Freddie De Boer has a typically sharp post up at his personal blog analyzing the ‘trad’ trend in some (mostly culturally elite) social circles. Do read the whole thing, but this graf gets at the main critique nicely:
Here’s the problem: you cannot choose to be premodern. If you are choosing, you are inherently postmodern. The traditional mindset people want to occupy is one that cannot conceive of being able to choose a mindset. Gorillas can think many things, but they do not think, “what does it mean to be a gorilla?” And whatever the appeal of having the mindset of a Babylonian shepherd might be, it is difficult to imagine that a Babylonian shepherd’s mindset could be deliberately aped, as the mind will always know it is aping something. No matter how trad you act, you will never not know that it is an act. We cannot choose a way to live without deliberation; it’s an act of the self-will trying to get ahead on a treadmill of self-knowledge. It’s baked into the very postmodern mindset we all find so defeating.
This is the smart leftist take on a critique that a number of my friends, most recently Onsi Kamel in First Things, have been making from a more Reformed Protestant angle for some time.
De Boer attempts to turn the screws a bit more, however. If I’m following him, he wants to argue that it is not possible to be a traditionalist in the contemporary milieu because traditionalism is, at bottom, a kind of reflexive living. At best, you can self-consciously mimic certain traditionalist practices and rituals. But to be a traditionalist is to live in that way without having to choose to do so. And so for De Boer true traditionalism is not primarily wrong, though I’m sure he would see it as wrong at many points, but simply not possible. And so the move many are making to conservative forms of Catholicism or Anglicanism is inherently incoherent because it is premised in attempting to use modern means to escape modernity.
The problem with this is that De Boer foregrounds choice in a way that doesn’t really work. Indeed, he seems to acknowledge as much later in the piece:
Perhaps things were never really that way, that direct and unencumbered; perhaps our vague impressions of traditional life are a distortion or oversimplification, and people have always lived in the maelstrom of thoughts that cannot stop thinking about other people’s thoughts. And we couldn’t set a particular time or place where the ceaselessly self-referential postmodern mindset was born.
What De Boer assumes is that all choices are essentially equivalent. The modern condition is to exist with a bevy of undifferentiated choices laid before us, forcing the individual into the act of choice. And this condition describes the entirety of our lives, we are ‘free’ in the sense that our choices are maximized, and yet this is also alienating. Thus Sartre saying somewhere that we are ‘condemned’ to be free.
The problem is that this is not actually how choice works. I have cited it before in slightly different contexts, but this passage from Oliver O’Donovan is worth returning to:
In saying that someone is free, we are saying something about the person himself and not about his circumstances. Freedom is ‘potency’ rather than ‘possibility.’ External constraints may vastly limit our possibilities without touching our ‘freedom’ in this sense. Nothing could be more leading than the popular philosophy that freedom is constituted by the absence of limits. There is, to be sure, a truth which it intends to recognize, which is that the ‘potency’ of freedom requires ‘possibility’ as its object. For freedom is exercised in the cancellation of all possibilities in a given situation by the decision to actualize one of them; if there were no possibilities, there could be no freedom. Nevertheless, there do not have to be many. Even in deciding whether we will accept an inevitable situation cheerfully or resentfully, we exercise our freedom in choosing between alternative possibilities of conduct.
Where the popular philosophy becomes so misleading is in its suggestion that we can maximize freedom by multiplying the number of possibilities open to us. For if possibilities are to be meaningful for free choice, they must be well-defined by structures of limit. The indefinite multiplication of options can only have the effect of taking the determination of the future out of the competence of choice, and so out of the category of meaningful possibility for freedom.
What De Boer rightly recognizes is how this “indefinite multiplication of options” is “enervating.” But there’s a subtle point De Boer misses: While it is true that we cannot avoid choice entirely, it is not true that we moderns are inextricably bound to a life of indefinitely multiplying choices forever. This is because the action of choosing is itself potent—it has genuine affects in the world that constrain or alter our future choices. Again, De Boer himself tacitly acknowledges the point: “Perhaps they just all got married and had babies and were too busy with family to write blog posts anymore, which would be the closest thing to them winning.”
De Boer is right to note that the trad move is too often defined chiefly by a deeply modern, deeply unhealthy, reactionary posturing, an attempt to identify oneself with a kind of Ideology of Power to rule all other ideologies. Thus everyone is posing; we are just posing the way God says we should. This is unhealthy, vain, and ultimately laughable because it is attempting to recover external practices apart from the inner realities that fuel those practices, that ultimately make them possible over a long duration of time. People who embrace traditionalism for such reasons will inevitably crash and burn; but this is not a discrediting of traditionalism, but merely of traditionalism as pose.
The trad move need not inherently be a pose, however. To become a Christian is to make a choice that radically alters your life’s trajectory. And that will have an external component that can, indeed, look like a pose at times. But the choices add up. To choose to stay close to home, closes off professional possibilities. To choose to marry closes off romantic and sexual possibilities. To choose to have children closes off many possibilities. And yet it does not free one from choosing.
Indeed, it struck me while reading De Boer that only a childless person could think that the life of parenthood is ‘reflexive.’ The choices laid before you as a parent will often seem far more difficult and paralyzing than other choices you’ve made before—and often far harder because they must be made in the absence of sleep. N. D. Wilson makes the point well in Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl:
We are always standing on a cliff’s edge, and the danger is real. The choices in front of you never go away. Scene after scene is given to you and the teeming universe in the audience waits for your reaction, for your line, waits to see if you’ll yell at the fat-faced child who spilled the milk, or if you’ll laugh and kiss a cheek. What kind of father will you be in their story? The hump on their back that will always haunt them, the one who gave them damage to overcome? The one who’s too busy? The one who drinks? The one who cheats?
What will your character do when the petty things happen, when your car betrays you in the cold? When the pipes freeze? When God knowingly places ice on the sidewalk beneath your feet? When the sun sets beautifully while you needle your wife? Do you laugh at the jokes and love the lovely? Are you too important to be amused at your own finitude?
So De Boer is right: We cannot escape choice—and religious conversions premised in a reactionary posture that is attempting to escape the modern condition are likely to fail and certain to be incoherent. But De Boer is wrong: We are not doomed to a life of nothing but making undifferentiated choices. To be human is not simply to possess the capacity to make rational choices; it is to possess the capacity to make those choices potent. And that potency will change you over time, not only in obvious external ways, but internally too. Those changes can be for good or evil, of course, but whatever they are, they are obviously potent. They change you. They change the circumstances of your choosing. They lead you through it. To borrow from Wilson again, it may be the case that the way through this modern condition is simple: Death by living.