Rosalind Murray on Barbarization

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Rosalind Murray: A Portrait

Rosalind Murray (1890 – 1967) was the daughter of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, who sensing early his daughter’s talent encouraged her to write.  She published a first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910.  In 1913 Murray became the wife of Arnold Toynbee, bearing him three sons.  She divorced Toynbee in 1946, thirteen years after her conversion to Catholicism.  No one today knows Murray’s name but in her lifetime she wrote steadily, sustained an audience, and garnered the attention of literary critics.  In her later career she sidelined herself as a fiction-writer and devoted her productivity to religious non-fiction.  She produced the first fruit of this authorial metamorphosis in 1939 under the heavily laden title The Good Pagan’s Failure.  No doubt but that the coinage of “the Good Pagan” implies close personal relations, touching on both her father and her husband, but the book never mentions either.  In it, rather, the formula denotes generically the modern, upper-class humanist whose sincere good intentions center on building up a global regime of justice and equality, but who, at the same time, rejects any concept of God and assumes a stance, sometimes dissimulated, that is hostile to religion.  Such people appear as early as the Eighteenth Century.  They refer to their advent as Enlightenment, which materializes in 1793 as the iconic Guillotine.  Their heirs in later centuries have adopted, variously, such labels as Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, or Communist.  Their failure consists in the irony that acquiring total control over the institutions and using them to carry out their policies they have by no means improved the human situation.  They have largely torn down civilization and immiserated millions.  When The Good Pagan’s Failure first appeared, Murray could point to the Great War as evidence for her thesis; revising the text in the early 1960s, she could point to another global conflict, the subsequent and dire Cold War, and many signs of degeneration in Western society.

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José Ortega y Gasset & Gabriel Marcel on Mass Man

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Mass Man in Portrait

The Revolt of the Masses (1932) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) is a classic diagnosis of the modern condition whose diminished currency in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century fails to correlate with its increased relevance ninety years after its initial publication.  Revolt ought to be better known than it is.  Man against Mass Society (1951) by Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973) – addressing the same topics as Revolt but from a point in time twenty years later in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the onset of the Cold War – enjoys nothing like the reputation of Ortega’s masterpiece, but is equally relevant to contemporaneity and deserves, not so much to be better known, but merely to be known.  The two books complement one another.  Ortega, an adherent of the classical liberal principle, but with an aristocratic attitude, sees in democratization a decisive break with history and an inevitable dragging-down of inherited institutions to the lowest common denominator of their functionality.  Marcel, a Catholic believer allying himself with the conservative faction in politics, sees in the metastasis of bureaucracy and the triumph of the managerial attitude an inhuman faux ordre that threatens the God-endowed dignity of the person.  Both books examine the quantitative character of modernity – and the diminution of individuality in a world where millions or even billions dominate the scene.  As two trends, the number of people and the pressure of number on the unique, gain in their dynamism, a degrading sameness assimilates the super-majority to a single pattern.  For both Ortega and Marcel, the characteristics of that pattern include an overwhelming social orientation, a childish or primitive taking-for-granted of the civilized inheritance, an almost total lack of historical awareness, a concomitant presentism, and a moral vacuity that renders its thralls highly susceptible to fanaticism.

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From Promethean Pride to the Holocaustic Imagination: Atlas Shrugged

Rand Soviet Style

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982)

The victory over desire is extremely painful.  Proust tells us that we must forego the fervent dialogue endlessly carried on by each of us at the superficial levels of our being.  One must “give up one’s dearest illusions.”  The novelist’s art is a phenomenological epochē.  But the only authentic epochē is never mentioned by modern philosophers; it is always victory over desire, victory over Promethean pride.  (René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel)
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing.  As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself.  When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema.  (Eric Gans, Signs of Paradox)

I. No account of Ayn Rand’s (1905 – 1982) sprawling, morally incoherent end-of-the-world story Atlas Shrugged (1957) can begin elsewhere than in an acknowledgment of the way in which the novel’s fascinating spectacle can draw a reader in despite himself. This is the book’s secret, which the present essay aims to investigate. The British writer Colin Wilson gives a typical account.  He first became conscious of Rand’s work while lecturing in America in the autumn of 1961; university students would ask him his opinion about her.  He responded that he had never heard of Rand, whereupon, as he writes, “somebody presented me with paperback copies of her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – the latter more than 1,000 pages long.”  Delving into the former, Wilson found himself “immediately put off by the rhetorical tone of the opening,” which he quotes: “Howard Roark laughed…  He stood naked at the edge of a cliff,” and so forth.  Turning to Atlas, Wilson writes, “I remembered that I had seen some of this book before [when] a correspondent had sent me its last hundred pages: an immensely long speech, made over the radio by a man called John Galt… to justify individualism.”  Galt’s speech struck Wilson as “too wordy” and he had, on that former occasion, “given it up.”  Now, when students would ask what Wilson thought of Rand, he “inclined to be dismissive – a typical female writer, a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language.”  In the autumn of 1962, however, confined to bed by a severe case of influenza, Wilson revisited Atlas, “determined to give it a fair trial.”  Pushing himself through the first twenty pages, Wilson at last –

