Babel

By their fundamental cult a people understand what their society and its coordinate activities are ultimately about – what they and their doings are for, and what they are against. Thus only may they understand who they are, and who they are not; where is their source, their end, and their true home; who are their friends, or enemies, and how they ought to behave toward them.

So is there always a state religion. But sometimes it is weak, and many cults compete for the attention and credence of a people. Where men are confused about which is ultimate, and ultimately true, there is radical confusion of cults, and thus of culture. Cults then interpenetrate chaotically, each borrowing from another this doctrine or that, and compiling a murky melange. It becomes difficult to tell who is who, and what is what. Ordinary men, who have no inclination or training for the project, and whose efforts in it are therefore wasted, are then forced to figure out all by themselves, and from nothing more than native wit and the urges of their bodies, what is true, and what they ought therefore to do. Nothing is then made easy; every single enterprise is fraught, even to the opening or closing of a door.

A confused society doesn’t quite know what it is about. This confusion leads to nagging anxiety and conflict within men, and among them – to marginal increase of friction suffered at every interaction from subtle and obscure disagreements about meanings. People then worry much about language, and spend great effort trying to make themselves clear to each other, and to understand each other. They get tetchy with each other about linguistic minutiae. Their effort to achieve agreement about meanings and significances is itself confused, for it cannot be carried on other than by the use of terms that are themselves implicated in the controversy.

A confusion of cults is therefore ipso facto a confusion of tongues. Disagreement about First Things *just is* disagreement about where language properly terminates, completely and rightly terminates upon reality.

We now know very well what it was like to live in Babylon after the collapse of her Great Ziggurat, when the Assyrians, the Hittites, and sundry other peoples, sucked into her ambit by her very prosperity and power, sapped her and brought her down, scattering her people – among them, our forefather Abraham – far and wide.

The confusion of cults is apprehended always as an important problem, albeit not always urgent; and in confused societies public discourse is more or less obsessed with the problem and its solution. All other problems are related back to that fundamental problem. Conversations among the adherents of a particular cult focus on what is wrong with the other cults, and what is to be done about them. The orthosphere is just such a domain of conversation within the wider discourse.

Until the confusion of cults is resolved, and a particular cult selected as superordinate for the society as a whole, so that all other cults must conform themselves thereto and people may relax about the subject and turn to other things, it will rankle and itch, enflaming and irritating every party of every transaction, at least a little. If the confusion cannot be resolved by polite conversation, men will grow irate, and eventually violent. In the limit, uncivil diplomacy among cults will give way to civil war.

History is a record of the conflict among cults – usually between societies, often within them. So long as men keep coming up with new ideas, and are not humble to admit to the Truth, it cannot end.

The West has long sought to recuse itself from all conflict about cults, so as to avoid wars of religion. But there is no such recusal. To recuse from a debate is implicitly to tender and advocate a proposition within it, to the effect that the debate is not worth having. In the case of the debate over our proper common cult, it is an effectual proposal that everyone agree to the notion that, as unimportant, the selection of a superordinate cult is simply not relevant to common social life as lived; and the only way that this could be so is if cults as such were not possible to carry into practice, or therefore true.

Only doctrines that are possibly true can be implemented in policy, or affect what we experience as a consequence of our behavior. If you’ve got hold of a truth, why then you can do something with and about it. If not, you’ve got hold of nothing at all, and can’t do anything with or about whatever it is you’ve got hold of.

The fundamental cult of the West has for several centuries been that there are no cults that are True, or therefore worth arguing about; and the basic public policy of the West has been that we ought all to just leave each other alone.

It should hardly surprise us then that we now find ourselves more and more alone, each of us an atom alienated from our fellows, or likewise that we are now more and more dispirited, discouraged, and lost, disoriented, with no well-understood way to be good; so that we are more and more anxious, depressed, and angry. A society that is about nothing in particular, such as ours endeavors to be, is in the final analysis about nothingness itself. It aims at nothing, so to nothingness will it more and more work its way.

And the cult of nothing in particular is therefore always eventually implemented as a cult of Moloch. It will devour its own young, and seek its own destruction.

Because people naturally hunger and thirst for an operable understanding of the order of being and their station and function within it, so that they may behave properly, the culture of nothing in particular will give constant rise to new cults of its own devising, and easy ingress to those of foreign lands, that can furnish to men some jot of meaning – some mean or medium of coordination – within and among them, which may then foster their common loyalties. The confusion of cults will compound, in a proliferation of sects living in close and uneasy proximity. Of these, the most aggressive, extreme and violent will generally tend to prevail, making hot wars among them more and more likely.

