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Babel and Politics
Genesis 11's instructions for the conservative

By Jeremy Rozansky

And all the earth was one language, one set of words.

And it happened as they journeyed from the east

that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.”

And the brick served them as stone and the bitumen as mortar.

And they said, “Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens,

that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower

that the human creatures had built.

And the Lord said, “As one people with one language for all,

if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them.

Come, let us go down and baffle their language there

so that they will not understand each other’s language.”

And the Lord scattered them from there all over the earth

and they left off building the city.

Therefore it is called Babel, for there the Lord made the language of all the earth babble.

And from there the Lord scattered them all over the earth.

-        Genesis 11:1-9, Alter translation.

 

If conservatism believes politics is the art of the possible, then the limits of possibility constitute the key conservative political question. In the case of human cloning, euthanasia, transhumanism, and other bioethical concerns, the proper limit of human action is often stated succinctly by the conservative as, “playing God.” For the Hayekian and others, the idea that rational control can improve upon the spontaneous and frustrating market is a treacherous temptation. William F. Buckley was fond of the novel injunction taken from Eric Voegelin to not “immanentize the eschaton”—in other words, do not build a heaven on earth. The conservative correctly recognizes such enterprises as debasing and dangerous.

It is not clear, however, why utopianism is worse than being merely naïve. Nor is it immediately evident that politics should avoid far-off ideals and dodge sweeping innovations. Politics as the pursuit of dreams makes a compelling, seductive challenge to the modesty and restraint of conservatism. The conservative must not only set boundaries, he must justify the existence of boundaries in the first place.

In this way, Genesis 11:1-9 becomes a foundational text of conservatism. The story of Babel describes the eternal boundary. Moreover, it gives reason for this boundary verifiable by any human through the act of political observance. In nine lines, Babel contains a classic and convincing rebuttal of universalism, utopianism and its concomitant scientism, transhumanism, and urbanism.

On the surface, Babel is the etiology of languages and nations. Universal man is scattered into unique national groups separated by tongues. Yet, immediately before the nine-lined story, there is a catalogue of the descendants of Noah, many of whom have names that will be shared by nations to come. Ashkenaz, the origin of the Jewish distinction “Ashkenazi” (Eastern European or Germanic), is one example. Indeed, Chapter 10 ends with, “And from these [clans] the nations branched out on the earth after the flood.” Babel’s place in the narrative is not immediately justified—its practical result is redundant. But Babel gives a “how” and a “why” to the creation of nations. Babel also marks the fulcrum of Genesis wherein a narrative of universal man suddenly transitions to the story of one man, Abraham, and his nation. Taken in whole, a reading of Babel necessitates the question: Why are nations a necessary creation?

 

And all the earth was one language, one set of words.

 

            The same language links all men in all parts of the earth. Different languages make nations and tribes necessary. It is the barrier of language that seals off peoples more than anything else. While the text has just given the ancestry of the nations, differentiating peoples, this line asks us to disregard that and understand the world of Babel as a world devoid of separation between peoples. This inability to separate makes us wonder in what ways we can distinguish between men. We have moral distinctions—Noah was “righteous in his time.” We also have sexual distinctions—there is ish (man) and there is isha (woman). But, for those with the same ancestor and the same tongue, many fundamental distinctions fall apart. What we call “identity,” so often derived from belonging, is nonexistent. Man can be righteous and man can be free of loneliness, he lacks much else.

            Our language is also the medium through which we contemplate, wonder, conceive, and understand. Sharing a language offers similar inner worlds and the tendencies, quirks, attachment, and partialities of that language help shape the inner world and how we think. We are not just dealing with a universal language; we are dealing with universal man.

 

And it happened as they journeyed from the east

that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

 

            God instructs Noah to “be fruitful and multiply”—to spread out over the earth. Here, however, the humans act as one unit, webbed together. They make their homes in a valley and they do what valley-dwellers do: they farm. Cain, we remember, was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. The farmer lives a life reliant on the earth’s mechanics, sun and rain. This fact is not obviously problematic. But the farmers’ produce is not entirely his own; if rain and sun do not come in correct proportions then it does not matter how well he tills, his crop will not flourish. The shepherd does not rely on nature the same way. He does not need much in the way of natural compliance to raise his livestock; his skill is the key to his success. The shepherd’s task is self-contained and he must therefore rely on wit and character. His god is a personal god, a god who calms and sustains. The farmer is tempted to pray to the heavens for an external gift. His god is an external god, a god who gives material, not moral, gifts. Agriculture, without proper reinforcements, is a slow path to idolatry.

