Traditionalism: A Primer

Moreau Hesiod & the Muses (1860)

Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898): Hesiod & the Muses (1860)

Fish know not that they swim in the sea, nor birds that they swoop in the air.  No more do the denizens of the prevailing era know that they live out their lives in a philosophically narrow, righteously conceited, anti-human, and anti-natural dispensation, calling itself modernity, which can trace its immediate beginnings only to the Eighteenth Century, and which represents a radical break with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom gleaned painfully from a massive human experience.  No doubt but contemporary modern people, when they hear an invocation of the Eighteenth Century, locate that century in a periwigged past, thinking that it could not possibly have anything to do with them, as they exist, in the transient now.  This very attitude betokens, in fact, an essential feature of modernity, which idolizes the present moment as the figure of a so-called progress that is self-consummating and that makes obsolete everything belonging to any moment in the historical continuum that precedes it.  Indeed, the modern mentality necessarily rejects history; it is fundamentally non- or anti-historical, which also makes it anti-memorious, devaluing not only history, but memory.  Thus the modern mentality has conveniently forgotten the violent origins of its perpetually disruptive mode.  The mendaciously self-designating Enlightenment, rejecting the moral and intellectual inheritance of the European Middle Ages, viciously attacked the vestiges of the past and in so doing set the stage for the mayhem and terror of the French Revolution.  The violence of modernity would perpetuate itself through the centuries, murdering a hundred million people in the middle of the Twentieth Century, always in the righteous name of that selfsame progress.  The convulsion of modernity, however, provoked a response, and that response took the form of Traditionalism – a critique of modernity that seeks also to curb modernity, and to curb it for the sake of a human restoration.  In Traditionalism humanity remembers itself.  Traditionalism attempts to revive an immemorial wisdom and to place it once again at the memorious center of institutions.

The earliest representatives of Traditionalism gained prominence with the onset of revolutionary agitation in France in 1789.  The Terror of September 1793 to July 1794 and the executions of the royal family, beginning with Louis XVI in January 1793 and concluding with Louis’ ten-year-old son and heir apparent in 1795 galvanized them.  The Jacobins labeled the original Traditionalists reactionaries.  But the term reaction requires a context.  Reaction originates, in fact, in the revolutionary mentality itself, which reacts, or rather rebels, against the Tradition.  Such names as Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), and Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) stand at the center of Traditionalism and produced the heart of its classical expression.  In Contra Mundum – Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition (2017), Thomas Garrett Isham makes an important point about both Maistre himself and the loosely organized movement that Maistre initiated.  Isham tells of Maistre’s adherence to the Catholicism in which he came to manhood and of his loyalty, both as citizen and public servant, to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.  When in 1792 the Revolutionary Army invaded Savoy, the Piedmontese départment where Maistre’s parents had brought him into the world and raised and educated him, the magistrate and senator experienced the bloody barbarity and atheistic intolerance of revolutionary-nihilistic politics at first hand; the dispossession of his property and his forced exile to neighboring Switzerland provoked in Maistre a colossal reorganization of his philosophical and theological assumptions.

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Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall


Materialism and the mechanistic world-view – the idea that the everything is a machine operating in terms of mindless, mechanical forces – has severe nihilistic implications. An alternative to this view is that the universe is alive, and that consciousness permeates it – a view called ‘panpsychism.” When his wife began to think that panpsychism might be true, Sam Harris, a famous anti-religion atheist. initially told her to remain silent about her views in case she lost all street cred. When she asked scientists she knew their own views, it turned out that many of them were also secret believers in panpsychism.

The fact that Annaka Harris and the scientists thought it necessary to lie by omission is troubling. It shows that science, as a human activity, can suffer from the usual human tendencies, one of which is the desire to belong to a group and to reach for social status. Groups define themselves by who they exclude as much as their positive beliefs, and they reward with the maintenance or increase of status and punish by demotion those who dissent. Hence, the creation of orthodoxies.

