This is a response to Jim Kalb's interesting essay on the Amish and the possible bases for separatist communities more generally.
It strikes me that Mr. Kalb is being unduly pessimistic about the prospects for separatist communities congenial to intellectuals, or more precisely intellectuals not affiliated with close-knit religious groups. It is true that successful separatist communities have tended to be insufficiently tolerant to be acceptable to intellectuals, and that communities founded by intellectuals have not been successful in recent times. This lack of success probably, however, reflects the fact that the intellectuals who have attempted to found non-religious separatist communities have usually been *leftist* intellectuals, whose ideas one would expect *ipso facto* not to have proven viable in practice. Conservatives have, at least until recently, tended to have been happier enjoying the remaining cultural riches of the mainstream society than sealing themselves off in separatist communities. But one would expect this to change with the decreasing appeal of the mainstream society, for example the climate of intellectual intolerance in universities.
Speaking of universities, these are themselves the bureaucratic descendants of successful, tolerant, self-governing communities established by intellectuals, originally in medieval times but also presumably sometimes under more modern and secular intellectual conditions. Was not academic freedom invented by such communities? Such colleges were not separatist--not being opposed to the wider social order in the first place--but they did resemble separatist communities in expecting to receive the principal allegiance of those who belonged to them. I am thinking here of the picture drawn in C.P. Snow's *The Masters* of a college of the traditional type still extant in recent times. Traditionally, if I remember correctly, it was required that the fellows remain nominally celibate in order to devote themselves fully to their intellectual vocation, for example.
Such colleges might provide a model for new communities for conservative intellectuals. To become fully-fledged separatist communities able to physically reproduce themselves, these colleges would probably however have to encapsulate themselves in a larger conservative non-intellectual community: the offspring of conservative intellectuals cannot be expected to become conservative intellectuals themselves, and the continued recruitment of intellectuals who have some attachment to the cultural tradition from the wider society may not be possible with the decay of that society. (The disillusioned former members of rigid religious groups might constitute a continued stream of prospective members with a suitable cultural background, though.)
...To be continued...
| RE: Separatism|
I did suggest in the essay that as the conditions disappear that make the life of the mind possible in the broader society intellectuals will become separatist. So I suppose one question is when that begins to happen.
It does seem to me that a successful separatist community, especially one involving intellectuals, will have to have a definite religious orientation. Otherwise it's not so clear what reason there is to be separate apart from personal goals of the members, or (since a non-religious community can claim no special connection to ultimate reality) what intellectual life has to do with the limits of the community.
There have been some intellectual separatist stirrings among various Christian traditionalists, especially the Catholics, but I don't know enough to say how things are going. One hears a variety of things, good and bad, about Christendom College and Thomas Aquinas College. The most comprehensive plan I know of, the association of the Society of St. John with the College of St. Justin Martyr in a plan involving construction of a traditionalist Catholic community that would include ordinary laymen living ordinary lives as well as clerics, academics and students, blew up with the Society's predatory homosexuality scandal. Still, it got quite a bit of support so maybe something of the sort will go forward somewhere.
| RE: Separatism|
What reasons are there for a community involving intellectuals to be separatist?
In practice, after an initial burst of idealism, whether a community satisfied the private goals of the members would likely decide whether it was viable or not. But there also seem to be valid idealistic reasons for separatism from the point of view of a conservative intellectual who is not affiliated with any religion, except perhaps in the indirect sense that he owes his own higher nature to the religions in his civilization's history. All that should be necessary is for him to combine a love for various features of secular Western civilization--or for those features of religion which are not specific to any one religion--with a recognition that these are under threat. He has to be a kind of patriot of civilization, or at any rate of Western civilization. This patriotism need not depend on having specific religious beliefs; for example, a love for Greek philosophy or art does not hinge on a belief in the Olympic gods. Such an attitude might be regarded as quasi-religious, and is perhaps associated with the avowal of some actual religion, but the particular religion will vary from one person to another.