            Agriculture is also a slow path to city dwelling. Settled farming gives rise to trade, which in turn accelerates commerce and divided labor, culminating in the need for urban life. After Cain slays Abel in his field, his ancestor, Enoch builds the first city. Enoch’s ancestors make up the classes of the city. They live in tents, raise cattle for wealth, entertain and memorialize through arts and song, and forge tools and weaponry. The city exists to institutionalize what founded it. It is therefore self-reverent and morally vacant, it places man’s achievements alongside God’s: it’s on par with the idolator. Also, urban life historically has carried with it a deviant underbelly. The city is deeply flawed, even if also unavoidable.

 

And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.”

And the brick served them as stone and the bitumen as mortar.

 

            Creation begins with speech. God says “Let there be light.” Here each man and all men parrot God with the exact same opening (“Come, let us”) as when God builds woman from the rib of Adam. This mimicking is not, superficially, different from following the description in Genesis 1:26 where we are told that man is made in the likeness of God, imbued with the capacity for both moral judgment and creation that we see in the Creator. The men of Shinar create, yet the what, how, and why of their creation are anything but godly.

So far we have only heard of tents. Bricks are invented and come from a fashioning of the earth, just like Adam was. However, God makes man softly, He breathes a spirit into him, He gives him habitat, He tutors him, and He recognizes the lacking element and makes him a companion. Man is created with care. The men of Shinar take the formless earth and with white-hot fire make it square and solid and uniform. There is a violence to their technique. They do not just solidify—they burn. To create, they need to destroy. They create in order to use. There is no love and no care, only efficiency.

 

And they said, “Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens,

that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.”

 

With this line, the idolatry present in urbanism comes to a head. They have their bricks and we can imagine them deciding what they should build with it. The idea strikes them to make a city, the inevitable outcome of an agricultural community. This is not just any city, it is built for their use and glorification—it is the city of the monoculture.

They desire a ziggurat, a great tower stretching into immortality. The tower is a portal to the heavens, a way to connect them and the mysterious mechanics of the sky they so rely on. It is great and imposing, the culmination of and a monument to human effort and power. Their idolatry quickly morphs into self-worship. “That we may make us a name,” shows their guiding ethic to be one of accomplishment. They are the symbolic ancestors of those for whom science does not need the tempering of morality—science is accomplishment and accomplishment is good. Idolatry and self-worship are dangerous because they know no moral order, no natural bounds. For the idol-worshipper, the earth works on the whims of personified elements. For the self-worshipper, the order is created by human faculties aided by human tendencies. Compared to the God-worshipper who derives morality from divine legislation, the idol and self worshipper thinks of morality as transient, temporary, and the product of shaky ground. Morality, for him, is therefore relative and toothless.

The monoculture fosters this in part because of its idol-worshipping urbanism but also because of its self-worshipping power. These many humans of great skill and without any rivals know no mitigating power. The only power they know, aside from the rain and sun, is their own. It is therefore not entirely surprising that they use their power to attempt to subvert rain and sun—unless something comes in the way of technological progress. They seek to rise into the heavens to harness sun and rain lest they be “scattered all over the earth.” They seem to be aware that some other power might more than rival their own. They realize what this power would do: it would scatter them and make their project impossible. They fear being scattered most of all because their civilization is all they have. Should their civilizations be destroyed, their great power in collective would be broken up and greatly diminished. Even worse for them, we hear no mention of individual identities, factions, disagreements, or differences among the men at Shinar. They may not even know how to live as an individual, as a household, or in a small village. Scattering is complete destruction.

 

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower

that the human creatures had built.

 

            God has permitted human volition and now surveys its result. Surveying is critical. The humans presumably saw the earth before they made the bricks and the heavens before they built toward it, but nowhere do we read of the men of Shinar looking upon their portion as if to consider the right course of action. The humans are impulsive and deluded by the appearance of their own ability. God, on the other hand, pauses.  He descends in order to consider the situation from a new vantage-point. He is determining the problem and considering the justness of the possible solutions. God gives an example of the proper technique of political decision-making. Politics requires prudence and the neglect of impulse.

 

And the Lord said, “As one people with one language for all,

if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them.”

 

            Creating the tower is not outside the limits of practical possibility—if humanity remains with one language and as one people then they will accomplish it. Building the tower is, however, beyond the limits of spiritual and moral possibility. Should they build the tower, their mastery over nature confirmed, they will be able to invent an inherently relative moral order. Their ethos is technological and scientistic: names, glory, fame, and honor derive from creating bigger towers and more advanced technologies. This is the ultimate diminishment of human life. Men would no longer dream and inquire, only build and tinker. Love, like God’s love, could not exist when human energy is devoted to the harsh practice of material construction. Universalism quickly becomes the path to our diminishment.

            This should not be a foreign possibility. When there is no identity, no heritage, no distinct code to separate peoples, there is no differentiation of spirits. Life has no dynamism, no conflict, and no spiritual opposition when shared universally. It becomes boring, betterment is unknown, and so the spirit becomes auxiliary. Without competing spiritual lives, all that may grant meaning to a human life is technology and production. If no one is morally better than anyone else, greatness can only be a subsidiary of productivity. All man can know is production.

