Part I – The Bacchae. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in his Birth of Tragedy (1871), Euripides (480 – 406), whose main activity coincided with the nihilistic destructiveness of the Peloponnesian Wars, betrayed “the public cult of tragedy,” to whose canons he merely pretended to adhere, while secretly doing everything he could to subvert them. The power of myth attained its “most profound content,” Nietzsche writes, in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and its “most expressive form.” Then Euripides intervened, imposing the withering literalistic interpretation of “the typical Hellene” or paltry rationalist on the properly mythic material of the most sublime of poetic genres. “What was your wish,” Nietzsche proposes rhetorically, “when you tried to force that dying myth into your service once more.” Nietzsche means the Myth of Dionysus, which, as he addresses directly the playwright, “died beneath your violent hands.” Euripides, so Nietzsche claims, sacrilegiously “abandoned Dionysus,” substituting “sophistical dialectic” for the ancient Dithyramb, and giving to his characters “counterfeit, masked passions” and “counterfeit, masked speeches.” Nietzsche’s accusatory phrase, “violent hands,” works a bold verbal legerdemain, especially considering Euripides’ final play, The Bacchae, which concerns itself with the same deity in whose cult and celebrations tragedy had its birth. With his second person formal, his “you,” Nietzsche assumes the stance of a public prosecutor, pointing his finger of indictment at the defendant and calling out the cultural equivalent of a capital crime. That crime is sacrilege. Nietzsche even compounds his indictment: “Through [Euripides] everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage.” Euripides, a kind of coward and panderer, stirred the mob into profaning the sacred scene, so that he might deflect guilt from himself. The district attorney knows better. He will bring home his charge.
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.”
Philosophy is concerned with the most important questions and the most important questions are debatable. Science restricts itself to questions that can be settled through experiment and empirical evidence, while ideally regarding scientific results as tentative and open to revision upon new evidence
Some theists imagine that quantum mechanics can lend support to spiritual realities. They point to the Copenhagen interpretation, which incidentally has no fixed meaning. But one meaning is an agreement to shut up and calculate. The equations of quantum mechanics work therefore there is no necessity to figure out what the implications for physical reality are concerning these equations. Continue reading
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.”
Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the German historian and philosopher, devotes a suite of three chapters (VII, VIII, and IX) in his Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), to what he calls “The Problems of the Arabian Culture.” The third of these chapters, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell,” explores the parallelisms that, in Spengler’s view, and in his use of the word, make these figures “contemporary” with one another. The same chapter also contains Spengler’s analysis of Puritanism, but not strictly in the sense of Calvinist doctrine although he includes Calvinism in his discussion. Spengler views Puritanism as an inevitable phase of religion, one of doctrinal hardening and literalism in which a totalitarian impulse predominates. Puritanism has manifested itself in all the Great Cultures, as Spengler calls them, such as the Chinese, the Classical, and the Gothic. By “The Problems of Arabian Culture” Spengler does not mean to confine himself to a history of Monophysitism or Islam although these come under his three-chapter remit. Spengler subsumes “Arabian Culture” under the larger category of “Magian Culture,” which embraces both Arabia Felix and Arabia Deserta but reaches far beyond them to aspects of the late Persian and Syriac societies, to the Hellenism of Alexandria, and even to the Iconoclastic centuries of Byzantium. The term Magian also reaches back in time to the late stages of Mesopotamian society. For Spengler, St. Augustine shares rather more with Islamic theology than he does, say, with St. Thomas and the Scholastics. For Spengler, the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople anticipates the mosque. To understand the chapter-sequence on “The Problems of Arabian Culture,” however, requires that Spengler’s often shocking and sometimes counter-intuitive pronouncements, like the ones just mentioned, take their place among the over-arching assumptions of The Decline.
Spengler’s opus impresses the first-time reader as a colossal improvisation. Its erudition and seeming formlessness put off many would-be explorers. Spengler’s basic propositions nevertheless lend themselves to summary. Spengler rejects the idea of a universal history. He recognizes no singular history but a number of histories in the plural each one peculiar to its own Great Culture. Thus the Classical or Mediterranean Culture begins with the palace kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and ends with the Severan Dynasty of the Late Second and Early Third Centuries. Indian Culture begins with the Vedas and ends with Buddhism. Western or “Faustian” Culture has its earliest glimmerings in the Eighth Century but really only leaps into being after the year 1000. Western Culture preserves a profound awareness of Classical Culture but this awareness implies, for Spengler, no actual continuity. Each Great Culture constitutes itself hermetically as an organic whole without debt to adjacent or precursor cultures. Borrowings are never essential, but only ornamental. Spengler emphasizes the organic character of culture. He regards each Great Culture as a living entity, whose mortality impends as soon as it comes to birth. Each Great Culture follows the same seasonal life-course – a vivacious and creative spring, a productive summer, a crisis-afflicted fall, and an increasingly inflexible winter. Spengler also makes a distinction between culture, as such, and civilization. Culture flourishes as the vital phase; civilization takes over as the mechanical phase, becoming more and more rigid until the machine stops.
