Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

Rafael 01 School of Athens

Raphael (1483 – 1520): The School of Athens (Completed 1511)

In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity.  Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte.  Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history.  Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose.  The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction.  Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.”  Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing.  Berdyaev gives his reasons.  Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.”  An epoch is a break in continuity.  If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes.  “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”

Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year.  Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds.  “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.”  Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.”  Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction.  “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.”  Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.”  Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.”  The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”

Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West.  On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself.  Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive.  Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals.  The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century.  Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it.  What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?

Continue reading

The Acid Eating at Tradition is Not Capitalism, But Cheap Information

Reactionaries often blame capitalism for eviscerating tradition and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. But capitalism – i.e., free exchange – is not a recent phenomenon. It was not invented by the Franciscans, forsooth, but rather discovered by them as a subject amenable to moral, theological and philosophical analysis, and so to discourse, development and elaboration. Capitalism has been around since the beginning of human society. It is no more than a fancy word for exchange that develops surplus, after all; for mere trade, and commerce. For almost all of human history, capitalism supported and indeed mediated local tradition – or, at least, did not vitiate it.

Continue reading

Identity — The Future of a Paradox

Identity 16 Masked Antifas

Those Highly Individuated Champions of the Oppressed Bravely Hiding their Faces

When Publius Virgilius Maro, more familiarly Virgil, accepted the commission from Augustus, formerly Gaius Octavius, to create a national identity for the Roman people by matching the epic precocity of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in Latin verse, the imperial presumption can only have been that such an identity did not yet exist or, at least, did not adequately exist, but required to be conjured into a useful state of being.  Virgil’s famous ambiguity about his manuscript of the Aeneid – his having composed a note during his fatal illness asking his friends to burn its pages on his death – has been ascribed by one faction of scholarship to his worry about metrical imperfections in some verses of the poem’s second half.  As only a few such technical flaws make themselves evident, however, some other explanation must be sought.  The German novelist Hermann Broch, in his Death of Virgil (1945), suggests a crisis of conscience, reflecting the poet’s qualm that in synthesizing a myth of Latin and Roman origins so as to settle legitimacy on the adoptive heir of Julius Caesar, and thus also on the newly constituted monarchy into which the Republic had been absorbed, he had falsified tradition and served propaganda, whereas his highest calling was to honor the muse by cultivating her art.  The crisis of identity appears as a theme in the Aeneid, the first six books of which narrate the exile and homelessness of the refugees from Troy, whose buildings the besieging Greeks have toppled and burned, whose men they have slaughtered, and whose women and children they have impressed into slavery.  Troy is no more and no more is the Trojan people.  There is only a desperate remnant in the urgency of its flight. Continue reading

Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen on Ideology and Violence

Borges 08 Orqwith

A Comic-Book Riff on the Second Reality

That most clear-sighted of critics of ideology in the Twentieth Century, Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1986), often called on literature for the light it sheds on distortions of perspective in social doctrine and deformations of consciousness implicit in political movements.  The novelists, poets, and essayists, being often, to the extent that they are non-ideological, highly attuned psychologists and social observers, can penetrate, with heightened perspicacity, into derailments of orderly life and the demonic workings of the libido.  The obvious examples are the novels of the dystopian tradition beginning with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Possessed (1871) and embracing Valery Bryussov’s Republic of the Southern Cross (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1922), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Karin Boye’s Kallocain, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948).  Novels that one would not ordinarily group with the dystopias can, however, penetrate just as deeply into the genesis of totalitarianism.  The Princess Casamassima (1886) by Henry James is one such brilliant work; Under Western Eyes (1912) by Joseph Conrad is another.  Two even less obvious — but remarkable — cases present themselves in the form of mid-Twentieth Century short fictions by authors whom one would not ordinarily conjoin:  “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986) and The Poet (1934) by the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of Karen Blixen, 1885 – 1962).  A consideration of the two stories will show that Borges and Dinesen had insights that run in parallel with Voegelin’s analysis of totalitarianism as a type of secular religiosity or “Gnostic derailment,” a term whose meaning will emerge in the discussion.

