Revolts and Riots

Recently, from Jim:

The people never matter and the oppressed masses never matter. What we always have is some quite small powerful conspiratorial group, which has a great deal of power but lacks legitimacy, moving against legitimate and traditional power, and invoking the masses as mascots.

Not quite.

I don’t disagree with Jim’s contention that one of the main long-term drivers of the political collapse of ancien régime states was the replacement of feudal magnates by civil servants. I’ve gone into that in some detail here and here. But just as there is an unavoidable tradeoff between the risks of entrusting high office to aristocrats and the disease of bureaucracy, so too there is an unavoidable tradeoff in military affairs between mercenaries and militia.

The basic question is simple. If a garrison is ordered by its officers to shoot into a mob of unarmed commoners, will they? If they definitely will, they are reliable and “good soldiers”, but they’re ultimately loyal to their officers. If they sometimes won’t, the locals will probably think of them as “patriots” but they’re like dry twigs, waiting for a spark.

If soldiers are perfectly happy to gun down unarmed rascals, they’re probably happy to mistreat them in other ways… especially where there is the prospect of plunder or pleasure. And if they’re happy to harm their country men under orders, they probably don’t need much of an excuse to harm them without orders either, so long as there is no chance of getting disciplined.

Now, generally they will get disciplined, because officers like to lead well-oiled fighting machines and nothing wears down a machine faster than a descent into petty crime and rape-orgies. But officers also know the value of rewarding their subordinates for a job well done, so, historically speaking, they are not averse to intense, targeted pillaging, either as a bribe before a difficult undertaking or as a reward after a hard-fought success.

This can be a headache for the sovereign. The smaller headache is that, in addition to having officers to keep the troops disciplined, he needs some way to keep the officers disciplined, lest they extract goods and services from the population they protect (a line of business which the sovereign must guard jealously). And again, there is a trade-off between two options: either the officers behave because they have colonels who keep them in line, or they behave because they would never dream of hurting their innocent neighbors anyway.

You can see the ugly principal-agent problem this is setting up. Bottom line is, you can protect a state with armies filled with recruits who don’t give two shits about their neighbors. You can also protect it with foreign mercenaries. Heck, you can even invite in a whole nation of Goths to bulk up your legions: worked for Marcian, didn’t it? But ultimately the only reason these troops can keep order is that they do whatever their officers tell them to. And sometimes their officers tell them to rebel; so they rebel (yes, “whatever” means whatever); and there is a lot of slaughter.

Anticipating this problem, many sovereigns prefer soldiers who are, to some degree, loyal to their side, not to their officers. Sure, they’ll obey the officer so long as they perceive his orders to be motivated by loyalty, discipline, and honor, but they melt away when he tries to use them as pawns in a personal power struggle. (Or frag him.)

Getting a soldier to think of his countrymen as friends and foreigners as foes is complicated. Lots of different techniques. Bottom line is, it solves the revolt problem but now you care about how big the angry mobs are. A little angry mob, okay, no problem. They’re not going to want to get too close to the bayonets. A big angry mob… well, you’ll have to cross your fingers and hope the regiment follows its orders. This time.

TQ’s Trifunctional Model, cont’d

Earlier this summer I wrote a quick summary of TQ’s essay Three Types of Societies, and then delved a little deeper into the inner logic of his model. The intention was that after we got a firm grasp of the model, we would give it a good hard shake, but long-time QL aficionados know that intentions are merely the ruses to which the noûs resorts in its never-ending quest for autonomy.

Ambiguity and Identity

The distinction between TQ’s two models, the diachronic demographic-branching model and the synchronic functional-specialization model, allows us to tease apart major ambiguities in TQ’s analysis of his three societies and three forms of government. On the one hand, TQ seems to equivocate between socio-cultural phase transitionsborders, and levels of density. On the other hand, the examples he uses to illustrate his theory conflate ethnea, nations, and races into a generic concept of “clade” or “parent population”.

