Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …

We’re all constantly telling stories; from personal mythology, to collective folklore. They are the way in which we breathe meaning into things. They bring sense, and direction. They guide us, tell us which steps to take, and when. Sometimes we update them, or rewrite them. Sometimes we scrap them and start anew.

A story is akin to a constellation, something that brings together what was separate; from atoms, to planets, to human beings. Stories are what bind us; they get us moving in the same direction; promote cohesion, and harmony. ‘Tribe’ is another way of saying ‘a shared story.’ When a story is shared it becomes a truth, at least among those who share it. But what was yesterday considered a truth, may today be considered a delusion.

In times gone by a collective story - a story of the people - would be commonplace. The stronger this story - the greater its reach and influence - the stronger was the collective. A shared story is a place in which to live, offering shelter from the whirling confusion and maddening incoherence of the outside world. Of course, in erecting walls it also places limits; and those societies with the strongest stories also have the firmest boundaries.

Without a shared story, a group is no more than a collection of individuals. In an environment like this, individual stories take precedent. No longer bound by the imperatives of the group, each individual is free to move in whatever direction they wish, and the synchronised choreography of the collective gives way to the freeform improvisation of the individual.

Society is, then, a collection of stories; from personal fiction to collective folklore. Whilst our modern societies are increasingly individualistic, the individual story has not gained total precedent. As long as we wish to be more than isolated units, then we will always need stories to bind us. 

However, the kind of overarching fiction that defined traditional collectives doesn’t seem to be so common today, due perhaps in part to the scale and diversity of our societies. Whereas once an entire society would have been bound by a single fiction, this unity has since fractured. Yet, whilst ‘grand narratives’ may not be fashionable, we still have our various tribes: from those that believe in the stories of holy books, to those that believe in the stories of science books.

We may, then, have our short stories; but we’re certainly no longer all on the same page. This lack of a common story has created a vacuum in which new stories compete for dominion. One tribe claims it has the story, whilst another rubbishes its claims and offers its gospel. There is also a growing chorus of individual voices, each offering their own interpretation on how things are, and what we should believe. This blog is one example among many.

From scientific theorists, to religious theorists; from pulpit to blog post; from expert to amateur: stories abound. Our age faces us with a confusion of tales to choose from. How, then, do we do our choosing?

From canon to conspiracy

In the diagram opposite I’ve pictured a society as a series of concentric circles, the largest of which define its boundaries. To transcend this boundary is to step outside of the society. 

The inner circles represent the differing voices within the society, or the differing stories advocated by these voices. I’ve offered real life examples of the kind of voices that you could be exposed to within my own society, here in England. I offer these examples based on the kind of things these voices generally say, which isn’t to say that they are forever anchored at certain points on the spectrum. David Icke’s trajectory attests to this.

At the centre we have voices that seem to be widely accepted. They espouse ‘mainstream’ stories and are exemplified by the Prime Minister who, being the focal point of officialdom, is an arbiter of official truths. If, for instance, the Prime Minister were to suddenly veer off-piste and start spouting ‘conspiracy theories’ then this could lead to one of two things: either the Prime Minister would be ousted from their role, or; the conspiracy theories would be accepted as mainstream truths. Because the role itself does not allow a condoning of fringe fiction, either the stories must move inwards, or the person move outwards.

As we move further out the voices become less mainstream and more contentious; bringing us to the niche stories of the ‘lunatic fringe,’ as exemplified by the likes of David Icke. One of the many reasons that David Icke could not be Prime Minister is because he holds beliefs that are entirely incompatible with the current set of accepted core truths.

From centre to outskirts

In all things there is a pull towards dissolution, and an opposite pull towards unification. This tug of war is everywhere, at all scales; from a society, to the bodies that make up that society, to the cells that make up those bodies. It is the interchange between life and death.

We can describe a society, much like the nucleus of an atom, as a centre of attraction; which is another way of saying a centre of life. To be part of a society is to be within its field of attraction. So whilst those near the outside may appear to be opposed to many of the central truths of the society, it still exerts a pull upon them, albeit a comparatively weak one. They have not left the society, and are still a part of it, if only minimally.

The centre of a society is where its attraction is at its strongest. It is the area of greatest overlap and, therefore, of greatest consensus; and is where its accepted truths reside. These are popular fictions, hardened into granite-like truths through endless repetition. They're generally regarded as self-evident, and so are rarely questioned. They are deeply rooted and not easily displaced.

The further we move from the core, the weaker its pull becomes. Those voices at its centre are less diverse because its core truths - those fundamental stories that bind it - are exerting more of an influence. As with our example of the Prime Minister, voices must align with these truths or move further out. You cannot, generally speaking, be a mainstream voice whilst rejecting mainstream truths; or at least, not insofar as you pose a threat to the status quo.

Like any centre of life, be it a galaxy, a planet, or a human being, a society exists by preserving its core fictions. For instance, an important part of the story of ‘liberal democracies’ is that every person within that society ought to be granted free speech. Another is the belief that democracy is the best system of governance. If these fictions were ousted by counter-fictions, then the society would cease to exist (in its current form at least) morphing into something else instead. It is fictions such as these that separate liberal democracies from, say, illiberal autocracies.

Consider your own personal fictions, those strands that thread together to make you who you are. Which of these, and how many, would have to change before you became someone you no longer recognised?

A society is, therefore, most conservative at its centre. If we see a society as a point of life, attracting things toward it, then its core is the focal point of this attraction; the point that pulls towards unification, and life. And life is, essentially, a conservative process, a combining of things.

Those that reside nearest the centre will, then, tend to be more interested in preserving and defending its core truths. As I’ve mentioned, these voices tend to be more homogenous because they ‘tow the company line’ and are less interested in questioning collective assumptions or exploring alternatives. It is, after all, not in their job description. Every collective - every structure - needs those individuals that guard its premises and work to keep it structurally sound, and these people fulfil that role. They are its antibodies, working to conserve the status quo.

Icke himself refers to this area as the ‘postage stamp consensus’ alluding to its narrow range of voices. However, having polarised himself at the fringes - having cast his anchor at a certain location - he views things in a rather one-sided way. In choosing a side he is unable to transcend the binary itself and see the value of both sides. When he talks of his opposite, of the central area of society, he uses embattled language. He does not talk of its value, or even seem to recognise that it has a value. In this he mirrors the way that the centre tends to talk about people like him, on the fringes.

The further we move from the centre of attraction the weaker its pull becomes, and the less influence its core truths have upon people. This leads to a greater diversity of voices, especially around the fringes. This is the place that entertains heretics and blasphemers, iconoclasts and dissenters. Core truths are handled roughly, without reverence; are tested to the point of failure. Once their shells are cracked their fictional nature is exposed. What was once objective and beyond question, becomes subjective and questionable.

If the core is the conscious mind of a society, then the fringes are its unconscious. As with our own unconscious, the outer limits breed alternatives to the status quo; and whilst they can pose a threat to the prevailing order, they also serve as a source of rejuvenation and creativity. After all, many of a societies core truths will have started life in the shadows of the lunatic fringe (let us not forget that at one point the world was flat). Destruction and creation go hand in hand; the fringe threatens the centre - unconscious threatens ego - but also balances it. One could not exist without the other - although in truth, both are part of the same process.

In my diagram I’ve marked out five concentric circles, illustrating a relatively diverse range of voices; from the very conservative to the very dissentious; a diversity that seems to show a large degree of permissiveness - when it comes to speech at least. Indeed, I think that my society, as with other Western democracies, can be characterised by its lack of boundaries; it does not erect the kind of towering perimeter walls that we see when we look at other, less permissive, cultures.

Its worth bearing in mind that we’re talking about freedom of speech, not freedom of action. When it comes to action, we are certainly much more limited. As Gene Ray reminds us, “one may question the bourgeois paradigm, only not in any way that is effective or has results; one may play with the symbols of radical politics, but one must not act on them; anyone can say the emperor has no clothes or even scream it within the closed walls of a gallery, but no one may cut off his head.”

So more freedom means more diversity. If there are no walls to stop them, frontiersman will always be tempted to explore new territory. It is in their nature to pull away; to look for alternatives. In this they are analogous to the process of genetic mutation, allowing an organism to change and evolve in response to environmental demands. They maintain a critical amount of diversity, offering fresh insights when they are needed (and when they aren’t). They are the hand that stirs the sediments; the oil that prevents parts from seizing. If evolution is important to a society then it must allow its fringes to flourish; it must allow an area in which alternatives can be proposed. The fact that voices such as David Icke’s are permitted could be seen as a sign that our society currently allows this area, to some extent at least.

