Things have declined greatly from a highpoint under the Duke of Zhou
I’ve been thinking a lot about Rufus’ post on a Confucian politics. Some of it makes a lot of sense to me, for example:
[S]ince the state has no business making distinctions of taste, we do, and we should embrace our ability to make distinctions of our own.
One trouble is that without effective limits to government, virtually any personal distinction of taste is sooner or later going to get legislated. Politics comes to supplant any merely personal tastes, and to crowd out private life. I’ve no doubt Rufus is aware of this, and we both hope to avoid it.
The opposite trouble, which we should not ignore either, is that if we cease making personal distinctions of taste — for fear of the state — then the state tastes are the only ones in the running. Not a good result either. We need a space for judgment that doesn’t either self-censor for fear of law, or else get co-opted by law.
My difficulty though arises with the title of this post. In all I fear that it is very difficult to assess cultural decline or growth from the limited vantage point of an individual life that just happens to be embedded in the culture that it’s simultaneously trying to evaluate.
What we end up getting more often than not are summaries of personal prejudices written as though they were history. We tend strongly to get either Whig history, in which everything leading up to this moment was mere prologue to the glorious present (or still more glorious future), or else a declension narrative, in which typically a single generation got everything right, and it’s been all downhill ever since. Consider Periclean Athens; Geneva under Calvin; 17th-century New England; the American Founders; the supposedly glorious late nineteenth century; or just — the Duke of Zhou.
There’s also a tendency, with any valorized but fast-retreating golden age, to outright mythmaking, and we ought to recall that there is much that is purely mythological about the Duke of Zhou, just as there is clearly a lot of pure myth about the western philosophers and rulers of the same era. Does a Confucian politics require mythmaking, to support the exercise of good taste?
In what sense, if any, can we say that there even was a highpoint under the Duke of Zhou? Was culture there and then higher or lower than under King Solomon? Or King Arthur? What does invoking Confucius get us here that we wouldn’t get by invoking, say, Chesterton? I’m not being facetious about this. I’m genuinely curious. Unfortunately, the only Confucian text I’ve ever attempted to read was the I Ching with Confucian commentary, and I can’t honestly say I profited very much from it.