A blogger at Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con site, commenting on my recent post regarding Russell Kirk, took issue with the idea that some hierarchies are natural and ought to be respected. "We have matured beyond thinking hierarchically," she said.
She might as well have said, "We have matured beyond thinking," because it is absolutely impossible to reason without ordering principles, and ordering principles imply hierarchy. The blonde in question (I speak of blondes here not materially, but essentially) gives evidence of it. Had she said, "We have matured beyond drawing conclusions," she'd have been not a whit less absurd. Her statement implies hierarchical order, of a confused and inverted sort. She believes that mankind evidently is "maturing," meaning that it is advancing towards a more finished or fulfilled intellectual state, for which the past, at best, was prologue. She believes that to believe in hierarchy is inferior to the vast intellectual and social leveling which she believes she favors.
But reasoning is in itself the discovery of order, and order in nature as in abstract thought is inconceivable without rule or law or principle. Ockham's famous razor -- useful in a limited way, but dangerous for the childish and the silly to handle -- is a principle to order principles that order. Of two explanations -- that is to say, of two sets of ordering principles set forth to define what you are talking about or explain its operation -- that one is to be favored, is superior, which avoids multiplying assumptions. Or take mathematics. When my homeschooled daughter and I went over the first couple of books of Euclid some years ago, I saw for the first time the deep identity of simple algebra and simple geometry; we saw it, because it all flows from a few fundamental definitions, whose implications are drawn out as the ramifications of trunk and branches and leaves from the acorn.
"Perhaps," you will say, "she was thinking about social hierarchies and not intellectual structures." If so, the more fool she. First, it is simply impossible to get anything done without hierarchy. Teaching, for instance -- implies that there is a thing to be learned, that learning is good and ignorance bad, that there is somebody called a teacher who knows the thing, and somebody called a student who doesn't. Even moral and epistemological relativists, those nihilists in sheepish clothing, demand hierarchy in the classroom. "All definitions of good and evil are socially constructed," says the professor, and "All definitions of good and evil are socially constructed" write the students, and God help them if they don't remember it for the exam. Can you fight a war without hierarchy? You can't even lay a sewer pipe without it.
But hierarchy is not only, in its place, a good thing. It is an inevitable thing, and that is something we'd better attend to. Consider the case of a judiciary deciding for us all what kind of society we are going to have -- because that's what it has done, in seizing for itself the supposed authority to determine what shall count as a marriage. That is supposed to be an example of the leveling of hierarchy? Really? A handful of overschooled well-to-do smooth-handed secularist snobs, looking down upon the traditional beliefs of a large majority of their countrymen, looking down upon what everybody has said about marriage from the ancient Romans to the current Pope, looking down even upon those limping and halting sociological studies that get around to discovering that the sun rises in the east and that children really do need mother and father, decide that we are past all that now, and we will have what the court determines, and will eat our peas, too. Yes, master, yes, missus. To hear is to obey.
Which reminds me of one of the most important functions of the true and good and noble hierarchy. It makes an excellent bulwark against the bogus, vicious, and contemptible one. So reading and revering the great works of our heritage -- which is not the same thing as bowing and scraping before them, thank you -- helps to set you free from the inanities of the day. I feel myself bound in reverence to read Dante, for example; somebody else considers himself free of all that old-fashioned stuff, and reads Cosmopolitan or Men's Health, and is easy prey for the marketers. That's progress for you. A peasant in old Scotland might give a tithe of his income to the laird, and then the laird would leave him and his villagers to order their own affairs and not come whining to him all the time for every little thing. I'm not saying that that old landed hierarchy was a good thing, but we sure are beyond it now. Now the middle class peasant in Scotland gives one half of his income to the government, and the government leaves him practically no civic responsibility at all; indeed, encourages him to seek out the Department of Nose Wiping, for dependency is an industry too.
You obey, or you obey. On earth there is no third choice. The only question, ultimately, is whom. Christians are called to obey the God whose very commands set us free. The alternative is to heed somebody else, enjoy a petty and temporary license, and clap yourself in irons.