Another oft-commented upon human tendency is the desire to have something to worship. If religion is abandoned, a religious attitude will usually simply be taken towards something non-religious. Communism was atheistic so the Russians simply worshipped Stalin instead, and the Chinese turned Mao Zedong into a demi-God in their imaginations. I have met an engineer with such reverence for science and his own status as a scientist that he is tremendously conceited about his ability to think about philosophical, or any other, topics beyond the scope of his expertise. He definitely seems to see himself as a priest of science – an idea that Francis Bacon, credited with contributing to “the scientific method” actually championed, including the idea that scientists should wear special robes to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi. Continue reading

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

1“Michael” writes: “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.”

Logically, this could be because all events are free or because all events are determined. It seems likely that the writer thinks all events are causally determined.

Presumably by “events” the writer includes “actions.” However, without the concept of freedom there are no actions per se. Actions are performed by an actor, an agent who is a center of decision-making. In determinism, there are no agents. There is only a series of “sequences of events” – a constant stream beginning when time began and ending when the physical universe ceases to exist. Each event is the result of a prior event in mechanical fashion, and each event will cause some future event. Continue reading

What Cannot But Be Carried Into Practice Must Perforce Be Veridical

A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.

The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.

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Chastek Asks a Good Question

James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:

Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?

Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?

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A Head on a Pike: François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand on the Revolution

FR 01

Anne-Louis Girodet (1767 – 1824): François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand Contemplating the Ruins of Rome (1804)

Along with Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) rightfully takes his place as one of the most prominent of the early Catholic pro-monarchical Francophone critics of the French Revolution.  Chateaubriand’s authorial career began in 1797 with the publication in England, where he had gone into exile, of his Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans leur rapport avec la révolution française.  Chateaubriand, like Maistre, had witnessed the Revolution directly and experienced its devastating effects personally.  His younger sister died in a Jacobin dungeon; his elder brother and his sister-in-law lost their lives to the guillotine.  Chateaubriand himself fell, seriously wounded, during the Siege of Thionville while fighting as a private soldier in the Émigré Army in late August 1792.  He managed to make his way to Brittany, his home, from there to the sanctuary of Jersey, and finally to London where he commenced the impoverished ordeal of his long recuperation.  The Essai, which runs to nearly six hundred pages, reveals its author’s erudition, which its successors such as The Genius of Christianity (1802) and The Martyrs (1809) would further attest.  Chateaubriand proposes to study in detail the five revolutions that he can identify in antiquity and the seven in modernity with the twin aims of discovering the revolutionary causality and of applying that causality to an analysis of the French Revolution.  Chateaubriand remarks that, according to the legends, Greek monarchy suffered a general catastrophe in the aftermath of the Trojan War.  Even before Agamemnon’s ill-fated enterprise, however, the stories of Oedipus, of the Seven against Thebes, and even of Theseus suggest a crisis or weakening of kingship.  The chaotic aftermath of the Greek victory in the Troad saw the demise of dynasties, such as that of the Atreids in Mycenae.  Darkness descends over Hellas.  When affairs once again emerge into the light, monarchy has vanished, its place taken by the turbulent poleis or as Chateaubriand calls them, not without prejudice, les républiques.

Chateaubriand makes the point, in his discussion of the historical poleis, that these democracies rarely in fact heeded the popular will.  Rather, clever power-seekers manipulated opinion for selfish ends.  Competition among power-seekers generated factionalism, which periodically broke out into open conflict.  Laws intended to enrich the ruling class exacerbated the resentment of the poor against the rich.  As Chateaubriand writes, “The poor in the state are infinitely more dangerous than the rich, and often they are worth less than them.”  Chateaubriand never indicts the poor; he indicts those who create poverty.  Once the difference between rich and poor exists, however, and especially when the manipulators have sabotaged the inherited social order, violent convulsion becomes inevitable.  Chateaubriand cites the history of Athens from Codrus, the self-sacrificing last king of Attica, to Solon as a near-perpetual cycle of mobilized factions, tyranny, counter-tyranny, and, on exhaustion, attempts to repair political order through the writing of new constitutions.  The Athenian project of acquiring an empire led to the city’s defeat and to decades of chaos until, at last, the Macedonian phalanx imposed a new order.  A republic, in Chateaubriand’s assessment, is an inherently unstable type of polity.

