Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature

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Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) circa 1930

Nebraska-born of Swedish ancestry, Howard Harold Hanson (1896 ─ 1981) became by his mid-thirties what he had determined to become from an early age, the most popular American composer of serious music in the European concert tradition.  He had also become a sought-after teacher, orchestra leader, and musical administrator.  Hanson poured his seemingly inexhaustible vitality not only into the promotion of his own creativity, but, generously, into the promotion of his fellow composers, many of them, as time went on, his students at the Eastman School where he presided.  A radio documentary about the composer from the late 1980s revealed another side of the man.  Several of those interviewed by the producer complained – one of them indeed rather bitterly – about Hanson’s alleged egocentrism and insistence on getting his own way.  No doubt but that Hanson, believing himself a force, often stormed over those who, as he saw it, put themselves in the way of his schemes, his magnanimity in other circumstances notwithstanding.  The man being dead, however, and his personal entanglements being buried with him, the impressive practical and artistic achievements remain.  Paramount among these stands Hanson’s compositional legacy: Seven substantial symphonies, at least as many symphonic poems, a handful of concerted scores, numerous choral works, and an opera, which should have a more active place in the repertory, and not only by way of recordings.

With his contemporaries Roy Harris (1898 ─ 1979) and Aaron Copland (1900 ─ 1990), and with the slightly younger Samuel Barber (1910 ─ 1981), Hanson created a recognizably American sound in concert music, and demonstrated that American composers could adapt European musical forms to the conditions of a new society seeking to set its own mark on an inherited culture.  It is useful to compare Hanson’s legacy with the legacies of his countrymen-composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Harris certainly matched Hanson in egocentrism, maybe exceeding him; but Harris lacked Hanson’s talent, peaking with his Symphony No. 3 (1937), really an extended passacaglia for orchestra, and repeating himself, at ever lower levels, for the remainder of his career.  Copland began as an avant-garde composer in the 1920s, assimilating influences from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; he found his marketable voice in the “cowboy” ballets of the 1930s and the populist, large-scale Symphony No. 3 (1946), for whose finale he adapted his own earlier Fanfare for the Common Man.  Copland wrote a surprisingly small number of works and ceased to compose altogether after 1964.

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René Girard – Imitation and Life Without God

In preparation for teaching a literature course in the 1950s, René Girard reread some of the classic novels. In the process he realized that the novelists had had profound insights into aspects of the human condition and that to a large degree, they were the same insights…

In Deceit, Desire and the Novel, possibly René Girard’s best book, he argues that denying the existence of God does not remove the desire for transcendent meaning. Thwarted from seeking spiritual satisfaction from above, the desire gets directed towards other people who it is imagined have god-like qualities of self-sufficiency and autonomy and that we alone have been excluded from this divine status – creating resentment and compounding human misery.

Likewise, various utopian ideas are an attempt to create heaven on earth, frequently creating hell on earth. Trying to satisfy transcendent desires in the realm of the immanent is a disaster, both in politics and in relationships between people.

In this essay published at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, I also draw connections between Girard and St. Augustine’s notions of the role of God in human life.

René Girard – Imitation and Life Without God

Consciousness, Culture, and Art: Informal Comments on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

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Ou Li Da

The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War.  The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.”  In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts.  Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.

Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.

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The Illogicality of Determinism – Further Considerations

This article is now available at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum. Among other things, I argue that if physical determinism were true, then the appearance of intelligent behavior and the fact that car accidents, for instance, are the exception, not the rule, would be a mystery. Determinists typically want to banish God and consciousness – that is, our ordinary subjective experience of freely thinking, evaluating, deciding and having purposes – yet end up imbuing The Big Bang, by logical implication, with many of the properties of both God and consciousness, including omniscience, omnipotence, benevolence, purpose, intention and desire.

The link is The Illogicality of Determinism – Further Considerations.

It is a follow up to The Illogicality of Determinism.

And it is related to The Reflexive Problem in Analytic Philosophy – Illogical Logicians.

The Illogicality of Determinism

Physical determinism is the notion that all events, including thoughts and actions, are the result of cause and effect. Each effect is the result of a prior cause. Each effect is also the cause of some new effect, creating an endless causal chain.