By phase transition I mean a boundary which divides a population into two groups which have settled on different equilibrium-solutions to a coordination problem; in short, two groups which are homogenous in different ways. Considered in the abstract, if you divide any sort of cultural system (a language, the conventions of body language and gesture, food, dress, hobbies…) into a large but finite repertoire of action-reaction pairs, and assume that everyone will personally prefer to respond in the way that the majority of their neighbors do and will prefer to interact with people who respond the same way they do, then over time most people will be completely surrounded by a network of people who act the same way they do, but where two expanding neighborhoods of local consensus meet, there will be a boundary characterized by low interaction-density and a sudden transition from homogenous adherence to one system to homogenous adherence to the other system.

This is the sort of boundary that would grow up spontaneously within a large, initially uniform population descended from the same parent stock. Random variations accumulate in the language and culture of the dispersed population over time; by chance, certain variants will spread, creating a continuum of differences as one travels from one side of the population to the other; but as the differences grow steeper and local dialects or subcultures start to systematically change to fit the innovations into a consistent pattern, the continuum will start to break into discrete pockets of linguistic conformity which crystallize around emerging standard dialects.

As I have said before, culture works like a language. Networks of individuals attempting to conform their own actions and reactions to those of their neighbors would form phase transitions similar to the transitions between dialects and between languages. (When I previously described TQ’s model in terms of interacting “nodes” or “pockets”, it was this relationship between interaction-networks and polarization into distinct communities that I was gesturing towards.)

Now, a border is in the context of TQ’s argument not just any sort of boundary or demarcation line but specifically the line which separates one autonomous jurisdictional unit from its neighbors (i.e., its rivals). These borders, established by war and struggle, are at any given historical moment defended jealously, but they are subject to arbitrary future readjustment as the result of further wars to come. A fortiori, the enemy could at any moment cross the nominal border in force, so the borderlands are where the de jure power of the state is most exposed to refutation by the de facto power of hostile arms.

Phase transitions polarize and differentiate communities. Borders circumscribe the territories states claim. Density of settlement, on the other hand, establishes continuous gradients rather than discrete boundaries, and thus does not distinguish particular, well-defined regions from one another. One way to frame the difference is that density is a comparative concept rather than a classificatory one.

What, you might ask, is the problem with all this? Obviously all three of these features of ethnogeography can coexist (and do, in the real world). But if we try to use them to define a typology of ethnonational identity, then the problem is not whether they can coexist, but which of these features is meant to provide the typology.

Density gradients, to start us off, are continuous (barring accidents of geography); therefore a theory which makes social type a function of population density should be at least provisionally committed to a continuum of social types.

Now, this concession would not be not fatal to TQ’s typology, but it would compel us to interpret his three types (core, marcher, and settler) as illustrative points along a smooth, continuous transition between social types, with marginally less dense regions being marginally more “settler-ish”.  And prima facie it would seem to imply that the marchers are in some sense intermediate between the settlers and the core population, whereas I took TQ to be proposing a triangular opposition between three distinct types of society with their own strengths, weaknesses, and social equilibria.

(The continuity of population density doesn’t pose as much of a problem for TQ’s political corollary, the monarchy-aristocracy-democracy typology. Debates over whether these three regimes are qualitatively distinct or perhaps just a result of progressive extension of the franchise are as old as Aristotle, so I will not take sides; clearly the latter position is defensible and plausible. But unless we take high levels of political mobilization as a social norm, this is irrelevant to social identity and ethnogenesis, which is what is at issue.)

Phase transitions and political borders do not pose the same problem, but they have others, including the fact that they are not identical to each other. Political borders are much easier to change than cultural patterns, for one thing. You adjust one with quill and ink, and you adjust the other with machetes.

Borders are also much more absolute (for the very same reason sovereignty is absolute); cultural polarization prevents continuity or smooth transitions, but even if they are ultimately granular these phase transitions do take place along a scale, a scale within which any coherent cultural “pocket” can always polarize into two or more fragments. The delineated nodes of cultural interaction can thus be nested inside one another, whereas independent states cannot… unless the concepts of political sovereignty and autonomous jurisdiction are watered down so much as to be meaningless. If we want to frame neighboring states whose cultural affinity makes them natural allies and neighboring provinces which feud violently over cultural tensions as steps in a nested scale of political hierarchy,

A final point: a phase transition is a way of thinking about identity which is intrinsically grounded in a hypothesis about the process by which distinct identities form. A border, on the other hand, can mark off two populations without making any assumptions about the formation of their characteristic identities — or about the direction of the causal arrow (if any) connecting the establishment of a population’s identity and the establishment of its encircling borders.

