Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Modernity as Apocalypse
By the irony of belatedness, reaction emerges from revolution and the critique of modernity from modernity itself. Tradition stopped being an unnoticed background and became a theme in writers like Joseph de Maistre (753 – 1821) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) during and in the aftermath of the Revolution in France. Having made modernity a theme, the work of Maistre and Chateaubriand, among others, could be carried on by writers of later generations. In the first half of the last century, René Guénon (1886 – 1951) and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stand out as major inheritors of the reactionary genre. Perhaps the name of Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) should be added to those of Guénon and Evola. The two men were certainly influenced by Spengler’s Decline of the West (Volume I, 1919; Volume II, 1922), which sees the modern period as belonging to “civilization” rather than to “culture,” the former being for Spengler moribund and the latter alive. According to Spengler, Culture, with a capital C precedes civilization; and civilization can last for a long time. Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948) also contributed to the critique of modernity although the recognition of his brilliance and the appearance of his early titles together constitute a fairly recent phenomenon. Every year sees the publication in many languages of books that owe a debt to these writers. Among those appearing in English recently, one could point to Thaddeus J. Kozinski’s Modernity as Apocalypse – Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (2019) and Daniel Schwindt’s Case against the Modern World – a Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016). Both will reward the reader even though their authors penned them (what a quaint term) before the events of 2020, which demarcated one age from its successor. Both view modernity from a Catholic-Traditionalist perspective, but with nuances of difference. Both view modernity as accelerating toward its inevitable climax.
John Harris (born 1948): Modernity as Apocalypse
Kozinski and Schwindt assume the same origin and character of modernity, as adumbrated two centuries ago by Maistre and Chateaubriand and rearticulated by their Twentieth Century successors. Modernity cuts its ties with Transcendence; it thinks that Transcendence is false, whereas it is the basis of truth, but modernity wants to be its own unchallenged truth. Modernity which emerges with the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century or perhaps as early as the Florentine Renaissance reduces the world to pure immanence. Because the idea of Transcendence derives from the mystic vision and revelation, and because those things belong to religion, modernity regards them with a hostile attitude. Modernity would dispense with religion, especially Christianity. In tossing out the mystic vision and revelation, however, modernity not only throws religion, but much of philosophy, to the curb. Modernity sees itself, first, as self-sufficient; but it belongs to the mystic vision and revelation that man, by himself, lacks sufficiency. Man must receive guiding wisdom from an ultra-human beyond if he is not to blunder about. Thus, in asserting its self-sufficiency, modernity eschews wisdom – and with it, truth – to a hobbling delusion. Modernity likes to advertise itself as enabling discovery and so as increasing steadily the dimensions of consciousness. Modernity devised the encyclopedia, one of its signal inventions, which modern people think of as all-inclusive. In fact, in his basic gesture, the encyclopedist excludes: He censors topics under the arbitrary rule that they comport not with reason, another word for self-sufficiency. As René Descartes wrote: “I think, therefore I am” — but with a logic reduced positions in a meaningless three-dimensional vacuum. Far from expanding consciousness, the modern mind puritanically shrinks the noetic horizon by refusing aid from without.
Not that reason qualifies as illegitimate – reason constitutes a powerful function in the repertory of consciousness, but reason stands as only one function of consciousness among others; and reason needs those others. Take Plato, the prince of philosophers: Plato understood the usefulness of dialectic, and he often structured his philosophical dialogues as elaborate syllogisms. Plato yet understood that reason could take thought only so far and that a realm of existential wisdom lay beyond the purely rational aporia. Thought entered that realm through metaphor, image, and narration, working often by indirection. In many a dialogue Plato will break off his dialectic and give the exposition over to a monologist who tells a story. Plato gives the Parable of the Cave in his Republic, the Atlantis story in his linked dialogues Timaeus and Critias, and the Ascent into the Heavens in his Phaedrus. Plato called these excursions “true myths,” a name that inserts the symbolic dynamism of myth into intellectual activity, yielding a mythopoeic thinking that operates on a higher level than mere ratiocination. Whoever goes in search of wisdom, which has a transcendental quality, will exercise logic up to its limit whereafter he must employ mythopoeic thinking, supposing that he wishes genuinely to advance. Myth forms an object of disapproval for modernity, which interprets it literally. For modernity myth equals falsehood; the modern mind would discard myth, a word it uses only in the pejorative mode, along with the mystic vision and revelation – and precisely because myth originates in Tradition and Tradition, always prior to the subject, stands against the conceit of self-sufficiency.
