The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Benedict Beckeld. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Benedict Beckeld. Benedict’s a writer and a philosopher. Today, we’ll be talking with him about his book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations. Oikophobia, is kind of an interesting word, one I’d never heard before, but it’s not one he made up. It’s had at least a limited circulation prior. Let me spell it for folks, because I’m not quite sure I got my pronunciation right. O-I-K-O-P-H-O-P-I-A. So welcome Benedict.
Benedict: Thank you very much for having me.
Jim: Yeah. It’s great to have you. I really enjoyed reading the book. So let’s start off with the obvious starting point. What is oikophobia and how would you pronounce it by the way?
Benedict: Yeah, I would pronounce it oikophobia just as you did. And oikophobia is a neologism, but it was coined by the late Sir Roger Scruton about 20 years ago, 25 years ago. And it’s based of course, on the Greek [foreign language 00:00:57] meaning home and phobia of course, fear of, and it’s referring to western self contempt as the title of my book says or fear of one’s own cultural home. And it’s this tendency with which I think we’re all too familiar nowadays, about westerners who think that the west is the worst civilization in the world and is responsible for everything that goes wrong. And then also of course, more specifically Americans who think that specifically America is the worst country in the world and guilty of all kinds of crimes. And so, people who hate their own civilization in one way or other, will look down on it, on its more traditional values and so on and who think that the rest of the world is superior. And this is a big part of the book. This is a phenomenon that actually occurs and recurs in history. So it’s not entirely new.
Jim: Yeah, that was actually one of the things that was most interesting for me was to see that this pattern had been recurring, at least since the Greeks. And we will talk a little bit about some of the things you said about at least congruent patterns that are similar and other civilization, but mainly the focus will be on the west. The other thing you do, oh, actually before we move on, you give a couple of examples. One I thought was kind of relevant, was that you talked about a dinner in Rome, almost in the shadow of the Coliseum. And one of your companions a fellow academic insisted that oppression and imperialism were the core contributions of the west of the world.
Jim: And you describe this as a perfect example of oikophobia, I thought that was quite bang on that these folks, but I would also point out, and this is real important to think about the context of it that you pointed out this was a fellow academic. Now, I spent a lot of time in academic world as an advisor on science governance and sometimes actually science itself. And yes, we do find a disproportionate amount of such thoughts in academia, but I think it’s also important to realize, that let’s say in the United States, the number of people infected is probably less than we think. My own guess is only about 15%. However, those people are very much, have captured the high ground of media culture, academia, governance, etc. So it seems like this values a lot more. So I think that’s at least worth considering. What’s your thought about that, am I crazy?
Benedict: No, I think you’re more or less right. I think the 15% figure you gave is actually a bit optimistic, but otherwise, certainly your identification that its considerable extent in academic phenomenon, I think is entirely correct. But the reason of course, oikophobia can vary in degree, I would say it’s most extreme, maybe the most radical oiko phobs might be just 10 or 15%, but a sort of general movement or tendency toward oikophobia, I think is much broader and has seeped down into the rest of society at large as well and isn’t just academic. And part of the reason for that is that, of course it’s easier for academics to look down on their own surrounding civilization, because they are at the forefront of what’s new or of what’s revolutionary in philosophy or sociology, whatever their field is and in science.
Benedict: And so, they look down on more traditional ways, traditional values. There are many other reasons as well, why it’s the intellectual elite that becomes oikophobia. And I spend quite a bit of time in the book discussing all the various reasons for this. But the reason I think that the phenomenon has spread beyond the academy, is because the academic lifestyle or the access to information and to books, which all create an illusion of expertise is something that has gone beyond academia. The more egalitarianism and the more democracy, the more democratization we find in a society, the more people have the tendency of slipping into oikophobia.
Benedict: If someone is, shall we say a recluse in a small village somewhere and just has his church and has very small local community. There’s very little risk that person will be seduced by foreign ways or be enticed by things that are different from his own civilization. But the more people are exposed to outside influence, which of course in and of itself is not a bad thing. I’m an academic myself to a considerable extent, so I’m not condemning obviously the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of different ways, but the more a person is exposed to those things, the likelier it is to slip into oikophobia and to think that other things other ways are better than one’s own culture.
Benedict: And so, since we are living in a society where access to information is becoming more and more diffused, it’s also easier for the rest of society, not just the academic elite to become oikophobia. And so that’s, why I say that at least when it comes to some traces of oikophobia, I would say it’s probably beyond 15%. Maybe it’s partly because I live in New York City, so I’m exposed to that more than if I lived in Mississippi, probably, but that’s the tendency. You will find even in casual conversation, especially among young people and not just academics, that they have a sort of knee jerk reaction that whatever is wrong in the world is probably America’s fault somehow.
Jim: And I, of course live as my listeners know at the opposite extreme in the most remote section of Appalachia in a county with a population density of five people per square mile.
Benedict: Right, okay. Yes, very different.
Jim: And most of the people here make their living with their hands, farming, logging, construction, etc, or work in basic government jobs like teaching, snow removal and the police. Not that we have any crime, but we do have a police force nonetheless. Okay. Let’s go onto to the next thing, which I thought was quite interesting is that you distinguish a continuum from xenophobia on one’s end and oikophobia on the other. Why don’t you lay that out for us?
Benedict: So usually this continuum takes place, or we usually a society moves along this continuum as it progresses. So the sort of natural posture of a society early on when it’s a little more parochial and when older traditions have greater force, is to be more xenophobic. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone is a xenophobe at this time, but there’s a certain self-reliance, a certain assumption that one’s own way is the best, because that has been less mingling, less exposure to other civilizations, to other ways of doing things. And so that, doesn’t mean that necessarily that one is hostile to other civilizations, but there is the general preference for oneself and of course that can border to xenophobia quite easily. But as a society becomes more successful as it grows and the growth of every civilization, sort of every major civilization involves overcoming outside societies, overcoming enemies on one’s frontiers and so on and interacting with them in certain ways.
Benedict: The more that happens to a society, the more obviously there is going to be a mingling with other ways. And so that, society will move from xenophobia to finding interest in other ways of doing things. And this happens even if a civilization has utterly defeated another civilization or another society, it will still often find interest in that civilization. The fact that another civilization is defeated, it doesn’t mean that it just goes away, culturally speaking of course, a famous example is the Roman Empire. They conquered Greece and Greece just became another Roman province. And yet at the same time, the Roman elite, the Roman nobility was absolutely fascinated by Greek culture, even though it was subjected people. And so that, Greek culture started to have an influence in Roman and some Roman nobleman, some Roman parts of the Roman elite started to preferring Greek to more traditional Roman ways.
Jim: Yeah. We’ll talk about that later. We’ll get into the very fascinating story of Rome a little bit later, but yeah, that’s a good upfront.
Benedict: So a society just becomes more than oikophobic as it starts to be successful, because the success itself is related to intermingling with other civilizations.
Jim: Yeah. I also liked the way you laid out the continuum from xenophobia and oikophobia as comparable to the ideas of Aristotelian virtue, where there are two continuums, neither of which are good. Being stingy and being completely reckless with one’s money while being sort of moderate with one’s money would be inner Aristotelian virtue. And I think you described it, you didn’t actually [inaudible 00:09:22] the term, but something like self critique [inaudible 00:09:25].
Benedict: Yeah [inaudible 00:09:26].
Jim: [inaudible 00:09:27] you described as the moderate balance?
Benedict: Yeah. So the golden mean if you will, is a big Aristotelian concept, not just in discussions of virtue, also in other discussions. For example, when he talks about a state, for example, he thinks the middle class is appropriate for ruling, because they’re not jealous of the wealth of the rich, but they’re also not anti… They also don’t feel threatened by the poor, the way the rich do. So the golden middle or the golden mean is important Aristotle. When it comes to virtue, he thinks that basically, and this is in the [inaudible 00:10:00] ethics.
Benedict: He talks about how something that is virtuous is, as you said, the middle between two extremes. And so, if we look at oikophobia and xenophobia is two extremes, and I think most of us non oikophobs, the fact that we criticize oikophobia, obviously does not mean that we endorse xenophobia. But if we consider these two to be extremes, then we realize that a mild degree of what can become oikophobia such as self critique is good and a mild degree of what can become xenophobia, such as a preservation of one’s own culture is also something good. And so, a moderate amount of self critique and a moderate amount of wholesome self preservation, these are all good things. And if either of those things go to an extreme, they become oikophobia or xenophobia respectively.
Jim: Yeah. That’s very interesting. And I think one of the things we should probe on, which I would say perhaps might be my addition to the discussion, is to think about what might be the game theoretic drivers that move systems away from that balanced meme. Is the landscape of emergent, competitive factions, such that we have a tendency to converge towards that moderate middle, or do we have tendencies to move to one extreme or the other, or is it entirely unstable and does it move based on events? I’m going to return to that a few times. That was one thing you didn’t actually address, just the intersection of game theory and the continuum.
Benedict: Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t talk about game theory in the books. I’d be curious to hear your point of view on that, but certainly that sense of competition that leads to evermore outlandish extremes, I think that’s very true in academia. Because in academia, there is obviously one is in a state of constant competition with one’s peers. And one has the need as every academic knows who has filled out application forms or grant application forms and things like this, and gone from university to university, from country to country, as they will tell you, the competition is fierce for various positions and this leads to ever greater degrees’ outlandishness.
