Problems Big and Small

Panama Hat

Panama Hat

Essays on reactionary philosophy, poetry, literature and art.

I find that very often, one suffers far more with the smaller problems of life than with the bigger ones. Defining terms, I hold a “big” problem to be something like governing a troublesome country, which is to say, any country.1 Or being forced to choose between lives, as in the famous Trolley Problem. “Small” problems (I might say small catastrophes) amount to burning a hole in one’s suit, or failing to arrive somewhere important on time, or catching one’s coat on a door handle. Small problems afflict all men, but it afflicts us clumsy fellows a great deal more.

Becoming cognizant of one’s clumsiness helps little. Indeed, it can make the problem worse, just as a centipede cannot walk once he begins to wonder how he so naturally coordinates his many feet. Too often I endeavor to avoid spilling a glass of whisky I have of course poured too high, only for the swing of my jacket to send the bottle crashing to the floor as I turn away with too much force. I often think I would rather try my luck at rulership than at carrying a tray of wine glasses to an expectant table of guests. I can assume through some empirical averaging that I will fail at the latter, but I might have a bit of luck with the former. It has everything to do with the grandiosity of the headaches. I may indeed be better at coordinating a kingdom of a million strangers than I am at coordinating my own four limbs.

Really, the small problems hurt more because they leave nothing for us to hide behind. If I had free run of a state for a few years, and naturally did a very bad job, I could, upon leaving office, (as is the custom) write a flurry of books and articles and lectures defending my awfulness – there are so many people, so many processes, so many things involved in something as grand a pastime as country-running that we have infinite leaf with which to cover our shame, as it were. The moment that whisky bottle goes tumbling to earth, I am left as naked as a pygmy in my incompetence. There is no person or process to hide behind. Even attacks on the flappy cut of my jacket or the narrowness of the drinks cabinet necessarily circle back to me – if they were so unsuitable, why did I buy them? Didn’t others avoid knocking over bottles despite such things? In any case, I would be loathed to fill a book with such pathetic excuses. Even a mere feuilleton admitting that “I am to blame” would be met with scorn – everyone who watched me knock over the bottle knows it to be so, and doesn’t need telling twice.

And what is the relevance of this mere feuilleton? Chiefly, that it applies to thought as much as it does to mundane life. We make little errors far more than we make big ones, but the big ones at least allow us some room to hide. Aquinas’ vast output has been assailed, I think overall, more than it has been praised, but his keep remains standing atop the hill. Because his “little” things were in order, he could reasonably attempt a grand project. If he had written an argument based on the logic that 2 + 2 make 5, such a glaringly faulty beam would be smashed at once. But indeed, there are philosophers, mostly modern, who have produced entire corpuses upon such glaring principles. I am sympathetic towards Aquinas, but not towards, say, Marx. Marx was adept enough at pointing out problems with industrial civilisation that reactionaries had been pointing out long before him, but to insist that ages process themselves independent of human ideas, or that his half-sketched end state was an inevitability, he might as well have said that 2 and 2 made ten million. Aquinas went out and achieved much, even if some say he achieved less than he would have liked to, but he didn’t slip on the doorstep. Marx spilled the whisky, got ash in his beard and tore his frock coat on the door handle, but with a bank of ink paper advocating such methods, he gave rise to a creed dedicated to trashing the entire house. Of the latter there are, as they say, many such cases.

The best philosophies state the obvious. Hence why reactionaries don’t tend to write mountains of books, because, as Don Colacho says, “at the time it seems absurd, and in retrospect, obvious.” To torture the metaphor further, we reactionaries have argued that if smashing dishes becomes fashionable, society will soon find itself short of a few Wedgwoods. Progressive thinkers have argued that a model society requires the crunch of china underfoot, then bemoaned that they have nothing to eat their meals off of.

But in all seriousness, a spilled drink or a torn sleeve are quickly fixed. A bad ruler will leave scars that never quite go away. The same maxim goes for bad philosophers. Everyone loves to poke fun at philosophers for being windy layabouts of no consequence, but the secret truth is that people draw from philosophy as their bodies draw life from water. The Chinese philosophers have ruled that civilisation through their thinking many years beyond their lifetimes. In a roundabout way, Confucius remains the power that looks up at whoever is in charge with a raised eyebrow. Under any Qing dragon or red star lies that nameless six-legged symbol. The upheavals of the 1700s we reactionaries detest raised steam with the philosophes puffing their fireboxes. Without Hegel there is no Marx, without Marx there is no Lenin, without Lenin no Soviet Union or revolutionary communism as it was. In this way, when a body drinks clean water it lives, when it drinks dirty water, it grows diseased. When you build a state on the ideas of a man who says 2 and 2 make anything but 4, you will build a tragedy. As the modern world goes on, we see many such men and many such tragedies.

The best reactionary philosophy, and therefore by extension the best philosophy, is a book of old proverbs. Don Colacho summed up the entire reactionary project when he likened himself to an indignant peasant, and most of all when he said “My convictions are the same as those of an old woman praying in the corner of a church.”2


But don’t people often choose to run countries, or at least endeavor to? The simple answer is that a modern “democratic” leader doesn’t run the country at all. When he seeks election he seeks celebrity. If all the labyrinthine and murky figures (tribe and gentile) that really govern the West at present suddenly dissolved (hallelujah) then the poor satraps would immediately find themselves miles in over their heads – they wouldn’t survive for a minute.


Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 448 – “Mis convicciones son las mismas que las de la anciana que reza en el rincón de una iglesia.” This is likely a reference to Madame Bovary, part II, Chapter 8, which focuses primarily on the beginning of the affair between Emma and Rodolphe, who attend an agricultural show together. Also attending the show is the local chemist, the town’s most ardent atheist. At the show, a local dignitary gives away many prizes, including a silver medal, worth 25 francs, to an old woman who has worked 54 years at the same farm. This woman, apparently hard of hearing and perhaps not all that bright, has to have her name called many times before she finally approaches the stage to accept the award.

Then, when she had her medal, she looked at it, and a smile of beatitude spread over her face; and as she walked away they could hear her muttering “I’ll give it to our cure up home, to say some masses for me!”
“What fanaticism!” exclaimed the chemist, leaning across to the notary.

Gómez Dávila uses that last line as one of seven epigraphs to Escolios a un Texto Implícito. According to the mysterious “Stephen” of Don Colacho’s Aphorisms – “He knows how his writings will come across to most people, but he is not afraid of being called a fanatical Catholic. Not only that, but he even laughs at being called a fanatic, by associating himself with the old lady.”