“the beast that was, and is not, and yet is”
An excellent essay on Substack explains why what C.S. Lewis called “that hideous strength” is these days most hideously strong. The author’s purpose is to damp all callow optimism about the restoration many say will follow from a “red wave” in the upcoming midterm elections. Should such a “red wave” rise and tumble over the beach of American politics, it may yield a good deal of red foam, and red spray, and red thunder, but, like all waves, it will then run back down into the ocean, leaving the sand on the beach undisturbed.
Progressivism is “that hideous strength,” and if Progressives lose the House and Senate next November, the House and Senate will be the only instruments of power they will lose. They will retain almost all the apparatus of propaganda, almost all the key points in law, almost all the vast and oily quasi-government of foundations and NGO’s, and—most crucially—the minds of almost all American youth under thirty.
Against this hideous strength, a little bitty “red wave” will do little more than foam, spray, thunder—and then withdraw without leaving a trace.
This is because the roots of “that hideous strength” run much, much deeper than mere politics. The author of the Substack essay tells us that its deepest taproot is the spiritual malaise caused by nihilism and loss of the old faith. As the author puts it, “one does not simply walk away from religious belief.” One turns away from religious belief, sees the abyss of chaos and old night, and screams. And then one works like a madman to beautify the brink of the abyss with the flowers and shrubs of new but mad beliefs.
The beautifying madmen and their flowers and shrubs today exercise “that hideous strength.”
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I believe “that hideous strength” is nothing other than what St. John in his Apocalypse called “the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.” This is, you must admit, a puzzling line, for it would seem to imply that this Beast both is and is not. I will suggest an answer to this paradox, but before I do, I must deplore the fact that so much Christian writing on the apocalyptic Beast has been wasted in sectarian invective and spleen. Whatever protestants may have wished to say against the Pope and Church of Rome, it is now clear that they could not foresee their true enemy. They did not know,
“what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”*
I believe Yeats should have said reborn. The title of his poem is, after all, The Second Coming. And I believe the second coming of Yeats “rough beast” is identical with the second coming of “the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”
When this “rough beast” first came and “was,” it ruled the earth as chaos and old night. As we are told in Genesis, after that first coming of the Beast, “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
The connection between the Beast and primal chaos is indicated in the dream of Daniel, where it is said, “four great beasts came up from the sea,” and that the last and greatest of these is the Beast. The Beast is a force of pure destruction that was, in Daniel’s dream,
“dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it.”
The sea is a symbol of primal chaos, and the Beast is the rule of chaos and old night that governed the earth—that “was”—before God’s act of creation. Hence the Beast hates God’s creation and seeks to destroy it by devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping the residue under its feet.
The creation the Beast hates and seeks to destroy was accomplished when “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” and the rule of chaos and old night was replaced by the rule of logos and light. The Beast was replaced by the logos that is Christ, and this is why the Beast hates that logos and seeks to destroy it.
With God’s act of creation through the logos that is Christ, the Beast of chaos and old night lost its dominion over the earth. This is why John described it as the Beast that “was and is not.” John tells us that the act of creation threw the Beast into a “bottomless pit,” this being the very abyss that so horrifies those who turn away from religious belief, and the brink of which they consequently attempt to beautify with the flowers and shrubs of their new and mad beliefs.
When Satan falls from Heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost, he finds the Beast of chaos and old night already confined in the pit. With Death at his side, Satan looks into the abyss, and this is what they see:
“Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension; where length, breadth and height,
And time, and place, are lost; were eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.”
The pit is ruled by the anti-logos of the Beast, and both Daniel and John agree that this Beast will one day rise from the pit and seek to undo creation and restore its rule of chaos and old night on earth.
This is the rebirth or “second coming” of the Beast.
“The beast . . . shall ascend out of the bottomless pit”. (Revelations 17:8).
“And he shall . . . think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand” (Daniel 7:25).
“The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces” (Daniel 7: 24).
The kingdom of the Beast will be “diverse from all kingdoms” because its kingdom will rebel not only against God, but also against Nature and the logos of creation. This is why Daniel tells us that the Beast will “think to change times and laws.” The Beast will think to return to the time before “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” and it will think to replace the logos that is Christ with the anti-logos of chaos and old night.
This is what Daniel means when he says the Beast will “devour the whole earth,” “tread it down,” and “break it in pieces.” Or what Yeats means when he says in his great poem:
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
Mere anarchy is loosed and the world (i.e. the divine cosmic order) is devoured by the Beast. The Beast devours, destroys, and uncreates the world by undoing and replacing the “divisions” with which God created the world, by overturning, at least for a time, the logos that is Christ. To devour, destroy and uncreate the world, the Beast calls on men to go “beyond good and evil,” and to see that God’s creative division of male and female disguises a non-binary reality that is as “fluid” and chaotic as the primal sea.
When John says that the Beast “is not, and yet is,” I believe he means that the Beast “is not,” even in these end times, altogether free from the yoke of the logos that is Christ; and yet the Beast is, during the mere anarchy of its Fourth Kingdom, apparently free of that yoke. The Beast cannot undo creation and restore the “time” when “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” but it can in this uniquely wicked Fourth Kingdom make men share its hatred for God’s creation, make men love its anti-logos, and make men join it in its work of un-creation and destruction.
To share the hatred of the Beast is the “mark of the Beast,” and likewise to love its anti-logos and to join in its work of un-creation and destruction. And those who bear this mark have “that hideous strength” against which little bitty “red waves” can do nothing at all.
*) “The Second Coming” (1919)