.

Speaking of dull, Jack Granatstein floated an only slightly odoriferous emission in today's Globe (Support America you treasonous anti-American Canadians! Or you'll regret it!). He actually referenced one of those toy polls the Globe features on its web site. He described it as "self selected."

I thought briefly of imprecatory prayer and euthanasia over this morning's coffee and pain au chocolat and now I have to atone for it.


Peter Burnet said...


I should think that the "imperative" of family is most properly satisfied by engaging with one's family...

Certainly, but that presupposes one has a family to begin with and sees it as a happy, hopeful link to the future. The odds for that aren't great if one believes each and every aspect of how we live today is irredeemably rotten to the core.

I'm sure you are familiar with all the objections (nostalgia, aristocratic authoritarianism, materially brutal lives, etc.) I've had them thrown at me so often in my life it's almost a comfort to see a worse case than mine. Your confessed despair about the modern is comprehensive to say the least and appears to be much broader than a political despair. I doubt it is susceptible to being argued out on a blog. You are indeed in the realm of poetry.

But what I don't get is the leap you make between the near-feudal, religiously uniform ideal you express so concretely and your admiration for the postmodern leftist critiques, which to me add up to a kind of neo-paganism for the childless. Contrary to what everyone around here insists, I am not a philosophical libertarian, agree with much of the spiritual vacuousness critique, especially as in relates to secular libertarianism, and don't share at all the bumpf about magic markets leaving us all happy ever after. My support for limited government and economic conservatism is much more analagous to Churchill's support for democracy--distasteful, but better than all the alternatives. And my inclination to see hope and value in modern North American life comes as much from trips to Home Depot (where I'll have you know, Sir, I buy solid tools that connect me to the natural ground of my being and abjure plasma TV's as alters for ignorant heathens like my children) and coaching hockey teams than from studying political philosophy.

Another thing I don't get is how common it is today for those who attack "the American Way" as celebrating the amoral pursuit of raw power and mindless materialism are often the same people who are freaked out by the one segment of American society that would agree--the religious. The more thoughtful of them understand well that public freedom rests on private piety, or at least reverence. Actually, I get it a bit, at least to the extent American religion is caricaturized as a politically corrupted and theologically incoherent Protestantism-on-the-edges. There certainly is more than enough of that, but a lot of the prominence of that image is the result of cherry-picking by the media and an anti-religious intellectual community that loves to focus on the fruitloops. Nobody paints such a picture of black churches and nobody chortles about their hypocrisy when they trumpet family values. Catholicism, both conservative and liberal, seems to me to be more intellectually vibrant in the States than elsewhere, as even the Pope seem to realize, although neither side is calling quite yet for a return to Mary Tudor. :-) I'm a little suspicious of your assertion that left-wing students are more engaged than right-wingers (in the get-your-hands-dirty sense of engagement), but you could be right. However, surely you aren't thinking of seriously religious students?

Finally, what kind of diversity are you saying you support? Your ideal historical period was hardly one of religious or political tolerance, or of any kind of tolerance for that matter. That's why we have the legacy of the Locke you love to hate so. Again, there may have been kinds of tolerations in your dream era that we are lacking today, but there are a lot more that we have and they didn't. and the ones they had were not arrived at by deconstructing notions of the "good".

Aeneas the Younger said...

It's hard dealing with Peter when he manifestly does not get the point.

Contemporary liberalism - as espoused by the CPC and LPC - is homogeneous, not heterogeneous. But not in the way he does not see.

Sure, we have more Official State recognition for diverse lifestyles than ever before - no one disputes that, or the necessity of that protection.

We live in a remarkably homogeneous society CULTURALLY speaking. Everything and everyone is levelled within the materialist milieu. Not just levelled, but lowered and debased.

Limited government? What for? So that TNCs can rampage and dominate in ways the old 19th Century Monopolies only dreamed of? Be careful what you wish for ...

Economic conservatism? I do not see anything MERCANTILIST in your way of thinking, nor anything remotely close to it in the CPC manifesto.

The CPC represents the economic traditions of the Liberal Party of Canada. Of that there is no doubt.

Ti-Guy said...

Do Peter and SF know each other?

If I knew that, I'd stop despairing myself and thinking this is a public discussion and assume Peter is bantering with a friend and holding up marginal Americanism as representative to be provocative. Maybe America really looks like that to him from his perch, I really wouldn't know.


Catholicism, both conservative and liberal, seems to me to be more intellectually vibrant in the States than elsewhere, as even the Pope seem to realize... just too droll to take seriously. I'm sure in contrast to the religious primitivism of the United States, the historically rich, ritual-laden traditions of pre-Vatican II Catholicism is a novelty but intellectually vibrant? The true intellectual vibrancy of American Catholicism is not something Pope Benedict is interested in celebrating, I'm pretty sure.

Aeneas the Younger said...

SF wrote:

"My ideal society, a Catholic monarchical guild socialism, obtained roughly between the reigns of Edward the Confessor and Mary Tudor and have not had a recent expression outside the pages of Christopher Dawson, G.K. Chesterton, and R.H. Tawney."

I would agree on this, but add that I also admire Canada between 1911 and 1916, when we knew what both Honour and Treason looked like. I would choose to be a Subaltern with my Men in the Mud of Flanders ... and not because I seek to glorify War - but because I seek to Honour Loyalty, Brotherhood/Comradeship, and Sacrifice. Among the stench of death, men found a meaning that transcended the mundane. Some say it was a horrible price to pay, and I agree, but there was Honour in their Service.

Peter Burnet said...

Do Peter and SF know each other?

Not yet, Ti-Guy.

..religious primitivism...Catholicism is a novelty but intellectually vibrant?...., etc.

Aren't you the one who is always emphasizing the importance of empirical data?

aeneas, I'm speechless. I've had lots of arguments with lots of people about when and where was the apogee of history's golden age, but you are definitely the first who has placed it in the trenches of World War 1. If I ever find anyone who wants to argue it was reflected more in the camaraderie of Auschwitz, I'll put him in touch.

Aeneas the Younger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aeneas the Younger said...


It's not about a "golden age." It's about life filled with a purpose beyond mindless consumerism and cultural & social mediocrity ...

Peter Burnet said...

Yes, I know what you are saying. Looking back on want, calamity and adversity and recognizing them as sources of strength and moral character is part of the human condition. So is living to try and ensure our children don't experience them in the future. That is the dilemma of our times and I do not know what the answer is.

Aeneas the Younger said...


You have to admit that our (real) tory blogs are much more edifying and interesting than pap like "The Canadian Sentinel," "United North America," or "The Return of the Tory (DBT)."

Ti-Guy said...

Aren't you the one who is always emphasizing the importance of empirical data?

You must realise that a list of Catholic institutions of higher education isn't a compelling argument to support intellectual vibrancy.

If you're looking for a solution to the dilema of our times, I'd recommend meaningful communication as a place to start.

Which is one of the reasons I'd prefer that America cease to be a distraction for Canadians while we sort ourselves out.

Aeneas the Younger said...


I am attracted to "The Monarchist" and "This is Just to Say" for the same reasons.

I remain a Disraelian.