Kozinski in Modernity as Apocalypse takes for granted the noetic impoverishment of the last three centuries, which he views as a period of relentless intellectual and social fragmentation. The trendy phrase “my truth” perfectly illustrates both the intellectual and social effects of the fissile course that Western humanity has taken since the Enlightenment; the line from “I think, therefore I am” to “my truth” is perfectly straight and follows the direction of gravity. In his introductory chapter, “The End of Modernity,” Kozinski discusses “the soteriology of modernity” – the developmental inner-logic of the Enlightenment as revealed by its recent stages. Kozinski writes how the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century thinkers who gave modernity its initial articulation “cleaved nature from grace, God’s will from His nature, faith from reason, particulars from universals, [and] history from rationality.” In doing so they produced “a desacralized notion of the world and man” that resulted in a “disenchanted cosmos” in which the human volition and divine volition were at odds. When Kozinski borrows from Pope Benedict the formula of “dehellenization,” he asserts of modernity that it no longer conceives of the cosmos as participatory as did Plato in his philosophy and the Mystery Cults for their participants. In reducing the world to pure immanence, the Enlightenment set in motion the foregrounding (Kozinski’s word) of “social, cultural, and political dogmas.” In 2021’s nightmarish paradox, the relativity of truth has become a totalitarian diktat such that whatever certain “protected” classes claim against Tradition and against nature all others must publicly and volubly affirm.
John Berkey (1932 – 2008): Modernity as Apocalypse
In his first chapter proper, “Modernity – Disease and Cure,” Kozinski elaborates on his theme of fragmentation and its consequences. Modernity fixates on parts rather than the whole; it even denies the existence of the whole. Far from celebrating otherness, modernity would “liquidate the other,” a phenomenon that makes itself visible in the contemporary lynch-mob’s persecution of those who dissent from its “totalitarian solipsism.” Here Kozinski invokes, as he does often in his chapter sequence, Plato’s cave, the degraded unanimity of which he emphasizes. Readers of the Republic will recall that when the liberated prisoner by a gracious motive returns to the shadow-theater, the other prisoners with one voice reject his revelations of a greater world and threaten to kill him should he persist in his offensive speech. Plato’s shadows are silhouettes of wooden cut-outs that represent actual objects that the spectators in the grotto have never glimpsed. The actual objects moreover never appear by themselves but only in an ensemble that betokens a whole, for which there is no shadow. For Kozinski, the shadows on the wall stand for the shrunken epistemology of late-stage modernity. What is the cure? Kozinski writes: “Liberation from our spiritual prisons can only occur through the dawning upon our souls of the light of the whole, the Good, which is both that by which all true knowledge occurs and the knowable par excellence.” Kozinski never employs the word woke or its variants. When in his chapter he describes the debased “truth” of Lucifer he nevertheless describes woke mindedness – a vastly diminished mind, in fact – in the fullness of its evil.
Modernity as Apocalypse, with its Voegelinian title, is carefully constructed. Kozinski divides the book into five thematic parts and each part into chapters although the enumeration of the nineteen chapters is sequential. As Kozinski writes from an explicitly Catholic perspective, he gives over a good deal of his exposition to theological matters. He draws, not so much on Eric Voegelin, whom he mentions once or twice, as on Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. An aside – Kozinski relies too much on extended bloc-quotations, which in some chapters add up to a third, if not a half, of the word-count; he ought to have reduced them to their verbal essentials. Be that as it may, Kozinski’s genealogy and diagnosis of modernity clarify a mentality that, in its current state, suffers from a darkened and knotty opacity such that it cannot self-assess and presents so many contradictions to its examiners that it appears to them as an inexplicable entanglement of random resentment and fury. At least an encyclopedia is orderly, in its own terms. Wokeness by contrast is altogether amorphous, but Kozinski shows his readers in detail how the West has gone from the encyclopedists to the BLM rioters in a directional pattern whose phases are comprehensible and exhibit a devolutionary causality. In Part V, “Apocalypse,” comprising the last three chapters, Kozinski synthesizes the strands of his argument and adds much to his judgment on modernity in its current state. Kozinski borrows from Voegelin, who wrote an essay on the topic, the intuition that disaster is, in and of itself, revelatory, especially when self-made.
