You Scratch My Back, I’ll Stab Yours

“The attack on the Jew . . . is an attack on Christianity itself and on the Judeo-Christian basis of our Western civilization.”

San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 9, 1947)

The notion that Western civilization rests on a Judeo-Christian basis is very largely an invention of the 1940s, when Jews felt a sudden and unprecedented desire join the Western club and lock arms with their Christian “brothers.” Although a palpable oxymoron, the phrase prospered in the years that followed, and is now well established as one of the hardier weeds in the unlovely garden of American political cant. Continue reading

Berdyaev Summer Camp

A student commented the other day that Berdyaev reminded her of some utopian summer camp in the Adirondacks she had gone to in high school devoted to ecological wonderfulness. Why? God is your friend, and never your judge or king. Like any friend, his offer of friendship comes with no threats and no consequences, delivered by Him at least. Any “friend” who said “Be my friend, or I’ll blow your head off,” or, even worse, “Be my friend, or I’ll condemn you to eternal torment” would be a psychopath, without doubt.

Today, after having time to think, and after today’s Avicenna reading, I replied that there is an awful (awe-ful) aspect to Berdyaev – complete freedom means complete moral responsibility. Humanity continually searches for escape from this. We dream up ever new escape routes and “get out of jail free” cards. 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

Respites of Delight

“Such is the strength of art, rough things to shape,
And of rude commons rich enclosures make.” 

James Howell, “Upon Dr. Davies’ British Grammar” (1629).

An unwholesome jungle of rank nonsense has grown up around the concept of art, so  that it often seems as if art is a sort of mythical beast—perhaps a talking stag—that stalks this unwholesome jungle late at night.  At bottom, art simply refers to that which man has made.  It refers to the artificial as opposed to the natural, so that an omelet or a pigsty, be it ever so scorched or ever so smelly, is entitled to the name of art. Continue reading

Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

For the Russian philosopher Berdyaev, freedom is absolutely fundamental. And freedom is connected with subjectivity and Spirit, rather than the objective (measurable) external world.

All attempts to locate meaning and value in things outside the human soul are doomed to fail. Thinking of the universe as an organism, for instance, seems like an improvement over thinking of it as a dead mechanism. It turns the cosmos into a living entity with a purpose, but it also means thinking of people as mere cells in this organism to be subordinated to the larger whole. Nationalism turns the nation into a false idol to be worshipped. Neither “history,” nor “progress,” nor “the human race,” nor Platonic Forms are particularly significant or even real. They are hypostatizations and abstractions. For Berdyaev, the concrete individual personality is the full locus of reality and value. Anything else renders the personality a meaningless nothing to be used as a means to some other end.

Kant, who also saw human beings as ends in themselves, pointed out that freedom must be a fundamental aspect of human subjectivity because love exists.[1] This is known directly from experience. Each one of us has loved and been the recipient of love. Love cannot exist without freedom. We should let the datum of love determine our theories and speculations about ultimate existence. If love is possible, and we know it is, then freedom exists.

Continue reading

Form Follows Function?

Louis Sullivan is credited with coming up with the phrase “form follows function.” It is useful to know that someone in the recent past invented this notion in order to raise the possibility of uninventing it.

Some quote “form follows function” as though it were an axiom of geometry that all remotely mature thinkers acknowledge as a foundational truth; even as a God-given dictum.

The phrase could even be rendered innocuous if “function” were suitably defined. What, for instance, is the function of houses and work places? They are there to serve human beings with all their intricacies. They are not there to shelter robots and automatons.

What do people want from houses? They want a house to be a home. They want it to be structurally sound, reasonably affordable, easy to maintain and they want it to be beautiful. Human beings feel at home with beauty. They are instinctively drawn to beautiful things and feel alienated by the ugly. This is why we carefully choose furniture, paintings, decorations, paint colors for walls, curtains and carpets. We attempt, with various levels of success, bearing in mind limitations of budget, to turn the house into a home. Many of us like to include house plants and pets as other living things to share our homes with. Continue reading

Some Muddy Sloughs of Trouble

“Some in their passage through this elementary world find their way strewed with roses, and their paths spread with butter, others . . . stick fast in the muddy sloughs of trouble . . .”

Robert Baron, An Apology for Paris (1649)

You may suppose that footing would be uncertain on a path spread with butter, but this old idiom denoted a life of luxury, and was no doubt adapted from the verse in which Job remembered those happier days, “when I washed my steps with butter, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil” (29:6).  As Job and many others have discovered, the buttery path is not a long path (1).  Or, as an old nursery rhyme said of Billy Pringle’s pig:

When alive it lived in clover,
Now it’s dead, and that’s all over. Continue reading

That Fellaheen Feeling

“This fellaheen feeling about life, that timeless gaiety of people not involved in great cultural and civilizational issues.” 

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (1960).

In Arabic, fallaha means to plow, and fellaheen is therefore a collective name for the plowing peasants of Egypt and the Levant.  The fellah is a patient, plodding son of the soil, quite unlike the dashing Bedouin that rove the rough wastes of Arabia.  There is no reason to suppose that the fellahin are especially given to anything that Kerouac would have recognized as “gaiety,” for most are by habit pious and austere, but the old dharma bum said they were gay because they were “timeless,” and he said they were timeless because he believed they had laid the burden of civilization down. Continue reading

The Gridding Sword and the Wandering Wood

“Go, Michael, of celestial armies prince
. . . lead forth to battle these my sons
Invincible . . .
Equal in number to that godless crew
Rebellious; them with fire and hostile arms
Fearless assault, and, to the brow of Heaven
Pursuing, drive them out . . .

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book vi

If the Orthosphere has a patron saint, it is surely the archangel Michael, for his image has always graced our banner and his sword has always inspired our words.  It was by Saint Michael’s “gridding sword” that “Satan first knew pain,” and although our adversaries have been the merest flunkies of Hell, we hope our words have made them likewise smart. Continue reading