Believing is Seeing

Jordan Peterson’s roundtable discussion on Exodus, has much to recommend it, not the least of which is a digression which addressed an error I have often made in my godless youth, which many Americans, also godless, also make.

  1. The  Vantage from Nowhere

The Idolatry of Reason — one unwelcome legacy of the Enlightenment Era — involves the idea that one stands apart from the laws and customs, mores and ideals into which one was born, and judges them as if from an objective standpoint: the vantage from nowhere, so to speak.

Right Reason, let us hasten to add, disapproves of the Idolatry of Reason as unreasonable.

Right Reason is humble, and rightly so. Idolatry seeks to dethrone the Most High in favor of an usurper. Whether that usurper is the faculty of reason, or the pride of man, or the vanity of some high-sounding ideal, is no matter.

Putting the lesser good above the higher good makes it bad. Even the brightest angel seating himself above heaven’s highmost throne becomes a devil.

In reality, reason only operates when grounded on first things themselves not open to reason.

First things include axioms, common notions, definitions. Either we agree two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other, or we cannot study arithmetic. We agree that all right angles are equal, or we cannot study geometry. We agree two intersecting lines cannot both be parallel to a third line, or we cannot study Euclid.

In reality, by openly agreeing to the first things, we tacitly agree, like it or not, to all that follows. Once we agree to Playfair’s axiom, and the other first things in Euclid, we’ve agreed to the Pythagorean Theorem, even if unwittingly.

As in geometry, so in life. In life, the first things are things into which we are born, and which have claims on our duties. No one asks to be born, no one votes for whom his parents are, no one signs a social contract.

  1. We Will Do and Hear the Law

In the Book of Exodus, after the Moses descends from the Holy Mountain bearing the Ten Commandments, God commands Moses to set forth before the people a more detailed and precise legal code, in the King James called “judgments”

Note that the first of these judgments, in the next verse after the Ten Commandments, is a rule of automatic manumission of slaves after seven years of service. Slavegirls not wed to owner nor his son are likewise freed. Next after that is the death penalty for murder, manslaughter, parricide, theft, cursing one’s parents. This order implies priority: liberty, life, paternity. One notes that no god of any pagan pantheon ever freed his people from bondage, and so curtailing slavery, reducing it to indentured service of limited period, is unique.

Moses writes these judgments in a scroll, called the “book of the covenant,” whose terms are recited in chapters 21 to 24 of Exodus, and then he reads it to the people. They swear obedience to these laws, given God Almighty, with these words:

“We will do and we will heed [na’aseh ve-nishma] everything the Lord has said.”

The King James renders it differently, using the term “understand” for a word that means heed, hear, listen.  Since in English, we use hear also to mean understand or obey,  the translation is not entirely misleading: but it does miss the nuance of what it meant.

In Jordan Peterson’s roundtable discussion, two of his guests, Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro, make the point that this order is counterintuitive. Surely one first hears a command, and then does it? What does it mean to do and then to hear?

The King James version merely sounds as if the oath sworn contains a parallel: we will do what the law says and obey the law. But the actual nuance contains the oddity Prager and Shapiro mention. The oath says, in effect, we will do what the law says and then hear what the law says, or, to put it more colloquially, we will live by the law and then we will understand it.

  1. Equality Before the Law

Now, this is the heart Western Civilization in this one line. The paramount characteristic separating Christendom from civilizations in the Orient, empires in pre-Columbian South America, kingdoms in Africa, tribesmen and nomads throughout the world, is this one thing: here alone is the consent of the governed asked.

It is not a coincidence that only in Christendom is explicitly marriage voluntary on the part of the bride, and exclusive, preventing divorce or concubinage. She must swear the oath and say ‘I do’. He must foreswear all other women. Such a thing is not required under the strictures of Confucius or Lao Tzu. It is not mentioned by Vyasa nor by the Buddha. It is not given in the laws of Lycurgus or Solon or Numa, and most certainly not Mohammed.

