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The Fierce Urgency of Tao
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The Fierce Urgency of Tao

When the truth is subjective, contests of tastes are really just contests of power.

(Illustration from Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (except any of you who might welcome these robot overlords),

Imagine you have a pair of X-ray glasses, like they used to sell in the back of comic books

Now imagine they worked. 

Now, imagine they worked even better than the ads suggested. Not only could you see through that girl’s sweater, you could see through the girl, to the wall of your classroom behind her. And the glasses could see through that, too; into the next classroom, and the next. Through the outer wall, and through the building next door, and the one after that until you were seeing through the hills, forests, mountains, the curve of the earth, the moon and the planets beyond. Your glasses could see through everything until you saw the nothingness of space beyond. 

In short, seeing through everything means seeing nothing. Your X-ray glasses are no better than a blindfold. 

This idea is not original to me. It’s one of the great insights of C.S. Lewis, who writes in The Abolition of Man: 

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

Lewis believed that some things are simply—or complicatedly, but discoverably—true. There is an order, a reality, a moral universe outside of ourselves that is true because it is real, and it is real because it is true. “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike,” Lewis said, “I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’”  

For the Abrahamic faiths, one way to glean an appreciation of the Tao is to imagine how God sees us and our actions. God has a better pair of X-ray glasses that can see through whatever He wants to see through to see the truth—or Truth—of the matter. As I wrote in Suicide of the West, the whole concept of “God-fearing” is wildly underappreciated. “The notion that God is watching you even when others are not is probably the most powerful civilizing force in all of human history. Good character is often defined as what you do when no one is watching.” Well, if you think God is watching and speaking to you through conscience—or through what Adam Smith called “the impartial spectator” within us—you’re going to think twice about your actions. Or at the least it will give you a strong incentive to think twice. 

Believing there is something outside of you, judging you by an external ethical or moral standard, gives you a standard to think about yourself that is outside yourself. I love Lewis’ illustration of the point: “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.” In just one sentence, Lewis admits an honest truth of his own faults while illuminating a deeper truth about the world.  

What got me thinking about this is I planned to write about the broader pedagogical wrong turn that has gotten all of these universities in trouble. George Packer has an excellent essay in The Atlantic on precisely that. And while focusing narrowly on Columbia and the role of its 1968 protest makes sense for the story he wants to tell, I think that story is merely a chapter in a much older story. Indeed, his story of what happened in 1968 at Columbia leaves out examples that, I think, tell the broader story of the 1960s better. The birth of the Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964, for instance, is arguably the wellspring from which Columbia ’68 was born. And the Guns on Campus Crisis at Cornell in 1968-69 is a better example of the surrender of elite universities to intimidation and threats of violence. 

But revisiting The Abolition of Man reminded me that none of this started in the 1960s. (I shouldn’t need to be reminded of that given that this is the arguably the central point of Suicide of the West.) The ’60s were definitely a highwater mark in the eternal battle between the Enlightenment and the counter-enlightenment. The campus revolts did indeed mark the capture of these institutions by counter-enlightenment thought. But they were nonetheless mere fronts in an older and larger war. 

The tyranny of feelings.

Let’s return to The Abolition of Man, one of the greatest books of the 20th century. It’s often forgotten that the book begins as a critique of education. On the first page, Lewis recounts a textbook’s treatment of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visit to a waterfall in which the Romantic poet overhears two tourists admiring the falls. One calls the waterfall “pretty,” the other says it’s “sublime.” I don’t want to get in the weeds, but the gist of Lewis’ critique of the textbook’s treatment of this scene is that Lewis believed that the educational establishment was teaching children that there is nothing intrinsic about the waterfall—whether pretty or sublime: It’s just a thing, and our feelings about it are all that matters. There is nothing outside ourselves that matters, our feelings do all of the work. “Meaning”—aesthetic, moral, religious—is something we bring to the otherwise meaningless reality around us. There is no Tao, just a contest of tastes. 

This is, in miniature, perhaps the central debate of modernity. It plays itself out not just in the realm of aesthetics and art criticism, but in virtually every sphere of intellectual, political, cultural, and philosophical debate. 

