No Answer But An Echo -- a chapter from Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven

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I decided to post this after reading Drieu's criticisms of 'traditionalist' orthodoxy (found here ). Lasch -- and by extension, Carlyle, whom he focuses on here -- describes a 'prophetic' understanding of history that, in contrast with the stale appeals to the stability of custom popular on the 'traditionalist' right, expresses a vital will to truth. All traditions, after all, were founded by prophets; not 'traditionalists'.

Ash Bronze Age Pervert Drieu President Camacho Roland

Criticism of progress drew on a variety of sources, but the most fruitful of all was the tradition of Christian prophecy, as reformulated by Calvin and his followers and, in the nineteenth century, by moral philosophers and social critics -- notably Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson -- in whom Calvinism remained a powerful background presence. No longer Calvinists or even Christians in any formal sense, Emerson and Carlyle nevertheless reasserted a prophetic understanding of history and human nature in opposition not only to the reigning celebration of progress but to the Burkean alternative. The contrast between Burke's veneration of human custom and prophetic faith is immediately evidence in the very different ways in which Burke and Carlyle deployed the metaphor of clothes. Burke, it will be recalled, liked to compare custom to clothing, which covers the "defects of our naked, shivering nature" with "decent drapery." When the French revolutionaries tore Marie Antoinette from her throne and exposed her as an ordinary woman, they stripped away the "pleasing illusions" without which life becomes brutish and mean. To "cast away the coat of prejudice," Burke said, left men with nothing but their "naked reason" -- pathetically inadequate protection against life's rigors.

In Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored) , Carlyle elaborated the metaphor of clothes but carried it to conclusions Burke could not have anticipated, much less endorsed. No more than Burke a friend of the Enlightenment, Carlyle nevertheless sided, in retrospect, with the sansculottes, savoring the metaphysical implications of the French label. He saw the French revolution not as a hideous mistake but as a missed opportunity to get to the bottom of things. He had no Benthamite illusions about the dream of "universal Benevolence" that inspired the great divestiture of 1789, but his history of the revolution, the book that made him famous, did not acclaim the restoration of order, as Burke and his friends had acclaimed it at the time. The return of order, as Carlyle understood, meant the return of Mammon, "basest of known Gods, even of known devils."

Like Burke, Carlyle had no faith in "naked reason," but he did not therefore wish to see it clothed in custom. He understood the uses of "clothes," but he also understood that it was sometimes necessary for mankind, as the snake sheds his skin, to shed the "solemnities and paraphernalia of civilised Life, which we make so much of." Clothes made Marie Antoinette a queen, as Burke had pointed out. Carlyle pursued the point only to invert it. "Clothes gave us individuality, distinctions, social polity; Clothes have made Men of us; they are threatening to make Clothes-screens of us" -- fashion plates, ambulatory mannequins.

"Custom is the greatest of Weavers," Carlyle wrote. Among her many tricks and artful illusions,

The reassuring effect of custom in hiding the terrors of existence behind familiar associations and routines, so highly prized by Burkean conservatives, at the same time deprives us of fresh experience -- of an "original relation to the universe," as Emerson would have put it. Perhaps that explains why, living in a world too heavily costumed, we become more and more avid in our search for novelty -- which wears thin all too quickly, when we find that new clothes fail to deliver the promised excitement.

Carlyle's unsympathetic account of custom might seem to align himself with the party of progress. But the relevant contrast to custom, as Carlyle saw it, was not innovation but "wonder." He objected to the tyranny of custom because it discouraged men and women from looking beneath the surface of things, not because it discouraged them from experimentation. Clothing, in his expansive treatment of the image, covered what was usually meant by civilization and progress. It referred among other things to the arts and sciences, to all the products of human ingenuity by means of which men and women seek to make themselves comfortable and secure but also to divert themselves, to beguile the time, and to satisfy the taste not just for conveniences but for beauty. "The first purpose of Clothes," Carlyle thought, "...was not warmth or decency, but ornament." Custom, in the strict sense of usage and habit, had to be considered as only one of several types of clothing. Custom itself alluded both to mindless routine and to the false stimulation provided by fashionable glitter. But the technological subjugation of nature could also be considered under the heading of clothes. Technology sheltered mankind from the forces of nature, as clothes protected the body against the cold, but interposed a barrier beyond which the inner meaning of the natural world was lost to sight. Art too intruded itself between humanity and a deeper understanding of things. If science destroyed "reverence" for nature, art provided no corrective Like science, it easily became the object of a cult.

Carlyle shared with Kierkegaard the belief that the aesthetic and the ethical approaches to life are antagonistic. Sartor Resartus , a spiritual autobiography several times removed from the actual events of Carlyle's early life and elaborately disguised as the treatise of an obscure German pedant, is a work of great artistry; but it was clearly conceived as a confession, and it gives essentially the same account of unbelief, despair, and the subsequent rebirth of hope that is found in earlier Christian confessions.