One would think that a community basing itself on this quasi-religion would have enough common ground to form an adequately cohesive community in opposition to the increasingly onerous outside regime without suppressing any of the other opinions of the members. The only necessary conformity ought to be to a broad conservatism--a non-nihilistic opposition to unlimited centralized democratic government and philosophical materialism--together with the willingness (itself characteristic of conservatives) to accept the legitimately constituted political authority within the community. This broad solidarity would be the result both of the recognition of a universal threat to civilization and of more positive unifying tendencies in the modern world. For example, personally I have the impression that I would be happier in a community of civilized Chinese than in one either of barbarized or rigidly religious members of my own (English/North American) culture.
Admittedly, definite, uniform religious beliefs can give communities prodigious strength, as for instance with the physical achievements of the Mormons in the 1800s wilderness. But under modern conditions, namely with what we think we know about the diversity of valid religions, such beliefs are at the same time a handicap in that they require a suppression of freedom of thought and of education which intellectuals, and probably anyone with a reasonably wide knowledge of the world, find intolerable. (This is not to claim that compulsory education for all is necessarily desirable.) As you pointed out in the essay, such communities deprive themselves of intellectual assets. This deprivation seems an inevitable result of the suppression of intellectual freedom. If an intellectual is nevertheless forced into a religiously conformist community by external pressures, as I think you were predicting would become more typical, it seems to me that he will still not be able to act as a serious intellectual within it.
The question of why, private motives aside, separatism should be preferable to attempting to influence the mainstream society from within, seems in any case to be equally relevant to those with and without religious affiliations.
Collective action within the mainstream society is a matter of forming groups for relatively specific purposes, with overlapping memberships, and often on an informal and spontaneous basis, as distinguished from the intentional separatist community with its claim on the principal allegiance of its members, its formally recognized authority, its well-defined list of members and basic rules of membership, and its tendency to suppress joint membership in outside groups. It might seem at first glance that conseratives would have a more beneficial impact on the wider society by working in groups of the former kind than by secreting themselves in separatist communities.
It seems to me that whether this is actually the case depends on how radical one believes the problems of mainstream society to be. If one believes that society is in the grip of a delusional materialistic-egalitarian, 'leftist' belief system destined to extend its hegemony until it is discredited only by some kind of catastrophe, then the successful contributions of conservatives to existing institutions will basically serve not to demonstrate the value of conservative principles, but, by making the existing order more tolerable, to dealy the general recognition of the bankruptcy of leftism. It seems probable that the longer this delay, the more thorough the erosion of tradition in the makeup of the average individual, the worse the general disaster will be. To demonstrate the superiority of conservative principles is necessary so that once there is a general recognition of the bankruptcy of the program of the current elite, that program may perhaps be replaced by a viable conservative one, rather than by the whims of the first strongman who comes along to fill the vacuum.
Such a demonstration requires separatist groups where conservative principles are applied in as many areas of life as is feasible, with a minimum of concessions to leftist requirements and unconscious habits picked up from the environment. This can be accomplished neither in informal groups whose memberships are ill-defined and unregulated, with an influential section of members inevitably holding more or less mainstream views; nor in formal, overtly conservative groups which limit themselves to specialized objectives. The success of an ideologically mixed group might be plausibly attributed to any of the elements of that mixture. Purely conservative but specialized groups, on the other hand, will tend to show only minor success because their members are still dependent on mainstream society in most respects. Both types of group will tend to aid the existing regime in a diffuse way.
Social customs cannot be carried on unilaterally. The conservative, of whatever cultural background, faces a choice between isolation and more or less gradual assimilation to the dominant culture while being unable decisively to affect that culture in return. In various departments of life there is a need to preserve accepted standards other than the standards of mainstream society, but the only way this can be done is within communities which consciously acknowledge their separate identity at a fairly fundamental level. (This seems to be in agreement with your argument in "Sexual Morality FAQ".) This is not merely a matter of satisfying individual needs, but of countering a threat to a general way of life. Ordinary, mentally balanced people are, or were, prepared to die for such things.
