Contra-Trilling #1: The Gospel of Dualistic Struggle


In my previous blog I summarized the secular (and pluralistic) gospel of Lionel Trilling as an axiomatic commitment to “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” Trilling believed the modern novel epitomized this sensibility.

In this blog and the next I want to set forth two other “gospels” that stand over against Trilling’s gospel and also over against each other. These are the Gospel of Dualistic Struggle and the Gospel of Monist Unity, of prophetic confrontation and of mystical communion. Trilling would find both of these options extremely problematic, but if we are to include Trilling’s novelistic pluralism as one side of an even larger dialectic then we have to at least acknowledge that various forms of dualism and monism have been around for a long time and show no signs of losing the force of their appeals to persons with different casts of mind. I will not be defending them but rathering recognizing them as alternative points of view that are invited to have a seat at the Commons.

The Gospel of Dualistic Struggle takes different forms. Some forms are religious and others secular. Some are historically optimistic, even eschatological and utopian and others are historically pessimistic, even apocalyptic and dysutopic. Essentially the dualistic gospels says there is a struggle beween opposite sided and that one side must ultimately win and the other side must ultimately lose, unless it turns out to be a stalemate. In the dualistic strand of Christian theology there is a war in heaven and that struggle is now being acted out on Planet Earth. In the universalistic strand of Christian theology all manner of conflict will one day be resolved and even the demons will repent and go to heaven.

In the dualistic strand of modern secular culture there is a war beween the forces of knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehoods, justice and oppression,  good and evil. In times of civil conflict and war everything looks black and white. You’re either for us or against us; there is no middle ground so you have to take a stand. One of the reason that some liberals came to dislike and distrust Lyonel Trilling is that his dialectical tension that was hospitable toward the partial truths of multiple points of view looked to them like equivocation and compromising with the  enemy. Some even accused Trilling of turning away from his earlier liberalism to become a neo-conservative. But it would be more accurate to say that he came to see the excesses and blind-spots of both liberal and conservative ideologies. He attempted to moderate the middle ground at a time when his culture said that was an act of cowardice and weakness. To the ideological dualist, whether religious or secular, the dialectical thinker is an unconscious dupe or in conscious collusion with the enemy.

Someone may protest that they are not a dualist. But actions sometimes speak louder than words, and if were were to judge by actions we would have to admit that much of the American populace today is committed to one form of dualism or another. One of the reasons that religious fundamentalists and militant atheists are so passionate in their attacks on each other is not only because each believes the other is wrong but also because they believe the other side is evil. Dialectical thinkers drive both sides crazy.

Something that drives both dialectical and dualistic thinkers crazy is monism. See the related article below. I’ll talk about the gospel of monism in my next blog.


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