Tuesday, July 31, 2007 59 Comments

Universalism and original sin (guest post by Michael S.)

[I'm traveling today, so I took the liberty of pulling this comment by frequent poster Michael S. up to the front page. If you're curious as to the context, see the Africa Addio thread. - MM]

I suspect that curious condescension and the myth of the noble savage flow from the most central beliefs of Universalism.

The original theological meaning of universalism was that, at the end of days, no one would be damned - everyone would be saved. This belief was closely associated with early unitarianism, for example that of the Socinians. Universalism is a way of denying that "in Adam's fall/we sinned all." If there was no original sin, there is no need for a Savior, hence unitarianism.

If not by original sin, how, then, are we to explain the moral failings of humanity? If, in a state of nature, man is naturally good, the reason must be (as Rousseau suggested) that the institutions of society are to blame. Get rid of them, and man's inherent goodness will flourish.

The concept of the noble savage and of the corrupting influence of civilization is made much easier to accept by our intimate acquaintance with all the failings of our own social institutions, and our comparative ignorance of those of others. It is easy to see primitive societies as innocent, first because the wish is father to the thought, and secondly, because we don't know that much about them.

Universalism inverts the thesis of Bishop Reginald Heber's famous hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." In Heber's lyrics, the lands of the heathen are described as places where "every prospect pleases/and only man is vile" - because ignorant of Christ's promise to redeem vile men from the original sin that is their portion as heirs to Adam's fall. But, since according to the Universalist view, man is not inherently vile, it is amongst civilized people that every prospect pleases, and only man is vile because of the perverting influence of civilization. Therefore we have a better chance of finding the good amongst peoples who have never been tainted by its poison breath.

The degree to which this view has persisted since the time of Rousseau, despite all the evidence to the contrary, shows the depth of the Universalist faith. The French revolution alone should have shown Rousseau's theory that sweeping away the old corrupt institutions would inaugurate a return to the Edenic state was a fraud. Still, the same sort of people who pinned their hopes on the Jacobins later pinned them on the Bolsheviks, and on Mao Tse-tung; and they still think Castro's Cuba is a promising experiment, if not a proved one (cf. Michael Moore).

Anthropology is merely another venue for such hopes. Consider how Margaret Mead's Samoa, or the "gentle Tasady" or other false and romantic interpretations of the primitive. Even primate zoology does not escape this. For a long time, chimpanzees, we were assured, shared more DNA with humans than any other species. To be sure, baby chimps are cute and affectionate; but it did not long escape notice that adult ones shared, in addition to DNA, all-too-human tendencies towards territoriality, greed, and violence. Then the primatologists discovered bonobo apes, who supposedly were bisexual, had a communal economy ("it takes a village...") and matriarchal social organization. What could more ideally answer Universalists' fondest hopes? Unfortunately for them, this myth too is now beginning to crumble (see the most recent [July 30] issue of the New Yorker).

Whatever may be said about some of the beliefs of orthodox Christianity, it seems to me that there is deep insight into the human character in the doctrine of original sin.

Pride, anger, avarice, envy, sloth, gluttony, and lust are fundamental and dominant aspects of human nature, semper et ubique et ab omnibus. They are innate, because they are all in one way or another assertions of self-interest. Consider the squalling infant, who is too young to be sensible to any moral instruction. He thinks only of his own comfort, and never mind his mama's or papa's inconvenience, he wants it NOW! The infant displays six of the seven deadlies - lust alone fails to appear until the onset of puberty.

All of the character traits we admire, such as kindness, honesty, and generosity, by contrast, ane not instinctual in this way; they have to be learnt. It is (among others) the job of civilization to teach them, and that point is one that Universalism fails to acknowledge. It may be the germ of its destruction.


Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Yeah, I liked that bonobo article. It is an illustration of how one scientist (Franz de Waal) can gain fame and fortune by telling people what they want to hear.

William McGowan wrote a good book about the fate of Ceylon after decolonialization, with exactly that title: "Only Man Is Vile." A thesis more than demonstrated by the fascist Buddhist gangs of Serendip.

The point about original sin is extremely acute, and I agree 100%. This is an excellent demonstration of the fact that, even theism is as Dawkins claims delusional, we cannot infer that nontheistic belief systems are any less delusional than theistic ones. In fact, they are likely more so, because they get to compensate.

Universalism indeed contains all the ingredients it needs to genuinely destroy civilization, as it and its ancestors have already done in many countries. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way for nonbelievers to avoid sharing its fate.

July 31, 2007 at 8:46 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

I thought the bonobo article was apallingly bad. Out of twelve pages there was maybe 2 worth of content. I think he says 4 times "everyone considers Hohmann to be an asshole" (except maybe his new wife).

There's no indication that de Waal is deliberately misrepresenting anything, but he only studies well-fed bonobos in zoos, and even the "wild" studies often bribe bonobos with food, since without incentives to hang around they generally have the good sense to avoid humans.

But even hippie chimps can act like sinners
unless they've had their customary dinners.

July 31, 2007 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger Chance said...

Universalism goes back to some of the Church Fathers (Ireneus, if memory serves), so it doesn't rely on Romanticism. In fact, this is the first I've heard of a connection between the two.

Universalists don't deny human sinfulness. What they say is that God has chosen that human sinfulness doesn't warrant eternity in hell. They also believe that their views are supported by Scripture and that texts like Gen 1-3 have been greatly misread. So that when God says we are good, very good, those words remain true in spite of sin.

July 31, 2007 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

This is my professional area - and I think it needs to be said, to balance this posting, that there is also a very strong evolutionary literature now on the ways in which natural selection is the basis for much that we consider good (eg. altruistic) as well as bad (selfish).

Accessible is Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue, or De Waal's Good Natured - and there is more all the time.

The Bonobo article was interesting, but (even if fully confirmed) only serves to modify slightly what is known about these rare apes. Journalistic hype and caricature aside, it doesn't fundamentally challenge De Waal or Wrangham so much as add to the picture.

But evolution isn't the whole picture - and Keith E Stanovich has an excellent book - The Robot's Rebellion - about how abstract analytic logic (which is learned by some people in some societies) is increasingly necessary for people to survive and thrive in the modern world.

July 31, 2007 at 1:09 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Consider the squalling infant, who is too young to be sensible to any moral instruction. He thinks only of his own comfort, and never mind his mama's or papa's inconvenience, he wants it NOW! The infant displays six of the seven deadlies - lust alone fails to appear until the onset of puberty.

All of the character traits we admire, such as kindness, honesty, and generosity, by contrast, ane not instinctual in this way; they have to be learnt.

I have to object to this. The fact that certain traits are not inborn does not imply that they are learned. Certain traits seem to appear more or less spontaneously at certain ages, perhaps the virtues among them. I very much doubt that it would possible to learn something like kindness without an inborn propensity towards it.

What must be learned, of course, is to whom to be kind, and even that is at least partly instinctual.

July 31, 2007 at 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Edward Williams said...

I completely agree with George Weinberg.

Biblically and theologically, original sin is not a doctrine at all, condemning mankind to a deterministic universe where every baby is born evil. It is an event, in which evil enters the world and creates consciousness of sin, and thus choice, and a long struggle between good and evil.

Michael S. seems to have a very simplistic view of these matters; it is a wonder he thinks himself qualified to speak in such a high-minded tone.

July 31, 2007 at 3:44 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

MM - If I'd known you were going to promote me from an occasional comment to a guest post, I'd have tried to polish what I wrote a little more. In any event, thanks.

Chance - I am not speaking here of Universalism in the sense of Irenæus, or even of Socinus himself, but of the later "universalists" of whom Mencius has written so much. As Walker has written in his book "The Decline of Hell," the abandonment of Hell and the abandonment of Christ as Saviour, proceeded gradually through the seventeenth century until they merged almost effortlessly with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth. There isn't much by that time, for example, to separate Priestley's from Rousseau's view of human nature.

