This key is simple to explain, but I have found it opens lots of doors; it explains lots of things. Idolatry is the worship of something less than the Most High; of something other than God. Simple, no?
Annibale Carracci (1550 – 1609): Lapidation of St. Stephen (1604)
In the two classic pre-Christian canons of Western myth – the Greek and the Norse – anthropogenesis is brought about by natural processes under the observation of the gods. Man is earthborn in both canons, although indirectly in the Norse, and can therefore lay claim to a mother, either Gaia or Erda. In both myths fatherhood remains in the shadows. The gods who observe and interact with the earliest men conform to a model thoroughly anthropomorphic. The presence of fully human gods suggests that man existed before he existed and that man needed instruction from man in order to recognize himself and learn how to adapt himself to the cosmic environment. In the Hellenic and Scandinavian myths humanity enters into a world of violence. Neither Zeus nor Odin has as yet organized the world under the concept of law. The Greek and Norse canons share a word: Titan, an item of vocabulary that carries the inner meaning of brutal criminality. This word occurs in Old West Norse as Jotun and in Anglo-Saxon as Eotan. The giants, that is to say the Titans and Jotuns, war perpetually with the younger generation of gods. Peace requires the Olympians or the Aesir to suppress the giants by main force; and even then peace reprieves the universe only temporarily. Eruptions of chaos can occur anytime and anywhere. The Christian anthropogenesis, which is in fact the Hebrew anthropogenesis, differs minimally from its Pagan and Heathen counterparts, but it differs nevertheless in subtle ways, which make a difference. The Biblical God draws man forth from the clay, for example, by an intentional act; and God deliberately shapes man to resemble his Creator. The Hebrew God is less anthropomorphic than the Olympians or the Aesir, even aniconic, but his immediate precursors in Near Eastern myth, such as the Canaanite Baal and the Babylonian Ea, testify that he stems from a man-like version of deity, fit for a standing image. The physiognomic resemblance between Creator and creature is thereby explained.
W. K. C. Guthrie (1906 – 1981), Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952): Guthrie, a Cambridge classicist, regards Orphism – taking its name from the legendary prophet-singer Orpheus – as the first religion to emphasize cosmogony and eschatology. For Guthrie, Orphism counts also as the first thematically moral religion. Guthrie argues that Hesiod adhered to the Orphic faith and he cites details of the Theogony to prove his case. Even more boldly Guthrie presents the thesis that cosmology, as distinct from cosmogony, derives from Orphic lore; he sees Plato’s Timaeus, for example, as an item in the genre of Orphic discourse. Indeed, Guthrie sees Plato as an Orphist. In Plato’s philosophy, after all, the seeker of wisdom wanders like an orphan in this punishing world. By dint of intellectual and moral askesis the wanderer might fulfill his obscure desire to go home. One of the etymologies would have it that the name Orpheus stems from orphanos, which English borrows from Greek via Latin, a derivation fitting itself rather closely with Guthrie’s thesis. Some stories tell that Orpheus hailed from Thrace, but Guthrie affirms his Hellenism. The Thracian connection seems to Guthrie a metaphor. Orphism differed so much from the reigning theologies of the archaic period that it struck people as having a distant provenance – in some accounts, a Hyperborean one. Orphism stands in tension with the Dionysus cult; and in the myth preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the Maenads murder Orpheus in a classic sparagmos. In the Imperial centuries, however, Orpheus and Dionysus seem to have merged, with the former’s irenic quality overwhelming the whole. Orpheus’ expertise on the lyre affiliates him with Apollo. Through that affiliation, Orpheus maintains his status as the first lyric poet and the first musician.
The covid pandemic is mostly a Boomer thing. The Chinese Flu kills a tiny percentage of people younger than the Boomers. Like every other medical difficulty, it kills rather more of their parents than it does of Boomers. Only the Boomers and their parents then are much at risk from the disease. Their parents are no longer much able to sway either public discourse or public policy. The Boomers are in charge. So the panic about covid, and the policies implemented in respect thereto, are mostly the result of Boomers worried about themselves. They have shown themselves – in the person of such governors as Cuomo – totally willing to throw the generation of their parents under the bus. Because, hey, those guys were going to die soon anyway. They have also shown themselves utterly indifferent to the manifold catastrophe their disastrous policy responses to the disease have inflicted upon all younger generations.