Kozinski characterizes the final phase of modernity as Luciferian and as a cult of nothingness. “The essence of the Luciferian program,” Kozinski writes, “is to seduce human beings into believing that their salvation lies in experiencing and acting upon the ‘freedom of absolute autonomy’ that Lucifer inaugurated when he rebelled against God” (Chapter 17, “The Tradition of Nothing Worship”). Absolute autonomy can have no specific content. As in the contemporary liquidation of sexual binarism, which cannot be liquidated because it belongs to the ontology of creation, the delusional categories, once the Protestants of “identity” have posted their initial list, multiply uncontrollably. This liquidation of binarism follows the perverse illogic of Kozinski’s “Luciferian program” although he omits any discussion of it. Precisely because sexual determination is a fact from birth it constitutes a thing given, but not by the subject, and thus forms, because of its determinative force, an object of resentment. Vanity makes the participants in Satanic rebellion seek to outdo one another in their public complaints against Creation, the stubborn biology of sex being part of Creation. A man who claims to be a woman quite literally makes an empty claim and thereby joins himself to what Kozinski denominates as “the Luciferian worship of nothing.” The fact that these claims often entail self-mutilation links them to the Galli of the Cybele Cult. The self-castration of the Gallus is an obvious vestige of sacrifice, not of the part, but of the whole. When Kozinski remarks that modernity functions by abstraction, one might think of the separation by knife of the penis and testicles from the groin. Abstraction is not only a mental operation, but a physical one.
Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Modernity as Apocalypse
For Kozinski then the repudiation of religiosity by the secular state, a gesture of sovereign nations that began at the time of the Enlightenment, leads inevitably to the casting-out of nature conceived as Creation. And if men will hereafter create themselves, including their precious pronouns, then they must qualify as gods. As gods! Kozinski’s case convinces the reader when he follows it page by page. I can only summarize his argument and if Kozinski seemed unconvincing at second hand that would be due to my deficient précis. I can fault Kozinski’s argument in only one way. He invokes René Girard and links that name to his (that is, Kozinski’s) own discussion of the sacred. Kozinski argues that modernity has driven the sacred out of the social and political domains and that the re-emergence of scapegoating (as “cancelling”) derives from that same fanatical denudation. Girard, however, identifies the sacred with scapegoating – that is, with sacrifice – and posits Biblical Revelation as inaugurating the repudiation of sacrifice by civilized societies, a process by no means completed even at this late date. Girard argues that Christ drives out the sacred. That Kozinski equates de-sacralization with de-Christianization somewhat mitigates his apparent misunderstanding. Still, it would be more accurate to say that the war against Christian ethics, lasting over three hundred years, until no vestige of those ethics remains in politics, has enabled a resurgence of sacrifice – the re-entry of the ancient sacred into a supposedly secular and non-superstitious environment. It is no coincidence that as sacrifice re-emerges the superstition known as democracy rises again with it. Sacrifice and democracy are aspects of the same thing.
Schwindt writes The Case against the Modern World – a Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought from a Catholic-Traditionalist rather than from a more narrowly Catholic-ecclesiastical perspective. What is the difference? Maistre, the founder of Traditionalism (see Thomas Garrett Isham’s Contra Mundum, 2017), stood for Catholicism but recognized the Pagan heritage as having mightily influenced the Church through the latter’ absorption of Platonism, in which such Church Fathers as Origen, Justin Martyr, and St, Augustine had been philosophically schooled and on whose metaphysics they drew. Maistre likewise appreciated Masonic initiation, in which he participated, ignoring the Church’s stigmatization of the lodges and their rituals. Even a strictly Catholic thinker like Kozinski sympathizes to a degree with Maistrian Traditionalism. Kozinski does, after all, use the Benedictine phrase “dehellenization.” That word points to a devolution that can only proceed in parallel with de-Christianization. In the Venn diagram Kozinski and Schwindt overlap by a good eighty per cent. Apocalypse and The Case against the Modern World thus complement one another nicely. They differ, however, in their construction. Schwindt’s subtitle has a genuine purpose. His book conforms to a kind of syllabus that will make clear to its reader in what Tradition consists, how its contents sustain civilization, and why therefore Tradition requires allegiance in the face of modernity’s psychopathic disdain for a principle of order that originates outside the demonic nothingness of pure subjectivity.
