Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

Rafael 01 School of Athens

Raphael (1483 – 1520): The School of Athens (Completed 1511)

In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity.  Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte.  Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history.  Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose.  The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction.  Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.”  Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing.  Berdyaev gives his reasons.  Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.”  An epoch is a break in continuity.  If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes.  “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”

Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year.  Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds.  “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.”  Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.”  Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction.  “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.”  Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.”  Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.”  The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”

Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West.  On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself.  Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive.  Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals.  The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century.  Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it.  What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?

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An Hypothesis about the Origins of the Modern Sacrificial Cult

Rhetocrates commented:

I had an unoriginal thought worked out this morning that I wanted to share. Mostly it’s already well-established, but it does go in a slightly novel direction in explaining the ‘holiness’ spiral of modern society.

Modern progressive liberalism (viz. WW2 and after) is a specific negative type of Christianity. That much is obvious. Where our once-for-all and yet repeated-daily Eucharist (Malachi) is the navel and foundation of our religion, the Holocaust is the navel and foundation of modern progressive liberalism (hereafter MPL to save keystrokes).

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Identity — The Future of a Paradox

Identity 16 Masked Antifas

Those Highly Individuated Champions of the Oppressed Bravely Hiding their Faces

When Publius Virgilius Maro, more familiarly Virgil, accepted the commission from Augustus, formerly Gaius Octavius, to create a national identity for the Roman people by matching the epic precocity of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in Latin verse, the imperial presumption can only have been that such an identity did not yet exist or, at least, did not adequately exist, but required to be conjured into a useful state of being.  Virgil’s famous ambiguity about his manuscript of the Aeneid – his having composed a note during his fatal illness asking his friends to burn its pages on his death – has been ascribed by one faction of scholarship to his worry about metrical imperfections in some verses of the poem’s second half.  As only a few such technical flaws make themselves evident, however, some other explanation must be sought.  The German novelist Hermann Broch, in his Death of Virgil (1945), suggests a crisis of conscience, reflecting the poet’s qualm that in synthesizing a myth of Latin and Roman origins so as to settle legitimacy on the adoptive heir of Julius Caesar, and thus also on the newly constituted monarchy into which the Republic had been absorbed, he had falsified tradition and served propaganda, whereas his highest calling was to honor the muse by cultivating her art.  The crisis of identity appears as a theme in the Aeneid, the first six books of which narrate the exile and homelessness of the refugees from Troy, whose buildings the besieging Greeks have toppled and burned, whose men they have slaughtered, and whose women and children they have impressed into slavery.  Troy is no more and no more is the Trojan people.  There is only a desperate remnant in the urgency of its flight. Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: More on Angels

In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:

What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?

… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?

Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?

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The Tone Poems of Jean Sibelius

Sibelius 11 Gallen-Kallela Sibelius Portrait (1894)

Portrait of Sibelius with Landscape (1895) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

In an increasingly ugly world the sources of beauty constantly increase in value but at the same time they become increasingly difficult for ordinary people to discover and explore.  The garbage of pseudo-art so crowds the scene that the chance-encounter with beauty – by which in the past young people especially found themselves bowled over by aesthetic experience that altered their lives – occurs with ever greater infrequency.  The fewer the number of people who already know of something nourishingly beautiful, the fewer docents there are to discover those things to others.  Beauty often occasions an analog of conversion.  Beauty suggests transcendence.  The modern world, however, takes a stance of rigorous opposition to transcendence, which it categorizes among the falsehoods that have, in their pestiferous way, survived the cleansing power of rationality to confuse and delude those who might otherwise devote their services to the enlightened order.  The modern world hates the beautiful, which is why it has made a cult of ugliness.  Ugliness never gets in the way of utility, but beauty does.  Beauty distracts the attention from the petty concerns of a totally immanent world.  Beauty fosters non-conformity.  It nourishes the soul, which, like transcendence, is not supposed to exist.  The present essay addresses one particular, musical source of beauty knowledge of which the author wishes to disseminate among as many others as possible.  The present essay also explores the important philosophical question whether the non-verbal arts can carry a semantic content – that is whether plastic and music can generate meaning.  The artist under discussion in the following paragraphs is one dear to the author of those paragraphs.  His encounter many decades ago with that artist’s work constituted, and powerfully so, a conversion to beauty.  The author wishes to repay his debt. The first order of business is to answer a question.

