Guest Post: What is Christian Politics? (Part II)

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The Creation of Adam (ca. 1512) by Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)

The following is Part II of the essay “What is Christian Politics?” by Tsoncho Tsonchev. Part I is here.

The dream of success is the narcotic of the modern age and when its dazzling effect disappears a spiritual devastation follows. We speak about personal “success” and the “national.” There is no essential difference between these two. Both “successes” require sacrifices for the achievement of an imaginary goal, and the greatest and most troublesome of all is the sacrifice of morality. Morality is tightly connected with Christianity and natural inclinations (the moral sense in the “heart” of man or the so-called natural law). When Christianity disappears from politics and social relations, and only “success” is left, competition and striving follow. Moved by desire for success and a corrupted sense of competition, Cain killed his brother. Disappointed by the “success” of Abel and by his supposed “failure,” Cain committed the greatest crime. God asked him, “Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; you are its object of desire, but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:6) Cain should not be angry, because the success of Abel was a result of his natural inclination, of a gift through which he serves the society of men and God. Cain should do what is right, that is, should accept his situation, as Paul advises, and respect the dignity of God and his brother, and continue to abide in his calling. His service would be certainly accepted, as God tells him, and it would be accepted even with a greater favor, because he would pass the test of time, and would prove that his service is perfect, that he is not under the power of sin, but masters it with his profession of “fruit-giving.” But he did not abide. He separated himself from what is right, and fell under the power of sin.

“A complete separation of morality and politics constitutes one of the prevalent errors and evils of our century,” Vladimir Soloviev writes in his introduction to the National Question in Russia (1891).[1] From a Christian point of view, the domain of morality and the domain of politics should be connected, Soloviev argues. He says that “in the common life of humanity, the kingdom of Evil and discord is a fact; but the goal is the kingdom of God, and towards this goal the intermediate transition from ugly reality is called Christian politics.”[2] Soloviev points out that there is a constant confusion in the understanding of the word “national interest.” If the national interest is considered as “supremacy,” “outward might,” “wealth,” upward “mobility” on the international stage, if it is related with the Dream for individual national success, then this understanding would “justify,” as it has been noted, “all sorts of crimes.” As a Christian, Soloviev insists that “national interest” as upward mobility towards supremacy is not the goal of state politics. He explains that “true patriotism” must be in accordance not with greed for power and influence, nor with the competitive spirit for world dominance, but with “Christian conscience.” When Satan took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world with their glory, and told him, “All this I will give you, if you fall down and worship me,” how did Jesus answer? “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” (Matt. 4:8-10) Jesus abode in his situation and calling, and he listened to his conscience. He did not revolt against the authority of God. Christian conscience is the collective inner feeling that makes the nation abide in its service, respectful of the authority of other nations and to the will of God, and that tells the nation (or the person) what its true mission, calling, and aim are. Therefore, the interest of the truly Christian nation “does not require and absolutely does not permit international cannibalism.”[3] The slogan “My nation first!”—a cry for dominance and individual national success—is a result, basically, of daemonic temptation that would end, inevitably, in ruin. This has been proved time and again in history.

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Meditations & Divagations on Two Sonnets

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The Sacred Grove (1886) by Arnold Boecklin (1827 – 1901)

Of the French Symbolist School of poetry, Nicolas Berdyaev writes in his Crisis of Art (1917) that its contributors not only acutely sensed the profound spiritual crisis that had shaken and shattered Western culture since the Eighteenth Century at least, but attempted a new, redemptive synthesis that would function as the equivalent of “the sacral art of the ancient world and of the Medieval world.”  (The translation is that of Father S. Janos.)  The Symbolist poets, as Berdyaev plausibly describes their aspiration, “wanted to lead art out of the crisis through a return to the organic artistic era”; they sensed that the arts “are a product of differentiation” of an historical type, and that they “derived from a temple and cultic origin… developed from an organic unity” and “were subordinated to a religious center.”  The Symbolists, Berdyaev asserts, were the last Western artists to strive for pure beauty before the schools of aschemiolatry, in a spasm of “empty freedom,” began their program of bespattering the cosmos with mud and offal.  Berdyaev even ascribes to the Symbolists a theurgic propensity.  In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), he defines theurgic art as “creating another world, another being, another life,” even to the extent of “creating beauty as essence, as being.”  (The translator identifies himself only as “D. A. L.”)   For the Russian, theurgy in art consists in a revelation of “the religious-ontological, the religious meaning of being.”  Theurgy, as “free creation,” seeks to imitate, under the limitations of mortality and temporality, the original creative act of the World Maker, not so as to challenge, but only so as to imitate, the God whose image man bears.  The Symbolists in this way make themselves followers of such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach, artists who attributed their creativity hence also their creations not to themselves but, as faithful Monothreeists, to the Three-in-One.

