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” –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. –
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
Kurt Gödel was a Platonist, 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.
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.”
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
Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem was inspired by David Hilbert’s question “Are the axioms of a formal system sufficient to derive every statement that is true in all models of the system?” Hilbert played the same role regarding Alan Turing’s proof of the halting problem. Hilbert had asked: “Is there some mechanical procedure [an algorithm] for answering all mathematical problems, belonging to some broad, but well-defined class?” In German this is called Entscheidungsproblem – the decision problem.
Turing found that he could answer this question by framing it in terms of a Turing machine – could there be a program that could determine whether any other arbitrary computer program and input would eventually stop or just loop forever? This was called the halting problem.
“Alan Turing proved in 1936 that a general algorithm to solve the halting problem for all possible program-input pairs cannot exist.”
My long-term ongoing project involves reading backwards into the critique of modernity, resurrecting from the archive writers who fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred years ago, intuited prophetically where such trends as democracy, utilitarianism, and the technocratic conception of science were taking mankind – and who foresaw accurately just how deformed morally and socially Western civilization was likely to become. The writers in question, with a few exceptions, are today largely forgotten or are remembered under a false image or for spurious reasons. The names of Karen Blixen, Gustave Le Bon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julius Evola, René Guénon, Hermann Keyserling, Peter Ouspensky, Oswald Spengler, T. Lothrop Stoddard, and Sigrid Undset, among others, have appeared in a series of articles, most of them at The Brussels Journal. I wish, however, to devote the present occasion to a renewed discussion of the Russian writer-philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whom the encyclopedias of ideas classify variously, not to say confusingly, as a Christian Existentialist, a Russian Nietzschean, a Neo-Platonist, a follower of Vladimir Solovyev, or an out-and-out mystic and subjectivist. Berdyaev is perhaps a bit of each of these, while being also much more than any of them. Academic philosophers have either never heard of Berdyaev or, knowing of him at second hand, perhaps from an encyclopedia article, and being unable to fit him into any Positivist or Postmodern framework, dismiss him summarily.
One might fairly assert that Berdyaev did himself little good publicity-wise by cultivating a style of presentation which, while often resolving its thought-processes in a brilliant, aphoristic utterance, nevertheless takes its time, looks at phenomena from every aspect, analyzes every proposition to its last comma and period, and tends to assert its findings bluntly rather than to argue them politely in the proper syllogistic manner. In Berdyaev’s defense, a sensitive reader might justifiably interpret his leisurely examination of the modern agony as a deliberate and quite appropriate response to the upheavals that harried him from the time of the 1905 Revolution to the German occupation of France during World War II. If the Twentieth Century insisted on being precipitate and eruptive in everything, without regard to the lethal mayhem it wreaked, then, by God, Berdyaev, regarding his agenda, would take his sweet time. Not for him the constant mobilized agitation, the sloganeering hysteria, the goose-stepping and dive-bombing spasms of modernity in full self-apocalypse. That is another characteristic of Berdyaev – he is all at once leisurely in style and apocalyptic in content. Berdyaev was quite as apocalyptic in his expository prose as his idol Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his ethical narrative, and being a voice of revelation he expressed himself, again like Dostoevsky, in profoundly religious and indelibly Christian terms. Berdyaev follows Dostoevsky and anticipates Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that no society can murder God, as Western secular society has gleefully done, and then go its insouciant way, without consequence.
The titles of Berdyaev’s numerous books, especially when taken in chronological order, tell a story all by themselves: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), The End of Our Time (1924), Christianity and Class War (1931), The Destiny of Man (1931), The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Christianity and Anti-Semitism (1938), Slavery and Freedom (1939), Spirit and Reality (1946), and The Beginning and the End (1947), among many others. There is also a posthumous Truth and Revelation (1954). I call attention to the earliest of the listed titles, The Meaning of the Creative Act. Berdyaev began his career as a philosophical writer (he never completed his doctorate) with an ambitious study of aesthetics, his theory of which locates the purest manifestation of the highest value of his worldview, freedom, in the labor that generates the work of art and beyond that in all the highest effects of the artwork in its context. At the end of Berdyaev’s life, he wrote the essays that constitute Truth and Revelation, one of his several ventures into the philosophical-theological sub-genre of theodicy, in which he invokes a “creative response to the appeal of God.” Whereas in the Catholic and even more so in the Lutheran and Calvinist variants of Christianity there is, according to Berdyaev, a strong “sociomorphic” or “legalistic” distortion of Christian doctrine; in Russian Orthodox commentary, by contrast, “the coming of the Christ has been understood not as a reparation for sin, nor as the offering of a ransom, but as the continuation of the creation of the world and the appearance of the New Adam.” In Berdyaev’s view, “What God expects from man is not servile submission, not obedience, not the fear of condemnation, but free creative acts.” Berdyaev adds in an aside that, “I wrote on this subject some while ago in The Meaning of Creativeness,” that is, The Meaning of the Creative Act. Thus Berdyaev’s work exhibits a remarkable closure, returning at the end to its beginnings, linking as it were its omega with its alpha.