Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum
Society as manifest in all its organs and instruments – including the individual – is mediated by a web of agreements among disparate entities about how they shall coordinate their conduct. Almost no such agreements are ever formalized in legal contracts. Almost all are informal, and indeed evanescent. Strangers meet on the street, and do not attack each other, but rather make way for each other without even noticing that they do so. When this mutual accommodation fails for one reason or another – when we get involved in one of those silly dances where we can’t get out of each other’s way – the reaction is almost always happy hilarity, and indeed a greater pitch of intimacy and solidarity than might otherwise have transpired. Almost never does it devolve into violent conflict.
So is it with all our other sorts of negotiations. To an overwhelming degree, such agreements are fulfilled. When they are not, the reason is almost always simple error or confusion, with no blame apportioned; and such frictions form usually an occasion for a higher, better degree of future coordination.
We notice and discuss mostly the disagreements, or defections from agreements, that crop up from time to time. Compared to the number of our successful transactions with each other, these are few indeed, vanishingly few; yet they consume almost all the available bandwidth of our conscious conversations. Politics, gossip, news of disaster or difficulty, the arts, errors of dress, manners, rite, or custom, disagreements about what is true and who believes what to be true, or does not, pranks and pratfalls, criticism of this or that person, policy, work, idea – these are the sorts of thing we mostly talk about. We do share good news, to be sure; but only the good news that is extraordinarily good. The ordinary goods, of which life is almost entirely constituted, pass unnoticed.
As perhaps they should. Bandwidth is costly and scarce, and often enough it is not quite adequate to the flux of our difficulties with each other. How boring, wasteful and stupid would it be if we all mentioned to each other every little thing that went fairly well?
The overwhelming predominance of our success in comfortably coordinating our conduct derives from our common adherence to a transcendent vision of how things are, and ought well to be. Our millions of agreements with each other amount to, and derive from, an iterated agreement with each other about what is important in life, and what it is therefore proper to do, and not to do, and how. This superordinate agreement about the nature and proper conduct of life is the social contract. It forms the environing milieu of its constituent agreements, to which they must all conform if we are to begin to understand each other in the first place. These constituent agreements are arrayed in a hierarchy of scope, with moment to moment customs – such as “pass to the right of oncoming traffic” – at the bottom, and our most general and fundamental moral and philosophical commitments at the top.
The first principles at the top level of the social contract are a set of propositions – however inchoate, poorly specified, or dimly understood – about what is important in life. They arise from our shared apprehensions of the order of the world – both in the most general terms and as pertains the detail of daily life – and of our place in it. Only in view of such a panoptic comprehension can we see how to proceed with each other.
The social contract is not then, first, a contract we form in negotiation with each other, even though we ascertain it jointly as well as severally, making use of each other’s talents to help us all discover its proper form. We negotiate it first and superordinately with the order of being itself, in all its ramifications, and only subordinately with each other. In all its constituent operations, the social contract works – or fails – according to its degree of congruence with the Logos; in virtue of which, also, may it be reckoned as just, or unjust, base or noble. It furthermore binds or looses us, obliges or liberates, in proportion to that congruence.
The Logos stamps its form upon the social contract from three dimensions: arising from below, via the wisdom inherent in human physiology; impinging upon us on every side, via the economic imperatives of the game of survival, prosperity and reproduction we must ever play with each other and our world; and radiant from above, via the allure of the sublime beauty to be felt in the understanding and faithful implementation of moral truth. When we offend too long or egregiously against the order of being, either corporately or individually, we feel our disagreement in our bodies as disease, in our estates as poverty, and in our minds as despair. Disagreements along any one of these dimensions can spill over into the others, are indeed almost bound to do so, for there are feedback effects: disease can deepen despair and devour economic resources, poverty can hobble the spirit and enfeeble the constitution, and despair can kill the morale needed for active successful engagement with the world, or even to eat and sleep.
We generally notice such disagreements first as they crop up in society, either as between its members or organs, or as between its principles – conflicts of laws, e.g., or of political doctrines. But all social disagreements, whether of men or their ideas, are at bottom disagreements with the Logos. When two men disagree with each other in law or business or politics, and come into conflict, one of them at least is in some disagreement with the Logos, so that his acts are to that extent ill fitted to things as they are, and are therefore less good than they ought to be. So likewise for nations.
As a social contract well fitted to the Logos engenders social welfare, wealth of estates and wellness of minds and bodies, so an ill fit social contract engenders illth, illfare, illness. Like any tool that is broken or not quite right for the job, it irks us, and injures us, or our work, or both.
When a society’s first principles come under question, the foundation of the social order is weakened. Customs and moral sentiments lose their sure connection to reality. They begin to seem mistaken, and then to deliquesce as men look for a better solution. If they do not soon find it, things begin to fall apart. The friction of social transactions increases, interactions are fraught with uncertainty and anxiety, and the cost of each transaction – not the cost of what is exchanged, but the cost of conducting the exchange – goes up. Strangers who meet on the street can no longer rely on their basic agreement about how to get along. Rather than blithely and effortlessly negotiating a way past each other, they must instead assess and react to each other consciously. In the limit, strangers who approach each other on the street must size each other up to ascertain whether to prepare for combat with a foreigner living according to a foreign social contract antithetical to their own, and hostile. Routine interactions become threatening. Trust evaporates. As more anxious, men are more irritable, and hackles rise ever more readily. Conflict and violence more and more increase.