I agree that there is no particular reason why a separatist community should be made up exclusively of intellectuals, except that this kind of homogeneity ought to make a community easier to govern. From the wider perspective it is preferable if the community represents a microcosm of the surrounding society, and thus a more convincing model for that society to follow in the future. This raises the tricky questions of what the *raison d'etre* of a conservative community would be from the point of view of its non-intellectuals, and of the roles of intellectuals and non-intellectuals in the governance of the community.
| RE: Separatism|
Tolerance and political decisionmaking in the separatist community
In his essay, Jim Kalb emphasized that intellectual intolerance,
and indeed a certain amount of hostility to higher education as
such, seem to have been features of successful separatist
communities up to this point. Yet people with a sufficient level of
maturity should be capable of forming a community which
welcomes intellectual dissent. To adopt an idea from another
discussion on this site, it is necessary to combine a belief in
absolute truth with a recognition that one does not possess it,
at least not in its entirety. Religious sects on the one hand,
and mainstream liberals on the other, both fail in their own way
to meet this standard. The "liberally educated" person of the
modern period *did* meet it, and there still seem to be a fair
number of such people around, even if they are no longer the
dominant species in their natural habitat, the universities.
A community formed by the liberally educated, purely for the sake
of the intellectual life, would not be separatist in the sense
used in this discussion. Nevertheless it is useful to think of
such a college, because it is relatively familiar and because it
would be an important specialized institution within a general-
purpose separatist community in which intellectuals were able to
It seems likely that the main potential problem of this college
from the separatist conservative viewpoint would not be
intellectual intolerance, but an excessive tolerance. Academic
freedom demands that the members be permitted to advance opinions
not compatible with traditionalist conservatism. Any insistence
on conservatism would be intellectually stifling. This would
perhaps be especially true in those departments not directly
concerned with politics, where this policy would mean rejecting
most of the best available people in their disciplines--including
many with culturally conservative views--often merely because,
being preoccupied by other intellectual problems, they had not
devoted sufficient effort to assessing their political or
economic beliefs. As a result there is an obvious danger that a
college founded as a refuge for conservatives would drift towards
the intellectual mainstream. The same processes that transformed
older universities would tend to work on any newly established
conservative college. Nor, in a more general-purpose separatist
conservative community, would it be humane or expedient to force
members to uproot themselves from the community because of their
dissenting views. For one thing, this would mean expelling most
of the community's "unadjusted" youth.
Yet such tolerance would similarly also endanger the long-term
conservative character of the community. Rather than allow
itself to be gradually assimilated into the mainstream, a
community founded on the principle of tolerance might, in self-
defence, become informally intolerant even while its written law
continued hypocritically to proclaim its tolerance. (Kuehnelt-
Leddihn observes that the English-speaking democracies have
traditionally adopted this approach to political stability.)
Much the same kind of dilemma is faced by communities of all
kinds. A religious community, for example, aims at maintaining
fairly stringent standards among its adherents. If it not only
accepts members indiscriminately but gives those members equal
rights in governing the community, it has already surrendered all
standards. Standards might be retained as an ideal code, but
socially speaking there is no advantage in abiding by it; the
code is then a private affair, no longer really connected with
the religion supposed to be upholding it. Another possibility
might be to maintain differences in status among members despite
political egalitarianism, but this will be very risky because
those of low status can vote to overturn the status system.
Meanwhile, in the wider pecuniary society, economic status
persists uneasily in the face of political democracy only because
it has been found to be necessary for economic prosperity; even
then, there is a certain amount of risk of self-destructive
electoral revolt from those of low status who fail to grasp the
necessity of economic inequality for meeting their own
subsistence (as opposed to status) needs. Other kinds of status,
with the associated standards, tend to break down.
Indiscriminate admission of members on an equal political
footing, regardless of their contributions to a community's
objectives, means that those objectives will soon fall by the
wayside. It is necessary for a community either to be intolerant
of those who oppose its objectives or to be inegalitarian--
tolerating dissidents and noncontributors, but denying them equal
political and hence social status. For the civilized person,
intolerance should be the less legitimate of these two
alternatives. Moreover, since those who fail to contribute to
the community's objectives may be involuntary, temporary or
partial failures rather than intentional idlers or dissidents, to
expel these members may be wasteful to the community as well as
Similarly, in a conservative college or separatist community, the
key to resolving the problem of intolerance would be the
rejection of unrestricted political democracy by the community.
Dissenting opinion is a threat to the community insofar as the
dissenters have political weight within it. Deny them a say in
key political decisions, and they are no longer a direct threat,
even should they be very numerous.