Read the book from cover to cover in two days, and immediately followed it with The Fountainhead.  I had to admit that I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice.  It is true that this is partly her own fault.  The cover of Atlas Shrugged has a rather badly drawn picture of a naked Titan, his head thrown back, his arms spread apart, against a fiery red background; the back cover has a picture of Miss Rand, her head also thrown back, her eyes very wide open, the lips slightly parted as if seeing a vision.  It was all a bit Wagnerian; and although I love Wagner’s music, I am inclined to be impatient of literary Wagnerianism – as in Faulkner or Wolfe…  But one thing was immediately obvious from Atlas Shrugged.  Miss Rand has the ability to tell a story… with a minimum of clichés.

In Wilson’s judgment, Atlas “has a great deal in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.”  Like those, “it is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom.”  Pace Wilson, while one might acknowledge some few similarities, Atlas shows little of the political or psychological acumen of Orwell or Huxley, and none at all of their individual stylistic felicity – but this stands as a parenthesis to the criticism.  No subtlety kept Wilson riveted for two days and a thousand pages but rather Rand’s broad-stroke depiction of a grand industrial Götterdämmerung across the three parts of the novelistic tapestry.  Rand has the technological infrastructure of North America collapsing into ruin, often with incendiary effects, while a gangster regime that has superseded the federal government systematically loots the national economy.  Moral invertebrates like James Taggart, who oversees the destruction of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, or the Al Capone-like Cuffy Meigs, the gang-leader just before the final catastrophe, exercise a kind of morbid glamour as Rand demonstrates the drastic consequences of their larceny-dissimulated-as-altruism.  The protagonists, Dagny Taggart (James’ sister) and Henry “Hank” Rearden (owner of a steel mill), search an obliterated landscape for signs of the elusive Galt, who might be either the evil agency behind all of the massive decay (“the destroyer”) or the genius-inventor whose deus ex machina of a free-energy motor will save civilization.

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Christopher Mihm’s Cave Women on Mars (2008), Sex, & the Movies (Beta)

Cave Women Lobby Card

Lobby Card for Cave Women on Mars

Christopher Mihm is a Minnesota-based producer and director of radically inexpensive, independently financed entertainment films whose maneuver is that they disguise the impoverishment of their production values by mimicking the low-budget, black-and-white B-grade science-fiction films of the 1950s.  They do so with consistent comedic brilliance.  Mihm came on the scene in 2006 with his Monster from Phantom Lake, filmed for around ten thousand dollars, according to his website.  The Monster makes allusions to a number of vintage man-in-a-suit shock-and-horror movies, such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), except that Mihm plays his story as a farce rather than as a straightforward fright-drama.  In its farcicality, The Monster also recalls films of more recent vintage, such as The Toxic Avenger (1984), from Troma Studios, and its several sequels.  The Troma films, however, were always crass and garish: That was their idiom.  Mihm’s approach to farce, as well as to pastiche, is civilized rather than vulgar, and even at times rather gentle.  Mihm clearly loves the films that he spoofs, and as he has found his feet in his self-defining genre a humane interest in his characters has increasingly informed his work.  Mihm followed The Monster with It Came from another World (2007) and Cave Women on Mars (2008).  The former riffs on the alien-possession motif of Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  The latter, Cave Women, stands out as Mihm’s best film thus far even though since 2008 he has completed at least seven others: Destination: Outer Space! (2010); Attack of the Moon Zombies (2011); House of Ghosts (2012); Terror from Beneath the Earth (2012); Giant Spider (2013); X: The Fiend from Beyond Space (2014); People in the Wall (2014); and Danny Johnson Saves the World (2015).

These later films have their merits although the growing number of them means that their quality will be uneven and that the filmmaker will have begun to repeat himself.  None of these later efforts quite succeeds in surpassing Cave Women in its achievement.  Destination, for example, which tries to supply a sequel to Cave Women, runs fifteen minutes too long and never directly picks up the story of its alleged prequel.  What a pity!  It would be interesting to know what might have happened in an actual follow-up.  Cave Women, on the other hand, enlarges what might be called the meaning-capacity of its narrow conceptual niche, the contemporary low-budget retro-pastiche with science-fiction attributes, as played for laughs.  Mihm’s planetary romance – casting its net of allusions both widely and deeply – suggests that, in this rare case, a deliberately cheap production, made to be risible for its apparent incompetency, might become the inadvertent carrier, so to speak, of a culturally serious insight.  The network of allusions contributes abundantly and essentially to the film’s self-transcendence, but other factors play a role.

