Western Culture

Can Church Influence Explain Western Individualism? Comment on “The Church, Intensive Kinship, and Global Psychological Variation,” by Jonathan F. Schulz et al.

Because of its uniqueness, Western individualism presents a daunting question for scholars and in particular for a theory based on evolutionary psychology. There are essentially two ways for an evolutionary perspective to attempt to understand uniqueness. One is to propose a unique evolutionary environment resulting in genetically based uniqueness; the other is to propose universal psychological mechanisms interacting with particular cultural contexts.  Jonathan Schulz et al.’s “The Church, Intensive Kinship, and Global Psychological Variation” is an example of the latter. It presents a theory of Western individualism in which the cultural context created by the medieval Catholic Church, particularly the prohibitions on relatedness in marriage, played a central role in the development of the individualistic psychology of the West. More precisely, the paper attempts to explain “a substantial portion” of the variation in psychological traits widely recognized to be characteristic of individualism (“individualistic, independent, analytically minded, and impersonally prosocial [e.g., trusting of strangers] while revealing less conformity, obedience, in-group loyalty, and nepotism”) by exposure to the medieval Western Church.[1] Within this cultural framework, there is no attempt to present the motivations of the Church for creating this cultural context in terms of particular psychological mechanisms.

These issues intersect with much of the discussion in my recently published Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition: Evolutionary Origins, History, and Prospects for the Future. However, my theory is based on the proposal that Western uniqueness derives ultimately from unique ancestral environments in northwestern Europe, with emphasis on a north-south genetic cline in the relative genetic contributions of northern hunter gatherers, Indo-Europeans, and Early Farmers from the Middle East. While Schulz et al. control for a wide range of variables, they do not control for regional genetic differences within Western Europe that have been uncovered by recent population genetic research (reviewed in my Chapter 1), nor do they review research by family historians indicating important regional variation within Western Europe that does not at all map onto exposure to the Western Church (reviewed in my Chapter 4).

However, I do discuss the influence of the Western Church, concluding that the Church’s

influence was directed at altering Western culture away from extended kinship networks and other collectivist institutions, motivated ultimately by the desire to extend its own power [analyzed as an evolved human universal]. However, although the Church promoted individualism and doubtless influenced Western culture in that direction, this influence built on individualistic tendencies that long predated Christianity and were due ultimately to ethnic tendencies toward individualism unique to European peoples (Chapters 1–4). [From Chapter 5, 170]

My approach thus combines pre-historic natural selection for individualist psychology with particular cultural contexts, one of which is the influence of the Catholic Church, the latter interpreted as building on pre-existing tendencies. My Chapter 5 on the medieval Church argues, on the basis of data similar to that cited by Schulz et al., that the Church facilitated individualism—and may well have sped up the establishment of individualism, but did not cause it. Given that Schulz et al. claim to have achieved only a partial explanation, there is thus no fundamental disagreement. However, based on my treatment, here I attempt to show why exposure to the medieval Church is an inadequate explanation of psychological individualism in the West.

There is much that our approaches have in common. In particular, they note that kinship relationships are central in understanding human societies and that the general trend has been a shift away from extensive kinship relationships typical of hunter-gatherers throughout the world (i.e., relatively weak ties to many people of varying genetic distance—discussed in my Chapter 3) to intensive kinship relations (i.e., kinship deeply embedded within closely related groups, e.g., clans and kindreds with a distinct hierarchy based on degree of genetic relatedness) commonly found in agricultural societies. Read more

New book: Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition: Evolutionary Origins, History, and Prospects for the Future

Available at Amazon: Paperback or e-book.

Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition argues that ethnic influences are important for understanding the West. The prehistoric invasion of the Indo-Europeans had a transformative influence on Western Europe, inaugurating a prolonged period of what is labeled “aristocratic individualism” resulting form variants of Indo-European genetic and cultural influence. However, beginning in the seventeenth century and gradually becoming dominant was a new culture labeled “egalitarian individualism” which was influenced by preexisting egalitarian tendencies of northwest Europeans. Egalitarian individualism ushered in the modern world but may well carry the seeds of its own destruction.

State-Supported Extreme Individualism in Sweden

The following are excerpts from my forthcoming book (now in the final stages), Western Individualism and the Liberal Tradition: Evolutionary Origins, History, and Prospects for the Future.

Extreme egalitarianism is especially apparent in northwest Europe. The “Jante Laws” of Scandinavia are paradigmatic: 1. Don’t think you are anything; 2. Don’t think you are as good as us. 3. Don’t think you are smarter than us. 4. Don’t fancy yourself better than us. 5. Don’t think you know more than us. 6. Don’t think you are greater than us. 7. Don’t think you are good for anything. 8. Don’t laugh at us. 9. Don’t think that anyone cares about you. 10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.[1] In short, no one must rise above the rest. Such egalitarianism is typical of h-g groups around the world,[2] and are antithetical to the aristocratic ideal of the I-Es.

