We think of worship as something we do mostly in church. It is time we dedicate especially to God. But every moment of our lives is dedicated to something or other; and we would not be doing anything we do if those things to which they are dedicated were not important to us; if we did not think them worthy of our attention, and of our effort.
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.”
I do what I know I should not, and I fail to do what I know that I should. I am tempted to sin, even though I know it to be sin, and thus both wrong in itself and so also bad for me. Why?
Such is concupiscence: the inclination to sin, indeed literally the strong desire to sin.
If we – even we who have been washed by the waters of Baptism and the Blood of the Lamb from all taint of our Original Sin – know that sin is sinful, why would we desire to sin? Why should there be such a thing as temptation, at all?
As an investment advisor, I’ve been pretty tied up the last couple of weeks, for obvious reasons – although I will say that the reaction of our clientele so far to the corona virus crisis – or, is it a ‘crisis’? – seems to be, “Well, these things happen from time to time, best to just hunker down and wait; after all, that worked well the last 23 times this sort of thing happened.” Which is true. Now more even than usual, any investment decisions we might make in view of the present crisis are in the nature of things obsolete by the time they occur to us. And when the market plunges, pretty much the best thing looking forward is to own the market – because reversion to the mean. But their reaction is heartening, too, as a testament to their sanguine equanimity – which is to say, to their wisdom.
What is more, we are tied into a network of roughly 100 advisory firms such as my own, and that reaction seems to be pretty normal among all their clients, in their thousands upon thousands. Which is doubly heartening.
The intelligentsia professes to admire irony. In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic. In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason. Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi. “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA. He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe. The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root. The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height. Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything. Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.
[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999. It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly. Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse. I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]
This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum. That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures. The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable. “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind. It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence. The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia. Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate. That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking. Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light. Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective. The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language. One begins, then, at the beginning.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 – 1885 – Translated by R. J. Hollingdale): Poor Nietzsche! – Unread in his lifetime, thundering out his contrarian theses to an auditorium minus an audience, and tangling himself up in contradictions of Gordian knottiness such that untangling them would require, not so much a sleek sword, but a great battle-axe and much chopping. And yet, as wrong as Nietzsche so often was, he often got things right despite himself, even supposing that he never knew it. Like so much of the past, Nietzsche speaks to the present, speaks presciently and with clarity to the swamp of human folly in which the contemporary world finds itself so deeply mired. He addresses the phony moralism of the herd, the delusion of a self-denominating progress that continuously congratulates itself on having consummated history, and the mandatory nescience in regard to the human and cosmic realities. A man of colossal resentment, Nietzsche yet understands, even as he models, the perniciousness of resentment; and he sees how envy sends its poisonous tentacles everywhere – just not into himself. That he pretends not to see. Nietzsche’s most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, places the ancient prophet of the Persians and Medes into the role of mouthpiece for the author. Nietzsche assumes the office of an inspired seer. The oratory begins. Paul Kriwaczek summarizes Thus Spoke Zarathustra more succinctly than anyone else. In his own In Search of Zarathustra (2002), Kriwaczek writes how Nietzsche’s program sought “to undo the damage caused to humanity by Zarathustra’s original teachings,” namely through “the invention of morality.” Kriwaczek imputes to Nietzsche the conviction that “therefore it was up to Zarathustra himself to reverse the mistake.”
Mimesis and scapegoating
Humans are intensely mimetic. We learn to talk, walk, and nearly everything else by imitation. But because we also imitate each other’s desires, other people become our rivals, as we compete for the same things. Taboos and prohibitions can be sufficient to mitigate this problem much of the time, but when there is a crisis, such as a flood, famine, plague, or war, and the social structure based on rules and hierarchies collapses, we find ourselves in a state of horrible equality. The natural hierarchy between a parent and a younger child, or between humans and animals, high status and low status individuals, reduces conflict. In a crisis, each person becomes another’s rival, chaos ensues, and violence breaks out. It is a war of all against all. Without a public justice system, each of us wants to retaliate for the latest offense. If not against you, then against a family member. There is no logical end to the conflict. A common resolution is if we all agree that a single person or a group of people are to blame. This is the scapegoat. We are scandalized by the scapegoat. A “scandal” is etymologically a stumbling block. Continue reading
Until you have made the leap of faith, you can have no idea what it means. So you can have no very good way to make it, no? How does one know which way to jump, with no idea where the edge of the precipice might lie?
Such was the difficulty that perplexed me for many years, as I struggled to understand how to step through the membrane that separates belief from unbelief. You can’t step through it if you don’t even know where it is! Continue reading
Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982): Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking. They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic. (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture. Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture. In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.” For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture. Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself. Speech is time-bound. To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance. Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed. “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.” The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas. Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.