It’s worth noting that not all societies value the idea of evolution in the way that ours does, and accordingly these collectives tend not to allow the kind of permissiveness that characterises ours. For example, orthodox religious communities - such as the Amish - erect tall walls around their culture; and patrol these perimeters vigilantly.

If I were to draw my circular diagram for an Amish society, then it would likely consist of only one or two circles, as opposed to five. Theirs is a restrictive environment, in which certain things must not be said, as well as done. Yet, whilst I, peering in from a distance, may characterise it as restrictive, those on the inside will no doubt feel differently. Walls may confine, but they also protect. The Amish have managed to maintain a strong cultural identity in the face of powerful outside influences; due, in no small part, to their strong boundaries.

A chief concern of communities like these - and that faces any organism with a relatively narrow range of voices - is how to prevent stagnation. So whilst permissive societies must always guard against dissolution, restrictive societies must likewise guard against petrifaction.

Seeing through

I think that there are ‘truths’ at all levels, from the core to the fringes, and that whilst they may seem contradictory, each is vital to the other as part of a larger balance. Inasmuch as both central and fringe voices are crucial to this balance, then neither ought to be dismissed out of hand. Truths contradict; fictions do not.

I recognise that most of the things that I am talking about are very simple, and perhaps very obvious. I think that this conversation is important, not because it is original or revelatory, rather that it brings to mind a simple truth; one that, in an age of partisan polemic, of mass projection and scapegoating, we are apt to forget: that there is no ‘other’ out there, only parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know.

Carl Jung proposed that a whole and balanced individual is someone who is able to transcend a one-sided perspective and to see value in both sides of an opposition. In order to do this we must become multilingual, gaining an understanding of languages other than our own.

We see that the spectrum of voices is not only out there, but is also in here; and that to countenance ‘other’ voices, strange voices, is to shine light on our own dark recesses: a process that naturally leads to an enlargement of the self. Indeed, the word ‘development’ forms close kinship with words like ‘enlargement’ and ‘growth’, and is often associated with the image of ever increasing circles, or a radiating spiral. Returning to our diagram, it may be that a whole and balanced individual is one who is open to voices from all five circles, from the centre to the fringes - the conscious to the unconsious - and who is able to up anchor and voyage between them when necessary.

Jung described this enlargement as ‘individuation,’ a process of making the unconscious conscious. It is like fishing in a vast dark sea and dragging strange and sometimes horrible things to the surface. Instead of casting them back into the depths - away! be gone! - our task is to bring them closer, and accept that these things are our things. It is making the foreign, familiar; the blind spot a seen spot.

The more things we bring to the surface, the less repulsed we will be when we see them in others. If we can, for instance, find that part of ourselves that is open to outlandish theories then we will be more amenable to the likes of David Icke. We needn’t believe in his theories, but we also needn’t reject them out of hand, or condemn him for holding them.

Jung once went as far as to propose that the way to world peace was through this process of finding the other within the self. However, he also inferred that individuation isn’t for everyone; that for some it may be neither possible, nor appropriate. It may be that some of us must believe that the world is ‘real’ and not ‘fictional’; that stories are stories and truths are truths; that the game is a matter of life and death, and not just a game. It may be important that there are those of us who believe in the superiority of red, and ignore the virtues of blue; or vice versa.

But if this is the case, then it is equally important that there are those of us who can mediate this divide, by seeing through things to their relative, fictional nature. It is important that there are those who can listen to a wide range of voices within a society; who can fish their stories from the narrow banks of the mainstream, or the wide expanse of the lunatic sea. Lines of communication between opposing parties must always remain open, and emissaries must carry messages between them; lest they get it into their heads that the opposition really is evil and must, therefore, be wiped out.

Inasmuch as we live in an age of bitter antithesis, of diversity and fracturing, in which the stories that bind us are breaking down, or are already long gone, and in which new fault-lines appear daily; then the ability to see-through, and synergize, is vital.


Psychologically speaking, so long as conscious and unconscious are enemies, the ego experiences itself in constant danger of death.

Once they are in harmony the ego experiences itself open and supported by the maternal matrix of love.

[Marion Woodman]
Addiction to Perfection, p. 42


Part of what’s happening in the United States is an increasing conflict between people of different temperaments and we don’t really understand how to mediate between that anymore.

Those that are on the tolerant end of the political distribution tend to think of those who are their opposites as intolerant. But they’re not necessarily intolerant, they’re also justice seeking; and justice is one of the hands, according to Jung, that God uses to keep the world in balance.