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World without Men: A Forgotten Novel of Totalitarian Lesbiocracy by Charles Eric Maine (Beta)

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Ace Paperback Edition of World without Men (Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

The blurb on the thirty-five cent Ace paperback likens Charles Eric Maine’s 1958 novel World without Men to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Ordinarily – and in consideration of the genre and the lurid cover – one would regard such a comparison skeptically.  Nevertheless, while not rising to the artistic level of the Orwell and Huxley masterpieces, World without Men merits being rescued from the large catalogue of 1950s paperback throwaways, not least because of Maine’s vision of an ideological dystopia is based on criticism, not of socialism or communism per se nor of technocracy per se, but rather of feminism.  Maine saw in the nascent feminism of his day (the immediate postwar period) a dehumanizing and destructive force, tending towards totalitarianism, which had the potential to deform society in radical, unnatural ways.  Maine grasped that feminism – the dogmatic delusion that women are morally and intellectually superior to men – derived its fundamental premises from hatred of, not respect for, the natural order; he grasped also that feminism entailed a fantastic rebellion against sexual dimorphism, which therefore also entailed a total rejection of inherited morality.  In World without Men, Maine asserts that the encouragement of sexual hedonism, the spread of pornography into the mainstream of culture, and the proscription of masculinity are inevitable consequences of the feminist program, once established.  The sixty years since the novel’s publication – as a thirty-five cent paperback – have vindicated Maine’s notable prescience as a social commentator.

Although World without Men might not measure up fully to 1984 or Brave New World, Maine, who was a talented storyteller, worked on a higher level than most of the genre writers represented in the Ace catalogue.  Indeed, in its narrative structure, World without Men trades in at least one formally modernistic gesture.  It gives glimpses out of chronological order of a progressive biological and cultural catastrophe so that the reader must reshuffle events into their actual, causal sequence.  Part One, “The Man,” takes place in the Seventieth Century, and Part Two, “The Monkey,” late in the Twentieth.  Part Three, “The Girl,” takes place seventy-five or a hundred years after part two.  Part Four, “The Patriarch,” takes place sometime in the indefinite far future, but before 7000 AD.  (References to Christ as having been born some “seven thousand years ago” permit specification of the date.)  Part Five, “The Child,” recurs to 7000 AD and shares certain personae with “The Man.”  Thus “The Man,” “The Patriarch,” “The Girl,” and “The Child” are long-term sequels to “The Monkey,” which chronicles the development of a birth-control drug called Sterilin, while probing the consciences of the pharmaceutical researcher, a man, who creates it, and the corporate mogul, a woman, who aggressively markets it.  World without Men anticipates certain features of the current faddish ideology calling itself transhumanism, criticizing it in advance of its appearance.

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The Allure of Lemuria (Beta)

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It Might as well be Lemuria

The poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) wrote in a sonnet of “enormous gongs of stone,” of “griffins whose angry gold, and fervid / store of sapphires [were] wrenched from mountain-plungèd mines,” and of other exotic artifacts that exist in a long-lost provenance, inaccessible except in dreams or by ecstatic witness.  Contemplating the vision, and beseeching the reader in his opening line, the monologist of Smith’s verses asks the portentous question, “Rememberest thou?”  Ah, remembrance!  Plato’s “unforgetting”!  Smith called his poem “Lemuria,” after the fabled counterpart in the Pacific Ocean of Plato’s Atlantis, the far-famed and foredoomed continent, home to a high but wayward civilization, which vanished beneath the waves in a great and world-implicating catastrophe some twelve thousand years ago and more.  According to the claim, Atlantis leaves its traces in such geographical entities as the Canary Islands, the Azores, and the submerged Mid-Atlantic Range.  Lemuria’s fragments, as enthusiasts purport, consist of the scattered atolls of the South Pacific, their enigmatic monuments, as at Ponape or Easter Island, and a tissue of myth that the poetic sensibility might cherish, but that stern rationality dogmatically and erroneously dismisses.  Rational or not, plausible or not, the Legend of Lost Lemuria, like the Legend of Lost Atlantis, speaks to a need – or rather to a gnawing hunger – that afflicts certain rare souls who find themselves stuck against their will in the modern world: To believe in the fabled, in the scientifically unsanctioned, and in the remoteness-cum-greatness of a past age, very nearly lost to memory, that mocks the modern pretension of omniscience.  The allure of Lemuria, like the fascination of Atlantis, responds to the vapid parochialism of the so-called rational world’s ultra-conceited self-perception.