A petty but illustrative example: with the widespread and radical reassessment of intersexual behavior attendant on the burgeoning success of second wave feminism in the 1970’s, it suddenly became an open and perplexing question whether men ought to open doors for women, as they had from time immemorial customarily done. Simply passing through a doorway in company with a member of the opposite sex became a source of worry. Both sexes had to perform a complicated little dance at every such passage, first to try to figure out what the right way to behave might be, given the status of the other, and second to signal an intention not to cause offense either way.
When first principles are rejected, every sort of transaction, however trivial, must be rebuilt in accordance with their successors. Until this project is complete, and the new social contract is humming along, the intellectual and emotional resources that everyone must devote to the management of routine social transactions goes through the roof. Until stability has been regained, nothing can be taken for granted, and everything is open to question. Societies therefore rather desperately seek to achieve and maintain equilibrium under a workable social contract, and once having achieved it will defend it fiercely. Attacks from without or defects within will meet severe correction, and homeostasis constrained within tight bounds. Societies are naturally conservative of their traditions. So they had been throughout recorded history, anyway, until the most recent blink of an eye.
At an ever accelerating pace since at least 1789, the West has been engaged in rooting out and jettisoning the prevalent first principles under which it had ordered social life for 1500 years. The cult of the Incarnate Logos, under whose sway the West rose to global predominance, has been replaced with the cult of nothing. The first principle of the modern West is that there are, and ought to be, no first principles, ergo no moral order imposed upon men by any Logos, whether from below, from above, or from any side. Men ought instead to be radically free to devise their own first principles, and behave as they wish so long as they impose no constraints upon others.
As no longer founded in the order of being, moral constraints per se now lack any objective foundation, and cannot therefore be understood as just, except insofar as they operate to constrain constraint itself.
But society cannot operate except by imposing constraints – laws, customs, taboos – upon individual autonomy. To think that it can is simply incoherent. And such constraints cannot but express a moral evaluation of behavior: they impose a moral vision upon the whole polis, willy nilly.
So long as society perdures, so will the constraints deriving from its moral vision. There will always furthermore be ostracism of those who reject their authority to govern conduct. Conformity is the sine qua non of social cohesion, and must be enforced. The only way to do without ostracism is to do without a polis altogether.
The only question then is whether the constraints of the polis – including the laws about what sorts of ostracism are illicit – are in fact moral. There is no way to answer that question except by reference to moral principles that transcend and found society. We can’t avoid moral determinations. And that is just to say that we can’t avoid deciding what it is absolutely wrong to do; wrong, i.e., not just in terms of our happenstantial preferences, but in terms of the structure of reality.
Social discourse, then, hangs ultimately upon a shared understanding of the basic order of being; and such understandings cannot but address religious matters. This is why a common cult of some sort lies always at the foundation of political order. Whether or not it be juridically established, there is always a state religion.
A common cult that asserts the meaninglessness of all cults is by its own account meaningless, and having rejected any absolute, metaphysically given basis for moral evaluations, is incapable of implementing social constraints that are moral except by accident – or by survival from bygone days of moral sentiments grounded in the abandoned cult of an ancient regime. E.g., we still feel that murder is evil, but if there be no absolutely given moral order of things, then this feeling can’t be strictly correct; so can it be no greater in inherent righteousness, weight and dignity than the feelings of the murderer who feels like murdering – or than the soughing of the wind.
When the first moral principle is vacuous, every man is forced to grope his own way alone to an understanding of his own idiosyncratic first principles. And this is a lot of work! Almost no one is up to the task. There is no time, in the first place; one must get on with the business of life, ready or not. In the second, discovering a coherent set of first principles adequate to a practical Theory of Everything that is in turn competent to all the exigencies of life is a massive undertaking. The first principles of the social contract inherited from the grand synthesis of the High Middle Ages were the product of hundreds of generations of hard work on the part of a dedicated priestly class of highly trained intellectual specialists – and of millions of lives in which, and by whom, those principles were tested and refined.
That has all been quite intentionally destroyed. The social contract has been decapitated. No one is anymore taught, or can easily see, how things hang together coherently. Everything is up for grabs, everything negotiable. Everything must therefore be renegotiated, at every turn, and on unclear terms. Indeed even the terms of such negotiations are fraught, uncertain, and subject to constant renegotiation. The ultimate referent and presupposition of all discourse – the order of being – having been ruled taboo, and unmentionable, language is deprived of any finally determinate meaning and reference, and thus it more and more decoheres. Inasmuch as it expresses by its very grammar the grammar of being – which of course it must do, if it is to be of any use to us at all – language itself is now treated as an instrument of unjust oppression, fit for demolition.