Japan as well as India has an untouchable class: there is nothing of the sort in Europe. Emperor and Pharaoh, Mikado and Caliph were regarded as sons of gods or prophets. In Christendom alone is the poor man said to be a child of God equal to the rich. In Christendom alone can both Saint Louis and Saint Frances, be canonized, Saint Mary or Saint Monica, Saint George and Saint Thomas Aquinas: widow or maiden, man or woman, king or beggar, soldier or scholar.

As most Western things, this mainstream ideal has two fountainheads, one in Jerusalem, and one in Athens. The Greek word isonomia, equality under the law, has no parallel in the East. Likewise, the concept of Monotheism, which places all men universally beneath the sovereign rule of a single God who utters an objective moral law — the covenant of Noah, what is called the Natural Law, applicable to one and all —  likewise has no parallel in any earlier religion.

Since one other sick side effect of the Idolatry of Reason that arose during the Enlightenment is the Idolatry of Equality, no man can speak in ordinary words and expect to be understood. Big Brother has been hard at work to replace normal terms with Newspeak terms, so that each word means its opposite.

The equality here does not mean life lack hierarchy. Quite the opposite: along with the covenant of Noah, giving law to all men, comes the covenant of Abraham, selecting the Hebrews, out of all the tribes of men, for special duty and special martyrdom, and the laws of Moses spell out special duties that apply only to Jews, who serve as a priest and prophet to the rest of mankind, and therefore as martyrs.

The Enemy tells the gullible that equally means everyone is equally content with his lot, and no man envies his neighbor. The Enemy tells the gullible that if you want what your neighbor has, it is immoral and unlawful for him to keep you from it. If you covet his ass or his ox, his manservant or maidservant, if you lust to sleep with his wife, or castrate yourself and become his wife, none may stop you. If all are equal, you are equal to a god, and to thwart your desires is blasphemy.

Such is the Idolatry of Equality: the word “equality” is used to condone the mass-murders of Red China.

The consent here does not mean anarchy. It does not mean any child losing a game of marbles can pick up his marbles and go home. It does not mean any man dissenting from the laws under which he was born can start a rebellion and reform his nation, or found a new one, nor any heretic can start his own church.

The Enemy tells the gullible that you are not bound by any law you did not write yourself, or, having written, now wish to rewrite. You did not know what you were getting into when you vowed marriage: it is but a piece of paper, therefore objective, therefore unreal, whereas your current evening of lustful thoughts is a feeling, therefore subjective, therefore real.

If you do not feel married, you are not. If you do not feel male, you are not. If you do not feel American, all duty of patriotism is dissolved. If you do not feel like praying and obeying, God vanishes, and never existed at all. Logic shows this is not rational, but you don’t feel like listening to reason, so it vanishes and never existed either. See how simple it is?

Such is the Idolatry of Consent: the word “consent” substitutes whim for reason, willpower for moral reasoning.

To understand what and how the ideals of consent and equality under the law actually work, we must study the odd quirk of consenting to do the law before hearing the law.

  1. Iron Law of Nothing

But perhaps it is not odd at all. Perhaps there is little or nothing to explain. The idea that a social contract should be read before signing is absurd on its face.

As if any man aside from Tarzan of the Apes, is born outside society, void of family, community, legacy, and upon finding other men in like situation with himself, must create laws and customs ex nihilo by means of the universal consent with other ape-men. This is done without a single nay vote: and the process repeated for every child born thereafter, assuming each child is abandoned at birth to be raised in the wild.

And, taking the myth of Locke and Hobbes seriously, who is it exactly that is in the position of the “state of nature” to whom this social contract is to be presented, quill proffered and inkhorn ready for him to sign? The law and custom that an Englishman must keep his word cannot be created from the formless void of pre-creation: one must be an Englishmen first, and have a fine sense of English honor, to be so strict about keeping one’s word.