As with every other thing they have touched, the Boomers have ruined public health by ruining civil society.
Those who might nowadays think of Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) – they run to fewer and fewer with the passing years – will rarely, or perhaps never, have thought of him in terms of his religion. They would most probably assume on glancing acquaintance with him that of religion he had none. Wells’ contemporary popular image, insofar as he retains one, invites people to admire him for his advocacy of science – in a manner, as it seems, strictly and materialistically defined; for his impatience with established institutions, and for his dedication to building a global utopian society on a basis of technocratic socialism far beyond the petty and doctrinal socialism of the Twentieth Century. Those acquainted haphazardly with Wells’ biography might also possess vague awareness of his irritable late-in-life anti-Catholicism. During World War II, for example, in a vitriolic pamphlet entitled Crux Ansata (1944), Wells urged the Allies to send an air fleet that would flatten the Eternal City and, by good luck, send Pope Pius XII and the Curia in an ignominious fugue to the afterlife. As Wells saw it, the Roman Church had entwined itself so thoroughly and guiltily with Mussolini’s corporatist Italy, as a type of “Shinto Catholicism,” that its city-state and administrative capitol qualified as a prime target for high-explosive bombs along with the rest of the Eternal City. In a newspaper interview in March, 1944, Wells referred to “this dying, corrupting octopus of the Roman Catholic Church.” Rhetorical sallies like those, rising to the baroque in their extravagance, and others like them that had emerged spasmodically during Wells’ authorship, have no doubt contributed to the picture of Wells as bigoted and invidious in his regard of religion. The picture generalizes too much, however, and for that reason guarantees its own falsehood. Even the cranky Crux Ansata contains many mitigating passages, especially concerning the early Church, with the spirit of which Wells identified strongly.
My essay on Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, and the Occult Wave appears at Voegelin View. Holroyd’s is an unfamiliar name in 2020, but it circulated fairly widely beginning in the mid-1950s through to about the turn of the century. It helped that he associated himself with Colin Wilson and Bill Hopkins, in whose publicity wake Holroyd might be said to have ridden. The three of them considered themselves to have constituted the avant-garde of a particularly English school of Existentialism that took its foundations in a severe critique of Sartre and Camus and that incorporated a sympathy to mysticism and – especially in Holroyd’s case – to religion. Holroyd’s first two books, Emergence from Chaos (1956) and Flight and Pursuit (1959), deal with the same topics as Wilson’s Outsider (1956) and Religion and the Rebel (1957). Beginning in the late 1950s, Holroyd entered into a period of commercially oriented writing that he designed to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in the arcane, the occult, and exotic religion of the time. Among these is his Elements of Gnosticism (1994), a remarkably sane treatment of the Late-Antique religious movement that parasitized Christianity and Neo-Platonism. My essay compares Holroyd’s “take” on Gnosticism with that of Elaine Pagels, who effusively praised the view of the Gnostic adherents in such titles as The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Beyond Belief (2004). It speculates on the relationship between the Occult Wave and the pseudo-religiosity of contemporary leftist politics – with comments on Marianne Williamson. I offer a sequence of paragraphs from Part II of the essay. –
Holroyd readily perceived that certain aspects of modernity wear a Gnostic guise. In his first chapter, he remarks on the Gnostic proclivities of notable literary figures of the last three centuries. Holroyd proposes the following names as members of the Gnostic club: “Voltaire, Goethe, Blake, Melville, Yeats, Jung, [and] Hesse.” Under the claim that “there is… a substantial corpus of modern Gnostic literature,” Holroyd invokes “the literary-philosophical school of Existentialism,” which can boast “many affinities with classical Gnosticism.” Later, in Chapter 7, Holroyd returns to these names, but in most cases his explanations fall short of full persuasiveness. Voltaire seems somewhat alien to a list of Gnostics, except that he rejected the standard theodicy and introduced into Candide a character who describes himself as a Manichaean. Goethe qualifies as visionary, but to conflate vision and gnosis would be an error. Blake makes a better candidate than Goethe: His “Nobodaddy” resembles the Gnostic Demiurge. Melville, in Moby Dick, linked Captain Ahab to “the ancient Ophites,” but that served the purpose of underlining Ahab’s fanaticism, a gesture that cannot, by itself, induct Melville’s novel into the ranks of Gnostic belles-lettres. This is so despite the fact that Melville took an interest in Gnosticism. One could say the same of Yeats as one says of Goethe. Now Jung and Hesse, on the other hand, knew of Gnosticism, felt its allure, and might indeed have espoused it – but the latter’s Glass Bead Game could easily be interpreted as a critique rather than an expression of late-modern Gnosticizing elitism.