            The unlimited pursuit of technology comes at the expense of the soul. And, since there is no alternate example of human life for the men of Shinar, they will never know their error. Nothing that they design to do will elude the men of Shinar because they will produce ad infinitum. 

 

“Come, let us go down and baffle their language there

so that they will not understand each other’s language.”

And the Lord scattered them from there all over the earth

and they left off building the city.

Therefore it is called Babel, for there the Lord made the language of all the earth babble.

And from there the Lord scattered them all over the earth.

 

            The solution follows from the crisis. The universal community has made men harsh, amoral, and spiritless idolaters. They must be separated and made discrete. Universal language is the origin of universal man and so, by “baffling” the language into new tongues, universal man is so annihilated. Instead, nations compete, define themselves in opposition, and remind each other that there are other ways. Nations are the impetus of moral reflection and the rivalry of peoples gives rise to modesty. Men must be different in order for at least one of them to be good.

            More specifically, we have one nation, the Hebrew people, whose narrative begins with the first words of Chapter 12. Genesis goes on to chronicle the formation of a specific tribe which grows into a nation, acquires law in Exodus, and, at the conclusion of the Five Books of Moses, is bequeathed land. Babel helps make the argument for this path: why a distinct civilization and not a single method to which everyone assimilates is necessary for the betterment of mankind.

            The conservative understands this. He promotes national sovereignty, federalism, and faction against the temptations of centralization and planning. He rejects cosmopolitanism as vacuous and global governance as subversive. He does this, not out of unthinking jingoism, but because he knows the world needs faction, tribe, nation, religion, and identity to keep away from human self-worship and moral blindness. Rivalry sustains the moral conscience of man: he wants to be better than his rival. In addition, mass society is loveless; universalism leads to massive human power which in turn leads to self-infatuation with production.  Conversely, discrete society is built on sincere relationships, starting with the family. In this way, faction, tribe, nation, religion, and identity are cultivators of the noble life.

He opposes the utopianism of the entitlement state and the social engineering of modern politics in part because he sees the necessary failure of its utopianism now that humankind is post-Babel. This politics of prudence reminds us of God surveying the scene before He takes His action. The use of power requires consideration and restraint so as to avoid the failure of good intentions. More deeply, the conservative suspects utopianism because social engineering and rational control are types of scientism.  Their utilitarian ethos gradually subverts all others. The conservative fears the creeping influence of the technocrat who cannot understand the spiritual and moral dynamism of an individual life. Because he understands the eternal nexus of utopianism, scientism, and universalism, he prefers organization in small communities and the use of mediating structures like religious institutions that organize with an eye to spiritual and moral dynamism.

            Similarly, the conservative is concerned about the reimagination of the natural order in movements like transhumanism and the sexual liberation. Both also serve a narrow ethos of transcendence. Against the limits of human ability and mortality, transhumanism seeks to supplement the human body with mechanical appendages and chemical treatments. This obsessive pursuit of ability undermines the desire to be truly happy, a possibility in our natural, constrained world. The sexual liberation, by removing the constraint of sex’s teleology (procreation), makes sex into an experience of only pleasure at the expense of its multidimensional human significance. The conservative is wary of this focus on the material as it comes at the expense of the moral and spiritual. The attempts to transcend and reengineer nature are met by the conservative with an eye of suspicion, because he believes the good moral and spiritual life is attainable within the natural order.

            The last and most difficult idea for the modern conservative is a rejection of urbanism. Urbanism is not merely the building of cities but the activity of commerce and life among the human mob. The conservative rejects urbanism while still often living in the city and being an advocate of capitalism. The city-dweller is a constant witness to the power of human ability and productivity, a power that convinces its witness of the singular power of human society. It, too, breeds an ethic of human accomplishment and, through the infatuation with human power, a concordant blindness to divine legislation and the social underbelly of depraved humanity. Yet, outside of the Southern Agrarian tradition, most conservative intellectuals have been city dwellers and have benefited from the city’s rich intellectual, economic, and cultural resources. Cities, like capitalism, are an inescapable fact of modern human life. The conservative must therefore remind his fellow city-dwellers that the city does not exist for its own sake. The conservative must remind the capitalist that profit is not the same as virtue.

We live in a post-Babelian world in which the extremes of universalism and scientism are distant and unlikely. The seeming impracticability of the result of universalism and scientism does not mean that the dangerous principles are missing from modern life. Whether universalism percolates in Davos or scientism drives the agenda in Washington, it must be countered by the steady voice of the prudential conservative. The conservative reminds his fellows of the primacy of moral living, the need for loving bonds, the importance of restraint, and the dangers of the dual temptations of universalism and scientism, lest they be scattered all over the earth.