Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published in 1923 – translated by Father Stephen Janos): Berdyaev appends an elaborate subtitle, Letters to My Contemners, Concerning Social Philosophy, and indeed the book avails itself of the epistolary style, addressing the “contemners” directly via the second person plural. (The translator makes deliberate use of the archaic Ye.) Written during Berdyaev’s ordeal under incipient Bolshevism, but published only after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which occurred in September of 1922, The Philosophy of Inequality consists of fourteen letters on a carefully calculated sequence of topics, beginning with “The Russian Revolution” and ending with “The Kingdom of God.” With The Philosophy of Inequality, Berdyaev achieves a rhetorical tour-de-force. In the age of Leftwing “wokeness,” Berdyaev’s book reacquires its knife-edged relevancy, conveying to its readers, among many other things, that while the revolutionary mentality might justify itself in its vaunted progress, it remains mired in the dreary slogans of 1848, which themselves in their day never rose above the crassest ressentiment. “The world is entering upon such an arduous and answerable time,” Berdyaev writes in the opening of the First Letter, “in which religiously there has to be exposed everything duplicitous, twofold, hypocritical and unenduring.” The proper instrument for this exposure is “the sword that Christ has brought.” According to the philosopher, “By the spiritual sword [there] has to be a cleaving apart of the world into those standing for Christ and those standing against Christ.” Under Berdyaev’s conviction, Christ stands not with the advocates of equality. He stands rather with those who first acknowledge and then strive to realize His redemptive gift of the person. In the Second Letter, Berdyaev writes of the insurrectionists how, “Ye deny and ye destroy the person, all ye proclaimers of materialistic revolution, socialists and anarchists, radicals and democrats of various stripes, leveling and making a hodge-podge of all, ye proponents of the religion of equality.”
In the Ninth Letter, “Concerning Socialism,” Berdyaev builds on his notion that socialism arises from a perverse religiosity. He argues that socialism appears as early as the political-economic crises of the Greek poleis during the Archaic Period. He cites, as a more recent instance, John of Leiden’s chaotic, communist theo-utopia in Sixteenth Century Münster. The chiliastic vision always prompts the insane project to create the Heavenly City on Earth. The insane attempt to build the Heavenly City on Earth in turn sinks the society into exsanguination and fire, as happened in Münster. “And this hell,” Berdyaev writes, “which this heavenly Jerusalem presented, these acts of violence, blood and nastiness which accompanied it, ought to cause all religiously sensitive people to pause a moment and think.” Berdyaev sees in Karl Marx, the progenitor of Bolshevism, a strain of “Hebraic apocalyptic, of an Hebrew chiliasm at late an hour in history, in an atmosphere of an atheistic and materialistic age.” (The slightly eccentric English belongs to Father Steve’s inimitable style.) Lenin’s repetition of Anabaptist Münster, imposed on the entirety of Russia, “does not acknowledge the existence of man”; but “it replaces man with an economic category.” In simple: “The religion of socialism is the murdering of man.” Later publications would affirm Berdyaev’s assessment – not least Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago Gulag and the autobiographical endeavors of Nadezhda Mandelstam. To the Communists, Berdyaev announces: “Your socialism, with its craven, spiritually plebeian ‘tovarisch-comrade’ ideal shows yet again, that brotherhood is impossible in the natural order, that it is possible only in the graced order.”
Revolution wages war on culture, which it despises. In the Thirteenth Letter, “Concerning Culture,” Berdyaev remarks how “the nobility of every true culture is defined by this, that the culture is a cult of ancestors, the veneration of cemeteries and memorials, the connection of sons with fathers.” The Bolshevik assault on the family amounts to an assault, not only on the relation of sons to fathers, but of the Son to the Father. Berdyaev makes a distinction between culture and civilization. Socialism finds its medium in the shallowness of the latter. Thus, “Civilization, in distinction to culture, does not struggle against death, does not desire eternity.” Civilization “not only reconciles itself with the death-bearing power of time, but also even on the death-bearing aspect of the flow of time it bases all its successes and conquests.” In the Fourteenth Letter, “Concerning the Kingdom of God,” Berdyaev opposes “Christian eschatology” to chiliastic fervor. “In the Kingdom of God,” as Berdyaev writes, “there are no… collectives”; rather, “in it is only the person,” and “it consists all of persons of different hierarchical degree.” Despite its origin in a desperate situation, The Philosophy of Inequality shows remarkable subtlety in its construction. The invocation of hierarchy in the Fourteenth Letter communicates with the invocation of the same in the First Letter. There Berdyaev proposed the cosmos as a hierarchical model, to which people and society must attune and adapt themselves. Order and hierarchy merge as synonyms. Their common opposing principle or anti-principle is chaos – on the ever-likely eruption of which, like Zeus from Olympus, the Christian consciousness must stand perpetual vigil.