Its a very rough situation in the political realm when either side of a temperamental distribution make the a priori proposition that their particular temperament stands for the only virtues that are dominant and ceases to talk to the other side.

One way across that divide is for each of us, depending on our particular political stance and perhaps our inbuilt biological temperament, to note very carefully that just because we think that the way we view the world is virtuous doesn’t mean it isn’t with its attendant vice, and it also doesn’t mean that all the vice that we don’t have stacks up on the other side of the political distribution.

Even in those moments where you think that you’re at your best and proclaiming virtues that you think are universal you may have a blind spot that makes it impossible to talk to people who don’t think the same way you do, and then you might frighten yourself after that realisation by coming to understand that people that you can’t talk to you can only fight with. And thats a bad outcome.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'Tolerance as a vice'


Related posts:-
Centre / Periphery
The Colour Wheel
Casting a Shadow
From Separation to Connection


Global             -           Local
Bureaucracy    -           Trust
Law                 -           Custom
Formal             -           Informal

When a thing reaches a certain size the bonds between its constituent parts begin to weaken. These bonds consist of the sorts of things that tie things - tie people - together; and imperative amongst them is 'trust.'

Because real trust does not function at larger scales, we must invent ways of simulating, or augmenting it. In much the same way that we augment the human eye with telescopes and microscopes in order to allow us to 'see' at non-human scales, we augment our human capacity for trust with bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is, amongst other things, a formalised simulation of 'trust.' It substitutes trust engendered through familiarity, with 'certification' by means of 'testing.' For instance,  I do not need a criminal record check (known in this country as a DBS check) in order to be around the children of friends or relatives, but I do need one in order to work with children in my community.

In modern societies we are asked to experience ourselves as a part of an increasingly large collective. If we look at the diagram above, where once circle A would have defined the boundaries of our collective, now it is defined by D.

As the perimeters of our collectives widen, the need for simulated bonds increases. If human trust fails beyond the borders of A, then any level beyond this will require artificial trust. At these levels it is our red tape that binds us; and increasing levels of scale (i.e. complexity) require increasing amounts of red tape.

The fact that we often feel bogged down by red tape is a sign that we're operating at an unhealthy scale. I'm not saying that there are too many people, rather that the way we think of ourselves - and organize ourselves - is dysfunctional.

Inasmuch as we are imbalanced in favour of the large-scale, then our remedy must involve tipping the scales back toward the small-scale. In practical terms this involves, amongst other things, devolving power; splitting our over-grown structures into smaller pieces, and reducing the scale of things to a level in which artificial trust is manageable, and in which human trust can thrive.

How do you define a nation?

It is a land whose citizens, in their overwhelming majority, share a common culture, sense of identity, heritage and traditional roots.

[James Goldsmith]
The Trap, p.48

Although there is some debate among scientists, it seems clear that approximately 50,000 years ago our species existed in pretty much its fully formed version, complete with language and art [...] There hasn’t been much evolution—biologically, at least—in the intervening tens of thousands of years.

Our species likely evolved to adapt to an environment that was native to Africa all those many millennia ago. And this environment looked very different from today’s.

We evolved to live in small groups or tribes of perhaps 20 to 50 individuals. Many of these people, in fact, would have been related to us. Certainly, all of these people would have known each other.

[David B. Feldman]
Does Truth Still Exist, or Are There Just Alternative Facts?

[...] social capital refers to the broad levels of trust and efficacy in a community. Do people generally trust one another and help one another out? Do people feel an incentive to take care of commonly held resources (for example, to clean up graffiti in public parks)?

Most studies of social capital employ two simple meaures, namely, how many organizations people belong to and how people answer a question such as, "Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance?"

What [researchers] have shown is that at the levels of states, provinces, cities and neighbourhoods, low social capital predicts bad health, bad self-reported health and high mortality rates [...] high degrees of income inquality come with low levels of trust and support which increases stress and harms health.

[...] we have chosen to forgo the social capital that comes from small, stable communities in exchange for unprecedented opportunities for mobility and anonymity. As a result, all measures of social epidemiology are worsening in the U.S.

[Robert Sapolsky]
'Sick of Poverty'

A true city is not an encampment for transient visitors, nor a complex of motorways, nor an ephemeral agglomeration of living quarters. 

It is a long-standing human settlement, a community spanning generations, a complex social organization inspiring commitment and pride. Every architectural blight, every symptom of social breakdown, should pierce deep into the heart of its citizens and provoke a salutary reaction. 

