Two Recent Anti-Modern Critiques – Thaddeus Kozinski & Daniel Schwindt

Bird 17 Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Abstract in Yellow (1960s)

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.

Modernity 05 John Harris (born 1948)

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.

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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.

Bird 15 Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Abstract (ca. 1960)

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.”

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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?

Wiener Dog

11 thoughts on “Two Recent Anti-Modern Critiques – Thaddeus Kozinski & Daniel Schwindt

  1. This helped me to see that much that we call unnatural in the modern world is really blasphemous. It is hard to say where Luciferian blasphemy begins, since we are, as you say, participants in creation. Perhaps dance provides a metaphor. Until the 1960s, one danced with partners. Then came a phase of dancing alone while facing a “partner.” Then came the punk dances that were solitary.

    We often talk about modern nihilism, but for the sake of evangelism need to be clearer about what is not there. When people hear nothing, they think of the interstellar void and say that the world isn’t like that. Indeed it seems to be all but bursting with things. Nihilism, as I understand it, is the doctrine that the world is bursting with nothing but things, and that those things can therefore be given any meaning, or put to any significance, that we like. So we might say that nihilism is the doctrine that the possibility of blasphemy is not there.

    I suppose that this is why the egalitarian ethos of democracy is nihilistic. Humanity in all its glorious (and pathetic) diversity has no inherent meaning. There is nothing to prevent democracy from calling bad men good and good men bad. Nothing, for instance, to prevent it from calling George Floyd a hero.

    • Thank you, JM, for commenting. I take seriously concepts like “The Music of the Spheres.” I believe that I hear that music when I listen to a Bach fugue or a sonata movement by Beethoven, Bruckner, or Mahler. I treat Plato’s true myths as richly, symbolically true — charged with insight about human nature and the relation of Man and Cosmos. Things like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romances please me because, in their modest way, they constitute true myths in the Platonic sense.

      I suggest that the nihilism that finds “that the world is bursting with nothing but things” is the halfway phase of nihilism. Having drained meaning from things, the active, Luciferian nihilism of modernity must push farther. It will attempt to annihilate things — all things — for the reason that the modern ego did not create them and they thus betoken a power beyond the power of that ego the existence of which offends it. Like the ancient Gnostic, the modern ego can only regard Creation as botched and therefore eligible to be bulldozed. Once nothing has replaced something, then, as you write, “the possibility of blasphemy is not there.” From the viewpoint of the absolute narcissist, however, it is the things that blaspheme (simply by being) against her.

      A radical notion dawns on me as a write: Nihilism cannot be a theory, because a theory is the appreciative contemplation of something; nihilism is the abolition of mind in preparation for the abolition of the universe. (But maybe I am taking myself too seriously.)

    • Hi, JMSmith: an early article of mine was “God or Moral Nihilism” and nearly everything after that is a variation on that theme. Nihilism, I tell my students, is the view that nothing has any meaning and specifically that life is a pointless waste of time. All effort is useless and it would be better never to have been born. It’s pretty much synonymous with despair. When God proclaims Creation good, he was wrong. As Tom writes, the nihilist is against all that is.

      Tom knows that one of my problems with Girard is there is little to no positive vision of true religion other than to say it is antisacrificial. Religions defined as what it is not. Ecstatic beatific visions, for instance, are entirely absent and almost unimaginable in Girard’s corpus. What Girard calls the sacred desperately needs to be renamed “the false sacred.” Human life cannot meaningfully exist without the concept of the sacred. Each human being is sacred because made in the image of God. No other term captures the correct attitude to the Person. If you can’t get morality off the ground – meaning that it is indifferent whether someone is killed, tortured, thrown off a cliff, scapegoated – then nihilism wins. The sacred is precisely why scapegoating and doing things for “the greater good” is morally wrong. If there is no sacred, then scapegoating is just fine.

      • The modern nihilist seems to be saying that life is pointless, but not necessarily unpleasant, and so the epicureanism is the ethical corollary of nihilism. We become a fun-loving people instead of a God-loving people. It seems to me that the modern world contains only promises, hints, and foretastes of the sacred–what used to be called the sublime–and these increasingly bulldozed to make way for amusement parks.

      • Richard, you here reveal yourself as an alter ego of myself.

        The nihilist in your comment is the Gnostic.