Benedict: And this is not nothing, you’re right. Even Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan, I quote him in the book. He says something similar that, because of one’s increased level of knowledge and competition with one’s peers, one is ever tempted to come up with ever new ideas in order to stand out. And this will lead most certainly to oikophobia and not just oikophobia, it can lead to extremes in various areas. But I would say that in terms of the continuum, that sense of competition definitely leads to ever more radicalism. As we see in a bunch of different areas, not just in specifically as it relates to oikophobia, but academics have a great ability to take something that is fairly plain and simple and make it convoluted and ridiculous.
Jim: Indeed. There’s actually a very interesting principle and evolutionary theory, is not well known that helps drive these extremes. Very interesting insight, which I only heard recently, which is that when a new species comes into being, let’s say in biology, it suddenly opens up a new ecological niche, which hasn’t yet actually been filled, which is a species to eat that species. Isn’t that interesting? And it’s actually, perhaps one of the drivers for increased complexity in, at least the biological universe. And you can run the analog in academia. Once there’s a theory, there’s now a niche for an assistant professor to destroy that theory.
Benedict: Yeah. It’s interesting. Yeah, no, absolutely. And if you look at, I mean, for example, now obviously issues of gender, gender studies, the gender spectrum, and all of that, that’s all very in Vogue right now. And if you go to various philosophy departments and classics departments at various universities around the country, you will find a sort of extremism in the sense that everyone is doing research on this, because it’s the hot topic right now. And if in the past, if 20 or 30 years ago, maybe one professor in the particular department of 10 or 12 professors was doing research on gender roles in the Roman empire for example, now 80% of them are doing it.
Jim: Though, that’s interesting. That’s a different driver. That’s the herding, the sheep like behavior, but that’s not obvious to me to make your mark driver would push towards either direction. One could imagine going in either direction. If you were to join academia today as a radical opponent of critical gender theory, there’s clearly a niche there, but the sheep effect works against it, but not the straight game theory of niches, which is kind of interesting. Which actually is somewhat hopeful, because it’s worth keeping in mind that these fashions change, in the twenties, what was the great fashion in the social science eugenics. Which you would describe as the other extreme, in some sense it’s sort of a intellectualization of some of the most extreme xenophobia.
Benedict: Yeah, no, absolutely. And no, that’s true. And those people who would try to fit into such a niche by going against that oikophobic radicalism, they are either quiet. They don’t speak up of course, for fear of losing their jobs or they are honest like me for example, which is one of the reasons why I’m unemployed.
Jim: It is interesting. And I’m actually involved in a movement. I try to return free speech and free inquiry to the university, was one of the founders of the MIT Free Speech Alliance. And there’s now quite a number of these university based organizations that are pushing back against conformity and intolerance of new ideas. So I think the worm is starting to turn in that dimension as well, but only a little and surveys we’ve done indicate that most of the professor is scared shitless to say what they actually think.
Benedict: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: But I do believe it’s going to turn quicker than people think and here’s why. Even in the university, I don’t believe a majority buy into this suppression and conformity, but they’ve been terrorized by the DEI commissars and very aggressive, very obnoxious, essentially neo marxists and have been intimidated. And once they realize that there are other people out there that will support them and defend them, I believe even at prestigious universities, it’s actually a minority, probably a large minority, but it’s not what you would think. And once people realize that this is sort of a false front that’s been put on by very aggressive proponents of proto-totalitarianism, I think we may be surprised by how fast that dissolves in academia. It’s taken 60 years to build it and I think it’ll take a lot less than 60 years to disassemble it.
Benedict: I hope you’re right. I do sometimes get messages of support from fellow academics and I to respond politely. If you’re not willing to support me publicly, then you can actually keep your message to yourself. But thank you. I don’t put it quite that way. I don’t want to be rude to people, but [inaudible 00:17:01], but we do have to try to be public, I think about what we think.
Jim: And in fact, social change comes from that. Think about the acceptance of homosexuality for instance. It was actually the fact that some initial small number of brave and courageous homosexuals came out in the closet. And then people said, “Wait a minute, those people are just fine. I like those people. What’s wrong with those people. Nothing.” And very rapidly, the opinion in our society about homosexuality changed. One of the most radical social changes that seems to be sincere and deep. It’s interesting that there seems to be no taste at all to reverse that change except in the most extreme folks.
Benedict: No, that’s a development that I would welcome as well. The fact that homosexuals no longer need to be afraid in most cases anyway, to public [inaudible 00:17:51] be homosexual. But my one issue is that societies in general do tend, at least Western societies tend to move in a progressive direction. So whereas the opening up of social space for homosexuals is a positive thing, I think that probably happens more easily than a movement in the opposite direction, but I hope you’re right. So we shall see.
Jim: Yeah, we shall see. And again, it’s also useful to remember that historically the artistic and academic elites weren’t necessarily oriented in the oikophobic direction. Think about people like Kipling or Token or Walter Scott, right?
Benedict: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: And this may just be a fashion, a trend. We’ll see.
Benedict: Yeah, no, it certainly is a fashion, but also those gentlemen that you mentioned, they lived at a time when oikophobic hadn’t made quite as many inroads as it has now. But if one certainly takes a broader civilizational viewpoint and looking at many centuries and not just decades then certainly yes, it goes in waves.
Jim: All right. Let’s move on to your first example where you go into some detail. One of my favorites are the Greeks. Why don’t you tell us how the cycle from xenophobia, constructive self-criticism to oikophobic, played out with the Greeks and take some time doing it.
Benedict: Sure. Thank you. So when I look at the Greeks, I focus mainly on the 5th century BC, because that was really the time, well, it’s the heyday of what we call ancient Greece and ancient Athens, but it’s also a time at which there is very radical social change in Greece. And so, if you go from the Persian wars in the early 5th century BC, that was a time when Greek civilization faced extinction, because the Persians were invading. And of course the Persian Empire was far more vast and powerful in many ways than the Greeks or at least it was assumed to be. And the Athenians even had to evacuate Athens and the Persians burned the Acropolis and all of these things. So that, was a time of great civilizational crisis for the Greeks. And when a civilization faces such a crisis for obvious reasons, they tend to ban together and protecting one’s own civilization becomes paramount.
Benedict: And there is very little thought in such a time for a civilization, sort of for the Greeks to think that their own civilization might be worse or to think that Persians are superior to them themselves, because they’re actively fighting the Persians. There can certainly be traders of course, in any era, but by and large, the social fabric is such that everyone bands together against an exterior force. And then of course the Greeks prove victorious. And especially the Athenians, of course, they start building out their own Athenian Empire after victory in the Persian wars. And they even recapture some land from the Persians. And so, the Athenians, the Greeks in general, but certainly the Athenians in particular become very successful. They establish dominance over surrounding areas around a lot of the islands in the Mediterranean and this newfound power leads to a sense of security.
Benedict: Because, Athens is so powerful and has such a magnificent fleet that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to try to invade Athens. Until of course Sparta invades Attica in the [inaudible 00:21:09] war. But essentially when Athens has established this great sense of security, this great sense of power, there is much more room for intellectuals, especially to start analyzing their own culture. It’s no longer the case that everyone has to take their shield and spear down from the wall and run off the battle. There is much more time for leisure, for self observation. And this is also time, of course, when a lot of sciences, a lot of the various branches of knowledge that we take for granted today are established in the first place. And so, when that happens, there’s more room for intellectuals to sort of develop a certain sense of self-righteousness to look at themselves as superior to their countrymen or to their compatriots, because the competition is no longer with the Persians.
Benedict: The competition is now with other Greeks and other Athenians, because we all need competition. The human psyche does need some sort of antagonist in order to flourish. Now, that antagonist can be a very serious antagonist, like a Persian army that’s burning down your home, or it can be just your neighbor who is earning more money than you are, or a colleague who is smarter than you or whatever it is. We all need some kind of an antagonist. And so, if we don’t have a major exterior, antagonist, the antagonists become our fellows at home in our own society. And so that, happens in Athens and it’s essentially mostly toward the end of the 4th century BC, that these tendencies start to develop in ancient Greece. Socrates is a major figure, but it actually becomes more extreme after Socrates, late 4th century, sorry, late 5th century and early 4th century BC, where you have various figures who essentially start to question traditional Greek ways.
Benedict: They start to question Greek religion. There is some tendency of this already in the sort of second half of the 5th century BC in Attic drama, especially the drama of Euripides. Somebody I talk a little bit about in the book, how some of his plays question traditional Greek religion in certain ways, question the goodness of the Gods, or at least of some of the Gods. And I should point out that when I explain that as civilization starts to move toward oikophobic, this is not always to be understood as a condemnation.
Benedict: I absolutely Euripides. I think he’s one of the greatest poets ever, but it is or I can still see even if one appreciates their work, I can still see how the civilization is moving toward oikophobic, because it starts to question its own traditions. If an enemy civilization is marching on your city, you have no choice basically, but to sacrifice to your Gods and to hope that they will save you. There’s no atheist in a foxhole as they say. So this sort of is universal across civilizations. You will start to sacrifice to your Gods, whether you believe in them or not. And you will hope that they exist. You hope that they have your back when you’re about to be killed by an enemy force.
