Old engraved illustration of Madame Roland in the prison of Sainte-Pélagie Prison. (Image credit: mikroman6)
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The anatomy of oikophobia

A cyclical view of history exposes Western self-contempt

What responsibility are intellectuals expected to take today? Many imagine themselves to be the kind of person who, for example, would have resisted the Nazis during World War II or fought against slavery in the 1800s. These examples are extreme, of course, but they serve to highlight what I think is a widespread belief at present: that we have better values today than did societies of the past. It is the belief that history has an arch that bends towards justice, and that we ourselves are on the right side of this trajectory.

Western Self-Contempt, Benedict Beckeld (Cornell University Press, $32.95)

According to the Swedish-American philosopher Benedict Beckeld, the question of intellectual responsibility requires us to reconsider what he describes as a “progressive philosophy of history”. Essentially, the problem is that we have adopted the idea of historical progress towards universal justice. Based on this view of history, the responsibility of intellectuals is to realise that goal, which in practice leads to criticism of their own society. So, what is Beckeld’s alternative?

The cover of Beckeld’s book, Western Self-Contempt (Cornell University Press 2022), shows an Ionic column — the symbol of the Western world’s Greek origin and virtues — transitioning into a guillotine, the tool of the French Revolution for beheading an old order. Here lies the development from a traditional society where history is viewed cyclically — seasons come and go — to the modern era’s belief in progress. According to Beckeld, the ideals of a universally just, equal, rational and free world go hand in hand with an intellectual climate characterised by self-contempt, or oikophobia.

The concept of oikophobia was first developed by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, in part to summarise what George Orwell described as a kind of “negative” or “transferred nationalism” amongst progressive English intellectuals. They were enthusiastic about the customs and practices of other peoples, but believed such feelings for their own culture to be embarrassing or even dangerous. According to Scruton and Orwell, this sort of self-contempt for one’s own society functioned as an identity marker, a way for intellectuals to distance themselves from that working class to which several of them once belonged.

By tracing the idea of intellectuals’ self-contempt back to the beginning of Western civilisation, Beckeld shows how the phenomenon recurs cyclically: from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to early modern France and England, up to today’s United States in its role as world hegemon. Since technological development increases societal cultural mobility, which in turn breaks down traditions, Beckeld suggests that historical development be viewed as helical — with each cycle becoming more progressive than the last.

To explain this cyclical pattern, Beckeld starts from the assumption of the historian Thucydides that human nature is fundamentally constant. Human nature and mass psychology remain the same, and therefore the same symptoms recur: a successful society enables a societal elite that does not have to work and can educate itself. This elite becomes aware of other people’s attitudes and over time distances itself from its own culture. Thus, successful societies bear within them the seeds of self-contempt, fragmentation and a return to smaller social communities.

Could more education be the solution to intellectuals’ self-contempt?

In this cyclical pattern, we come to recognise self-contempt as a kind of career path for the societal elite. When external enemies have been defeated, and society becomes richer and the state stronger, the easiest way to gain prestige and money is to find enemies within one’s own culture. By identifying “the enemy”, we strengthen our own identity. By exposing people as phobic, sexist or racist, intellectuals get to feel like magnanimous promoters or defenders of justice. In reality, these people have stopped taking responsibility for any common society. According to Beckeld, it is the lack of positive projects that reveal societal elites as having become self-serving.

Could more education be the solution to intellectuals’ self-contempt? Beckeld’s answer here is unequivocally “no”. Larger cohorts of university graduates only increase the group of people seeking to belong to that societal elite. They end up competing against each other in expressing themselves critically about society, admiring foreign customs, and questioning what most people would call common sense. What is needed instead are alternatives to the ideas that underpin today’s progressive philosophy of history.

According to Beckeld, the progressive philosophy of history combines two fundamentally opposing currents of thought: positivism and cultural relativism. The first is best represented in the philosopher Karl Popper’s belief that reason ultimately leads to a universally just society. Popper’s ideas are valuable contributions to the philosophy of science, but they have also led intellectuals to believe in peace and order as inherent characteristics of our reality, rather than as outcomes of human action.

In contrast to positivism, where the aim is to build or establish knowledge or values, cultural relativism is the societal tendency to tear these down. Beckeld describes how Herbert Marcuse’s ideas — that society is characterised by structural oppression — is indicative of this relativism. According to Marcuse, value-judgments that some set of knowledge or cultural norms are better than others should be understood as expressions of interest and power. To criticise and relativise knowledge is thus central to stopping the reproduction of oppressive structures from the powers that be.