Levels of Explanation

Persia, TQ suggests, was a marcher-population without a core, besieged on all sides. Spain was a marcher-state, facing of against the Moors; England was a marcher-state, facing off against… the Welsh, perhaps?

I don’t mean to belittle the difficulty of eternal vigilance against the Wendish Menace. But we are clearly using very different ideas of “the border” here. Spain has a border with the Moors but not with the Franks (with whom the Hapsburgs warred constantly); but conversely Aragon, which shared in the mercantile flourishing of Occitan and Lombardy, is too scarred by the siege of Granada to be a proper “core”. If the Spanish do not have a “border” with the French, in the strict sense, then presumably this is because the “marches” are found at the civilizational border. But in that case even if the Welsh, the Saxons, the Normans and the Scots had some friendly squabbles (what are a few invasions between brothers in Christ?) they are safely in the sheltered core of the Christian world.

Or — if the existence of a “marcher” culture and a militarily salient borderlands did exist both in Iberia and in Britain, but for different reasons and in different contexts — then the explanation of this situation does not lie in any particular kind of border per se, but in the specific diplomatic and demographic situation that makes some borders “militarily salient”, and others not.

Thus the the question of whether we are talking about the identities of ethnea, nations, or races starts to become important. Of course, part of the whole underlying rationale of TQ’s model was to illustrate that clades can possess both unity and internal diversity. So he is polemically committed to the position that distinct nested identities are emerging multiple cladistic levels simultaneously.

But unfortunately for the internal consistency of his model, his typology of these identities depends on assumptions about boundary-effects which emphasize the special properties of the territory a population occupies and dynamics which occur at the borders between these territories. Specifically, he assumes that the boundary between the area a population controls is categorically different from the internal boundaries between its subregions and subpopulations. (Otherwise, the external boundary would explain the distinction between the marchers and the core, and then the internal boundary would in turn require another set of marcher-lords to guard the boundary between the marches and the core: an infinite regress.)

So TQ has an inconvenient problem. He wants to defend the analogy between the nested levels of clades (in light of his third way between race and culture); he wants to illustrate the “unity with internal diversity” concept with a three-way contrast which makes use of a disanalogy between a populations external border and its internal borders; and he wants to substantiate this contrast by citing historical populations whose “borders” appear at multiple levels, higher and lower. But the “internal borders” of a race are the same as the “external borders” of a nation, so he is using the same types of boundaries to make contradictory claims about how the disanalogy functions in different examples.

It’s a circle that cannot be squared.

LARPer Jacobitism

One final topic: regimes. TQ quite rightly notes that while some reactionaries seem to fetishize absolute monarchy, monarchy was never universal and is probably not appropriate to all population-types. But I would like to quibble on a few points.

LARPer Jacobitism is a problem only as LARPer political philosophy. As a dramatic performance showering praise on the divine right of kings in general and the Wittelsbach boys in particular, it has an important function.

Monarchy is as important a bogeyman (a fnord) in progressive political ideology as the Holocaust is in their cultural ideology. It is a pseudo-reductio, a stick with which to beat cringing conservatives. (“They may take our freedoms, but at least we’ll still have The Federalist Papers!”) “But couldn’t you use the same argument to defend monarchy?” is just one step up from drivel like “But couldn’t you use the same argument to defend Hitler?” To which the only proper response is: Huh, wow, I guess you’re right: looks like we’re going to need a lot of pesticide…

If you don’t like the rhetorical strategy, leave it to people who relish it. There’s nothing wrong with monarchy, in principle (here TQ and I agree, of course). The only way to get it through thick shitlib skulls that we despise their fnord is to ostentatiously emphasize that yes, monarchy is definitely on the table and we’ll be keeping it strictly Salic this time around. Some people thrill to the sight of ermine more than others, but I doubt that even Nigel holds that all government must be monarchic.