Siena, in Italy, is perhaps the best example of a healthy city. That is why it has maintained social stability and a negligible incidence of crime.

[James Goldsmith]
The Trap, p. 78

We always need both freedom and order. 

We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and co-ordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity of mankind and base our actions upon this recognition. 

What I wish to emphasise is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. 

For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamour for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death.  

For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness - where this applies. (If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction.)

[E.F. Schumacher]
Small is Beautiful, p. 53-4

Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty - requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites - the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice.

This limitation was achieved not primarily by promulgated law—though law had its place—but through extensive social norms in the form of custom. This was so much the case that Thomas Aquinas regarded custom as a form of law, and often superior to formalized law, having the benefit of long-standing consent.

Liberalism reconceives liberty as the opposite of this older conception. It is understood to be the greatest possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms. The only limitation on liberty, in this view, should be duly enacted laws consistent with maintaining order of otherwise unfettered individuals.

Liberalism thus disassembles a world of custom and replaces it with promulgated law.

Ironically, as behavior becomes unregulated in the social sphere, the state must be constantly enlarged through an expansion of lawmaking and regulatory activities. “The Empire of Liberty” expands apace with an ever-enlarging sphere of state control.

The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs.  

Liberalism thus increasingly requires a legal and administrative regime, driven by the imperative of replacing all nonliberal forms of support for human flourishing (such as schools, medicine, and charity), and hollowing any deeply held sense of shared future or fate among the citizenry. Informal relationships are replaced by administrative directives, political policies, and legal mandates, undermining voluntary civic membership and requiring an ever-expanding state apparatus to ensure social cooperation.

A massive state architecture and a globalized economy, both created in the name of the liberation of the individual, combine to leave the individual powerless and overwhelmed by the very structures that were called into being in the name of her freedom.

[Patrick J. Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.xiii, xiv, 62-3

My study of the family suggested a broader conclusion: that the capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the whole human race.

It needs to attach itself to specific people and places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general. The dream of universal brotherhood, because it rests on the sentimental fiction that men and women are all the same, cannot survive the discovery that they differ.

Love, on the other hand-flesh-and-blood love, as opposed to a vague, watery humanitarianism-is attracted to complementary differences, not to sameness.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.36

“[…] I am a Dane, a Swede, or Frenchman at different times, or rather fancy myself like the old philosopher, who upon being asked what country-man he was, replied that he was a citizen of the world."

The cosmopolitan ideal articulated by the Enlightenment, although it remains an essential ingredient in modern liberalism, strikes many of us today as at once arrogant, in its contempt for the unenlightened masses, and naive.

"Benevolence," moreover - the universal love for humanity assumed to follow emancipation from local prejudice - presents itself to us as a singularly bloodless form of goodwill, founded more on indifference than on devotion.

We can appreciate Rousseau's mockery of "those pretended cosmopolites, who in justifying their love for the human race, boast of loving all the world in order to enjoy the privilege of loving no one." Paine's self-congratulatory humanitarianism, on the other hand - “my country is the world, my religion to do good to mankind” - leaves us a little cold.

Burke attacked “these new teachers continually boasting of their spirit of toleration,” just as Rousseau attacked those who professed a love for all mankind, on the grounds that such professions really revealed a certain indifference. “That this persons should tolerate all opinions, who think none to be of estimation, is a matter of small merit. Equal neglect is not impartial kindness. The species of benevolence which arises from contempt is no true charity.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.122-3


Cut all local, vivid ties and expand loyalty and care to the abstract universal of the entire race, and finally we may have World Peace... at the cost of World Nihilism.

On the contrary, he valued sociability far more highly than most individualists, and he rejected the culture of philanthropy and “improvement” precisely on the grounds that it would replace the fellowship of friends and neighbors with the vague and watery fellowship of humanity in general.

“Your men from whom all traces of their native land are obliterated, who have that enlarged philanthropy which overlaps all geographical distinctions, and grasps with equal affection all lands, races, and individuals, are quite too refined and transcendental for daily use."

Cosmopolitanism represented a higher form of solitude, as Brownson saw it. In developing this argument, he rested his case, as always, on assertions about the nature and destiny of man—that is, about the ends proper to his existence:

The nature of man is to live by means of an uninterrupted communion, with other men and with nature, under the three precise and definite forms of family, country and property. His destiny, that is, the design of his Creator in his constitution, is not, then, to place himself physically, sentimentally, and intellectually in communion with all men, and with all the beings of the universe. This were to annihilate him by the vast solitude of Sahara.

