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.)

On Puritans and Progs (July 2017 draft)

I probably will not find time to write anything particularly polished on the Crypto-Calvinist hypothesis in the next year. But this seems like an auspicious time to summarize my current thinking on the topic.

1. For clarity: to my mind the interesting historical question is about, roughly, the ideological origins of progressivism in the period 1400-1900. That progressivism has similarities to various sects of Christianity and differs from what would otherwise be called a religion mainly in that it claims to be secular, I grant. The Darwinian observation that progressivism is an example of a religion adapting to a legal environment which forbade the establishment of an official religion, I grant. I take these two theses to be the core of Moldbug’s original argument about “crypto-calvinism”; however, the thesis that some flavor of Christianity mutated into progressivism raises obvious questions about whether Christianity (or some denomination of it) is intrinsically vulnerable to becoming progressivism, or whether it primes faithful Christians in a way that leaves them defenseless against progressivism. (It also raises questions about which of the harmful elements of progressivism are present in its most recent theistic ancestor.)

2. The Christian sects/tendencies that progressivism has the most similarities with are Arminianism and Socianism. Both Arminianism and Socianism originate in the work of Desiderius Erasmus.

3. Erasmus was most active before the Reformation. He was always a proponent of little-r reform of the Church (he was also, if I recall correctly, a conciliarist), but he was ultimately loyal to the pope. His attacks on Luther became increasingly fanatical. — Erasmus’ doctrine of grace was unremarkable for Roman theology. Like the scholastic Thomists and, after them, the Jesuits (defending the doctrine of Molina), Erasmus de-emphasized grace in order to carve out a larger role for human free will in salvation than is strictly compatible with St. Paul’s epistles.

Erasmus’ approach to scriptural exegesis was unique, but in keeping with the general Roman dogma that the apostolic Church and its traditions govern which texts are to be considered divinely inspired (as opposed to the Protestant doctrine that Holy Scripture governs the Church). He combined this Roman attitude towards the supremacy of the Curia with a cavalier attitude towards what sort of leeway the Church might have, if it chose to redefine the canon. (E.g. I believe in one letter he refers to St. Paul’s epistles as “impostures”; I do not know whether this was connected to his theological views.) Erasmus was at one point the Church’s highest authority on the textual relationship between the Greek and the Vulgate.

4. As the Counter-Reformation swung into full gear, the works of Erasmus were placed on the Index and (Roman Catholic) Erasmians were forced to conceal their opinions. Erasmus was still widely read. (Why was Giordano Bruno originally forced to flee his Neapolitan monastery? Because he had been caught with a copy of Erasmus.) — As a result, when Erasmus’s theological opinions eventually resurface, they are typically associated his disciples rather than with his own name. E.g. Arminius revives the Erasmian doctrine of grace (“Arminianism”); Sozzini revives the Erasmian approach to exegesis.

5. Good places for unpopular views are cities (anonymity in the crowd) and wilderness (anonymity in isolation). These were the places Erasmians fled; but Calvinism tended to do well in the same places. You may be familiar with HBD-sphere arguments to the effect that Calvinism is most attractive to clannish, rural populations; but it is also possible that Calvinism did well wherever its evangelists could easily evade the civil authorities. In the case of the Erasmian theologians, the numbers are so small, and their movements sufficiently easy to track, that we can be quite sure that they developed communities in Transylvania (Socianism) and the Low Countries (Arminianism) because they were fleeing persecution elsewhere.

6. Neither Protestantism in general nor Calvinism in particular had any affinity for, or felt any affection towards, Erasmus. Calvin had Socians burnt in Geneva, and Arminians expelled; the Dutch Church soundly rejected Arminianism and erupted in periodic waves of violence against Arminians (called “Remonstrants” in reference to the Remonstrance of Dordt). The Anglican Church had Arminians in the episcopacy (Laud, for example), and it was in English “Puritanism” that Calvinism became most closely identified with opposition to Arminianism.

7. However, because the Socians and Arminians were located in the same countries as the orthodox Protestant denominations they came to share Protestant attitudes towards the papacy, and towards the Roman Inquisition in particular. (This was part of a general trend towards patriotic anti-papism in the Protestant countries.)

8. While the United Provinces did ultimately move to a more tolerant stance on Arminianism, the real about-face came in England. After the difficulties of the Civil War, Charles II had “learned his lesson”, and enforced a strict episcopal and liturgical policy. Unfortunately, he also had sympathies towards Catholics (and in particular towards his younger brother, the heir apparent), and began enforcing a general policy of toleration for the population at large while enforcing a hollow kind of conformity in the official clergy. To make matters worse, he (and his brother) shamelessly lied about the pro-Roman motive of the policy; the difficulty was that all the loyal aristocrats and writers (the strongest partisans of “throne and altar”) believed the lies, sometimes engaging in vitriolic pamphlet wars with the devout Protestants who called the bona fides of the Stuarts into question.

When the truth came out, Britain had the worst of both worlds: extremely high levels of official toleration and an ecclesiastical establishment which had been made to look ridiculous. This is the period when Socianism started to make inroads among the British elite and various other sects (notably, the Quakers) began to multiply.