Benedict: You hope that they have your back when you’re about to be killed by an enemy force. But when that’s no longer the case, one no longer “needs the gods” so to speak, emotionally. So it becomes much easier to question them and to start thinking of other ways of doing things. Certainly by this time there has, of course, also been cultural influence coming from other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, through trade, through Athenian power and so on. There is cultural influence coming from Persia, from ancient Egypt, from various areas. Plato, for example, he talks about the Egyptians in his own work and he says that the Greek culture is like a baby culture because the ancient Egyptians are much more ancient than we are and so on. So there is that tendency that comes both through security, through power and through influence from other cultures.
Benedict: Slowly but surely, this is a process that takes place over a few decades at the end of the 5th century and early 4th century BC. Intellectuals in Athens, they start to reject their own religion, they reject any claim to specialists that the Greeks have. They no longer consider Greek culture superior to other civilizations. Whereas half a century earlier, it would’ve been taken for granted by almost everyone that, yes, of course we Greeks are superior to other cultures but that sort of starts to disappear. Now, since Greek democracy isn’t as democratic so to speak, isn’t as egalitarian as our democracy is today. They still have slaves, women can’t vote and so on. Because of that, that sort of diffused egalitarianism that I mentioned earlier isn’t so extreme, yet, in ancient Greece and so ochlophobia there isn’t as diffused. This is still very much an elite phenomenon in ancient Athens.
Benedict: So it’s not the sort of thing that I mentioned earlier, that you could just chat with somebody in a bar and they will end up being oikophobic, right? That’s not the case really in ancient Greece. But it is an elite phenomenon, one sees that there are certain names that could be mentioned like Hippias of Elis for example, Diogenes who founds the Cynic School there. I talk about several different names, several examples in the book. These gentlemen start to reject more and more of their own heritage and they start to play out the cultural norms of other civilizations at the expense of their own.
Jim: Yeah, one thing you did mention in that run, which I always found interesting, is relationship between oikophobia and decadent. If I think of a first clear, I don’t know first, but an exemplary decadent character at that turn. I’m not quite sure how you pronounce it but it’s the student of Socrates, Alcibiades, I guess it is.
Benedict: Alcibiades, they usually say.
Jim: Alcibiades. That’s how you pronounce it. Clearly a decadent character and, of course, led Athens to its disaster and then turned coat. So basically a really loathsome character, but yet apparently brilliant and beautiful and all these things. Seems to me that the emergence of that kind of decadence is a sign.
Benedict: Absolutely. Yeah. Alcibiades is a tricky character because as you said, he’s a turncoat and he switches side so many times that it’s difficult to say. It’s probably easier to say that the man had absolutely no principles and he just did whatever was best for him at the moment. That’s why I wouldn’t necessarily call him an oikophob, right? Because oikophobs, we might think they’re wrong, but they tend to be reasonably principled in the sense that they really, really dislike their own civilization. I don’t think else Alcibiades really dislikes Athens as such. I think he just doesn’t really care either way and just does what’s best for him at the moment, but the point about decadent, yeah, that’s certainly true. It does goes hand in hand. I think you’re right to make the connection with oikophobia because of course, as the civilization turns more powerful, wealthier, and so on, there is of course more room for hedonism, for leisure, all of these things for pleasure.
Benedict: Certainly someone who has that wealth and who is able to engage in hedonism in a lifestyle of pleasure as Alcibiades, certainly did. He doesn’t need the gods, as I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t need his own traditions. He has everything that he has his life, he has his life made basically. Certainly that kind of decadence does, it’s not identical to oikophobia, but it certainly often goes hand in hand with oikophobia.
Jim: It’s interesting that they aren’t logically related, but they seem to be correlated.
Benedict: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another reason of course, why it tends to go, why academics also, or the elite more generally tend to be more oikophobic because they do have, by and large, an easier lifestyle than farmers or a lower middle class people.
Jim: Now, before we leave the Greeks, Aristotle, right at that point, even towards the end of that point, nonetheless was quite strong on the superiority of the Greeks. As we talked about earlier, did have this concept of the golden mean with respect to virtues that tended very much not to be an extremist about very much anything.
Jim: Where do he put Aristotle in this discourse amongst the Greeks?
Benedict: Yeah. Aristotle, I admire Aristotle for many reasons and this is one of them. The fact that he was able to analyze his own civilization and question ancient tradition and custom, and yet understand the value and the beauty of his own civilization without rejecting it, right? Aristotle, he’s not an atheist. He certainly does believe in a higher power, but he says that all the stories about Athena and Zeus and Athena riding out of Zeus’s head in armor and Apollo, all these things, that’s stories we tell to children, nobody in his right mind would believe those things. So he’s able to say that on the one hand, and yet on the other hand still see the beauty of Greek civilization, of Greek poetry that involves these myths without rejecting it. So he certainly believes in the greatness of Greek civilization, as you say. So I put him basically in the so-called second phase of this civilizational spectrum.
Benedict: I essentially distinguish three phases in the book and they’re sort of overlapping, but they do exist. One can see them separately. This holds not just for the Greeks, but for other civilizations, which is that in the first phase, people just take it for granted that their own civilization is the best, no other possibilities, even conceivable to them. Then in the second phase, and that’s where I would put Aristotle, is when people do look at other civilizations and can appreciate them to some extent, and also do question their own traditions and their own culture to some extent, but still conclude that their own culture has greatness and beauty and they’re loyal to it. Then finally, the third phase, of course, which is then the full blown oikophobic phase, where the greatness and beauty of one’s own culture are rejected. So since they overlap, Aristotle is fairly late in this development, chronologically speaking. So he certainly lives at an era when the third phase has already begun, but he is still able himself to hold onto to the paradigm of the second phase. So they do overlap chronologically speaking, to some extent
Jim: Let’s move on to Rome. In some sense, Rome was very xenophobic for a very long time. Yet they were also quite open to absorbing ideas from other people. From the very earliest days, they brought ideas in from the other tribes, right around Rome, the Latium area. They borrowed a lot from the Etruscans. They’ve seemed to borrow from everybody. Yet they had a very high opinion of their own civilization for seven, 800 years. Tell us about your thoughts about how Rome fits your model.
Benedict: Yeah. Rome is interesting in many ways. So of all these sort of case studies that I have in the book, the various civilizations that I discuss, Rome is the one where we find, I would say the least oikophobia. Indeed, as you say, they thought themselves the best for many centuries and there are various reasons why they have the least oikophobia. They have a much stronger sense of duty and much their society has a much stronger patriarchal model than ancient Athens did. So that’s another reason that patriarchy is a bull work if you will, against oikophobia. I still discuss Rome because the tendency that sort of moved toward oikophobia and in some cases, even full blown oikophobia is visible in Rome as well. Just that it doesn’t reach the expression of oikophobia, doesn’t become as strong in Rome as it had been the case in ancient Athens and certainly as will be the case in modern times.
Benedict: The Romans, as you also correctly point out, they had a genius really for adopting what was useful from other civilizations. They do this in all kinds of areas really early on. They see something that is useful and then they adopt it. That’s part of how they’re able to rise and become the great power of the Mediterranean, because they’re not afraid to reject something useful simply because it’s part of another culture. While still remaining, as you say, loyal to their own civilization. Part of the problem with Rome, so in the late Republic, is first of all that it becomes too great, too large simply. So the realm can no longer be ruled effectively. That’s how eventually through a series of civil wars, it becomes an empire because the realm basically just needs one strong ruler to tie everything together.
Benedict: Factionalism is too strong in the Republican model and so it becomes an empire. But Rome, both in the late Republic and then certainly in the empire has become so powerful that we see again, the same pattern of a leisure class, being able to question its own traditions. I mentioned earlier, the role of the Greeks in this regard, and this is really crucial. The Romans had the intelligence, if you will, the cultural taste to realize that this people they had conquered the Greeks were culturally far superior to them, themselves, which in and of itself, of course, is an example of this ability of the Romans to adopt useful ideas from the outside. They have that ability and they do so with the Greek.
Benedict: This happens already in the Republic, right? Because they conquer Greece well over a century before about a century, a little over a century, before they become an empire. So this is certainly the case in the late Republic that young Roman noblemen, they start to become seduced by Greek ideas. They become interested in Greek philosophy, especially, but also another Greek areas, but especially in philosophy in rhetoric. So when you start to explore Greek philosophy and the Greeks, of course, by this time in history will have explored pretty much all philosophical questions that could possibly be explored. I mean, even now, well over 2000 years later, we’re still exploring the philosophical questions that the Greeks first opened up for us. When that’s the case, of course, you have to be open as a philosopher or as a student of philosophy.
Benedict: Also in the Roman empire, you have to be open to the idea of looking at your own tradition objectively and with a skeptical eye. Otherwise you cannot philosophize. You cannot consider the questions that the Greeks raised. That becomes a threat to Roman civilization. There is a reaction just like we have a reaction now. There is a sort of conservative reaction to this. I mentioned Cato the Elder as maybe the most paradigmatic example, but there are others later on also a juvenile, for example, in the empire, even Caesar himself to some extent. There is that reaction, but as the society continues, as it progresses, there is that self questioning. You see it also then well into the empire and the historians, for example, since the Roman empire. This theme I mentioned before of intermingling with other cultures, that’s of course even more extreme in the Roman empire because they conquer all of these other cultures. Syria, Egypt, Greece, all of these various places with their own already developed cultural norms with their own developed, to some extent scientific and philosophical bodies of knowledge, they all become a part of the Roman empire.