Continue reading

Sam Harris: the Unconverted

Having lived through the Russian Revolution and seen its results two powerful writers wrote brilliant critiques of the entire mode of thought associated with it. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote WE, a dystopian futuristic novel where the One State had achieved “happiness” by reducing its members to nameless drones. Free will, religion and imagination have been banished and societal problems have been “solved” via extreme rationalism and mathematical equations. Zamyatin’s novel was the progenitor of Brave New World and 1984 but published in 1922. It was immediately banned. Nikolai Berdyaev, with the help of Dostoevsky’s amazing prescience in novels like The Possessed, also understood the dire consequences of the revolution, finding himself exiled about the time of WE’s publication. Two brilliant assertions Berdyaev made, among others, was that without the idea of God there can be no idea of man and every highest good other than God leads murderously to treating men as means to achieving the hoped-for goal – “happiness” included.

Sam Harris rose to fame as one of the self-proclaimed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens being the other three) AKA as the New Atheists. Embracing the horsemen moniker seems like wearing your nihilism rather too evidently on your sleeve, but Harris was only too happy about it.

Harris has a significant following. He is a determinist, with all the logical paradoxes such a position engenders, and embraces a hyper-rationalism. He has hopes to save the world through “rational” debate and ridding the world of religion. He has found himself in trouble with his liberal brethren by being openly critical of Islam and being willing to talk to Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame.

Tom Bertonneau recently commented to me that Christianity is engaging in a new revelation; namely the effects of its withdrawal from large sectors of the Western world resulting in the current frenzy of scapegoating and a pervasive dreary nihilism hopefully leading to its future re-embracement. The Russians had a foretaste with the banning of religion after the revolution and the various utopian fantasies that invariably seek to replace Christianity giving writers like Berdyaev and Zamyatin particular perspicuity. These two writers brilliantly anticipated all the main rhetorical and intellectual stances of Sam Harris and others like him, and point out their logical and real-world consequences long before Harris was ever born.

The following article, kindly published by The Sydney Traditionalist, – Sam Harris; the Unconverted outlines the way Berdyaev and Zamyatin anticipate and critique Harris and his ilk.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981)

Dick 11 Forms 02

The Forms

Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional.  Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued.  Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim.  The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering.  In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character.  George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much.  H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration.  Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England.  He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London.  And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.

Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation.  Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream.  The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category.  One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.  The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect.  Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly.  Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.

Continue reading

Gustave Le Bon on the World in Revolt

Le Bon 02 Portrait Right-Gazing

Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931)

Albert Camus produced in L’Homme revolté [Man in Revolt] or The Rebel (1951) a milestone of postwar philosophical writing, widely admired for its diagnosis of a combat-shattered, God-deprived, and ideologically disgruntled world.  In The Rebel Camus (1913 – 1960) was distancing himself from Existentialism – that of Sartre, anyway – in favor of something more like a tradition-rooted perspective.  Existentialism had already caricatured itself in the early 1950s so that its slogans might serve undergraduates and taxicab drivers.  Camus quoted at length from Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky; he reiterated that modernity itself was askew and had become bitterly unsatisfying to those caught up in its tenacious grip.  Despite his range of reference, however, Camus makes no mention in The Rebel of Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931), author of The Psychology of Revolution (1895) and The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896).  Nevertheless Le Bon’s sharp-eyed meditations prefigure Camus’ “Absurdist” critique of society and culture, but from a non-disgruntled and distinctly right-wing point of view.  Le Bon’s book The World in Revolt: A Psychological Study of our Times (1920) even anticipated Camus’ title.  Le Bon’s follow-up, Le déséquilibre du monde [The Disequilibrium of the World] (1923) offered a trope – that of vertigo – which the Existentialists, including Camus, would eagerly receive and exploit.  Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, Meursault, feels such dizziness just before he murders a random Arab on the Algerian beach.