The conceit that society is based on a social contract, in other words, presupposes a social contract governing contracts exists before society exists. As a myth or metaphor, it is a sound enough way to say that ruler and ruled, society and individual, must and should exist on the basis of mutual benefit and reciprocal obligation.

Taken literally, the conceit is absurd on its face. As if one were to insist that, before agreeing to abide by the grammar rules and word-uses of a language, a man raised without language must have the matter explained to him without language, a contract drawn up without words, to which he must sign his name without use of alphabet, glyph, or symbol.

Even the staunchest libertarian or anarchist, before signing any contract, social or otherwise, agrees to be bound by the law that one is bound by contracts one signs. Even those who denounce any tacit obligations confess to being bound by them, namely, by making the claim that tacit obligations break the tacit rule governing obligations. Once our staunch libertarian says “the law is that all obligations are voluntary, or else invalid” he is announcing a law he holds to oblige him and all men by nature, that is, involuntarily.

What is true of the social contract generally is true of nearly every covenant or mutual obligation formed within the society. All of them involve an act of faith, made without experience of what the covenant will later entail.

Laws and customs, mores and ideals, the marriage bower, the house of worship, the town hall, the marketplace, the groves of academia and ivory towers of science all work by the same iron law: Nothing comes before first things. Anything put before the first things comes to nothing.

This leads to an odd corollary: one grants the first things first. That is, one must grant the legitimacy, the duties, the obligations both explicit and tacit, of any law or custom, ideal or institution to which loyalty is owed before agreeing to the terms.

You swear allegiance to the flag first, or vow the vow of marriage, or the oath of baptism, before knowing what it means to live as a patriot, or to live as man and wife, or to live a Christian life.

The duties of fatherhood arrive before the firstborn is born. The duties of child to father, subject to sovereign, creation to creator, are involuntary. You cannot look before you leap, because the act of leaping is what grants your soul the power to see what it is you are getting into.

First things are always taken on faith. Even the first things of rational disciplines, like arithmetic, geometry, law, economics: one accepts the axioms as axioms in order to do the work. Once one is experienced, once one has crossed the Bridge of Asses, as it were, solved the quadratic, quelled anarchy, grasped the concept of money and time-preference, then one can turn back and see where and how the axioms and definitions, the unspoken obligations and involuntary duties are justified.

  1. Contracts and Covenants

Because nothing comes before first things, all covenants must be made on the faith that the terms are serviceable and fair, even before the terms are known. The prime examples are patriotism and marriage: one is born into a nation and a culture, and must adopt its ways before having standing to object to its flaws (And flaws there will always be: Nothing outside of utopia is without drawbacks).

Likewise, the marriage vow is for better or worse, richer or poorer, until death parts the pair: and this is rarely if ever avowed by bridegroom or bride who has any notion of how worse the worse can be. Poverty, war, illness, madness, death in childbirth, child born blind or deformed, all lurk in the mists of myriad possible fates for the happy couple making the vow. They cannot know what such things are like. How could they? By the same token, in a Christian nation, or even a pagan nation where standards of decency are upheld, as the happy couple comes to the marriage bed as virgins, how better the better can be, how lovely the love can grow, the joys of parenting which have no parallel in life, likewise are beyond the experience of the young. They have to take the word of their elders on faith.

Let it not be said that all contracts are signed before being read: commercial contracts are a clear example of obligations that one voluntarily assumes, and found to be binding only when fraud is absent, and informed consent is present. The fine print is all present to be read, and there rarely an unwritten clause to which a court of law will hold a man who had no intention of being bound by it, when no one else relied or could be expected to rely on it.

The peculiar character of marriage and patriotism and baptism are precisely because these things are not contracts, despite the character of mutually that surrounds them. Contracts are voidable by the mutual agreement of both parties, as they are made for the mutual advantage of both parties, and no deeper moral interest aside from self interest obtains.

