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.
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.”
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.
Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.
Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading
The Social Pathologist has made an intriguing point about the secularization of the West. Explanations of the disappearance of Christianity, whether provided by unbelievers or by believers, operate entirely on the natural plane of sociology and culture. They give reasons why, for example, changes in social structure or technology might make the Christian God less plausible or attractive. However, Christians believe that faith is a gift from God, a supernaturally infused virtue. Purely natural explanations of secularization don’t necessarily assume that divine stimulus to faith is unimportant, but they implicitly assume that it is roughly constant, an assumption with little scriptural or theological warrant. Should we not instead entertain the hypothesis that God has simply withdrawn the grace of faith from mankind?
Son: Dad, you got a minute?
Father: Sure, kiddo, what’s up?
Son: I’ve been reading Genesis, and …
Father: Whoa, hold on. You’ve been reading Genesis?
Son: Well, yeah, and …
Father: [sotto voce] Thanks be to God.
Son: … I’m worried about it.
Father: OK, no problem [girding his loins]; what are you worried about?
Son: Well, it just didn’t happen the way it says in the Bible.
Father: And you know that because …
Son: Well, my teachers told me how it happened.
Father: [grinning sardonically] And they know better than the Bible because …
If Universalism is true, you can’t choose to be damned. On the contrary, you are saved, sooner or later, no matter what you ever do. So, you are not free. No matter what you do, or fail to do, you shall be saved. So, it can’t really matter to you, what you do, or how horrible the consequences of what you do. How could it, since you are not free?
Sin on then, right? Knock yourself out! What’s the problem with that?
On Christian orthodoxy, you are free to choose – and, to bear the consequences. So, there is a moral order to things, that cannot be gainsayed. In that case, your choices matter. In no other way might they be available for you to make in the first place.
Which shall it be? Are you free, or not?
Go for it.
Bearing in mind, of course, that, on universalism, *you cannot go for it.* On the contrary: on universalism, your choices are moot; are not, in the end, choices at all; for, you are not free – including the choice of whether to be a universalist.
Easter is the only reason to be optimistic. If the Resurrection didn’t happen, then no man can be resurrected. In that case, death will certainly and totally consume all the things we care about. Life might go well for a time, to be sure. But it will all end in sorrow; and that end, that sorrow and pain, will be permanent, and incorrigible, and total. It will take all of us, and all our works. None of it will come to anything. All will be lost.
Several students, reading Ivan Karamazov’s account of the suffering of innocents, particularly little children, in the The Brothers Karamazov, take God to task for allowing this misery and declare his non-existence in the name of mercy and compassion. This empathy for the poor and downtrodden, the weak and the vulnerable, is perfectly Christian. Jesus befriended the anathematized, the tax collectors, who collected taxes for the Roman overlords, not for the benefit of local affairs, and the prostitutes, not the powerful and well-regarded. Jesus is God made man, taking on all the sufferings and misery of the human condition, dying crucified on the cross. A spiritual Messiah, rather than the conquering Messiah the Jews imagined who would rule the world. Continue reading
A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded: