The Ailing Parson Malthus Project and the “New Sin of Pride”

By Michael J. Sauter for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Anyone who’s had the good fortune to spend time reading Christopher Lasch might be able to identify with the specific experience of risable joy I feel when putting myself in his presence.  For me, the joy is found in a subtle and characteristic Laschian gift:  Often, when commenting on a sociological or historical or psychological study he was using in a book review, essay or monograph, and after restating case and author was making as well as the evidence marshaled by the author for that case, he’d say something like, “the conclusions the author draws, however, seem belied by the evidence the he is putting forward”, or “it seems to be the case,  and despite what the author wants to posit, the opposite conclusion can be drawn from the research she marshals”, and other statements of that sort.

One of the trademarks which characterize our age is the dominance of movements that take a given phenomenon that can be seen in a few different ways, choosing just one perspective, making this perspective a ‘misplaced concrete’  and building a full-blown system upon it.  In other words, our age is characterized by reductionism and ideology.  In an age of ideology, that specific intellectual skill which Lasch possessed, I suggest, is one of the most useful and powerful in cutting through faux-intellectual crap, and it makes his writings very useful for study years after they were written.

According to the disease of ideology, for example, Jean-Baptiste “Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics” Lamarck was nothingbut a stooge.  The God of Progress, the God of the Machine, demands that he was one, and remains one.   To oversimplify, Lamark saw “pull” factors in evolution where Darwin primarily saw “push” factors but, as is the case with intellectual drugs as it is with street drugs, “pushers” are pretty powerful, (and convincing, in a dangerous way, as ‘the Machine’ thrives on determinist, mechanical “push” factors), so Lamarck, generally serves as nothing more than a foil for enlightened Darwinians.  But over at the Nature Institute  and other places,  (often associated with the ‘epigenetics revolution’), people like Stephen Talbott have moved beyond ideology, beyond the Scopes Trial, beyond Intelligent Design (another partial truth) and have maturely seen that it’s all a little bit push and a little bit pull as well.   We smile when we’re happy and, when we smile, it helps make us happy; The gene determines its surrounding environment, (Darwin) and the surrounding environment determines the gene, (Lamarck).

Talbott is closely observing his cat, Missy, trying to get out of a room:

While her story may imply muscular, nervous, and other processes, no such goings-on, seen only as expressions of a physical and chemical lawfulness, can themselves tell the story. Rather, a critical aspect of explanation works the other way around (emphasis mine):it’s the purposeful aim or intention of leaving the room that enables us to make sense of the muscle and nerve activity — by contextualizing it upon a larger stage of meaning.

Obviously, as Talbott sees, it can go both ways.  Reductionism may be convenient, but it’s false, as it’s only partial.  It works in the service of ideology as a great simplifier.  It’s like a drug, again, in that people feel relief in its presence as it takes them away from the complexity of life in all its hurly burly.  Seeing only one way misses at least half the story.  If I place an object in the middle of a room and look at it from one angle, nearly everything I say about it from that vantage point will be true in a sense, but it will still be missing a more complete understanding that can be gained from those people standing on the other side of the room.  I’m told that the Russian word for a ‘high’ such as heroine means “to broaden”.  It’s possible therefore to feel that your mind is being opened when it’s actually just being relieved of honest work.

And what can we say, in this vein, to Freud?  I suggest, “Dear Sigmund:  Like Christopher Lasch, I have great gratitude for your insights.  But I just cannot go all the way with you and turn the whole thing into a determinist system.  Like Darwin needed a little bit of his predecessor Lamarck, you were way too quick to jettison, whole hog, your predecessor, the religious worldview, for your one-sided take on things.  After all, both you and the author of Genesis correctly saw that we had to move beyond—and not return to—an infantile faith, (“After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”), but you kept us wandering in the desert for eternity and called the wandering maturity while the larger truth is that, for those of us who could see, those who have moved beyond ideology, (sometimes called ‘looking at the world from the bottom of a well’, there’s more to the story.  You see, the hinge of your classic move, the explaining away of God and religion, could work the other way around and the upshot is that your theory gets stuck in a calling-folly-wisdom adolescence while those who get it have an opportunity at a mature appropriation of faith at a higher level.

You, Sigmund, saw religion as themost infantile wish fulfillment thinking so because, in your system, religion seemed to meet a need for our childish desire for a heavenly caretaker/parent of sorts, a need that would disappear if people finally grew up.  But, as Merold Westphal and others have noted:

there are very powerful forces at work in us that lead in exactly the opposite direction. God, if there were such a being, would be a power we would envy and an authority we would resent. Wouldn’t it be nice, we say to ourselves, if there were no God. We could be in charge without any unsolicited divine interference. . . . If the theism of the believing soul is, in psycho-analytic perspective, infantile wish-fulfillment, is not Freud’s own unbelief equally infantile (Oedipal) wish fulfillment superimposed on adolescent rebellion against all authority?

Besides, Sigmund, from what we know of your family, we can apply the same statement that Max Beerbohm jokingly applied to his own:  ‘A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipus’s, were they not?’”

Now my interest in rehashing a few of the ideologically diseased aspects of the thought of Freud and Darwin is to raise up a similar dynamic in a less-discussed but very foundational thinker, Parson Thomas Malthus, who’s 1798 essay, the Principles of Population, was the work that put forth the idea that the food supply, which increases arithmetically, is condemned to lag behind population, which increases geometrically, or that subsistence cannot keep up with population.  Both Darwin and Freud read Malthus approvingly and you can see the influence in the prevalence and centrality of the reductionisms competition and sex-drive respectively.

The author who exposed me to the other wayof looking at the production-population quandary of Malthus was Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, a work which might have the notoriety of being the book which the largest number of students have said, “I think you’d like this book, Sauter”, in the 12+ years I’ve been hanging around the university doing not much of anything. Quinn is often grouped as a “neo tribalist” and, though I find I can’t go with them all the way, as a group, Quinn and other ‘neo tribalist’ authors do have a lot of insights.  Do you know (as an aside) how life may be described, like a symphony, as following the course from simplicity to complexity/tension, followed further by simplicity restored at a higher level, with the tension integrated into the higher resolution?  (You see this theme in Lasch’s Minimal Self, and about every other place with quality art, science or social criticism, if you’re on the look-out for it.)  Anyhow, neo tribalists, from what I’ve read, tend as a group (to over simplify) to want to go back to primal simplicity—the womb– whereas my tradition (remembering that there’s a cherub with a sword keeping us away from a regressive solution to the expulsion from Eden), says ‘onward and upward’, through the Cross to the higher resolution.  The City can be redeemed, “and what we shall be has not yet been revealed”.  (I find it very interesting, and possibly poetic, therefore, that Quinn was a postulant at The Abbey of Gethsemene but got kicked out………by Thomas Merton!).

Nonetheless, it’s Quinn, for me, who can be seen as the anti-Malthus and points to the other way of looking at it.  Instead of Montsano producing more and more stronger and stranger Frankencorns, as a form of benevolent planning, to remedy the continuing geometical growth of population, Quinn helps us see the flipside:  Imagine your local Walmart parking lot, fenced in.  Take a breeding pair of humans, place them in the parking lot and, everyday, throw them a lot of Big Macs and other assorted goodies produced by the modern food machine and they’ll probably, over the course of time/generations fill that parking lot to bursting with McBabies.  Less food, however, and you get fewer babies, or so says Quinn.  In other words, instead of food supply not being able to keep up with population, Quinn offers the insight that population is driven by food supply.  Malthus warned, in a way, about the failure of agri-business to deliver enough food via planning; Quinn, however, warns of its success!  And Quinn calls this whole Montsano et al. enterprise the “Food Race”  to compare it with the Cold War “Arms Race”.  He proposes its futility.

It’s true that some will read Quinn and find a tone that, instead of being different than Parson Malthus, is quite similar.  It can sound pessimistic, as if humans are a plague on the planet, and that the two authors just have different ways of dealing with that problem.  And I can’t deny that I’ve felt it myself while reading Quinn, while at the same time being enlightened, at least a bit, by nearly everything he writes.  His worldview, animism, seems devoid of an awareness of divine providence and so I wonder how his writings would sound if Merton hadn’t given him the boot.  Either way, I’m grateful for his insights.  His writings invite us to re-examine our assumptions about the efficacy of too much scientific, mechanistic planning (often the flagship of modern humanistic thought), and warns of attendant ‘blowback’ of such hubristic efforts.  He obviously took at least some lessons away from his Trappist immersion.

Planning is a funny thing.  It can mask as the height of maturity but, like an obsession with insurance, it so often seems to be motivated by fear.  Working in ministry, I’m a little too exposed to the saying, “If you want tomake God laugh, tell him about yourplans”, and I confess that I usually want to punch in the face the person who pulls it out when I might mention a simple but real frustration of, say, misplacing my car keys and running late for a planned pick-up time for one of my kids after school.  Nonetheless, the statement does have an element of truth.  In a famous anecdote that Ivan Illich (often associated with neo tribalism, but a Catholic form, and not animist), used to tell about a conversation with Thomastic philosopher Jacques Maritain while at Princeton, Illich mentions how he told Maritain about all of the new obsession surround ‘planning’ , (This was in 1957), and he asked Maritain why St. Thomas seemingly makes no reference to ‘the concept of planning’ in his work.

[Maritain] asked me if this was an English word for “accounting,” and I told him no… if it was for “engineering,” and I said no… and then at a certain moment he said to me, “Ah! Je comprends, mon cher ami, maintenant je comprends.Now I finally understand. C’est une nouvelle espèce du péché de présomption. Planning is a new variety of the sin of pride.

As his view only captures one side of the issue, Quinn’s thought is open to becoming an ideology in itself. Quinn, therefore, is not the answer, but he is a strong corrective to the Malthusan project that still undergirds the ideology of progress.

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