George - maybe we'll just have to agree to disagree. All of the seven deadly sins are expressions of a primitive egotism. This is pride, which C.S. Lewis lists as the first and most important of them. All the others follow from it in various ways. Anger, greed, and gluttony are all observable in the infant as well. His sloth is indulged whenever he isn't displaying them. Put two or more small children together, and you'll soon see envy, which is implicit in the others, added to them. Lust, as observed, doesn't set in until puberty, but it is pretty obviously instinctual, being of hormonal origin, and as every boy in early adolescence knows, it can be indulged in by oneself, so does not require human society.

Altruism, by contrast, can only be shown in a social setting. To whom can you be kind, faithful, or generous, if there is no one but yourself? These virtuous behaviors come together with socialization, and if they are instinctive to any degree, require the society of others to trigger the instinct. We also have instinctive abilities to categorize sounds we hear, and patterns we see, giving rise to language and music, the visual arts and the written word. However, none of these phenomena occur outside society.

In connection with this point it may be illustrative to consider the reports of so-called "feral children" who have suffered abandonment in the wilderness at some point before they were fully socialized. Another illustration might be the Ik people of east Africa, whose society completely disintegrated when they were forcibly relocated, as Colin Turnbull describes in his book "The Mountain People" (1987). Here is man in the state of nature, and he is not as Rousseau imagined. Finally, we might contemplate what has become of Russia, where as one wag has observed, three generations of Bolshevism have created not New Socialist Man, but a race of proficient thieves and confidence-men. It is also becoming clear that this is true also of the People's Republic of China (bought any Chinese pet food or toothpaste lately?). While intelligence seems, like many physical traits, to be largely the product of nature, I'm afraid I must continue to believe that ethical behavior is a product of nurture.

Edward, I don't pretend to be an up-to-date theologian, nor even much of a religious believer, but the view of original sin I propose is in fact that believed by most Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, for most of Christian history. It was, for example, commonly understood that unbaptized children would go to Hell. In the words of Prof. the Rev'd. Michael Wigglesworth, late of the Harvard faculty,

"A sin it is; therefore in bliss,
They may not hope to dwell,
But unto them I shall allow
The easiest room in Hell."

Have you never seen the syringes made to be filled with holy-water, and used to baptize babies in utero that were thought to be likely to be stillborn, or to die shortly after childbirth?

Please, also, understand that I am not using the term "original sin" as an exegete of any Christian sect or a partisan of any other belief. I mention it first because abandonment of the belief in original sin, as commonly understood by ordinary Christians until the Enlightenment, seems to me to be closely connected with the development of the sort of secular Universalism that Mencius has discussed at length on this blog. I mention it also because that common view seems to me to derive from a sensible observation of human nature. As the Ik show us, civilization is a very thin veneer. What lies below it is nature, red in tooth and claw.

July 31, 2007 at 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Further to George, and also to Bruce - as far as the bonobo article is concerned, I really don't know enough to evaluate de Waal's description of these apes knowledgeably. Maybe he's right, and maybe not. For the purposes of anyone but professional primatologists, it doesn't really matter.

The popular representation of the bonobos is a sort of evolutionist's version of a pretentious genealogy written by a kinswoman of mine and expensively privately printed in the 1890s. She had found a couple of officers of the Continental line, and a 17th-century member of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company in her ancestry, all true enough and well documented in original sources. But the pinnacle of her work was the contention that her family descended from a collateral relation to Catherine Parr, the only queen to survive marriage to Henry VIII. Our authoress was a little light on the documentation, but, still, it seemed plausible. Needless to say no documentation has emerged in the 110-odd years since then, because there is none. The claimed descent was a complete fiction.

In similar fashion, the educated non-scientists who make up the Brahmin class Mencius has so well described may not know anything about the role of adenosine triphosphate in plant or animal metabolism, nor even how to identify common wildflowers and birds, but, Darwin be praised, they know that we are descended from apes. They desperately want to believe that our apish ancestors were something like bonobos, because they think human behavior should resemble the way de Waals says bonobos behave. I see little functional distinction between this hope and that of late 19th-century haute bourgeois females who wanted to believe they were descended from English royalty.

July 31, 2007 at 5:58 PM  
Blogger Victor said...


I think you commit the same error you accuse the Universalists of, but in the opposite direction. Where they see man as being inherently good and enculturated to evil, you see man as inherently selfish and taught to be selfless and sociable.

Now mind you, I am not a psychologist, but I did my grad informatics work in AI, including a fair deal of neuroscience. As I recall, it's been pretty well demonstrated that selfishness is hard-wired into us, but so is empathy and reciprocal altruism. To object that the latter two don't count because they only manifest in social settings is to make no objection at all, as primates are social animals.

The fact of the matter seems to be that we have a good mix of both selfish and selfless impulses hard-wired into us. We are not inherently evil nor inherently good -- just inherently human. Your misanthropic cynicism is as wrong as the universalists' naive idealism.

July 31, 2007 at 8:08 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

I don't follow the pre-Universalist Christian cultural references that Michael S. makes. It's all gibberish to me. Here are some questions that a secular Universalist (or Confucianist!) would ask:

Who is Adam? Do I know him?

What is this "sin" thing? What makes a sin "original"? or "deadly"?

Bishop Reginald Heber was a lousy lyricists. Oh, that wasn't really a question.

My point is that an orthodox Christian critique of Unviersalism is silly. Christianity is dead. You will never win an argument against a Universalist by talking about "original sin". Most people are not Christian and never will be Christian - but they are prospective Universalists!.

Also, I disagree with the last paragraph: "All of the character traits we admire, such as kindness, honesty, and generosity, by contrast, ane not instinctual in this way; they have to be learnt.[sic] It is (among others) the job of civilization to teach them, and that point is one that Universalism fails to acknowledge. It may be the germ of its destruction."

Don't Universalists believe that children must to go to school to develop into responsible, ethical citizens? Universalists reify civilization. The "noble savage" complex is not a rejection of civilization; rather, it is an evangelical drive to purify civilization, to make it more humane by revisiting humanity's original principles. To Universalists, civilization is a precious thing to be cultivated and managed. If necessary, people may be sacrificed for "civilization".

I believe that the best way to resist Universalism is to reject the reification of civilization. There is no such thing as civilization; there are people and artifacts and data and relationships which interact in remarkable ways, but these do not belong to a monolithic whole.

July 31, 2007 at 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Chairmank - I'm not trying to make an "orthodox Christian critique of Universalism." Nor, as I noted before, am I trying to defend - except in naturalistic terms - the doctrine of original sin. I'm trying to explain what I think is the source of an idea, Universalism, and how it flows out of a certain stream of western (Christian) thought.

It is, after all, possible to discuss the history of early chemistry, and the once widespread belief in metallic transmutation, without ourselves believing in the existence of the philosophers' stone. Similarly we must be able to discuss current sub-atomic particle and quantum theory always bearing in mind that any theory is true only until further notice, and one day the ideas that are now current may soon be thought as erroneous as former beliefs in chrysopoeia, the liquor alkahest, and the elixir vitæ are today. We ought to be able to discuss the history of ethical and religious or quasi-religious belief with the same detachment.

Original sin is an important idea in this discussion because it - and its rejection, together with most of the other apparatus of orthodox Christianity - have a central role in the development of Universalism. Orthodox Christianity believed that Adam, the first progenitor of all mankind, committed the original sin by defying God. It was for this defiance that he and Eve were expelled from Eden. According to this view, all Adam's descendants are particeps criminis by inheritance, so to speak. In pity for his lapsed creatures, God sent his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ into the world to save sinful man; by Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the cross, all are saved who believe in him. If you're curious about more details I can only advise you to read the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. I'm sure it's all quite strange to one who was not brought up in a Christian tradition; but that's the tradition in which western civilization developed for a good 1500 years of the relatively recent past, so it's worth our while to study it if we hope to understand why people think the way they do.