        I echo your sentiments about Girard, which I had not got quite clear on until I read your comment. Girard is *this worldly.* Perhaps his academic predicaments impelled him to that pose, but he strikes me as a sociologist, period full stop. Fair enough, to be sure; this world matters, to be sure; all truths are expressed in it, to be sure (no alternative is quite possible); but only inasmuch as it limns forth the Forms, and ushers us forth to some mighty transcendent destiny. Apart from any such sublime resolution of all things, the predicaments of this world are but of this world, and so in the end stupid, dull, lifeless, pointless.

        Try as I might, I cannot find in Girard any mysticism; any tincture of ecstasy. It’s all functionalism: true so far as it goes, but it goes only so far as the pragmatic considerations of worldly life. Girard’s condemnation of scapegoating is rather like the condemnation of murder. I mean, obviously, both things are rather stupid, no? But: why? Why is it that the moral law is set up that way, from before the foundation of the world?

        I feel sure that I am misreading Girard somehow, and so giving him short shrift. I look forward to a brisk correction from Professor Bertonneau. Still I cannot see how a critique of worldly stuff on worldly terms can ultimately tell.

        Do, please, all, correct me.

  2. Myth forms an object of disapproval for modernity, which interprets it literally.

    Tradition requires allegiance in the face of modernity’s psychopathic disdain for a principle of order…

    “No age before our own,” Schwindt writes, “looked forward to a Golden Age and backward to a Dark Age.”

    A question sometimes arises about both the ability and advisability of ‘going back’ to an earlier age. A more normal time. After all, is anyone today willing to abandon indoor plumbing, supermarkets, ready-made deep fried chicken sandwiches on a bun, and/or supersized fries with a large drink?

    This way of thinking of course confuses technology with social (and therefore individual or personal) goodness. But it is a valid question. Within a compilation of some essays [Metaphysics of Power; p229] Evola briefly addressed the point:

    “It goes without saying that there is some confusion here: no one ever wanted to return to the Middle Ages as an historically conditioned civilization. It is another matter however to consider the Middle Ages as a ‘type’; which is as much to say, as one of the examples of a ‘normal’ civilization, adhering to values to which, in other forms, we will return, should the disorder and the intellectual, social, and individual agitations of the latest times ever be overcome.”

    Whether a ‘return’ is in the cards, when and under what conditions a return is even possible, is, of course, a big question.

    • If only Zyra and Bellus would sweep through the solar system. If only we could ready the Space Ark in time and shoot up the launch-track into space. If only we could land safely on Zyra and move into the domed cities of the ancient Zyrans. George Pal’s When Worlds Collide has a more or less happy ending although the Earth has been destroyed. Philip Wylie’s novel, on the other hand, has a sequel. It seems that the Communists have built their own Space Ark and the contention between socialism and the market continues on the new world. It only ends when the good guys have wiped out the bad guys, whose actions force the good guys to go farther than they would have liked.

  3. @Kristor & Richard. I have known Girard’s work since the early 1980s and enjoyed several opportunities, not just the one, to speak with him. Girard knew me well enough that, on the basis of our conversations and my published work as of 2000, he wrote the letter of support that persuaded the (then sane) English Department at SUNY Oswego to employ me. I defend Girard in part because of his generosity to me, but also because his penetrating insight brought to light, among other things, a new understanding of the Third Person of the Trinity, knowledge of how the false transcendence of sacrifice blocks access to Grace, and the revelation that Christianity is – uniquely – not a religion although we still classify it as such. To say, as Richard does, that there is only a negative revelation in Girard is to take the Mensonge romantique for the whole and to disregard the Verité romanesque. To say as Kristor does that Girard is only a sociologist and that there is no mystic element in his work is to ignore the Paracletic element in his oeuvre (yes – Girard is a Paracletic hero) and at the same time to miscategorize him. Girard was never a sociologist; he was an anthropologist. At the same time, he was not a relativist, as most Twentieth Century anthropologists were. Girard’s discoveries in anthropology, which explain so much about our current cultural-social-political plight, were made by an intensive re-reading of the Gospel. To understand Girard’s theory of the scapegoat is to understand that even for those of us who renounce – or try to renounce – scapegoating, there remains a debt to all who were scapegoated in the past. Scapegoating created culture and only once culture exits can scapegoating be neutralized. From this perspective, replete with irony, Girard’s theory is epochal.

