My essay A Westerner Reads the Koran appears at the Gates of Vienna website. In it, I offer a type of reader-response critique of the first book, or surah, of the Koran. That surah bears the title “The Cow,” which possibly entails a rather oblique allusion to the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus or, as a scholarly footnote suggests, to a passing reference to an occasion of heifer-sacrifice overseen by Moses, as recounted in Numbers. I offer an extract:
The reality that modernity is and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity. Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness. The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few. And that is to count only the essayists. Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally. Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique. Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution. The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view. At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him. Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922. He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work. in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained. Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing. His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above. Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.
In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:
What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?
… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?
Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Jesus is the Logos. So is he himself, in his very Body, the Law.
The Law is infinite in its ramifications; it is the infinite Logos, and the Logos is the eternal knowledge and actualization of the perfectly coherent – NB, “perfect” means “complete” – infinite Gödelian stack of logical calculi, which alone suffices to that establishment of the totality of Truth, upon which any lesser portion of the Truth depends for its derivative truth, and so for its being, its factuality, and thus its salience to creatures, ergo its efficacy. Then only an infinite being might comprehend the Law, or enact it. And only by enacting it could it be fulfilled, or for that matter suasively Lawful; i.e., only were it actualized could it be Law in the first place; for only thus could it be a real character of an actual entity; only as actual and real could it be apprehensible to other actualities, or influential in their development. So, only the Logos himself can be the Law; and, so, Nomos is implicit in and entailed by Logos.
To know the Law perfectly is to be the Law. But of all men only Jesus knows the Law perfectly, or can therefore be it, effect it and thus forthward embody it. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. For, only Jesus *is* the Law.
In our sessions at Old City Hall, Richard Cocks and I often exchange ideas with our friend Richard Fader – a true Christian gentleman whom we both greatly admire – and among the recurrent topics is that of Puritanism. Fader, as we call him, is part libertarian, part social conservative, well read, and a lively conversationalist. The question used continuously to come up: Who are the Puritans of the present day? Fader, who despite his socially conservative instincts, has voted Democratic all his life, was, when these colloquies began, all too ready to identify the Puritans with the people whom he called “conservatives.” Richard and I, who work on the same college campus, have repeatedly explained to our friend that it is not “conservatives” who want to ban free speech, who physically threaten speakers with whom they disagree in order to silence them, or who abuse public institutions for the purpose of political indoctrination. It is not “conservatives” who preach the lynch-mob sermons of our day. Fanaticism and hatred, we have argued, are nowadays located almost entirely on the political left, which has taken over the Democratic Party and just about every institution. As Fader has come around significantly on the issue, the question has changed from its original form to become one of definition: What is Puritanism? I recently came across a provocative definition of Puritanism in a book that I periodically re-read.
The extended passage below comes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), where it appears in Chapter IX, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.” Chapter IX is the third of three chapters that Spengler devotes to what he calls “The Problems of Arabian Culture.” The “problems” that Spengler discusses are both intrinsic to Arabian Culture and associated with the Western misinterpretation of Arabian Culture. In the original, the passage is one long paragraph. I have broken it into three shorter paragraphs in order to facilitate its reading. I offer a few glosses and comments after the quotation.
Ockham comes in for a lot of criticism around these parts, the poor honest earnest man. And not unrightly, perhaps, given his (largely innocent and inadvertent) role in the incipience of the prevalent modern nominalism that has gutted the West (he was not really much of a nominalist, as we think of nominalism these days). But in most things he was on target (this is true of all heretics, scoundrels, sinners, and fools (or else they’d die before they could do much damage, understood by their contemporaries as mere silly kooks)). Most of all, he was right in respect to his famous Razor, which more than any of his other immense contributions to human thought will surely warrant his everlasting renown – his status, shared with only five or six other philosophers, as a household name (at least among those who consider themselves somewhat educated). Even men who know nothing else whatever of epistemology or philosophy of science have some notion of Ockham’s Razor. His Principle of Parsimony is perhaps the most important operational, practical principle of thought (the Principle of Sufficient Reason, e.g., is by contrast ontological; or again e.g., the Principle of Noncontradiction is logical; and so forth). It is the whole basis of American Pragmatism, which is to say, of the philosophy of science universally presupposed in the practice of professional scientists. It is followed in its pragmatic importance – opinions differ about their proper order – by the Principle of Elegance (the more beautiful theory is more likely to be true) and the Principle of Adequacy (theories must adequate to the entirety of their proper domain). I would add also the Principle of Serendipity – as I here now decide to name it, not knowing how other thinkers might have done so: the principle, i.e., that a true theory is likely to explain more things, and they unsuspected things, than we had looked for it to explain – things that, i.e., are outside its (expected) proper domain (huge swathes of mathematics, e.g., turn out to exemplify the Principle of Serendipity).