The main remaining "threat" posed by dissenters is then the
conversion of the existing members of the political elite to the
dissenting position. Yet if the dissenters are this persuasive,
it may well be that the community *ought* to be converted. A
community which feels the need to ban the expression of
dissenting views out of fear of such ideological contamination is
one which prefers a rigid belief system to the truth. It is,
however, necessary in this regard for the political elite also to
have a high intellectual calibre, and so to be immune to half-
baked intellectual criticism. Even the traditional European
aristocracies and monarchies, not being based on intellectual
qualifications, seem to have been somewhat vulnerable to being
overthrown or radically transformed under intellectual pressure,
although not to the same extent as the subsequent democracies.
(For example, in the period leading up to the Revolution, the
French monarchy is said to have lost its self-confidence in the
face of criticism from the intellectual quarter.)
There are various ways by which a political-intellectual elite
might be given the necessary power to preserve the essential
character of a separatist community. Probably the most
conventional method, departing the least from familiar forms of
government and giving the minimum of active powers to the new
elite, would be to give this elite a veto over all changes in
legislation. This would resemble the role of a supreme court.
Somewhat less conventionally, the elite might serve as the
electoral college in the choice of the community's executive, who
would similarly have a veto over legislative change, but would
also play a more active political role. In neither of these
approaches would it be necessary to abolish the usual democratic
representation in the legislative branch of the community's
government. Such an elite could be expected to hold a high
status within its community, but would not necessarily represent
the community's aristocracy: other elites might coexist with it.
The aim would be for the elite to combine a high intellectual
calibre with a study of political questions. One would hope that
these requirements would in themselves give rise to a reasonably
united, conservative orientation in the elite. For the sake of
legitimacy, it would be desirable for admission to the elite to
be by impartial criteria such as the ability to pass an (ideally)
anonymous entrance examination and, for example, the attainment
of a certain age--age supposedly being conducive to wise
conservatism. It might nevertheless also be necessary to
introduce specific ideological requirements for elite membership;
and ultimately the elite would probably have to set its own
Monarchy and dissent in the separatist community
Dissenting political opinion not only threatens to change the
accepted principles of a community, but also poses the hazard of
introducing intense, energy-consuming political conflict and
social divisiveness in the course of the attempt to bring that
change about. This is probably true above all in a small-scale
democracy (such as a medieval Italian city-state). In larger-
scale democracies, the impact of factionalism tends to be limited
by the objective unimportance of political participation in most
peoples' lives. Political conflict is largely confined to
political parties whose affairs most people can ignore. In a
small democratic separatist community the democracy would seem
much more tangible to community members, and political struggles
would tend to be taken more seriously. This would be all the
more the case if the losers in the political struggle also stood
to lose their personal rank or membership in the community.
Intellectuals, with their pride in their hard-won opinions, might
be particularly prone to such factionalism. For a traditionalist
conservative intellectual, however, it would be natural to
support a form of government with a strong monarchical element;
and a community under such a government should be much less prone
In the absence of a legitimate hereditary monarch, the most
typical traditional approach would probably be an elective
lifetime monarchy. In light of the need under conditions of
intellectual freedom for a government of high intellectual
calibre--as well as the general disappearance of hereditary
occupations of all kinds--an elective monarchy may now be
preferable even in principle to a hereditary one. Such a form of
government is not new, having been adopted in both the Catholic
Church and the Holy Roman Empire as well as in more local
institutions such as colleges of scholars. In a conservative
separatist community, as argued above, an elective monarch should
be elected by an elite conservative group, permitting the
community to harbor those who would be unacceptable as members of
A monarchy, elective or otherwise, could become a powerful
unifying symbol for a separatist community which was relatively
heterogenous or otherwise lacking in a strong accepted authority.
As Jim Kalb pointed out in his essay, some separatist communities
succeed under the unifying authority of a single leader rather
than, say, of a holy scripture. Presumably these miniature
absolute monarchies generally fail to provide much individual
autonomy. Yet a constitutional monarchy, by which I mean one in
which some form of democratic consent is needed both to
legislative change and to the imposition of judicial penalties on
individuals, should be wholly compatible with individual freedom
while still retaining its potent unifying effect. (Secret
ballots in such democratic decisionmaking would also probably be
advisable here, together with individual property rights.)
