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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Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part I

Bramer Leonaert (1596 - 1670) - Sacrifice of Iphigenia c. 1623

Leonaert Bramer (1596 – 1670): Iphigenia at Aulis (1630)

[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]

Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility.  Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time.  This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.

I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.”  The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations.  Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply.  There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism.  Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.

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

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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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Social Justice: an Analysis

Cosmic justice: infantile and nihilistic

Social class, home environment, genetics and other factors all contribute to differences between individuals. People differ in looks, height, income, social status, morality, various kinds of intelligence and athleticism, musical ability, industriousness, discipline, and nearly every other human characteristic. Differences in culture, history, and geography generate differences between groups. Being born into a culture that emphasizes hard work, education, conscientiousness, and thrift is a tremendous advantage.

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Thomas Sowell

“Social justice” advocates describe the resulting disparate achievements as “inequalities” with the suggestion that these represent some kind of injustice. Unequal achievement is treated as though it must be the result of discrimination, “privilege” or some other unfairness, while it is in fact the inevitable consequence of differences between individuals and groups. These differences will exist no matter how a society is organized barring a race to the bottom where the laziest, least talented individuals set the bar and every achievement that surpassed that pitiful measure got confiscated and distributed – removing any incentive to do anything much at all. Continue reading

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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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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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

Berdyaev: Why God and Personality Must be the Highest Ideal

Berdyaev: Why God and Personality Must be the Highest Ideal

Berdyaev points out that if God and the individual human Personality are not someone’s highest ideal then that person is effectively promising to sacrifice the individual in the name of that supposedly higher ideal. The logic is simple and undeniable.

If someone says that under any circumstances, no matter what competing goods there may be or seem to be, the Personality is sacrosanct and to be protected at all costs, then that person is elevating Personality to the highest level of their morality in the manner that Berdyaev identifies as necessary and has abandoned his former allegiances.

Alternatives to the genuine highest good include the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, well-being, just plain “happiness,” social justice, feminism, equality, the nation, workers of the world, rationalism, science, and progress.

Every one of those “goods” is a murderous cult bent on the immolation of the human individual. If any object to this accusation, let him agree that Personality is paramount and beats out all competing ideals and that his former highest good is now secondary and always, in every situation, to be trumped by God and Personality. Continue reading

The Fallacy of Inapt Abstraction

Whitehead famously picked out the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, also called the Fallacy of Reification, of Hypostatization, or of Concretism. It is committed “when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity.” Popular discourse is rife with such fallacies: as, e.g., treating terrorism, racism, hate, anthropogenic global warming, patriarchy, and so forth as if they were concrete reals.

I’ve always cordially disliked those terms for the phenomenon. I like better the Fallacy of Inapt Concretion. That’s just me. But this is my essay, so I’m going to use it hereinafter.

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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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