C→E/C→E/C …

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From this point of view, every event is “necessary.” Given the cause, the effect must occur. Exactly what “must” and “necessary” mean here philosophers have found it difficult to say.

Every event is thought to be unavoidable in some way and a “necessary” consequence of preceding events.

If the Big Bang is taken as the first physical cause, then all subsequent events can be regarded as the result of that first cause, when time began. Thus, according to determinism, since the beginning of time, everyone’s thoughts and actions have been pre-determined and unavoidable. No deviation from this predestination is possible on this view. The “events” referred to would seem to include thoughts, on the assumption that brains generate consciousness.

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However, if physical determinism is true then the person arguing for it has no choice as to whether he believes in physical determinism or not, nor whether he argues for determinism or not. He is in the grip of physical forces beyond his control. It is as though someone pushed the cosmic “play” button and the arguer starts arguing for something he never had any choice but to believe and to argue for. He is the victim of circumstance. Why should any attention be paid to such a victim – to such a mindless and compulsive machine – to such an idiot? He has an unfortunately not so rare form of Tourette’s syndrome and should be pitied.

It is a farce. The farce gets worse when the person being blasted with this nonsense is considered. According to determinism, the interlocutor too has no choice whether he listens to the sounds the other madman makes, for he too is mad. He listens or does not listen compulsively. He agrees or does not agree with the determinist’s argument through no free will of his own. While the arguer is a cosmic tape machine playing its predetermined recording, the interlocutor is affected by blind physical forces himself. The outcome of this travesty masquerading as “reasoning” has been predetermined since the beginning of time and the exercise is pointless.

The image of two tape machines alone in a room together playing their scripted comments and responses comes to mind. Nobody and nothing is really asserting anything nor really responding. Determinism is consciousness denying. No meaningful “thinking” is occurring if the determinist is right.

Determinism has reflexive implications – it applies to the person arguing for determinism. All determinists that I have met in practice imagine that they can freely decide when and if they will argue for determinism. They imagine that it is possible to step in and out of determinism like it is a river. But determinism does not leave room for an “inside” and an “outside;” that’s the whole point. If it were possible to freely choose when to do something and when not to do something determinism would be false.

Some determinists argue that computers are deterministic machines that argue and can produce valid arguments and that proves that meaningful argument and physical determinism are compatible. This is supposed to support the notion that there is no problem imagining that arguing human beings are deterministic machines. The notion of deterministic computers is meant to provide evidence that humans might be deterministic.

However, computers are the product of human minds. They are explicitly programmed to do the things programmers want them to do. They argue as the programmer determine. As John Searle’s Chinese Room argument demonstrates, computers understand nothing – neither the input nor their own output. Computers are the physical medium by which human beings communicate with each other or derive answers to computational questions or do the things we wish. They are not the product of blind deterministic physical forces. Humans are governing what they do. If computers seem intelligent, it is because humans are.

If the determinist claims that computers are indeed the product of deterministic forces because human thought is the product of deterministic forces, then the determinist has simply assumed humans are not free in order to prove that humans are not free! Instead of using computers to prove that humans are determined, the determinist assumes humans are determined to prove that computers are determined to prove that humans are determined.

The purpose of a philosophical argument is supposed to be to provide evidence for controversial assertions. It is logically possible that determinism is true, but it is not logically possible to persuade someone that determinism is true because determinism precludes the possibility of logic and genuine persuasion in the context of controversial assertions.

Any argument that expresses skepticism about consciousness or the ability to think rationally is problematic and generates self-refuting paradoxes since the arguer is using the very thing he is arguing is untrustworthy to arrive at the conclusion that this thing is untrustworthy.

Reasoning and mindless physical forces are incompatible. If the phrase “mindless physical forces” seems question-begging, and mindful physical forces are postulated instead, then qualities of mind are being attributed to physical forces. This results in the situation where mind is thought to be affecting matter  affecting mind with matter as a simple intermediary between two aspects of mind – a cosmic mind (a giant thinking nature) and a parochial mind (human minds).

Do brains generate minds?

If brains do not generate minds, then physical determinism does not apply to thoughts.