Geoffrey Ashe (born 1923), The Finger and the Moon (first published 1973; reissued with a Preface, Afterword and Notes to the Text in 2004): People who know the work of Geoffrey Ashe know him as an historian, especially of the early Middle Ages in Britain, and as a proponent of King Arthur’s historicity. Ashe’s bibliography, running to some thirty titles, impresses, yet while he has earned the badge of a man of letters he has written but one novel, The Finger and the Moon. He began it moreover not as a fictional narrative but as a history of magic. As Ashe explains in his Preface, “When I tried to write it, something happened which has happened with other books of mine”; namely, “in defiance of the first conception, it insisted on changing.” At first Ashe thought that he could rescue his “inert” prose by fashioning something like a Platonic dialogue. He cast it instead as a first-person account of a nine-day visit by a skeptical journalist, much a reflection of Ashe himself, to a New Age commune, Allhallows, occupying a house and grounds in the vicinity of Glastonbury, Somerset, a place with strong Arthurian connections. “Geoffrey” can see Glastonbury Tor from his window. The three-times-three of “Days” corresponds to the novel’s chapters, with four “Other-Scenes” interpolated after the Third, Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth Days. The Platonic schema survives in that The Finger and the Moon consists in good part in extensive conversations between the narrator and the members, including the directors, of the commune. On the First Day, he recalls a lecture given by the founder-director, psychiatrist Martin Ellis, in London a few years previously. He quotes a pamphlet based on the talk that he has before him: “More and more of our patients complain of a sense of meaninglessness in life.” Ellis attributes the widespread complaint to the reductionism inherent in modernity: “Thinking people tend to feel that science has cut Man down”; and that it has “explained away everything that matters in terms of smaller, meaner things that don’t matter.”
The Finger and the Moon explores Ellis’s thesis, which is also clearly Ashe’s, at length and in depth. Ellis, in his lecture, had summarized the regnant reductionism in this way: “Religion is nothing but wish-fulfilling fairy-tales. Love is nothing but body chemistry. Art is nothing but a surge of conditioned reflexes.” Ellis sees in contemporary eccentricity – the rise of interest in such things as astrology, witchcraft, flying saucers, and even the archaeology of ancient sites like the Tor – a sometimes muddled but nevertheless justified attempt to bypass the “nothing but” attitude and to defy, naming names, Desmond Morris’s patented contention that Homo sapiens amounts to no more than a “naked ape.” Ellis’s thesis has given rise to a project – to restore the intuition of mystery and spirit, to the metaphysical dimension of things that corresponds in the titular phrase to the Moon. Occult and magical themes fascinate Ellis not so much for themselves, but because they correspond in the same figure of speech to the finger. During a conversation on the Third Day, Ellis repeats his conviction that “the universe of science is alien, dwarfing human beings and crushing them into its own vast deadness.” Ellis refers again positively to aspects of popular culture. “Recently,” he says to the narrator, “some have tried to draw this estranged universe closer.” Ellis cites science-fiction as an attempt to re-spiritualize the universe so as “to persuade us that we can spread ourselves through all worlds and master and humanize them.” Man must regain his cosmic orientation, an obligation which, as the nearby Late Iron-Age structures so nobly attest, the ancestors respected.
Ashe’s novel itself furnishes an instance of what Ellis articulates. It develops an amusing fantasy with roots in a rich reality that the modern mind tends, much to the detriment of its psychic health, to ignore or to suppress. Ashe remarks in his Preface that when The Finger and the Moon first appeared, it garnered numerous reviews. He quotes a review in the New Statesman, “on the intellectual left,” which admitted that Ashe’s book raises a genuine question, one that deserves an answer: “Why are the notions and attitudes embodied in the word magic gaining ground, particularly among the young?” He quotes another review in the Economist, “on the intellectual right,” as follows: “This, of course, is the important issue raised by this otherwise unimportant book: why is there a revival of magic, witchcraft, druidism, Satanism, all the irrational luggage of organized superstition that western man has been shrugging off these 300 years past?” Neither reviewer provided an answer, but as Ashe notes, he himself did in the First Day, in passages quoted in the paragraphs before this one. As The Finger and the Moon unfolds, it weaves together any number of themes, including Ashe’s sustained interest in the Legend of Arthur. The Eighth Day, Ashe gives over to a description of the narrator’s supernatural vision atop the Tor, during which he sees gigantic-mythic figures marching and riding across the spiritually supercharged landscape at night. The story, aimed at the widest possible audience, naturally incorporates traits of soap-opera, but the author’s intellectual seriousness lessens any off-putting effect these might have on the cultivated reader. Satanists and anarchists do appear, but Ashe makes a mockery of their addled minds and uncivilized behavior. In the Preface, Ashe makes a dig at the expense of Richard Dawkins. That alone might recommend the book to the perspicacious.