The story supposes Lemuria to be as old as Atlantis (although the precise measure of its age varies from author to author), but, as a story, Lemuria post-dates Atlantis by two and a half millennia.  The notion of Atlantis – the island-continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules whose people, grown decadent and greedy, attempted world-conquest only to suffer heavenly chastisement in a cataclysm that obliterated them and their homeland – goes back to the previously mentioned Plato (428 – 347 BC), the greatest of Greek philosophers, a metaphysician, and a visionary.  In Plato’s linked dialogues Timaeus and Critias, the tale of the Sunken Continent figures centrally.  Plato offers the Atlantis narrative as a “likely story,” whose meaning remains within the realm of symbols and whose imagery the reader should take care not to interpret literally.  Nevertheless, the tendency since Plato, especially in the late Nineteenth Century and again in the early Twentieth Century, has been to take it literally.  As for Lemuria, it only becomes a topic in the Nineteenth Century in a proposal, indeed in a scientific one, put forward by zoologists and ethnographers to explain otherwise inexplicable uniformities in the zoology of the Pacific archipelagos and in the myths and legends of their people.

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Traditionalism: A Primer

Moreau Hesiod & the Muses (1860)

Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898): Hesiod & the Muses (1860)

Fish know not that they swim in the sea, nor birds that they swoop in the air.  No more do the denizens of the prevailing era know that they live out their lives in a philosophically narrow, righteously conceited, anti-human, and anti-natural dispensation, calling itself modernity, which can trace its immediate beginnings only to the Eighteenth Century, and which represents a radical break with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom gleaned painfully from a massive human experience.  No doubt but contemporary modern people, when they hear an invocation of the Eighteenth Century, locate that century in a periwigged past, thinking that it could not possibly have anything to do with them, as they exist, in the transient now.  This very attitude betokens, in fact, an essential feature of modernity, which idolizes the present moment as the figure of a so-called progress that is self-consummating and that makes obsolete everything belonging to any moment in the historical continuum that precedes it.  Indeed, the modern mentality necessarily rejects history; it is fundamentally non- or anti-historical, which also makes it anti-memorious, devaluing not only history, but memory.  Thus the modern mentality has conveniently forgotten the violent origins of its perpetually disruptive mode.  The mendaciously self-designating Enlightenment, rejecting the moral and intellectual inheritance of the European Middle Ages, viciously attacked the vestiges of the past and in so doing set the stage for the mayhem and terror of the French Revolution.  The violence of modernity would perpetuate itself through the centuries, murdering a hundred million people in the middle of the Twentieth Century, always in the righteous name of that selfsame progress.  The convulsion of modernity, however, provoked a response, and that response took the form of Traditionalism – a critique of modernity that seeks also to curb modernity, and to curb it for the sake of a human restoration.  In Traditionalism humanity remembers itself.  Traditionalism attempts to revive an immemorial wisdom and to place it once again at the memorious center of institutions.

The earliest representatives of Traditionalism gained prominence with the onset of revolutionary agitation in France in 1789.  The Terror of September 1793 to July 1794 and the executions of the royal family, beginning with Louis XVI in January 1793 and concluding with Louis’ ten-year-old son and heir apparent in 1795 galvanized them.  The Jacobins labeled the original Traditionalists reactionaries.  But the term reaction requires a context.  Reaction originates, in fact, in the revolutionary mentality itself, which reacts, or rather rebels, against the Tradition.  Such names as Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), and Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) stand at the center of Traditionalism and produced the heart of its classical expression.  In Contra Mundum – Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition (2017), Thomas Garrett Isham makes an important point about both Maistre himself and the loosely organized movement that Maistre initiated.  Isham tells of Maistre’s adherence to the Catholicism in which he came to manhood and of his loyalty, both as citizen and public servant, to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.  When in 1792 the Revolutionary Army invaded Savoy, the Piedmontese départment where Maistre’s parents had brought him into the world and raised and educated him, the magistrate and senator experienced the bloody barbarity and atheistic intolerance of revolutionary-nihilistic politics at first hand; the dispossession of his property and his forced exile to neighboring Switzerland provoked in Maistre a colossal reorganization of his philosophical and theological assumptions.

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Woke: Cthulhu Awakens

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Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

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.”

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There Is No Such Thing As Rule of Law

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.

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Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality

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Nicolas Berdyaev (Right) with Friends (ca. 1930)

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).

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