From Promethean Pride to the Holocaustic Imagination: Atlas Shrugged

Rand Soviet Style

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982)

The victory over desire is extremely painful.  Proust tells us that we must forego the fervent dialogue endlessly carried on by each of us at the superficial levels of our being.  One must “give up one’s dearest illusions.”  The novelist’s art is a phenomenological epochē.  But the only authentic epochē is never mentioned by modern philosophers; it is always victory over desire, victory over Promethean pride.  (René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel)
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing.  As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself.  When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema.  (Eric Gans, Signs of Paradox)

I. No account of Ayn Rand’s (1905 – 1982) sprawling, morally incoherent end-of-the-world story Atlas Shrugged (1957) can begin elsewhere than in an acknowledgment of the way in which the novel’s fascinating spectacle can draw a reader in despite himself. This is the book’s secret, which the present essay aims to investigate. The British writer Colin Wilson gives a typical account.  He first became conscious of Rand’s work while lecturing in America in the autumn of 1961; university students would ask him his opinion about her.  He responded that he had never heard of Rand, whereupon, as he writes, “somebody presented me with paperback copies of her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – the latter more than 1,000 pages long.”  Delving into the former, Wilson found himself “immediately put off by the rhetorical tone of the opening,” which he quotes: “Howard Roark laughed…  He stood naked at the edge of a cliff,” and so forth.  Turning to Atlas, Wilson writes, “I remembered that I had seen some of this book before [when] a correspondent had sent me its last hundred pages: an immensely long speech, made over the radio by a man called John Galt… to justify individualism.”  Galt’s speech struck Wilson as “too wordy” and he had, on that former occasion, “given it up.”  Now, when students would ask what Wilson thought of Rand, he “inclined to be dismissive – a typical female writer, a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language.”  In the autumn of 1962, however, confined to bed by a severe case of influenza, Wilson revisited Atlas, “determined to give it a fair trial.”  Pushing himself through the first twenty pages, Wilson at last –

Read the book from cover to cover in two days, and immediately followed it with The Fountainhead.  I had to admit that I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice.  It is true that this is partly her own fault.  The cover of Atlas Shrugged has a rather badly drawn picture of a naked Titan, his head thrown back, his arms spread apart, against a fiery red background; the back cover has a picture of Miss Rand, her head also thrown back, her eyes very wide open, the lips slightly parted as if seeing a vision.  It was all a bit Wagnerian; and although I love Wagner’s music, I am inclined to be impatient of literary Wagnerianism – as in Faulkner or Wolfe…  But one thing was immediately obvious from Atlas Shrugged.  Miss Rand has the ability to tell a story… with a minimum of clichés.

In Wilson’s judgment, Atlas “has a great deal in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.”  Like those, “it is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom.”  Pace Wilson, while one might acknowledge some few similarities, Atlas shows little of the political or psychological acumen of Orwell or Huxley, and none at all of their individual stylistic felicity – but this stands as a parenthesis to the criticism.  No subtlety kept Wilson riveted for two days and a thousand pages but rather Rand’s broad-stroke depiction of a grand industrial Götterdämmerung across the three parts of the novelistic tapestry.  Rand has the technological infrastructure of North America collapsing into ruin, often with incendiary effects, while a gangster regime that has superseded the federal government systematically loots the national economy.  Moral invertebrates like James Taggart, who oversees the destruction of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, or the Al Capone-like Cuffy Meigs, the gang-leader just before the final catastrophe, exercise a kind of morbid glamour as Rand demonstrates the drastic consequences of their larceny-dissimulated-as-altruism.  The protagonists, Dagny Taggart (James’ sister) and Henry “Hank” Rearden (owner of a steel mill), search an obliterated landscape for signs of the elusive Galt, who might be either the evil agency behind all of the massive decay (“the destroyer”) or the genius-inventor whose deus ex machina of a free-energy motor will save civilization.