Again, such institutions are familiar in broad terms from
In a voluntary association, in particular, a long-serving,
politically independent executive combined with a democratic
legislative veto, rather than either unalloyed democracy or
monarchy, probably provides the best possible guarantee to the
individual member that the fundamental character of the
association will remain unchanged long after the member has
joined, when it is no longer practical for him to leave. Even
from an individualistic, "contractarian" point of view, this
mixed form of government thus seems inherently legitimate for a
In a small separatist community, constitutional monarchy would
render intellectual dissent acceptable. The sole unacceptable
form of political dissent would be a refusal to acknowledge the
authority of the monarch and of the other political institutions
of the community; other forms of dissent would pose no threat to
the unity of the community as represented by its monarch.
Conformity to a "party line" is not likely if there are no
cohesive parties; and a monarchical executive, combined with the
direct representation of members of the community in legislative
decisions, should do away with the need for such parties. In
place of an active partisan struggle to control the community's
destiny and occupy its positions of power, there would be the
more passive response of a politically peaceful community to the
initiatives of the long-term leadership.
Together with philosophical materialism, large-scale political
democracy seems to be the driving force behind the crisis of
civilization. Small-scale democracy (as is traditional in
Switzerland) might be more viable as a long-term political
system, but probably only at the price of an intense conformism
within each community. A local constitutional monarchy,
differing in a fundamental way from the political system of the
wider world, should provide the crucial long-term guarantee of
the distinct conservative character of the separatist community
which adopted it, without requiring that the community wed itself
inextricably to more specific beliefs.
| RE: Separatism|
A lot of Mr. Hare's discussion seems to me both overly detailed and overly abstract, as if he were trying to produce a general handbook for setting up separatist communities.
I continue to find it hard to imagine a lasting separatist community that is not based on a common religious understanding. That is especially true of one that includes intellectuals.
A separatist community that includes intellectuals must have within it the resources needed for a new civilization. Otherwise the intellectuals will feel cramped. Those resources include a common religious understanding. Civilizational patriotism is a fine thing, but one must ask what is needed for a civilization to keep its coherence, and be felt to stand for something worth living and dying for.
Are the bare specifics of what the members of a civilization have actually been and done sufficient? I don't think so. It seems to me the health and endurance of a civilization, and its ability to attract self-sacrificing loyalty, requires that it be oriented toward something that exceeds any of its actualities. That transcendent thing, I think, can only be understood religiously.
Intellectual life is not a self-sufficient thing. It can exist only within a universe that is already ordered and meaningful. Since intellectual life is social, that means it must exist within a society that is ordered by some religious understanding.
Nonetheless, intellectual life resists dogma, because it criticizes formulations and tries to come up with new ones. As a result there is always a tension between intellectual life and the conditions needed to sustain it.
My argument in my essay was not that separatism is necessarily at odds with intellectual life, but that it becomes favorable to it only when the religious understanding ordering the larger society has degraded to the point that dogmas within the community are less of a problem than the chaos outside. When that point is reached, then intellectuals become separatists.
| RE: Separatism|
As a general matter, detailed handbooks for social initiatives seem a
fine idea to me.
A great deal depends here on what precisely one means by a common
religious understanding. Does this mean a broad working agreement on
ethical principles, a requirement that everyone accept a detailed,
infallible dogma about belief and conduct, or something in between?
Undoubtedly a common--and, in the long run, an objectively valid--
religious understanding, at least in the broadest sense, is necessary
to a community. But it is far from clear that a successful community
requires a dogmatic religion, as I think is your position.
If a community can flourish merely on the basis of broad principles,
together with the non-dogmatic, mutable elaborations of those
principles which are necessary to give workable rules of conduct,
there is no reason to believe that intellectual life must be in
tension with the community's vital beliefs. On the contrary,
intellectuals will have a vital supportive role in elaborating beliefs
into detailed rules of conduct and of reconciling contradictions
between principles and existing practices. (Nor, to take another
possibility, need there be such a tension if a community demands a
high degree of conformity, but only in some area other than
intellectual belief. Traditional Indian society seems to have
harbored practically every kind of metaphysical belief known to man.)