The LARPy Jacobitism has a few other related rhetorical functions as well. It allows reactionaries to preempt a dull slippery-slope argument against traditionalism. (“If you’re willing to turn the clock back to YEAR_(t-50), why aren’t you willing to go back to YEAR_(t-100)? Huh?”) It allows us to broadcast our principled opposition to principled opposition to hereditary privilege. The unitary nature of one-man rule nicely illustrates the reactionary critique of government by blob, and of anarchotyranny.

And, most important of all, it allows us to defend absolutism, in the specific (but inessential) form of royal absolutism.

This would be the only point where I might have a true disagreement with TQ on political regimes. He takes the viability (and in some contexts, superiority) of aristocracy and democracy as alternatives to monarchy to be tantamount to the viability of limited, mixed, or balanced government to absolutism. But monarchy-aristocracy-democracy describes a spectrum of regimes which vary with respect to the number of men who have a share in sovereignty. This spectrum has no necessary connection to the question of absolute or limited government.

A properly functioning democracy is an absolute democracy. A properly functioning aristocracy is an absolute aristocracy. You can “limit” the excesses of the forms by choosing an ambiguous form (e.g., one which could be described either as an unusually strict democracy or as an incredibly broad aristocracy) but not by setting up multiple competing bodies, none of which possess final authority.

The idea that only monarchies can be absolutist is a silly prog fantasy based on meaningless prog preoccupations. This is why maybe we should stop being prissy about calling ourselves formalists and go back to Hobbes; Hobbes makes the distinction between sovereignty and regime pretty damn clear.

(Moldbug is clear too, but it’s buried in the middle of multiple 10,000 word essays laced with recursive tangents on Victorian pamphlet literature.)

There is a great deal more to say about the core-marcher-settler typology, but I will leave off here, having already said a great deal more than most people would want to read. The most important subject remaining in TQ’s essay which I have not yet discussed is his overarching “ethnonationalist” strategy for mobilizing the right. But, as I mentioned above, I do not think this strategy actually fits naturally with the trifunctional typology, so it will be better to save that topic for a separate discussion.


Minor Note: Equations

640px-codomain2-svgOne peculiarity of the way I think about quantitative relationships that took me years to figure out seems to stem from different ways of treating functions in economics (and the social sciences generally) and mathematics. My economics professors would write down equations, like π=pY-wL-rK, where the equation as a whole represented an accounting identity and the variables were symbolized with the appropriate abbreviation: w for wages, L for labor, and so on. Then if you wanted to consider a causal hypothesis about the determinants of one of the variables, you simply stipulate that the variable is in fact a function of those variables, without choosing a functional form: thus w(x, y) >>> π=pY-w(x, y)L-rK, and so on.

I assume there are two reasons why social scientists converged on this approach to model-building — well, three. The first and most obvious is that there is no hard and fast line in the social sciences between the various uses of formulae as metaphors, as shorthand for rough hypotheses, as descriptions of ideal types, and as fully-specified empirical models. Thus it is useful to have an amphibious formal convention which can do double duty as a pseudo-accounting identity and as an actual mathematical notation. The second reason may perhaps be a special case of the first: if you move fluidly between rough hypotheses and fully-specified models, you are going to want to use an elastic notation that can easily be adjusted back and forth between an explicit functional form and one or two weak first-order conditions. But the third reason to use them, at least in lecture courses and textbooks, is that it acclimates people to a certain way of thinking about (a) causation and (b) the relationship between causation and rates of change. Whatever phenomenon you are trying to explain can be interpreted as a function of its causes, both in a logical sense (reducing the explanandum to an interaction between the explanantia) and in the analytical sense (refining and constraining the explanation with the vocabulary of monotonicity, continuity, and differentiation).

But mathematicians think about functions in way that seems different to me. At least since Bourbaki, the standard convention has been f:xy, “f is a function from domain x to range y.” (Right? Sometimes I’m surprised by the conventions other people learn. Reading the TeX symbol list gives me the impression that God is babelling us at this very moment…) The range and the domain determine what sorts of arguments the function can take and what values the function can have. In pure mathematics the main questions about these spaces are their algebraic properties; i.e. are the values of the function sets? vectors? ordered triplets? elements of a ring?