Electronic maps are great. Their route planning vis-à-vis current traffic conditions is terrifically handy. But I am sure I am not alone in finding that reliance upon electronic guidance for direction to destinations impairs my ability to build my own internal maps of new territory – to know where I am and find my way.
I’m pretty good at orienteering. It’s an occupational requirement for professional outdoorsmen. I know where North is almost always, and without thinking about it; and I can often find my way to a new place by the seat of my pants. I’ve trekked in the wilderness for weeks with no better map than what I could draw on the back of an envelope, and never got lost. To be fair, I’ve also found myself totally bewildered in company with three other experienced outdoorsmen equipped with good topo maps and compasses under clear skies. Too many cooks in the kitchen, perhaps.
But when I rely upon electronic guidance to get to a new destination – rather than map reading, memory, and dead reckoning – I find that *I can’t find my way there the next time without that same electronic help.* Why? Because, knowing that as I travel I can rely upon the electronic guidance to support me in my first foray, I relax my conscious attention to my environment versus my map, and turn it instead to my own thoughts of this or that. I arrive at my destination, but without a vivid memory of how I got there. It’s almost like driving a route you’ve known for years; you do it automatically, thinking of other things, and arrive with no vivid recollection of the trip. The difference of course is that when I get someplace new in that semiconscious way, *I have no clear idea where I am.* I am disoriented. I literally don’t know where East is, and must examine the shadows to calculate it.
That state of disoriented befuddlement is a fitting analogy for what is overtaking us in many departments of modern life.
When there is more than one cult competing for the credence and loyalty of the people, their chthonic cult is by that contest relevated to their conscious attention as an item for consideration that is disparate from their immediate confrontation with the world of their concrete experience. The abstraction of religion from mundane life that necessarily results has the effect of profaning that life; for, on that abstraction, it is not at all any more essentially and prerationally bound by the metaphysics, the ontology, and the deontology of the chthonic cult – or therefore by the normal and customary constraints of its praxis, mores, customs, and ukases – as from time immemorial it had been. It is on the contrary rather something quite other than and independent of what the cult supposes it to be, and about which the cult might be quite wrong. The deliverances of empirical experience are not then called into question; but their traditional cultic interpretations and settlements certainly are. So mundane life is then radically liberated from the cult that had theretofore informed it. It is cut loose; it is adrift; it is in danger. So then likewise are the men who have been set free of any masterful supervision, to make their own way in the world, each to devise his own cult as he sees fit, unconstrained by tradition or mastery or hard won knowledge.
At the first sign of heterodoxy in a culture, then, things have already begun to fall apart radically (for, the cult is the root of the culture). Heterodoxy is the outward schismatic manifestation of the fact that men are already thinking about religion abstractly. They would not be doing so if they apprehended no problems with the orthodox cult. But religion considered consciously as disparate from mere life is by nature vitiated, merely intellectual, sound and fury signifying almost nothing. Its abstraction in thought renders it then malleable; alternatives occur to the questing mind, and by virtue only of that occurrence take on life and probity. The alternatives multiply, and soon their own variations are discovered.
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.
The reality that modernity is a crisis and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity. Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness. The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few. And that is to count only the essayists. Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally. Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique. Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution. The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view. At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him. Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922. He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work. in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained. Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing. His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above. Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.