My original post was in reaction to a long thread started by MM's comments on the film Africa Addio, and a subsequent citation in one of the write-backs, in which Daniel Patrick Moynihan was quoted about the "curious condescension" that many educated people exhibited in tolerating and condoning individual or collective behavior on the part of black people, which behavior they would condemn if it had been committed by anyone else. I noted that the curious condescension noted by Moynihan was akin to Rousseau's fantasy of the noble savage, and that both originated in the curious inversion, central to Universalism, of the doctrine of original sin.

Again, I'm not saying that I believe in the orthodox conception of original sin, or in (say) Augustine's assertion that baptism was necessary to wash away its stain, or with the belief that unbaptized infants went automatically to Hell, or that infants needed to be exorcised of the "unclean spirit" that inhabited them prior to baptism - a ritual contained in the old Latin liturgy of baptism used by the Roman Catholic church right up through the1960s until Vatican II authorized the use of the vulgar tongue.

Neither do I believe in the fatuous concept of Rousseau that man in a state of nature is inherently good, and that only vicious institutions (viz. those of western Christian civilization, as these terms are commonly understood) makes him bad.

What I'm saying is that the preponderance of innate human traits are what most western Christian thinkers, as well as their secular, Universalist successors, would describe as evil, and that by contrast those traits described by those thinkers as good require to be learnt.

In other words, the concept of original sin, stripped of all the baroque ornament that has been grafted onto it by centuries of Christian theology, is a simple, deep, and valid aperçu about human nature.

Anyone who has ever watched small children interact can see the conflict between instinctive egotism and acquired altruism at work. Each one wants to be the center of attention (pride); each one wants all the cookies (gluttony) or toys (avarice), and won't put them back in the toybox after playing with them (sloth). When the children don't get what they want, they have tantrums (anger) and one may think it is not fair that his little playmates should have something he doesn't (envy). Obviously, no society, even that of a nursery school, can get along under such conditions. By a process of interaction with each other, and the occasional intervention of higher authority (an adult), the roughness in the children's social intercourse eventually becomes smoother, and the little "savages" gradually become "civilized." This is, in microcosm, what must happen in any society that is to survive for any length of time. It is why I believe that the behaviors we generally regard as virtuous are the product of nurture rather than nature.

Of course Universalists believe in schooling the young. It is a practice they hold in common with people in just about every organized society. It is of course what is taught in this schooling that makes all the difference.

I don't think it is "reifying" civilization to use that word as it is commonly understood. The word describes something. Of course, people have believed at many times and places that "people may be sacrificed for 'civilization'." The Aztecs appear to have believed that theirs would be obliterated unless they tore the requisite number of still-beating hearts from the breasts of their victims. The slave-trading coastal tribes of West Africa believed that annual festivals of human sacrifice were necessary to maintain their social order. The Jews, when Jephtha was judge of Israel, killed two and forty-thousand Ephraimites who could not frame to pronounce the word shibboleth. Christians did not agree in principle to stop slaughtering each other in the name of the Prince of Peace until the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and the practice has continued till this day in some places (e.g. Northern Ireland). I need hardly say anything about the bloodthirsty votaries of Mahomet - just read the newspapers or turn on the television.

Nonetheless, it seems to me it will be hard to top the sheer numbers of human lives sacrificed to Universalism, be it in the former Soviet Union, China under the rule of Mao, or - dare I say it - our own country, which "beneath the starry flag/will teach them manners with a Krag" - or M16, or M2 machine gun, or whatever happens to be handy.

That's why we need to understand the sources of Universalism. We cannot hope to extirpate its noxious branches until we locate the root.

July 31, 2007 at 10:41 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

At the risk of getting a little off-topic, I have to say I see a very interesting analog to original sin in the constant references to historical injustice that progressive-idealists rely upon to create tension.

Okay, the last three words are speculation. I really have no idea why they do it. Guilt is way too big a topic for me to do justice to, even if I had time.

When a progressive-idealist is shoring up support for a new reform, they generally refer to how bad life was bad before the last reform. "Remedy for past injustice" is the description and justification for almost any current reform. Most of the injustices were laid to rest by liberal reformers in the period roughly 1830 to 1960, but as that period drew to a close, morale started collapsing.

In that respect, I am thinking "progressive-idealist" is an interesting term. Modern day progressives seem incredibly pessimistic and bitter (although lot of non-progressives do too). There doesn't seem to be any possibility of baptism to cleanse us of the sins of our slave-owning, wife-beating, war-mongering ancestors. They emphasize the need to be aware of history (which I agree with) but for the progressives I know, the only things they believe to really be factual are negative things.

In this way I think the progressives I know may be different than usual. Others on this blog seems to feel like progressives are starry-eyed optimists who seem to have trouble separating the normative from the positive. The progressives I know are grim-faced Manichaeans who loathe anything factual, historical, or demonstrable, and save their love only for matters of opinion and imagination.

July 31, 2007 at 11:51 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Michael S: Sorry, but you need to learn some psychology and some evolutionary logic. Really. I can only second several previous posters on this.
Anyway, my major point is that it seems to me that Universalists, with the New Soviet Man, etc, are basically claiming that humans can be greatly improved through better acculturation. This is the same thing that Universalists are pointing out (who do you think reports such stories and why?) with the Ik story that you point to, contrasting the post-move Ik to the superior behavior of earlier 'socialized' Ik (they like that word, remember, and it's meanings are closely related), or for that matter to superior us. They also consider themselves better than Vaisyas because of better acculturation.

Honestly, having lived in a number of places and cultures, I can confidently say that people can vary greatly from culture to culture for reasons that appear to be largely non-genetic (based on comparison to immigrants). However, I am very open to the possibility that the Brahmins tend to screw up because they have unrealistic aspirations to turn IQ 100 people into things that you can't become without a 120+ IQ.

August 1, 2007 at 7:02 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

This is all getting a little ridiculous. I understand the utility of labels and categories, but this whole "Universalism" idea appears to be turning into one huge straw man. Do some people believe in the noble savage? I don't know, I guess some do. How many people are we talking about and are they remotely representative of the group of people you refer to as Universalists?

I'd like to see a post on what percentage of Americans you consider to be Universalists/Brahmins as well as what fraction of those maintain the beliefs you've been attributing to them.

August 1, 2007 at 7:22 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

It's rather ironic that Mencius's prime reason for skepticism as to the truth of Universalist tenets seems to be that it is unlikely that a tenet would be held on faith for millenia and then discovered through pure reason but Michael S. is claiming exactly this with respect to the tenet of original sin.

By the way, the data on Bonobos seems to *all* be consistent with what Rousseau actually said, which is that the noble savage is friendly and kind so long as his stomach is full.

August 1, 2007 at 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Michael - I suspect that psychology, as it is practised at present, is largely a pseudoscience or latter-day superstition, of the same stripe we now believe (for ecxample) astrology or phrenology to have been. That there are some verities in this field I do not dispute, but that does not vindicate the structure in which they are embedded, any more than the scattering of raisins in rice pudding makes the latter equivalent to a bunch of grapes. And what is "evolutionary logic"? I know what logic is, and I know what evolution is - at least for purposes of the educated non-scientist, its role is to occupy the place that creation myths like the one in Genesis did for previous generations. But what the two terms mean when sewn together, I hope you will explain.