If you typically think about functions this way (which is salutary!) it promotes the instinct that when a function is modeling some causal process, the types of phenomena you are giving an explanatory role correspond to the range of the function, and the type of phenomenon you are taking as the outcome to be explained corresponds to the domain of the function. So to return to our earlier example, where variations in x and y cause variations in wages, we would instead think of the function as f:(x, y)w, “f is a function from x and y to wages.”

This may seem like a pedantic difference in notation. But it’s really a quite important difference in approach to abstract thought. Once you’ve explicitly identified wages as the space of outcomes under investigation (the range of variation), it would be senseless to describe the function itself (the mapping between the domain and the range) as “wages”. So if the function isn’t wages, what is it? Well, when I start thinking about relationships in this manner, I start to identify it with the specific causal process I have about what hypothetical interaction between x and y that causes the prevailing wage to rise and fall. And, having identified it with a particular causal process that maps x and y onto w, I am usually no longer thinking of the function as an elastic catch-all which could, at least in principle, take all of the causal influences on w as its arguments, if it were necessary to stretch it to do so.

I don’t know whether the two approaches to formalism matter much, in the end. I am a dilettante in both realms, alas, and the main reason I noticed the conflict is that I will unconsciously switch from one style to the other while I am thinking about a problem, generating tangles of inconsistencies and category errors. But I suspect that the two formalisms correspond to two different ways of looking at the world. One treats functions as analytic statements (in the philosophical sense: not synthetic; tautologous) about formal identities. The other treats functions as processes, as transformations of inputs into outputs, or as sequential relationships between abstract states.

Mental Real Estate

Certain topics are too complicated to form strong independent opinions without practically making a full-time job of it. If it’s not your job, you need to either rely on the authority of others, or maintain indifference. You can rely on the authority of others either in a casual way, filtered through the public consensus and the common opinions of your friends, or in a deliberate way. But when you deliberately choose an authority, either his field of authority is simple and uncontroversial (in which case his authority derives from his judicious choice of which material matters in a presentation to laymen), or not. If the field is messy and multi-sided, then there are multiple people professing incompatible positions, all claiming authority.

If you were an expert in the messy field yourself, you would judge the merit of these claims on the basis of truth of the claimants positions; but if you could do that you wouldn’t need to rely on an authority. Perhaps you can, through serious research, figure out who to trust as an authority without doing so much research that you inadvertently become an expert in the field in your own right; but not always, and never without great sacrifice.

Ars longa, vita brevis. The world is, by grace of God, unfathomably complex. Its parts aren’t quite as complex as the whole, of course, so it is generally not too difficult to choose one tiny part of Creation that seems worth fathoming. But where it becomes unfathomable is in the immense number of its parts; and in their immense number of interrelationships; and in the many possible different ways of partitioning it (partitions which have surprising effects on what is fathomed and what remains unseen).

So you have time to become an expert, maybe even an authority, on one complicated topic; even a dozen; perhaps – optimism! – as many as a hundred. And if you redistribute the time it takes to master one hundred complicated topics across a larger number, with the goal merely of identifying true authorities, you can multiply that by another factor.

The effort isn’t futile. Learning has profound rewards. But it’s never enough: there are countlessly many topics (and sub-topics generated by the application of general principles to particular clusters of cases, or by interactions between the principles of specific fields). Inexhaustible.

So in the end you are going to have to either rely on others for most of what you know about the complexities of the world you live in, or remain indifferent.

Indifference is hard. There is a Socratic myth to the effect that the wise are content with the limits of their own ignorance. Maybe that’s true of the wise; but not being particularly wise myself, I can testify that the more I know about the world, the more rarely I’m satisfied with scio me nescire.

Now, there is a Socratic element to learning. Much of it is rooted in the ignorance of narcissism and self-centeredness. Most people have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. If memory serves, Dunning and Kruger administered short exams to students and discovered that the ones who didn’t know the answers overestimated their own performance (both absolutely and relative to all the test-takers) while the best underestimated their own performance.