Benedict: So the access to this knowledge becomes much more easier for the Roman elite, at least, to attain. The home religion, which was created in an agrarian time, in a much simpler time in certain ways, becomes something that is rather quaint. Roman religion is very emphatic of duty of obligation of ritual. If you are living, you mentioned decadency, if you’re living in a wealthy city in Rome and you have all kinds of luxuries around you, that religion no longer fits your lifestyle. Then it becomes much easier to start flirting with foreign cults and this happens all the time. Juvenal complaints about it. He says Roman women nowadays, they pray to the Egyptian goddess of Isis and they go to Jewish soothsayers instead of sacrificing to our Roman gods, because these new civilizations, the Jews, the Egyptians, they’re all part of, they’re all Romans now. They’re all part of the Roman empire.
Benedict: In such a situation, it becomes very difficult to hold on to traditional ways. You see that in certain other writers and philosophers. You see it in Tacitus, in Seneca. Again, this is not automatically a condemnation of those. I don’t like Seneca to be honest, but I love Tacitus. I’m not rejecting someone simply because they show oikophobic tendencies, but you do see that tendency developing as well. But as I said, it’s not as extreme in Rome because Rome still has a vast empire to manage. It still continues to be a rather militaristic culture, rather patriarchal culture, the paterfamilias, the head of the household in ancient Rome. It’s still a very strong figure. That holds the most extreme excesses of oikophobia in check.
Jim: Yeah and I think the other one that you brought out I thought was interesting was that one early crack that could have moved Rome in a more oikophobic direction, didn’t, was in the contention amongst the elites, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Stoicism actually won out. I think that’s a really actually interesting exemplar of a frozen accident perhaps and in the social evolution.
Benedict: Right. Yeah. That is interesting. Stoicism is, as I say, in the book, it’s more suited to the Roman temperament because stoicism of course has this sense of duty and virtue. The fact that you should do what’s right. Even if it’s difficult or painful, and the Romans sort of were like that. So stoicism becomes more popular and stoicism is more easily adaptable to the ambitions of an empire. That’s why you, of course, even have Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, who is a stoic more or less anyway. A lot of great noblemen who are stoics. Epicureanism does make inroads certainly in Roman society, but it never becomes as powerful as stoicism, or as influential as stoicism, because it just isn’t as suited to the Roman temperament. It’s not even so much about a life of pleasure, of course.
Benedict: Epicurus by emphasizing pleasure he really just meant the absence of pain. He meant spiritual tranquility and so on. But Epicurus also emphasizes that in order to achieve spiritual tranquility, you should withdraw from public life because public life is full of uncertainty and pain and so on. That simply doesn’t suit a power around that has a vast empire to manage so for that reason, as well, stoicism remains more popular in the end.
Jim: Interesting. Well, you mentioned Eastern religion. Now, eventually, the Roman empire was captured by an Eastern religion and, at least if you believe Gibbon, was brought down by it.
Jim: Talk a little bit about very odd and one would’ve been hard to predict a hundred years prior the conquest of Rome by Christianity and what that meant.
Benedict: Right? Yeah, it’s interesting. Gibbon is always interesting on this point. I think he might be a little too focused just on Christianity, but he certainly makes a lot of good points. Overall, I don’t think he’s wrong. I guess it’s just a question of how much one wants to emphasize one aspect over another, but certainly the influence of Eastern religions is something that also it comes in modern terms. If you notice among a lot of oikophobes, they reject Christianity because Christianity is now at least considered to be what’s Western. That it’s what is traditional and they will flirt with things like Buddhism ,as being probably the most popular Eastern religion among oikophobes. Obviously a Buddhist isn’t there thereby ipso facto an oikophobe, but Buddhism is very popular among oikophobes. Among people who have rejected their own religion, because we all do have some kind of spiritual need.
Benedict: The human being does need something generally that is higher than he himself. That’s an emotional need that most human beings have. So if you reject your own Christian religion, then Buddhism or other Eastern religions, have a certain attractiveness by being something different. Something that is still something higher to aspire to, but that is different from the people at home. One has the need to distinguish oneself from one’s peers, even Freud talks about this, the narcissism of small differences. He calls it the need to always be a little different from the people who are right here at home. So an Eastern religion will be a very useful tool in that. So regarding the Romans, specifically, various Eastern religions, so you mentioned Isis and Judaism, and then of course, Christianity. They all become influential in to varying degrees in Rome. Now, Christianity, it’s not so much that Christianity by its own in nature brings down the Roman empire.
Benedict: I think it’s more because it’s not Roman. Christianity is also not suited to the establishment or to the rule of a large empire. I talk a little bit about that in the book, namely, the fact that if Christianity, of course, certainly in the beginning was a pacifist religion. It can certainly be said, and pacifism is not practical if you are a great empire. If you’re a great empire, you do have to fight wars from now every now and then. In the late Roman empire, certainly afterwards, Christian thinkers did realize this, right? So they actually started to write about it. I mentioned Aurelius Augustine, later on, Thomas Aquinas, as some Christian writers who do realize that, well, actually we do need to develop concepts of when it’s permissible to actually fight. We can’t be pure pacifists, it’s just not practical.
Benedict: So that does help then later on, of course, but Christianity itself, by that time, it was already too late for the Roman empire. It’s not much that Christianity itself brings down the Roman empire. It’s the fact that it’s something alien that brings down the empire, something that is not suited to the Roman social fabric. The factionalism and the fragmentation that happened in the late Republic happens in the empire as well. Just that it happens slower in the empire because there is a much stronger central authority that is keeping everything together, but ultimately Christianity along with other factors… That’s why I say that maybe given emphasizes Christianity a little too much, but Christianity, along with these other factors, such as a too vast realm.
Benedict: There are also of course, biological, physical factors, the exhaustion of the soil in Italy, and so on. Many other factors that help to bring down the Roman empire and the fact that influx of Eastern peoples into Rome itself, they’re no longer loyal to Rome. You have a lot of senators who don’t even speak Latin, right? They speak Greek because they come from Syria or from Greek speaking parts of the empire, all of that together, Christianity is certainly a big element in that, but all of that together helps creates a situation where unified central authority is no longer feasible and so the Roman empire finally collapses.
Jim: Yeah, though I would maybe emphasize Gibbon a little bit more and Nietzsche as well, right? The actual Christianity of Jesus Christ and the early apostles was completely incompatible with the Roman empire, right?
Benedict: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: Nietzsche refers to it as a slave morality and basically it was. What’s so interesting about Christianity is it has morphed into all kinds of strange things and that then will go next, to your next section, which is in the West’s history. I think what you would describe as the longest non oikophobic epoch, which was the middle ages. Here’s this very interesting amalgam of this pacifistic, communistic, slave morality merging with warlike, dominant, aggressive, patriarchal, Germanic tribes, and produced this very curious medieval civilization. Why don’t you tell us what you think about that?
Benedict: Yeah. So in Christianity, as you say, it’s difficult even to speak of “Christianity,” right? Because Christianity has found so many different expressions according to different times and places, but the people who succeed the Roman empire, they are barbarians essentially, as you say. You say war like tribes, I mean they are barbarians, but they become Christianized and they then lay the foundation, slowly, of the modern west. But the reason why we don’t have oikophobia in the middle ages is more economic, I would say than anything because you don’t have… I talked before in relation to Greece in Rome about the importance of a sense of safety and security and wealth and so on as catalysts of oikophobia, because you need to have those things in order to have the leisure and the access to knowledge required to question your own civilization. Those things don’t really take place in the middle ages.
Benedict: Most people are illiterate, right? So the access to knowledge is very limited. Mostly it’s just people living in monasteries and so on, who are able to read and write. You don’t have strong central authorities, which means that there aren’t strong cities, strong civilizations that can protect their citizens, where people have the leisure to engage in self critique. So those are really, I think the main reasons why we don’t have oikophobia in the middle ages. Christianity itself, of course develops in such a way that it becomes easier to manage an empire, or a state, even with Christianity as a religion. As you said before, Jesus himself would not have been a very good Marcus Aurelius. I think he would not have gone on campaigns to conquer Germanic tribes and so on. But I think those are the main reasons we don’t have oikophobia in the middle ages.
Benedict: Christianity morphs from having been something subversive and pacifistic in the Roman empire. It morphs into the traditional and the established and indeed, obviously in many cases, the violent. Now in fairness, one has to say that a lot the violence carried out by Christians is in direct contravention of most Christian philosophy. I think that should be said, nonetheless, certainly even philosophically more justifications for violence do develop in Christianity. That’s certainly true in the middle ages. So Christianity takes on the role of what it had helped to overthrow. Christianity becomes that which is traditional, that which is established and so on. So the subversives in the Roman empire were the Christians, and now it is the traditionalists who are the Christians and the subversives are yet other Eastern religious, for example, such as Buddhism and not only, but other influences from other civilizations.
Jim: Yeah. It’s quite interesting that the equivalent of the intellectuals are kind of under the gun in the monastery, which is again, probably wasn’t designed, but the result makes it relatively unlikely for…
Jim: … wasn’t designed, but the result makes it relatively unlikely for the free thinkers to develop amongst the intellectual. So, a few of them did, as we know, but not very many. They were generally found out and burned at the stake fairly rapidly.
Benedict: Exactly. We have our own modern version of that today, slightly less violent, but also quite silencing.