Brownson made these observations in the course of one of his many attacks on the “no-government” philosophy advocated by so many individualists. Paine's cosmopolitan humanitarianism and Thoreau's misanthropy both sprang from the fallacy that man could outgrow the need for government - that is, for active intercourse with those to whom he was bound by “local attachments," a "preference for his own natal soil," and the peculiar circumstances" in which he was raised.

Ideologies of self-sufficiency and ideologies of self-annihilation (in which the man was lost in the citizen, in Paine's case in the citizen of the world) came to the same thing. Both undermined the "condensed" form of solidarity - the "love of family and fatherland" - that human nature required if it was to flourish. Both made excessive demands on human nature, overlooking the crucial fact that “the finite seeks in vain to master the infinite."

The idea conveyed by this last phrase ties together the several themes in Brownson's social thought the inseparability of matter and spirit, politics and religion; the formative discipline of "peculiar circumstances" as the necessary background of mature personality; the need for any vivid apprehension of reality to be embodied in a particular (and inevitably divisive) set of loyalties rather than a watery eclecticism.

Brownson never forgot that human beings have bodies and that "man disembodied," divested of the weight of circumstances and associations, "would be no more man, than the body is man when deprived of the spirit.” 

Man grasps the universal only through the particular: this was the core of Brownson's Christian radicalism.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.193-4

This interrelationship of the virtues explains why they do not provide us with a number of distinct criteria by which to judge the goodness of a particular individual, but rather with one complex measure.

The application of that measure in a community whose shared aim is the realization of the human good presupposes of course a wide range of agreement in that community on goods and virtues, and it this agreement which makes possible the kind of bond between citizens which, on Aristotle's view, constitutes a polis.

That bond is the bond of friendship and friendship is itself a virtue. The type of friendship which Aristotle has in mind is that which embodies a shared recognition of and pursuit of a good. It is this sharing which is essential and primary to the constitution of any form of community, whether that of a household or that of a city.

'Law-givers,’ says Aristotle, 'seem to make friendship a more important aim than justice' [...] and the reason is clear. Justice is the virtue of rewarding desert and of repairing failures in rewarding desert within an already constituted community; friendship is required for that initial constitution.

Estimates of the population of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries vary widely, but the number of adult male citizens clearly ran into some tens of thousands. How can a population of such a size be informed by a shared vision of the good? How can friendship be the bond between them? The answer surely is by being composed of a network of small groups of friends, in Aristotle's sense of that word.

This notion of the political community as a common project is alien to the modern liberal individualist world.

This is how we sometimes at least think of schools, hospitals or philanthropic organizations; but we have no conception of such a form of community concerned, as Aristotle says the polis is concerned, with the whole of life, not with this or that good, but with man's good as such.

Friendship of course, on Aristotle's view, involves affection. But that affection arises within a relationship defined in terms of a common allegiance to and a common pursuit of goods. The affection is secondary, which is not in the least to say unimportant.

In a modern perspective affection is often the central issue; our friends are said to be those whom we like, perhaps whom we like very much. 'Friendship' has become for the most part the name of a type of emotional state rather than of a type of social and political relationship.

E.M. Forster once remarked that if it came to a choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to betray his country. In an Aristotelian perspective anyone who can formulate such a contrast has no country, has no polis; he is a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile wherever he lives.

Indeed from an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection. They possess at best that inferior form of friendship which is founded on mutual advantage.

That they lack the bond of friendship is of course bound up with the self-avowed moral pluralism of such liberal societies. They have abandoned the moral unity of Aristotelianism, whether in its ancient or medieval forms.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.182-3

It is in any case clear that for both Nozick and Rawls a society is composed of individuals, each with his or her own interest, who then have to come together and formulate common rules of life [...]

Individuals are thus in both accounts primary and society secondary, and the identification of individual interests is prior to, and independent of, the construction of any moral or social bonds between them.

Rawls explicitly makes it a presupposition of his view that we must expect to disagree with others about what the good life for man is and must therefore exclude any understanding of it that we may have from our formulation of the principles of justice. Only those goods in which everyone, whatever their view of the good life, takes an interest are to be admitted to consideration.