Treating marriage as a contract leads immediately to logical absurdities that corrupt the nature of marriage or destroy it in all but name: the last fifty years in the West obviates any need to elaborate. If marriage is a contract, the parties can change the terms by mutual consent, and adultery is permitted if the other party allows, as is no-fault divorce, as is polygamy, sodomy, or marrying a child or a pet, whose guardian or owner signs the contract for him.

Treating patriotism as a contract is even more absurd: neither taxes nor selective service conscription are payment for survives rendered, nor does one agree to be bound only by such laws as have been particularly tailored to suit oneself, as might be when one orders a burger, and asks the fry-cook to hold the pickles.

In both cases there is mutually. One put aside a wife for adultery, for example, nor does an exile owe his lost home any further taxes. This does not make the covenant a contract.

A contract can be modified or revoked, while a covenant is perpetual. A contract is a voluntary negotiated understanding of mutual benefit enforceable at law. A covenant is binding above the law, for it creates the relationship, such as man and wife, father and son, master and disciple, liege and vassal, on which laws themselves are based.

  1. Equality and Consent

We must obey the law before we hear the law because the law, including the positive law of the nation, culture, or civilization into which one might be born, and including the moral law into which all men must be born, is an involuntary duty. The positive law of a given people or nation can be reformed from within, by its own lights, to correct accumulated corruptions and defects, or infelicities unforeseen by circumstances no ancestor could have foreseen: likewise for their customs.

The idea of radical reformation based on abstract notions of social evolution or social engineering are exercises the pride of Lucifer, destructive and self-destructive, leading to Hell on Earth. See the history of the Twentieth Century for details. Such ideologies are ersatz religions to those who forget God, and are as unworkable as they are unnatural.

What is natural, on the other hand, is worship of Pharaoh, Caesar, or one’s ancestors as divine, and the elevation of the children of the ruling class to a caste of special privilege. Nothing is more natural than to look upon the rich and famous as blessed by the gods, or as being of the bloodline of gods, immune from laws applied to underlings and commoners. That hierarchies of leader and follower devolve into tyrannies of master and slave is as natural as the rot of a wormy corpse following a natural death. What is natural is the breakdown of tyranny into anarchy and the flight of the fearful into tyranny to keep anarchy at bay.

Hierarchy is a natural and inevitable within any group of humans gathered for any purpose. Some have the gift of leadership, and it is a common sense to consent to follow sound leadership. Only in cases where the leadership is called into question, or some doubt arises, need the consent be explicit, as when the braves of the tribe gathered in counsel, or the barons of a kingdom, by cry of acclamation or show of hands display whether the leader has sufficient support to continue. Men in cities, ritualizing this necessity, might decide to vote by casting pebbles, and invite all landowners and freeborn to join; or to restrict it to the nobles; or to pass the leadership from king to king’s heir regardless of the common will, so as to avoid the confusion and disorder of democracy, which always carries the threat of anarchy in its wake.

Tyrannies, aristocracies, and unelected monarchs, as well as class systems and caste systems generally, make the opposite mistake of Locke and Hobbes, for instead of treating a covenant as a contract, resting on mutual voluntary obligation, such institutions treat covenants as nonmutual and involuntary: duties run from subject to sovereign, and involve legal privileges granted to the ruling class regardless of merit. There is no consent because the class system is by design unequal, and the inequality is one to which no rational man would consent, because it is based on rewarding accident of birth, not any merit vote or acclimation recognizes.

Again, the efforts of Big Brother to use Newspeak terms in the mere opposite of their meanings makes even simple sentences on this topic impossible to write. But the difference between the class privilege of an aristocracy, the party-member privilege of a uniparty tyranny, the caste-privilege of a Hindu caste system, and the White Privilege of the wealthy and powerful in America is that the former actually exist at law, and the later does not. An income bracket in America is not a ruling class, as any citizen from year to year might enter or depart from any income bracket, high or low, as fortunes rise or fall. A legal privilege is a formal privilege enforced at law and inherited from parents enjoying that same privilege. In the Old World, nobles had the right to bear arms and commoners simply did not; in American, that right is recognized as natural to all men, alienable only as criminal punishment after due process.