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The Allure of Lemuria (Beta)

Lemuria 01

It Might as well be Lemuria

The poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) wrote in a sonnet of “enormous gongs of stone,” of “griffins whose angry gold, and fervid / store of sapphires [were] wrenched from mountain-plungèd mines,” and of other exotic artifacts that exist in a long-lost provenance, inaccessible except in dreams or by ecstatic witness.  Contemplating the vision, and beseeching the reader in his opening line, the monologist of Smith’s verses asks the portentous question, “Rememberest thou?”  Ah, remembrance!  Plato’s “unforgetting”!  Smith called his poem “Lemuria,” after the fabled counterpart in the Pacific Ocean of Plato’s Atlantis, the far-famed and foredoomed continent, home to a high but wayward civilization, which vanished beneath the waves in a great and world-implicating catastrophe some twelve thousand years ago and more.  According to the claim, Atlantis leaves its traces in such geographical entities as the Canary Islands, the Azores, and the submerged Mid-Atlantic Range.  Lemuria’s fragments, as enthusiasts purport, consist of the scattered atolls of the South Pacific, their enigmatic monuments, as at Ponape or Easter Island, and a tissue of myth that the poetic sensibility might cherish, but that stern rationality dogmatically and erroneously dismisses.  Rational or not, plausible or not, the Legend of Lost Lemuria, like the Legend of Lost Atlantis, speaks to a need – or rather to a gnawing hunger – that afflicts certain rare souls who find themselves stuck against their will in the modern world: To believe in the fabled, in the scientifically unsanctioned, and in the remoteness-cum-greatness of a past age, very nearly lost to memory, that mocks the modern pretension of omniscience.  The allure of Lemuria, like the fascination of Atlantis, responds to the vapid parochialism of the so-called rational world’s ultra-conceited self-perception.

The story supposes Lemuria to be as old as Atlantis (although the precise measure of its age varies from author to author), but, as a story, Lemuria post-dates Atlantis by two and a half millennia.  The notion of Atlantis – the island-continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules whose people, grown decadent and greedy, attempted world-conquest only to suffer heavenly chastisement in a cataclysm that obliterated them and their homeland – goes back to the previously mentioned Plato (428 – 347 BC), the greatest of Greek philosophers, a metaphysician, and a visionary.  In Plato’s linked dialogues Timaeus and Critias, the tale of the Sunken Continent figures centrally.  Plato offers the Atlantis narrative as a “likely story,” whose meaning remains within the realm of symbols and whose imagery the reader should take care not to interpret literally.  Nevertheless, the tendency since Plato, especially in the late Nineteenth Century and again in the early Twentieth Century, has been to take it literally.  As for Lemuria, it only becomes a topic in the Nineteenth Century in a proposal, indeed in a scientific one, put forward by zoologists and ethnographers to explain otherwise inexplicable uniformities in the zoology of the Pacific archipelagos and in the myths and legends of their people.

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Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality

Berdyaev 03 Elsk-Berdiaev-Tsankov-c1930-400

Nicolas Berdyaev (Right) with Friends (ca. 1930)

In the view of the Russian religious thinker and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), freedom arises from no causality whatever – for if freedom arose from causality, it would operate under determination, in which case it would be shackled, not free.  Freedom belongs to spirit, which is to say that it belongs to the person; and the person, bearing within himself the image of God, exercises his freedom positively by the Imitatio Dei of willing the good in the two closely linked modes of love and creativity.  Through love and creativity, moreover, people differentiate themselves from one another.  Some people distinguish themselves as more capable of love than others; these people – some of whom number among the saints – reap in higher degree than others both the delights of love and the tragic pathos that attends love in the mortal realm.  Likewise some people distinguish themselves as more creative than others, whether in the arts or in business or in scientific endeavor; or, simply, in the ability to socialize and to form friendships and initiate sodalities spontaneously.  Those who can create at a high level, like those who can love prodigiously, form a justified, if not an acknowledged, aristocracy, and while indeed they enjoy satisfaction in their creativity, they also experience its annoyances, not least of which is to fall under the resentment of lesser talents of invidious proclivity who cannot measure up to, much less surpass, the standards that emerge from the self-working-out of genius.  Because freedom emerges from no causality whatever, it partakes in mystery.  To treat freedom as a concept rather than living it, to find an explanation of it, would be to reduce freedom to a mere natural phenomenon and thereby fully to ensconce it in the domain of causality.  According to Berdyaev, freedom springs forth from the same Ungrund, or endlessly self-replenishing abyss, as the boundless will-to-goodness of God; and it springs forth as the Will and the Gift of God.