Berdyaev’s observations in The Creative Act and The Crisis are themselves strongly indebted to the poetry and prose of the Symbolists, not least to the musings of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, but also to the works of Richard Wagner and Alexander Scriabin.  Like their Kiev-born inheritor, the Symbolists were mainly reactionary – as the cases of Baudelaire and Wagner well illustrate.  Again like Berdyaev, the Symbolists combined in their creative work and in the explanations thereof their keen sense of transcendence, their anthropological clarity, and their profound vision of cultural decline.  Such men were somewhat paradoxically modern in asserting new genres in their respective artistic domains while at the same time both rejecting modernity per se and advocating for the virtues of the West’s pre-modern phases, sometimes in the Middle Ages and sometimes in antiquity.  The Symbolists also tended to valorize Christianity.  In Mallarmé’s Coup de dès or Roll of the Dice (1897), for example, whose bewildering anti-verses seem in their typographic dispersion to represent the chaos of false freedom, Christ appears as “Le Maître,” “The Master,” who is also the early Nineteenth Century Right-Catholic critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.  Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), whom Mallarmé took as his model, explicitly identified himself as the successor of the same Maistre.  In these essential gestures, Symbolism links itself to the larger reactionary critique of “progress” and “revolution” that first becomes explicit in Edmund Burke and in the very same Maistre.  The Symbolists must then exert considerable allure on the reactionary, anti-modern consciousness of the early Twenty-First Century – one hopes.

The present essay proposes to examine two short Symbolist poems, both sonnets, and both from the early phases of the movement.  These are “Vers dorés” (1846) by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855) and “Correspondences” (1857) by Baudelaire, the latter appearing in the poet’s famous verse-anthology Les Fleurs du Mal or Flowers of Evil.  In its commentary on the two poems, the essay will bring to bear the insights into Symbolism of Berdyaev, certain elements of the anthropologies of Maistre and René Girard, and the Weltanschauung and generalized convictions of the reactionary consciousness of the Twenty-First Century.  The mixture might strike readers as a bit arbitrary or even as vertiginous, but its fundamental coherency should gradually make itself evident.  It is a premise of the reactionary consciousness that art is fundamentally conservative and that in its highest expression it is a species of prophesy or apocalypse, at once illuminating the fallenness of the world and pointing the fallen creature towards transcendence of its condition.

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Be Not Afraid

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:10-11

There are tough times ahead. Things are likely to get a lot worse before they get any better. Not that famine or plague threaten us, or even incipient war; for the time being, we are still coddled, yes and swaddled too, into a comfortable immobility, by our continued prosperity and remaining might. But for conservatives, for traditionalists and reactionaries in particular, and in general for anyone who holds normal moral convictions, a time of persecution – political, social, economic – appears to have dawned, especially if they happen to be Christian. There is reason to expect that, even in this time of burgeoning prosperity, the sword of the state might descend upon the necks of such as we.

And of course, there are good reasons to worry about global war and pandemic, and so famine. Things could go badly off the rails at any moment. This is always so, to be sure. But our condition along these dimensions seems now particularly delicate. One feels that we are poised at the verge of an abyssal precipice. Continue reading

The Later Thought of Rene Girard

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Rene Girard (1923 – 2015)

History, and increasingly the mere daily record of events, are together apocalyptic.  They lay bare human nature for what it is primordially before the agonizing laboratory of the millennia creates the Christian society that its beneficiaries, swiftly taking it for granted, petulantly reject that they might go “forward” into a liberated horizon beyond the one defined by the Gospel. “Progress” names that particular folly. A blood-drenched folly it is, beginning with the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century and reaching fullness with the mobilization of the whole society fomented by the Jacobins and institutionalized by their superman-successor, Napoleon Bonaparte. From the guillotine henceforth, modernity blurts itself sanguinely in the Commune, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, and resurgent Islam (Jihad), which continues belatedly the sparagmatic trend of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century. Yet despite the academy’s authoritative three-decades-long declaration of Dionysiac “Postmodernism,” despite the polysyllables of doctrine-inebriated intellectuals, Modernity in its lynch-mob vehemence has not succeeded in realizing its rainbow utopia. No fulfillment of the destructive quest heaves in prospect. Modernity spirals with dizzying speed to its destined abyss, dragging with it those who know full well its madness but who find themselves sucked along with the lunatics into the maelstrom of psychosis.

The contemporary West resembles nothing so much as an archaic society in the full panic of social breakdown, searching desperately for the scapegoats whose immolation will induce the gods to intervene. So perverse has Modernity become that people eagerly seek victim-status although of course they can only do so by indicting other people as their persecutors. The old gesture of designating the victim has therefore been turned inside out and the nomenclature along with it. Objects of collective passion, those who are about to die at the hands of the mob, are now called victimizers, not victims.