Extreme egalitarianism results in high levels of conformism and social anxiety. Individuals fear social ostracism for violating egalitarian norms and standing out from the crowd—a phenomenon that has played a major role in creating a public consensus in favor of mass migration and multiculturalism. In Sweden especially there is no public debate on the costs and benefits of immigration; sceptics remain silent for fear of shunning and disapproval. Discussing the cancellation of a talk because it was sponsored by a politically incorrect newspaper, journalist Ingrid Carlqvist comments that “everyone with a different opinion in Sweden really is a Nazi! That’s the way it works in the New Sweden, the country I call Absurdistan. The country of silence.”[3]

Similarly, in his Fairness and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer describes the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” (envy and resentment of people who are “conspicuously successful, exceptionally gifted, or unusually creative”) that is characteristic of New Zealand.[4] “It sometimes became a more general attitude of outright hostility to any sort of excellence, distinction, or high achievement—especially achievement that requires mental effort, sustained industry, or applied intelligence. … The possession of extraordinary gifts is perceived as unfair by others who lack them.”[5]

The expression ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ originated in Australia but seems more characteristic of New Zealand. Successful people are called ‘poppies.’ This tendency is perhaps not as strong as it used to be, but, although some successful New Zealanders are accepted, “other bright and creative New Zealanders have been treated with cruelty by compatriots who appear to feel that there is something fundamentally unfair about better brains or creative gifts, and still more about a determination to use them.”[6] Doubtless because of the same egalitarian tendencies, the New Zealand system encourages laziness and lack of achievement—workers insist that others slow down and not work hard. “Done by lunchtime” is the motto of a great many New Zealand workers.

Such egalitarian social practices are common in h-g groups around the world[7] and support the general view that this important strand of European culture, especially apparent after it came to power beginning in the seventeenth century (see Chapter 6), reflects the culture of northern h-gs.[8] Reflecting this pattern, Scandinavian society in general has a history of relatively small income and social class differences, including the absence of serfdom during the Middle Ages. A recent anthropological study of h-gs found that economic inequality approximated that of modern Denmark.[9] Chapter 4 discusses the individualism of Scandinavian family patterns, including relatively egalitarian relationships between spouses—extreme even within the Western European context.

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Triggered by Bach: Classical Music as Implicit White Supremacy

“White supremacist” has long been the preferred Jewish epithet to throw at White people who have the temerity to do what Jews do routinely: openly advocate for their ethnic interests. This hackneyed label has always been utterly beside the point: whether Whites are superior to non-Whites has no logical bearing on the moral legitimacy of White people defending their collective interests. Having said this, everyone is well aware that the achievements of White people in countless cultural and scientific domains surpass those of other groups, and can objectively be regarded as “superior.” A conspicuous example is the Western musical tradition.

The superiority of Western classical music is so decisive one could almost rest the argument for the superiority of Western culture on it alone. There exists a hierarchy in the world of sound, as in other phenomena. Noise occupies the lowest rung in this hierarchy; it is an undifferentiated mass of sound in which no distinction exists. The lowest kind of music, say that of Australia’s Aborigines, most closely corresponds to noise. Western classical music, by contrast, exists on the highest rung because it apprehends sound in the most highly differentiated way possible. It is the farthest from noise and most fully exploits the inherent potential of the world of sound.

How well this potential is apprehended and developed can lead to Bach’s inimitable counterpoint, the extraordinary tonal architecture of Beethoven’s symphonies, Bruckner’s sonic cathedrals — or to banging on a hollow log with a stick. Besides stimulating pleasure in audiences, great classical music has an unrivalled capacity to shed light on our ontological predicament and connect aesthetic experience with the transcendental. Goethe once noted, with reference to Bach’s great fugues, where as many as five separate lines of musical argument are simultaneously sustained, that “it is as though the eternal harmony has a conversation with itself.” Only Western classical music, I would argue, can create this sublime impression.

To point out the foregoing is to trigger rage from anti-White commentators who huff that it has “long been an argument of white supremacists, Nazis, Neo-Nazis, and racial separatists that ‘classical music,’ the music of ‘white people,’ is inherently more sophisticated, complicated, and valuable than the musical traditions of Africa, Asia, South America, or the Middle East, thus proving the innate superiority of the ‘white race.’” The problem with this assessment, aside from denying the very existence of the White race, is the inability to demonstrate (or even attempt to demonstrate) that Western classical music is not inherently more sophisticated, complicated (and yes valuable) than other musical traditions. Read more

Homer’s Odyssey: The Return of the Father; Part 2 of 2

Odysseus in Ithaca: The Father’s Revenge

Odysseus engages the suitors in combat. 1814 painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Finally, Odysseus makes his way home and “he rejoiced to be in his own country” (13.165-243); “King Odysseus was filled with happiness, filled with joy that this land was his. He kissed the grain-giving soil of it, then prayed to the nymphs with uplifted hands” (13.332-422). Athena transforms Odysseus’ appearance to that of an old man, to better gather allies, observe the suitors’ misdeeds, and prepare his revenge.