As freedom partakes in mystery, it entwines itself with faith.  As freedom produces inequality, it entwines itself with politics.  In freedom, then, faith and politics find themselves in conflict.  Faith on the one hand corresponds to a spiritual condition, which struggles ever to remove itself from the trammels of the fallen world so as to seek the good, and to create it, freely, beyond causality.  Politics, on the other hand, corresponds to an adaptation in respect of that selfsame fallenness.  In politics, men experience the temptation to exercise freedom minimally by yielding freedom to an objective – or as Berdyaev would put it, an objectivized – authority or totality.  Politics, as the present moment so clearly demonstrates, always tends towards an authoritarian totality.  Because politics adapts itself to humanity’s fallen condition, it necessarily adapts itself to envy and resentment, which it attempts to placate.  The only way, however, to placate envy and resentment is to limit the scope of genius – and that means to limit the scope of love and creativity in the realm of freedom.  Politics thus always declines, not only towards an authoritarian totality, but at the same time towards a leveling, egalitarian totality; politics as an authoritarian-egalitarian totality positions itself as essentially anti-person and anti-freedom.  This tendency in politics is magnified by the incomprehensibility to the faithless of the paradox that evil must share the same prerogative as good because otherwise freedom would annihilate itself.  The faithless believe that through the imposition of the authoritarian-egalitarian totality they can prevent evil.  Berdyaev recurred to these themes and propositions throughout his authorship.  His early Philosophy of Inequality (1923) treats of them; so do his middle-period Spirit and Reality (1939) and his late-period Slavery and Freedom (1944).

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The Age of Disorientation

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.

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A Westerner Reads the Koran (Second Surah)

Pussin Golden Calf

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665): Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634)

Introduction. 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 do 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 an ensuing middle 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, 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 connects itself to their seriousness and to their comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New generally 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; he was entirely unfamiliar with them.  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, which lifts 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. Continue reading

The Pagan Ordeal of Dominique Venner

Venner 01

[Note: This essay appeared some few years ago in the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, shortly after the death by suicide of its subject. The work of Venner remaining relevant, I re-post the essay here, with a few small changes.]

Dominique Venner (born 16 April 1935) ended his life publicly and dramatically by shooting himself in the mouth before the altar of Our Lady of Notre Dame in Paris six years ago on 21 May 2013. The bullet passed through Venner’s brain and exited the back of his head. In the opening paragraph of a suicide note that he sent to his publisher, Venner sought to justify his action:

I am healthy in body and mind, and I am filled with love for my wife and children.  I love life and expect nothing beyond, if not the perpetuation of my race and my mind.   However, in the evening of my life, facing immense dangers to my French and European homeland, I feel the duty to act as long as I still have strength.  I believe it necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that plagues us. I give up what life remains to me in order to protest and to found.  I chose a highly symbolic place, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I respect and admire: She was built by the genius of my ancestors on the site of cults still more ancient, recalling our immemorial origins.

A reader cannot avoid remarking the contradictions in Venner’s testament.  A professed love of life comports itself awkwardly with a gesture of self-annihilation.  One could argue that Venner meant by “life,” not his own, but the collective, trans-personal vitality of his children and their descendants; he refers after all to “the perpetuation of [his] race and [his] mind.”  Seen in that way, his suicide might rise to being a Stoical demonstration, like those of Petronius and Seneca in the time of Nero.  Even so, no few problems remain; not least the dis-relation between Venner’s professed respect and admiration for the “highly symbolic place” of the Lady Church and his having blemished its consecrated precincts with his effluvia.  How moreover would such an act “break the lethargy that plagues us”?  More likely – even patently, looking back on the event – it would merely add to the pernicious confusion of the times.  The explanation of these contradictions is undoubtedly linked to the fact that while Venner acknowledged his belonging to a specifically Christian civilization in its late phase, he never himself identified as an adherent of that faith.  Like his countrymen-contemporaries Guillaume Faye (b. 1949) and Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), Venner espoused Friedrich Nietzsche’s Neo-Pagan view of Christianity as “slave morality,” a religion of defeat and death, and the cause of rather than the antidote to the malaise of modernity unleashed.  Like Nietzsche, whom Venner admired, and who signed his last letters as “The Crucified One,” the suicide might well have been experiencing a revilement of Christ which was, at the same time, a desire to rival and replace Him.  That would account for Venner’s characterization of his act as an instance of “self-sacrifice” and for his references to “cults still more ancient” than the Cult of the Virgin on the Ile de la Cité, with whose pre-Christian religiosity he would have identified in opposition to Christianity.