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The brains in the diagram represent the same brain in different states – A, B and C. Under determinism, Brain State “A” causes Brain State “B” which in turn causes Brain State “C.” As a physical mechanism, the brain is following the laws of chemistry and physics. It can be imagined that each brain state is giving rise to a discrete thought. Brain State “A” (BSA) gives rise to the thought that “p → q” (If p, then q). BSB give rise to the thought that “p.” BSC gives rise to the thought “q.”

In the diagram above, the brains and the black arrows represent physical determinism; one brain state giving rise to another. The blue arrows point to thoughts produced by the brain states, namely the modus ponens argument, “p→q, p, ∴ q.”
If p, then q,
p,
Therefore q.
The diagram represents brain states physically leading to each other. Also shown is the level of abstract, rational thought, with each thought related to the next by logic; not physics or chemistry.

From a mental level perspective, it would seem that these thoughts generated by a physically determined brain, are effectively random. Each thought is not the product of rational reflection. It is the inexorable product of physical processes, each state deterministically producing the next state. If the brain generates the mind then we are driven to conclude that the mental events which seem conceptually related to other mental events are really random from a conceptual point of view. If the thoughts seem conceptually coherent, and importantly related to each other in the form of an argument, this is just a coincidence.

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An analogy could be Powerball machines. In this form of lottery, a machine blows ping pong balls with numbers on them. After a while, the ping pong balls end up in a structure at the bottom of the machine. If the numbers happened to be the first few digits of pi, this would be by pure chance. Mindless physical processes are acting on the balls; any meaning is a coincidence. It could be imagined that on the balls are written letters instead of numbers and that words might get accidentally spelled. Or variables and logical operators such that p → q, p, ∴ q.  Again, such results would be comparable to faces in clouds and the like.

If the physical processes are not mindless then the balls would not be being blown by forces governed by deterministic laws of nature but would be being selected on the basis of meaning. The apparent autonomy of physical processes with their never-ending chains of cause and effect would be an illusion.

With regard to the Powerball machine, the game would be rigged. Instead of purely physical processes determining what happens to the balls, reason and logic would be guiding the balls to the desired logical outcome. Mind would have proved to be more fundamental than matter. Of interest might be Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos that asserts that consciousness and material reality are fundamental aspects of nature and always have been.

Philosophers refer to bottom up causation: the brain or body affecting the mind such as the effects of caffeine or sleep deprivation on thoughts and feelings. Top down causation is when the mind affects the brain and body. Someone says something that upsets another person and that person goes red in the face and his blood pressure rises. A mind selecting brain states to produce mental events would be similar to top down causation.

Causes versus reasons

The premises and conclusions of a valid argument are connected, but their connection is not physical. Or if they are physically connected by being written on the same piece of paper, or blackboard, or hard drive, if this can be called “connected,” then this physical connection is irrelevant. It is the way the premises and conclusion are connected logically that matters.

Causally determined physical processes are incompatible with arguments which require true and relevant reasons conceptually and logically related to the conclusion. If he is good he will get a bike for Christmas. His parents agree that he has been good. Therefore, he will get a bike for Christmas. The relationship between the premises and conclusions is conceptual and logical.

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Physical things work by causes. Arguments work by reasons. Causes are not reasons. If it is said that driving to Canada is a good idea if someone has a disease that requires expensive medications, and thanks to the Canadian health system, medicines are cheaper in Canada, and that the internet should not be used for these purchases because companies in the Caribbean have been known to pretend to be Canadian, and you go to Canada on the basis of this reasoning, you have rationally been persuaded to go to Canada on the basis of reasons.

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If someone is locked in an entirely dark room with no company for five straight days, when the door is opened, that person is likely to be craving stimulation so badly that he will be very excited about anything someone says and to be highly amenable to suggestion. If someone then says “Go to Canada” and that person goes, the first person has caused the second to go. He has been brainwashed to go.

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Self-refuting paradoxes

If it is claimed that no, reasons are just fancy jumped up causes and that when someone thinks he is being persuaded, he is really just being caused by physical processes, then skepticism is being expressed about the reality of rational persuasion.

But the person who expresses skepticism about rational persuasion is attempting to rationally persuade. He wants to be an exception to his own rule, a telltale sign of being wrong, because he is contradicting himself. Francis Crick says “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake, p. 110, 2012) The trouble is that if all mental activity is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” then that thought itself is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” and not to be taken seriously; “no more than” being the key phrase here.