Odysseus enters the palace as an elderly beggar and is mistreated by the suitors, who have been scheming to murder Telemachus. The task will not be easy, but Odysseus asserts that he would rather die than live with such indignities: “I would rather perish, rather meet death in my own palace, than look on perpetually at things as detestable as these” (16.41-133). Finally meeting Telemachus, the two emotionally embrace, but Odysseus quickly turns to business: “at Athena’s bidding, I have come to this place to consult with you on the slaughtering of our enemies” (16.222-311).

When Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors, he will not be turned away from vengeance against those who “devoured my substance, forced my serving-women to sleep with you, and in cowardly fashion wooed my wife while I still was living” (22.1-122). One of the suitors offers tribute, but Odysseus will have none of it, dishonor cannot be redeemed with gold:

Not if you all gave me all your patrimony, whatever you have and whatever more you might come to have, not even then would I hold back my hands from slaughter till every suitor had paid for the whole transgression. (22.39-122)

Through subterfuge and prowess, Odysseus and his few allies are able to overcome and kill the suitors. They are not the only ones who must pay. While the few in Odysseus’ household who helped the suitors unwillingly are spared, the willing collaborators must pay, notably the servant-women, who are hanged. As Telemachus says: “Never let it be said that sluts like these had a clean death from me. They have heaped up outrage on me and on my mother; they have been the suitors’ concubines” (22.375-466). The punishments are monstrous, but the guilty perpetrated evil deeds, and the gods willed retribution.

The suitors overthrown and his authority restored, Odysseus can then finally unite with Penelope, who recognizes him in their own bed. Penelope has remained faithful to Odysseus and, with her handmaidens, maintained “the hearth’s unflagging fire” (20.122-93). Thus, the family has been saved. There is something touching in the couple’s complicity. As Odysseus had previously said: “There is nothing nobler, nothing lovelier than when man and wife keep house together with like heart and with like will. Their foes repine, their friends rejoice, but the truth of it all is with her and him” (6.121-200). The family members’ faithfulness to one another has allowed their collective survival.[1]

This is only a brief respite, for in a social world defined by kin, Odysseus knows that the suitors’ families will not be long in retaliating for what has happened. But the three generations, Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus, find confidence and joy in the honor and prosperity of their line:

King Odysseus . . . said forthwith to his son Telemachus: “My son, when you enter the battlefield where warriors prove their mettle, you need not be told not to shame the lineage of your fathers. In courage and manliness we have long been foremost, the whole world over.”

Thoughtful Telemachus replied: “Father, if you are minded so, you shall watch me in my present spirit by no means shaming the lineage that you speak of.”

So he spoke, and Laertes, in his joy cried out: “Dear gods, what a day is this for me! What happiness, when my son and my grandson are vying for the prize of valor!” (24.442-525).

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Homer’s Odyssey: The Return of the Father; Part 1 of 2

Head of Roman-era statue of Odysseus, found in the grounds of the former villa of the emperor Tiberius.

“Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents?” Thus does a stranger ask Odysseus to identify himself in Homer’s poem dedicated to that hero, the Odyssey (10.325). Taking place after the travails of the Trojan War, the tale is fundamentally about Odysseus’ struggle to find and reestablish his place in a chaotic world. During his twenty-year absence, the hero’s native land of Ithaca has fallen victim to usurpers, and he must overcome innumerable obstacles to find his way home and restore his political authority as king through subterfuge and violence. Odysseus never gives up on his quest, nor does he settle down in one of the many places he visits, because he never forgets his dear family and fatherland, those two defining aspects of his social identity.

The Odyssey has inspired Europeans of every generation since the ancient Greeks and Romans up to the present day. Besides the picaresque quality of Odysseus’ fantastic adventures, one finds an enduring story that can only resonate with all those who long for home. Odysseus, rather unlike Achilles, is close to an ideal hero: enduring, cunning, resourceful, diplomatic, and ruthless when necessary. If the Iliad is the memory in poetry of the archaic Greeks’ countless forgotten wars of conquest and plunder, the Odyssey is that of their exploration and colonization of the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea, endeavors which were often no less violent. If the Iliad is about the tensions between individual and community in the savagery of wartime, the Odyssey suggests a more constructive personal and political project: the journey home and the restoration of a good country.