In the broadest sense, even secular liberalism has common religious
beliefs, e.g. in the absolute value of personal freedom. (And
certainly liberal society is "oriented toward something that exceeds
any of its actualities", if only because its contradictions prevent
its goals from being reached.) Liberalism's domination of the world
in the last century or two seems sufficient to demonstrate that
communities do not, in fact, require intellectual intolerance and
enforced adherence to dogmatic religions to be viable for considerable
periods of time, even in the face of considerable opposition from
rival systems. In the longer term, as has recently become more
apparent, liberalism does not seem to represent a socially viable
common religious understanding. This is probably not, however,
because of the broadness of liberal principles, but because the
principles are the wrong ones.
My idea of a successful tolerant conservative community, separatist or
otherwise, would be that it would have shared beliefs of comparable
broadness and flexibility to, but greater validity than, those of
liberalism. For example, it would reject the fiction of human
equality while emphasizing, in accordance with the Golden Rule, the
moral obligations of the more favoured to the less favoured. Such
beliefs do not have to be invented, but merely dusted off, for they
are the product of the world religions. Such beliefs should all be
derivable from a handful of principles: Jesus, I think, implied that
all that is really indispensable are two of the ten commandments.
Such a community would be conservative in that it would attempt to
revive the more attractive features of civilization, flowing from
these same broad principles. At the same time these principles would
permit flexibility in response to changing circumstances, and would be
the seeds of gradual further development (self-transcendence) as the
community reconciled contradictions between its principles and its
institutions. In essence, such conservatism would be a rival
universalism to liberalism, though one of greater maturity; and one
which, ascribing no ultimate value to Equality, would be more
welcoming of particularistic forms. Being less naive than liberalism
about its ability to reason sociologically from first principles, and
about the inherent superiority of the modern to the ancient, it would
also be in less of a hurry to jettison traditional institutions even
when these seemed inconsistent with its principles.
It is impossible for anyone, intellectuals included, to live without
at least some such minimal set of principles. "Intellectual life
resists dogma" only in that dogma seems unnecessarily elaborate to
intellectuals. Why, then, should it be impossible to arrange things
in society so that most of its members hold the right principles,
without resorting to intellectual coercion?
This is the key question: does society require dogmatic religion, or
are broader beliefs enough? Intellectuals, professionally speaking at
least, prefer to work with broad principles, while non-intellectuals
probably prefer specific rules; yet I do not see why those specific
rules need come with a claim of infallibility. The recent record of
moral collapse might seem to support the more pessimistic view, that
in the absence of religious authority of the familiar dogmatic type,
the broader beliefs cannot stand by themselves forever. This probably
however, reflects not an ultimate unviability of morality in the
absence of dogmatic underpinnings, but the fact that we have made the
mistake of adopting unlimited political democracy, which seems
designed to erode moral and intellectual standards (see my previous
posting). Conversely, by no means has strong religious authority,
either, always been a bulwark against corruption and cultural decline.
| RE: Separatism|
It seems to me a separatist society needs commitments that clearly distinguish it from the world around it. To the extent those commitments have to do with fundamental beliefs and understandings they would therefore take the form of formulated dogma. And I'm not sure what other kind of fundamental commitment could attract the allegiance of intellectuals to the society. Intellectuals may sometimes have difficulty with formulated dogma but they do believe that belief and understanding trump all else.
Indian society could afford extreme diversity of metaphysical system because the caste system provided all the social distinctions and obligations anyone could ever need. I don't see how such a thing could arise today in the midst of a society like the one we have now.
| RE: Separatism|
As far as I can see, your position is more or less equally applicable to national societies as to conservative separatist communities (although if outside society did not appear to be disintegrating, there would be no reason for a conservative to wish to separate from it). That is, if extensive formulated dogma, as opposed to a few agreed-upon principles, is necessary for the viability of a small separatist community, then presumably it would also be necessary for the viability of the larger society as a cohesive unit--rather than as an aggregate of mutually suspicious and uncommunicative small dogmatic communities (or, alternatively, as a single dogmatic community which had crushed the other dogmas). This seems to me to be a message of despair, and not consistent with the tradition of English-speaking conservatism.
| RE: Separatism|
National societies are in a different position to the extent geography keeps other societies at a distance and defining just what makes one different from others is therefore unnecessary. What the English-speaking countries have been has depended on their physically insular setting. That of course has much less effect today. I discuss how things are likely to be going forward in my Ibn Khaldun essay. The future I think is likely to look something like the Levant. I don't see that as a message of despair. Life goes on, people live as best they can, and Levantine civilization hasn't been altogether degraded.