9. Note, however, that deism and atheism began to spread rapidly in French society as well, without any intermediate turn to Socianism or other heterodoxies. By its violent oppression of the Huguenots and of the Jansenists (who had continued to defend the Augustinian position inside the Roman Church after Trent), often pressed forward by the silliest, most unedifying means imaginable, the French state rooted out sincere faith from the kingdom. The Gallican clergy was identified wholly with time-serving conformists; Christian ethics were identified with Jesuit casuistry; perfect obedience to the external forms of religion was paired with private blasphemy. —— For whatever reason, the French heresy did not bother pretending to be Christian at all, or to claim even a specious scriptural basis. The most parsimonious explanation of this: the French authorities tended to investigate offbeat religious opinions, no matter how sincere and well-meaning, as possible threats to public order, but were indifferent to discreet private atheism. But the general pattern of French atheist and anticlerical literature makes it seem possible that flat atheism was the path of least resistance for the French intellectuals. Rome insisted that Scripture and liturgy depended on its authority, the French increasingly considered their own clergy to be venal hypocrites; what could be more natural than for them to declare that if their priests were mendacious, they had no reason to take the Bible seriously?

I cannot resist quoting Paul Hazard here: Le dix-huitième siècle ne s’est pas contenté d’une Réforme ; ce qu’il a voulu abattre, c’est la Croix ; ce qu’il a voulu effacer, c’est l’idée d’une communication de Dieu à l’homme, d’une Révélation ; ce qu’il a voulu détruire, c’est une conception religieuse de la vie.

This is above all a diagnosis of the French situation. When Hume, invited to one of d’Holbach’s Parisian dinner parties, dismissed atheism with the comment that he had never met an atheist, he was informed that fifteen of the Frenchmen he was dining with were atheist, and the other three had not yet made up their minds.

10. Crypto-calvinism is, ostensibly, Christian ethical principles minus Christ. Did the philosophes have progressive principles? In a sense. What is most notable about the philosophes is their petty resentment of the great. Having no opportunity to practice statesmanship, deliberate, or pass judgement, they flooded France with pamphlets pretending to teach, advise, and judge their betters. They believed hierarchies and traditions existed solely due to inertia and self-seeking. Difference in status did not correspond to difference in talent, or at least not to difference in any valuable talent; the exception was in the literary world, where the work of superior minds (they thought) could not be kept hidden by machinations of the powerful. Need I add that this belief was tied to the assumption that natural talent was scattered more-or-less haphazardly, and that it could at any rate be brought forth in arbitrary quantities by proper education? In addition to this unshakeable petit bourgeois faith in the powers of education and professional training, they had a waspish attitude towards war and worship, the traditional pastimes of the aristocracy.

But these skeptics and atheists did not necessarily share any fixed dogma on whether the modern world could surpass the ancient; whether pleasure was preferable to temperance; whether man is wolf or lamb. All of the concrete content of modern progressive beliefs was absent at this point. The philosophes were pragmatists, above all. The extreme forms the mild prejudices of the French atheists foreshadowed were already present in one English sect, the Quakers; and the philosophes knew of the Quakers and purported to admire them, but were entirely out of sympathy with the fervent pietism of actual, flesh-and-blood Quakers.

10. However the French situation arose, England and France sank into an unhappy feedback loop; ever more heterodox Socian and Arminian ideas could be openly published and systematically discussed in England, and would then be pushed in France by (implicitly) non-Christian, anticlerical propagandists.

Three notes:

  • At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Jesuits were in general still adherents of Tycho Brahe’s modified geocentric model of the solar system; not exactly stiff competition for the philosophes.
  • In reading the légitimiste paeans to the superior quality of the post-Revolutionary Gallican clergy, bear in mind the implicit condemnation.
  • When an author has become so popular that the royal censor hides the proofs under his own roof, it is too late for a crackdown.

11. Unitarians are symbolically significant to Moldbug (and to others) because of their temporary control of Harvard (America’s synecdoche-in-chief) and their disproportionate representation in the Brahmin caste. The problem: like the Quakers (who are in every way a better “fit” for the progressive prototype), they were always very scarce on the ground, and dwindled to nothing once immigrants poured in.  Thus there was never any critical mass of Unitarians who could elect to “secularize” themselves in the way Moldbug’s adaptive theory seems to demand. Both the mass appeal of progressive movements and their most prominent propagandists can be traced to other demographics.

Nonetheless, there is something interesting about the way the first American Unitarian ministers to the logic of Pelagianism to its extreme point. They reduced religion to ethics; they reduced ethics to praiseworthiness, conditioned on personal potential (i.e., capacity to choose rightly); and they tied both this ethical duty and their evangelical duties as Christians to the continual conversion of more and more souls to true religion, i.e. to moral behavior, i.e. to the promotion moral behavior in others. It is very curious; it certainly sets off my antennae. But there are no grounds to attribute the subsequent triumph of progressivism to these Unitarians; nor is there anything about the emergence of progressive ideology that necessitates Unitarian influence (rather than some other left-leaning tendency).