Let’s stay on art. It’s a subject I know preciously little about, but I know enough to know that the art world has these debates all the time. In 1961, Piero Manzoni produced 90 tins of his own feces, and resparked a tiresome—and old—argument about whether art has to be conventionally beautiful or whether it merely needs to express feelings about, well, something. If it expresses these feelings cleverly or authentically, if it makes a “statement,” “speaks truth to power,” then it’s art.  

It should be no surprise that in a world without objective standards, “feelings” become the standard of truth and meaning. How many campus controversies boil down to the fashionable view that you cannot argue with feelings? Feel oppressed? You’re oppressed. Feel angry? Well, perception is reality. Authentic feelings are invincible in any argument where the rules are rigged to enthrone feelings as the sovereign of the realm. 

Authenticity, being “true” to oneself, is one of the central values of those on one side of the contest of tastes. Does the art speak to one’s “personal truth”? Is it sincere? As Édouard Manet said in 1867, “The artist does not say today, ‘Come and see faultless work,’ but ‘Come and see sincere work.’” Inherent to this view is that the only truth worth discovering and celebrating is the truth found within ourselves. The flip side of this view, central to Manzoni’s cans of crap, is that the conventions and values of the larger society are worthy of only critique or mockery. You see, Manzoni “saw through” the inauthenticity, the nothingness, not just of the “art world” but of the world itself.  

But, again, contests of tastes are really about contests of power. Who decides what’s art? Who decides whether something speaks truth to power? These debates can have a Mobius strip logic to them. The ability to declare who is “powerful”—and therefore deserving of ridicule, protest, mockery, “truth-speaking”—is itself a form of power. The critics who praised 90 tins of excrement as art were exercising power, while prattling about speaking truth to it. 

Packer writes about white student radicals who occupied a building at Stanford a week after the ’68 Columbia revolt:

To them, the university was not a community dedicated to independent inquiry but a nexus of competing interest groups where power, not ideas, ruled. They rejected the very possibility of a disinterested pursuit of truth. In an imaginary dialogue between a student and a professor, a member of the Stanford chapter of Students for a Democratic Society wrote: “Rights and privacy and these kinds of freedom are irrelevant—you old guys got to get it through your heads that to fight the whole corrupt System POWER is the only answer.”

Nietzsche has a similar project. He arguably gave birth to nihilism, but he was not a nihilist per se. He believed that the “death” of God left a void, a nothingness, in His wake. And the void required men of will to fill it with something else. And what is will but feelings put into action? These great men were akin to artists, creative supermen whose artistic medium was civilization itself. 

Nietzsche’s project, however, was a great act of philosophical question-begging, for it assumed there was no Tao in the first place. The “Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all,” Lewis writes. “It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.”

This idea that reality—or human nature, or society—is a canvas upon which you can draw whatever you like, or a lump of clay you can shape however you please, wasn’t just the stuff of artists and philosophers. Indeed, Nietzsche was a kind of Typhoid Mary who carried the contagion into the empirical realm. He was a forerunner of philosophical pragmatism, which set about to downgrade the definition of truth to a kind of practical tool. The pragmatist’s razor, Louis Menand’s phrase, was wielded by pragmatists like John Dewey “to slice to pieces what he regarded as the paper problems of traditional metaphysics.” This of course begs another question, that metaphysics—the science of the Tao—is an irrelevancy in the first place. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the legendary Supreme Court justice, was a fellow traveler of the pragmatists and one of the great champions of seeing through everything to the point where everything was just a contest of power in a Tao-less universe of uncaring physical forces. “I can’t help preferring champagne to ditch water—I doubt if the universe does.” For Holmes and other pragmatists, the Tao was a fantasy, a myth agreed upon, to get through the long dark night of a meaningless universe. 