Jim: Yeah, Twitter, Twitter.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. Twitter, yeah. The nice thing about Twitter is you can just say, “Fuck those people,” and that’s my advice to academics or anybody else that comes under attack by the Twitter mob, is there’s absolutely nothing that says you can’t raise your two middle fingers and just say, “Fuck you. I do not care,” and I [inaudible 00:48:38]-
Benedict: I’m sure I’ll have reason to remember that in the future. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. It’s certainly my response. I really don’t give a shit if a bunch of wokies want to scream and yell. Fuck them. Hear that, wokies? [inaudible 00:48:47].
Benedict: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see how… Yeah. Hopefully, that’ll help as long as… Well, of course, one won’t even be able to shout that because Twitter will probably cancel one’s account.
Jim: Yeah. Twitter’s not bad as long as you stay away from certain hot buttons, which I don’t like the fact that they do that, but in this space, no one’s going to kick you off Twitter for arguing about oikophobia.
Benedict: No, that’s probably true. Well, at least now because most people haven’t heard the word. Maybe if the Twitter overload starts catching on to the concept, maybe they’ll crack down. We’ll see.
Jim: Interesting. Now let’s move into a little bit more generalization of this idea of… I think about this as the space where you got freedom and pluralism versus not, and you have religion versus skepticism, and somehow those things are a field in which oikophobia or xenophobia is either upregulated or downregulated. You want to speak to that? Yeah, because you do talk about those at various places, that more freedom tends to lead to move oikophobia, et cetera, and more religion leads to less oikophobia in general, et cetera. What’s that dynamic look like?
Benedict: Yeah, and this is part of the reason why I also say that I’m not always condemning oikophobia. I mean, I do condemn oikophobia, basically, but I try to take a little more nuanced view to it because there are aspects to oikophobia or to the development of oikophobia that I think are basically positive, but that, of course, the human being or the human society does not know the golden mean, to go back to [inaudible 00:50:25] once again. So, society always goes into one extreme or other, and I say this because, of course, many aspects of freedom and of the development of freedom in a society are things that I myself appreciate. I, myself, obviously am a beneficiary of freedom of speech and so on, as we all are, but the more you have of that, the more freedom you have, the more freedom of speech, the more, as I said before, the more access to knowledge, but also the greater your ability to blare your opinion out loud, the easiest it becomes for that society that has those things to lapse into oikophobia.
Benedict: You’re not going to have a lot of oikophobia in North Korea, for example. There might be people who secretly dislike their situation in North Korea, but they certainly can’t talk about it out loud, and truly, a people that is genuinely oppressed or that genuinely doesn’t have any freedom generally doesn’t even know that it doesn’t have those things. A genuinely oppressed people usually doesn’t realize how oppressed it is. So, the fact that everyone today talks about how oppressed they are, it means that they’re not oppressed because usually, genuine oppression means that you don’t even have the ability to think in such patterns. If you’re genuinely oppressed, you don’t want to be oppressed, but everybody wants to be oppressed today. It’s a status thing which shows that indeed, they are in fact not oppressed. So, the more freedom you have in a society, thinking back more specifically to your question, the easier it is for everybody to self-question. You always have… The more intellectual room you have to move to flirt with other opinions and to engage in discussion with other people, the more subversive you can become.
Benedict: Once again, the reason why we have more oikophobia subversiveness among academics, because they are the ones with the loudest megaphones, usually, not just academics, but journalists, people who have large media followings and so on, that have platforms. They are the ones who have the greatest freedom to speak. They are the ones who can show their specialness by self-questioning. There’s nothing interesting in just confirming what has always been the case. You show that you are different, you show that you are special by saying that, “Well, I actually am above all these things that you other people prefer, or these traditional parochial norms and customs and so on.” So, the more freedom you have, the more oikophobia you’re going to have, and that is, of course, why ancient Athens really is the first example, certainly here in the west, of oikophobia, because it is the first democracy. That’s very significant. Athens is the place where people can first engage in quite free intellectual exchange without having to worry about being shut down by the government or by religious authorities. So, that dynamic continues into the present day.
Jim: Okay. With respect to freedom, we’ll get to religion next, this is very interesting, I think, in this game theory framework. It seems to me it’s not obvious that freedom should cause a movement towards oikophobia. Now, it should allow crystals of oikophobia to form in the solution, but not necessarily to propagate, and that if you take a strong enlightenment view, and I noticed that you put a few taps on Popper. I don’t think you’d like Popper too much.
Benedict: Yes. Yes.
Jim: My take is, at least my naïve take, is that Popper’s Open Society could, if it’s truly sincere, could be the mechanism by which we stay in this golden mean and don’t swing either way, and both exist, crystals of oikophobia, crystals of xenophobia, and various syntheses. What’s wrong with that picture?
Benedict: No, I think that’s a largely accurate picture. Maybe I shouldn’t get into Popper too much because we’ll be here for another two hours, but yeah, the problem with… Well, quickly, the problem with someone like Popper, you mentioned the enlightenment, and Popper is to a great extent en enlightenment figure, not historically, but philosophically speaking, very much an enlightenment figure because he believes, as many members of the enlightenment erroneously believed, that not only is it good to be, to some degree, progressive and to reject the stultifying or retarding effects of certain parochial religious norms and beliefs, but these progressive beliefs that we have are endorsed by logic and science. That’s very typical, and that’s… I think a lot of people, when they talk about the enlightenment, the enlightenment has sort of become a new idol, a new religious idol. Everybody worships the enlightenment, on both left and right. Everybody calls upon the enlightenment, saying that we should get back to enlightenment ideals and so on.
Benedict: Some of the enlightenment was very good, there’s no question about that, but one aspect of the enlightenment that people ignore, and it’s something I tried to emphasize in the book, and also in relation to Popper, is that the enlightenment, in addition to emphasizing science and reason and so on, also, in many respects, thought that these things, science and reason and logic, militate in favor of progressivism, and they do not. They do not. Philosophy can militate in favor of progressivism. Science and reason do not. That’s, I think, a trap into which Popper falls to a great extent, and which makes him ridicule and look down on his philosophical opponents as somewhat being antiscientific or irrational, which they are not. You can disagree with them, but it doesn’t mean that they’re irrational or antiscientific.
Benedict: But in terms of the image of crystals that you painted, I think that’s accurate. It’s just that something that you also said before, it’s the, at least in our current society today, it’s the oikophobia crystals that are either bigger, or at least louder. They’re more visible than the xenophobic crystals, and of course, the reason for that is, as we said before, if the academics and the elite, the journalists and the urbanites and so on, if they’re the ones who are oikophobic, they’re obviously the ones who have access to the largest megaphones. So, if you travel to your part of the country, obviously, a different picture would emerge certainly from where I live, but we don’t hear as much from them, and certainly, foreigners who are looking in at the United States don’t hear as much from them.
Benedict: So, the oikophobic crystals I think are more troublesome for that reason, and again, it’s also the fact that xenophobia existed before oikophobia. It then continues and exists alongside oikophobia once oikophobia has come around, but oikophobia I think takes the cultural upper hand, and you see that in the political development of the country as well because even the quote-unquote xenophobic crystals or even the reactionaries in people who are strongly on the right, and conservatives or so-called conservatives, they tend… If you compare them with conservatives from 100 years ago or even from 50 years ago, they are not as conservative, by and large. So, the entire structure itself has moved to the left, which means that even though we have opposing crystals in this mix, they are not exactly what they were half a century or a century ago, or even 20 or 30 years ago.
Jim: Yeah. Clearly, cultural liberalism has won. Right?
Jim: Young conservatives still want to have sex and smoke dope, most of them. I mean, there are some extremes that don’t, and again, the question is, is that a good idea or a bad idea, or is it just driven by hedonism? It’s an interesting question. But we don’t have time to answer… I would love to have that discussion sometime, but not today.
Benedict: Yeah. No.
Jim: Let’s now move on to religion. Here’s a quote from the book. The evidence of history thus points to a nexus of civilizational weakening, religious weakening, and oikophobic rise, and particularly, the link there between civilizational weakening, religious weakening, and oikophobia, you say many times that religion is very important, and yet, I thought this was interesting, you admit that you personally are an atheist.
Benedict: Yes. Yeah, and then that goes back to what I said before. One reason why I admire Aristotle, he was able to question his own religion and the religious and cultural organizations of his own society while yet seeing beauty and greatness in those things, and remaining loyal to his civilization. So, that is, I guess I would say, a fairly good description of me in this particular context. So, I do not… Well, I was raised religious, actually, but I rejected religion as a teenager, and as you say, now an atheist, but if we look at history and if we look at our own society, there’s absolutely not question that religion serves a purpose, and then, of course, some people will say that that’s condescending and say, “Well, you say that religion is good for you people. I’m above it. I don’t believe in-”
Jim: Yeah, like Voltaire. Voltaire said-
Benedict: Right, exactly.
Jim: … “I don’t believe, but I want my lawyer and my servants to the Christian so they won’t steal my spoons or anything.”
Benedict: Right, exactly. Yeah. Classic Voltaire. But my answer to that is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s condescending or not because… I mean, I’m a philosopher. I’m not a politician, or a pundit, for that matter. My goal is not to gain voters. My goal is to get as close to the truth as I can in my work, and even if I don’t believe in a particular thing myself, there’s no question that religion is a boon. Not all religions are the same, but religion, certainly here for us, Christianity, and to some extent Judaism, they are a boon for our society. I say to some extent Judaism since that’s a minority religion, but Christianity is a boon to society because by and large, it keeps us non-oikophobic. It keeps us appreciating our own heritage.