Frederick Turner (born 1943), Beauty – the Value of Values (1991): Frederick Turner, son of the anthropologist Victor Turner, is most significantly the author of no less than three epic poems, all of them drawing on the tropes of what, for lack of a better term, one would call science fiction: The New World (1985), with a post-nuclear war setting in which society has reverted to medievalism; Genesis (1985), the richly theological story of how rebels against a feminist-puritanical regime terraform Mars to make a new home for mankind; and Apocalypse (2016), largely resistant to summary, but entailing a war between people who have figured how to stop a global warming trend, and those who wish it not to be stopped because their power depends on it. Apocalypse, as its title suggests, springs from a distinctly religious view of man and the universe, but then so does The New World. Turner has written a large-scale study of Epic (2012) and another of Natural Religion (2006). Beauty treats its topic rather more succinctly than those, but no less insightfully. A dialectician, Turner recurrently puts beauty in juxtaposition with its opposite, ugliness. To locate Turner in the cultural debates of the last thirty years, a sentence on ugliness from Beauty, Chapter One, will serve nicely. “One of the ugliest things there is,” Turner writes, “must be the claim that what is in fact a necessary and beautiful hierarchy, containing and preserving differences and surprises without denaturing them, is merely a cloak for power relations, when that claim comes either from the mere malignity of the insensitive or from the strategic rhetoric of those who themselves seek coercive power.” The concept of hierarchy figures centrally in Turner’s theory of beauty, a concept which he refuses to consider apart from those of the cosmos and morality. As the quotation indicates, Turner believes that modernity, seeking to replace subtle and humane hierarchies with crude and coercive ones, has continuously undermined beauty, either denying its existence or demoting it to a subjective-relativistic status. In this thesis, Turner has something in common with Berdyaev, who likewise saw modernity as essentially uncomely.
Turner has something in common also with Ashe. He links beauty to meaning and argues that the diminution of beauty and the diminution of meaning under the regime of modernity or postmodernity go together. Of course, beauty never disappears; it wells up ubiquitously, in Turner’s vision, from the foundations of the cosmos, and its every manifestation signifies a cosmic impulse to increase beauty. The perception of beauty, however, falls subject to diminution, especially where the regime expels beauty from the curriculum. A putatively anti-hierarchical regime will suppress beauty; the new generation will not learn of it. Turner develops the metaphor of the tree, sending its roots into rock and soil so that it might lift its limbs into clear air, to convey his notion of beauty as, in every instance, a hierarchy that participates in hierarchies lower and higher than itself. “A beautiful thing,” Turner urges, “though simple in its immediate presence, always gives us a sense of depth below, almost an innocent wild vertigo as one falls through those levels.” Beauty consists not only of hierarchy in the dimensions, including the metaphysical dimension; it implies hierarchy in time. Because it cannot be otherwise objets-d’art bequeath themselves to posterity from the past. Beauty, in Turner’s words, “connects us to where we are, and indeed evokes our whole past, both of the nursery and of the race – that parkland our ancestors inhabited, where you could look out from the edge of the wood across a well-watered plain – but it also goes on from that ancient place to some new and transforming experience, something shaped though limitless.” Beauty for Turner is “non-deterministic,” hence free, and “paradoxical.”
In his final chapter, “Beauty and the Anima Mundi,” Turner endorses John Keats’s famous double identity of beauty and truth – and beyond Keats, with a nod to Plato, the identity of both of those with the good. Turner writes, “Beauty is the creative principle of the universe, the feedback process that generates an ordered world with a chaotic boundary in time.” In the perception of beauty, made possible by the teleologically structured super-subtlety of the brain, the human subject not only communes with the universe from which he springs, but he gains insight into order of being. Following on this Turner argues that “if beauty is as it is described here, it must also be, as Keats said, the fundamental source and hallmark of truth.” Turner believes that his position finds confirmation in the history of science, where elegance in the explanatory hypothesis serves as a chief criterion of plausibility. Indeed, artistic intuition forecasts the development of science: “The snake-entwined rod, the metatron of Moses, the double-helix caduceus of Hermes, the twisted body-helix of the Hindu chakras” – these anticipate “the form of the DNA molecule,” as discovered by the team of Watson and Crick. Now if truth were good, and if beauty were truth, then goodness would also rhapsodize with beauty. As Turner would have it, “Beauty is an attractor; goodness is a duty.” One pulls while the other pushes. When Turner wrote Beauty thirty years ago, his confidence rode high that the regime of coercive power with its pseudo-ethos of grievance and ugliness had reached its pitch and that the breakthroughs in anthropology, cosmology, and numerous other sciences to which he makes reference in his chapters would lead to the consolidation of a new version of the medieval Great Chain of Being. The New Puritanism has proved more stubborn than Turner could see at the time.