Similarly, a professor may argue that gender is nothing more than a social construct. Yet her ability to challenge this supposed social construct means that the professor gets to occupy a rational space outside the social construct. She has her own personal opinion differing from the usual social construct; an opinion that is thus not merely derived from the social construct. The professor is effectively calling other people sheep, merely following the dictates of culture, while she gets to have her own self-derived opinion. She is a wondrous exception to her own rule.

“Everything is what it is and not another thing,” said Bishop Butler. You, your joys and sorrows, memories and ambitions are just what they are and not something else. Nerve cells and molecules may be involved somewhere, but there is no reason at all for reducing them to these things.

Neither can it even be rationally suspected that humans are really mechanistic robots that are wholly the product of unthinking physical processes, because for this suspicion to be rational, it must itself be the product of true and relevant reasons. If there is no rational ground for the suspicion, then, rationally speaking, suspicion should stop.

If it is possible to wonder if humans are deterministic robots whose thoughts are ruled by causally determined physical processes, and there is any rational basis at all for this wonder, then rationality does indeed exist and people are not robots.

So, free will exists because rationality exists. In order to be rational, a person must be free to consider the merits of an argument based on an evaluation of the truth and relevance of the premises of that argument. He must be free of external interference in his evaluation. If something physical is forcing him to a particular conclusion due to an unbroken chain of physical causal processes stretching back to the beginning of time, then rationality per se is impossible. He is unable to make an evaluation on the basis of conceptual and logical relationships, but instead must think whatever the physical unthinking deterministic processes makes him think.

Moral responsibility and love

In addition to the self-defeating nature of arguing for determinism, there is a practical objection. This objection is that determinists are only classroom determinists. Their behavior outside the classroom indicates that they believe in free will. In order for determinism to be true, moral responsibility must be an illusion and meaningful love must be an illusion. Determinists continue to hold other people and themselves morally responsible for their actions, and hopefully, they manage to love other people.

Courts of law recognize that actions performed under duress, in which someone has no choice, do not make him morally or legally culpable. If someone is compelled to do something by being threatened with something dire and he has a reasonable expectation that the threat will be carried out, then he is not held responsible for his actions. And so it should be.

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Regarding love, love is not meaningfully love if it is not freely given. If it is discovered that every time a beloved attempts to leave the lover he or she is tasered, or is taken into an interrogation cell and brainwashed, then this would change the lover’s feelings about his beloved. He would know that she is not freely choosing to love him or be with him but is acting under compulsion.

Love is not an entirely rational process of course but it does involve respect and admiration and these are based on a more or less rational assessment of the other person. If a girlfriend, husband, etc., thinks their beloved is an idiot or morally corrupt, nasty and horrible, boring, humorless and ugly, then they do not love the beloved.

One of the more amazing life experiences is when someone thought to be really cool and beautiful responds in kind. This means going from having a crush, an unreciprocated affection, to the beginnings of love. The beloved does not have to like the lover and it is flattering that someone as impressive as that thinks he is attractive and nice too – someone worth getting to know better. If it were possible to just flip a switch on the back of someone’s head and she would gaze at the lover adoringly, this would make that person’s affection worthless and pathetic. It could be hoped that no one ever gets so desperate for even simulated affection that he would be willing to do this.

Love is a gift. No one can demand to be loved. If a gun is pointed as someone’s head with the command “Love me!” it is not possible to actually comply. The love could only be pretended. In Christian theology, even God cannot compel humans to love Him. Hence, there is the notion of God the lure, or Jesus as making his followers fishers of men. Likewise, the one ability Bruce does not have in Bruce Almighty even though he is God of Buffalo for a week, is the ability to make anyone love him. The writers consulted a Jewish theologian to get their theology right. If God could make you love him, he would be no better than a man with a date rape drug. If a person would not be satisfied with “love” in those circumstances, neither would God.

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Love is a chemical? Partly

There is an amusing movie about a man who thinks love is a chemical. Explaining that to a date would likely end the relationship. A version of the first encounter could be – [Robotic voice] “Dopamine levels, satisfactory, serotonin plateaued, oxytocin slightly raised, scheduling second meeting – waiting, waiting, Thursday is free – waiting for reply. You’re a dick! Affirmative. Negative response recorded. Is this decision final? Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.”

