Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia

Return to the Future 01

Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise.  An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior.  The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition.  Modern people must grapple with ideology.  The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness.  But this endeavor is complicated by the fact that contemporary ideology claims, of itself, to be a critique of ideology.  This verbal legerdemain began with Karl Marx, who identified the emergent industrial order as the ideology that he named Capitalism, to which his own Communism was supposed to be the clarifying antidote.  The ability to negotiate such a mental hall-of-mirrors is rarer than it should be.  Those who can do it – or have done it – deserve to be commemorated.

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Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

Great Chain

Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873 – 1962), The Great Chain of Being – A Study of the History of an Idea (1936): Lovejoy’s book joins the rank of those, once located in the “must read” category, that steadily fade into an obscurity, which they by no means deserve.  The horizon of intellect in Anno Domine 2020 has retracted so far that the scope of Lovejoy’s learning lies beyond it; no Great Chain of Being exists for the contemporary mind, which obsesses perpetually over somatic trivialities, so much so that it forfeits the dignity implicit in the label of mind.  Lovejoy is aware of folkloristic precursors to the idea of the Great Chain, but he sees the fully articulate expression of it as emerging in Plato’s Timaeus and in the essays, collected as the Enneads, that make up Plotinus’ Third-Century Neoplatonism.  In Chapter II of The Great Chain – “Genesis of the Idea” – Lovejoy divines the dialectic of “otherworldliness” with “this-worldliness” as the urgency behind his titular metaphor.  “Having arrived at the conception of the Idea of Ideas,” as Lovejoy writes, Plato “finds in just this transcendent and absolute Being the necessitating logical ground of this world.”  The apparent flux of existence, which stands in tension with the conceptual, takes its explanation, not only in what Lovejoy calls “the Intellectual World,” but in a Creative Intellect that generates the world.  Becoming provides the bottom floor, or perhaps the basement, of the universal structure, which, unlike a this-worldly structure, a Parthenon or a Mausoleum, the Master Architect builds from the roof down to the foundation – or rather the roof is the foundation.  The Master Architect’s kallokagathos permeates the cosmos in the form of “a Self-Transcending Fecundity.”  A common interpretation of Plato – that the philosopher finds the realm of matter inferior to the realm of spirit – strikes Lovejoy as false.  Lovejoy extends this judgment to Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorously otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient Absolute, that the necessity of this world… is deduced.”

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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

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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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Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Giuseppi Tvoli (1854 1925) - Richard Wagner (ca. 1865)

Giuseppe Tivoli (1854 – 1925): Portrait of R. Wagner (ca. 1865)

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.  Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

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Readings of Winter-Spring (Selections)

Philosophy of Inequality 02 (Larger)

Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published in 1923 – translated by Father Stephen Janos): Berdyaev appends an elaborate subtitle, Letters to My Contemners, Concerning Social Philosophy, and indeed the book avails itself of the epistolary style, addressing the “contemners” directly via the second person plural.  (The translator makes deliberate use of the archaic Ye.)  Written during Berdyaev’s ordeal under incipient Bolshevism, but published only after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which occurred in September of 1922, The Philosophy of Inequality consists of fourteen letters on a carefully calculated sequence of topics, beginning with “The Russian Revolution” and ending with “The Kingdom of God.”  With The Philosophy of Inequality, Berdyaev achieves a rhetorical tour-de-force.  In the age of Leftwing “wokeness,” Berdyaev’s book reacquires its knife-edged relevancy, conveying to its readers, among many other things, that while the revolutionary mentality might justify itself in its vaunted progress, it remains mired in the dreary slogans of 1848, which themselves in their day never rose above the crassest ressentiment.  “The world is entering upon such an arduous and answerable time,” Berdyaev writes in the opening of the First Letter, “in which religiously there has to be exposed everything duplicitous, twofold, hypocritical and unenduring.”  The proper instrument for this exposure is “the sword that Christ has brought.”  According to the philosopher, “By the spiritual sword [there] has to be a cleaving apart of the world into those standing for Christ and those standing against Christ.”  Under Berdyaev’s conviction, Christ stands not with the advocates of equality.  He stands rather with those who first acknowledge and then strive to realize His redemptive gift of the person.  In the Second Letter, Berdyaev writes of the insurrectionists how, “Ye deny and ye destroy the person, all ye proclaimers of materialistic revolution, socialists and anarchists, radicals and democrats of various stripes, leveling and making a hodge-podge of all, ye proponents of the religion of equality.”

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Quantum Physics and Reality: a preemptive response

(For someone who is offering to prove that quantum physics is spiritual.)

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The idea that quantum physics could describe or point to spiritual reality is a claim of the grossest positivism. Positivism, the notion that all that is true is captured by the methods of science, is the product of a rationalistic delusion. It has proven itself completely unable to describe human existence in any satisfactory manner. Plato was correct when he described physical reality as the shadows on the back wall of a cave – not even a copy of primary reality, but a copy of a copy. Continue reading

Of Which We May Speak: Meditations on Irony

Things I Hate

The intelligentsia professes to admire irony.  In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic.  In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason.  Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi.  “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA.  He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe.  The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root.  The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height.  Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything.  Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.

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H. G. Wells as Religious Thinker

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The Public Intellectual

Those who might nowadays think of Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) – they run to fewer and fewer with the passing years – will rarely, or perhaps never, have thought of him in terms of his religion.  They would most probably assume on glancing acquaintance with him that of religion he had none.  Wells’ contemporary popular image, insofar as he retains one, invites people to admire him for his advocacy of science – in a manner, as it seems, strictly and materialistically defined; for his impatience with established institutions, and for his dedication to building a global utopian society on a basis of technocratic socialism far beyond the petty and doctrinal socialism of the Twentieth Century.  Those acquainted haphazardly with Wells’ biography might also possess vague awareness of his irritable late-in-life anti-Catholicism.  During World War II, for example, in a vitriolic pamphlet entitled Crux Ansata (1944), Wells urged the Allies to send an air fleet that would flatten the Eternal City and, by good luck, send Pope Pius XII and the Curia in an ignominious fugue to the afterlife.  As Wells saw it, the Roman Church had entwined itself so thoroughly and guiltily with Mussolini’s corporatist Italy, as a type of “Shinto Catholicism,” that its city-state and administrative capitol qualified as a prime target for high-explosive bombs along with the rest of the Eternal City.  In a newspaper interview in March, 1944, Wells referred to “this dying, corrupting octopus of the Roman Catholic Church.”  Rhetorical sallies like those, rising to the baroque in their extravagance, and others like them that had emerged spasmodically during Wells’ authorship, have no doubt contributed to the picture of Wells as bigoted and invidious in his regard of religion.  The picture generalizes too much, however, and for that reason guarantees its own falsehood.  Even the cranky Crux Ansata contains many mitigating passages, especially concerning the early Church, with the spirit of which Wells identified strongly.

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A Winter’s Reading (Selections)

Ong

Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982):  Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking.  They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic.  (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture.  Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture.  In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.”  For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture.  Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself.  Speech is time-bound.  To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance.  Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed.  “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.”  The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas.  Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.

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