Only those who have lost hope in this way, Carlyle argues, can really expect to regain it. Even the "everlasting No" is better than the conventional religiosity of "cultivated" Christians who know God "only by tradition," if negation leads to an understanding that happiness comes only to those who give up hope of happiness.

To renounce our claims on the world is the "first prelimary moral Act," because it enables us to value life for itself and not because it smiles on our ambition to enjoy the best of everything, to prosper in all our undertakings, and to remain the center of cosmic attention. When we learn to reduce our claim of cosmic "wages" to a "zero," we will find the world under our feet again. "What Act of Legislation was there that thou shouldst be Happy? A little while ago, thou hadst no right to be at all." Carlyle's analysis of religious experience, if not conventionally Christian, is nevertheless consistent with the reports issued over the centuries by Christian saints and prophets. Carlyle agrees with them, in particular, in his account of the preconditions for spiritual health. "Love not pleasure; love God." Demand less of life, more of yourself. Learn to recognize the problem of evil -- the eternal question of whether a loving God could have admitted human suffering into the world -- as the "vain interminable controversy" it is.
Bob Dylan Roof

Great piece.

The bulk of "traditionalist" thought, excepting "primordial" traditionalists, ultimately boils down to the bourgeois instict for security. This has been underscored by modern traditionalists, among whom any pretense to truth or deeper meaning has been abandoned.

Many self-described traditionalists in legal academia and economics have transformed the epistemic value of tradition from truth to "the right answer", which means in practice the most economically efficient answer. These arguments were popularized most recently by Friedrich Hayek, in the form of his "spontaneous order" and Condorcetian many minds arguments, but as Lasche demonstrates, they were already prevalent in Burke. These approaches merely alter the value of old truths so that they comport with the values of bourgeois security.

I suppose these values are appropriate to a civilization in its last stages. Carlyle's pilgrim seems impossible where the bland goal of preserving and expanding civilization is the highest end.

Right -- an emphasis on tradition in itself is a characteristic of late cultures, when the original inspiration of those traditions has been enervated away; thus traditionalism is always, strictly speaking, a 'modern' phenomenon. In religious terms this amounts to people who don't really believe in Christ but have some kind of liturgical fetish, who haven't read even half of the Bible but think the KJV is swell because it makes for really badass quotes ala Pulp Fiction, who don't commune but think the church is useful for preserving some kind of preferred social arrangement, etc. Not all self-proclaimed traditionalists are like this, but many of the ones you find on the internet are. It all amounts to roleplaying, except with Aquinas and Edmund Burke instead of Frodo and Gandolf. People striking poses, basically.

To me it seems traditionalism is modern (post-1789) rightism with a bad conscience, and I've found out that my conscience in this regard is actually relatively undisturbed. I don't have any desire to pretend that I'm a 14th century aristocrat, or that I'm some kind of warrior-poet in a vast battle to save Western Civilization (tm). This isn't to say I've exactly made my peace with modernity, but I've come to realize that there is a naive (a)historical essentialism that dominates 'traditionalist' ideology, and I've ceased to believe in it. At the same time there's also a subtly insidious sort of historicism present as well, one which venerates heroes and prophets more as generic exemplars of a cultural golden age (take your pick) than as individuals who sought a new relation to the universal -- 'individual' and 'universal' both being terms of condemnation for the traditionalist set.


That's a good summary of Carlyle's work, but Lasch is wrong about Burke. Many people only know Burke through a handful of frequently cited excerpts, and the panegyric to Marie Antoinette and the defense of prejudice are among them, and this has propagated a mistaken view of him as a more moderate and sober alternative to the "Latin Conservatism" of de Maistre. Corey Robin has debunked that myth as well, so I'll just quote the relevant info with the juiciest bits highlighted:




The similarities with Carlyle above should be obvious.

And since Roland mentioned Hayek:

Like I said, I think people need to reconsider what they mean by "conservatism" or "traditionalism."

If taken to a reductio ad absurdum, a consistent opposition to 'utopia' would resemble political quietism -- essentially the end of politics as we know it, insofar as politics involves a quest for improvement and the public satisfaction of the 'good life'.

I haven't read Burke, but I doubt Lasch only knew him through excerpts. The man was a scholar of the highest caliber.

That is an excellent article. Who is Corey Robin?

edit: ah, I knew I recognized the name from somewhere. Specifically, this bit with Daniel Larison:

This in particular struck me as dubious:

Niccolo and Donkey
Bob Dylan Roof
True, I have never read Burke's aesthetic writings, nor did I address Hayek's Austrian paeans to "freedom", but it is undeniable that the theoretical legacy of each man resides in his pragmatic defense of tradition. I'll add more on this later.