Ockham, then, God Bless him: All else equal, that theory is best which is simplest – which postulates the fewest types of concrete entities.
So then: what about the Platonic Forms? Ockham’s Razor – a native, chthonic tendency in my thinking from infancy – bugged me about them from the first moment I read of them. What the heck are they? Are they a different sort of thing than the things of this world? What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?
My long-term ongoing project involves reading backwards into the critique of modernity, resurrecting from the archive writers who fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred years ago, intuited prophetically where such trends as democracy, utilitarianism, and the technocratic conception of science were taking mankind – and who foresaw accurately just how deformed morally and socially Western civilization was likely to become. The writers in question, with a few exceptions, are today largely forgotten or are remembered under a false image or for spurious reasons. The names of Karen Blixen, Gustave Le Bon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julius Evola, René Guénon, Hermann Keyserling, Peter Ouspensky, Oswald Spengler, T. Lothrop Stoddard, and Sigrid Undset, among others, have appeared in a series of articles, most of them at The Brussels Journal. I wish, however, to devote the present occasion to a renewed discussion of the Russian writer-philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whom the encyclopedias of ideas classify variously, not to say confusingly, as a Christian Existentialist, a Russian Nietzschean, a Neo-Platonist, a follower of Vladimir Solovyev, or an out-and-out mystic and subjectivist. Berdyaev is perhaps a bit of each of these, while being also much more than any of them. Academic philosophers have either never heard of Berdyaev or, knowing of him at second hand, perhaps from an encyclopedia article, and being unable to fit him into any Positivist or Postmodern framework, dismiss him summarily.
One might fairly assert that Berdyaev did himself little good publicity-wise by cultivating a style of presentation which, while often resolving its thought-processes in a brilliant, aphoristic utterance, nevertheless takes its time, looks at phenomena from every aspect, analyzes every proposition to its last comma and period, and tends to assert its findings bluntly rather than to argue them politely in the proper syllogistic manner. In Berdyaev’s defense, a sensitive reader might justifiably interpret his leisurely examination of the modern agony as a deliberate and quite appropriate response to the upheavals that harried him from the time of the 1905 Revolution to the German occupation of France during World War II. If the Twentieth Century insisted on being precipitate and eruptive in everything, without regard to the lethal mayhem it wreaked, then, by God, Berdyaev, regarding his agenda, would take his sweet time. Not for him the constant mobilized agitation, the sloganeering hysteria, the goose-stepping and dive-bombing spasms of modernity in full self-apocalypse. That is another characteristic of Berdyaev – he is all at once leisurely in style and apocalyptic in content. Berdyaev was quite as apocalyptic in his expository prose as his idol Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his ethical narrative, and being a voice of revelation he expressed himself, again like Dostoevsky, in profoundly religious and indelibly Christian terms. Berdyaev follows Dostoevsky and anticipates Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that no society can murder God, as Western secular society has gleefully done, and then go its insouciant way, without consequence.