I. What is a Tone Poem? The genre of the symphonic poem or tone poem traces its origin to the free-standing concert overtures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz, but also to the picturesque sequences in the actual symphonies of the same composers. Beethoven’s characteristic overtures, such as the three Leonore Overtures for the opera Fidelio (1805) and his Coriolan (1804) and Egmont (1810) Overtures, undertake to represent by purely musical means the essential personal qualities or virtues of a dramatic or literary character. Beethoven obviously assumes the possibility of such an endeavor although musicological spoilsports, especially in the Twentieth Century, have asserted the opposite.  They argue that music can express nothing but itself and that it can convey no semantic content in the way that verbal expression conveys such content.  According to this assertion, the auditor who buys into the assumption and believes that he has indeed apprehended the musical representation of a character, or anything else, has in fact deluded himself.  Igor Stravinsky argued as much in his stern-faced Poetics of Music (1942), originally delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard.  Roger Scruton upholds the thesis in his massive, intimidating Aesthetics of Music (1997), a type of musicological Critique of Pure Reason.  The program, both men argue, remains extrinsic to the work, and might even get in the way of the listener’s proper apprehension of the work.  One doubts, however, that Beethoven or Mendelssohn or Schumann or Berlioz suffered from delusion.  The confidence of their assumption that music might articulate something other than itself, along with itself invites respect.  One could counter Stravinsky and Scruton with the proposition that if hearing characters, stories, and landscapes in music were a delusion, the delusion would have long since so deeply ensconced itself in the composer’s intention and the audience’s expectation that it might as well be real.

Not only personality and character, but also landscape and event constitute the subject-matter, so to speak, of the Beethoven type of concert overture and of the Early-Romantic picturesque in music.  Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1832) offers a case in point, as does the slow movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), the former with its conjuration of emotions associated with a vision of the Western Isles and the North Atlantic and the latter with its onomatopoeias of two distantly heard shepherd’s pipes answering one another and the approach and recession of a thunderstorm – all in the countryside.  The Swedish composer Franz Berwald offered his overtures Elfenspiel  (1841) and Erinnerungen an den Norwegischen Alpen (1842), the one purporting to give a glimpse into the mischief of the gnomes and leprechauns and the other to articulate the memory, no doubt tinged with the proper awe, of the Norwegian mountains.  Skeptics like Stravinsky and Scruton aside, the plausibility of a musical semantics has never lacked in philosophical advocacy.  Oswald Spengler, who regarded music as the highest expression of the Western spiritual and artistic impulse, broaches the topic in his Decline of the West, Volume I (1919).  In his chapter on “Music and Plastic – The Arts of Form,” Spengler writes that “the formative impulse that is at work in the wordless arts can never be understood until we come to regard the distinction between the optical and acoustic means as only a superficial one.”  According to Spengler, “A ‘singing’ picture of Claude Lorrain or of Watteau does not really address itself to the bodily eye any more than the space-straining music since Bach addresses itself to the bodily ear.”

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Jesus Is In His Person the Only Possible Mundane Fulfillment of the Law

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Matthew 5:17-18

Jesus is the Logos. So is he himself, in his very Body, the Law.

The Law is infinite in its ramifications; it is the infinite Logos, and the Logos is the eternal knowledge and actualization of the perfectly coherent – NB, “perfect” means “complete” – infinite Gödelian stack of logical calculi, which alone suffices to that establishment of the totality of Truth, upon which any lesser portion of the Truth depends for its derivative truth, and so for its being, its factuality, and thus its salience to creatures, ergo its efficacy. Then only an infinite being might comprehend the Law, or enact it. And only by enacting it could it be fulfilled, or for that matter suasively Lawful; i.e., only were it actualized could it be Law in the first place; for only thus could it be a real character of an actual entity; only as actual and real could it be apprehensible to other actualities, or influential in their development. So, only the Logos himself can be the Law; and, so, Nomos is implicit in and entailed by Logos.

To know the Law perfectly is to be the Law. But of all men only Jesus knows the Law perfectly, or can therefore be it, effect it and thus forthward embody it. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. For, only Jesus *is* the Law.

