Friday, 24 May 2013

The Architecture of Civil Society

I have mentioned before, in another context (Liturgical change) a very wise architect with whom I once spoke. He pointed out that if, in renovating an ancient building, he comes across some part of the structure that he does not understand, he proceeds with great caution.  If there is something ugly, or apparently pointless, or random, then it is foolhardy to pull it out. It is almost certainly there for a reason, and until you have understood that reason, you risk causing great damage by simply removing it.

It seems to me that, as a society, we have been removing structural elements without fully understanding their purpose for some time; and that the structure of society is substantially weakened as a result.

An obvious example is marriage.  The debate about the re-definition of marriage has been so superficial and unthinking, that it can scarcely be dignified with the name of debate.  There has been no understanding shown by those imposing this change that they have any understanding of the structural role of the institution of marriage in society. It is as though they are saying: 'Hmm, don't like the look of that old-fashioned pillar in the middle of the room, and it's a real inconvenience to many: let's pull it out.' And because the ceiling doesn't look as thought it's coming down immediately, they imagine they are doing no harm.

But that is only the latest in a long line of such changes.

I am not only talking about the obvious moral issues, such as the de-stigmatisation of divorce, contraception, promiscuity and abortion; but also about other social habits and taboos: respect and deference for the elderly, mothers staying at home to raise children, stigmatisation of 'the undeserving poor,' and so on... and on.

I am not saying these are all good things to which we should return; rather I am saying that they were there because they served a purpose; to remove them without understanding the purpose they served is folly.  To return to the architectural analogy: that rusty bit of corrugated iron in the corner may be very ugly, and even a hazard.  However, unless we determine why it was placed there (to keep rats out of the larder?...) it is unwise simply to remove it; and it is arrogant and idiotic to declare ourselves more enlightened than our forebears, when we do so without making other provision for the good end it once served.

4 comments:

Guest said...

Wish I could remember where it was that Chesterton said the same thing as your first paragraph. One of those collections of short essays I think.

Ben Trovato said...

Gosh, have I nicked it from Chesterton? I thought I remembered the conversation myself. False memory syndrome? Senility? Coincidence? Who can say?...

Patti Fordyce said...

I have thought this for a long time about the tinkering with the Constitution to which we have been subjected by successive governments. The interdependence of various provisions are not necessarily immediately obvious, especially in the case of an unwritten constitution, and I think we have been subjected to a kind of game of constitutional "chicken", in which our leaders play at pulling out whatever bits they think look unmodern,until eventually they pull the wrong one and the whole structure ends up in a heap on the floor.

Mark said...

Found it!

http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/The_Thing.txt

In the chapter "The Drift from Domesticity".