The titles of Berdyaev’s numerous books, especially when taken in chronological order, tell a story all by themselves: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), The End of Our Time (1924), Christianity and Class War (1931), The Destiny of Man (1931), The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Christianity and Anti-Semitism (1938), Slavery and Freedom (1939), Spirit and Reality (1946), and The Beginning and the End (1947), among many others. There is also a posthumous Truth and Revelation (1954). I call attention to the earliest of the listed titles, The Meaning of the Creative Act. Berdyaev began his career as a philosophical writer (he never completed his doctorate) with an ambitious study of aesthetics, his theory of which locates the purest manifestation of the highest value of his worldview, freedom, in the labor that generates the work of art and beyond that in all the highest effects of the artwork in its context. At the end of Berdyaev’s life, he wrote the essays that constitute Truth and Revelation, one of his several ventures into the philosophical-theological sub-genre of theodicy, in which he invokes a “creative response to the appeal of God.” Whereas in the Catholic and even more so in the Lutheran and Calvinist variants of Christianity there is, according to Berdyaev, a strong “sociomorphic” or “legalistic” distortion of Christian doctrine; in Russian Orthodox commentary, by contrast, “the coming of the Christ has been understood not as a reparation for sin, nor as the offering of a ransom, but as the continuation of the creation of the world and the appearance of the New Adam.” In Berdyaev’s view, “What God expects from man is not servile submission, not obedience, not the fear of condemnation, but free creative acts.” Berdyaev adds in an aside that, “I wrote on this subject some while ago in The Meaning of Creativeness,” that is, The Meaning of the Creative Act. Thus Berdyaev’s work exhibits a remarkable closure, returning at the end to its beginnings, linking as it were its omega with its alpha.
That which has no form cannot be conceived – and vice versa. It’s easy to see that this is so when we try to think of what a square circle is like, or a four-sided triangle.
But, let’s talk about God.
To put the same thing another way: that than which no greater can be conceived by any mind cannot be conceived by any mind. If that than which no greater can be conceived could be conceived by any mind, then that mind would insofarforth understand how its conception of that thing could be surpassed, and would realize that in conceiving of it he had not yet quite conceived of that than which no greater can be conceived. He would realize that he had not been thinking of the unsurpassable. He would, i.e., realize that he had been thinking, not of God, but rather of something like Gaunilo’s Island, than which always some greater island might be conceived.
So, here’s the shocking consequence of these considerations: Not even God can conceive himself.
Transubstantiation stymies us in the same way, and for the same reason, as the Incarnation. In both cases, God takes embodiment in a finite creaturely vessel. The Logos takes the form of man and of bread (and likewise of Church, and Word – but tace re them for the nonce). These forms remain what they were. Jesus the man is still a man – Good News for us, since only qua man could he make strictly human reparation to God for the sins of Man, thus healing the cosmic wounds particularly inflicted by men – and the bread is still just as bready as ever – again, good, or we could not eat him, and so partake his Body and its sacrificial redemption of all our predicaments. The human nature is not driven out of the man by the divine nature, and the breadiness of the bread is not driven out by the divinity of it. On the contrary, they are each perfected. When God becomes man, a man – and, so, Man in general – becomes the God, so that men (can) become gods. Likewise, when God becomes bread, the bread becomes the supersubstantial Bread of Heaven: it becomes the God, who is the manna that feeds the angels, and the other members of God’s Body. Us.
We are what we eat, deo gracias.
In both cases, the soma remains soma; and, so, as soma, divine participant and influence in this world – a solid, as heavy as any stone, and so therefore scandalous to any who would pass by.
The true question is this: why should either Incarnation or Transubstantiation so scandalize us? Is it not only, merely, that these Incorporations of the divine into his creation are difficult for us to comprehend?
Much of what follows is a literal transcription of a recent conversation with my four year old granddaughter.
Poppy walked out with his granddaughter and her little brother to play. There was a series of lawns, connected by grassy paths. On one lawn, his granddaughter spotted a tiny, perfectly camouflaged toad hiding in the sand. It was almost impossible to distinguish the toad from the surrounding sand.
She wanted to mess with the toad, but Poppy told her that was a bad idea, because to the tiny toad she seemed like a monster a hundred times bigger than the great fir tree just yonder seemed to us. The poor little toad was so scared of us, that if she just touched him with a blade of grass, he might be scared to death.
She left the toad in peace, even though that was very hard for her to do. Her little brother left him in peace, too.
Then, she found another tiny toad, hiding in just the same way as the first. She looked at it, but left it alone, even though she really wanted to pick it up and pet it. Her little brother left that toad alone, too.
Then, she found a dead toad out on the grass. It was not hiding in the sand. It was quite dried up. She and her brother squatted to look at it. So did Poppy. They poked it with a twig, because Poppy said that the toad could not feel bad about anything anymore.
She asked, “What’s the matter with it, Poppy?”
“It’s dead, sweetie.”
“Yeah. Why is it dead?”