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The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

Bax 03 Later in Life Portrait-Photo

Sir Arnold Trevor Bax in His Fifties

The name of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) hardly qualifies as a household reference even among people with serious musical interests.  Yet Bax claimed a significant following in his day and in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, after a long period of diminished currency, his large tranche of compositions finds near-complete representation in the catalogue of recordings.  What would have seemed impossible in 1970, that three complete recorded traversals of Bax’s seven numbered symphonies would one day compete with or complement one another and that these would vie with two partial traversals and numerous one-off items, is today a fact.  Indeed, a recording now exists of Bax’s early, unnumbered and discarded symphony, written as a graduation exercise when he attended the Royal Academy of Music as a piano and composition student.  The twin phenomena of Bax’s virtual disappearance from musical consciousness in Europe and North America and of his subsequent reappearance are themselves of interest, since they offer a glimpse into the relation of art and ideology in the Late Modern Period.  In this way, Bax remains anomalous.  Other English composers – although it might be more accurate to call Bax a British composer – suffered abasements of their reputations in the aftermath of World War Two, not least Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but none suffered from such a full eclipse as Bax.  It was the usual pattern of modern arrogance. The postwar musical establishment in Britain, while embracing the supposedly inevitable trend of abolishing beauty in art, simultaneously directed sustained contumely against the musical tradition and its practitioners.  Elgar became the icon, quite unfairly, of a now-despised Edwardian imperialism.  Snarky critics referred to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams as “cow-pat music.”  Despite this, Elgar’s music and Vaughan Williams’ continued to be performed and recorded.  They always had advocates.  With his death, Bax vanished.

I. In The Brandy of the Damned (1963), Colin Wilson, in assessing English music, wrote of Bax that, “When one turns from Vaughan Williams to Sir Arnold Bax one confronts another of those problems whose answer may be obvious to future ages, but that seems unanswerable today: Why one should be held in high regard and be so well represented on record, while the other is ignored.” Wilson characterized as “the composer of seven symphonies that are in many ways as remarkable as those of Sibelius” and “of a large number of fine piano works.” Wilson recognized Bax as an exponent of Romanticism although not of the blatant Romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky; rather Bax’s aesthetic appealed to Wilson as “delicate, subtle, [and] intelligent.”  In seeking an answer to his own question, Wilson observed that “although [Bax’s music] is romantic music, it has none of the easily remembered melodies of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky”; and “this means that Bax does not make an immediate appeal to the kind of unsophisticated listener who knows each composer by his best-known melody.”  Wilson argues that the subtlety of Bax’s scores might explain why they go unheard in the concert hall, but not why they are (or were at the time) so thinly available in recorded performance.  In the early 1960s, Wilson was one of the few writers of musical sensibility even to take heed of Bax.  He deserves credit for that despite his characterizations being a bit off the mark.  Everyone can hum the tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but who can hum the opening subject of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, as striking as it is?  Bax does have a relation to Sibelius, not least in being more concerned with musical, especially symphonic, processes than with melody, as such.  Nevertheless, pace Wilson, Bax wrote numerous memorable melodies.

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Against Nihilism: Julius Evola’s “Traditionalist” Critique of Modernity

Evola 01 Portrait Right-Facing

Julius Evola (1898 – 1974)

With the likes of Oswald Spengler whose Decline he translated for an Italian readership, and Jose Ortega y Gasset, Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stands as one of the notably incisive mid-Twentieth Century critics of modernity.  Like Spengler and Ortega, Evola understood himself to owe a formative debt to Friedrich Nietzsche, but more forcefully than Spengler or Ortega, Evola saw the limitations – the contradictions and inconsistencies – in Nietzsche’s thinking.  Evola differed from Spengler and Ortega in another way: like certain other Men of the Right during the same decades, he involved himself deeply in matters mystical and occult, creating a reputation during the last part of his life as an expert in such topics as Eastern religiosity, alchemy, and the vast range of esoteric doctrines.  Hermann Keyserling comes to mind also, as having directed his interest to these matters.  Nevertheless, Keyserling, who knew Evola’s work, avoided Evola, rather as Spengler had shied from Keyserling.  It would have been in part because Evola’s occult investment struck Keyserling as more blatant and far-reaching than his own and in part because Evola appeared, in the early 1930s, to be sympathetic to Fascism and National Socialism, whereas Keyserling, like Spengler, saw these unequivocally as signs of the spreading decadence of his time and so criticized them from their beginnings.  While Evola’s transient proclivities justified Keyserling’s misgivings, swift mounting mutual distaste put actual distance between Evola and the dictatorships.  Had he known, Keyserling might have warmed to Evola.  By the time war broke out, the self-styled Baron had explicitly repudiated dictatorial principles.  Evola, who had his own theory of race, expressed particular revulsion towards Nazi race-policy and Mussolini’s aping of it in Italy after 1938.