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There is an element of truth in the love is a chemical idea. Love is not a chemical, but feelings of love and affection may be related to hormones in the “It” quadrant. Oxytocin seems to be associated with bonding and is released when the skin is stroked – but someone has had to have decided they actually like another person before he is going to let you stroke his skin. If someone tries to start with skin stroking prematurely, no oxytocin.

Whether someone think someone else is boring, stupid, humorless, ugly and a jerk, or beautiful, interesting, funny, smart and nice is likely to be influenced by his cultural context and class, the “We” quadrant. Women are likely to look at a man’s job, social status and income, the “Its” quadrant if they are thinking about whether to marry someone or not. Love or not love occurs in a context. It is the “I” quadrant that is being examined here – the idiosyncratic and freely chosen response to another person.

Love and transcendental arguments

So the claim is that there is something wrong with a person if he would be happy with taser or determinism compelled love. If it is thought that love as it is being defined here exists, then free will exists. Kant called this a transcendental argument. This means starting with the phenomenon and then working backwards to the way the universe must be if this phenomenon exists. In other words, one prioritizes evidence/data over theory. Physical determinism is a theory based on a commitment to the metaphysical notion called materialism. If someone is ontologically committed to determinism, and love as a datum and an experience seems to exist, love is just an illusion. Since materialism remains an unproven assumption the determinist has chosen to rule out of existence one of life’s most important experiences on the basis of an unproven hypothesis. Where data and theory conflict, logically it is possible to reject either one. In the transcendental argument, the data is chosen and the theory of materialism is rejected.

Consciousness vs determinism

Lastly, if brains were self-contained physical mechanisms with no input from conscious minds, i.e., top down causation, then the brain would follow its own predetermined chain of causation. But this would mean that the brain would not be subject to adjustment by conscious evaluations of what is going on around someone in the environment. Without consciousness and top down causation, a person would not be aware of his environment and could not adjust his behavior as the demands of the environment changed. These demands are unpredictable. The workings of the brain, if the organism is to survive, must be constantly adjusted to the environmental factors perceived and evaluated by the conscious mind.

From the point of view of the organism, its environment is unpredictable. Even if the universe were a large deterministic machine – ignoring the fact that machines have designers and in-built purposes – the organism still has no idea what events it will encounter. An event that cannot be predicted is effectively random. An appropriate response cannot be preprogrammed to an unforeseen event – and with the complexity of human social interactions there are many such events. There can be no rule for an unanticipated circumstance. The ability to improvise is required and for this improvisation to be successful someone’s reaction must be perfectly suited to this new circumstance and for that, real live consciousness free from deterministic rules must exist.

Gnosticism: Its Self-Representation

Gnosis 02Part I of this series posed the linked questions whether Eric Voegelin’s characterization of Gnosticism in his various books on the topic was valid – and whether, as Voegelin asserted, modernity, in the form of the liberal and totalitarian ideologies, could be understood as the resurgence of ancient Gnosticism. The purpose of Part I was not to furnish definitive answers to those questions, but rather to explore two critiques of Gnostic doctrine from Late Antiquity. These were the essay Against the Gnostics by the Third-Century Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and the discussion in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Books III, IV, and V) of the Manichaean religion, a late variant of Gnosticism. The exposition concluded that the two accounts of Gnosticism although written more than a century apart (Augustine being subsequent to Plotinus) were convergent and largely similar. The argument did not propose that Plotinus and Augustine, in their critiques, anticipate Voegelin, but readers might justly have inferred that as a tacit thesis.

The present essay addresses Gnosticism by examining it in its own terms. It is certainly provocative that two ancient writers, separated by a tumultuous century-and-a-half should have arrived at essentially the same assessment of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, this similitude in the judgment might be because both authors are prejudiced in the same way; thus their agreement could erroneous or bigoted. After all, as the father of modern Gnosticism-scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), averred, the Gnostics were formidable thinkers, masters of confabulation, and connoisseurs of a wide variety of religions, including but by no means confined to Judaism and Christianity. Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy.

