The Muses (1496) by Andreas Mantegna (1431 – 1503)
“The dove – the rood – the loaf – the wine.”
Men know the gods because they have seen or intuited them, but not all men have seen or intuited the gods, and some men are incapable of seeing or intuiting them. The gods, moreover, sometimes disguise themselves so as to test men, or they appear in and as omens and auguries, which the dull of mind and the wicked of heart invariably either miss entirely through their mental obtuseness or, through self-serving prejudice, blatantly misread.
I. The gods appear in and as their attributes, which again only those who have vested themselves in the proper lore and the requisite discipline can correctly interpret. Who would see the gods must enjoy a gift of pre-attunement, even before he bows under the discipline and engraves the lore in his heart that will let him see them. Such a man is called a poet. The ancient Boeotian teller of the gods, Hesiod, whom scholars assign to the late Eighth Century or early Seventh Century BC, bears a name that means simply “The” (he or hos) “Poet” (aiodos), suggesting that the Boeotians, or at least those of them in the vicinity of Mt. Helicon, recognized his special talent and accorded him the status owing thereto. That status may claim itself paramount because the community must communicate with the gods, just as the gods must communicate with the community, and an efficient go-between nicely serves the requirement both ways. One misthinking modern school argues through Hesiod’s name that any particular poet is a non-existence, as though no one could write a poem, as though poems constituted themselves, authorless, and as though therefore no one really ever saw Hesiod’s gods or heard them speak. This thesis of a literary fantasy amounts, however, merely to another kind of noetic obtuseness. Someone wrote Hesiod’s poems, obviously, and if Hesiod were the invention of that someone then that someone nevertheless would have seen Hesiod’s gods – through his invention, as it were, and taking Hesiod’s name, but equally in a vision such that the seeing must guarantee its own authenticity and such that He remains The Poet.
Introduction. Paul Johnson, usually acute, prejudices the case against Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the chapter that he devotes to the instigator of modern drama in his Intellectuals (1993), where the author of Emperor and Galilean (1873) keeps company with the likes of Karl Marx, Berthold Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman. Johnson can classify Ibsen under the pejorative label of an “intellectual” only by ignoring Ibsen’s text and concentrating on the biographical details, which indeed make their subject look like a contemptible piece of work. This criticism of Johnson by no means invalidates Johnson’s definition of an “intellectual.” On the contrary, Johnson has defined the “intellectual” brilliantly and his treatment of the phenomenon must bear instructively on any analysis of Ibsen’s play about Julian the Apostate. According to Johnson, the “intellectual,” who appears first in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a politically committed character for whom “a utopian, socialist future [is] plainly a substitute for a religious idealism in which he [cannot] believe.” An intellectual is often the master of a narrow slice of specialized knowledge who, however, feels “no incongruity in moving from [his] own discipline… to public affairs.” Yet when examined closely, even the specialized knowledge of the intellectual, his peculiar theory, tends to be unconvincing and perverse – a type of pleading by the person to himself to protect his theory from inconvenient facts and to preserve his vision of himself as someone qualified to “counsel humanity.” Writing specifically of Rousseau, Johnson remarks that intellectuals see themselves, not as “servants or interpreters of the gods but [as] substitutes” – that is, of both the gods or God and the sacerdotal clerisy. Johnson writes of that “most marked [of the] characteristics of the new secular intellectuals,” namely “the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny.”
Introduction. A correspondent who has made a notable success in the financial world recently sent me two essays – of which he was the author – that revealed a keen sense of history, anthropology, and literature, as applied to the analysis large-scale economic trends. Whereas my own extremely limited economic knowledge inclined me at first to trepidation, I soon found the writer’s insistence on the human character of markets and money refreshing. I had recently taken over my department’s “Business in Literature” course, in the context of which, at the beginning of the semester, I asked the students to read The Gift (1925) by Marcel Mauss. The Gift proposes, among other theses, that the modern market remains human only insofar as it preserves certain archaic customs related to gift giving. Why does a restaurateur put bread on the table as soon as the guest sits down? When the guest takes the bread, he has accepted a gift, and he must reciprocate the gift-giver somehow – say, by buying a meal. No doubt in a “planned economy,” the planners would reject le pain à volonté as an inefficient allocation of resources, whereupon the transaction would become purely transactional and less-than-fully human. The restaurateur’s gesture contributes, in its gentle way, to civilization. The planner’s rational objection de-civilizes. Indeed, the planner is likely a plunderer also, with a covetous redistributive interest in the guest’s domestic larder.
Like Mauss’s idea of archaic exchange, my correspondent’s idea of finance refused to isolate economics from other institutions including religion. The human element will appear to efficiency experts as exiguous to the economic paradigm when in fact it is essential. By a coincidence, I was also teaching my “Science Fiction” course during the same semester, where a number of the texts dealt with history on a large scale, using the actual historical knowledge as the basis of speculating about the future, near and far. The same texts insisted that civilization tends to be a transient affair – canceled fairly regularly by catastrophes of various kinds, human and natural. My correspondent in his writings indicated a similar intuition. His vision of economic promise found its balance in his wisdom about political miscalculation, ideological perversity, and the unforeseen. I wanted to respond to the writer’s two rich texts. What follows, protecting the correspondent’s anonymity, is that response. I tried to place my appreciation of the essay-writer’s vision in context of my own recent reading, with the emphasis on one or two new titles by the literary anthropologist René Girard, Emmet Scott’s re-consideration of Henri Pirenne’s claim that Classical civilization survived until about 650 AD, in Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), and the works of two Edwardian futurists whom I particularly cherish, H. G. Wells and W. Olaf Stapledon. I ask my readers to trust me. The mixture is not as arbitrary as it sounds.
Introduction. The conviction and jailing of an Englishwoman for speaking her mind on immigration policy during a subway commute and the prosecution of an Austrian woman who accurately characterized the founder of Islam remind us how much the Western elites, those who currently control the society and wish to use their authority to alter and reconstitute the established order, have parted company with longstanding Western traditions, including the sovereignty of conscience. The mutation of classical liberalism into contemporary politically correct totalitarianism is not surprising, however, since liberalism began as the cautious younger sibling of the revolutionary spirit that found its emblem in the destruction of the Bourbons and its articulation in the slogan-like promotion of equality, fraternity, and liberty as the new mandatory themes of human order. Quite apart from the facts of its awful bloodiness on the one hand and its meaningless abstractness on the other, left-radical activity has implied from its beginning implacable hostility to custom and habit. The new republican-type nation-states that followed the model of France arose, as had the French Republic itself, through the violent disestablishment of the smaller, ethnic polities that characterized the long period of feudalism in Europe. Insofar as Western Society still today exhibits coherency, much of that coherency derives from the period before the emergence of the modern republics. Western society is what it is, therefore, because it stands in a continuum of vital experience and articulate symbolization stemming from those oddly matched wellsprings, Greek philosophy and Hebrew morality, in their unlikely, long-term cultural dialectic as mediated by a thousand years and many local manifestations of Gothic Christianity.
Western society, including North American society, is, then, positively something, rather than anything or nothing, a “this” and not a “that,” whose plasticity, while ample, nevertheless falls short of the limitless and whose viability if not mortality corresponds to those limits. A successful attempt to “change” this society, such as the one currently being organized by Barack Hussein Obama and his political minions, will be indistinguishable from a successful attempt to destroy the society.