Of Possible Interest

My essay A Westerner Reads the Koran appears at the Gates of Vienna website.  In it, I offer a type of reader-response critique of the second surah of the Koran.  That surah bears the title “The Cow,” which possibly entails a rather oblique allusion to the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus or, as a scholarly footnote suggests, to a passing reference to an occasion of heifer-sacrifice overseen by Moses, as recounted in Numbers.  I offer an extract:

The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement.  Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity.  Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as does its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish.  The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both a middle-part and an end.  The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony.  After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle-part, and an end.  In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale.  The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad.  The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition contributes mightily to their seriousness and comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New also sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose.  This consideration helps the reader.  To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing.  The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view.  A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, borrowing the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.

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.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: More on Angels

In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:

What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?

… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?

Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?

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Puritanism Again

Hooker 01 Portrait Left-Glancing

Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600)

In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597), theologian Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600) undertook one of the earliest comprehensive critiques of Puritanism – specifically of the insurgent English Puritanism of his day.  Hooker’s analysis of the tactics of agitation and propaganda used by the Puritans, and again of the narrowness of the Puritan consciousness, so impressed the political philosopher Eric Voegelin that he devoted a chapter of his New Science of Politics (1952) to it – Chapter 5, “Gnostic Revolution: The Puritan Case.”  Voegelin’s thesis that the modern or progressive mentality revived the Gnosticism of Late Antiquity might indeed be said to have sprung, in no little part, from his reading of Hooker’s exposition.  Voegelin’s “Second Reality,” the radical vision of a reformed and utopian cosmos to be realized through the conversion or annihilation of all parties who resist it, finds a powerful anticipation in Hooker’s description of the agitator’s cause and his method of seducing gullible others to underwrite it.  According to Voegelin modernity is Gnostic by virtue of its four central conceits, all of which are deformations of Christian symbolism: (1) The linked conceptions of history as closed, such that its plan might be discerned and even hastened, and of redemption as entirely this-worldly and within the capacity of man to effect; (2) the necessity of a leader styling himself as “Paracletic”; (3) the “prophet of the new age,” who might be identical with the leader; and (4) “the brotherhood of autonomous person.”  Voegelin finds that Hooker recognizes these four conceits in the ultra-protestant sects of his day.

Hooker’s Elizabethan prose style, with its many postponements of the final clause, puts obstacles in the way of comprehension so that Voegelin, in his commentary, wisely quotes from the book selectively and otherwise contents himself with paraphrasing its arguments and insights.  It is nevertheless worth the effort to read Hooker’s original exposition as fully as possible.  I have made some slight alterations in Hooker’s syntax, mainly by eliding supernumerary clauses, so as to render the long sentences a bit more comprehensible to a Twenty-First Century reader.  The suite of paragraphs below, taken from the Preface of The Laws, constitutes the heart of Hooker’s analysis.  In addition to simplifying Hooker’s syntax, I have introduced the paragraphing.  In my facsimile of the original there is no paragraphing whatsoever.  I remark in advance with no little surprise that Hooker, like Oswald Spengler, makes reference to the Pythagoreans as a prototype of Puritanism.  I offer a few comments after the transcription. –

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What is Puritanism?

P 01 Spengler Left-Glancing

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)

In our sessions at Old City Hall, Richard Cocks and I often exchange ideas with our friend Richard Fader – a true Christian gentleman whom we both greatly admire – and among the recurrent topics is that of Puritanism.  Fader, as we call him, is part libertarian, part social conservative, well read, and a lively conversationalist.  The question used continuously to come up: Who are the Puritans of the present day?  Fader, who despite his socially conservative instincts, has voted Democratic all his life, was, when these colloquies began, all too ready to identify the Puritans with the people whom he called “conservatives.”  Richard and I, who work on the same college campus, have repeatedly explained to our friend that it is not “conservatives” who want to ban free speech, who physically threaten speakers with whom they disagree in order to silence them, or who abuse public institutions for the purpose of political indoctrination.  It is not “conservatives” who preach the lynch-mob sermons of our day.  Fanaticism and hatred, we have argued, are nowadays located almost entirely on the political left, which has taken over the Democratic Party and just about every institution.  As Fader has come around significantly on the issue, the question has changed from its original form to become one of definition: What is Puritanism?  I recently came across a provocative definition of Puritanism in a book that I periodically re-read.