A nihilist culture thus weakened and as it were diseased is easy prey for any other society that is relatively more coherent in its commitment to a common cult, so that it is – and knows that it is – about something definite, positive, and important. Compared to a society that is about nothing in particular, or that is confused, the morale of the coherent society will be much greater, and its warriors far more committed, fierce, and courageous (the Iraqi government forces who turned and ran from the ISIS in the recent fall of Ramadi outnumbered their assailants ten to one; unlike their rabid Mohammedan enemies, they were fighting for … nothing in particular).

Societies are of course aware of their vulnerabilities to adversaries, and rightly uncomfortable about them. This discomfort amplifies their worry about their own cultic confusions, and sharpens their motivation to find a resolution – any resolution – that can settle it. So it is that sometimes a whole people can go mad for a strange cult – whether or not it is quite sane – that can then quickly vanquish all competitors. Mass conversions, huge rituals, the public sacrifice of scapegoats by the thousand, and vast military mobilizations can then result. When the pervasive excess marginal costs of negotiating transactions under the strain of a confusion of cultic meanings is lifted by a mass conversion to a common cult, tremendous social energies are released by the concomitant increase in efficiency. Social resources appear as from nowhere. As anxiety evaporates, it is replaced by joyful relief and infectious enthusiasm that entrains more and more of the people. Morale soars, and a formerly languid, fissiparous and dissipated people newly united in a common enterprise can quickly achieve prodigies, not uncommonly involving wars of invasion – viz., Napoleon.

The new cult, again, need not make much sense, either empirically or philosophically. So long as it is so workable as to avoid immediate practical disaster, and nimble and flexible enough to adapt to subsequent difficulties without a revision of its doctrines so radical as to sap its internal coherence, and thus its cogency and confidence, it may take root and flourish.

When theories compete, get ready for a shift of paradigms, that renders most of them risible in retrospect.

We now stand ripe for just such a phase change. Our culture has liquesced along with its former basic cult. All that had been solid has melted. Everything is now up for grabs. Alien and violent cults pose an immediate existential threat to our civilization, because of the profound and bewildering confusion of cults that now afflict us each with their conflicting claims, and the utter impotence of modern epistemological skepticism as itself a positive proposal about real meanings and significances. We desperately want to collapse into some new and compelling certainty, that explains everything to us.

But by that very same token are we ripe for a Great Awakening of our own, and a renewal of our own ancient principles regarding First Things. Such a renascence of the ancient West, the pre-Modern, Classical West reconfigured aptly to our new day, could again unleash the wonted energy and enterprise of our folk, so that once again we conquered all the other cults of the planet, as we are used to do.

Things could go well for us, or badly (albeit not without great difficulty, labor and suffering, either way). The crisis of the West cannot in any case be resolved until we can prevalently agree on a common superordinate cult. And that cannot happen until we can agree to the objective truth of a system of principles relating First Things. It cannot happen, that is, until we first reject modernism itself, root and branch and nut, as incapable of operable truth. Only then may we even begin a fruitful joint search for the cult with heart, the true cult that compels our allegiance and our mutual loyalty.

23 thoughts on “Babel

  1. Pingback: Babel | Neoreactive

  2. Excellent post Kristor.

    I am reminded of the Americanist Catholic Novak’s notion of an “empty shrine” at the heart of our polity. I can’t think of a more utopian notion than the idea that a society can separate theology from politics. Extrapolating on that idea it doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to pinpoint the origins of modern nihilism in the thoughts of the “moderate” American Enlightenment. Well, Jefferson and his pal Madison seem to have gotten their wish here in the USA:

    And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter

  3. Until the confusion of cults is resolved, and a particular cult selected as superordinate for the society as a whole,

    Selected by who?

    I am starting to realize that you people aren’t about religion at all — which in its authentic forms can only emerge from individual and spontaneous human feeling — but about the state and its ability to impose a crushing uniformity on its subjects. You have a horror of the prospect that people might relate to the world as they see fit, rather than the way authority has decreed.

    You’re in thrall to an illusion; the state masquerading as god. Thankfully we live in a liberal world where the state at least is limited in its power to impose its false religion on us.

    Only then may we even begin a fruitful joint search for the cult with heart, the true cult that compels our allegiance and our mutual loyalty.

    Good luck with that. You’ll have problems with those of us who refuse to have our allegiance compelled.

    I can promise you right now that it will never, ever happen.

