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Hiding Behind the Screen, by Roger Scruton.

Human relations, and the self-image of the human being, have been profoundly affected by the Internet and by the ease with which images of other people can be summoned to the computer screen to become the objects of emotional attention. How should we conceptualize this change, and what is its effect on the psychic condition of those most given to constructing their world of interests and relationships through the screen? Is this change as damaging as many would have us believe, undermining our capacity for real relationships and placing a mere fantasy of relatedness in their stead? Or is it relatively harmless, as unproblematic as speaking to a friend on the telephone?

First, we should make some distinctions. We all now use the computer to send messages to our friends and to others with whom we have dealings. This sort of communication is not different in any fundamental respect from the old practice of letter writing, except for its speed. Of course, we should not regard speed as a trivial feature. The rapidity of modern communications does not merely accelerate the process whereby relationships are formed and severed; it inevitably changes how those relationships are conducted and understood. Absence is less painful with the Internet and the telephone, but it also loses some of its poignancy; moreover, e-mails are seldom composed as carefully as letters, since the very slowness with which a letter makes its way to its destination prompts us to put more of our feelings into the words. Still, e-mail is reality, not virtual reality, and the changes it has brought about are changes in real communication between real people.

Nor does the existence of social networks like Facebook, which are also for the most part real communication between real people, involve any attempt simply to substitute a virtual reality for the actual one. On the contrary, they are parasitic on the real relationships they foster, and which they alter in large part by encouraging people to put themselves on display, and in turn to become voyeurs of the displays of others. Some might claim that the existence of these networking sites provides a social and psychological benefit, helping those who shy away from presenting themselves directly to the world to gain a public place and identity. These sites also enable people to keep in touch with a wide circle of friends and colleagues, thereby increasing the range of their affections, and filling the world with goodwill and happy feelings.

Yet already something new is entering the world of human relations with these innocent-seeming sites. There is a novel ease with which people can make contact with each other through the screen. No more need to get up from your desk and make the journey to your friend’s house. No more need for weekly meetings, or the circle of friends in the downtown restaurant or bar. All those effortful ways of making contact can be dispensed with: a touch of the keyboard and you are there, where you wanted to be, on the site that defines your friends. But can this be real friendship, when it is pursued and developed in such facile and costless ways?

Read the complete article in The New Atlantis

Edmund Burke on Manners, by Ian Crowe

It took Edmund Burke a very little time to decide that French Revolutionary philosophy posed a massive threat to civilization and social stability throughout Europe. By the end of his life, eight years after the storming of the Bastille, his fears of Jacobin contagion had led him to ask for a secret grave, removed from his family sepulchre and hidden from those-the English Jacobins-who would plunder the lead from tombs for bullets to assassinate the living. In 1796 he wrote: “…out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man.” He demanded nothing short of a war of extermination against this “armed doctrine.”

It is somewhat surprising, then, to find that this enormous threat brought out Burke’s most urgent defense of an aspect of civilization as trivial as “manners.”  Of course, the very fact that we consider manners “trivial” was all part of the problem from the start, as far as Burke was concerned, and he felt driven to state his case unambiguously in his First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796):“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.” How can this apparent inversion of common sense be justified?

Manners are clearly not the same as laws. They are generally unwritten (unless we are talking about ritual), and they lack the regular, codified sanctions that support institutes and decrees. However, they have a similar function: in our small social communities and informal relationships they lay down expectations of behavior that facilitate the smooth-running and therefore expedite the purpose of these various bodies from the nuclear family to the shopping mall. These very circumstances which make sense of our manners mean that they cannot be constituted and implemented like laws and they should not; but we commit a serious mistake if we allow the institutionalized power of the latter to diminish our respect for the former. It is the very superficial weakness of manners that actually constitutes their crucial importance in our lives.

There are two further points of definition to note here. First, Burke points out, manners are always with us and, in their nature, they are quickly adaptable to changing circumstances in a way that written laws can never be, however firm or enthusiastic the backing for those laws might be. The very strength of manners lies in the fact that they are unwritten: they work “by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.” Secondly, and consequentially, they are in all respects prior to laws in our consciousness and understanding. They precede the rational in their operation: they inform and prepare us: before there is any possibility of consent or contract to “legitimise” our relationships, they instruct us in and incline us towards our duties and responsibilities. We can see that they are nurtured by, and that they themselves reinforce, those very associations to which we are committed by circumstances that exist before and above any voluntary contract of mutual self-interest. The “origin of all relations, and consequently the first element of all duties” is marriage, and the family, of course, the first of all such associations.