Odysseus’ visiting various, often dystopian, societies and his quest to restore his Ithacan kingdom indeed suggest an implicit Homeric politics. The world of Odysseus is an often brutal and lawless one in which travelers are at the mercy of the goodwill of their hosts. Without reciprocity or strength, one is liable to fall victim to depredation. In this trustless world, Homer identifies two things which can serve to create more civil societies: piety and kinship. While the ideal of the polis, of individual sacrifice for the common good, is indeed hinted at in the Odyssey, Odyssean politics are firmly monarchic, with reciprocal duties between king and people.

Among the aristocratic ruling class Homer is dealing with, kinship is the basic foundation for identity and solidarity, and therefore of both personal and political action. Strangers are synonymous with uncertainty and potential violence. Kinship in contrast entails inherited resemblance and shared pride in and duties towards one’s lineage. Among kin, there is the possibility of security. That security, however, only exists by the strength of the family father, his domestic authority and his willingness to use violence against hostile aliens. The Odyssey is then also a tale of what befalls a family and country when the patriarch, by his absence, no longer meets his responsibilities.

For Homer, identity and purpose is found in one’s lineage. One acts for the sake of one’s ancestors and one’s descendants. Odysseus and his son Telemachus resemble one another by virtue of their shared blood and must work together to save their family’s status and power. The restoration of paternal and kingly authority in Ithaca is impossible without brutal revenge against the usurpers. And it is only within the circle of such violence that one’s kin can enjoy a secure and gentle life. According to Homer, a happy man has prosperous descendants and the people thrive under a righteous king, for he rules them like a good father. Read more

Aristotle: The Biopolitics of the Citizen-State, Part 4

Law versus Decadence

Like Plato (left), Aristotle hoped that an inspired lawgiver could establish an enduring good government.

A last concern of Aristotle’s which is of great relevance to our time is the prevention of decadence. For Aristotle, the good of the city is reflected in the virtue of the citizens. The citizens are educated and trained in virtue by adherence to the city’s largely-unchanging basic law, set in place by an inspired lawgiver. The question becomes: how can the law ensure that virtue is maintained in perpetuity?

There are no easy answers. Nations tend to be victims of their own successes. As Aristotle notes: “People are easily spoiled; and it is not all who can stand prosperity” (1308b10). He speaks at length on how Sparta’s morals were corrupted after that martial city defeated Athens and achieved hegemony in Greece as a result of the Peloponnesian War. According to Aristotle, adherence to Lycurgus’ law did not survive material wealth and the empowerment of women.

The Greeks were less prone to excessive individualism than the modern West has been, but they often ceded to the siren song of egalitarianism. Aristotle reports that many Greeks believed that if men were equal in some respect, such as being freeborn, they must be equal overall and certainly equally entitled to rule. Many took equality as a goal, leading them to seek to both make the citizens equal and to indiscriminately extend citizenship: “some thinkers [hold] that liberty is chiefly to be found in democracy and that the same goes for equality, this condition is most fully realized when all share, as far as possible, on the same terms in the constitution” (1291b30).

While Aristotle is indeed more ‘bourgeois’ than Plato, he too is contemptuous of egalitarian excesses, which manifest themselves in democratic extremism and selfish individualism. Aristotle, like Plato, argues at length that right equality or justice means that equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally (1287a1). And again, for him, justice means the interests of the community:

What is “right” should be understood as what is “equally right”; and what is “equally right” is what is for the benefit of the whole city and for the common good of its citizens. The citizen is, in general, one who shares in the civic life of ruling and being ruled in turn. (1283b27)

Aristotle notes that some democracies are so extreme that they actually undermine the existence of their own state, and hence do not survive as long as a moderate democracy. He writes with great eloquence on that “false conception of liberty” which has so often seduced our people:

In democracies of the type which is regarded as being peculiarly democratic the policy followed is the very reverse of their real interest. The reason for this is a false conception of liberty. There are two features which are generally held to define democracy. One of them is the sovereignty of the majority; the other is the liberty of individuals. Justice is assumed to consist in equality and equality in regarding the will of the masses as sovereign; liberty is assumed to consist in “doing what one likes.” The result of such a view is that, in these extreme democracies, each individual lives as he likes — or as Euripides says,

For any end he chances to desire.

This is a mean conception [of liberty]. To live by the rule of the constitution ought not to be regarded as slavery, but rather as salvation. (1310A12)

Is this not a very concise summation of the ills of modern liberalism? I would argue that the West was already severely infected by the 1930s, before metastasizing to an absurd degree from the 1960s onwards. Thus today, liberals express desire only for ‘equality’ and ‘solidarity,’ all the while destroying the very foundations for these ends through multiculturalism and open-borders, these being zealously imposed with disastrous short-sightedness. Read more