A Westerner Reads the Koran (Second Surah)

Pussin Golden Calf

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665): Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634)

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

The Koran bears some resemblance to a little-known category of quasi-Western literature that appeared in the Greek-speaking parts of the divided Roman Empire in the centuries that historians label as Late Antiquity.  The literature of the Third through the Fifth Centuries was largely religious and it was also competitively religious as sects and heresies of various kinds metastasized and proliferated.  The Bible familiar to modern Westerners had already been codified and enjoyed wide dissemination.  The Greek classics were still known to educated people.  Classical High Culture still existed and by the Fifth Century Nicene Christianity had established itself as the majoritarian religion of the Empire.  The sectarian pamphlets of the time, which constitute the little-known category referred to above, urge the causes of the multitudinous competing faiths, many of which belong to Gnostic religiosity.  (Definition to come)  A great cache of such documents came to light in the late 1940s and goes by the name of the Nag Hammadi Library, after the Egyptian locale where archaeologists discovered it.  One characteristic of the pamphlets in this collection is their parasitic relation to established texts, especially to the canonical Testaments; another is their implacable hostility to the established Scripture and its interpretation.  The word Gnostic describes the common attitude of the sectarian writers, which is one of absolute conviction and certainty, first, that the faith of the established Church is corrupt and false, and second that the writer has been vouchsafed by the Supreme Deity with a type of knowledge concerning these matters that is self-guaranteeing.  Gnosis refers to a type of secret revelation unavailable directly to the mass of people, who must trust the claims of the illuminatus if they want to participate in or benefit by it.

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Enlightenment & Sacrifice – Remarks on Joseph de Maistre

Maistre (1753 - 1821) Unknown Portraitist

Joseph-Marie Comte de Maistre (1753 – 1821)

Joseph de Maistre’s Elucidation on Sacrifices, a late work of his authorship, appeared as an appendix in the posthumously published St. Petersburg Dialogues, one of the towering literary-philosophical monuments of early Nineteenth Century French letters.  Maistre (1753 – 1821) wrote the massive set of Dialogues and its brief sequel during the final decade of his fourteen-year appointment (1803 – 1817) as ambassador plenipotentiary of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia to the court of His Imperial Majesty Alexander II of Russia.  The Dialogues, which saw print in 1821, subsume and amplify the recurrent themes and theses of Maistre’s previous essayistic forays into theology, anthropology, and political theory in the form of a colossal Platonic seminar concerning, as the subtitle would have it, “The Temporal Government of Providence.”  Like his earlier Study on Sovereignty (1794), Considerations on France (1796), and Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1809), the Dialogues and the Elucidation spring from their author’s direct experience of the French Revolution, which, for him and his family, proved dire.  Maistre sees in the Revolution an unprecedented civilizational upheaval – an episode, in fact, of anti-civilizational destructiveness that the observer can really only understand in mythopoeic or theological terms.  Maistre compares the Revolution to the depredations of the chaos-monster Typhon in Hesiod’s Theogony, whose violent disruption of the newly established cosmic order it fell to Zeus to put down by an application of overwhelming counter-violence.  Thus for Maistre the Revolution ferociously spites a continuum of wisdom, supplying the ground of any and all social stability, that roots itself ultimately in what he calls supernatural enlightenment.  In the Second Dialogue Maistre gives it to his spokesman, “The Count,” to assert how, in a much quoted phrase, “wherever you find an altar, there civilization is to be found” (Lebrun’s translation throughout)  Maistre’s altar signifies that the supernatural enlightenment locally still takes effect.  Men may profane the altar, but that reflects on them, not on the symbol.

I. Given Maistre’s deeply convicted Catholicism, readers will find themselves tempted to qualify Maistre’s altar with the exclusive qualifier of Christian, but the context of the remark says nay to the temptation. What is the context? Maistre’s Count is discussing with his interlocutors, “the Chevalier” and “the Senator,” the phenomenon of savagery – particularly as the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have understood, or rather have misunderstood, it.  The Eighteenth Century has espoused the notion of progress, he says, which, driven by a supposed reason, will gradually lift humanity out of superstition and irrational prejudice toward an entirely secular order.  The Eighteenth Century has also produced a penchant for resentment against anything in the existing arrangement that bruises the rationalist’s ego, which thus furnishes him with cause for complaint.  The complainant or critic assumes that the social dispensation, while an improvement over its precursor stages, is subject to reform in the direction of this-worldly perfection.  Rousseau adds the nuances that perhaps the social dispensation is not, in fact, an absolute improvement over its precursor stages; and that reformation must restore alleged elements of previous eras that the present era has displaced – such as the communism of property.  Of course these Eighteenth Century philosophes have repudiated not only the Christian Tradition but also the shared general Tradition of the civilized nations going back to remote antiquity – beyond remote antiquity, indeed, into undiscovered ages.  The philosophe cannot see that humanity is a fallen species whose perfection under temporality its own “deadly inclination towards evil” permanently annuls.  Nor can the philosophe grasp the action of Providence, which, as under the Karma of the Hindus and the Nemesis of the Greeks, guarantees that the punishment shall in due course fit the crime.