Psychology is a mess in general, and beyond general replication-crisis concerns, I’ve read follow-up studies that tried to tease apart different explanations by, for example, giving the students more information about average exam-performance to see how it affected their self-evaluation; so there is some doubt about what exactly is going on in the (classical) D-K effect. But the general situation seems to be that the ignorant can’t imagine all the ways in which they might be wrong, and can’t imagine that there might be other many people who know far more. Meanwhile, the learned can’t stop imagining all the different ways they might be wrong (all the different considerations in favor of X vs. Y vs. Z). Nor can they stop imagining the other test-takers as smarter, more perfect; but what they can’t imagine is how anyone could be perplexed by the “obvious” facts that the ignorant (i.e., the majority) consistently get wrong, time and again.

You lose perspective. Learning passes from explicit and conditional to implicit and transparent, in many ways and under many aspects. At one point, you had to learn it: Socrates was Greek, Socrates liked to talk with people in the marketplace, Socrates committed suicide by drowning. No, hemlock! It was hemlock! And eventually it all becomes so clear that you draw on thousands of “facts” at once in quick propositions. This is how we learn math, too: first 2+2=4 is a rule you get scolded for disobeying, then it becomes so automatic and semi-conscious that it can be folded up inside other rules — folded up multiple times, inside more complex operations that themselves undergo the same sublimation.

(And so you get people using “2+2=4” as a symbol of truth, when there are many perfectly respectable groups where no such equality holds! But you can hardly blame them; the same presentiment which fuels this innocent misconception is responsible for much more culpable misconceptions, like Principia Mathematica. Not to pick on mathematicians: replace “2+2” with “Socrates”, and you can say the exact same thing about rigid designation.)

When you know something at such a fundamental level that it comes an instinct, your second nature, not only do errors become inconceivable (and also: wonderfully, absurdly amusing) but knowledge itself becomes more streamlined, more taut, more tightly-organized. Just like a bridge-builder knows exactly how much weight to balance on each arch, the learned begin to pass over the inessential for the essential. Each item in the expert’s armory is used just so. He brings each fact or insight to bear where it matters, where it elucidates; he tends to pass over whatever is consistently ineffective, or unreliable, or whatever is tiresome to combine with the rest of his conceptual panoply.

I read somewhere that when you ask undergraduates studying biology to draw a structure – say, a neuron – they attack it as though they were studying to be artists, lavishing attention on perspective, structure, shading, texture, and of course the shape and proportions of the ganglia and the cell’s organelles. Graduate students, given the same task, scrawl out a flatter, lazier version of the same outline, leaving out the frills (and the organelles). The professors don’t even draw shapes, though. They draw points and lines. Their neurons are schematic; the visual embodiment of a theory about how the world works.

I’m inclined to believe the story because you can see the same thing in art from every age. Ancient Egyptian artists could depict horses with great zoological fidelity, but somehow missed the crucial fact that riding horseback involves sitting on the horse’s back — not its rump, as with donkeys. Mangled scientific instruments are another symptom of the artist’s worldview, as are chess boards of irregular size. A draftsman who understands what he’s looking at may lack all artistic talent, may depict it in cartoonish simplicity, may even pare it down to an icon, but he gets it right.

But ignoring things indifferent is not equivalent to indifference to ignorance. The expert, say the professor of biology, is not somehow humbly and modestly accepting of his ignorance of the exact texture and proportions of the neural ganglia. For him, these things simply don’t exist; he doesn’t see them, they’re clutter, a distraction from his task. But if there is something he does need to know about his schematic-neurons, no matter how trivial or inane it might seem to us, he will move heaven and earth to get an unprecedentedly fine-grained measurement of the variable of interest.

The curiosity that animates dilettantes is, in many experts, a driving obsession; I do not know if that is why they became experts, or it happened along the way. But an expert’s obsessive pursuit of wax slippers in his own field is a déformation professionelle that helps him prove his status and pay his bills.

The problem is that it’s never only just “his” field. It’s those devilish interconnections again; they’re to blame. Anything you try to understand is linked to all sorts of other topics you weren’t trying to understand. Or at least, you didn’t realize you were.