    There is, however, another factor in the underestimation of Girard. The man who explains it is Eric Voegelin. In several places Voegelin remarks that when ideology replaces noesis it brings with it the delusion that an alteration of Weltanschauung can only occur as a massive experience – a kind CGI sequence with the lightning bolts of Zeus and Vesuvius and Aetna erupting simultaneously. Voegelin makes the point that an alteration of Weltanschauung can take place through subtle influences over a period of time that might be quite prolonged. One day, one wakes up and finds that his convictions have changed. Looking back on it, it is difficult to say when the scale tipped. One was unaware of it when it happened and awareness only gradually dawns. Now one must do some things differently, but not everything. Life goes on. That was the effect that Girard had on me – and on other people known to me who encountered his work, including my dissertation director and longtime friend Eric Gans. I am not saying that massive experiences never happen, but like Voegelin I am suspicious of them, especially when the putative subject makes it the topic of an egocentric story. It struck Girard as the job of first importance to clear the lot of false transcendence. This project of clearing-away occupies the first half of his creativity. In the second half, he searches for the signs of Grace to which the person now has access. In his later books, one will find extended treatments of Friedrich Hölderlin, Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, and Madame de Staël. In the lives and writings of these figures and others, Girard finds transcendence. His commentary can be lyrical.

    I apologize for my inadequate prose.

    • Tom, thanks. Obviously I have not read enough Girard (or Voegelin, or Gans …). Would you, please, direct me to works of the second half of his life’s project, wherein his attention – his devotion – to transcendence has been most apparent to you? I would in particular very greatly value a cite to his work that opened to you a new perspective on the Holy Spirit, if you are able to pin it down.

      It seems clear to me that scapegoating does indeed lie at the root of culture: the group must decide who is in it, and who is not, and must enforce that decision, if it is to remain a group in the first place (so much for liberal immigration policy). And anyone who is anywise odd is obviously – is, indeed, quite accurately – a good candidate for banishment beyond the pale. The odd man is an apt symbol and peg on which to hang all the odd idiosyncrasies that ever afflict us all, and that – as carried into action – might threaten or damage social coordination. Who is odd has somehow or other – not, by any means, necessarily by conscious intention – carried into practice principles that are, precisely, at odds with those of the group. If the group is to survive, its principles must be carefully policed (so much for liberal moral relativism).

      Such is scapegoating. I consider it a special case of Michael Savage’s triumvirate of borders, language, & culture. If there is nobody outside our culture, no matter how wild or insane his acts or his notions, then there is just nothing to our culture in the first place. It does not exist as a sorting operation; so it does not exist. Culture is a principle of selection, or it is void.

      This leads to a general observation: any principle of selection is a criterion of sorting good from bad. Ateleologists, take note. No such principle, no life. An evil or wrong principle of selection can work havoc, before it destroys itself at last in its disagreement with reality (NB: reality is itself a principle of selection). So we need a principle of selection for principles of selection. We need an absolute moral law, given inarguably by the morally omniscient Most High.

      But anyway, sorry for the tangent: I distinguish scapegoating from sacrifice. I think this distinction is massively important.

      In the ancient rite of the Day of Atonement from which we inherit the term “scapegoat,” the scapegoat is *not sacrificed.* He is, rather, ejected from the polis. The sins of the people are laid upon him, and he is then driven away into the Judean desert, into the Realm of Azazel and to the demonic god thereof, the realm of all manners of rebellion against YHWH, against his Law, and so against all that is Good.

      The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement is rather of the pure, unblemished, sinless goat, who then remains at the altar. He is dedicated rather to YHWH, and his flesh to the nourishment of the people (in the persons of their priests). The flesh of the pure sacrificial goat is given to YHWH, and so by that gift becomes consubstantial with YHWH (this in just the way that if I give you $5, the $5 becomes thereby part of your substance: the $5 is yours, and is of you; so that when you then give it to some other, you give yourself). When the people – in virtue of the their vicars the priests – then consume the meat of the sacrificed goat, why then the substance of YHWH becomes incorporate (through her angelic priests) in the Body of Israel. The whole people are thereby restored in their own personal dedication of their own substance to YHWH.