Literature and philosophy supply insights into human nature that, for me, are as valid as those of real science (which is one means to an end, which is knowledge, but not the only one. This is to say nothing of dubious "sciences" such as psychology or kindred forms of divination. You may not care for my dim evaluation of human character, but consider its advantages. If you expect goodness in man and believe in his perfectibility, your life will be one of constant disappointment. If you expect men to be bad, or at least morally indifferent, you will occasionally experience a pleasant surprise.

My suggestion that the aperçu behind the concept of original sin, and the assessment of human nature to which it leads, need not require orthodox Christian belief, is borne out in the writings of such noted sceptics as Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. It has always amused me that Twain, the sceptic, in his "Letters from the Earth," anticipated the devout C.S. Lewis's "Screwtape" in the use of the same literary device. As for the innate tendencies of children manifesting themselves despite the best efforts of right-thinking parents, see Saki's "The Toys of Peace."

Jewish Atheist - how many people are we talking about? I have no number or percentage of the general population in mind, but suggest that it must include over 90% of American university faculty, at least in the humanities and social sciences; about the same percentage among persons employed in journalism, whether as reporters, analysts, or editorialists/commentators; in other media/entertainment activities; in the career civil service and diplomatic corps; and in the non-profit/charitable/social services fields. Persons in these lines of work who entertain other opinions are well advised to hold their tongues if they wish to keep their jobs.

Bear in mind that many of these folk will not have a complete intellectual command of the whole body of belief that is comprised within what has been identified as progressive-idealism or Universalism. Many will not even be conscious of the immediate origins of the ideas they cherish. To borrow a phrase from Keynes, they are the slaves of dead economists (Marx and Keynes), dead hierophants (Freud), dead mythographers (Darwin, at least according to the vulgar interpretation), and dead moralists (from Epicurus to Rousseau to Kinsey). Nonetheless, this intellectual mulligan stew is their received wisdom, and if asked a question that this received wisdom answers in a certain way, they will predictably so answer it.

For the purposes of our exercise I again refer you back to the thread on "Africa Addio." The test question I propose is:

"Are the events that have recently happened or are still ongoing in Liberia, Rwanda, or Darfur, the result of a) the inherent perversity of human nature or b) the deleterious after-effects of colonialism?"

The answer amongst members of the communities mentioned will overwhelmingly be (b), an entirely predictable reflection of their adherence to the tenets of progressive-idealism or universalism.

August 1, 2007 at 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Further to Michael - you misrepresent what I have said. I do not say that original sin was held onto by faith for millennia and later discovered by pure reason. Rather, I suggest that the tenet of original sin, with all of its elaborate appurtenances, developed out of very early and perceptive observations of human nature, and that Universalism, in throwing out this encrusted basin of doctrine, has failed to notice that there is a real live baby in the bath-water.

"As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man,
There are only four things certai since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit, and the Sow returns to her mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.

"And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins,
When all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return."

August 1, 2007 at 10:08 AM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

That's why we need to understand the sources of Universalism. We cannot hope to extirpate its noxious branches until we locate the root.

I now see that this is the fundamental disagreement between you and me. I agree that the inversion of the doctrine of original sin (via Rousseau) contributed to Universalism. But this phylogeny is irrelevant to the current staying power of Univeralism. An analogy: When a scientist analyzes the hydrodynamics of a dolphin, she does not speculate about the dolphin's most recent quadreped ancestor.

Please correct me if I am mistaken, but I get the impression that perhaps you believe that "original sin" is an ontological reality, and that the problem with Universalism is that it does not agree with this reality. I disagree. Original sin does not exist if people do not believe in it. Most people do not believe in original sin, and their disbelief is not the result of Universalist evangelism.

August 1, 2007 at 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Chairmank - it is irrelevant whether or not people believe in orthodox Christianity's doctrine of original sim, with all the bells and whistles about baptism, etc. This may or may not exist. I venture no opinion.

What (in my view) undoubtedly exists is human nature. The fatal flaw of Universalism is its refusal to acknowledge human nature. That refusal, and Universalism's blind faith in human perfectibility, lie behind all its efforts to build Heaven on earth. It is why they have all, inevitably, ended in something like Hell.

August 1, 2007 at 10:34 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

I'm with Jewish Atheist -- this is kind of ridiculous. It's one thing to identify Universalism as a strain of thought that manifests itself variously in different times and places. It's quite another to reify it as this unified power structure-cum-conspiracy that rules the world. It lumps together wildly different thinkers. For example, Michael S says: "The fatal flaw of Universalism is its refusal to acknowledge human nature. That refusal, and Universalism's blind faith in human perfectibility" OK, now look at the Samantha Powers article. I defy you to find an iota of that belief in her worldview. She's written a whole book on genocide, I don't really think her problem is a blind faith in human perfectibility. So either she's not a Universalist or Univeralism does not mean what you just said it means.

August 1, 2007 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

And BTW, the book was entitled "A Problem From Hell", not "I Think Everybody Should Just Play Nice".

August 1, 2007 at 12:09 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Well, I'm getting the impression that a lot of the disagreement in this thread is more about terminology than substance. For example, I'll readily agree that babies are doing much in the way of productive labor, but I don't think it's really fair to call them "slothful" on those grounds, since that would seem to me to imply that they could and should be industrious.
But if we were to agree that babies were born sinful and have to be taught to be good, that would seem to me an argument that people could be made better, perhaps even perfect, with better instruction. You didn't say "taught", and it's not clear to me how much of a role you think deliberate "teaching" does or should play in the development of the virtues.

I think the whole "naturally good but corrupted by society" vs. "naturally wicked but reformed by society" dichotomy is fundamentally wrongheaded. Our social institutions are a product of our nature. If we were naturally good, our institutions would reflect that, and would reinforce in our goodness, and similarly if we were naturally wicked. But of course it isn't one or the other. Left to our own devices, we will pursue our own ends, sometimes in ways that are injurious to each other. Societies form laws to prevent or punish harmful actions, but it's no surprise that those entrusted with formulating and enforcing laws often use their positions of authority to their own advantage. The intelligent and the persuasive are no more immune to this temptation than are the strong and the bold.

Getting back to the bonobos, it seems to me that if their behavior has any implications at all for humans, it's evidence for genetic determinism. After all, the bonobos and chimps exhibited radically different behavior even before we realized that they were separate species, hence stereotype threat could not have been a factor. I can't understand why a species of genetic pacifists would be considered grounds for optimism about the future of human pacifist, particularly not since it's well know that Republicans are outbreeding Democrats. But I'll concede that you really can't reliably conclude anything at all about human nature from them, although personally I consider them somewhat interesting purely for their own sake.

August 1, 2007 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Michael S.:

"original sin, with all of its elaborate appurtenances, developed out of very early and perceptive observations of human nature"

Not with Nietzsche on this one, then?

"To whom can you be kind, faithful, or generous, if there is no one but yourself?"

And to whom can you be unkind, faithless, or ungenerous, if there is no one but yourself?


I must say, though, I've enjoyed this thread immensely, and Michael S. has put original sin in an entirely new light for me, even though I'm doubtful that it genuinely sprang out of a perceptive judgement--I think rather it was just another excellent tool of power maintenance. ("We've got the keys--you're damned without us.")

August 1, 2007 at 3:42 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

The descriptions of bonobo females ganging up on isolated males is eerily familiar. I can look back on my experience in college and see that perhaps it wasn't so bad. I do, after all, retain ten fingers and ten toes.

August 1, 2007 at 4:20 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I'm grateful to see that these discussions can take place in my absence!

Thanks again to Michael S. for shouldering the load which I so unfairly thrust upon him. Michael, if you could email me (moldbug at gmail dot com), I could apologize at greater length...

August 1, 2007 at 4:31 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


If you doubt the meaningfulness of "Universalism," of course you are free to, but please first read this post and the ones it links back to on "cryptocalvinism," "ultracalvinism," etc.

