Of Possible Interest: Flaubert on Early Christianity


Given the productive discussion that has ensued from my quotations from Constantine’s Edict of Milan and Theodosius’ Codex here at The Orthosphere, I thought that it would not be inappropriate to call attention to an article of mine that appears in the latest number of Anthropoetics, the online journal of Generative Anthropology and related sciences.  The article bears the title, Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint-Antoine : Three Approaches.  Educated people know Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) mainly as the author of Madame Bovary (1857) and A Sentimental Education (1869), classics of the Nineteenth Century social novel – and simply of the novel.  Like the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), Flaubert stands in a line of dissentient artists and intellectuals who, in France, stem from the counter-revolutionary thinking of Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821).  That fact by itself should attract the interest of Traditionalists; but more than that, Flaubert maintained a lifelong fascination for the history of religion, most particularly that of Christianity.  Indeed, the work that occupied Flaubert longer than any other and which he considered to be his masterpiece, is La tentation de Saint-Antoine (final version 1870).  La tentation is difficult work to describe.  It is in some fashion a novel, but it is otherwise a drama of the imagination in the form of an internal monologue by the famous instigator of desert monachism (the Thebaïd) whose life spanned the last half of the Third and the first half of the Fourth Centuries.

Flaubert wrote a number of other works with a religious content, notably his Trois Contes or Three Tales (1877), one of which is about Herod, John the Baptist, and Salome, another about St. Julian the Hospitaler, and the third about a naive but pious woman who lives out her life in the confines of small village. Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862), set in Carthage just after the First Punic War, treats the notorious Moloch Cult in detail.

The article not only offers an interpretation of La tentation  from three perspectives – Voegelinian, Girardian, and Gansian – but it also traces the unexpected influence of the masterpiece on later writers. John Dos Passos’ first important novel, Three Soldiers (1921), an autobiographical fictionalization of its author’s wartime experiences, frequently alludes to and may be said to absorb La tentation.

Of Possible Interest: The Degeneration of Right Order

Ruins with Jihadis

I am pleased to report that an essay of mine, René Guénon and Eric Voegelin on the Degeneration of Right Order, has appeared (Part I of two parts) at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum.  I hope that it might be of interest to Orthosphereans.  The essay discusses the disastrous cultural and civilizational consequences of the ancient empires, especially those empires whose ambitions intersected in the Central Asian region known in Antiquity as Bactria.  Both Guénon and Voegelin were fascinated by the seemingly perpetual flux and reflux of imperial ambitions in that region, where global powers remain locked in contention to the present day.  The essay explores Guénon’s discussion in Spiritual Authority & Temporal Power of the “Revolt of the Kshatriyas,” a social upheaval that weakened the Indian states in the Fifth Century BC and made them vulnerable to Persian and Macedonian intervention; it also explores Voegelin’s discussion in The Ecumenic Age of “concupiscential exodus,” exemplified by Alexander’s Asian campaigns, as a destroyer of the civilized order.  I argue in Part II, which will appear in the same venue next week, that the commentaries of Guénon and Voegelin on this topic are eminently applicable to the modern condition.

Pushing the Eschaton

It is in the discourse of the Right a commonplace that liberal policies implement Ponzi schemes; that their wild prodigality can be justified only on the basis of magical thinking which supposes that economic and cultural goods pour forth inexhaustibly from some mysterious cornucopia, rather than as products of unstinting, intelligent, diligent, difficult, costly labor rightly and prudently directed. In this liberalism has always reminded me of the cargo cults that sprang up among natives all over Oceania in the 20th Century after their contact with Europeans, especially during and after WWII. But of these cargo cults I had had only the most cursory knowledge. I knew only that some cargo cultists thought that if they mocked up a semblance of an airstrip, planes full of goods would land to disgorge them (“If we build it, they will come;” we see the same sort of thinking at work in those who suppose that if they just show up in a nice suit or arrive in Sweden, life will be for them thenceforth all wine and roses (and blondes)).

I’m reading Mircea Eliade’s The Two and the One, wherein he discusses the cargo cults. Now that thanks to him I now know a bit more about them, my hunch about liberalism has borne out to a truly spooky degree. Consider the following extended passages (page 125 ff.), and feel the prickle of the hairs on your neck as you begin to comprehend the true immensity of the intellectual gulf that separates us from latter day liberals:

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True Gnosticism

As with any other resilient heretical or erroneous doctrine, there is a kernel of truth at the heart of Gnosticism: namely, that if you are *merely* worldly, then the world is indeed truly evil, and with it the whole of our existence in it. By itself the world cannot but redound to its own corruption and eventual certain dissolution, rendering all creaturely suffering endured along the way completely pointless, base, and stupid. Mere worldliness is no more than ugly death.