It is, from both standpoints, as though we had been shipwrecked on an uninhabited island with a group of other individuals, each of whom is a stranger to me and to all the others. What have to be worked out are rules which will safeguard each one of us maximally in such a situation.

[...] modern society is indeed often, at least in surface appearance, nothing but a collection of strangers, each pursuing his or her own interests under minimal constraints. We still of course, even in modern society, find it difficult to think of families, colleges and other genuine communities in this way; but even our thinking about those is now invaded to an increasing degree by individualist conceptions, especially in the law courts.

Thus Rawls and Nozick articulate with great power a shared view which envisages entry into social life as - at least ideally - the voluntary act of at least potentially rational individuals with prior interests who have to ask the the question 'What kind of social contract with others is it reasonable for me to enter into?'

Not surprisingly it is a consequence of this that their views exclude any account of human community in which the notion of desert in relation to contributions to the common tasks of that community in pursing shared goods could provide the basis for judgments about virtue and injustice.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.290-1

Secreted within Marxism from the outset is a certain radical individualism.

In the first chapter of Capital when Marx characterizes what it will be like 'when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations' what he pictures is 'a community of free individuals' who have all freely agreed to their common ownership of the means of production and to various norms of production and distribution.

This free individual is described by Marx as a socialized Robinson Crusoe; but on what basis he enters into his free association with others Marx does not tell us. At this key point in Marxism there is a lacuna which no later Marxist has adequately supplied.

It is unsurprising that abstract moral principle and utility have in fact been the principles of association which Marxists have appealed to, and that in their practice Marxists have exemplified precisely the kind of moral attitude which they condemn in others as ideological.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.303

One of the tasks of a political leader is to conceal the choices his society has already made. In Clinton’s case it has been to generate the illusion that a society in which individual choice is the only undisputed value can meet the human need for stability.

Clinton has done this by colluding with the American public in maintaining the self-deception that a law-and-order policy can be a surrogate for the social institutions that free markets have destroyed.

By acting as a political shaman through whom the contradictions of his culture can be articulated without being perceived or resolved, Bill Clinton may prove to be the prototype for the statecraft of the post-modern period.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.110

Some features of capitalism in mainland China today derive from the recent political history of the country; but its central and enduring characteristics are those exhibited by Chinese businesses everywhere. These reflect the pivotal position of the Chinese family in generating relationships of trust.

Chinese businesses are typically small, their internal and external relationships family-dependent and personal. They rely on guanxi - ‘connections’, reciprocal obligations for their supplies and supports. Even when Chinese businesses become large they remain family firms, with the most important decision being taken by the head of the family, the father.

In the conventional western account, capitalism develops by displacing family and personal relationships from centrality in economic life.

It makes the economy a separate, autonomous domain, ruled by an impersonal calculus of profit and loss, and held together not by relationships of trust but contractual-legal obligations. In this conventional narrative, capitalism develops by disembodying itself from its parent society.

This account squares fairly well with the development of capitalism in England and other Anglo-Saxon countries where there is long history of individualism. Even there, it leaves out the role of state power in constructing the environment - the framework of laws and property holdings - in which disembodied markets work.

In Chinese capitalism it has little purchase. The success of Chinese capitalism depends crucially on the resources of trust within families which it can draw upon.

The familism of Chinese business culture reflects that of Chinese society, in which trust is rarely extended beyond kin in weighty matters […] Relationships of trust and obligation extending beyond the family that are prominent in feudal and modern Japan and in individualist societies of the Anglo-Saxon world have always been weak or absent in China.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.182-4

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Passed on


Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

[Rainer Maria Rilke]
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke


Parents should always be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principal cause of neurosis in their children ...

What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived. 

This statement would be rather too perfunctory and superficial if we did not add by way of qualification: that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so.

To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie. That sows the most virulent germs.

[C. G. Jung]
The Development of Personality, CW 17, pars. 84, 87


April:  You don't want to go, do you?

Frank:  Come on, April. Of course I do.

April:  No, you don't. Because you've never tried at anything. And if you don't try at anything, you can't fail.

Frank:  What the hell do you mean I don't try? I support you, don't I? I pay for this house. I work 10 hours a day at a job I can't stand.

April:  You don't have to.

Frank:  Bullshit! Look, I'm not happy about it. But I have the backbone not to run away from my responsibilities.

April:  It takes backbone to lead the life you want, Frank.

Dialogue from Revolutionary Road (film)


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Go Your Own Way
Path of Maturation