In Mark Citadel’s recent “Are we Social Engineers?” on Social Matter, we see a clever exposition of one of the key differences between Reactionary thought and ideas like Conservatism and Libertarianism (which are still essentially liberal). Most social-contract views of society ( just about everything that came out of the enlightenment or emerged since) are predicated on the idea that we are exchanging a state of nature for society, “a necessary vice for which we sacrifice some of our liberty.” This beautiful paragraph got me thinking:
This is a profoundly ignorant view of human nature. Human society is no less natural than the beehive or the anthill. How we construct our homes, our agricultural facilities, our industries, and our seats of government, are no less natural than the honeycomb and the labyrinthine network of chambers within a termite mound. It’s not something we build to compensate for a crippling deficit, but rather something we do because we are human.
Imagine an explorer from a distant world flies to earth and finds himself looking at a Mediterranean hillside village:
…or the Manhattan skyline, or a suburban subdivision for that matter. It’s hard to articulate what, if anything, would look qualitatively different between such a view and say, a coral reef or a lichen on a rock. Obviously the level of complexity is orders of magnitude greater, and there are more right angles in the human constructs, but if one was not human, would that register as a qualitative difference or a mere variation of degree and details? Humans would probably strike one as another life form doing what its nature encourages.
One thing that made me receptive to Reactionary thought when I discovered it were two books by British philosopher John Gray, Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals. Gray is not a reactionary per se, and I reject many of his conclusions, but he does a great job placing humans back in the context of nature that we work so hard to insist we are above.
It is intuitively difficult for us to imagine behavior, especially our behavior, as coming from somewhere other than our will. Whenever I see my pet lab point like a bird-dog (despite never being trained as one) I have to wonder how any sequence of genes could possibly code for proteins that somehow result in raising one paw and extending the body toward something interesting. She certainly didn’t learn it from reading books. Is it possible that our far more complex behaviors also emerge from our nature? That villages, markets, and hierarchies are hardwired into us? It certain seems likely that we are built to at least acquire society the way we acquire language, and that, as Citadel argues, traditional civilization is a particularly suitable society to our nature.
What should we think, therefore, in terms of tradition as what is adaptive, both to our environment and our nature. Chestertonian ideas, like “The democracy of the dead” become even more powerful if we imagine tradition is the optimal world for our hard-wiring. We should look at attempts at top-down social change like that undertaken by the Supreme Court last week in terms of this viewpoint. In nature, a species discovering a novel food source or moving to a new continent generally ends badly for either the species or the ecosystem. Not always, mind you, but more often than not. It is possible, not likely, but possible, that the consensus of traditional societies for millennia was just wrong about family, and that five justices on the supreme court have this solved. I’m inclined to doubt it.