H. P. Lovecraft wrote his famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, in 1926 and saw it published in Weird Tales in the February 1928 number of that pulp periodical. The story pieces itself together through the gimmick of having its narrator, the nephew of a mysteriously deceased scholar of ancient Semitic languages, sort through his uncle’s papers – among which figure prominently a cache of documents under the label of “CTHULHU CULT.” In the last few years of his life Professor Angell had fixed his interest on this esoteric topic. Evidence indicates that the cult, traces of which appear worldwide, dates back to prehistory; it also manifests its existence in the archaeology of historical religions, particularly those that center on human sacrifice. The deceased scholar had concluded that the cult’s reality extends into the present and that, after a dormant period, it had resumed its activity. As the reader makes his way through Lovecraft’s deliberately fragmented story line, he learns that Cthulhu, the entity whom the cultists worship as a deity, belongs not to the category of the supernatural (nothing in Lovecraft does) but rather to that of the superhuman in an implacably materialistic and Darwinian version of the cosmos. In the immensely distant past, Cthulhu, one of the “Great Old Ones,” descended to Earth from a distant star and enslaved the primitive humanity through his faculty of telepathic manipulation. A rival power, indifferent to humanity, checked Cthulhu and condemned him to hibernation in the sunken city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific. In the final paragraphs of the story’s first section, the executor describes a sheaf of newspaper clippings that Professor Angell had collected. These items, the narrator avers, “touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity,” which betoken Cthulhu’s return to potency. As the nephew records: “A fanatic [from South Africa] deduces a dire future from visions he has seen; and “a dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some ‘glorious fulfillment’ which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March 22-23.”
Rule of Law is often cited as one of the distinctive characteristics of the West, and of Western cultures, which has enabled the West and kindred cultures to rise above despotism, corruption, and poverty. And so it is. The keeping of the Law is traditional in the West.
But, the Law is only as good – can do only so much good – as the men who keep it. It is men who by their acts keep to the Law, enforce and adjudicate it honestly and as fiduciaries of the nation, or who do not; who transmit the tradition they have inherited, or who traduce it.
Rule then is always of men.
In the view of the Russian religious thinker and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), freedom arises from no causality whatever – for if freedom arose from causality, it would operate under determination, in which case it would be shackled, not free. Freedom belongs to spirit, which is to say that it belongs to the person; and the person, bearing within himself the image of God, exercises his freedom positively by the Imitatio Dei of willing the good in the two closely linked modes of love and creativity. Through love and creativity, moreover, people differentiate themselves from one another. Some people distinguish themselves as more capable of love than others; these people – some of whom number among the saints – reap in higher degree than others both the delights of love and the tragic pathos that attends love in the mortal realm. Likewise some people distinguish themselves as more creative than others, whether in the arts or in business or in scientific endeavor; or, simply, in the ability to socialize and to form friendships and initiate sodalities spontaneously. Those who can create at a high level, like those who can love prodigiously, form a justified, if not an acknowledged, aristocracy, and while indeed they enjoy satisfaction in their creativity, they also experience its annoyances, not least of which is to fall under the resentment of lesser talents of invidious proclivity who cannot measure up to, much less surpass, the standards that emerge from the self-working-out of genius. Because freedom emerges from no causality whatever, it partakes in mystery. To treat freedom as a concept rather than living it, to find an explanation of it, would be to reduce freedom to a mere natural phenomenon and thereby fully to ensconce it in the domain of causality. According to Berdyaev, freedom springs forth from the same Ungrund, or endlessly self-replenishing abyss, as the boundless will-to-goodness of God; and it springs forth as the Will and the Gift of God.
As freedom partakes in mystery, it entwines itself with faith. As freedom produces inequality, it entwines itself with politics. In freedom, then, faith and politics find themselves in conflict. Faith on the one hand corresponds to a spiritual condition, which struggles ever to remove itself from the trammels of the fallen world so as to seek the good, and to create it, freely, beyond causality. Politics, on the other hand, corresponds to an adaptation in respect of that selfsame fallenness. In politics, men experience the temptation to exercise freedom minimally by yielding freedom to an objective – or as Berdyaev would put it, an objectivized – authority or totality. Politics, as the present moment so clearly demonstrates, always tends towards an authoritarian totality. Because politics adapts itself to humanity’s fallen condition, it necessarily adapts itself to envy and resentment, which it attempts to placate. The only way, however, to placate envy and resentment is to limit the scope of genius – and that means to limit the scope of love and creativity in the realm of freedom. Politics thus always declines, not only towards an authoritarian totality, but at the same time towards a leveling, egalitarian totality; politics as an authoritarian-egalitarian totality positions itself as essentially anti-person and anti-freedom. This tendency in politics is magnified by the incomprehensibility to the faithless of the paradox that evil must share the same prerogative as good because otherwise freedom would annihilate itself. The faithless believe that through the imposition of the authoritarian-egalitarian totality they can prevent evil. Berdyaev recurred to these themes and propositions throughout his authorship. His early Philosophy of Inequality (1923) treats of them; so do his middle-period Spirit and Reality (1939) and his late-period Slavery and Freedom (1944).