Like Kozinski, Schwindt sees the latest phase of modernity as Luciferian. His exposition begins with a quotation from Pope Leo XIII on the topic of Lucifer’s rebellion. As Schwindt writes, modern people “are inescapably self-centered beings.” This egocentricity severs the modern mentality from history, to which there is no deferral; there is really no deferral in any direction, not even to an objective world. According to Schwindt, the modern person has not so much ideas as themes, but these themes are abstractions that come within a framework of ideology. An overwhelming theme of contemporary Liberalism, “progress,” turns a traditional myth on its head. “No age before our own,” Schwindt writes, “looked forward to a Golden Age and backward to a Dark Age.” For Liberalism, Utopia or the Golden Age lies eternally in the future. “In this sense, we represent the reversal of all traditional wisdom regarding historical development,” Schwindt opines. If “secularism is, in the end, merely a new faith,” it is nevertheless a weak and intellectually unchallenging, but also a morally corrupting, one. Under the theme of “Materialistic Progress,” which is how a consumer society conceives the struggle to achieve a higher level, the badge of elevation will consist in a plenitude of new devices and the refinement of those already existing, “because,” as Schwindt writes, “in a pure materialism more is always better.” Out of touch with Tradition, the modern person remains in ignorance his lifelong, no matter his attendance in public education. In Schwindt’s words, “Ideology, like ignorance, has from the beginning been a characteristic of Liberal democratic societies.”
John Harris (born 1948): Modernity as Apocalypse
Ideology involves both abstraction and reduction, which together not only disenchant but de-realize the external world, converting quality to nullity. Schwindt quotes Viktor Frankl, “Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness; today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing-but-ness.” Thus currently (and this is my example, not Schwindt’s) the incredibly complicated question of racial differences in performance in a variety of activities, especially when people of European lineage outperform those of extra-European lineage, is invariably reduced to one of two closely related themes – systemic racism or white supremacy. No one appeals to either theme when people of extra-European lineage outperform those of European lineage. In the modern sovereign state the citizen, being egocentric, wishes to assert himself; but being resentful of superiority he demands that the state, in the name of democracy, equalize all people. Berdyaev, whom Schwindt cites once or twice in the course of his short and numerous chapters, once made the point that the opposite of equality is not, in fact, inequality but simply quality. However it is quality that distinguishes one person from another. And this makes quality intolerable not only to the constituents of a democracy but to its bureaucrats, whose goal is to maintain the status quo. Schwindt writes how “democracy… differs not in the degree of force required to carry out the wishes of the government, but in the condition of passivity it has been able to maintain in its people by doing nothing else but ‘letting them drive’ every so often” – as one might say, in an election or in a sequence of riots. According to Schwindt, democracy is not the telos of history, but a tragic reversion to tribalism with its brutal rituals.
All democracies boast about their educational systems. Elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities today function as centers of propaganda rather than of genuine learning. For Schwindt, “Propaganda is one of those caricatured subjects, much like monarchy, that it is difficult to talk about… because everyone who hears the term thinks [he] know[s] what it signifies, while in fact [he is] acquainted only with a parody of the concept’; and “this confusion is, ironically, often a direct result of propaganda.” Those who have been effectively propagandized have been so inculcated as not to recognize the restriction of their minds to a shared and very narrow horizon. Evidence for this invisible-to-the-subject propagandizement is the incessant reference to democracy, a word that, where the U.S.A. is concerned, appears nowhere in the Constitution. Schwindt regards the history of the U.S.A., as taught in schools, as a “self-congratulatory myth.” Textbooks represent the Founders as rebels, determined to disestablish kingship whereas they only sought independence from a particular king. “All Americans believe,” Schwindt asserts, “that every king is a tyrant.” The point of propaganda, as Schwindt sees it, is not merely to install the themes so that they crowd out any independent thinking, but to erase the person. Thus, “Propaganda is nothing more than a term used to describe specific techniques of persuasion which [seek] to gain the assent of the human subject while bypassing or overriding his or her rational faculties,” so that his actions “become disconnected from their conscious direction,” if he can be said to have conscious direction. Propagandistic instruction “takes on a life of its own as a… demonic entity, loosed to wreak havoc on its creators just as much as anyone else.” From Schwindt’s perspective, modernity is suicidal – absolutely so. The only question is – how much of civilization will modernity take with it when it finally self-destructs?