So men stumble confused and bewildered from one experience to the next, guided only by a few fragments of the traditions we learned in our families of origin, and by the inbuilt wisdom of the body: by our immediate corporeal impulses, desires, and aversions.
Because living traditions must express themselves as trammels upon wild license, derived from notions that appear to the modern eye as absurd philosophical jetsam of a bygone age, they and all those who keep them are a byword and a public laughingstock, and indeed an insult to the prevailing cult of nothingness, a betrayal of its people, and a vicious, dangerous evil. So are they more and more driven out, wherever they appear, ridiculed, persecuted, prosecuted. Most of the work of social coordination is now being done by our physiology – and even that is under heavy attack.
There’s a lot of wisdom in our bodies, to be sure. Yet while it suffices for the survival of the species, it does not adequate to high civilization, but at most to the peaceable coordination of a family or small clan. Many of the larger organs of society do still limp along, it is true. But this is thanks only to the same sort of inertia that keeps English in workable trim despite the assaults of immigration, miseducation, and especially of popular culture, where the breakdown of rules (linguistic and otherwise) is most purposive and pervasive.
That breakdown is accelerating at an increasing rate. Anyone alive since 1960 can see it. It presents as increasing barbarity, brutality, perversion, and ugliness, in manners, music, fashion, art, language, education, sex, and indeed religion. While it has perhaps not yet reached everywhere, few corners of the West are left untouched. Its most profound effect is on fertility, which among the adherents of the cult of nothingness has fallen far below replacement rates. The wisdom of the body does not appear to be enough to hold off the spiritual and moral chaos unloosed when the Logos is ejected from his throne.
The situation is dire. But it is not hopeless. You can’t found anything on nothing, so, having come to power, the cult of nothingness cannot long endure. The signs of its collapse are everywhere visible already.
What then is to be done?
An old friend and long time student of the Oriental martial arts was walking once alone at night along a deserted city street. Three young men turned the corner ahead of him and walked his way abreast. Knives appeared in their hands. Remembering his years of training, my friend breathed, took his hands from his pockets, relaxed, assembled his chi and let it flow, breathed again, opened his eyes to see everything, felt the earth and its pull beneath him; then kept walking toward them, smoothly, softly, en garde.
The knives disappeared. As the men passed him by, one of them murmured, “Cool, man.”
That is what all those who are interested in the survival and renascence of civilization must now do. We must simply walk forward into the gathering gloom and looming chaos, alert, ready, and grounded in that ancient covenant that supported and bound our forefathers into a company. The best offense is the universal allure of an evidently holy and upright life.
The situation in the West today of those who would hold to and propagate its ancient order, and indeed develop and evolve it to fit changing circumstances, is like that of the earliest Christians in the first few centuries AD. Unlike their pagan fellows, the Christians abjured abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, promiscuity, and infidelity. They cared for the widows, orphans and abandoned slaves in their congregations. They nursed their sick in hospitals of their founding, rather than leaving them on the street; so much better than others did Christians fare in time of plague on account of this basic nursing, that they were suspected of sorcery. They were honest businessmen and traders; so were they sought out as trustworthy counterparties, and prospered unusually. Finally, and not least, they rehearsed at least weekly the golden cord by which the whole of the Law and the Prophets, in all the multifarity of their detailed implementations in quotidian life, pended upon the commandment first to love God with one’s whole being, and then one’s neighbor. They bore their commitment to the Incarnate Logos ever in mind.
These factors, all unique to the Christians, combined to make them the fastest growing demographic in the Roman Empire, in an era when birth rates among other groups had plummeted below replacement levels and social mores had collapsed. So it was that Christianity soon subsumed Rome, which then, reconfigured according to new first principles, became Christendom, a domain that by 1600 held some sway over almost the whole planet.
Christianity prevailed despite the perversion and dissolution of traditional Hellene and Roman mores that environed it. So then may we. All we need to do is stand fast by our principles, and in accordance thereto, proceed fearlessly to lead upright and holy lives. If we do, we shall furnish the yeast that shall enable our civilization to rise again after the vigorous kneading that appears to be in the offing. There is no guarantee that we shall not be persecuted, or suffer. There never has been, or can be. But holiness and righteousness are their own rewards, come what may.
If we now simply breathe, relax, and proceed calmly toward whatever awaits us, confident in our companionship and agreement with the order of being, then someday not too long from now our children’s grandchildren will be again able to walk down the street in blithe, beautiful coordination.
– Kristor J. Lawson has worked as a countertenor, whitewater boatman, woodcutter, hermit, and for the last 35 years as a financial advisor. He is married, a father of three and grandfather of two. He began writing for the public at View from the Right in 2009, and at his present blog, The Orthosphere, in 2012.
This article is to be cited according to the following convention:
Kristor J. Lawson, “The Social Contract with the Logos” SydneyTrads – Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum (30 April 2016) <sydneytrads.com/2016/04/30/2016-symposium-kristor-j-lawson> (accessed [date]).