A contract involves only voluntary mutual duties. Consent comes before the contract is enforced. A covenant involves involuntary mutual duties. Consent comes after the covenant is made, for it is a living relationship, as a bridegroom enjoys, not a deal, as a wage-earner makes. The artifice and impositions of unequal laws and the division of citizens into first and second class, and the hypocrisy of selective enforcement, is neither mutual nor consensual. No consent is asked nor would be granted before or after.

A king who is bound by the law of the land he governs is equal in this sense, and the oath of fealty uttered by vassals and subjects is consent to his covenant. Caesar who is divine is unbound by the laws of the senate and the republic, as is a monarch, even if he wears no diadem. And a lawful monarch is a tyrant.

The principle that one signs a contract but seals a covenant reflects the point here discussed: a contract is adopted after being understood. A covenant is understood by being adopted. A tyranny is not adopted; it is a cuckoo’s egg, a bastard form that grows up by pretending to be what it is not.

This might at first seem to be an argument for republican forms of government over monarchies. That is not the case. History will attest that Christian Kings, with few exceptions, understood the covenantal nature and even the sacerdotal nature, of their office, and the mutuality of oath between liege and vassal. One can name a dozen law-abiding kings for every tyrant straining the pages of history.

However, the great argument in favor of republican forms of government is that the inauguration of leaders by election prevents the continuation of leadership that has lost popular support. To depose an unpopular monarch who comes to the office by birth, there is no legal means, which means, no peaceful means. There is no vote for kings, and no vote of no confidence.

The great convenience, however, of king-worship, is that there is no covenant to which the common people need consent. There is nothing for them to understand, now or later. Theirs is merely to obey.

This is, indeed, a false covenant, for it presumes the subjects to be as if they have already lived the covenant and understood and consented to it. Passing leadership by birth is merely the convenient but false assumption that the leadership merits of the father will be found in son and grandson. Or, worse, it is the convenient but absurd assumption that no merit is required to be leader.

This leads either to palace coup, dynastic war, or else to reducing the leader to a figurehead, while the real leader, whether he is called Shogun or Prime Minister, does all the work in the name of a purely ceremonial Emperor or Queen.

So the argument that being born into a republic, or being born into a lawful kingdom, imposes involuntary covenantal duties on citizen and subject cannot be used by our staunch libertarian or anarchist to claim that these are no different from the involuntary duties imposed by tyrant, pirate, or highwayman holding a hostage at gunpoint demanding ransom.

Whether the duties are involuntary or no is not, despite what popular holds, the crucial difference between legitimate and illegitimate obligations. Mutuality, while it is an aspect of such obligations, is not also not the crucial factor: a man with sickly wife or child must care for her regardless of prospects of repayment or reciprocation.

No, the crucial difference is whether or not the covenant, which we here describe as something like a contract that must be lived to be understood, can be lived, and can be understood.

The difference between tyranny and lawful sovereignty is akin to the difference between marriage and wife-stealing.

Juliet was not carried off like a Sabine Woman from Livy by Romeo in Act 2, Scene 6, regardless of how vehemently our staunch anarchist might decree these two opposite events akin.

  1. A Conservative Revolution

As the happy children of the sole successful revolution in history, we Americans tend to think we have a right to divorce ourselves from any laws, customs, mores, ideals we find counterproductive or even undesirable, in order that we may seek new ones, invented by our own unaided powers of reason, regardless of precedent, regardless of experience.

Within my lifetime, America went from legalizing no-fault divorce (California, 1969) to legalizing abortion (Hawaii, 1970) to making abortion a constitutional right (Roe v Wade, 1973) sodomy a constitutional right (Lawrence v Texas, 2003), the “marriage” of sodomites a constitutional right (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015), to transvestitism and other sexual perversions being protected under the Civil Rights Act (Bostock v. Clayton County, 2020).

