Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

Great Chain

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.”

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Notre établissement, notre révolution selon Offenbach

From Act II of La Belle Hélène (1864) by Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880): The mighty Kings of Greece introduce themselves.

From Act I of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) by Offenbach: General Boum-Boum disciplines his troops.

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Lectures d’été (Sélections de Juillet)


Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), In Search of Order (Opus Posthumous, 1987): In Search of Order followed the fourth volume of Order and History, or The Ecumenic Age, by thirteen years; and The Ecumenic Age followed the second and third volumes, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, by seventeen years.  The first volume of the tetralogy, Israel and Revelation, appeared in 1956, but Voegelin commenced Order and History when he abandoned his multi-volume History of Political Ideas in the early 1950s, so that the former had its taproot in a decade of research.  Order and History resists summary.  In the most general terms, it explores the hypothesis that civilizational development is inseparable from two other processes: The unfolding of consciousness from mythic compactness to philosophical articulation and the “pneumopathological” resistance that constantly dogs civilization’s quest for the Logos.  While Voegelin left In Search of Order unfinished, the completed portion possesses integrity.  It includes a comparative reading of two works that no one else ever bracketed for contrapuntal analysis: Hesiod’s Theogony, an Eighth-Century BC genealogy of the divine order, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), which attempts to frame History and thereby to make of Hegel’s authorship History’s consummation.  Voegelin’s opening chapter meditates on the paradox of beginnings, posing the question, “Where does the beginning begin?”  Consciousness, Voegelin argues, necessarily initiates every task with recollection.  This sentence thus depends on a previous one even if it commences the essay.  It depends on the English language, which depends on its foretongues.  Speculation reaches only so far.  Whereas at some moment language exists, in the previous moment it existed not; but what existed then was not nothing.  The barrier to knowledge remains impassable, however, because, as Voegelin writes, “the men who were present [at the origin of language] left no record of the event but language itself.”

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Nietzsche – the Diabolical Saint of Acceptance

1Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.

Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading

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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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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Cross-post: the real battle lines in Renaissance philosophy

Historians of Renaissance and early modern philosophy often try to give a unity to their subjects by framing the creative elements of these periods as engaging in a revolt against “scholasticism”.  However, this only gives as much intelligibility to the Renaissance as is granted to its foil, and historians usually assign scholasticism any negative quality needed to keep the narrative going;  it can be mindlessly dogmatic or aridly intellectual or both at once, despising all nature or assigning fanciful hierarchies within it, servile or unfaithful to Aristotle, holding an opinion of man that is irrationally low (when the opponent is humanism) or high (when the opponent is science).  Ernst Cassirer in his 1963 book The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy tries to fit his material into this standard narrative, but he provides a great deal of interesting material, so that a more interesting story begins to emerge.

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