Rémi Brague on the Hubris of Modernity

Brague Kingdom

Rémi Brague’s Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project (2018) offers a lineage of, and a judgment on, “progress,” which, central to modernity, conceives itself as, precisely, a project.  This word project figures importantly in Brague’s exposition.  Brague (born 1947) distinguishes on the one hand between a task, a term or family of terms that he traces back to antiquity, and, on the other, a project, a term or family of terms that emerges with the so-called Enlightenment, beginning in the Seventeenth Century.  (Brague translates from Greek, Latin, and various medieval and modern languages into French, and his translator, Paul Seaton, from Brague’s French into English, but readers may take for granted a thoroughness of lexical rigor across languages.)  Having drawn Adam from the soil and Eve from Adam’s rib, God tasks the newly mated couple, and through them the whole of humanity, with dominion over nature, or stewardship, as some versions put it.  Presumably although perhaps awkwardly one might refuse a task.  A degree of voluntarism attaches itself to the concept.  At the same time, the subject of the task undertakes it out of a sense of reciprocity or mutuality and in the trust that fulfilling the commission will sustain an ongoing relationship that benefits both parties – the tasker and the taskee – in the long run.  A task is in the order of things. A project, by contrast, arises from a sense of urgency or panic.  The discovery of a lack provokes a sudden resolution that the lack be made good as swiftly as possible.  A project addresses a perceived deficiency by invoking a mandate for immediate action.  Brague calls attention to the etymological basis of the word: Pro- (“forward”) and jacere (“to throw”), in Latin.  Something ballistic and aggressive adheres to a project, which resembles a military campaign.  Brague indeed invokes Napoleon’s campaigns, ultimately vain but hugely destructive, as instances of the generic project.

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Calling All Evangels: Battle Stations!

So here’s a question, quite serious: have you been feeling unusually depressed in 2020? Have you been feeling more and more depressed, over the course of the year? Have your feelings of depression been far more intense than any you have ever experienced?

The question arises from my recent correspondence with an orthospherean friend of many years – of many more years than there has been such a thing as The Orthosphere (most of you would recognize her name) – in which I learned that she, like me, has been thinking about death a lot over the last few months. I learned from her also of the recent suicide of a prominent pastor. That got me thinking.

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Min favorit julsång

In my twenties, I invested a good deal of time in Sweden and things Swedish. I’d like to share with The Orthosphere my favorite Christmas song, “För Redeliga Män” (“For Honest Men”), which in the rhythmic propulsion of its melody, outpaces all others, in any language. (I opine, of course…) Indeed, I offer three versions of it. The first version is not the best musically, but it includes the integral feature of the Stjärnpojka or “Star Boy.” “För Redeliga Män” is often sung by a girl-choir, as it is in the video above, but the young ladies are joined by a young man who represents the stellar lights that flash in the deep darkness of the heavens just before dawn on Christmas Day. “Stjärnorna på himmelen de blänka,” says the refrain: “The stars in the heavens — they shine!”

I have myself played the role of Star Boy (see below). —

TFB as Star Boy Xmass 1985

That was when I sang, for three or four seasons running, with the Scandinavian Christmas Choir at UCLA in the first half of my undergraduate career before a long detour after which I redeemed myself. (In the current cultural climate, the costume would lead to my being lynched, even without the white, conical cap, as seen in the video.)

Two other versions — and the lyrics, in Swedish — are underneath the fold. It’s easy to look up an English translation. Just run a search on the title, “För Redeliga Män.” I have not included any of the English translations because none of them grapples effectively with the rhythmic structure of the verses. Och att översätta det mig själv skulle vara för mycket!

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Proclus, Einstein, & the Logos

Bird 17 Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Abstract in Yellow (1960s)

Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Paperback Cover (1963)
“Δέστε τη ζώνη ασφαλείας σας. Πρόκειται για μια ανώμαλη βόλτα.”
 – Συνταξιούχος καθηγητής