Basically, if you want to refute the concept of Universalism, you have to explain the strange coincidence between its tenets and those of the mainline Protestant tradition.

Just as mainline Protestantism fades away into irrelevant "moderation," a new set of deeply held principles appear, environmentalism and multiculturalism and "political correctness," held by about the same people in about the same institutions - eg, Harvard. Furthermore, antecendents to these ideas are easy to find and obviously in the same line of descent, eg, Brook Farm.

Samantha Power is not a wild-eyed fanatic, at least not by Universalist standards. She makes relatively few appeals to emotional morality. But it's very easy to recognize the tradition she's in.

You see, the proposition that Universalism doesn't exist is precisely the Universalist party line. Universalism doesn't exist because its beliefs are derived from reason, and reason is universal. Selah.

Nonetheless, if you can imagine a debate between Samantha Power and Lord Cromer, surely you'll see that they disagree on many subjects. Wouldn't it be helpful to have labels for both? Of course you can simply regard Power as a reasonable, modern woman and Cromer as a medieval fanatic, but is that any way to be objective?

Cromer would immediately recognize Power as a descendant of the Exeter Hall movement that laid him low - a movement whose Evangelical Christian roots were admitted by everyone. He would be very surprised to be informed, given her substantive opinions, that she considered this perspective "secular."

And he would certainly dispute the claim that genocide is a "problem from hell." There was certainly no genocide or ethnic cleansing in Egypt when Cromer ruled it, although there was plenty after.

Cromer would tell you that the reason genocide happens is that law and order have broken down, and the way to prevent genocide is to impose law and order.

I'm really not sure what Power would say to this, because her kind just finished spending the last century purging anyone who even came close to agreeing with Lord Cromer from any position of responsibility or influence. It's certainly one way to win a debate.

If there is one phrase that Power would identify with, I think it's the classic State Department locution "soft power." The problem - from hell, as it were - is that soft power doesn't prevent genocide. In fact, it doesn't seem to do much of anything at all, except help the Powers of the world look statesmanlike.

In other words, precisely what the Cromers of the world warned us would happen has, in fact, happened.

You may also find this charming bit by Power on Robert Mugabe. She concludes with a glorious serenade of equivalence between Ian Smith, who tried to save Rhodesia, and Robert Mugabe, who destroyed it. Again, I think Cromer's response to this would be entirely predictable.

August 1, 2007 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Michael (not S.),

Actually, my reason for skepticism on Universalist tenets is that many of them, when examined critically, strike me as utterly wrong-headed.

Identifying Universalism as a Christian sect is an explanation of why this exercise needs to be performed, but it is not a substitute for the exercise itself.

August 1, 2007 at 4:56 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I agree that the ontogeny of Universalism is only a way to understand its phylogeny. But I think it's a fairly useful way.

Going forward I'll try to spend more time looking at the adaptive qualities of Universalist tenets, rather than the ancestors from which they evolved.

August 1, 2007 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


An acute comment as usual - indeed "white guilt" has substantially taken over the function of original sin.

It is, however, a different belief with very different practical political implications.

Fanatics are often at once grim and starry-eyed. I need look no farther than myself :-)

August 1, 2007 at 5:00 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


All of these instincts are indeed wired into us. We have original virtues as well as original vices. Fer sure.

The problem is in the belief that the vices can be generally suppressed by a cultural operating system whose modus operandi is always to "turn the other cheek" and focus on rewarding virtues, not punishing vices. This belief strikes me as remarkably widespread and entirely unjustified.

Instead, my perspective of history is that the virtues tend to emerge when you suppress the vices, and this can only be done by a culture that provides disincentives for the latter.

The sine qua non of civilization, in other words, is punishment. Certainly past societies that have been aggressive about punishing vice, seem to also be remarkable for the virtues that you mention - I am thinking of the Puritan and Victorian cultures, for example, both of which were unusual both for their hard-line attitude toward sin and their high levels of altruism.

August 1, 2007 at 5:07 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


It's true that the bonobo article had an appallingly high text-to-content ratio. I don't mind this so much, but I am good at skimming fast.

Even without significant evidence, though, just taking the author's word for it, the story of the fabricated "Hippie Ape" struck me as quite plausible. Hopefully this article will launch a string of attacks on and defenses of de Waal, and we can start to figure out who's actually right.

August 1, 2007 at 5:09 PM  
Blogger Victor said...


Well, thanks for acknowledging that human nature is not inherently evil or sinful, as Michael S would have it.

However, while you are right that many people believe that our 'original vices' can be suppressed through enculturation, which is a belief apparently largely in error, I think your view that we should rely on the stick instead of the carrot is also inadequate; to see why, just think of the repression and misery produced by the two sin-intolerant societies you cite, and also think about other sin-intolerant societies, such as modern muslim theocracies.

IMO (this this is a trivial insight of the 'does pope shit in the woods?' variety) we should use both positive and negative reinforcement to steer people in the more socially constructive direction; however, I think such head-on approach, regardless of whether you prefer stick or carrot, misses the bigger point.

The third option, and IMO the most fruitful one, would be that of clever socioeconomic engineering which would harness the selfish and the selfless impulses. More Aikido instead of just Karate -- use existing energy more, instead of trying to counter it with contrary expenditure of your own energy.

Free market is the archetypal example of such a structure. We don't need to re-educate man to be altruistic and overwhelmingly communitarian to achieve economic growth, as communists would have it -- we instead build the socioeconomic order which harnesses human selfishness in a constructive, peaceful direction. Another example of such harnessing would be spectator sports: instead of trying to educate or intimidate aggression out of people, we try to harness it towards constructive ends.

When life dumps you into a shit pile, sell it for fertilizer, so to speak.

I think of it as an engineering problem as much as a psychological and sociological one. Instead of simply trying to make ourselves good (through either promotion of virtue or suppression of vice, or both), we should consciously try to be smarter in how we guide the interplay between the individual and the society. Instead of trying to change man (not that we should give up, but it's clearly not a sufficient solution), we should be trying to cleverly structure interactions between men.

More intelligence, less brute force and direct indoctrination.

It's all just one liberal's opinion of course.

August 1, 2007 at 6:45 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

If you doubt the meaningfulness of "Universalism," ...
I don't doubt that it's meaningful, in fact I find it a very interesting view on history, but I also find that it's getting way too overapplied and reified here. And the result is a bit too much like conspiracy-mongering, and also it results in straining at gnats like this beef with Samantha Power. You did it again with the Zimbabwe article. It's pretty unexceptional from my perspective, and the equivalency she draws is perfectly reasonable: For all their differences, Mugabe and Ian Smith share a basic misconception about power: they both fail to realize that a government cannot survive indefinitely when it advances the political and economic desires of the few at the expense of the many.

I think this is exactly right.
There's a reason Lord Cromer and Ian Smith aren't around any more, not to mention the Bourbons and the Romanoffs. Minority rule by force over an unwilling majority is not very stable (referring back to your reply to me in another thread). So maybe Ian Smith would have made Rhodesia a paradise if he had the chance. Certainly it would be in better shape today if he had retained power. The point is, he didn't.

This longing for the stability of an overwhelming authority is very curious to me. It is certainly very foreign to the established wisdom, and I guess that's why I'm hanging out here, it's not that often that you come across a new point of view. But I prefer democracy and in fact think that it has the potential to be more stable over the long term.

August 1, 2007 at 7:09 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Minority rule by force over an unwilling majority is not very stable
Is it really? Was Sparta less stable than Athens? They lasted a pretty long time with a majority of Helots under them. Numerous empires of the past ruled over huge numbers of conquered peoples and lasted longer than nations states of today that base their legitimacy on the people. Mencius may even be correct that it has been the norm throughout history for an alien elite to rule over the masses, and this gels with Franz Oppenheimer's theory on the formation of the state.