Benedict: So, when religion is rejected, there is a weakening of… In that quote you mention, there’s a nexus of religious weakening and civilizational weakening and oikophobic rise. That’s because religion and civilization, they go together because every civilization, without exception, as I also talk about in the book, is religious in its founding. Some people say the United States is not a Christian nation. Officially, it might not be, but there’s absolutely no question that the United States in the beginning was much more God-fearing and much more Christian than it then became. Anyone who says the opposite is, I would say… I was about to say is a revisionist, but you sound like you’re maybe not agreeing entirely.
Jim: Yeah. No. Yeah, and I actually have a little section here to talk about that. So, yeah, let’s talk about it now.
Benedict: Oh, I see. Okay. [inaudible 01:00:50]. Okay, fine.
Jim: We can talk about that right now.
Jim: Now, with respect to the common people, I’m not sure, actually. An awful lot of people on the frontier seemed to be relatively indifferent to religion. They had Indians to fight and ground to scrap out, et cetera, and they weren’t very religious. High rates of out-of-wedlock birth, all kinds of things. In the cities, maybe less there, but the founders of the United States… Let me back up a little bit. My position, I’m an enlightenment guy. I’m putting the enlightenment flag down.
Jim: I fight for the enlightenment against both the alt-right and the neo-medievalists, as I call them, on the right. What’s the guy, [inaudible 01:01:25], that’s the guy on that, and certainly, the postmodernists on the left who… Now, you say that the left adheres to enlightenment. I say most, if you go past a certain point, you go three clicks past Joe Biden and you get into postmodern land, those people are no longer my people. Those are no longer enlightenment people, and I will stand firm with my knives and my guns to fight for the enlightenment, and I have plenty, as the regular listeners know. I would say that America was a high-enlightenment experiment. People like Jefferson… Here’s another point. We actually had non-Christian presidents.
Jim: John Adams was a non-Christian. Jefferson was a non-Christian. Madison was an outright atheist. So, we had three non-Christian presidents in a row in the early days, while we haven’t had a real non-Christian president since, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln whose religious beliefs are… Well, he was really a non-Christian. Whether he was an atheist or not is unclear, and then the question is, what do you think of a Quaker? Is a Quaker a Christian or not? If you count Quakers, then Nixon was a Christian. If not, then you’d say not. But anyway, in the early days, being non-Christian was not a bar at all to being president of the United States, and-
Benedict: I would say it depends a little bit on what you mean by non-Christian. I think if in those days someone had come and said outright that he’s a Buddhist or a Muslim, I think that that would’ve been a very different story. I mean, it’s certainly true that some presidents, and some founding fathers in general, took their religion very lightly, and then some projected it outright, but I do think that it’s… As a politician, though, I would say that overall appeals to God and so on, to a higher power and to a level of spirituality that we still have to some extent in the United States today, I think were still much more common in those days than they are now.
Jim: I don’t know. I mean, I happened to read an interesting poll recently that said that 95% of Americans would vote for a Black person, and 94 a homosexual for president, but only 63% for an atheist, and only 45% for a Muslim, and so it’s-
Benedict: But I don’t think that would’ve been different in those days, and in fact, Atheism is on the rise in this country. I mean, we have more atheists today than we did 100 or 200 years ago. So, I think to some extent, it’s maybe a question of appearances a little bit. Yeah, yeah. But like I said, it depends on what you mean by non-Christian, but…
Jim: Yeah. In terms of the idea of religion is indispensable for society, said by the atheist. Right?
Jim: Often, that’s what’s often known as the noble lie, or I like to [inaudible 01:04:15]-
Benedict: Yeah. I mean, I don’t believe in the noble lie for a philosopher. I mean, Plato talks about the platonic liar or the noble lie as a philosopher. He says the philosopher king has to lie to his people. I mean, I as a philosopher, I always say the truth, or what I believe, what I hope is the truth, and that’s why I say openly in the book that I’m an atheist. But yeah, certainly, a politician might have to engage in a noble lie, but it’s… Again, I don’t flatter myself to thinking that most people will ever know of my book anyway, so it’s probably… Even if I tell the truth as far as to the best of my ability, I think it’s probably pretty harmless because most people won’t know.
Jim: I more cynically refer to the noble lie as the Santa Claus argument. Santa Claus actually does make four-year-olds good in November and December.
Benedict: Right, exactly.
Jim: But it doesn’t make Santa Claus true. I guess I remain very annoyed that the enlightenment actually hasn’t won, and I’m [inaudible 01:05:11]-
Benedict: I think the enlightenment has won more than you might think because I want to emphasize that double-edge sword, the fact that the enlightenment is a double-edged sword, which I think… But sorry. Maybe I cut you off there.
Jim: No, continue. No, I’d love to hear what you have to say about enlightenment as a double-edged sword.
Benedict: Right, because, well, as I alluded to before, there are aspects of the enlightenment which you celebrate and which I certainly celebrate with you, the emphasis on science and reason, and the fact that received tradition shouldn’t be accepted simply because it’s received tradition. I think those are all noble things, and certainly something that’s also very important to me personally as someone who myself have gone from religion to being an atheist, of course. In that respect, I am in a way a child of the enlightenment, but then there is this other side, and that’s, I think, a side that people forget and that a lot of the champions in the enlightenment don’t really discuss, which is the coupling of science and reason and all these positive things with a progressive philosophy, and with progressive politics, thinking that the one reinforces the other, which in fact it does not, and that’s what allows someone like Popper to reject his non-progressive philosophical opponents as anti-enlightenment, as antiscience, as anti-reason, which they’re not.
Jim: Yeah. You could make principled arguments. For instance, people think of Ayn Randians as an example. Right?
Jim: A very high-enlightenment person, but certainly not progressive, at least not in the normal measure of such things.
Jim: Then there are some people like Curtis Yarvin. I don’t know if you know about him, but he’s an interesting-
Benedict: No, I don’t think so.
Jim: … neo-reactionary character. I had him on the show a couple of weeks ago where we talked about his advocacy for monarchy in the United States, for instance.
Benedict: Oh, yes. I see. I’ll take a listen to that. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. He’s in some ways an enlightenment guy and comes to some rather reactionary outcomes that have become quite popular, actually. I strongly reject that part of his philosophy, and we argued quite a bit, but there is plenty of space in the enlightenment, and there’s another idea floating around these days. Two people who have both been on my show multiple times, John Vervaeke and Jordan Hall, they talk about the religion that is not a religion. Vervaeke is both a philosopher and a cognitive science, and is very knowledgeable about the history of western philosophy, and pretty knowledgeable about eastern philosophy as well, and he comes to the view that there is a giant hole in particularly the educated elites that looks like religion.
Jim: But his point is it doesn’t have to have any supernatural attribute, that we can design social systems, or evolve. You don’t really design social systems, but you evolve social systems that fill the needs, the cognitive needs that are filled by religion, particularly meaning, and defining what meaning actually is, and not have having it handed down from some authority, in ways that are generative and coherent in the society in the way religion is, and has many of the things like rituals and psychotechnologies, et cetera, that religions typically have, but minus all the supernatural elements. That strikes me as maybe an interesting way forward to actually fulfill the stalled enlightenment project.
Benedict: Yeah. I would have to know more about the details of his particular project. My instinct maybe is to be somewhat skeptical of that. I mean, similar things have been tried in the past. I mean, you think of someone like Comte, for example, the French positivist, they basically tried to establish, or Jeremy Bentham, even, a religion of positivism, but I think Comte was probably the more extreme version, a religion of positivism where celebrating, or at least having, basically, a ritual of science and reason and these things, I think the supernatural element, and I don’t want to emphasize it too much because in the book I also talk about the fact that a lot of atheists who reject religion, they think that religion is just about the supernatural and believing in some old man in the sky, which is, of course, a very vulgar and cheap understanding of what religion properly is. Religion to a great extent is also about the distinction between the sacred and the profane.
Benedict: However, the supernatural component is still, I think, quite important, and I think the supernatural component, because as I mentioned before, human beings generally need something above themselves, they need something higher to aspire to, and the most obvious candidate for such a thing is the supernatural. That doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely necessary, and certainly, there are many individuals who can manage without it, without slipping into decadence or hedonism or anything like that. But I think for the great mass of people in a society, my suspicion would be that if you discard the supernatural element entirely, you will be playing with fire. But that’s probably as far as I can go without having seen the details of his particular project.
Jim: Yeah. I’m actually going to have he and Jordan Hall on the show sometime in the fall. We’re going to go deep just on religion that’s not a religion. That should be an interesting way to get on that.
Benedict: Yeah, I’ll make sure to listen to it.
Jim: Do you have about another 20 minutes or so?
Benedict: Yeah, certainly.
Jim: Okay. So, we’ll not have to do a quick wrap here. One of the things I found quite interesting and totally new, and actually, it expanded my brain, so it was worth reading the book for this alone, is the distinction you made between oikophobia of cultural relativism versus the oikophobia of positivism. We’ve just touched on this a fair bit, right?
Jim: With the positivist, I would argue, overreach on the enlightenment, because the enlightenment does not entail positivism, I would argue. I think you would agree, but-
Benedict: I’m not sure I would agree, actually, but yeah, go ahead.