One possibility is that the development of Arminian/Pelagian tendencies in British Socianism and Unitarianism was shared (at least in potentia) by other Pelagian strains in Christianity. A particularly virulent strain struck Boston, and the patient never recovered; but other denominations infected with a less acute strain of the same virus gradually developed chronic symptoms.

12. There are many alternatives to para-Unitarians, however. In your grandfather’s day, a reactionary would invariably blame the Freemasons; in TCY the Masonic movement seems as extinct as the Flintstones, but it has all the traits the “Cryptocalvinist Hypothesis” claims to be looking for. The sect spread rapidly; a large part of the reason for its rapid spread was its claim to be non-religious in nature (forging cross-denominational social ties, escaping close scrutiny for religious orthodoxy); it undermined clerical authorities in ways that enhanced the influence of secular fraternities at the expense of the Church; despite its quasi-secular basis it has (well-documented, closely studied) roots in Christian mystical and hermetic traditions. Really, the only reason not to blame the Masons is because the only thing more old-fashioned than weekly meetings at the lodge is paranoid fantasies about what goes on at those meetings.

Jews are also a good candidate, of course. They would have to function more as a catalyst than anything else, since they don’t really proselytize (depending on how you classify socialism, psychoanalysis, and the singularity, to be sure), but the basic model would be: (1) jew emerges from ghetto; (2) jew goes shopping for new worldview which will be considered high-status in the gentile world, or otherwise useful; (3) jew acquires position in gentile world from his new worldview infects others. This story is a good complement to “progressive Christianity” and “Masonry” as well, because he may want a doctrine that seems plausible for a religiously indifferent jew to hold; he may also want an amphibian doctrine that he can pass off as a form of Rabbinical Judaism at Passover, but as wholly goyisch in the company of Fellow Europeans.

I still stand by a point I have made previously, namely that the attempt by minority sects (Methodists and Presbyterians in nineteenth-century England, Roman Catholics in America) to demand public impartiality between the minority and the majority can produce many of the tenets of progressivism de novo, but I have nothing useful to add to that hypothesis at this time.

Review for people who are forgetful and/or scroll directly to the bottom:

The tendencies in Christian religion which have the most affinity for progressivism are, pace Moldbug, not Calvinist or “Puritan” in origin. They are not even “Protestant” in any strict sense. They multiplied in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century England for incidental reasons; but France became infested with outright atheism in the same period, and the French apostasy fits the progressive profile better than the English heterodoxies. Anglo-American sects that show an unusually strong, and unusually early, resemblance to progressivism are difficult to connect to the ideological and political successes of progressivism. Such sects (e.g., Quakers and Unitarians) may display in exaggerated form a process of degeneration which other sects went through more gradually (and thus, more sustainably); the latter sects would then be in a position to act as prototypes of progressivism. The Freemasons fit the description of “precursor to cryptocalvinism” quite closely as well.

I don’t know if this brings me any closer to understanding the decline of our civilization or the nature of its greatest enemies, but I am now fairly confident that there is no latent progressivism lurking in the heart of Christianity. (The only systematic connection between theology and progressive tendencies I’ve discovered arises out of Pelagianism. Justification by faith is a fairly unique doctrine and this respect Pelagianism is merely reversion to the natural fantasies of the heathen world.)

Next Steps

I mentioned a while back that QL may go into hibernation soon. That may happen after I finish the “Marriage” series, or it may happen closer to September. I haven’t made up my mind yet. Either way, I am not entirely sure what to focus on next.

“What to focus on next” has two senses (both, of course, with respect to QL):

  • Between now and the proposed hibernation, what is most worth blogging about?
  • Going forward, what is the best use of QL?

I’m not entirely sure what has been useful or useless here. I have a much stronger sense of which posts individual friends like or dislike than whether any of them are “useful” or “on the right track”.

I can’t help but think the first few essays I posted here were the best, and that the orientation of those essays (roughly: to a certain political or ideological situation surrounding us, rather than to a specific question to answer or problem to solve) elevated them above what came later. Should I go back to that?

I go back through older pieces and feel proud of some of what I accomplished, but vaguely regret that I pegged strong arguments to irrelevant, long-forgotten controversies, or folded an insightful general observation into a discussion of some narrow topic. In other cases the value of a longer, meandering piece comes in a few short sections which (regrettably) wouldn’t make much sense if they were lifted out of context. Part of me wants to return to these pieces, extract the best parts, and rework them into a sort of Summa Quaslacrima. But that would be a lot of work, and it wouldn’t be very fun.

Speaking of things that aren’t fun: QL has a hundred or more posts now, and it’s possible that what would be of most use to potential future readers is editorial work: copy-editing, better use of tags and categories, more links from post to post (and possibly pages describing connections between posts on a certain category). Nick Steves has strongly encouraged me to use categories more, but it’s nearly impossible to remember while I’m writing and even when I do, I normally have no idea which categories would be useful until much later.

It would be nice to figure out what topics (and what kinds of posts) are most useful for, or at least interesting to, my readers, but I have never been able to get a handle on that. The only thing that seems to matter is how often I post: the topics, the length, where I publicize the blog, none of that appears to matter much.