No one, regrettably, has ever translated the Essai into English.  Those who can handle French and who interest themselves in the irony that Reaction arises from Revolution will find a reward in examining it.  Fortunately, Chateaubriand treated of the Revolution elsewhere, as in his autobiographical Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, composed in the last ten years of his life and issued after his death; and he alludes to the Revolution in the final section of The Genius of Christianity.  The tableaux of revolutionary France that Chateaubriand paints in the Memoirs exercise a powerful compulsion over the reader, revealing as they do the anti-civilizational ferocity of an insurrectionist campaign to establish, all in the name of reason, the regime of liberté, égalité, et fraternité.

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The Simultaneous Emergence of Language & Religion

Gans & Girard

Rene Girard (Left) and Eric Gans (Right)

My article on Oswald Spengler and William Olaf Stapledon – Two Eccentric Theorists of the Origin of Language – appears in the current number of Anthropoetics: the Journal of Generative Anthropology. Assuming the framework of Eric Gans’ “scenic” and “evenemential” model of the origin of language, the article examines the convergent intuitions of Spengler and Stapledon that language represents a distinctive break from animal signage rather than a gradual development on the basis of animal signage. Spengler, in his Decline, and Stapledon, in his Last Men in London, agree that language and religion spring into being simultaneously in response to a breakdown of the instinctual order in the proto-human group, a breakdown that is exacerbated by the increasing mimeticism of the individuals who comprise that group. The first sign designates both the group and the emergent consciousness, which what is suddenly a community rather than a mere group perceives as God. The argument also draws on René Girard’s concept of the origin of culture in a “sacrificial crisis,” which provides the starting-point for Gans’ theory.  I reproduce three paragraphs from the article’s Introduction. –

Cognoscenti of Generative Anthropology will have acquainted themselves with the history of language-theory in its broad outline as well as with the narrower history of those investigations of things human that sought plausibly to account for or to characterize, in one way or another, the origin of language and by implication the totality of institutions.  Generative Anthropology is itself a late instance of the latter and its originator Eric L. Gans, in his study of The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day (2008), offers a rare and succinct survey of logo- and etho-genetic hypotheses, as one might call them, from the Seventeenth Century down to the Twenty-First.  Gans writes, “My thesis is that human experience, as opposed to that of other animals, is uniquely characterized by scenic events recalled both collectively and individually through representations, the most fundamental of which are the signs of language.”  It belongs to Gans’ thesis that, “If the human is indeed a series of scenic events… then the human must have originated in an event… the representation of which, the first example of language and ‘culture,’ is part of the originary scene itself.”  Gans’ term “originary scene” refers to the logically necessary first occasion when the mutual awareness of the ego and the tu, mediated by an object of contention, articulated itself in a gesture or utterance that, lodging in the newly commenced self-acknowledgment and mental continuity of the group, could be recalled or repeated.  Gans makes his own case for the intuitive likelihood of the originary scene, but there is a simpler argument all the more poignant for originating outside of Generative Anthropology, while lending it logical support.  Every word in every language is a coinage.  Whatever the word, there was a time of its coinage, of its first instance, before which it never existed.  Traveling backward in his time machine, the observer would notice, first, a de-ramification of tongues until, an initial bifurcation into two dialects being annulled, only one tongue existed.  In the case of that tongue, the traveler would then witness a diminution of vocabulary until he arrived at the first, and in its day singular and only word of that tongue’s vocabulary.  He would have arrived at the origin of language.

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The One Basic Thing

Over at Orthospherean Bruce Charlton’s Notions, I rattled off a comment about what a truly basic thing would have to be like, which upon reflection I believe may be worth promoting to a post here. Bruce had critiqued monotheism; I then pointed out that God in the OT had rather supported the idea, and said that monotheism is not monism; to which Bruce replied that Christian theology is certainly monist. I commented:

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Credo: Passus

Not a word of the creeds is superfluous. Whatever the creeds say was thought by the Fathers of the Church to be crucially important, and essential to the Faith. Whatever the creeds say, they say emphatically.

Why does the Nicene Creed emphasize that Jesus suffered death? Whatever the reason, how are we to reconcile the fact of his suffering with his eternity, which entails his impassibility?

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