Jim: But certainly, one of the tendencies that came out of the enlightenment was positivism. So, anyway, why don’t you make the argument for the two different kinds of oikophobia and how they’re related and not related.
Benedict: Yeah. No. Actually, I’m very happy to hear you ask that question because in my previous conversations or discussions about the book, I don’t think this element has really been touched upon, and as you say, I actually do think that this is one of the most important aspects in the book, those two opposite tendencies of oikophobia, the one relativist and the other positivist, but that they basically meet, they’re opposite, and they go away from each other, but then they come around and meet again in the end because they have the common goal of tearing down one’s own civilization. Yeah. So, relativist oikophobia appears first in history. Relativist oikophobia we see already in ancient Greece, which is essentially, speaking here, of course, of relativism in a cultural context, cultural relativism, which is that we cannot say that our culture is better than anyone else’s. Other cultures may be just as good. That’s their culture, so it’s just as valuable as ours, and so on. So, a culturally relativistic-
Benedict: … sure, so it’s just as valuable as ours and so on. So a culturally relativistic outlook.
Benedict: Which, of course, serves an oikophobia purpose of degrading one’s own culture. At least, degrading one’s own culture relative to other cultures by raising other cultures up. And that happens in the late fifth century, certainly early fourth century B.C. But then, and indeed, as a result to a considerable extent of the enlightenment positivist oikophobia comes around mostly, sort of, in the 18th century in Europe, and it is, I mentioned before, that one of the two heads of the enlightenment is progressivism. Of course, it depends on what branch of the enlightenment, we’re talking about what exact enlightenment, figure we’re talking about it, I don’t want to paint everything with a broad brush and say that all enlightenment figures are like that, they’re not. But progressivism certainly is a product of the enlightenment, I think, to a considerable extent, and positivism, the sense that we can use reason and science in order to arrive at eternal moral truths, that certainly, I think, is an enlightenment phenomenon.
Benedict: The whole idea of progressivism does not exist, in Ancient Greece, for example. We hear politicians use language like, moving our society forward, progressing, and so on. Not just progressive politicians, other as well. Basically, all of society has adopted this kind of language. That kind of language simply did not exist in Ancient Greece because they don’t have that notion of humanity progressing toward a higher state, right? That’s just not a pagan view. And so, oikophobia as positivism comes about because if, obviously, we’re all going to progress to a higher state, and that means all of humanity, right? Not just we, as a nation, then of course our own specialness, our own exceptionalism has to be erased, in order to allow all of us to progress and come together in this higher state. And so, progressivism does say… Positivism does say that there is this X culture or this X social condition, which is superior, and that we’re all moving toward it.
Benedict: That is, of course, the opposite of relativism, because relativism says that whatever is right to you is right to you and what’s right to me is right to me. And so, the positivism… Oikophobia’s positivism is the opposite of that. But ultimately, since both positivistic and relativistic oikophobia have the same goal, namely oikophobia, namely tearing down one’s own exceptionalism, one’s own civilization. You find today, these two strands, relativism and positivism, to be united in a lot of people. And they themselves don’t often don’t realize the hostility, right? The philosophical incompatibility that exist between those two ways of thinking. You find oikophobes, who manage to be relativists, saying whatever is right for you, is right for you, and so on, and truth is relative in all of these things. And yet at the very same time, they are convinced that there is this one particular social condition toward which our society and all of humanity ought to aspire and that when we all get there, everything will be better. There is a utopia that’s out there and that’s positivism.
Jim: Yeah. The utopian-ist branch of the enlightenment, I argue comes from Rousseau, actually. And-
Benedict: Yeah, I think it’s true to great extent.
Jim: And I think that’s the bad branch of the enlightenment, for sure.
Benedict: I would say, I think Rousseau is certainly the most extreme, in that regard, I would agree. But I think there are others who also… Their expression might be less extreme, but I think they basically fall in or they move in the same direction, if you think of d’Alembert or even Voltaire himself, to a considerable extent Condorcet, I think. Yeah, and in Germany, someone like Herder, I think, also moves in that direction. But yeah, Rousseau is… the less said about Rousseau, the better, I think, yeah.
Jim: But I give the counter example, of Adam Smith and his theory of moral sentiments.
Jim: I would argue in Aristotelian perspective.
Benedict: Yeah, no, the Scottish Enlightenment is, I have only positive things to say.
Jim: And, of course, the Scott Enlightenment’s what really led to the United States, not the French Enlightenment.
Jim: Certainly, much more so. Interesting. Let’s drill in just a little bit about you… Obviously, you don’t seem to think that progressivism may not be a good thing, but is that true?
Benedict: I think the… Yeah. Sorry, go ahead.
Jim: I was going to say, let’s say where we started and… Well, Marx gets an awful lot wrong, this discussion about how modernism emerged from feudalism is actually quite interesting.
Jim: And that to my mind is progressivism, right? What’s wrong with that?
Benedict: So, there are different branches of progressivism and certainly, I’m not against progress in science and technology, in medicine, all of those things.
Jim: How about personal liberty?
Benedict: Well, so that’s already where things start to get a little dicey because finding the cure of a disease, it’s easy to see how that’s just a positive. That’s just something that’s really good. Increase in liberty is a much more double-edged sword. And again, as I say, I myself, obviously, I’m a beneficiary. I mean, I live in what, I think, is easily the freest country in the world. I came here as an immigrant. I’m enjoying all its liberties. So obviously, I’m not coming out against freedom as such, certainly not. But increases in freedom is much more progressivism in philosophical progressivism, political progressivism, those are things where it’s much easier to see that a progress, in one area leads to regress in another.
Benedict: I mean, we mentioned decadence before, right? The more freedom we have, the more comfort, and so on, the more decadence will also come. And this is not therefore to condemn freedom, of course, not. But it is to say that everything in life is a trade off. Maybe not everything in life, but certainly philosophically, politically, everything is a trade off.
Jim: There’s a lot of trade offs. Anyone who denies trade offs is living in a fantasy world.
Benedict: Right, exactly. And my problem with progressivism as an idea is that, you think the belief that there is such a thing as utopia, which, of course, there is not. If you see a particular problem, that problem should be solved. Like, if we can suddenly cure cancer, that would be amazing. Or if we see that five year old children are being employed in coalmines and they’re dying at the age of 15 or 20, that’s a particular problem that we can solve by outlawing child labor, for example. But if you have the idea that you’re not just solving a particular problem, but by solving that problem, you are, quote unquote, bringing society forward and progressing to a higher state. Once you have that kind of attitude, you’re going to fall into all kinds of traps. And that’s my main problem with progressivism, with freedom more generally, and this is one reason why I’m not a conservative, right?
Benedict: So, a lot of people who’ve read my book, or seen my videos, or anything like that, they think I’m a conservative. I’m not a conservative for a number of reasons. I’m an atheist, right? There are several philosophical reasons why I’m not a conservative. But I’m also not a conservative because I don’t think that there is any one particular system that is universally true across time and space. And speaking politically now, I don’t think that democracy is always the best for any people at any time in history. This is a somewhat Hegelian view, I suppose, because Hegel, he talks about how the freedom unfolds across civilizations, that whatever a particular civilization has, is right for it. I don’t go as far as Hegel does, in that sense. He kind of almost has the attitude that if something happens, it means it was right, right?
Benedict: That’s not what I would think. Some might quibble with my interpretation of Hegel. But anyway, be that as it may, I do believe that democracy, freedom of speech, all of these things, it’s not always the right thing. Depending on where and when we are in history and in the world for us, right now, I would say that a combination of conservatism and classical liberalism would… Is good for the United States. But I cannot say that I’m a conservative because I don’t hold to such values as universally valid. And again, for the same reason, progressivism, I’m certainly not a progressive because progressivism is not universally valid. There are situations, and I think we find ourselves in that situation right now, where we’re too much of an emphasis on progressivism is detrimental, because it makes us abandon not just what is bad, but also everything that is good about our history and about our tradition and culture.
Jim: Yeah. And I think that’s a very…and this is to this question of balance, you know?
Jim: Honest self-criticism. I would argue for instance, that the liberation of women-
Jim: Is a positive, I’m sure it has some negatives. It’s funny, I’m just finishing reading Middlemarch now, the very famous British novel-
Jim: Written in the high Victorian era, about the era, just before Victoria took the throne, and the amazingly, pervasiveness of patriarchy in the middle class. And it is important to notice, to acknowledge, that she’s talking about the middle class only. We know that the nobles and the working class had different models, but in the middle class from, say an independent surveyor up to a landed gentry, but non-titled, patriarchy was so deeply in the soul of men and women. It was just thought to be right in the same way. And even stronger form of patriarchy was the case in the Roman Republic. Seems to me, a waste of 50% of human potential. So again, if we think about this self-critical, in the middle, is to look at each thing, and we agreed earlier, that the liberation of homosexuals-
Jim: There’s some negatives to it, probably, but, overall seems to me a big plus. And we can make these kinds of progressive changes towards more liberty, generally speaking, without buying into utopianism.
Benedict: Yes. I think, to some extent, that’s true. But again, I would say, it depends a little bit. If you had had a very strong women’s liberation movement in the early fifth century B.C. Athens, as the Persians were coming marching, I think it would’ve been an unmitigated disaster. So again, what I can say at most, is not that I’m a feminist or anything like that, and, of course, different people mean different things under by feminism. But what I can say at most is that I support women’s liberation, now, right? In the United States, in the 20th or 21st century. But also to touch on another subject. We human beings as a society, certainly on a mass-level are incapable of doing everything in moderation or going up to what can be considered a salutary point. If we find something good, such as women’s liberation, we, of course, have to take it too far.