The world and our life in it can be good only insofar as we approach it sub specie aeternitatis. In the world, but not of it; that’s the ticket.

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Are You a Nut?

A nut is a man obsessed by just one thing.  He is slave to an overmastering theory, or a compulsive activity, or a consuming ambition, or a fiendish desire. A “gun nut” dreams about guns and will pay dearly to possess them. A “health nut” dotes on his diet and broods over his bowel movements. The word “nut” is sometimes applied promiscuously, to every variety of mental disorder that one finds in a “nut house,” but a purist reserves it for men in the grip of an idée fixe, or obsession. When the word was first used in its psychological sense, towards the end of the nineteenth century, it denoted an overwhelming sexual infatuation. A besotted young man was said to be “nuts on the girl.”

So a nut is the same as a maniac, a fanatic, or an enthusiast. Each of these words has its peculiar associations, but at bottom they all denote an unbalanced mind. The mind of the besotted young man is unbalanced because the girl on whom he is nuts has eclipsed all else, and so caused him to neglect his work, his friends, his prayers, and perhaps his self-respect. We are nowadays instructed to refer to lechers and tramps as “sex positive,” but men and women with this imbalance formerly went under the good and descriptive title of sex maniac (or erotomanic, if you prefer). The fanatic was, originally, a religious nut who cared for nothing but the business of the temple, or fanum. His city could burn, his children could starve, so long as the gods were served. His modern namesake is so fascinated by the business of the stadium that he allows grass to grow knee-deep in his yard, to the sorrow of his neighbor, the persnickety garden enthusiast. Continue reading

On Ranting

With this post, we are happy to welcome Professor JM Smith, Geographer of the Human Spectacle, as a regular contributor to the Orthosphere. Dr. Smith  has contributed a few guest posts, and has often commented here perspicuously. Regular visitors will be familiar with his wry, rapier wit. His interest in and knowledge of the intellectual history of the West since the late Middle Ages will, we trust, add a new and rarefied note to our construction of a traditionalist diapason. KL 


Nowadays, a rant is a tirade. It is an unchecked outburst of anger, umbrage and bile. Sour old men rant in broken-down armchairs. Delirious vagrants rant on dirty sidewalks. Defeated professors rant in somnolent lecture halls. To us, today, a rant is a squall of impotent rage. It is a loud, bitter, and pathetic gripe.

This was not always so. When the word first appeared around 1600, to rant was to talk wildly, but one could rant out of happiness or grief as well as anger. The grieving Hamlet is said to have ranted beside Ophelia’s grave; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the ranting character is a jovial and bombastic innkeeper. At that time, to rant was to speak without meaning—to vapor, to burble, to boast. But it was not, or was only incidentally, to complain. Ranting was empty talk. It was not, as now, empty threats. It took in more than the sputtering that accompanies the shaken fists of sour old men, delirious vagrants, and defeated professors.

We must bear this semantic slippage in mind when we read about the seventeenth-century religious enthusiasts who were called Ranters. These Ranters were not angry. They did not commandeer street corners to castigate passers by. They most often capered in the streets, burbling about “joy” and “love” and “bliss.” Ranters were the mooncalves of early-modern England. If you met one today, you would call him a hippy, and a dippy hippy at that.

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Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

Gnosis 02 This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”

The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.

Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous. Continue reading

Gnostic Despair

For the Jew or the Christian, this world and its logos, as creatures of the Good himself, are likewise fundamentally good, and so conformity to that logos can possibly be righteous. There is for them a Way of Heaven, a Tao, that pervades the Earth, forms and guides her and all her denizens as she moves in and with it; a Way to which they may, and indeed ought, to aspire. Such folks have a shot at holiness themselves. So we sometimes find them taking that shot, and trying to be good.

For the gnostic, no such luck. Having rejected the creator of this world, and classed him among the evil ones, there is no way that a gnostic can consistently understand the order of his world as intelligibly good. Nor therefore can he believe that agreement with this world’s corrupt order is somehow good or righteous, let alone holy.

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Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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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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