The world can be a pleasant mystery to the under-informed. Sometimes it is a mystery simply in the sense that it is inscrutable, but given mankind’s astonishing talent for pattern-recognition and -invention it can be a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense as well: characters, drama, narrative tension, culpability, confrontation. In a world where everything is anomalous, nothing is particularly confusing. An unintelligible world is like a contemporary poem, entirely lacking meter and rhyme: if the reader has no expectations, the poet cannot disappoint him (although he can still bore him, and frequently does).

If the world is fully of inexplicable events and strange sounds, the creaking you hear in the dead of night doesn’t bother you. We teach children not to be afraid of spirits and fairies, with the charming result that they are terrified by the unseen creatures which (they quite rightly assume) must be making the creaking, or the rustling, or the tapping that they hear in bed at night. Much later we get around to teaching them about thermal expansion, fluid dynamics, and all the rest…

Another example (hopefully a better one): for millennia, roaring rivers were emblematic of swiftness, power, and rapid change. It never occurred to anyone to ask why rivers flow so slowly. They don’t flow slowly… do they? Fast-forward to 1750: Jean le Rond d’Alembert crafts a beautiful extension of Newtonian physics to fluid dynamics. Incidentally, his treatise explains why river-water is continuously accelerated as it flows downstream, reaching ever-higher velocities. But within a mere forty years, another mathematician noticed that rivers do not, in fact, continuously accelerate. Perplexing!

So the indifference approach to knotty topics probably isn’t going to work. In the end, you’re always thrown back on the authority of the people you associate with, and the people you admire. They dictate the terms in which a conversation will be conducted, and they determine the bounds of propriety for each one. They have their models, their principles, and their working hypotheses: they circulate the common opinions that are accepted as legal tender (or at least recognized as having some worth, if they can be exchanged for an opinion of equal value in a more useful currency). They will feed you information about the parts of the world they’ve had a chance to investigate, if you will only be so kind as to condescend to share their assumptions about all the parts of the world they haven’t had time to study. And they’ll recommend authorities, too, who can explain to you whatever they know nothing about; or they’ll tell you that they know a guy who knows a guy who can recommend an expert.

But when you think that their assumptions are entirely wrong, and you can even phrase the questions that you need answered because the questions presupposes facts which are, in their view, crimes… then you’re in trouble.

Erasmus as Christian

In my recent observations on the roots of Arminianism and Socianism (…Erasmus), I mentioned that Erasmus was at one point the Western Church’s highest authority on the text of the New Testament. This was no exaggeration; and in fact, it was something of an understatement. Erasmus was for all practical purposes the highest authority on all textual sources of the Christian tradition, including both the Bible and the patristic literature. To give you as sense, here is a timeline of the major editions that he brought out.

1516: Jerome, Operum Omnium (9 vol.)

1519: Athanasius, Opera

1520: Appian, Opera

1522: Arnobius, Commentarii in Omnes Psalmos

1523: Hilary of Potiers, Opera (2 vol.)

1526: Irenaeus, Opus in quinque libros digestum

1527: Ambrose, Omnia Opera (4 vol.)

1528-9: Augustine, Omnium Operum (10 vol.)

1530: Chrysostom, Opera (5 vol.)

1536: Origen, Opera (2 vol.)

Erasmus’ edition of Augustine, in particular, was a labor of love. The project took eight years, he received only nominal remuneration, and Erasmus didn’t even enjoy Augustine! (He dismissed Augustine’s treatise on widowhood as an obvious forgery: the style, he claimed, was too clear and lively to have come from the pen of the bishop of Hippo.) But he considered it his duty to Christ to gather the authentic works of the Fathers together, like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and see them safely through the presses.

The ramifications of his own theology were… well, pestilent. No one would be more surprised by this than Erasmus himself, I suspect. In his bitter polemic with Luther, Erasmus rarely had the upper hand in the substance of the argument, but it is hard not to recognize how much the hostile tone of the debate pained him, how much he cherished unity and harmony. Erasmus was always one to find a silver lining. (He goes so far as to praise Augustine for remaining faithful to his concubines; such integrity, he observes, is rarely found in the modern episcopacy.) Whether the gentleness he affected is truly an expression of Christian charity or not, I imagine he would be horrified to see what Socianism has wrought.