In a letter to the pragmatic philosopher William James, Holmes admitted “all I mean by truth is what I can’t help thinking [is true].” In another letter to a friend, he said, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.” In a letter to the historian Lewis Einstein, he asserted that “Man is like any other organism, shaping himself to his environment so wholly that after he has taken the shape if you try to change it you alter his life.” He added, “All of which is all right and fully justifies us in doing what we can’t help doing and trying to make the world into the kind of world that we think we should like; but it hardly warrants our talking much about absolute truth.” While James talked about the cash value of truth, Holmes believed that truth was whatever one was willing to fight for. “You respect the rights of man—,” he wrote to the socialist intellectual Harold Laski. “I don’t, except those things a given crowd will fight for—which vary from religion to the price of a glass of beer. I also would fight for some things—but instead of saying that they ought to be I merely say they are part of the kind of world that I like—or should like.”

In short, truth was merely the laurel won by men fighting in a contest of will. 

This view runs through the history of the West like a cold river cutting a path through the liberal and moral breakwaters of our civilization. This was the way Carl Schmitt, the admittedly brilliant “crown jurist” of the Third Reich. For Schmitt, quite popular in some corners of the left for a long time and newly popular in some corners of the illiberal right, everything was about power. “The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” For Schmitt, the whole concept of “humanity” is nothing more than a liberal democratic “ideological instrument of imperialist expansion.” All politics—all of it—is nothing more than a contest of power between us and them, friend and enemy. “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”

It was this worldview that inspired Julien Benda to write his wonderful, if rambly, Treason of the Intellectuals. Everywhere Benda looked, he saw intellectuals reducing all of politics to contests of will and power. “Our age,” he famously observed, “is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.”  More to the point, Benda argued that the intellectuals 

“teach man that his desires are moral insofar as they tend to secure his existence at the expense of an environment which disputes it. In particular they teach him that his species is sacred insofar as it is able to assert its existence at the expense of the surrounding world. In other words, the old morality told Man that he is divine to the extent that he becomes one with the universe; the new morality tells him that he is divine to the extent that he is in opposition to it. The former exhorted him not to set himself in Nature “like an empire within an empire”; the latter exhorts him to say with the fallen angels of Holy Writ, “We desire now to feel conscious of ourselves in ourselves, and not in God.” The former, like the master of the Contemplations, said: “Believe, but not in ourselves”; the latter replies with Nietzsche and Maurras: “Believe, and believe in ourselves, only ourselves.”

Socrates believed in the Tao; his amoralist critic Callicles scoffed at the idea that nature favors anything other than strength, believing that strength makes truth, might makes right. “The educators of the human mind now take sides with Callicles against Socrates,” Benda observed, “a revolution which I dare to say seems to me more important than all political upheavals.” The intellectuals, as a class, reject the pursuit of knowledge as a good unto itself. Nietzsche, Sorel, and the other lodestars of his age, scorn “the man of study” in an unapologetic indulgence of the “desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action.” This corruption of the intellectual pursuit of truth, beauty, knowledge, the Tao, did not stay in the universities and salons, it spilled out into the newspapers and parliaments, thanks to scribbler-activist intellectuals, many largely forgotten. (Who talks of Georges Sorel, Charles Peguy, Richard Ely, EA Ross, Charles Maurras or Gabriele D’Annunzio, and their like anymore?) 

But some—with names like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mussolini—managed to write their names more indelibly in the history books with blood. But they all moved whole nations toward the abattoir. “In all the great States today,” Benda wrote, “I observe that not only the world of industry and big business but a considerable number of small tradesmen, small bourgeois, doctors, lawyers, and even writers and artists, and working men too, feel that for the sake of the prosperity of their own occupations it is essential for them to belong to a powerful group which can make itself feared.”

I find this stuff fascinating and could go on playing connect the dots, I fear at book length, along these lines. But I should try to bring this in for a landing. The intellectuals of the 1960s, named-checked in the current bout of introspection—Marcuse, Foucault, Fanon, et al—were not nearly so original or creative as their fans claim. They merely took the old Nietzschean schtick and updated it for the “post-colonial age.” Their arguments, stripped of jargon and agenda, featured the same glorification of will and strength, the same rebellion against rules and systems, the same insistence that politics was merely a contest of power and control, the same project of organizing hatred. These thinkers “saw through” everything that is good and just—not perfect, but better than all of the alternatives—about liberal institutions and principles and just saw “power.” And what they wanted was power. The obsession with power flattens all distinctions, between power justly and unjustly applied, between tolerance and intolerance, between good and evil. In contests of power, the only prize is the seizure of it. And such contests are always zero-sum.