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Gustave Le Bon on the Professoriate

le bon, gustave

Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931)

In the following extract from his Psychology of Socialism (1899), Gustav Le Bon discusses the appeal of socialism for the intelligentsia; the discussion includes Le Bon’s amusingly unsparing characterization of the professoriate — a class of people comprised, in his coinages, by demi-savants and doctrinaires, which he rightly despises.  Here, then, from Chapter IV, “The Disciples of Socialism and Their Mental State” –

It is because the half-science of the demi-savant obscures the instinctive intuitions, that its intervention in social affairs is so often harmful.
Social failures, misunderstood geniuses, lawyers without clients, writers without readers, doctors without patients, professors ill-paid, graduates without employment, clerks whose employers disdain them for their insufficiency, puffed-up university instructors — these are the natural adepts of Socialism. In reality they care very little for doctrines. Their dream is to create by violent means a society in which they will be the masters. Their cry of equality does not prevent them from having an intense scorn of the rabble who have not, as they have, learned out of books. They believe themselves greatly the superiors of the working man, and are really greatly his inferiors in their lack of practical sense and their exaggerated egotism. If they became masters their despotism would be no less than that of Marat, Saint-Just, or Robespierre, those excellent types of the unappreciated demi-savant. The hope of tyrannising in one’s turn, when one has always been ignored, humiliated, thrust into the shade, must have created many disciples of Socialism…

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Meditations & Divagations on Two Sonnets

bocklin (1827 - 1901) sacred grove (1886)

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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The Sorts of Liberalism Are Attempted Implementations of Nominalism

If as nominalism supposes there are no objective universals, then there are no objective truths. Then there is no objective reality. There being no objective reality, there can then be no way that one man might understand or speak of reality more truthfully than another. So there can be no such thing as authority. Authority then is ipso facto null, and wherever asserted, is false and unjust. If authority is unjust per se, then justice might be possible only under conditions of anarchy, wherein each man rules his own life absolutely, and is free to make up his mind and shape his acts in whatever way he pleases.

Nominalism carried into practice then is liberalism: the thoroughgoing rejection of authority.

There are many sorts of liberalism: political, economic, grammatical, theological, liturgical, legal, sexual, aesthetic, gastronomical, cultural, architectural, academic, and so forth. All of them are subjects of discussion here, and at other orthospherean sites. All of them have in common the rejection of all authority other than the authority that imposes upon all men the requirement that they reject authority.

The project of authoritatively imposing the rejection of authority is of course incoherent. That doesn’t stop liberals from propagating liberalism. But it does stop liberalism from ever working.

Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally.  Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today.  Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves.  Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance.  Provocative in its day, it remains provocative.  Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness.  Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive.  On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing.  From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.”  This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.”  Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves.  Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking?  But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.

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Of Possible Interest

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

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

Puritanism Again

Hooker 01 Portrait Left-Glancing

Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600)

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

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

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Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist writes that a creature like a bird needs two types of consciousness simultaneously. It needs to be able to focus on something specific, such as pecking at food, while it also needs to keep an eye out for predators which requires a more general awareness of environment.

These are quite different activities. The Left Hemisphere (LH) is adapted for a narrow focus. The Right Hemisphere (RH) for the broad. The brains of human beings have the same division of function.

The LH governs the right side of the body, the RH, the left side. With birds, the left eye (RH) looks for predators, the right eye (LH) focuses on food and specifics. Since danger can take many forms and is unpredictable, the RH has to be very open-minded. Continue reading

Gödel’s Theorem (revised)

Kurt Gödel[1] was a Platonist,[2] logician and mathematician who developed the intention of making a profound and lasting impact on philosophical mathematics. His next task was to think of something! Amazingly, at the age of twenty five, he achieved his goal, publishing his incompleteness theorem.

Godel and Einstein

Kurt Gödel and Einstein

A good friend of Albert Einstein’s, Einstein once said that late in life when his own work was not amounting to much, the only reason he bothered going to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was for the pleasure of walking home with Gödel.

John von Neumann wrote: “Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.”[3]

While at university, Gödel attended a seminar run by David Hilbert who posed the problem of completeness: Are the axioms of a formal system sufficient to derive every statement that is true in all models of the system? Continue reading