The extended passage below comes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), where it appears in Chapter IX, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.”  Chapter IX is the third of three chapters that Spengler devotes to what he calls “The Problems of Arabian Culture.” The “problems” that Spengler discusses are both intrinsic to Arabian Culture and associated with the Western misinterpretation of Arabian Culture.  In the original, the passage is one long paragraph. I have broken it into three shorter paragraphs in order to facilitate its reading.  I offer a few glosses and comments after the quotation.

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Nicolas Berdyaev on the Despiritualization of the West

Berdyaev 01 Portrait Face Forward

Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948)

My long-term ongoing project involves reading backwards into the critique of modernity, resurrecting from the archive writers who fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred years ago, intuited prophetically where such trends as democracy, utilitarianism, and the technocratic conception of science were taking mankind – and who foresaw accurately just how deformed morally and socially Western civilization was likely to become.  The writers in question, with a few exceptions, are today largely forgotten or are remembered under a false image or for spurious reasons.  The names of Karen Blixen, Gustave Le Bon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julius Evola, René Guénon, Hermann Keyserling, Peter Ouspensky, Oswald Spengler, T. Lothrop Stoddard, and Sigrid Undset, among others, have appeared in a series of articles, most of them at The Brussels Journal.  I wish, however, to devote the present occasion to a renewed discussion of the Russian writer-philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whom the encyclopedias of ideas classify variously, not to say confusingly, as a Christian Existentialist, a Russian Nietzschean, a Neo-Platonist, a follower of Vladimir Solovyev, or an out-and-out mystic and subjectivist.  Berdyaev is perhaps a bit of each of these, while being also much more than any of them.  Academic philosophers have either never heard of Berdyaev or, knowing of him at second hand, perhaps from an encyclopedia article, and being unable to fit him into any Positivist or Postmodern framework, dismiss him summarily.

One might fairly assert that Berdyaev did himself little good publicity-wise by cultivating a style of presentation which, while often resolving its thought-processes in a brilliant, aphoristic utterance, nevertheless takes its time, looks at phenomena from every aspect, analyzes every proposition to its last comma and period, and tends to assert its findings bluntly rather than to argue them politely in the proper syllogistic manner.  In Berdyaev’s defense, a sensitive reader might justifiably interpret his leisurely examination of the modern agony as a deliberate and quite appropriate response to the upheavals that harried him from the time of the 1905 Revolution to the German occupation of France during World War II.  If the Twentieth Century insisted on being precipitate and eruptive in everything, without regard to the lethal mayhem it wreaked, then, by God, Berdyaev, regarding his agenda, would take his sweet time.  Not for him the constant mobilized agitation, the sloganeering hysteria, the goose-stepping and dive-bombing spasms of modernity in full self-apocalypse.  That is another characteristic of Berdyaev – he is all at once leisurely in style and apocalyptic in content.  Berdyaev was quite as apocalyptic in his expository prose as his idol Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his ethical narrative, and being a voice of revelation he expressed himself, again like Dostoevsky, in profoundly religious and indelibly Christian terms.  Berdyaev follows Dostoevsky and anticipates Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that no society can murder God, as Western secular society has gleefully done, and then go its insouciant way, without consequence.

The titles of Berdyaev’s numerous books, especially when taken in chronological order, tell a story all by themselves: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), The End of Our Time (1924), Christianity and Class War (1931), The Destiny of Man (1931), The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Christianity and Anti-Semitism (1938), Slavery and Freedom (1939), Spirit and Reality (1946), and The Beginning and the End (1947), among many others.  There is also a posthumous Truth and Revelation (1954).  I call attention to the earliest of the listed titles, The Meaning of the Creative Act.  Berdyaev began his career as a philosophical writer (he never completed his doctorate) with an ambitious study of aesthetics, his theory of which locates the purest manifestation of the highest value of his worldview, freedom, in the labor that generates the work of art and beyond that in all the highest effects of the artwork in its context.  At the end of Berdyaev’s life, he wrote the essays that constitute Truth and Revelation, one of his several ventures into the philosophical-theological sub-genre of theodicy, in which he invokes a “creative response to the appeal of God.”  Whereas in the Catholic and even more so in the Lutheran and Calvinist variants of Christianity there is, according to Berdyaev, a strong “sociomorphic” or “legalistic” distortion of Christian doctrine; in Russian Orthodox commentary, by contrast, “the coming of the Christ has been understood not as a reparation for sin, nor as the offering of a ransom, but as the continuation of the creation of the world and the appearance of the New Adam.”  In Berdyaev’s view, “What God expects from man is not servile submission, not obedience, not the fear of condemnation, but free creative acts.”  Berdyaev adds in an aside that, “I wrote on this subject some while ago in The Meaning of Creativeness,” that is, The Meaning of the Creative Act.  Thus Berdyaev’s work exhibits a remarkable closure, returning at the end to its beginnings, linking as it were its omega with its alpha.