August 1, 2007 at 10:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

George Weinberg has correctly said that much of the disagreement here is about terminology than about substance.

I do not personally believe that infants are born "evil," "wicked," or "sinful." That is, however, what orthodox Christians have believed for most of the past 2000 years. It is worthwhile in this context to observe that the modern saccharine view of childhood as a time of innocence has much in common with the notion that primitive peoples are virtuous, as exemplified in the "curious condescension" described by Moynihan, which initiated the present discussion. Rousseau, who began the cult of the "noble savage," also posed as an authority on education, and it is interesting to compare his views of children and of savages.

What I DO assert is that infants are born egotists, and that they must learn, through experience and precept, to behave altruistically (at least some of the time). Nature is not immoral, but amoral and instinctual. Morality is a human invention and has to be learnt.

Non-theistic universalism shares with most strains of religious belief the view that selfishness is generally evil and to be condemned. The traditional seven deadly sins are all variations on the theme of selfishness. On the other hand, both non-theistic universalism and the various religions regard altruism as good and admirable.

That there are complications and difficulties with these views should be obvious. At least sometimes, selfish behavior has good consequences. Bernard de Mandeville pointed out long ago in his "Fable of the Bees" that private vices bring public benefits. Enduring human traits of laziness and greed are responsible for the invention of labor-saving devices. The payment of interest on money, condemned by the mediæval church as usury (a subdivision of avarice), and still forbidden by Islam, is an essential feature of the modern economy. Interest-bearing loans make possible much economic development that would not be possible without them. How many people would own homes without the availability of mortgage loans? Gluttony is responsible for many culinary delights, including all those delightful fish and vegetable dishes contrived by French and Italian cooks to observe the letter of the Lenten fast while traducing its ascetic intent. Lust is merely the sex drive, which is necessary to perpetuate our species, despite all of the emotional torment it yields. Life might be more serene, as Sir Thomas Browne suggested, if we reproduced like trees, but it would surely be less interesting.

The trouble that both secular universalists and many religious people have in coming to terms with the public benefits brought about by private vices is seen most notably in their rejection of free economic institutions. They cannot quite get their heads around the observation made by Adam Smith that when everyone acts in his self-interest each is checked in his capacity to do evil thereby, in consequence of all the others.

People who never learn to act altruistically, or who reject the necessity of so doing, are sometimes called sociopaths. An older description of them was "moral idiots." Depending on how clever such a one may be, he will end up either in the state house or the "big house." Persons who suppress their selfishness completely are very rare. They are usually called ascetics or sages, and sometimes (not only by Christians, either) saints. A society made up of such people would be so impractical as to be well-nigh impossible, but that hasn't stopped utopians from trying to create one.

This brings us to George Weinberg's thought that "...if we were to agree that babies were born sinful and have to be taught to be good, that would seem to me an argument that people could be made better, perhaps even perfect, with better instruction." Here is where the utopians, whether religious or secular, run themselves aground. It is widely agreed that people are made better by instruction. To believe they can be made perfect is to believe they can be made to suppress their human nature, which is, after all, an animal nature in which there is a strong component of selfishness. The latter is what a traditional Christian of the past might have called "the old Adam" in us all.

The other Michael in this discussion wrote that he was "open to the possibility that the Brahmins tend to screw up because they have unrealistic aspirations to turn IQ 100 people into things they can't become without a 120+ IQ." True enough, but to this should be added that they also have unrealistic aspirations to turn ordinary human beings, with all their faults and foibles, into saints. That venture is uniformly going to come a-cropper, whether attempted under the banner of religion or under that of non-theistic idealism.

August 2, 2007 at 9:51 AM  
Blogger Alias Clio said...

"Original sin is (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam." -- Catholic Encyclopedia, which can be found on line at the New Advent dot org website. Not that I imagine most readers here will sully themselves by reading it, but it might be a good idea before you begin to, you know, pontificate.

Original Sin supposedly works like chromosome damage; that is, it gets passed on to offspring like Fetal Alchol Syndrome, making it very difficult for those who are afflicted by it (all of us) to do the right thing, even when we want and intend to do so.

The idea is that when our Original Ancestors sinned, they and their offspring (because they were a single species raised up by God and made in his image) together lost the gift of "sanctifying grace".

I have no difficulty believing in it.

August 2, 2007 at 4:22 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

tggp said: Numerous empires of the past ruled over huge numbers of conquered peoples and lasted longer than nations states of today that base their legitimacy on the people.
The key there is "of the past". Vast slow empires may have been the rule for most of human history, but things have changed in the past few hundred years, and I doubt that Universalism is solely to blame. Technology might have something to do with it. Hard to keep the peasantry down on the farm after they've seen Paree on the Teevee.

August 2, 2007 at 9:11 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

alias clio -

I gather from what you're saying that you believe someone was using a definition other than the one you quoted. Who was it, and how does that person's definition differ from yours?

August 3, 2007 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Alias Clio said...

I didn't intend to imply that someone was using a different definition of Original Sin. I was citing an authority on the subject, for the sake of greater precision, because there appeared to be some controversy in the other comments about it. Both the main definitions suggested here are more or less correct; but each is completed by the other.

My tone was a little snide because I was surprised that none of the commenters had consulted what is to me an obvious source of information.

I also added some interpretation of how Original Sin is thought to function, by those who believe in it, because I think that what's been written here shows confusion regarding that issue.

The doctrine of Original Sin does not state that we are all born evil, or sinful, exactly. It implies that we have all sinned "in Adam", and are all damaged, so that we find it impossible to be good. I used the analogy of chromosome damage, and more specifically fetal alcohol syndrome, because it like original sin it is an inherited flaw, not the fault of the person stricken by it, which makes it very difficult for sufferers to exercise moral self-control.

It's true that unbaptized babies were thought to go to Hell, but it was a gentle version of Hell - which at its simplest implies deprivation of the Beatific Vision. In struggling to define this, the Fathers (I think) came up with the idea of Limbo, which has now been jettisoned because there is no scriptural justification for it.

The unbaptized innocent (babies, innocent heathen), would go to Hell, but would not suffer the torments of eternal punishment, only the deprivation of God.

cf. St Gregory of Nazianus, b. ca. 325:
"It will happen, I believe . . . that those last mentioned [infants dying without baptism] will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked. . . . For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished. [Orat., xl, 23]

August 3, 2007 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger Alias Clio said...

postscript: just to be clearer, St Gregory's post was not specifically about Limbo, but about the fate of the unbaptized. The idea of Limbo was developed to meet the perceived need for a place in which the innocent unbaptized were neither punished, nor rewarded with the vision of God.

August 3, 2007 at 10:28 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Okay, that clears things up.

I've never been entirely clear on whether the various Abrahamic religions had pretty much the same idea of original sin or not. I haven't been exposed to the equivalent Jewish, Muslim, Calvinist, etc. views on the subject.

August 3, 2007 at 10:32 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

I believe I made much the same point as Clio, without however citing her particular sources, when I wrote (some distance above):

"Orthodox Christianity believed that Adam, the first progenitor of all mankind, committed the original sin by defying God. It was for this defiance that he and Eve were expelled from Eden. According to this view, all Adam's descendants are particeps criminis by inheritance..."

I also mentioned what the Catholic Encylopedia article quoted by Clio described as "the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam" when I wrote about "Augustine's assertion that baptism was necessary to wash away its [original sin's] stain."

I hope Clio will pass on to her mother Mnemosyne my gratitude. That great lady served me well, and Clio has provided corroboration.