Except for The Crowd, Le Bon’s work has largely disappeared from the institutional memory.  The Crowd maintains a tenuous grip because of its debt-holding position in respect to the work of René Girard.  But because Le Bon belongs on the political right, his few contemporary commentators treat him dismissively.  The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example.  The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century.  In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility.  Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected socialism.  In an amusing exchange among Internet correspondents at a “Gustave Le Bon” chat-site, the message-writers argue this way and that whether a Société Gustave Le Bon ever existed or whether it still exists.  No one seems to know. The issue lingers unresolved.  Occultists have sometimes heard of Le Bon, who expounded the theory that matter had evolved, and who argued that each atom was a separate microcosmic world.  Le Bon had many admirers, not least the poet Paul Valéry, another Man of the Right, and the philosopher Henri Bergson.

Continue reading

Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally.  Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today.  Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves.  Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance.  Provocative in its day, it remains provocative.  Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness.  Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive.  On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing.  From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.”  This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.”  Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves.  Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking?  But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.

Continue reading

Poe and his Frenchmen and Baudelaire and his Americans

Baudelaire 01 B Facing Left.jpg

Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867): Successor of Joseph de Maistre

The spectacle of decadence has appealed to poets since the time of Juvenal, the heyday of whose authorship came early in the Second Century AD.  The hypertrophy and grotesquery of the Imperial City thus provide the background for Juvenal’s remarkable Satires, which presciently mirror the cultural degeneracy of the early Twenty-First Century’s civic scene, quite as well as they do for that of their own Latinate-Imperial milieu.   Did Juvenal’s eyes witness him the Urbs on the Tiber or the City by the Bay?  Is he writing about Rome’s Stoic salons or UC Berkeley’s Philosophy Department during the visiting professorship of Michel Foucault or again about the disintegration of the humanities departments generally under Deconstruction?  “Infection spread this plague, / and will spread it further still… You will be taken up, over time / by a very queer brotherhood,” as Juvenal writes.  Rome had its mysteries two thousand years ago, but then so does West Hollywood today: “You’ll see one initiate busy with an eyebrow pencil [while] a second sips his wine / from a big glass phallus, his long luxuriant curls / caught up in a golden hairnet.”  Nor is the modern milieu less free than Rome was under Domitian, say, or Hadrian, of secret police, informers, and goon-squads.  A ready inclination to cry lèse majesté belongs to the ripeness of a politically and culturally corrupt scene.  So too do the insipidity of literature and the jejuneness of art.

Juvenal’s scathing wit, which approximates the metaphysical, has exercised its influence down through the centuries, the satirist’s spirit being noticeable, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s “London” (1738), which the learned doctor patterns after Satire III, and in contemporaneous prose passages from Jonathan Swift.  The “City” passages of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land owe a debt to Juvenal, including the allusions to gross homosexual solicitation.  To invoke Eliot, however, is to invoke Eliot’s models, the French Symbolist poets, who took their vision from the eldest of them, their spiritual father as it were, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867).  That keen-eyed king of flâneurs knew his Juvenal well, as he knew literature well, all of it.  Concerning Baudelaire’s prose poem “Portrait of a Mistress,” for example, Rosemary Boyd in her study of the poet (2008) remarks that the “Portrait” reads like an “urbane version of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with its attacks on women and its suggestion that a perfect wife, that rara avis, would prove not just tedious but infuriating in her ability to show up the faults of her husband.”

Continue reading

Berdyaev on Culture and Christianity

Berdyaev 05 Fate (Cover)

Current Edition of The Fate of Man

The reality that modernity is and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity.  Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness.  The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few.  And that is to count only the essayists.  Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally.  Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique.  Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution.  The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view.  At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him.  Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922.  He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work.  in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained.  Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing.  His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above.  Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.

Continue reading