Last week I spoke of a philosophical single-mindedness shared by modernists, evangelical Protestants, Salafi Muslims and St. Augustine, and this week I’d like to reflect on it further. What these various single-minded thinkers hold in common is opposed above all, I think, by literal conservatism. Conservatives in the literal sense seek to preserve much of the world as it is – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They are opposed to radical breaks and revolutions, whether those aim to take us forward (as the modernists) or backward (as the Salafis). I noted in my earlier post that Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism, a direct attack on modernist architecture and modernist urban planning, is a quintessential example of literal conservatism; Jacobs would react with the same hostility to the Salafi assault on Mecca. In that respect, for all its urbanity, Jacobs’s work is of a piece with the agrarian rural conservatism of Front Porch Republic and Wendell Berry.
The appeal of such literal conservatism is certainly not limited to aesthetics, but one may perhaps see it most clearly in the aesthetic realm. (Some modernists, like the Marxist geographer David Harvey, see an aesthetic conservatism as opposed to a more ethical modernism.) For it’s hard to imagine elevating a single most important principle, as modernists typically do, as the principle behind beauty: could one ever say “Everything constructed according to principle X will be beautiful,” without making principle X entirely vacuous and devoid of content? Aesthetics seem to require a focus on the details and not merely the big picture.
Now of the various single-minded thinkers I’ve mentioned so far – modernists, evangelicals, Salafis and Augustine – one might note that they all have their historical roots in Western traditions. And one might well trace much of this single-mindedness in the West back to Plato, with his focus on the good as one and single. Most notably, the single-minded Plato banished the poets from his ideal city. He did this for a variety of reasons, but all of these had to do with the poets’ leading us away from the single true good: their works portrayed the false idea that external goods matter to a good life as much as virtue; they imitate the bad as well as the good; and their very practice of imitation leads one to mistake falsity for truth.
Marxism – about as modern a political philosophy as one can get – has paralleled Plato (and the Salafis) in a political single-mindedness. Plato’s ideal state seems totalitarian in theory; implementing Marx’s vision turned totalitarian in practice, even if that was not his intent. Self-proclaimed Marxists pursued the vision of a classless society with a zeal that overrode any and every other possible goal. Pol Pot justified some of his atrocities – the evacuation of the cities, the mass murder of intellectuals – with the chilling words: “If the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?”
Now in saying this I am not agreeing with the distorted account of Karl Popper. While I would dispute Popper’s interpretation of Plato and Marx to some extent, more important in this context is his unfortunate lumping of G.W.F. Hegel in with these two; for Hegel’s vision strives directly to encompass the particulars of everyday life without sacrificing them to a higher ideal. Yes, the state is necessary to human fulfillment, and Hegel’s state is less liberal than those we are accustomed to, but it does not dictate the details of life in the pursuit of a single ideal, in the way of the Platonic state or of existing Communist states.
Indeed, I find the unabashedly Hegelian thought of James Doull perhaps the most helpful way to theorize and think about philosophical single-mindedness. For Doull, the most abiding philosophical issue is a conflict between the universal and the particular – between the one singular truth or good that Plato picks out, and the manifold reality that surrounds us. Single-mindedness is then a dogged focus on the universal that disparages the particular.
And if we understand single-mindedness in this way, with Doull, then we can start to note its appearance in South Asian traditions as well — most clearly in Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta. For Śaṅkara as for Plato and Mao, everything of significance reduces ultimately to one driving universal thing that’s most important, and nothing else compares. One may contrast particularist thinkers like the Sophists or postmodernists for whom there is no universal, and the details are all that matter. The project of Aristotle, and his followers Hegel and Doull in turn, is to harmonize these viewpoints and acknowledge both the one and the many, the universal and the particular, as having great significance – a significance found perhaps especially in the relationship of the one and the many to each other.
Personally, I find Doull’s reflections particularly helpful because I am very much a big-picture thinker. It’s probably one of the big reasons I was so impatient with the philological questions that preoccupy so many scholars of religion; I was always asking “but what’s the point?” On the Myers-Briggs personality test I scored near the middle on three of the four dimensions, but off the charts for “iNtuiting” over “Sensing” – which is to say that I gravitate toward abstract concepts, theories, larger significance, and away from details and particulars. In many respects philosophy appeals to me precisely because it deals with the biggest questions of all — the most important things, the universals. But the problems of modernism — to say nothing of Salafism and Communism — are a good cautionary reminder of why the details really do matter. One may well find a universal ultimate that is most important; but that does not make everything else unimportant.