A few months ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is particularly given to pithy epigrams. We were discussing the Stata Center: a brightly colourful building on the MIT campus, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which is designed deliberately to look chaotic, unfinished, random. It’s not a building that leaves many people feeling neutral. My friend disliked its artifice, disjoint from the things around it. I said I thought it would be terribly inappropriate in the middle of a historic neighbourhood, but that it’s just right for a school like MIT, so focused on progress and the future. She didn’t think it was appropriate anywhere, and added: “Frank Gehry hates the real world.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote while reading articles by Patrick Deneen and others at Front Porch Republic, who would probably agree with my friend about Gehry’s architecture (though not about much else). The Front Porch Republic worldview (derived at its root from Wendell Berry) is in many respects a Romantic one, holding as its ideal a tightly knit community of small, more or less self-sufficient rural farmers, living in relative harmony with each other and the surrounding environment. There is here at once a Marxian critique of commodity fetishism and a Christian endorsement of pre-1960s sexual and familial morality. It’s a worldview that I think will grow increasingly popular over the coming decades, as environmental crises grow more acute, for it provides a way for conservatives to speak consistently about conservation, about environmental concern. It also dovetails strikingly well with the do-it-yourself ethos increasingly chic among today’s fashionable educated youth, who read Michael Pollan and concoct their own mustard.
It would be easy for a group like the Front Porchers to say that their main enemy is modernity or modernism. But with their rich backgrounds in history and philosophy, the Porchers often dig deeper, and name their target as Gnosticism. In this I think they are typically following the similarly unconventional conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin, who described modernist philosophies (including Communism) as Gnostic.
To those not versed in the writings of Berry or Voegelin, this identification seems eccentric at the least. What could the traditions of modern secular technological liberalism or communism have to do with a secretive sect of early Christianity? The offered answer lies in their common attitude to the world around us, the world we often call “nature”. For the ancient Gnostics, the world was a disorderly or even evil place, a vale of tears, a land of suffering not to be accepted but to be transcended. What’s gnostic about the moderns is that they too see nature as a problem, something to be tamed and controlled. The Front Porch Republic philosophy is a philosophy of acceptance, of taking the world as it is, accepting limits to our ambition. Gnostics, ancient and modern, are not prepared to accept the world. They rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Which brings us back to Frank Gehry and the Stata Center. To call people Gnostics is just to say that they hate the real world, the world we live in that exists before our eyes. And there’s plenty to hate: the hurricanes, the diseases, the famines, the wars, the genocides, the ravages of age, all the things that add up to the problem of suffering so difficult for monotheists to resolve. A historical Gnostic’s response to the claim that he hates the real world would not be that he didn’t hate this world, but that the transcendent world beyond was more real than this one. What we think of as the “real” world is but a shadow. That shadow is what ancient and modern Gnostics both seek to escape – the one by leaving our present world, the other by transforming it.
What I find most interesting about the Front Porch approach is its attempt to produce a worldview that isn’t Gnostic in one of these ways. Sometimes that doesn’t even seem to be an option. A while ago, I tried to explore the reasons why most philosophies tend to be either supernatural or political in concern, and I noticed the answer of Simone Weil: “Atheist materialism is necessarily revolutionary, because to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future.” I understood that to mean that human beings necessarily seek an “absolute good” – which will not be found in the imperfect world we have, so one must either try to perfect this world or seek a perfect world outside it. Voegelin himself, in my (so far pretty superficial) understanding of him, seemed to say more or less the same thing: there must be an “eschaton”, a final and ultimate human end, and we need to place it in another world in order to avoid “immanentizing” it in this one (as the Communists did).
But the Porcher worldview seems to take neither option, with its embrace of limits. Given the avowed and dedicated Christianity of most Porchers, it is striking how little reference they make to eternal life. Their emphasis is not on the transcendent heaven offered us by Jesus, but on the created world as it is. More Aquinas than Augustine, their worldview would also seem to me at home in Judaism as I understand it. The idea is: reject the drive for perfection, accept the world as it is. Be a satisficer rather than a maximizer. Wendell Berry’s recent Jefferson lecture, entitled It All Turns On Affection, relies on exactly this distinction in different terms: “stickers” are the satisficers happy with what they’ve got, “boomers” the ones who seek something ever better. (The story Berry tells of boomers and stickers leads me to think he would approve my identification of maximizing with New York City.) If one can love the real world, warts and all, one may in the end be better off than those who try to do it one better.
The Porcher viewpoint is still quite political, as I’ve already implied. But it’s a literal conservative politics, not one that is progressive in any sense, and one that does not take activism as the highest aim of human life. It is political in the way that Neo-Confucianism, as I understand it, is political: the state is the outgrowth of the community in which one is embedded, in turn growing out of the family and finally the individual – who cannot be viewed as ultimately separable from any of these. And what political activism one may have is to preserve the preexisting goods related to community, family, individual, not to shoot at something better. Because it’s not going to get better; what we have is good enough. It rejects the political message of hope shared by Obama and Reagan. It is pessimistic because it does not hate the real world, and vice versa.