Benedict: And, of course, that leads then to certain extremes, now, to the point that women should be liberated, even from their very biology, it’s considered to be unfair, or unjust, or undesirable, that women are the ones who bear children, for example. And so, human beings being what they are, I think… And again, and that’s why another reason why I’m not wedded to any of these ideologies very strongly, because I think I see how they all are taken to noxious extremes. And so, of course, most people in the world that are closer, the people in the world who are closest to me, they’re women. I’ve been a teacher in many countries, on many continents, one thing that’s pretty much universally true across cultures and social classes is that the women, by and large, the females tend to be sharper than the boys or the men, and certainly more mature. So, there is certainly no room for misogyny in my worldview, but I still cannot say that, I think women’s liberation is an unmitigated good. Even though I supported within a certain socio-historical context
Jim: And within limits, I’m with you. I consider myself a feminist, but when pushed, I’d say, I’m a second wave feminist.
Jim: I believe there should be no barriers to women doing whatever they want, but there should also be no expectation that the number of Marine Corps infantry sergeants is going to be 50% male and 50% female-
Jim: … ever, it ain’t going to happen, you know? And I love the example from your own original home country of Sweden, probably the most gender egalitarian country on Earth. Actually has a higher percentage of male engineers and female nurses than the United States does.
Benedict: Yes. Which, is an interesting… Yeah, that’s an interesting point, because if you are fully free, if you let women be women, and men be men, and do whatever they want, you are going to see a certain sorting are taking place, because men and women are just not the same. They don’t have the same preferences.
Jim: Exactly. And the fact that 1/10th of 1% of Marine Corps sergeants are women is not a bad thing.
Jim: It’s just a very unusual thing. And to expect 50% of women to want to be Marine Corps infantry sergeants is just nuts. But as you point out, there are people who are nuts in that regard, and that’s an example of non-Aristotelian moderation, I would say.
Benedict: Yeah. No, absolutely. No, I agree. I see that similarly, yeah.
Jim: Yeah. So, I guess I just want to push back on this anti-progressiveness, because I think there are a lot of positive changes that can be made in society. As long as, you don’t swallow one of these holistic utopian ideologies-
Jim: …With the bathwater. I often point out to the highest enlightenment document wasn’t any of the French encyclopedias or even Adam Smith, but was Jefferson and Madison’s statute of religious Liberty in Virginia in 1885, before the constitution. And it’s great document. And I hope… My producer should put a link to it on the episode page, because it’s so levelheaded. It’s just so levelheaded that we should never have any force in religion, right? Basically is what it says that to have force in religion, contradicts religion in some deep sense. And so, we will tolerate everyone to have their own freedom of consciousness. And unlike, even the… Locke and people like that, who are allegedly religious tolerant, but they didn’t even tolerate Catholics, right?
Jim: Madison And Jefferson went whole hog, right? Hindus, Jews, Buddhist, Atheists, whatever-
Benedict: Yeah. No, I love Locke’s religious tolerance, you can do whatever you want, as long as you are not the Muslim or Catholic, yeah. But, my problem though, is that you say, they’re very level-headed, and I agree. I’m second to none, in my respect for the founding fathers. I mean, some, more than others, but by in large, certainly. But this levelheadedness can simply not be taken for granted. And my problem is that this kind of freedom that we’re talking about is in itself a mild version of utopianism because… And this is something I talk a little bit about in the book, not too much, is that the liberal order will collapse in on itself for… Is, as we see while, look at historical tendencies, because the more Liberty and the more freedom and ,so on, that we have, the more oikophobia there will be and the civilization will turn in on itself.
Benedict: So, it’s not that I… I certainly welcome the fruits of progressivism, some of the fruits, at least, of progressivism as you do. But I just feel that we are not levelheaded, as a society, unfortunately. And that’s the problem with it because if you are a progressive, it’s not just that you want to fix this particular problem here. It’s that you want to keep progressing. You always need to keep progressing. And that leads to eventually absurd and outlandish results.
Jim: Some of this, like a strong feminist, strongly for homosexual rights, strong for freedom, but some of this trans crazy shit, fuck that, right? And you just have to have some discernment and to stay in the center. I mean, I love your concept of the golden mean in these issues.
Jim: If, you know… It sounds like you are somewhat cynical about human nature and that it’s very, very, very-
Benedict: I am-
Jim: Difficult and here it’s the same. And I guess an enlightenment man, I believe that it’s, at least, possible to have a community of people who can dynamically stay in the center through change, because circumstances change. Anyway, we can talk about-
Benedict: Oh, I hope you’re right. And I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.
Jim: Might people say, but let’s go into a last topic, and I was very pleased to see you mentioned this. It’s a very obscure topic, but near and dear to my heart, which is… You had a whole section about the power of boredom.
Benedict: The power of boredom?
Jim: Yeah. You talk about fukuyama, et cetera. Didn’t really-
Benedict: Oh, oh yes. Of course. Sorry. Yes, that’s right. Starting to look at my own book here, yes.
Jim: It’s a weird topic. And I just happened to be interested in it, because I personally, have the view that the near collapse of Western civilization that started in 1914 was basically due to boredom. A hundred years of no major war, all the young men were all worked up and everyone wanted to go fucking fight because they were bored. And I know it’s probably an overstatement, but [inaudible 01:29:12].
Jim: Idiotic theories. But you talk about boredom as a very, important force in the evolution human systems. So, let’s go with that, and then we’ll have a final word, and then we’ll wrap her up.
Benedict: All right. Yeah. So the issue of boredom, right? So, Fukuyama talks about that… That’s part of my section where I criticize Pinker, as being this overly… Steven Pinker, his book, Enlightenment Now, as being overly, positivistic and progressivist, and not being able to distinguish between areas of knowledge. You become a politician, not a philosopher, if you think that your conclusion holds across areas of knowledge. And he says that, the fact that we’re progressing in one area basically means we’re progressing everywhere. And he criticizes Fukuyama for this. That’s how I get into the topic because Fukuyama, I think, rightly… I have my other problems with Fukuyama, but I think he certainly, rightly, points out in his book, The End of History, that if you have too much boredom, you don’t have war to fight, you don’t have anything, particular religion is declining and everything is just, sort of, all right, that boredom will then make the next generation go against its own civilization.
Benedict: Or he doesn’t exactly put it that way. I’m putting it down in more oikophobic terms, but will make young people fight against the state that established their boredom, that established the safety and wealth and security that leads to boredom. And this goes back to the point that I made before that, we all need something higher, to which toward which to aspire. That higher thing can be different, depending on the particular historical situation. It could be a war, right? We all band together in order to face a common enemy, it could be religion, we worship a God together, but all of these higher things, they tend to be force for… they are a force for community, right? If you have to face an exterior enemy, or if you go to church together and worship a God. In common, all of those things are communal activities in a certain way, very different activities, but they’re all communal.
Benedict: But if you don’t have any such thing, if you don’t have anything higher, all you have is your own, immediate, person and your own, physical, surroundings that you interact with, then you will get very bored. Now, Pinker takes this too literally, and he thinks Fukuyama basically means someone who’s literally bored and just is sitting with his head in his hand and has nothing to do. That’s not what Fukuyama means. Fukuyama means boredom in the sense of civilizational anouilh, right? There is no higher cause.
Jim: Meaning, it is a [inaudible 01:31:43]-
Jim: … Vervaeke, in fact, is famous 50 hour video series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis-
Jim: By the way, did a 10 hour series with Vervaeke on the, Meaning Crisis. And-
Benedict: 10 hours, right? Okay. Excellent.
Jim: Five episodes. So yeah, that was my read, is that your interpretation of Fukuyama was… A void of meaning was the threat.
Jim: Could leave all kinds of [inaudible 01:32:07] things. Right?
Benedict: Exactly. And so people find meaning in tearing down the statues of their own founding fathers, or on going out and writing, attacking the police, and so on. That’s how people find their meaning. And that is also communal activity, right? People do that in groups because people do need a communal activity. But one has to understand that some communal activities are better or worse than others. Coming together to repel an enemy or coming together to worship in a church or a synagogue, are a lot better than coming together to tear down statues, or to throw paint, or graffiti on police buildings, and so on. So, the boredom is a very real civilizational problem and it comes with wealth, luxury, decadence, security, and all of those things, the decline of religion, and all of those things, as we have discussed feed in to oikophobia.
Benedict: So, one has to find meaning… And that’s something… And that’s part of what enables me. For example, to be an atheist, because at least I do have something that is higher than I am myself. I have my work, I have my philosophy, my intellect, everything that I do and write about those are things that give me meaning, but a lot of people don’t have those things, and if they have then also rejected religion, then they end up being bored. So-
Jim: Yeah. All right, on that very, interesting thought. Let’s wrap it up here. Let’s thank Benedict Beckeld, for a very, interesting discussion about his book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations. Thank you very much Benedict for coming on the Jim Rutt Show and talking about your book.
Benedict: Thank you. It’s been a great pleasure.
Jim: Yeah, I really have enjoyed it.
Jim: If anybody found this conversation interesting, go buy the book. We’ll have a link to it on our episode page as usual, jimruttshow.com.