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Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part II)

Jegga Amazing Cover

Amazing Stories November 1943

I continue my “Anthropology of the Martian Romance.”  The previous installment dealt with the seminal Martian Romance, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and its background in the studies of East Asian shamanic practices and later of the planet Mars undertaken in the early years of the Twentieth Century by Percival Lowell.  In this second part of “Outward is Upward” I discuss a little-known but impressive addition to the Martian Romance, David Reed’s Empire of Jegga, and a late addition, Leigh Brackett’s Queen of the Martian Catacombs, later republished as The Black Amazon of Mars.  While I confine myself to a sub-sub genre of science fiction, I believe that my interpretations are applicable to mid-Twentieth Century genre across the board. I take genre seriously. Genre offers, as I put it in Part I, “a colorful promise of redemption.”

II. Epistemological Displacement in Reed’s Empire of Jegga. Burroughs’ example, no less than his success, provoked many writers to imitate him. Knock-offs of A Princess quickly became legion. Burroughs even imitated himself, launching new series of books whose action takes place on the planet Venus, on the moon, in a vast cavern at the center of the Earth, or on an extra-solar planet away across the galaxy.  In his Venus series, Burroughs might have been imitating one of his imitators, Otis Adelbert Kline (1891 – 1946), whose “Planet of Peril” trilogy, set on the next planet inward from Earth, saw serial publication in Argosy All-Story Weekly between 1929 and 1931.  The first of Burroughs’ Venusian tales, Pirates of Venus, only appeared in 1932.  Kline wrote his own Martian novels in the early 1930s.  If Kline’s romances had come back into print after many decades, as they have, it would be a case of their riding on Burroughsian coat-tails.  Kline’s prose is certainly entertaining, but it lacks the symbolic richness of Burroughs’ prose.  Now imitation is not only flattery; it is also the index of a market.  In its turn, a market is the index of a desire or need.  The desire or need arises from the subject’s proprioception of alienation or maladjustment.  In the case of maladjustment, however, the subject senses the condition not so much as his own but rather as a deforming affliction in the external social world.  That deformation is modernity, which in rejecting Tradition drastically diminishes the opportunity of proper self-placement that the archaic rites of passage facilitate.  The world of getting and spending obviously exerts on John Carter no attraction whatsoever, but Carter nevertheless seems incapable of bitterness.  Stalwartness belongs to Carter’s Percival-like character.  Nick Brewster, the protagonist of David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga (Amazing Stories November 1943), presents himself at first, in contrast to Carter, as a materialist, even a hedonist, and womanizer.  Not only in its protagonist, but in the fullness of its details, Reed (1924 – 1989) appears to have conceived Empire initially as an anti-Princess of Mars, but his story is nevertheless a version, or perhaps an inversion, of Burroughs’ saga about John Carter.

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Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part I)

Planet Stories Triple

Planet Stories: The Stubborn Home of the Martian Romance

Introduction. This essay takes for granted a number of premises: For example, that Twentieth-Century genre literature, even when it is a purely commercial endeavor with the author being remunerated according to word-count, often resurrects types of thinking, not least the mythic and sacred modes of thought, that the doctrines of modernity reject and that the organs of modernity attempt to suppress.  A related premise is that these modes of thought, or states of mind, through the symbols associated with them, articulate an image of full humanity, especially of full masculine humanity, unavailable elsewhere in which many people wish to participate, even if it were only vicariously.  In the liberal-modern, rationalistic view, such vicarious participation in archaic processes and dramas belongs to an escapist and antisocial attitude, the participants in which the representatives of the prevailing order admonish and chastise with the aim of shaming them into re-assimilating themselves to a prescriptive, but highly unnatural, set of norms.  While it is true that stock formulas govern the unfolding action of genre narrative, those formulas stand, perhaps startlingly so, emphatically outside the horizon of any Post-Enlightenment order.  They are in many ways both dissentient from and critical of that order.  Not least, the generic formulas derive from the paradigms of archaic heroism, known from the Homeric epics and especially from the medieval Germanic and Celtic sagas, which in turn carry with them the patterns of ritual processes in general and of ritual initiation in particular.  This initiatic pattern invariably entails the confrontation of the subject or initiand with a transcendent mystery, where-through the protagonist acquires manly status, wisdom, and on occasion a help-meet, and either earns acknowledgment from a community that has previously ignored him or reconciles himself to a status as permanent outsider by virtue of his proper and self-validating achievements.