    • It is perfectly true that the Orthosphere is about more than religion. I can’t think of who might controvert that assertion. And we do all believe in authoritative hierarchies of all sorts, among them those of politics. Authoritative hierarchy has been our bread and butter around here from the get go.

      I’m glad you’ve noticed all this.

      Nevertheless you are reading more into the post than is there, revealing your fears by what you see in it: you appear to be terrified of authority.

      I left the method by which the predominant cult is selected deliberately vague. The method will depend on the society. It seems clear enough to me that in the final analysis the selection can only be mediated by honest, radical conversion of hearts and minds – this being the only sort of conversion Christ and his Church have said they are interested to obtain – more often than by diktat from above. Only in a few societies has the conversion of the king sufficed to convince his subjects that they want to follow suit.

      As for “the true cult that compels our allegiance,” I meant no more than to indicate the compulsion to credence that we feel when we encounter a proposition that we can feel to be true; as “2 + 2 = 4” compels your allegiance.

      Don’t be so scared. No one here is interested in coercing you to believe this or that. We’d rather compel you with sweetly reasoned arguments.

      Thankfully we live in a liberal world where the state at least is limited in its power to impose its false religion on us.

      Ha! It is to laugh. The irony is so thick here you could cut it with a knife. A false religion – the religion that there is no religion – has been imposed upon us by the state for some time now. It’s now engaged in the mopping up operations after its imposition of a new doctrine of marriage, and is gearing up for an all out attack on sex.

      • Yeah of course you believe in authority. I guess I like reading you because you make it so clear and obvious what is only implicit in most thinkers: god and the state are one. Not a new idea, but it’s good to be reminded of it.

        I am not “terrified” of authority, I am opposed to it. You are in love with it, apparently even when it takes the form of Napoleon, who I would not have thought would be popular among antimodernists:

        Morale soars, and a formerly languid, fissiparous and dissipated people newly united in a common enterprise can quickly achieve prodigies, not uncommonly involving wars of invasion – viz., Napoleon.

        The real battle is not between religion and atheism, or modernism and premodernism, but between the worshippers of centralized power and those who seek to escape from it or subvert it. You can have your glorious armies, give me the languid and dissipated resisters like Yossarian and Švejk.

      • Again you are reading into the post what is not there. I didn’t indicate that I approve of Bonapartism, I cited the stunning military achievements of the French after their (more or less) popular resolution on a particular cult (whether or not that cult was sane) after a period of intense discord. I had in mind also the public sacrifice by the French of scapegoats by the thousand – priests, nuns, monks, aristocrats, and then soon revolutionaries deemed ritually unclean. Then after the Terror there was the constant thrum of murders and persecutions carried out by Napoleon’s security apparat.

        The French went mad for their mad cult. If there is anything traditionalists abhor, it is the French Revolution and all its horrible sequelae.

        The resolution of cultic confusion is not eo ipso good. Often it is very bad. That’s why traditions are so valuable, and heresies so dangerous.

        We’re not for authority period full stop. We’re for righteous authority, that as righteous is prudent and sagacious, and so leaves its subjects mostly to themselves.

        There will always be an authority, no matter what. And with respect to every little thing, that authority will decide what its laws and policy shall be, if any. With respect to almost everything, the sagacious sovereign will decide that it makes little sense for him to rule at all.

        There can be bad sovereigns, of course, as with anything else under the sun. But only when everyone agrees that there is and ought to be a sovereign, and that it would be better for everyone if he were good, can the criticism of the sovereign even get properly started, even – especially – within the sovereign’s own mind.

        It’s when men convince themselves that there is properly no such authority, and reject it out of hand, that they stop thinking critically about how the authority that is really there whether they admit to it or not ought to be exercised. And then you get tyranny – foolish wicked authority, exercised prodigally and imprudently by men who do not even realize what they are doing, let alone how badly.

  4. a.morphous said’ selected by who?’ What about selected by God, communicated by revelation and intuited by the pure of heart?

    By the way, ‘our culture has liquesced’, what a magnificent phrase!

    • The Formless One learns nothing. He has already forgotten the recent thread in which we made it clear that we are anarchists and that he, like all his fellow liberals, is the power-worshiper, the man who is nothing outside the state. Notice how the Formless One misunderstands the meaning of authority, which is, for him, the same as power; and he asserts this misdefinition while claiming to be against “power.” Authority means the approximation of truth, which is why Kristor reaffirms that “2 + 2 = 4” is true – the statement’s truth makes it authoritative. Truths address the structure of reality, which is implacable without however constituting itself a “power,” a term best reserved to the discussion of human arrogance in politics. A man who believes that he can breathe underwater will swiftly drown.