      The scapegoat, then, is precisely *not sacred.* He is, rather, *utterly profane,* both in character and in his destiny: he is banished as far from the sacred precincts of the Temple, and of the City, and of the Land, as it is possible to go.

      There are two distinct phases to this overall procedure. First, the sins of the people are laid upon the scapegoat, and he is driven out of the polis and into the outer darkness of the desert Pit where YHWH has imprisoned Azazel until the eschaton, wherein there is wailing and gnashing of teeth: the true and rightful home of the sinful.

      That first phase of Atonement restores the ritual purity of the people, and so renders them capable of the dreadful terrific second phase – the sacrifice – which involves approaching the altar of the Eternal One with paltry gifts, and then their communal consumption (NB: dedication of a gift to the fisc of a parish is eo ipso dedication to communal consumption). Until you are ritually clean, you cannot approach the altar. To venture into the Throne Room of El Elyon with sin on your head is to eat your own damnation to the Pit of Azazel.

      In the second phase, the sacrifice is rendered to the Most High. In this phase, the consecrate goat is a salient, symbol, part, and signal of the intension of the whole purified people toward the god. In him, and by him, they sacrifice themselves: they consecrate themselves to the Most High and his purposes under Heaven; thus, to the Providential destiny of their nation.

      These two phases of Atonement are present in the Christian rites of Confession and of Eucharist. In the first, the sin is banished from the Temple precincts, first by its recognition and then by its repudiation. Penance is enjoined: it is the last vestige of the economic cost to the community of the banishment to the desert wilderness of a healthy goat perfectly good for eating. Then and only then is the ritually purified penitent qualified to approach the altar fitly thereto, as himself holy, and so then to partake of the body of the sacrificed Lamb, so as to make his own body a precinct and portion of the Mystical Body of that Lamb.

      It is important to notice that in the rite of Confession, the sins of the penitent are not laid upon the sacrificial Lamb. No cheap grace is here to be found. No, the sins of the penitent are admitted by the penitent. He takes responsibility for them in his own person, indeed in his own body, and vows to live himself differently henceforth, and at cost personally underwritten. And he pays for his sins with a token of his penance: e.g. (and based on my own experience) three iterations of the Ave Maria, and four of the Pater Noster. Not much, withal; a mere mite.

      That puny token offered by the penitent sinner cannot of course by any means suffice to repair the ontological damage his sins have inflicted upon the created order. Nothing a creature might do, no matter how vast, could thus suffice. But not to worry: Christ has paid in full for all creaturely sins, ontologically – i.e., in the economy of being, of which he is utter King. This he did, not because he became himself sinful – not, i.e., because he took the sins of the people upon him as if they were his own (as the scapegoat had done on the Day of Atonement) – but as an act of utterly gratuitous divine mercy. Our nearest human analogue: you owe $10 B to the IRS, and cannot pay it; Jesus pays it for you, because he has $∞ at his disposal – and because he loves you, so much as to keep you in being from one moment to the next. The penance of Christ on the Cross covers all the sins and defects of the whole creation, as $∞ covers $10 B. In virtue of that prior penance of the Lógos, ordained from before all worlds and intended and undertaken as the price of their rescue, the token of penance offered up by the repentant creature can in him suffice to a proper openness to the influx of Grace proffered to him in the Eucharist.

      Anyway: I think it is a mistake to conflate sacrifice with scapegoating.

      • You’ve given me a big assignment.

        You wrote: “I think it is a mistake to conflate sacrifice with scapegoating.”

        They are on a continuum. First there is killing the odd man out; next comes casting out the fall guy, but if you are expelled from a Neolithic village, your death is inevitable. And then comes substituting the animal victim for the human victim. When God indicates to Abraham that he would prefer him to offer up a ram rather than a son, God is nudging Abraham toward the abandonment of sacrifice. He doesn’t nudge too hard because if he did Abraham wouldn’t understand him. Abraham automatically thinks that if God wants an offering, he wants it in the form of a child. Also — the urge to sacrifice a victim or to expel him arises, as Girard sees it, from the human propensity to imitate others or mimesis. Girard’s theory begins with mimesis and works its way toward scapegoating. The book that will give you the best education in Girard’s theory is Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.

        I’ll try to write more tomorrow.

  4. Pingback: Under the Iron Dome: Thomas Bertonneau on Transcendence – The Orthosphere


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