Modern Education: Nature and Nurture

Questions about how much education “matters” become unproductive insofar as they are drawn into the nature/nurture frame. The nature/nurture polemic comes down to a question about explaining measured outcomes: i.e., the quantitative magnitude of traits.

What fraction of any given man’s intelligence/capability, or his stupidity/incompetence, can be explained by each source? Decomposing the two contributions allows you to ask: how much did his upbringing and education improve him? And extrapolating from these quantitative results, it seems that we can just as well ask: how much would upbringing and education have improved this (poorly educated) fellow? Then, when we abstract away from concrete counterfactuals about individual morons, we get the question: how much could upbringing and education improve the human mind?

This is a very misleading series of questions. The first question is sound, the last question is teetering on absurdity. The errors of the modern liberal theory of education (upheld by most postwar Western conservatives, no less than by bolsheviks) are only due in part to empirically wrong answers to the first question. Yes, intellectual virtues are mainly a function of heredity, and anyone who doesn’t realize this will have a distorted view of everything else about human society. But education does matter, and attempting to convey the irrelevance of upbringing to the absolute magnitude of mental power without accounting for the dimension within which education is relevant only makes confusion inevitable.

The inevitable confusion is the one that makes people think of educating a child like paving a road or building a tower. The more you educate the child, and the more efficiently, the greater his learning: as though an education could get “longer” or “taller”! People will perceive that instruction, discipline, and intellectual cultivation make the difference between a jungle savage and a gentleman, and if you do not give them useful metaphors for this difference they will go off and find a terrible metaphor on their own.

The analogy that I have used in the past is language learning. As an analogy for education as a whole it has a number of minute advantages (go read Darwinian Reactionary if you want to understand why the analogy works in such fine detail), but it also has one overwhelming advantage for escaping the “nature/nurture” dichotomy: language learning aims at fluency.

Fluency is the final fulfillment of the educational project. You are fluent when you speak the language just the way natives speak it. You will then be on the same page, which allows you to communicate with them. You cannot go beyond fluency: if you attempt to learn to speak the language in a way that is “better” than the rest of the community, it must in some way be different from the language they speak, and therefore will be worse, to the extent that it does not match how they speak and is thus unintelligible to them.

So general education in any particular domain aims at fulfillment, at conformity. One can be educated to the same standard as other members of the community, but not beyond it. He who overshoots the standard misses his target. “Beyond”, in fact, is meaningless; whether a poor upbringing is the product of unusually few years of instruction or unusually many years of unusually bad instruction, what makes it poor is that it fails to fit in with the upbringings of the others.

We can educate our children to achieve coherent organization, to teach them fluent conformity, to synchronize their interactions so that their thoughts and deeds resonate with the thoughts and deeds of their neighbors and their civilization. But the goal is, and can only be, 100%.

Once 100% is achieved, you  cannot build on your success by bringing the next cohort of students to 110%, and the subsequent cohort to 121%. Two families can raise two sons to speak their common language with equal fluency, but the smarter boy will say smart things fluently and the other will say stupid things fluently. To attempt to change how the boys speak to change what the stupid boy says is, at best, wasted effort. To whatever extent such attempts do change how boys speak, it only impedes their fluency and damages the organization of the linguistic community. Worse still: to whatever extent changing how the boys speak equalizes the intelligence of what they have to say, this can only come about by making it difficult for the smarter boy to express himself.

(By the way, on my claim that fluency is the final goal of language acquisition: I have sharp commenters, who are quick to nitpick. Yes, style and elocution can improve even after one has achieved fluency; yes, one can become more literate; a polyglot; an expert in the jargon and formalism of various fields; yes, one can intentionally speak in novel ways to achieve particular effects. I could elaborate on these topics if there was interest, perhaps, but after convolutions and minutiae you would understand the validity of the analogy more vividly without being able to learn more about the nature of education from it.)