In the same span of time, the Western world has moved from Christianity being the unquestioned paramount worldview to be sober grounds for disqualifying candidates for Speaker of the House or Supreme Court Justice position, while preaching from the Bible against sodomy is prohibited by law, as is praying silently outside an abortion mill, where unborn babies are murdered.

As a science fiction writer, I can only observe this: Were a time traveler to jaunt fifty or sixty years into the past with an armload of modern newspapers, and offer them to a science fiction writer of that day as a completely accurate portrayal of the futuristic Twenty-First Century, he would not and could not pen a portrayal of the things to come, not even as fiction, not even as satire, without running afoul of obscenity laws.

Contrarywise, books of that generation would find it impossible to be printed these days, or published on social media, without being suppressed, censored or cancelled for running afoul of the rules of political correctness, whose blasphemy laws and speech codes are much more strict, particular, unpredictable and Draconian than the laws and customs of a Christian nation. When James Joyce or James Branch Cabell were pestered for violating obscenity norms of their generation, no one took pains to drive them out of their livelihood by anonymous backbiting, harassing their publishers, vexing their patrons.

As the happy children of the sole successful revolution in history, we Americans tend to think revolutions can he held without ushering in enormities far worse than the ancient regime they replace.

The French Revolution overthrew the Monarchy, but ushered in the Terror; the Russian Revolution overthrew the Czar, but ushered in the Holodomor; The Chinese Revolution overthrew the Emperor, but ushered in the Cultural Revolution; the Sexual Revolution put paid to Victorian prudery, but ushered in a regime to make Sodom and Gomorrah blush, a land of bastardy and aborticide, where transgender mass-murderers run amok.

What the Revolting People do not realize when they tear tradition down, upend laws root and branch, to make the world a blank slate on which their purely abstract theories can now be incarnated, is that their utopias are taken on faith far more entirely and far more radically than the faithful traditions they replace.

A traditionalist can point to the English Common Law, and say, with sober pride, that the tradition of an independent judiciary abiding by judge-made case law, resting on principles of precedent, of contrary advocacy, of rules of evidence, curtailed by the verdict of juries select by lottery, has been superior to the tribunals of other peoples and nations since the Twelfth Century or so. He can have faith in it because past experience shows that faith in not unwarranted.

But the utopian who wishes to give one supreme commissar, or perhaps public multitude taken as a whole, guided solely by abstract theory and reformist enthusiasm, universal and unbridled power to enact justice and social justice, and, yes, even climate justice as he sees it, and to undo all historical wrongs to any oppressed peoples, and to undo the biological differences between male and female of the species by fiat, based his wishful thinking on faith that is not resting on experience, but resolutely denies experience, denies fact, denies the outcome of the reasoning process.

Successful revolutions, assuming history can find two examples, will be found, upon examination, to be a renunciation of loyalties owed a sovereign in order to return to principles betrayed or principles ignored of a sovereign law binding the sovereign.

The overthrow of a king who betrays the law making him king is no more revolutionary than to disobey the unlawful order of a corporal in one’s chain of command in order to obey the lawful order of a captain higher in the chain of command. It is mutiny, yes, but it is mutiny against the lawless in the name of the law.

In our case, we Americans revolted against the English King in order to secure to ourselves the rights of Englishmen which His Majesty was charged with keeping and protecting, but upon which he was instead trespassing. The local and quite legally and traditionally English administration of the colonial governments, such as the House of Burgesses in Virginia, continued their completely tradition and legitimate legal processes of assembly, debate, election, appointment and so on, precisely in keeping with law and tradition before and after the so-called revolution. Only military colonial governors illegally appointed by the King were thrown down. There was no Terror, no guillotine, no show trials, no mass purges. Those are French and Russian innovations, prompted by the zeal of those whose faith is so blind that they think experience has nothing to teach them.