Things are come over the last few days, and indeed hours, to a peculiarly acute pitch in America, and so in the wider West of which she is by historical accident – which is to say, by divine Providence – at present the head. America is now, for better or worse, the lead ram of the herd. Whither America goes, the rest shall follow. So we find that the entire West is at this hour poised on a world historical knife’s edge. If things go one way in America, the entirety of Christendom outside Russia will fall into rank apostasy, and so, into social chaos, poverty, and war. If they go the other, then might the West join with our Russian brothers in a renascence of Christian orthodoxy, and so of social health; of sanity, and so of peace, and of justice.
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.
Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise. An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior. The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition. Modern people must grapple with ideology. The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness. But this endeavor is complicated by the fact that contemporary ideology claims, of itself, to be a critique of ideology. This verbal legerdemain began with Karl Marx, who identified the emergent industrial order as the ideology that he named Capitalism, to which his own Communism was supposed to be the clarifying antidote. The ability to negotiate such a mental hall-of-mirrors is rarer than it should be. Those who can do it – or have done it – deserve to be commemorated.
Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873 – 1962), The Great Chain of Being – A Study of the History of an Idea (1936): Lovejoy’s book joins the rank of those, once located in the “must read” category, that steadily fade into an obscurity, which they by no means deserve. The horizon of intellect in Anno Domine 2020 has retracted so far that the scope of Lovejoy’s learning lies beyond it; no Great Chain of Being exists for the contemporary mind, which obsesses perpetually over somatic trivialities, so much so that it forfeits the dignity implicit in the label of mind. Lovejoy is aware of folkloristic precursors to the idea of the Great Chain, but he sees the fully articulate expression of it as emerging in Plato’s Timaeus and in the essays, collected as the Enneads, that make up Plotinus’ Third-Century Neoplatonism. In Chapter II of The Great Chain – “Genesis of the Idea” – Lovejoy divines the dialectic of “otherworldliness” with “this-worldliness” as the urgency behind his titular metaphor. “Having arrived at the conception of the Idea of Ideas,” as Lovejoy writes, Plato “finds in just this transcendent and absolute Being the necessitating logical ground of this world.” The apparent flux of existence, which stands in tension with the conceptual, takes its explanation, not only in what Lovejoy calls “the Intellectual World,” but in a Creative Intellect that generates the world. Becoming provides the bottom floor, or perhaps the basement, of the universal structure, which, unlike a this-worldly structure, a Parthenon or a Mausoleum, the Master Architect builds from the roof down to the foundation – or rather the roof is the foundation. The Master Architect’s kallokagathos permeates the cosmos in the form of “a Self-Transcending Fecundity.” A common interpretation of Plato – that the philosopher finds the realm of matter inferior to the realm of spirit – strikes Lovejoy as false. Lovejoy extends this judgment to Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorously otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient Absolute, that the necessity of this world… is deduced.”
Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king. The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text. In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.” (Matarasso’s translation) A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine. He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door. Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man. Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice. It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.” In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm. The images intercommunicate. The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail. Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places. Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul. The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty. The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness. They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.
Homer bequeaths to posterity one of the earliest visions of a wasteland, anticipating T. S. Eliot by three millennia. Eliot, incidentally, acknowledges his debt to Homer by allusions to him in the fabric of his foundationally modern, but also highly anti-modern, poem. Now in Odyssey, Book IX, his Phaeacian hosts having guessed his identity, Odysseus honors the guest’s role under hospitality by telling his story in full. He relates the unpublished details of his post-Trojan voyages thus far. After the finale at Troy, Odysseus sailed his fleet of twelve ships on a piratical raid against the Ciconians, the rashness of which cost him dearly (some seventy dead); he dragged his men away from the narcotic forgetfulness of Lotus Land; and then, after contrary weather drove him off course, he entered the natural harbor of an uninhabited island lying opposite what would prove to be the insular domain of those anthropophagous troglodytes, the Cyclopes. Odysseus describes to King Alcinous and Queen Arete the fatness of the unpeopled skerry, where he went ashore to revictual his armada. “Covered with trees,” as Odysseus says, “on it innumerable wild goats breed; no tread of man disturbs them; none comes here to follow hounds, to toil through woods and climb the crests of hills.” (Palmer’s translation) Odysseus adds that “the island is not held for flocks or tillage, but all unsown, untilled, it evermore is bare of men and feeds the bleating goats.” As though to convey his dismay in the unfulfillment of it, Odysseus emphasizes that: “Here are meadows on the banks of the grey sea, moist, with soft soil; here vines could never die; here is smooth ploughing-land; a very heavy crop, and always well in season, might be reaped, for the undersoil is rich.” Homer depicts Ithaca, by contrast, as a hard-scrabble economy.