As to Christianity's view of the unbaptized, it is perhaps worth quoting the part of the baptismal rite in which the "unclean spirit" inhabiting the infant is exorcised, before the actual baptism with water:

"I commaunde thee, uncleane spirite, in the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghose, that thou come out, and depart from these infantes, whom our Lord Jesus Christe hath vouchsafed, to call to his holy Baptisme, to be made membres of his body, and of his holy congregacion. Therfore thou cursed spirite, remembre thy sentence, remembre thy iudgemente, remembre the daye to be at hande, wherein thou shalt burne in fyre euerlasting, prepared for the and thy Angels. And presume not to exercise any tyrannye towarde these infantes, whom Christe hathe bought with his precious bloud, and by this his holy Baptisme calleth to his flocke."

The "uncleane spirite" in question is not a subordinate demon, but no less than Satan himself, as made clear by the later words "remembre the daye to be at hande, wherein thou shalt burne in fyre euerlasting, prepared for the and thy Angels."

This English translation is Cranmer's, from the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549. It represents the pre-Tridentine Latin of Sarum use rather than the later Latin rite, but that was very similar to the above and continued in Roman Catholic use until the post-Vatican II adoption of the vernacular.

This exorcism was removed from the 1552 Prayer Book and has never been restored to any of the succeeding editions. It was not dropped because the Anglicans objected to its view of the unbaptized infant's sinful nature, but because they came to think exorcism was "Popish" and unnecessary.

The last Roman Catholic christening I witnessed, about 7 years ago, was conducted in English by a married deacon, and contained no exorcism. I suppose the reason for its omission from the vernacular rite was that parents would be upset to hear in plain English the suggestion that their precious little one was inhabited by Satan. Catholicism is a gentler faith than it used to be, and doesn't want to hint at anything unpleasant. Parents find out the truth soon enough, when the child reaches the "terrible twos."

To revise and correct Hillary Clinton - " it takes a child to raze a village."

August 3, 2007 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


You are exactly the type of reader I'm trying to attract here, and I hope you stick around. The likes of Michael S. are wonderful as contributors, but I am not under the illusion that I have any fresh perspective to impart to him.

Why do I prefer political stability? Because I've lived in a few places and I've read a bit of history, and I'm laboring under the impression that political instability (to be specific: nationalist-socialist mob violence) has killed a couple hundred million people in the last few years. I have certainly seen it firsthand and I can tell you, it's frickin' ugly.

Perhaps the whole leftist revolutionary tradition has done some good as well. Surely it's done some good as well. But, I mean, really - let's look at the big picture here.

So you say "it's hard to keep the peasantry on the farm..." Well. Let's think about this for a minute.

Is this your own idea, or is it something you heard somewhere? Forgive me if I tend to suspect the latter - it is only because I'm pretty sure you're smarter than that.

The point is not, of course, whether the peasantry will stay on the farm, or whether they will move to the city and take jobs as paralegals. The question is whether they will stay on the farm, or whether they will take their scythes and pruning-hooks and storm the Royal Palace.

The question is, in other words, do you have a few well-trained guys with a couple of crew-served weapons in front of said Palace? Or can anyone just stroll right in? Including a mob of peasants with scythes, etc?

Perhaps you have some other definition of "hard." Perhaps the point you were making was not strictly of a military nature. But if it wasn't, I'd like to know what it was?

In fact, Lord Cromer and Ian Smith and their like are not around for a very specific reason. They were defeated, not militarily, but politically. Which is still defeated enough, of course - in fact, it's more pleasant for everyone. But a defeat is a defeat.

Now, how did this actually happen? How it actually happened is that Cromer, Smith, etc, were defeated by the forces of the Universalist left - people Lord Cromer would have described as "missionaries" and "evangelicals." These terms are no longer used, but you can still google Rober t Mugabe plus the World Council of Churches.

These defeats were not administered by "the peasants," "the workers," "the natives," or any other specially designated victim class. They were administered on behalf of these victim classes.

Democracy was not a movement of peasants and artisans. It was a movement on behalf of peasant and artisans. Communism was not a movement of workers. It was a movement on behalf of workers. Civil rights was not a movement of African-Americans. It was a movement on behalf of African-Americans. If the only people who had supported these movements were the designated sufferers themselves, none of us would ever have heard of any of them.

Today, actual human victims being somewhat exhausted, various groups are engaged in "social justice" campaigns on behalf of animals. And it's certainly not kitties and doggies who are blowing up labs and assaulting old ladies on the subway. (I just saw the wonderful new documentary, Your Mommy Kills Animals, highly recommended.)

As they put it in Texas, don't piss on my boots and tell me it's raining. It is understandable that intellectuals tell us mob violence is inevitable and irresistible. Because a mob by definition is organized around an idea, and ideas by definition come from intellectuals.

So the message is: "it is foolish, pointless and unproductive to resist us." This is the message of all conquering powers. And I hope you can forgive me for looking at it a little skeptically.

See, once upon a time, people - including Abraham Lincoln - thought the idea that a white person could be anything but a white supremacist was pretty darn strange.

I am an intellectual. I am also white, and I don't believe it's inevitable that white people should rule the world (although I can certainly think of worse outcomes). And I note that most white people have been pretty effectively educated out of this one.

Perhaps intellectuals can learn the same trick. I'd certainly like to see more of us try.

August 3, 2007 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I find nothing to quarrel with in your argument. I can only conclude that we apply this engineering approach differently. Since I've never really known any two engineers to really agree on anything, I find this unsurprising.

Sticks and carrots are both tools. Think of them as like tension and compression in a bridge design. Some bridges rely more on tension and some more on compression. But I would look rather skeptically on any bridge engineer who told me that tension is good and compression is bad, or vice versa.

My view is that when people today think about the engineering of social structures, they greatly underestimate the value of sticks, that is, negative reinforcements.

I see this bias as essentially Christian in origin. I also see it as highly adaptive for the power structure we happen to live under. In other words, the whole complex strikes me as theocratic, in a much more dangerous way than anything any Kansas school board might get up to. I was raised, probably like you, to oppose theocracy, and so I do.

Certainly, I see little point in adding my puny voice to the great chorus which is always ready to praise caring, compassion, nonviolence and other Christian carrots.

August 3, 2007 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Victor said...


You wrote:

Sticks and carrots are both tools. Think of them as like tension and compression in a bridge design. Some bridges rely more on tension and some more on compression. But I would look rather skeptically on any bridge engineer who told me that tension is good and compression is bad, or vice versa.

I guess I didn't explain myself very well. Both stick and carrot aim to adopt man to the environment. I suggest that we spend more effort to adopt the environment -- our social environment, the very thing we are building -- to man. You don't get to adopt the landscape to the needs of the bridge much I imagine (though you do with roads on often enough), so the question rarely arises; but in trying to guide the individual/society interaction, we do have an alternative to the whole stick/carrot plane.

August 3, 2007 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

mencius wrote: You are exactly the type of reader I'm trying to attract here, and I hope you stick around.

Why thanks, I think I will...in fact I figured out how to get a unified comment feed from this blog which will make it much easier to keep up with things. The benefits of my fancy CS education pay off once again!

Why do I prefer political stability?

I don't think I would question that political stability is, all else being equal, preferable to the opposite. But whether it's the sole value or most important value is something we might disagree on.

So you say "it's hard to keep the peasantry on the farm..." Well. Let's think about this for a minute....

The idea behind that thought was this: traditional authoritarian schemes relied on a vast, ignorant, and immobile peasantry; modernity destroyed the social relationships that supported this arrangment, the peasants flocked into the cities and a lot of other changes followed from that. My explanation for the root causes of this chain events would lean more towards the technological than the spread of an ideology.

In fact, Lord Cromer and Ian Smith and their like are not around for a very specific reason. They were defeated, not militarily, but politically. Which is still defeated enough, of course - in fact, it's more pleasant for everyone. But a defeat is a defeat [mtraven: that was my point as well]...Now, how did this actually happen? How it actually happened is that Cromer, Smith, etc, were defeated by the forces of the Universalist left...

