Readings of Winter-Spring (Selections)

Philosophy of Inequality 02 (Larger)

Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published in 1923 – translated by Father Stephen Janos): Berdyaev appends an elaborate subtitle, Letters to My Contemners, Concerning Social Philosophy, and indeed the book avails itself of the epistolary style, addressing the “contemners” directly via the second person plural.  (The translator makes deliberate use of the archaic Ye.)  Written during Berdyaev’s ordeal under incipient Bolshevism, but published only after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which occurred in September of 1922, The Philosophy of Inequality consists of fourteen letters on a carefully calculated sequence of topics, beginning with “The Russian Revolution” and ending with “The Kingdom of God.”  With The Philosophy of Inequality, Berdyaev achieves a rhetorical tour-de-force.  In the age of Leftwing “wokeness,” Berdyaev’s book reacquires its knife-edged relevancy, conveying to its readers, among many other things, that while the revolutionary mentality might justify itself in its vaunted progress, it remains mired in the dreary slogans of 1848, which themselves in their day never rose above the crassest ressentiment.  “The world is entering upon such an arduous and answerable time,” Berdyaev writes in the opening of the First Letter, “in which religiously there has to be exposed everything duplicitous, twofold, hypocritical and unenduring.”  The proper instrument for this exposure is “the sword that Christ has brought.”  According to the philosopher, “By the spiritual sword [there] has to be a cleaving apart of the world into those standing for Christ and those standing against Christ.”  Under Berdyaev’s conviction, Christ stands not with the advocates of equality.  He stands rather with those who first acknowledge and then strive to realize His redemptive gift of the person.  In the Second Letter, Berdyaev writes of the insurrectionists how, “Ye deny and ye destroy the person, all ye proclaimers of materialistic revolution, socialists and anarchists, radicals and democrats of various stripes, leveling and making a hodge-podge of all, ye proponents of the religion of equality.”

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Of Which We May Speak: Meditations on Irony

Things I Hate

The intelligentsia professes to admire irony.  In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic.  In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason.  Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi.  “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA.  He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe.  The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root.  The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height.  Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything.  Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.

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Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905) Homer & His Guide (1874)

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905): Homer & His Guide (1874)

[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999.  It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly.  Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse.  I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]

This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum.  That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures.  The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable.  “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind.  It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence.  The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia.  Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate.  That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking.  Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light.  Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective.  The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language.  One begins, then, at the beginning.

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H. G. Wells as Religious Thinker

Wells 03

The Public Intellectual

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.

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More of a Winter’s Reading (Selections)

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

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.”

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Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part II)


Fresco from Pompeii (Late First century)

III. The centuries of Late Antiquity were those, as Gilbert Murray notes, of “a failure of nerve,” which is indeed the title of one of his chapters.  The original Greek Enlightenment of the Classical period, summed up in a literature that reaches from Homer to the philosophers, was supremely confident in its power of knowledge and in its understanding of the natural, the supernatural, and the human worlds.  Wars for empire sapped the will of the Classical world, however; while relentless sophistic criticism undermined trust in inherited concepts, with superstitions from the East filling the conceptual vacuum thus created.  For Murray, the “Mystery Cults” and related movements of Late Antiquity epitomize the phenomenon.  They represent for Murray a retreat from rational religion in a widespread “loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of normal human effort,” as well as in “despair of patient inquiry,” all accompanied by “an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions.”  In the second of its two aspects in Satyricon, the Priapus cult functions as a salvation cult, offering to the convert an exit from the unpleasant brothel-labyrinth or Cyclops-cave of a degraded social scene.  What of Lucius Apuleius?  In addition to his talent as a storyteller, Apuleius lectured on Plato’s philosophy and worked as a civil adjudicator in his North African hometown of Madaura.  Apuleius also held sacerdotal office in one of the most prominent of the Second Century mysteries, those associated with the cult of the syncretic goddess Isis, whom worshippers identified with Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Hera, and every other motherly deity.

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Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part I)

Couture, Thomas (1815 - 1879) Romans & Their Decadence (1847)

Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879): Roman Decadence (1847)

Those who are determined to resist the moral and civic corruption of their age – those who refuse to participate in the flouting of decorum and the degradation of bodies – must also resist the sophistic apology that seeks to excuse the very same moral and civic corruption.  This apology typically articulates itself as a form of dogmatic Determinism.  The apologist denies freedom of will so as to exculpate moral lapses generally, or perhaps those of the enunciator himself specifically. Determinism seeks to redefine moral consequences as non-causal outcomes that have somehow happened to people, as it were, at random.  The astute will discern such attempts at spurious exoneration in the oft-heard counseling claim that obnoxious behaviors like dipsomania or drug addiction stem from the dumb proclivity of the organism rather than from witting declensions of a particular character; and in the sociological tenet that crime emerges as a “consequence” of “poverty” or of “oppressive social structures.”  Thus a well-known movie actor blames his philandering on his “sex-addiction,” as though his proclivity to fornicate with as many women as possible impinged on him from outside himself so that no personal agency could be discerned in his transgressions.  Thus a school board rejects a sex-education curriculum based on the concept of chastity with the argument that abstinence defies nature and is for that reason fabulously unrealistic. Forty years ago first lady Nancy Reagan withstood a torrent of public abuse for her suggestion that schools should teach children simply “to say no” to temptations.  Mrs. Reagan’s critics did not say what else people are supposed to do to avoid temptation; they were merely certain that the will is powerless and they were outraged at the idea that self-control might be entered as an item in the school curriculum.

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A Winter’s Reading (Selections)


Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982):  Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking.  They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic.  (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture.  Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture.  In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.”  For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture.  Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself.  Speech is time-bound.  To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance.  Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed.  “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.”  The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas.  Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.

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Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part II)

Holroyd Elements

First and Only Edition of The Elements of Gnosticism

III. Holroyd’s case for Gnosticism remains nevertheless a measured one.  Unlike Pagels, Holroyd’s attitude is not, against Orthodoxy, an angry one.  In Elements, Chapter 1, in setting forth the common propositions of the numerous Gnostic systems, Holroyd remarks that “the idea that the world was the work of an incompetent or malevolent deity” figures among them.  He adds that, “stated thus baldly, it seems a merely perverse idea, or an attempt to exonerate human iniquity by putting the blame on God.”  He immediately tries to downplay the perversity by explaining that the Gnostic systems posit two deities: The inferior Demiurge who, envying the creative potency of the superior deity, authors the botched world; and that selfsame superior deity, sometimes referred to as the Father.  Holroyd notes that the “transcendent God does not, and never did, act, in the sense of willing something and bringing it about.”  Rather than create, as does the God of Genesis, the Father emanates the lower levels of the metacosmic hierarchy in which he dwells, whatever that means.  Thus, to think like the Gnostics, “we have to substitute the idea of divine emanation, or ‘bringing forth,’ for the idea of divine action.”  In Gnostic rhetoric, the Demiurge is the “abortion” of Sophia or Wisdom.  When the Demiurge came forth from Sophia, then, in Holroyd’s words, “he imagined himself to be the absolute God.”  Holroyd makes a good job of conveying to his readership the baroque complexity of the Gnostic myth, with its many levels of divine and demonic beings and its multi-stage causality that brings about the world as men know it.

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