In the philosophical school of Neoplatonism, the Late-Pagan intellectual dispensation and its nascent Early-Christian counterpart find common ground.  Indeed – they converge.  They coexist miscibly for a while until the Pagan component seemingly disappears, leaving the Christian component as the sole public face of the movement.  This metamorphosis proceeds so smoothly, however, that in comparing a prose-sample from the one phase with a prose-sample from the other, with the author-names redacted, the reader might find himself hard-pressed to discern which of them leaned toward a fading polytheism and which toward the rising Trinitarian conviction.  But then the Pagan chapter of Neoplatonism hardly deserves the label of polytheism.  To the extent that the Late-Pagan thinkers recognize a multiplicity of divinities, they classify them as refracted manifestations of a single luminous principle; and when they insist on the primacy of “The One,” they tend to couch their discussion in the lexicon of a triple-hypostasis.  A Christian Neoplatonist like Pseudo-Dionysius borrows so much in his basic vocabulary and pivotal tropes from a Pagan Neoplatonist like Plotinus or Syrianus that a paragraph by the former will seem to parrot a paragraph by the latter, but it is in fact more a case of continuity than of parroting.  (To parroting – the reader must maintain his faith – the discussion will eventually come.)  Among the shared, interlocking premises on whose basis these thinkers operate are that the cosmos, by virtue of its perfection, must be the creation of a perfect being; that being good and true, the cosmos is also beautiful; and that the Demiurge or World-Creator, whereas he is apprehensible, is nevertheless not comprehensible.  As to the last, the Neoplatonists willingly expend thousands of words to argue that God, in his infinitude, infinitely exceeds the power of language to grapple with him.

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Never Panic

There are two options now before me; before America; before the West; before Christendom, as we all approach what seems to be a cultural crisis hundreds of years in the making: either to panic, or to commend our spirits to God, so renewing our pledge of fealty to him our Captain, and then to keep fighting, and before all else to keep praying.

There must be a demonic aspect to the present crisis. Our adversaries on all sides are too various, distributed and yet spookily coordinated for any merely human agency to have organized them so well. Another clue to their demonic inspiration: they are rather dense, as befits an army dedicated to confusion and disorder. They make stupid, obvious mistakes, such as threatening election officials – a federal offense – and then posting recordings of those threats online.

Synchronistically, I just finished the book Daimonic Reality: a Field Guide to the Otherworld, by Patrick Harpur. I have been reading about demons and angels a lot over the last five years or so. I had not wondered why, until yesterday morning. The topic is interesting, but so are many others. Why had I got on to it? Perhaps, I then thought for the first time, out of the blue: perhaps, it has something to do with our present crisis. Perhaps I have been prepared. Or we: for, I am not special. Lots of people in recent years have begun to take angels and demons rather more seriously than had been the case since 1900 or so.

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On Worship

Having followed the link in my latest Philosophical Skeleton Key on prayer to a prior post in which I set forth some of the metaphysical prolegomenae thereto, commenter Hambone there wrote the other day:

Kristor, you said:

Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship.

I’m somewhere in the middle of understanding this post and applying it – I have long struggled with making my faith *real* rather than mental affirmation coupled with ritual observance. What ARE you meant to be doing in worship? And how does that flow from the fundamental spiritual nature of life?

Commenter Rhetocrates then suggested that my response should be promoted to a post of its own:

That’s the $64 question, isn’t it? I’m still working on it. One never finishes working on it. One cannot. Worship is fathomless. How not? Its object is infinite. We cannot begin to have a complete answer to your question.

But, I can say a few things about it.

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Lectures d’Automne 2020 (Sélections d’Octobre)

Readings of Autumn 01 Guthrie

W. K. C. Guthrie (1906 – 1981), Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952): Guthrie, a Cambridge classicist, regards Orphism – taking its name from the legendary prophet-singer Orpheus – as the first religion to emphasize cosmogony and eschatology. For Guthrie, Orphism counts also as the first thematically moral religion. Guthrie argues that Hesiod adhered to the Orphic faith and he cites details of the Theogony to prove his case.  Even more boldly Guthrie presents the thesis that cosmology, as distinct from cosmogony, derives from Orphic lore; he sees Plato’s Timaeus, for example, as an item in the genre of Orphic discourse.  Indeed, Guthrie sees Plato as an Orphist.  In Plato’s philosophy, after all, the seeker of wisdom wanders like an orphan in this punishing world.  By dint of intellectual and moral askesis the wanderer might fulfill his obscure desire to go home.  One of the etymologies would have it that the name Orpheus stems from orphanos, which English borrows from Greek via Latin, a derivation fitting itself rather closely with Guthrie’s thesis.  Some stories tell that Orpheus hailed from Thrace, but Guthrie affirms his Hellenism.  The Thracian connection seems to Guthrie a metaphor.  Orphism differed so much from the reigning theologies of the archaic period that it struck people as having a distant provenance – in some accounts, a Hyperborean one.  Orphism stands in tension with the Dionysus cult; and in the myth preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the Maenads murder Orpheus in a classic sparagmos.  In the Imperial centuries, however, Orpheus and Dionysus seem to have merged, with the former’s irenic quality overwhelming the whole.  Orpheus’ expertise on the lyre affiliates him with Apollo.  Through that affiliation, Orpheus maintains his status as the first lyric poet and the first musician.