A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.
The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.
You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.
This is the practical aspect of the fundamental epistemological criterion of truth, which is adequacy to quotidian experience.
Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.
Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.
Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.
Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.
There is always a party line. The only question is whether or not it is any good.
James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:
Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?
Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?
[NOTE: This post is the continuation of the article — or sequence of linked essays — that begins in the post immediately preceding it. I published “Monstrous Theologies” in the mid-1990s in the journal Anthropoetics, but for this re-posting I have extensively edited and re-written it.]
III. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Sacrificial Aesthetics. “Vintage Season” (1946) – attributed to Moore’s husband and collaborator Henry Kuttner but written in fact solely by Moore – deals with the creation of a work of art by an artist of the future who visits the earth in the immediate post-World War Two years, when the story was written. But this act of creation is also an act of sacrifice, and the work of art that stems from the event has the character of an immolatory token. In fact, because “The Vintage Season” is a time-travel story involving the usual paradox, it resists any straightforward rehearsal. The basic elements of the narrative are, nevertheless, these: Oliver Wilson owns a house that three eccentric “vacationers” who call themselves the Sanciscos want to rent; to one of them, a woman named Kleph, Wilson feels considerable attraction, and he therefore lets the house despite the fact that he might garner a windfall from it if he sold it outright to a buyer. Wilson’s fiancée Sue pesters him to renege on the deal and to sell, but Oliver refuses. The interest in this detail lies in Moore’s opposition of the market to the Bohemian group. The group represents culture and seems to promise something superior to the bourgeois world of exchange. Moore’s Smith regrets leaving the comforts of marriage and participation in the nomos. Moore’s Wilson, vulnerable to the temptations of art, cult, and difference, regrets his prior immersion in what strikes him now as the tediously normative. He is an alienated bourgeois taking the usual route of opposition to the market for the mere sake of opposition. If resentment is the sacred, as Girard so often intimates, then Wilson’s alienation renders him particularly vulnerable to the Bohemianism of the foreigners.
The Sanciscos behave like Wildean aesthetes: “There was an elegance about the way [their] garments fitted them which even to Oliver looked strikingly unusual”; and “the feeling of luxury which his first glance at them has evoked was confirmed by the richness of the hangings they had apparently brought with them”; Kleph’s coiffure strikes Wilson as perfectly sculpted, “as if it had been painted on, though the breeze from the window stirred now and then among the softly shining strands.” From such behavior, Wilson infers that their depth of culture radically exceeds his own, an inference sustainable, as it turns out, in aesthetic terms only and not in any ethical sense. As in the case of the magic shawl in the Northwest Smith story, phenomenal beauty guarantees nothing about ethical acceptability. A certain type of intense beauty indeed radiates from a certain type of archaic violence, which the beauty tactically conceals. Kleph shows some reciprocal although, ultimately, only a condescending interest in Wilson, who visits her in her room one afternoon while the others are away. The foreign accouterments of Kleph’s room include a peculiar “picture of blue water” hung above her bed the marvels of which entrance Wilson. Describing Wilson’s response to this, Moore employs the language of of fascination: “The waves there were moving. More than that, the point of vision moved. Slowly the seascape drifted past, moving with the waves, following them toward the shore.” The images compel Wilson’s attention; he cannot peel his eyes from them, and they in their turn temporarily absorb and obliterate his sense of self. Smith has the same problem when he gazes too intently at the weird shawl.
[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]
Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility. Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time. This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.
I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.” The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations. Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply. There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism. Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.
Of all the Philosophical Skeleton Keys I have written about, this one is the hardest. Not because it is inherently complicated, but rather because it is so simple, and so powerful; and because the moment I understood it so many perplexities so completely vanished that I have now but little recollection of them. So well did this Key dispose of so many problems, that I cannot now well remember what most of them even were!
I use this Key all the time; so often, that I don’t usually notice having done so.
It opens all sorts of locks, but I suppose that the most important of them is the Hard Problem of Consciousness, as David Chalmers has called it: namely, how do you get awareness out of the coordinate activities of trillions of particles that – on the usual modern construction of “matter” – are not themselves at all aware? The Hard Problem is the difficult and apparently incorrigibly perplexing nub of the Mind/Body Problem; the other aspects of the Mind/Body problem are what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems. Translating the Hard Problem into the terms I shall employ in what follows: how do you get lively acts from dead facts?