      • You can “make it clear that we are anarchists” all you like, but the language of this post and many others betrays you.

        There’s a big difference between the “authority” of mathematics and physics and physiology and the authority you are talking about. There’s no dissent (more or less) on such matters, so no struggle between different authorities or value systems. Moral issues are quite different. Since opinions differ, the only way to enforce uniformity of value systems is through the institutional authority. Mathematics doesn’t need an institution to enforce it; but apparently marriage does, no matter what side of the gay marriage debate you are on. At least in our kind of statist society.

        I know you like to pretend that such questions have answers that are just as clearcut as 2+2=4, but it is just a fact that people have divergent views on them.

        That’s exactly what the freshmen and sophomores in my classes say, all of whom are, of course, “unique.” Another version of it is, “everybody has his own opinion,” which is equally vapid and equally false. The number of opinions on any topic is vanishingly small. “Divergent.” What a laugh! (TFB)

      • At least in our kind of statist society.

        Exactly. Our *liberal* society, that is to say. In a whacked society, you need institutional enforcement of moral norms that in a healthy society would go without saying; no one would even understand them as “norms.” They would just be the way that things were done, and no one would consider doing them otherwise.

        But in a liberal society, where the basic rule is an explicit “whatever,” and as a result people stray into all sorts of moral error as is the human wont, you end up needing tyrannical enforcement in order to keep things working at all smoothly.

      • I meant to distinguish state-based societies, that is to say, pretty much any society involving cities, accumulation, and classes, from pre-state (tribal) societies. Statist societies, almost by definition, include institutional mechanisms for enforcing morality. That goes for liberal societies and your imaginary paradises of uniformity belief — because there is never uniform belief unless it is enforced.

        TFB — for a teacher, you sure seem to need to express yourself in sniggering instead of anything coherent. Presumably you don’t deny that viewpoints can diverge? Surely you and I have divergent views?

        You don’t have a viewpoint. You’re a nominalist and a relativist. In respect of reality, you’re a knee-jerk reactionary. Other people have viewpoints and you respond, imitatively, to those, like all liberals. (TFB)

      • Statist societies, almost by definition, include institutional mechanisms for enforcing morality.

        You mean laws. Well, sure. Where tradition is weak, you need more laws. Like I said, men are wont to err. And so weak are men, that some law seems always to be needed where settlements are large enough to make anonymity possible. So, no law, no polis. Yet nevertheless, only such laws as are needed to obtain a polis, and no more.

        But if you have that deep a problem with government, then you have a problem with civilization. Is it your aim to destroy civilization?

      • Everyone has a problem with government. Certainly you folks do; aren’t you claiming to the Real Anarchists? The liberal state is one solution. Not a perfect one by any means, but at least it contains the possibility for improvement. I guess I am here to defend it, which is odd since my usual line is attacking it. You radicals are making me into a conservative.

      • It is not government as such that is problematic, but bad government. Bad government generates a social situation that, as not working so well as things did under lesser government, seems to call for yet more government. A vicious cycle ensues. Government gets ever more picayune, totalitarian, obsessed with administrative purity and bureaucratic control, disconnected with reality, insane, and brutal.

        Liberalism *intends* to prevent bad government and avoid tyranny. But it fails; indeed, it amplifies the positive feedback of bad government to a bad situation, due primarily to the fact that each of its policies generates a class interested for selfish reasons in its maintenance and growth. When was the last time you heard a liberal suggesting that we delete a failed liberal policy? It never, ever happens. The liberal solution is *always* more government. Lots more.

      • Glad to hear you are in favor of good government and against bad government. That’s not really particularly useful though.

        That there are groups of self-interested people who influence the liberal state is not news, and not unique to the liberal state. At least under liberalism, there is not a single class of entitled thugs who keep all the benefits of the state to themselves, as there was in the aristocracies that it replaced.

      • Glad to hear you are in favor of good government and against bad government. That’s not really particularly useful though.

        So it’s not particularly useful to distinguish between good government and bad, eh? Is this another one of those instances in which a liberal finds an argument that defeats his pet theory “uninteresting”?

        Seriously, a.morphous, surely you can do better. First you clutch your pearls at the discovery that we at the Orthosphere are advocates of political authority. Then you scoff when we clarify that we are not in favor of any old authority whatever, not in favor of tyranny, but rather only just and proper authority – i.e., good government. Now you scoff at the notion of good government. What is it? Are you in favor of bad government? Or, as I asked a while ago, are you against laws as such? Or do you want us all to just look the other way while your ilk implements the policies they like best?