The pro-Hamas mobs, like Hamas, believe that compromise is surrender to oppression. There can be no two-state solution, no acknowledgement that Hamas is evil because, after all, evil is a Tao-word. The only acceptable use of the word is as a political weapon, to justify the use of objectively evil means toward desired ends. They cannot admit that Israel hews to a moral standard, however imperfectly,  in its conduct of a defensive war, because that would not only concede that Hamas doesn’t hew to any standards at all, it would concede that such (Western, Judeo-Christian) standards meaningfully exist or have any legitimacy. They prefer to “see through” Israel’s actions and focus on the power alone, ignoring or denying Israel’s attempt to use it responsibly.  Hamas, however, does indeed have a corrupt Islamist conception of the Tao, they do believe they are doing God’s will. But their nihilist friends in the West do not. All they understand is the Schmittian friend-enemy vision of power. And since Hamas is a friend, its enemies are their enemies. This is the only way to explain the darkly hilarious effusion of groups like “Queers for Palestine.” 

Packer writes:

“The ideas of one generation become the instincts of the next,” D. H. Lawrence wrote. Ideas born in the ’60s, subsequently refined and complicated by critical theory, postcolonial studies, and identity politics, are now so pervasive and unquestioned that they’ve become the instincts of students who are occupying their campuses today. Group identity assigns your place in a hierarchy of oppression. Between oppressor and oppressed, no room exists for complexity or ambiguity. Universal values such as free speech and individual equality only privilege the powerful. Words are violence. There’s nothing to debate.

I agree with Packer, of course. But none of this started in ’68. And it won’t end in ’24. This is a constant battle. Because the real battle line runs through the human heart. C.S. Lewis believed that educators should illuminate the Tao. But Lewis lamented that the educators had ceased to be illuminators of the good, preferring the power to be “conditioners” of whatever they deemed to be the good. “The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.”

The good news is that such efforts fail. The crooked timber of humanity is not a medium for artists to make whatever they want. The bad news is that the effort to create new men—Soviet Man, Aryan Man, Woke Person, whatever—often creates deformities and “men without chests.” And men without chests see no reason to value anything other than power. I’ll give the last word to Lewis. 

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Because I bit off a larger haunch of a G-File than planned, I am quite pressed for time. The tl;dr is that all of the beasts are fine, though the Dingo is shedding about a Lhasa Apso worth of hair every 24 hours. She had a good morning because she got to chase away a crow, and there’s probably no creature Zoë can abide less than the genus corvidae. Zoë also likes the warmer weather because it means we can leave her “TV” on—the upstairs guest room window, which she monitors constantly for unauthorized activity on her block. Sometimes, she does doze off at her post. But the fearsome Dingo is always prepared to do what is required. Pippa is being better about getting up without demanding excessive belly rubs. I don’t think she’s changed her policy, she just likes the weather more these days and is willing to get her day started a little earlier. This in turn means more languid naps later in the day. But she continues to have a problem with fitting in dog beds—and cat beds. We’ll see if it will last. Longtime readers may recall that Gracie likes to drink from faucets. She will stand by a sink and demand that it be turned on and she be allowed to drink from it. I made the terrible mistake earlier this year of replicating this process with the hose spigot in the backyard. So now she takes every opportunity to run out the door and go down there and drink from it. That’s fine when I’ve left it on at the proper water velocity. But I don’t let the water just run 24/7, despite her demands. So now she just sits in the backyard staring daggers at whoever looks at her, saying “this thing won’t turn on by itself.” It wouldn’t be that big a hassle, except for the fact that Chester, the neighborhood bully appeased by my wife, often swings by the backyard, and if Gracie is unintended, fur will fly. So several times a day, I have to go down there to either turn off or on the water, or to retrieve a wet-headed cat.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.