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Living Out The Bacchae (America Burns)

Auguste Vinchon (1789 - 1855) French Revolution (1855)

Auguste Vinchon (1789 – 1855): The French Revolution, a.k.a., The Head of Feraud (1831)

Part I – The Bacchae. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in his Birth of Tragedy (1871), Euripides (480 – 406), whose main activity coincided with the nihilistic destructiveness of the Peloponnesian Wars, betrayed “the public cult of tragedy,” to whose canons he merely pretended to adhere, while secretly doing everything he could to subvert them.  The power of myth attained its “most profound content,” Nietzsche writes, in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and its “most expressive form.”  Then Euripides intervened, imposing the withering literalistic interpretation of “the typical Hellene” or paltry rationalist on the properly mythic material of the most sublime of poetic genres.  “What was your wish,” Nietzsche proposes rhetorically, “when you tried to force that dying myth into your service once more.”  Nietzsche means the Myth of Dionysus, which, as he addresses directly the playwright, “died beneath your violent hands.”  Euripides, so Nietzsche claims, sacrilegiously “abandoned Dionysus,” substituting “sophistical dialectic” for the ancient Dithyramb, and giving to his characters “counterfeit, masked passions” and “counterfeit, masked speeches.”  Nietzsche’s accusatory phrase, “violent hands,” works a bold verbal legerdemain, especially considering Euripides’ final play, The Bacchae, which concerns itself with the same deity in whose cult and celebrations tragedy had its birth.  With his second person formal, his “you,” Nietzsche assumes the stance of a public prosecutor, pointing his finger of indictment at the defendant and calling out the cultural equivalent of a capital crime.  That crime is sacrilege.  Nietzsche even compounds his indictment: “Through [Euripides] everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage.”  Euripides, a kind of coward and panderer, stirred the mob into profaning the sacred scene, so that he might deflect guilt from himself.  The district attorney knows better. He will bring home his charge.

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Lectures d’été (Sélections de Juillet)

Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), In Search of Order (Opus Posthumous, 1987): In Search of Order followed the fourth volume of Order and History, or The Ecumenic Age, by thirteen years; and The Ecumenic Age followed the second and third volumes, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, by seventeen years.  The first volume of the tetralogy, Israel and Revelation, appeared in 1956, but Voegelin commenced Order and History when he abandoned his multi-volume History of Political Ideas in the early 1950s, so that the former had its taproot in a decade of research.  Order and History resists summary.  In the most general terms, it explores the hypothesis that civilizational development is inseparable from two other processes: The unfolding of consciousness from mythic compactness to philosophical articulation and the “pneumopathological” resistance that constantly dogs civilization’s quest for the Logos.  While Voegelin left In Search of Order unfinished, the completed portion possesses integrity.  It includes a comparative reading of two works that no one else ever bracketed for contrapuntal analysis: Hesiod’s Theogony, an Eighth-Century BC genealogy of the divine order, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), which attempts to frame History and thereby to make of Hegel’s authorship History’s consummation.  Voegelin’s opening chapter meditates on the paradox of beginnings, posing the question, “Where does the beginning begin?”  Consciousness, Voegelin argues, necessarily initiates every task with recollection.  This sentence thus depends on a previous one even if it commences the essay.  It depends on the English language, which depends on its foretongues.  Speculation reaches only so far.  Whereas at some moment language exists, in the previous moment it existed not; but what existed then was not nothing.  The barrier to knowledge remains impassable, however, because, as Voegelin writes, “the men who were present [at the origin of language] left no record of the event but language itself.”

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Eric Voegelin on Gnostic Modernity

Voegelin 01

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985)

A previous essay to this one on José Ortega y Gasset began with the claim that the past speaks to the present more pertinently than the present speaks to itself, but that the present, in assessing itself as the culmination of human advancement, actively disdains the past and prefers to stuff its ears.  The essence of the modern psyche – which Ortega explores in his Revolt of the Masses (1930) – is paradoxically to be at once emphatically assured of its knowledge and wisdom but, in Ortega’s phrase, conscientiously ignorant of anything outside its radically narrow field of expertise, which it mistakes for a totality.  The modern mind cuts itself off from the stream of human experience, oblivious, in its conceit, to the necessity of temporality, memory, and history in the very constitution of consciousness.  Ortega’s phenomenology of the arrogant, self-limiting, and abjectly self-unaware subject finds a counterpart in the first important work of a thinker belonging to the generation after the Spaniard – The New Science of Politics (1952) by Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), who left Austria after the Anschluss, came to the U.S.A., and eventually obtained a fellowship in political science at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where he practiced from 1969 to 1985.  In The New Science, Voegelin advanced his thesis, which he would elaborate in subsequent books and essays, that modernity is “Gnostic,” a term referring to a set of exotic theologies, parasitizing on Christianity, which troubled the religious landscape of Late Antiquity, particularly in period of the Second and Third Centuries, and reemerged in the Middle Ages.

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