Who was he?  In the first half of the Twentieth Century, the historical period that this exposition addresses, he was an office worker, a bank teller, a low-level civic bureaucrat, a technician in a factory, or a high school physics teacher in his mid- to late-twenties, a bachelor but interested in marriage, whose five-day-a-week, eight- or ten-hours-a-day routine while it bought him a living, replenished him spiritually not at all.  Aware of his confinement in stultifying routine and chafing at it; living in a city, likely in an efficiency apartment, with few opportunities of escape; and possessing an educated imagination, on which the demands of his employment never drew, he sought compensation.  He might look for it in the movie house, but film appealed largely to a female audience, which merely dragged the male along and required him to buy the popcorn and soft drinks.  He might take night classes in the city college or subscribe to a correspondence course.  He might join the Elks or the Rotarians.  He might affiliate himself with the Technocracy movement or join a rifle-club.  His plight was not, however, the Marxist alienation of the worker, but a condition much more profound than that, lying entirely outside the horizon of economics.  A colorful promise of redemption existed in his day, however, of which he no doubt frequently caught sight: The corner news stand, with its rack on rack of garish periodicals.  Those racks sometimes loomed providentially, rising up like a sign to the initiand, who did not yet know himself as the initiand, rather in the way that the Holy Grail appears in Arthur’s castle, lighting up the hall “seven times greater than before.”[i]

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Colin Wilson Redivivus: A Plea

Age of Defeat

New Aristeia Edition of Colin Wilson’s Age of Defeat

Aristeia is a small start-up press in London whose initial project, undertaken in collaboration with the Joy Wilson and Colin Wilson Estate, is to return to print in a uniform edition Wilson’s “Outsider Cycle.” People of my age and my intellectual proclivities will likely remember Wilson (1931 – 2013) as the author of non-conformist philosophical books that took the modern condition to task and as a prolific novelist whose Ritual in the Dark, Necessary Doubt, The Mind Parasites, and The Philosopher’s Stone, among others, rehearsed the non-fiction arguments with allegorical verve. Wilson’s first book, the non-fictional Outsider, appeared in 1956 and became a surprise bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilson’s emergent currency even got him on the cover of Life Magazine.

Aristeia has previously put out a new edition of Religion and the Rebel (which bore the brunt of the establishment’s abrupt turn-around regarding Wilson); it has now given us a new edition of the third installment of Wilson’s philosophical cycle — The Age of Defeat. I am humbled to have been asked to participate in this project by supplying an introduction, “Bucking the Whimper,” to The Age, a book that remains as relevant to the West’s cultural decline as it was when it first appeared. Indeed, the book is the more relevant because the situation is six decades worse than it was in 1958.

The Age, along with Religion and the Rebel, is available either directly through Aristeia or through Amazon. The Amazon price is fifteen dollars, which gets the buyer a handsome trade paperback printed extremely legibly on good paper — not to mention Wilson’s rapier-like critique of the post-war anti-heroic and self-de-masculinizing society of Western Europe and North America. I strongly recommend The Age and hope that no few readers of The Orthosphere will take the risk of purchasing it.

The Acid Eating at Tradition is Not Capitalism, But Cheap Information

Reactionaries often blame capitalism for eviscerating tradition and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. But capitalism – i.e., free exchange – is not a recent phenomenon. It was not invented by the Franciscans, forsooth, but rather discovered by them as a subject amenable to moral, theological and philosophical analysis, and so to discourse, development and elaboration. Capitalism has been around since the beginning of human society. It is no more than a fancy word for exchange that develops surplus, after all; for mere trade, and commerce. For almost all of human history, capitalism supported and indeed mediated local tradition – or, at least, did not vitiate it.

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