Burke wishes us to understand that pre-contractual associations are not primitive forms of living to be superseded by an enlightened, social man when the time comes. They are the schools of behavior and values without which man will never become properly enlightened, and in the absence of which more “advanced” contractual agreements will flounder. They are supremely more important sources of education than the most liberal courses in citizenship, and it is manners that teach us their value and authority. They have a further, most important function, too. Manners preserve the vibrancy of local associations by drawing us-almost instinctively- into the uncalculated exercise of responsibilities, by engendering a respect for our surroundings and our neighbors, and by giving us all some practical, local experience in the trusteeship of authority. In so doing, manners inform us of the proper scope of the powers to be granted to the state, and protect our inherited liberties and our possessions from the largely well-meaning but increasingly insistent encroachments of central government.

They can achieve this vital purpose only because they derive their shape from the moral values that underpin society, and that are rooted in our as social beings. “According to their quality,” Burke argues, “they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.” These values have been imposed from above, by government education or propaganda, and essential that manners are left free reveal them in the wisdom of succeeding generations, in the form of customs, traditions, religious tenets, and the of ordinary people as they go about their common and daily business. They must not become subject to manipulation by the state, nor must they be confounded with laws, because if this happens they will become unable to fulfill that purpose of restraining the potential abuse of power by our governors. Manners are the prerogative of our own pre-contractual associations, the family and the community, which the state should serve, and which should guard jealously as guarantees our diversity and independence.

Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

Why should businessmen read great literature?, by Vigen Guroian

In every society, power must be humanized and used morally in order that free and civilized life might prosper. And in a commercial society, businessmen and businesswomen wield especially great power and are frequently called into roles of civic and political leadership. This fact makes the question that serves as this essay’s title especially significant. A half-century ago, Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, penned an article titled “The Inhumane Businessman.” Kirk did not argue that businessmen are, as a lot, more inhumane, mean, or cruel than the average bank clerk, schoolteacher, or construction worker. But he was persuaded that businessmen are “deficient in the disciplines which nurture sound imagination and strong moral character,” and that this does not augur well for the nation.

Kirk lamented the turn to business education in our colleges and universities, which, he argued, contributes to the cultural illiteracy of the business class. This trend toward specialized business education accelerated during the concluding decades of the twentieth century, leaving fewer and fewer of those engaged in business educated in the liberal arts. That is a principal reason why businessmen so often do not read great literature. So this is where I shall begin.


Imagining larger possibilities and purposes

Kirk was right. By the 1950s, higher education in North America had begun to buy into business education, so to speak, and replace liberal studies with this glamorized version of vocational training. Colleges certainly did not heed C. S. Lewis’s admonition that “if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.” Even earlier in the century, G. K. Chesterton published an article in the London Illustrated Times, titled simply enough “On Business Education,” in which, in his acerbic manner, he summed up the scandal and hinted at its consequences: “Modern educators begin by stuffing the child, not with the sense of justice by which he can judge the world, but with the sense of inevitable doom or dedication by which he must accept that particular very worldly aspect of the world.”

For many years, I taught core curriculum courses in ethics, literature, and theology at a college in which more than a third of the students were business majors. And I saw over more than twenty years how business “training” sucked these students dry of idealism and replaced it with the crudest forms of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and fatalism. The light in their eyes had already begun to dim and flicker before they had finished their fourth year, a dreadful thing to witness. Despite my efforts and those of other teachers in the humanities, many men and women departed the college with no sense of the meaning or value of a liberal arts education. Nor had they acquired the habits of reading that are historically associated with such an education. I have reason to believe that this is not an isolated phenomenon; experience elsewhere since then suggests that it is equally true of business school students around the nation.

This deficiency is debilitating in ways that are wholly overlooked by much of society, including the parents of my students. For if these young men and women learned the meaning and value of the liberal arts, they would leave college with the answers to two questions that, as it turns out, they hardly know how to ask, let alone answer. First, “Why should I read great literature throughout the rest of my life?” Second, “Why am I choosing to spend my life in business?”

They cannot answer the second question satisfactorily because they are not encouraged in college (or even permitted, in many cases) to read and love the great literary masters. Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Eliot teach us to imagine larger possibilities and purposes for our lives. They test our decisions with the moral wisdom of humankind. They ask us to move through the world with discernment. They show us that we possess the freedom to make of our lives what we will and not what others choose for us, what the fates decide, or what historical forces dictate.

Read the complete article in The Clarion Review

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