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Augustine vs. Rousseau: A Metaphor for the Psychological Root Cause of the Culture War

I suggest that the root cause of the dynamic that played out between two factions of students in a philosophy class (described below) is the same one that is causing the culture war in Western civilization at large.  The split in the class was a microcosm of the ever increasing partisan divide.  

In Augustine vs. Rousseau Rod Dreher published a letter written to him by the teacher of the philosophy class.  Here’s an excerpt that summarizes the dynamic:  

Last year I was teaching a senior seminar class, which I organized around the theme of “Confession” and had the students read Saint Augustine and Rousseau side by side. “We confess with Augustine, but we live like Rousseau” I said, “for it is Rousseau’s moral universe we largely inhabit.” My contention was that the exercise would be clarifying for the students, help them understand the demands of the Christian life, and move them toward a more coherent understanding of the faith.

I was stunned by what happened. Over the course of the semester, as Saint Augustine in his book is healed — made more integrated and whole — and Rousseau in his book becomes more fragmented and dissolute, about half the students turned against Augustine (“too extreme”) and became more sympathetic to Rousseau. As it played out in class discussions the discussions concerning a dissolute and “disordered” life became more acute and generated more conflict (and, as you might imagine, much of the debate was driven by sex-related issues).

But here’s what happened: the “Rousseauists” became very aggressive and accusatory in their arguments, and the students who both understood what was at stake and how Saint Augustine was the proper guide started becoming timid and apologetic. The Rousseau-favoring students began to accuse the Augustine students of being “not nice” and “judgmental” and “intolerant”; and the Augustine students had internalized enough of this ethos to assume their own guilt and abase themselves. I began to comment on this in class: what has happened, I argued, when at a Christian college those students who defend the faith in its fulness are cowed, while those who want to gut the faith of its demands and disciplines feel absolutely empowered? How have we gotten to this point, and what does it suggest about us if we allow it to continue? 

In this classroom example Augustine and Rousseau are proxies, or metaphors, for the cognitive styles of the two main psychological profiles described in The Cognitive Theory of Politics.  Arthur Herman uses Aristotle and Plato as similar metaphors to trace these two psychologies through 2,400 yeas of human history in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. Thomas Sowell describes them as the constrained and unconstrained visions in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.  Jonathan Haidt describes them as the conservative and liberal moral matrices in his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.  It is from these two “evolved psychological mechanisms” of social cognition that all ideologies and world views follow, shaped by local history, current events, and present circumstances. Progressivism and conservatism as we currently know them are, first and foremost, psychological profiles FROM WHICH the ideologies that also happen to have the same names follow. .  

Augustine represents the social cognition of the “more integrated and whole” psychological profile of the all-moral-foundation, holistic-thinkingAristotelian empiricism of the constrained vision.  Rousseau represents the cognitive style of the psychological profile of the three-foundation, WEIRD-thinking, Platonic idealism of the unconstrained vision.  

By any name the Augustinian-Aristotelian-Conservative Righteous Mind has an innate, palpable, feel-it-in-your-bones, sense/feeling/intuition of the essential importance and value of the single overriding sacred value of MORAL CAPITAL, aka “all the tools in the tool box” (from Haidt’s TED Talk) of moral foundations. Moral capital is the emergent, greater than the sum of the parts, sense that comes from the combination of all three of Shweder’s ethics of community, autonomy, and divinity working in concert as a complete, synergistic system.  Moral Capital is, to steal a concept from Star Trek, the “prime directive” of conservatism.  It is what the Augustinian faction in the classroom was defending.

But for the Rousseauian-Platonic-Progressive Righteous Mind the prime directive is the autonomy, self actualization, happiness, and comfort of the INDIVIDUAL. It is Shweder’s ethic of autonomy, alone, without the influence of his other two ethics. 

The wedge that forces the two sides even farther apart is the fact that Western culture is STILL very much under the thrall of what Haidt calls The Rationalist Delusion,in which, roughly speaking, pure abstract reason – Oakeshott’s  “technical” Knowledge – is believed to be the path to moral truth, and Oakeshott’s practical knowledge, in a very important sense moral capital itself, is interpreted as little more than superstition  and irrational tradition for its own sake.  

This puts the Augustinians in the classroom, and conservatives in general, at a disadvantage. To use Haidt’s term they are morally dumbfounded: “rendered speechless by their inability to verbally explain what they knew intuitively” (page 229 of The Righteous Mind).  They are unable to articulate, to the satisfaction of not just the rationalist Rousseauians but even to the rational side of themselves, the importance of moral capital. But they DO believe that reasoning matters.  So the Rousseauians’ reasoning chips away at them until they acquiesce.

It’s a textbook case of the cognitive bias of reason-based choice run amok- in which “the effect their reasoning has on their decision is not necessarily to drive them towards a good decision, but simply to drive them towards a decision that they can justify.

But here’s the thing, moral capital is real, and it matters. In fact, moral capital is arguably the glue that holds civil society together, and makes human civilization possible.  It’s not an accident that Haidt points to “all the tools in the toolbox” as the key to what he calls the greatest miracle of human cooperation possible.

And the “technical” knowledge of rational scientific research proves it.  Here are two paragraphs from Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: .

Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense. There is not a big margin for error; many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

All the current analyses of the ideological divide, and even of the Trump and Brexit wins, that focus on things like nationalism, populism, authoritarianism, etc. are, in my way of seeing this, missing the forest for the trees. The real, true, root cause of the ideological divide is the struggle between the two main cognitive styles, from which all the aforementioned “isms,” and everything else, follow. 

Regardless of the labels we place on it, be they Augustine vs Rousseau, Plato vs Aristotle, Conservatism vs Liberalism, or Nationalism vs Globalism, the ideological divide is between the two main psychological profiles: The one that seeks to protect moral capital and the one that, with the best of intentions of care, empathy, and sympathy for the individual, ends up destroying it. 



One thought on “Augustine vs. Rousseau: A Metaphor for the Psychological Root Cause of the Culture War

  1. If I understand your theory the RAR kids in this article would be Platonist.

    And the 4chan folks in this pod cast would be Aristotelians.

    If you have not read Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate there is more confirmation for your theory.


    Posted by Jimmy Marvin | November 5, 2017, 10:06 am

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