As I understand it there’s been something of a boom in people pursuing the “trad” mindset, whatever that means – a knowing pursuit of more traditional ways of thinking and ways of being, as opposed to an embrace of the various pathologies of modernity. There’s trad impulses in the dating world, faux trad diets like Paleo, a revival of (semi-ironic?) Catholicism among upwardly-striving educated progressives, something called the “Bronze Era Pervert,” and many other instantiations of a desire to go back to a time that none of the people involved are old enough to remember.
Now there’s always an element of trad thinking in conservatism, of course, and the urge to go back is perennial. And even in the sense of a chosen, explicit return to past ways of thinking, there’s a lineage. In my earliest blogging days (say 2008/2009) I used to engage with a group that was, at the time, calling themselves “postmodern conservatives”: people who knew that choosing a traditional mindset was exactly that, a choice, but who knowingly chose it anyway. That is, like today’s trads, they were not dissuaded in their pursuit of traditional values by their knowledge that they were actively pursuing it. I don’t know whatever happened to that tendency; perhaps the political convulsions of the Tea Party and the Obama era made such philosophical distinctions seem decadent, or perhaps they simply found they had too few friends on the right to make a real movement. Or 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.
But now I hear a lot about a trad movement on the left. For some, this is a directly reactionary tendency which seeks to create a socially conservative, economically leftist alternative. Thankfully, this seems pretty fringe. But there’s a bigger, vaguer traditionalist impulse on the left these days, one that is as likely to see lunch pail unionism and blue collar aesthetics as the source of True Meaning as the church. It’s an impulse that the left has lost its way in a thicket of theories that deconstruct everything and build nothing. It’s an affinity for a simpler vision of coalition politics where we work together across differences rather than constantly emphasizing difference. It’s a rejection of internet microcelebrity and an embrace of community, which sounds lovely, as long as I don’t think about it too much.
The basic psychology seems pretty obvious. Modern life, and in particular the mental landscape of modern life, is enervating, confusing, and seemingly pointless. To be a mind today is to constantly find yourself rubbing against other minds. For many people, it is impossible to think without simultaneously thinking about what other people would think about what you’re thinking. And this is exhausting and deeply unsatisfying. As long as your self-conception is tied up in your perception of other people’s conception of you, you will never be free to occupy a personality with confidence; you’re always at the mercy of the next person’s dim opinion of you and your whole deal. (This, specifically, is what Sartre meant when he said hell is other people, not just that other people suck but that being forced to live with the weight of other people’s perceptions of yourself sucks.) We are what the Unabomber calls “oversocialized;” we are too aware of other people and their opinions, which results in an implicit set of personal ethics that is impossible for any actual person to live up to. We now live with what I’ve called the Great Conditioning, the systems of digital reward that dole out incentives and punishments ceaselessly throughout the day. (An avid Twitter user is receiving behaviorist conditioning literally every moment of their waking lives.) It is not quite an irony that this happens at the same time as a cottage industry of “self care” memes has emerged, telling people that they are the only person who matters and that they should do whatever they like; people post those memes about how the don’t care what anyone thinks and then receive “likes” for them, demonstrating that they are very desperately invested in being liked for not caring about being liked.
In contrast you have this appealing dream of a life lived without all of that. The traditional Catholic mindset might look immensely appealing to a young person who has never know what it’s like to not be conditioned by other people. Rather than the authority of the crowd, whose dictates are fickle and inarticulate, there is the authority of God, whose demands are written down on paper, carry the stamp of heavenly approval, and are helpfully interpreted for you by a clerical order. The call of marriage, kids, and family life lies for some (at least in part) in the belief that pursuing those things will allow you to live reflexively – that is, reflexively for the good of your family unit, without the roiling complexity of never really desiring without thinking about how you might be perceived for having those desires. This isn’t an argument, for goodness sakes, against family. Be fruitful and multiply. It’s simply an observation that for some people, particularly younger people, the appeal of the simple life is not so simple. No doubt they will go on to happy family lives. But in the meantime their vision of family is freighted with precisely the kind of intellectualized weight that they wish to throw off of their shoulders.
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.
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 ceaslessly self-referential postmodern mindset was born. (No matter what Harold Bloom says.) But even if we were sure that there was once such a thing as the premodern mindset, and we knew what it entailed, and we knew when things changed, we would not be able to turn off the parts of our brain that became activated when we started to ask not just “who am I?” but also “who do others think I am, and which of us is right?”
Indeed, it seems to me that the very thing that attracts many of these people to traditional ways of life is precisely that they were not consciously adopted or followed, but rather were simply lived as a simple expression of the times in which people existed. For years I’ve made the point that guys trying to embrace traditional masculinity are bound to fail, precisely because traditional masculinity can’t be chosen; it is a byproduct of not choosing, a way of living that adherents find attractive because it seems to avoid the constant need for self-definition of the modern age. (Actual traditionally masculine men did not write blogs about what it meant to be a traditional man.) And so too with an embrace of a pre-modern political, social, or religious morality. If you are aware enough to set out to pursue the traditional mindset, you cannot possibly achieve it; you are already trapped in the funhouse mirrors of too much awareness.
You might have the self-control to stop yourself from tweeting, “at Wednesday mass rn.” But if you have the urge, you’ve already lost; you are already thinking with the kind of dual consciousness that you are trying to escape. This is not an argument for not going to church. But it is an argument for acknowledging before you begin that going to church is not going to make your way of thinking congruent with that of a 17th century Italian Catholic.
To be honest, I suspect that for a lot of people who really suffer from these kind of meta-theatrical problems of how to think and live, the real problem is just the internet. They’re too online. The human mind was not meant to be constantly rubbing up against other human minds. It’s all a big, creepy science experiment, all of this operant conditioning; we did not evolve for this. And rather than suddenly discovering conservative Anglicism, I suspect some people would be more fulfilled if they just found the courage to delete their Twitter. But for many people, I fear, to not be seen is to feel like nothing at all.
People should pursue the ways of living and thinking that they believe will make them happy. If it soothes you to go to mass, my goodness, go to mass. Families are good and babies are good and, sometimes, traditional moral codes are too, depending. The thing is, they’re all good for themselves, as ends, not means. And the harshest thing to do to yourself is to try to think your way out of thinking.