A previous essay to this one on José Ortega y Gasset began with the claim that the past speaks to the present more pertinently than the present speaks to itself, but that the present, in assessing itself as the culmination of human advancement, actively disdains the past and prefers to stuff its ears. The essence of the modern psyche – which Ortega explores in his Revolt of the Masses (1930) – is paradoxically to be at once emphatically assured of its knowledge and wisdom but, in Ortega’s phrase, conscientiously ignorant of anything outside its radically narrow field of expertise, which it mistakes for a totality. The modern mind cuts itself off from the stream of human experience, oblivious, in its conceit, to the necessity of temporality, memory, and history in the very constitution of consciousness. Ortega’s phenomenology of the arrogant, self-limiting, and abjectly self-unaware subject finds a counterpart in the first important work of a thinker belonging to the generation after the Spaniard – The New Science of Politics (1952) by Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), who left Austria after the Anschluss, came to the U.S.A., and eventually obtained a fellowship in political science at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where he practiced from 1969 to 1985. In The New Science, Voegelin advanced his thesis, which he would elaborate in subsequent books and essays, that modernity is “Gnostic,” a term referring to a set of exotic theologies, parasitizing on Christianity, which troubled the religious landscape of Late Antiquity, particularly in period of the Second and Third Centuries, and reemerged in the Middle Ages.
Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king. The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text. In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.” (Matarasso’s translation) A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine. He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door. Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man. Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice. It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.” In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm. The images intercommunicate. The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail. Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places. Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul. The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty. The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness. They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.
Homer bequeaths to posterity one of the earliest visions of a wasteland, anticipating T. S. Eliot by three millennia. Eliot, incidentally, acknowledges his debt to Homer by allusions to him in the fabric of his foundationally modern, but also highly anti-modern, poem. Now in Odyssey, Book IX, his Phaeacian hosts having guessed his identity, Odysseus honors the guest’s role under hospitality by telling his story in full. He relates the unpublished details of his post-Trojan voyages thus far. After the finale at Troy, Odysseus sailed his fleet of twelve ships on a piratical raid against the Ciconians, the rashness of which cost him dearly (some seventy dead); he dragged his men away from the narcotic forgetfulness of Lotus Land; and then, after contrary weather drove him off course, he entered the natural harbor of an uninhabited island lying opposite what would prove to be the insular domain of those anthropophagous troglodytes, the Cyclopes. Odysseus describes to King Alcinous and Queen Arete the fatness of the unpeopled skerry, where he went ashore to revictual his armada. “Covered with trees,” as Odysseus says, “on it innumerable wild goats breed; no tread of man disturbs them; none comes here to follow hounds, to toil through woods and climb the crests of hills.” (Palmer’s translation) Odysseus adds that “the island is not held for flocks or tillage, but all unsown, untilled, it evermore is bare of men and feeds the bleating goats.” As though to convey his dismay in the unfulfillment of it, Odysseus emphasizes that: “Here are meadows on the banks of the grey sea, moist, with soft soil; here vines could never die; here is smooth ploughing-land; a very heavy crop, and always well in season, might be reaped, for the undersoil is rich.” Homer depicts Ithaca, by contrast, as a hard-scrabble economy.
Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), The Bow and the Club (in Italian, 1968; English translation by Sergio Knipe, 2018): Julius Evola gained notoriety with his Revolt Against the Modern World (1934), a trenchant book as apposite to the current phase of modernity in the 2020s as it was to the inter-war phase in whose midst it appeared. Men among the Ruins (1953) and Ride the Tiger (1961) carried forward the analyses and conclusions of Revolt. Evola’s authorship looms large, encompassing works major and minor. A late entry in Evola’s bibliography, The Bow and the Club, which perhaps qualifies only as a minor one, anthologizes nineteen independent essays from the 1950s through the 1960s, rewriting them with some cross-references, so as to lend unity to their collocation. “The Psychoanalysis of Skiing” illustrates Evola’s acumen in cultural analysis: Diversion although trivial can testify to the social condition and to the pervasive attitude. Evola remarks the recentness of skiing as a popular sport even while casting doubt on its sportive status. Whereas mountaineering, also recent, requires strength, courage, and skill, skiing, in Evola’s view, simply makes use of gravity. One emphasizes the ascent – the other the descent. The skier must, of course, ascend before he descends, but “the problem has been solved by building cableways, chair lifts, and sledge lifts that meet the real interest of skiers by effortlessly taking them up.” The very mechanization of skiing ranks it, as Evola writes, “among those [activities] most devoid of any relation to the symbols of the previous world-view.” Evola detects in skiing an essential passivity. The thrill of the downhill run reflects the general “collapse and downfall” of the modern world, to which the skier gleefully submits. Evola relates skiing to “naturism,” his word for nudism. A demon of shamelessness indeed hovers over the piste. The notorious hot-tubs of the Sierra-Nevada ski lodges, although they post-date Evola’s death, affirm his intuition.
In Matthew 22:21, Jesus is quoted as saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” in response to the question as to whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. This points to a tragic aspect of human existence and that is the need for social organization, and social organization involves lies and coercion. Human history is an appalling resumé of scapegoating and murder. The world of Caesar is the exterior world ruled by determinism and the absence of divinity. At most, signs and symbols of divinity intrude upon us and give us respite from brutality. Sigmund Freud pointed to the ways in which social reality constrains our wishes and desires, but he could only identify motives from below, the sex drive, the death wish, etc. Thus, he was unable to comment on the ways in which our spiritual nature is frustrated by social existence. Spiritual aspiration drives us too. In a compromise with phenomenal reality, we find it necessary to punish and imprison murderers and sadists when, spiritually speaking, they have already organized their own prisons of hatred and loathing. The entirely non-spiritual desire for revenge which factors into the justice system has even caused us to imagine God the Father creating an eternal hell – the existence of which would mean the failure of God and a limit to his desire to forgive, and an end to the possibility of redemption. As Berdyaev points out, we project sociomorphic items like Judge, Punishment, Lawmaker, Ruler, onto God – importing social categories relating to the fallen world around us into ultimate spiritual matters. Continue reading