What is happening right now, globally, in re the Chinese Flu, is an inflection point in human history. This is so, no matter what the facts might actually turn out to be – the facts medical, epidemiological,, financial, economical, political, cultural, you name it – which now all appear to all of us so obscure, and (we cannot but think) intentionally obfuscated and obscured, by those in the higher reaches of the global culture interested in this or that outcome, for their own purposes, rather than for the sake of the good, the true, the beautiful. It does not really matter what those facts might turn out to be. Ex post, they shall, certainly, tell. But, for the moment, being mostly unknown, they simply cannot; almost every datum is now somewhat masked by countervalent noise of some sort. So, we proceed all of us on the basis of what we know. And what we know extends not much further than our own households, and beyond that our familiar networks, intimately connected via the web despite their geographic dispersion.
The present global corona virus lock down, however well-meant or effective or warranted it may be, is unquestionably the greatest assault on human society since WWII. It’s nothing near as bad as that titanic war, of course, but it’s bad. It attacks man on all fronts: biological, financial, economic, social, psychological, cultural – and, of course, and at root, and so most importantly, spiritual.
Almost no one is going to be able to worship in Church today, or what is far worse, the day after tomorrow. The churches will be almost completely empty this Easter.
This means that the lock down is a gigantic tactical victory for the Enemy. The whole Church is in abeyance, for a time; and this is massively hard on morale in our ranks. It means then that this Lent, and especially this Triduum, is bound to be a time of unusually intense demonic oppression. At this time, more than at any other in recent memory, our Enemy is likely to press his attack with utmost vigor. And indeed, priests and deacons all over the world have reported a huge surge in demonic activity, ranging from spiritual lassitude, dryness, heaviness or despair, to possession.
A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded:
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 – 1885 – Translated by R. J. Hollingdale): Poor Nietzsche! – Unread in his lifetime, thundering out his contrarian theses to an auditorium minus an audience, and tangling himself up in contradictions of Gordian knottiness such that untangling them would require, not so much a sleek sword, but a great battle-axe and much chopping. And yet, as wrong as Nietzsche so often was, he often got things right despite himself, even supposing that he never knew it. Like so much of the past, Nietzsche speaks to the present, speaks presciently and with clarity to the swamp of human folly in which the contemporary world finds itself so deeply mired. He addresses the phony moralism of the herd, the delusion of a self-denominating progress that continuously congratulates itself on having consummated history, and the mandatory nescience in regard to the human and cosmic realities. A man of colossal resentment, Nietzsche yet understands, even as he models, the perniciousness of resentment; and he sees how envy sends its poisonous tentacles everywhere – just not into himself. That he pretends not to see. Nietzsche’s most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, places the ancient prophet of the Persians and Medes into the role of mouthpiece for the author. Nietzsche assumes the office of an inspired seer. The oratory begins. Paul Kriwaczek summarizes Thus Spoke Zarathustra more succinctly than anyone else. In his own In Search of Zarathustra (2002), Kriwaczek writes how Nietzsche’s program sought “to undo the damage caused to humanity by Zarathustra’s original teachings,” namely through “the invention of morality.” Kriwaczek imputes to Nietzsche the conviction that “therefore it was up to Zarathustra himself to reverse the mistake.”