Evola nevertheless makes difficulties for those of conservative temperament who would appreciate his critique of modernity.  He could be dismissive of Christianity, at least in its modern form, as a social religion; and like his counterparts on the Left, he despised the bourgeoisie and its values, so much so that at least one of his biographers has compared him, by no means implausibly, to Frankfurt-School types like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor W. Adorno.  Yet Evola’s all-around prickliness belongs to his allure.  Thus in a 1929 article, “Bolchevismo ed Americanismo,” Evola condemns with equal fervor Muscovite communism and American money-democracy, as representing, the both of them, the mechanization and dehumanization of life.  Unlike the Marxists – and unlike the Fascists and National Socialists – Evola saw the only hope for Western Civilization as lying in a revival of what he liked to capitalize, on the one hand, as Tradition and, on the other, as Transcendence; he thus rejected all materialism and instrumentalism as crude reductions of reality for coarse minds and, so too, as symptoms of a prevailing and altogether repugnant decadence.

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Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis: Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Mark of the Sacred

Dupuy 06 Wicker Man

The Wicker Man of the Pagan Celts

Gregory Copley has argued in his study of Un-Civilization (2014) that the global human arrangement, a creeping improvisation of the last three or four centuries, nowadays has outlived its ad hoc semi-functionality so that it totters on the verge of a radical spontaneous reconstruction whose survivors will have experienced it as nothing less than a catastrophe.  Eric Cline, in his recent study of The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), underscores the likelihood of such a calamity as the one that Copley predicts.  Cline marshals the details of an archaeologically attestable prototype of “systems collapse” that occurred around the date 1177 BC when a vast swath of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean literally went up in flames, inaugurating a “dark age” that in some places lasted four hundred years.  That it has happened increases the possibility that it might happen.  Jean-Pierre Dupuy, like Copley and Cline, is a student of crises, but unlike them he is primarily a religious thinker, one who takes seriously the insights of the man whom he calls the Albert Einstein of Twentieth-Century social science, René Girard.  Dupuy’s title, The Mark of the Sacred (2008; English, 2013), recalls the title of Girard’s seminal Violence and the Sacred (1966; English, 1972).  In that work, Girard discovered, in myth, ritual, and tragic poetry, the signs of a “sacrificial crisis” ubiquitously and regularly afflicting archaic societies.  In the sacrificial crisis, the social group suffers structural breakdown in rampant, violent mimesis or imitation that resolves itself through the production of an arbitrarily selected victim; the victim’s immolation then promotes him to godhead and generates the basic forms of culture.

One might think analogously of the basic architecture of the pyramid in relation to death-by-stoning: The former results from the latter, concealing the victim under an aesthetically pleasing form that dissimulates its own origin.

As Girard sees it, and as Dupuy reiterates, this “scapegoat mechanism” made humanity, but it also entrapped humanity in the closed epistemology, gory practice, and mendacious rhetoric, stomach-churning to inspect, of the sacred.  In Girard’s argument, which Dupuy again adopts, people could not begin to escape the delusion of the sacred until the decisive event of Christ’s Passion, as recorded in the four Gospels.  In The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explores the implications of this – to him – persuasive view.  Those implications entail, among other things, a reassessment of existing normative models of economics, political theory, cognitive science, and, indeed, modernity’s total view of itself.  The prideful, deforming error of modernity, as Dupuy demonstrates in a series of five topically various but logically closely-related chapters, is to believe fanatically in its own claim to be thoroughly and justifiably secular, thus licensing itself to reject everything that it categorizes as religious or irrational.  In itself, Dupuy’s case is hardly unprecedented.  Among others and as early as the beginning of the Nineteenth Century S. T. Coleridge and Joseph de Maistre identified the Revolution, that declaration of an absolute break with all tradition, as essentially religious, but as by no means an advance beyond the Christianity that it condemned.  Yet Dupuy, assimilating Girard, takes this argument in new directions.

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The Gedanken Policy Test of Christianity

One reason you pick out and blame a scapegoat for the sins of the whole people is so that you can be sure you yourself are not among the number of the evil ones who pollute the City, and thus yourself in no danger of ostracism or banishment. This you can do without ever troubling with the beam in your own eye, provided you go along with the mob’s condemnation of the chosen scapegoat. It’s an easy “fix” for your own anxiety about your wickedness.

But it’s not a true fix; it doesn’t remove your inward knowledge of your own impurity, or your awareness that your impurity might be soon found out, so that you were then yourself ostracized. It doesn’t permanently salve your anxiety. All it does is ensure that you are not going to be singled out for punishment this time. It is a temporary reprieve, and no more: so that you remain as it were a condemned man, whose sentence of death has been deferred for one more day.

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