        At least under liberalism, there is not a single class of entitled thugs who keep all the benefits of the state to themselves, as there was in the aristocracies that it replaced.

        What are you smoking? There is always an oligarchy. Better that it be out in the open and explicit than masked by a constant din of propaganda promoting the notion that there is no oligarchy.

  5. Interesting post, Kristor.

    So is your society at the phase of uncertainty and nihilism or at the phase of purging itself from all of the weaker cults?

    If it is the latter I can’t help but to think that the attack against certain liberties that you used to have is quite natural. I find it a bit counter-productive to complain about losing our freedom. None of the premodern societies was free. Church wasn’t free. Once something was recognized as heresy people were coerced to abandon it.

    If we were about to win we wouldn’t let liberals do as they please. We can say their principles are false but we can hardly say we would treat them better than they treating us these days. Or am I wrong?

    • Interesting question, RT. I’m not sure how I would answer. It seems as though we in the US are in the beginning phases of an attempted purge by leftists of all other cults, but that a backlash is building – from all appearances an extremely passionate backlash. So it’s “early innings,” as they say in baseball.

      I think you are right that any such purge, whichever way it goes, is going to end up curtailing what we in the States have been pleased to call our freedoms, at least somewhat. As one would expect from a leftist purge, there is already far less room to maneuver in this country than there was even a few years ago. In recent months, a number of articles have hit the web in which liberal professors raise the alarm that thought control in the university has gone too far. And if reactionaries took over, we would certainly enact laws that leftists would feel greatly limited their liberty.

      Nevertheless it seems to me that a healthy society – such as we like to think we here are promoting – would need far fewer laws, far less bureaucratic control, far less litigation and policing, than what we have today. Where regulation and enforcement activity compound, it can only be because the laws on the books are at war with human nature. Good law enlists even our fallen nature in the preponderant pursuit of the good, the true and the sane. So a reactionary purge would I think begin by purging a lot of laws – indeed, almost all of them. So it would actually increase liberty, as compared with today, when a man can’t move a window in his own house without the permission of the county.

      • Yes, perhaps saner arrangement while not exactly free would be felt as more acceptable. At least if the majority is sane enough to appreciate it which might not be the case today.

        My strongest impression of the last decade of communist regime is how ridiculous and absurd it was. I have similar feelings about what is happening now as I think you do as well. My next observation is that people rarely choose for saner cult even if they recognize the current cult as evil or not worthy. The history of my country in 20th century suggests that: voting for communists after WW2 and for liberals in 1989. The conclusion is that the insanities of the previous regimes impair our ability to choose well next time, sort of pendulum effect at work here.

        It makes me a bit pessimistic about the future. Even if some kind of reactionary society prevailes I am afraid it will be a failure (despite having many things right) unless it is firmly rooted in the only true cult. I give much credit to Orthosphere for stressing this point. Otherwise I think totalitarian tendencies (abuse of power) are inherent in power as such, esp. with the technology we have today. I guess the reactionary state would be more inclined to abuse the power because it is what many people want from it. On the other hand, the genius of Christ was that He, the Truth, came to this Earth low-born and poor and not a king. It means to me we cannot “overpower” our lack of sanity.

      • … the insanities of the previous regimes impair our ability to choose well next time …

        Great insight.

        [Christ the Truth] came to this Earth low-born and poor and not a king. It means to me we cannot “overpower” our lack of sanity.

        Even greater insight. Not a proud, stiff neck, but a humble and contrite heart.

        Our insanity is bred very deep after hundreds of years living in cultures more and more insane. The insane cannot think their way to sanity without the help of a sane interlocutor. But there is no one sane, no, not one. So the only sort of reaction against the insanity by the insane that has a shot at not somehow reproducing insanity without knowing it or meaning to do so is reaction informed not primarily by its own recognizances, but by trust in the Truth himself to set us free. The only sort of reaction against this monstrous regime of the cult of Moloch that can generate a regime that is not itself soon just as monstrous in its own way is Christian reaction.

        Thanks, RT.

  6. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/06/07) | The Reactivity Place

  7. Thank you for this interesting article, which encapsulates well the issues facing us. That said, it won’t be “us” who find purpose and energy in the new cultus…the present generations are already lost…it will be our grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.

  8. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2015/06/10 | Free Northerner

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