What follows concerns itself with details of four Gnostic documents: The Tri-Partite Tractate, usually attributed to Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus; The Origin of the World, of anonymous authorship; The Gospel of Truth, by Valentinus; and Zostrianos, also of anonymous authorship – all of which come from the so-called Nag Hammadi documents and all of which belong to the mid-Second Century or slightly later. Zostrianos likely influenced Mani (216-276) when he was writing his own scripture in the Third Century.

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Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Continue reading

Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic

INTRODUCTION: Plato’s Symposium is one of the author’s middle-period dialogues composed, according to scholarship, sometime between 385 and 370 BC, some thirty years at least after the event that it commemorates, taking advantage of its temporal remoteness to capture a moment of the past as objectively as possible. Some commentators – F. M. Cornford, for example – have yoked the Symposium with the Republic. Like the Republic, the Symposium takes as one of its themes the proclivity or proclivities of the soul. With the Phaedrus, the Symposium, both by itself and through the medium of Neo-Platonist commentary, exerted enormous influence on Christian philosophy, especially its theory of the soul. Thus in Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony (356), readers find the desert monk describing the desire of the awakened soul for union with God in metaphors that would not disturb the text of the Symposium were they to be inserted there. When the religious contemplative focuses on “the source and origin of happiness,” it happens that, “our mind… becomes gentle and calm, illuminated by the angels’ light,” whereupon, “the soul, aflame with the desire for heavenly reward, breaks… from its dwelling in the human body” and “hastens towards heaven.”

Certain hazards attend the study of Plato’s dialogues. Often the declared topic yields in the dialectical exchange to a new topic, attained by subtle processes of association that are not obvious on a first reading. The previous topic never disappears, but finds its sublimation in the new topic, which now contains it even as it supersedes it. The reader must keep the parallel strands in mente while making progress through the text, or the meaning will vanish. Such is the case in the Symposium, where the announced topic is Eros or Love, but where the necessary topic turns out to be beauty, and finally the Absolute Beauty, the celestial magnet that draws Love from the earthly towards the heavenly realm, just as it does in Athanasius’ biography of the saintly Anthony. Indeed, Love and Beauty barely exhaust the range of themes and topics of the dialogue. Structurally, memory is a theme, just as, again in an unspoken way, the hubris and nemesis of Athens in trying to impose its hegemony over Greece are themes.

In considering the Symposium, sensitive readers should keep some historical dates, relevant to the dialogue’s composition, in mind: The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC); Agathon’s First Prize in the Tragic Competition (416 BC); the Athenian genocide against the Melians (415 BC); the failure of Athenian campaign against Sicily, led by Alcibiades (413 BC); Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta (413 BC); the end of the Peloponnesian War – the Athenian surrender and the Spartan occupation (404 BC); the trial and execution of Socrates (399 BC); and finally the composition of the Symposium (between 385 – 370 BC). The war, which is in progress, midway through its course, provides the haunting background of the dialogue, all the more so because no one on the occasion refers to it. The coincidence that the discussion of Love occurs in the same twelvemonth as Melian massacre demands to be considered. The silence becomes almost deafening.

Sensitive readers should also keep in mind that the participants in the dialogue belong to the opinion-setting elite of Athenian society, who, in assembly, voted to sustain the war, one of whom, Alcibiades, directly urged the genocidal punishment of the Melians when they refused to be incorporated in the Athenian League. In Plato’s authorship, the individual dialogues rarely yield their full meaning when taken in isolation. The dialogues collectively tell the story, not only of Socrates, but of Athens, in the second half of the Fifth Century BC. Plato traces out a pattern of large-scale spiritual and political causality in which the moral character of opinion-makers and trend-setters determines the fate of their nation. Plato criticized the myth-poets, but in his epic of Athens he might well be illustrating what Zeus tells Athene in Homer’s Odyssey, Book I: “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly.” The discussion will return to these opening observations in the “Remarks” after the exploration of the dialogue. The discussion assumes no detailed familiarity with Plato’s text, but only an educated person’s general awareness of it. Summary and commentary accompany one another. The quotations come from Benjamin Jowett’s translation, which is widely available.

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The Death of Eros: Higher Education in its Crisis

Flammarion Engraving II[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]

I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.

Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…

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