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Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

Waltari 01 Dark Angel Cover

Early 1960s Paperback Edition

The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.  One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons.  Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology.  Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society.  The novel operates intellectually at a high level.  So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release.  The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s.  Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset.  Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.

All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict.  It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia.  Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II.  Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground.  In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944.  These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.

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Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis: Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Mark of the Sacred

Dupuy 06 Wicker Man

The Wicker Man of the Pagan Celts

Gregory Copley has argued in his study of Un-Civilization (2014) that the global human arrangement, a creeping improvisation of the last three or four centuries, nowadays has outlived its ad hoc semi-functionality so that it totters on the verge of a radical spontaneous reconstruction whose survivors will have experienced it as nothing less than a catastrophe.  Eric Cline, in his recent study of The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), underscores the likelihood of such a calamity as the one that Copley predicts.  Cline marshals the details of an archaeologically attestable prototype of “systems collapse” that occurred around the date 1177 BC when a vast swath of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean literally went up in flames, inaugurating a “dark age” that in some places lasted four hundred years.  That it has happened increases the possibility that it might happen.  Jean-Pierre Dupuy, like Copley and Cline, is a student of crises, but unlike them he is primarily a religious thinker, one who takes seriously the insights of the man whom he calls the Albert Einstein of Twentieth-Century social science, René Girard.  Dupuy’s title, The Mark of the Sacred (2008; English, 2013), recalls the title of Girard’s seminal Violence and the Sacred (1966; English, 1972).  In that work, Girard discovered, in myth, ritual, and tragic poetry, the signs of a “sacrificial crisis” ubiquitously and regularly afflicting archaic societies.  In the sacrificial crisis, the social group suffers structural breakdown in rampant, violent mimesis or imitation that resolves itself through the production of an arbitrarily selected victim; the victim’s immolation then promotes him to godhead and generates the basic forms of culture.

One might think analogously of the basic architecture of the pyramid in relation to death-by-stoning: The former results from the latter, concealing the victim under an aesthetically pleasing form that dissimulates its own origin.

As Girard sees it, and as Dupuy reiterates, this “scapegoat mechanism” made humanity, but it also entrapped humanity in the closed epistemology, gory practice, and mendacious rhetoric, stomach-churning to inspect, of the sacred.  In Girard’s argument, which Dupuy again adopts, people could not begin to escape the delusion of the sacred until the decisive event of Christ’s Passion, as recorded in the four Gospels.  In The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explores the implications of this – to him – persuasive view.  Those implications entail, among other things, a reassessment of existing normative models of economics, political theory, cognitive science, and, indeed, modernity’s total view of itself.  The prideful, deforming error of modernity, as Dupuy demonstrates in a series of five topically various but logically closely-related chapters, is to believe fanatically in its own claim to be thoroughly and justifiably secular, thus licensing itself to reject everything that it categorizes as religious or irrational.  In itself, Dupuy’s case is hardly unprecedented.  Among others and as early as the beginning of the Nineteenth Century S. T. Coleridge and Joseph de Maistre identified the Revolution, that declaration of an absolute break with all tradition, as essentially religious, but as by no means an advance beyond the Christianity that it condemned.  Yet Dupuy, assimilating Girard, takes this argument in new directions.

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The Form of Forms is Itself Formless

That which has no form cannot be conceived – and vice versa. It’s easy to see that this is so when we try to think of what a square circle is like, or a four-sided triangle.

But, let’s talk about God.

To put the same thing another way: that than which no greater can be conceived by any mind cannot be conceived by any mind. If that than which no greater can be conceived could be conceived by any mind, then that mind would insofarforth understand how its conception of that thing could be surpassed, and would realize that in conceiving of it he had not yet quite conceived of that than which no greater can be conceived. He would realize that he had not been thinking of the unsurpassable. He would, i.e., realize that he had been thinking, not of God, but rather of something like Gaunilo’s Island, than which always some greater island might be conceived.

So, here’s the shocking consequence of these considerations: Not even God can conceive himself.

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