Percival Lowell (1855 – 1916), Mars as the Abode of Life (1908): Before he took up astronomy and propounded – to the delight of the public – his theory of the planet Mars as home to a race of Transcendentalist philosophers who had transformed their world into a global utopian cooperative, Percival Lowell, heir to a manufacturing fortune, traveled the Far East, especially Japan and Korea, as an anthropologist. He wrote a series of books on the various shamanisms of those nations, a religio-cultural phenomenon that fascinated him. Close observation of the rituals appertaining to the shaman’s travels into the realm of the ancestor-spirits served for him as vicarious participation. Lowell as author graces Chosön – The Land of the Morning Calm (1886) and Noto – An Unexplored Corner of Japan (1891) with a felicitous style informed in part by the Concord, Massachusetts writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, but less stodgy than theirs. Lowell’s transition from ethnological fieldwork and religious speculation to planetology occurred without the abruptness that the two topics, when squeezed together in a sentence, might imply. One might say that he somersaulted, with gymnastic graciousness, from one vocation to the other. Lowell produced his first book on the fourth planet, titled simply as Mars, in 1894. He followed up with Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) after an interval of slightly more than a decade. In the meantime he contributed copiously to journalism and lectured widely. He dedicates Mars as the Abode of Life to his brother, Abbott Lowell, then president of Harvard. He makes it clear in his chapters that to study Mars is to study the future of this Earth. Mars stands thus as prophecy concerning the fate of the Earth. To examine the Red Planet by telescope means also to delve both ways in time, to the past as well as to the future, and to rise above mere fleshy incorporation – an exercise in shamanistic discipline.
In the chapter of Abode entitled “Proofs of Life on Mars,” Lowell directs his opening comments to the character of astronomy. The science of the heavens must consist in more than “adding another asteroid or satellite to those already listed.” When true to itself, astronomy “relate[s] to the detection of an underlying truth as yet unrecognized.” In extracting such truth from the glimmerings of the celestial bodies in their steady motion, “breadth of mind must match breadth of subject.” When Lowell follows up the parallelism of scientific and criminal detection, he likely has Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in mind – men of keen ratiocination who can coordinate evidence with motive in order the solve the puzzle of an event. “Coordination is the end of science,” Lowell writes, “the aim of all attempts at learning what this universe may mean.” The modal verb signifies, implying intention. When he fulfills his rituals with attendant rigor the astronomer occasions a meeting of his own active consciousness, his own theoretical acuity, with the complementary active consciousness and theoretical acuity of the universe itself – that minded vastness that wishes to make itself known. Lowell sets out the facts of the case. Mars, being smaller than the earth, has cooled faster and has progressed much farther towards its inevitable desolation than the Earth. In particular, Mars has succumbed to that inexorable planetary calamity, which Lowell names “desertification.” The aging of Mars implies something else. Life began on Mars aeons before it began on Earth – and on Mars the evolutionary process has carried the dominant life-form to a higher level than that occupied by terrestrial humanity. Lowell has discovered the canals of Mars, a planetary project to bring melt-water from the planetary antipodes to the arable temperate regions of the globe.
The geometric planet-wide network of canals, each one describing a great arc from pole to equator, reveals to Lowell the presence of an extraterrestrial intelligence of high order, which itself remains invisible, but whose unavoidable inference conquers all doubt. “Peculiarly impressive,” Lowell philosophizes, “is the thought that life on another world should thus have made its presence known by its exercise of mind.” A paradox inhabits this apocalypse of an alien psyche, uplifting in its essential beauty: “That intelligence should thus mutely communicate its existence to us across the far reaches of space, itself remaining hid, appeals to all that is highest and most far-reaching in man himself.” In an aphoristic sentence worthy of Emerson, Lowell opines how “men live after they are dead by what they have written while they were alive, and the inhabitants of a planet tell of themselves across space as do individuals athwart time, by the same imprinting of their mind.” A tragic hue imbues itself in the astronomer’s telescopic contemplations – his theory – of Mars, whose inhabitants, having achieved a magnificent technological postponement of their impending doom, must nevertheless eventually accept their final destiny and fade from existence. Now in Beauty, Turner comments on the relation of old and new theories in the history of science. Old theories yield to new, Turner writes, but they also engender the new, and old theories sometimes remain true in some respects or become true again in new contexts. Lowell’s theory of Mars came crashing down rapidly in the years after his death. For modern Martian science, the canals have vanished and with them Lowell’s Martians. That same contemporary science affirms, however, that oceans once covered the Red Planet and that an epochal catastrophe desertified the Martian globe. The Martian polar caps, long considered to be pure carbon-dioxide ice, are now known to contain large quantities of frozen hydroxylation; and those caps, in the alternating estival seasons at either end of the ochre sphere, duly melt and send out transient rills of flowing water.