No one can fully understand the contemporary situation without first understanding archaic religiosity, and archaic religiosity only reveals its meaning in contrast with the higher, scriptural religiosity, which at one time informed the civilized condition. In the same degree as the contemporary West spurns the spiritual maturity of Judaism and Christianity, its situation reverts to archaic patterns. Thus, in the sacrosanct name of “Progress” – wretched regress. And in tandem with that regress travels the obliteration both of consciousness and conscience, as the individuated man dissolves into the moral crudity of the Caliban-collective. No one has understood archaic religiosity – no one understands the modern age as a case of accelerating sacrificial panic – with greater clarity and penetration than René Girard (1923 – 2015), who remained intellectually active right up to his death. Two late books by Girard, Evolution and Conversion (2008) and Battling to the End (2010), demand attention from those who sense that the liberal-secular order ever more excruciatingly confronts and denies the revelation of its own nullity.

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

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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?

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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.

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Christian Soteriology Proper Forestalls Specious Holiness Spirals

We can’t work our way into Heaven, for finity is incapable of infinity. Indeed, we cannot achieve anything greater than ourselves, whatever; but only, rather, what is lesser than we. So, Heaven is given to us gratuitously. Our work consists only in accepting its invitation; in wu wei.

So then, there is a difference between interior holiness spirals and exterior holiness spirals. The former are done in secret, and in service of true spiritual ends, so as to accept the invitation of the Logos; whereas the latter are done publicly, and for purposes of social advantage. As essentially worldly, exterior holiness spirals partake the Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom. They are motivated by the urge to be accepted and approved by the mob. So do they accept the conditions of the mob, and instantiate it.

The Pharisee is an agent of the mob.

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The Indispensable Political Primacy of Sacerdotal Hierarchy

Authoritative sacerdotal hierarchy controls for competitive holiness spirals which, unconstrained, are vicious positive feedback cycles that cannot but end in schism and war – in cultural disaster.

Holiness spirals are not first a search for social status, but rather for ontological safety. Nevertheless, once they have got going, they do result in an arms race to see who is holiest, thus of the highest moral and political rank, and thus least suitable as a scapegoat.

They are driven not by the nisus toward excellence, but by fear. Nor – apart from the minds of the spiritually ingenious – is the fear that drives them fundamentally supernatural – which is to say, in sane minds, sane and proper – but rather mundane, social, profane, and as such – not being ordered to the Truth himself, but to a Fallen social milieu – fundamentally disordered.

Holiness spirals are, first, a search for the proper constraints of true sanctity and righteousness upon conduct. When there is no established sacerdotal hierarchy that can authoritatively define the unquestionable constraints of holiness and righteousness, and then offer people a way to get back within those constraints when they have strayed beyond their pale – that can give them a way to know that they have reached safe harbor – people are going to push and push toward holiness however they can discern it according to their own best lights, without let or correction, and without possibility of any satisfactory completion of the search (because a forecondition of success for any search is a definition of success – such as can be authoritatively furnished to the searcher only by an incontrovertible authority). Anyone who disagrees with the notions of those who find that as a result of their quest for holiness they themselves are of the holiest sort then becomes a legitimate scapegoat in their eyes, and so a social enemy. There is then mutual repudiation and scapegoating of adversarial sectarians; mutual excommunication; schism; and, with the ensuing conflict of irreconcilable cults, civil war either hot or cold.

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Utilitarianism: a new kind of evil

Rope

[I have so revised Utilitarianism: yet another sacrificial cult, including insights from my article The Trolley Problem Explained, and from thoughts arising from teaching this topic, that I am publishing this new version with a new title.]

Utilitarianism represents a nadir in philosophical moral reasoning, more corrupting and evil even than the spontaneous tendency to scapegoat.

Before Plato, the Ancient Greek attitude to morality was “help your friends, harm your enemies.” Modern people can see that such a point of view is grotesquely immoral. It is a description of corruption. Plato’s suggestion was “harm no one.” This is obviously a vast improvement.

The Bible states that “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus took this even further and said “love your enemy.” Continue reading

An Eu Logion of Zippy Catholic

The Catholic, Christian and Traditionalist community were shocked and appalled to learn last week that their pillar, blogger Zippy Catholic, had been killed in a bicycle accident last Tuesday evening while riding on a country road.

We are still struggling to reconcile ourselves to this new world, in which Zippy no longer roams about skewering sloppy thought, and so enlightening all of us his readers, interlocutors and students.

It was a severe and devastating blow, completely unanticipated. Zippy was neither old, nor – so far as we knew – ill. So his death came out of left field. No one was prepared for it. He had, we all thought, several decades more of good, fruitful work in him, that all of us would have enjoyed, and that would have profited us all, and man, and the whole human project. We looked forward to that prospect, blithely, happily, as if we possessed it already. Now, it is ripped away from us. We find ourselves bereft, lost, bewildered.

And: we miss him. We want him here with us, still. God damn the evil circumstance that took him from us. And – and – God bless that taking, as proper (as it must have been, necessarily) under the purveyance of Omniscience.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord. Amen. Lord, bless and keep thy faithful servant Zippy Catholic, and make him soon fit to enter into the coruscating Light of thy Holy Presence. Help and heal all his wounds, correct all his defects, and complete him. All this I pray, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen, amen. Hallelujah, hallelujah, thanks be to God. Amen, amen.

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