Marcuse’s cultural relativism would later become central to the “critical” theories of the humanities, whose impact on society can be seen today in policies aiming for diversity, equity and inclusion, or plans to decolonise institutions. Regardless of the specific nature of oppression (e.g. capitalism, sexism, racism), the responsibility of relativistic intellectuals is to tear down previous customs so as to level all cultural values. Through a kind of moral democracy, humans are freed from their own society’s traditions, beliefs and prejudices.

What, then, is the common denominator between relativism and positivism? According to Beckeld, they both enable a self-contemptuous elite to criticise their own society, whether it is in the name of progress or as part of standing up for downtrodden minorities. The fact that these ideological traditions are actually incompatible demonstrates, according to Beckeld, how poorly thought through the progressive philosophy of history is. For example, its proponents do not realise that the rejection of grand narratives — such as “Western civilisation” — is itself such a grand narrative, which shapes our view of what drives history. Like Hegel’s “spirit”, Schopenhauer’s “will”, Marx’s “means of production”, Nietzsche’s “will to power or Freud’s “sexual drive”, positivism and cultural relativism exclude all other views of history whose end goal is not universal justice.

Where does this progressive belief in universal justice come from? According to Beckeld, present-day secular beliefs about justice — for example, thinking of human “rights” as inalienable — are fundamentally derived from the religious idea of free will. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea of free will developed as a way to attribute evil in the world to human actions, rather than to God who created our world. Plato based his idea of humans having a true nature — a self — on the Egyptian idea of a soul. It was not until the church fathers, such as St Augustine, that the self’s free will developed into a moral concept, detached from physical conditions or limitations. From the German 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant onwards, human free will has become linked to the responsibility of creating universal justice in the world.

The progressive view of history thus sees justice as the goal of history, the responsibility of intellectuals. Because we have free will, it is sinful not to participate in the establishment of a more just society. I think it is here apt to compare this Judeo-Christian interpretation with the Greek word for sin (hamartia), which refers to missing one’s goal due to a lack of balance between vying forces.

Hector dies defending his family, whilst the selfish Achilles wins eternal glory

Beckeld’s attempt at such a balance is based on the early Stoics’ concept of eph’hemin, where responsibility is understood as “that which depends on us”. This is in turn an Aristotelian idea, that humans’ different abilities naturally limit our actions and hence our responsibility.

Our individual self and responsibility can then be said to exist, but it is a historical self. To return to the thought experiment we began with: you most likely would not have fought against Nazism or slavery, because there is no eternal self. To believe that “me” now would have been “me” then is to claim moral superiority not only over society, but also over its history and those who lived back then. Instead, Beckeld, like David Hume and Heraclitus before him, argues that the self be seen as a bundle of perceptions — both one’s own and that of others’ — about our thoughts and actions.

Thus, the Western idea that individuals can be expected to act rightly works without belief in an eternal, ahistorical, free will or universal justice. What we have is instead a historically bound notion of justice, one that demands responsibility even of those who consider themselves limited from acting rightly due to some sort of structural oppression.

Beckeld’s solution, like that of the pre-Platonic Greeks, is to ask “what is the just thing to do now?” rather than “what is justice?” Questions about universal justice make us into presumptuous people, keen to interfere in others’ lives. By contrast, questions about what is the just thing to do at this particular moment in time is a way of cultivating an intuition for how to treat fellow human beings in our vicinity, with whom we have material ties.

The alternative to the progressive philosophy of history is thus a cyclical and anti-utopian belief that existence and nature are unjust. Some people have abilities that others lack. Criminals are rewarded whilst righteous people are punished. To paraphrase directly from Western cultural canon: Hector dies defending his family, whilst the selfish Achilles wins eternal glory.

Beckeld’s analysis of oikophobia — and tragic view of history — enables a new foundation on which we can formulate what the intellectual’s responsibility is. It is to go against society’s current tendency, in the hope of mitigating its extremes. In our present time, this means serving as a sort of counterweight to the dominant progressive philosophy of history and its notion of universal justice, which most of today’s Western intellectuals identify with or adhere to. In brief, demand of societal elites that they defend the culture that made their existence possible.

The starting point is that every event can be viewed in two ways: both narrowly and broadly, both emotionally and logically. The good and the bad can in this sense be said to mingle in the same phenomenon; a more liberal society comes with the loss of cultural cohesion. Similarly, it is when we learn to say no to good things, because of their negative outcomes, that we can take responsibility for the cyclical pattern that is our civilisation, and accept that tragedies are played out again and again. It includes letting go of beliefs in a fairer tomorrow, as well as of regrets that we did not have a nobler past.

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