How indeed? What change in conditions made it possible for a mere idea to topple the rule of such hardheaded pragmatic realists as Lord Cromer?

Democracy was not a movement of peasants and artisans. It was a movement on behalf of peasant and artisans. Communism was not a movement of workers. It was a movement on behalf of workers. Civil rights was not a movement of African-Americans. It was a movement on behalf of African-Americans. If the only people who had supported these movements were the designated sufferers themselves, none of us would ever have heard of any of them.

That seems vastly oversimplified. You are mostly right about communism, but the roots of modern democracy was not for the behalf of the peasants and artisans at all, but for the behalf of the wealthy non-aristocracy pursuing their own interests...the peasants came much later. The civil rights movement had both white and black leadership which can't be disentangled, but it's not like the very idea wouldn't have occured to the African-Americans themselves, and it was largely blacks who carried it through to the end (Thurgood Marshall, King, etc).

It is understandable that intellectuals tell us mob violence is inevitable and irresistible. Because a mob by definition is organized around an idea, and ideas by definition come from intellectuals...So the message is: "it is foolish, pointless and unproductive to resist us." This is the message of all conquering powers. And I hope you can forgive me for looking at it a little skeptically.

I thought that was the message you believe the sovereign rulers should be sending out -- "resistance is futile". If that was the message of the old-school monarchies, and the intellectuals set out to prove them wrong by generating their own version of irresistable forces, and they won ... well...just goes to show, the monarchs were wrong.

If your message is that intellectuals should stop whipping up the mob and throw their support to whoever is the current duly constituted authority...well, good luck with that. It's not really in their nature, and in most cases its not in their interest.

If your message is that whipping up the mob sometimes leads to much worse things than what it is being whipped up against, well, you are right. I hope intellectuals have learned some of the lessons of the 20th century; at least, I don't see much of a taste for mass mobilizations of the fascist or communist sort these days. But sometimes whipping up the mob has good results (civil rights for instance).

If people don't feel they are getting a fair shake from existing social arrangements, they will feel very free to oppose them by whatever means are at hand. Intellectuals can ignite this process but the underlying tinder has to be there.

I guess my perspective for this thread is not that revolution is good or bad, but to note that they happen.

You can look on democracy as a safety valve -- it gives people at least the illusion of having a voice in the present arrangements of power. It can be used to wage limited civil war, as you put it. Far preferable from a stability standpoint than authoritarianism punctuated by periodic violent revolutions.

August 3, 2007 at 5:30 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

Hard to keep the peasantry down on the farm after they've seen Paree on the Teevee.
North Korea seems to have done so pretty effectively. Castro's citizens know full well Miami is a much better place to live, but he stays in power anyway. It is true that North Korea is not ruled by an ethnic/sectarian minority, but the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and (an even smaller minority) the Alawites of Syria seem to have done just as effective a job by brutally suppressing any challenge to their power whether in Hama or the marshlands. In many African countries the regime is predominately made up of one tribe even when no tribe can make up a majority rather than a plurality, yet as I noted before African countries seem to stay in the form set in 19th century berlin without regard to demographics.

August 3, 2007 at 10:31 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Mtraven wrote: "But sometimes whipping up the mob has good results (civil rights for instance)."

It seems like civil rights stopped getting good results about when the mob got involved. This is because I see the conflicts that really got the mobs mobilized as having not produced positive changes. Affirmative action has been a disaster. Its justification was iffy at the outset, but as its results have disproven the assumptions that justified it, support has not waned. A mob (characterised by UR as a Brahmin-Dalit alliance) supports it. What are other "live issues" are there in civil rights today? Judicialmandering (black-majority congressional districts)? Redlining? I just don't see much good coming from there.

Bussing was the same way, although the mob was Vaisyas and Helots and the victims were black schoolchildren. The images are pretty chilling.

What mob supported desegregation of the armed forces? Truman's cabinet? Previous civil rights measures were very often explicitly anti-mob, like Federal anti-lynching measures (don't know how successful they were although, again, the images are chilling enough that I'd like to think they helped).

Anyway, I guess one way of determining whether the mass movement for civil rights helped would be to track attitudes about racial barriers over time. I'm not sure if a Latino or black person would say they had a much better shot at the American dream today than they did in 1965.

My sense is (to tie in the nominal topic of this thread) that obsession with past sins has had such a demoralizing effect that people don't really see what progress has been made. Positing an original sin is fine if you also posit a god who can wash you clean; if you posit the first and forget the second you sink into a moral(e) quagmire.

August 3, 2007 at 10:54 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I think we mostly agree on the facts, but note that the power of the civil rights movement came not from its leaders but from the people who reported on them. See, for example, this new book (written from a completely sympathetic perspective). The actual power, in other words, belonged to the press, who were about as "diverse" as I am.

Similarly, the mere fact that there are a lot of people living in cities does not have military connotations. It provides a mob, but cities have had mobs for a long time. The real question is whether you have security forces that can restrain the mob without causing unacceptable political damage to their own cause.

A mob is made up of individuals. If the individual members of the mob have more incentive not to riot (or "demonstrate," "picket," etc) than to do so, they won't.

If someone sees a chance of success in agitating, it is very easy to convince them that they are "not getting a fair shake." Who in the world has ever thought he or she was getting his or her due? Justice or injustice has nothing at all to do with it. The problem is simply power.

The trouble with your theory of democracy as safety valve is that it doesn't actually seem to work. The actual period of full-out democracy in the US was something like 1828 to 1932. A disastrous and violent period, with four major wars, one a civil war that clearly grew out of a democratic conflict.

To his credit, FDR ended democracy by building a nationwide political machine of irresistible power. And since 1932, democracy has had little or no effect on the actual structure of Washington, except of course sometimes to help it expand. The EU takes this even farther - they run a perfectly normal modern state with essentially no democracy at all. It is pretty much the same for Japan.

So - as you sort of hint - the whole thing becomes little more than a political formula. Is this stable? In the age of controlled broadcast communications, maybe. In the age of the Internet, I don't think so.

The reality now is that we have a state which does not in any way, shape, or form serve the interests of its constituents. Instead it serves a wide variety of informal, bureaucratic interests.

Since true democracy is ineffective and unstable, there is no point in trying to go back to it. Instead, IMHO, we need to recognize that the state is legitimate historically rather than morally, and make sure it is run by a formal ownership system rather than an opaque, informal oligarchical struggle.

August 4, 2007 at 2:33 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


What change in conditions made it possible for a mere idea to topple the rule of such hardheaded pragmatic realists as Lord Cromer?

It was not a "mere idea." It was a political movement, built on the support of the Evangelical/Dissenter bourgeoisie, the newspapers, etc.

Lord Cromer had plenty of ideas, too. You can read some of them here.

August 4, 2007 at 2:36 AM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I forgot to link to this earlier. The real problem is not necessarily keeping the peasants from seeing "Paree on the teevee" since peasants can never accomplish anything themselves, but to shelter your elites from getting disillusioned enough to whip up the masses and overthrow the regime. The Soviet Union fell because many of those, even if they were high up in the Communist Party, no longer had the revolutionary spirit and recognized things were screwed up. North Korea has isolated itself enough that it doesn't have to worry about that.

A paper I would like to read is "A Simple Model of Crime Waves, Riots and Revolutions" by Alex Tabarrok. Unfortunately it's one of the few at listed at his personal site you can't read for free.

August 4, 2007 at 9:41 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Yup - that's basically right, I think.

August 5, 2007 at 5:13 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

Mencius agrees with a Caplan analysis of politics? Is this a first?

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March 2, 2009 at 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 9:26 PM  

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