December 8, 2010


"Jim Antle writes that Gary Johnson is “badly positioned to make a credible presidential run,” and Dan McCarthy adds that he is “setting himself up to play the libertarian stock villain in the GOP’s quadrennial opera buffa.” They’re both right, but I have to admit that this is part of what I find appealing about the prospect of a Johnson candidacy. He isn’t just badly positioned–he’s horribly positioned, but there’s a chance that he might run anyway and have a salutary effect on the primary contest. His candidacy would force debates on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the drug war, which are all subjects where most of the other likely candidates hold misguided and sometimes appalling views. The rest of the field will all be officially pro-life, but perfectly content with the idea of starting wars, detaining suspects indefinitely, and perhaps even torturing detainees when “necessary.” The contrast would be useful and instructive, and it might even lead some pro-life voters to insist that their leaders show more consistent respect for human life. All right, that last part is pretty unlikely, but it couldn’t hurt to try."

Daniel Larison

November 29, 2010

julian seeing contempt

"Observing, then, that there is great contempt for the gods
among us"—he says in his solemn way.
Contempt. But what did he expect?
Let him organise religion as much as he liked,
write to the High Priest of Galatia as much as he liked,
or to others of his kind, inciting them, goading them on.
His friends weren't Christians; that much was certain.
But even so they couldn't play
as he could (brought up a Christian)
with a new religious system,
ludicrous in theory and application.
They were, after all, Greeks. Nothing in excess, Augustus.

—Constantine Cavafy

October 24, 2010

here & there

"In a country so unfortunate as to have a religion that God has not revealed, it is necessary for it to be agreeable to morality; because even a false religion is the best security we can have of the probity of men." —Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (ch. 14)

"For different natures must first have existed in all those things that among the nations were to be differentiated. This at any rate is seen if one observes how very different in their bodies are Germans and Scythians from Libyans and Egyptians. Can this also be due to a bare decree, and does not the climate or the country have joint influences with the gods…?" —Julian the Apostate, Against the Galileans (143E)

"Thus do the gods justify the life of man, in that they themselves live it!— the only satisfactory theodicy!" —Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (ch. 3)

"Note the precise characterization of the German ancien régime as the one which 'only imagines that it still believes in itself' —one can even speculate about the meaning of the fact that, during the same period, Kierkegaard deployed his idea that we humans cannot ever be sure what we believe: ultimately, we only 'believe that we believe.' The formula of a régime which 'only imagines that it believes in itself' nicely captures the cancellation of the performative power ('symbolic efficiency') of the ruling ideology: it no longer effectively functions the fundamental structure of the social bond. And, we may ask, are we not today in the same situation?" —Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

October 21, 2010

in the blood–bedewed halls

I found myself reading Poe today (some sort of leap from something I read in Julian the Apostate), and read "The Masque of the Red Death" for the first time in a while. While I hate to find metaphor where the author may have intended none, there is something of an analogy for our times in it.

illus. Aubrey Beardsley, downloaded from Wikipedia

September 26, 2010

the season of another book

On a long drive to and from a church today, I feel confident that fall is here. The leaves here are showing a lot of stunning deep reds, it really could be a fantastic season.

Summer Has Faded

Jesse Stuart

Summer has faded from all living eyes.
It is a written book we have read
With sentences of green beneath blue skies.
Each word is now a leaf of dying red.
We stand to watch birds gather for the south,
We watch them rise in this bright autumn weather;
And with joy in the heart, song in the mouth,
They are off through boundless skies together.
Above the thistle furze that floats on the wind,
Above the leaves of scarlet–red and gold,
Above treetops the autumn winds have thinned
They rise to sing before their autumn blood grows cold.
We stand below to listen and to look,
And wait the season of another book.

September 11, 2010

post–apocalyptic fiction in a collapsing age

The most recent DBH post at First Things starts with a funny note about Mayan prophecies which include dates after 2012, and then asks an interesting question he leaves largely unanswered: Why the current vogue for post–apocalypticism?

The rise of the zombie genre in the last decade, for example, shows a really telling turning point. It began with some "re–imaginings" of the genre, most notably 28 Days Later in 2002. But there is an obvious change in tone with the Zombie Survival Guide in 2003, and its broader acceptance beyond communities of nerds and college guys (a pretty well overlapping demographic in the generation where sorority girls watch Battlestar: Galactica), once it was clear the economy was starting to sputter hard in 2007. (2009's Zombieland is kind of the cinematic summa of the new zombie genre, combining survivalist "tips" (not nearly as serious as Brooks's), the comedy tone of the "cross–overs" and nerd–romance/wish fulfillment.)

Simply put: People are fascinated by post–apocalyptic scenarios because of a general sense of "this can't go on", but need to have some sort of socially acceptable place to work out the thoughts, for those who aren't already into survivalist or pessimistic internet culture. Obviously this is part of the appeal in all generations, but the greater profile indicates greater resonance.

July 4, 2010


Heaven be thanked for acres I possess
Though much is sterile clay and bluff and stone,
Land that I hope to hold for life's duress,
Land that by deed and in my heart I own…
And I am grateful for the hard-earned knowledge
That I know dirt and what to plant and when,
Experience I did not get in college
Nor from associates in a world of men.
I know that I can always fill my table
From this lean land and with these hands and this head
As long as I have strength, am well and able,
Let come what will; I have no fear or dread.
As long as I have land, seed, working tools,
And get a season not too wet nor dry
And have a team of well-fed kicking mules
I'm independent and I'll do or die…

––Jesse Stuart


Those who know me will know my skepticism and criticism of agrarianism; however, I do love the non-agraianist agrarian poetry of Stuart. It is about direct relation to a home patch by a man who lived fully and did not patronize others who lived by chance or fault, less. Perhaps his Great Lakes Naval Training Station poems would be the better choice for this holiday––Stuart struggles with war and gives a patriotism of place as he prepares for it––but it is hard to isolate one part of those poems, and there is a limit to what I can type. Besides, I realize that Stuart is not particularly a "great", and my interest in him may tax those non-Kentuckians (and thus the overwhelming majority) in my audience. However, he is the author of this blog's title, and will regularly get respect for it.


I love my country. I do now know if I love "America", but I love her peoples and her land. I love the high desert in Arizona and Bluegrass hills; Colorado mountains and Great Lakes shore. My academic study was in large part the bones of this country, and I love it more for knowing it.It is futile to condemn a fait accompli; so let us embrace American Independence and pray the better angels of that nature conquer.


My wife & I have had, for very different reasons, unfortunate and taxing weeks. She is now home safe & sound, and I am mostly well again, but I would ask the prayers of those who read this: this coming week will be hard in a very different way. Our future depends on our steadfastness and God's grace (as always).

June 23, 2010

shouting matches

It is no particularly great insight that ideological labels have become mere shouting terms in our discourse, used mainly to rally the fellows and offend the barbarians. However, generally those making the observation assume that there really can and should be coherent ideological labels and––if they existed––they would be a good and healthy thing for the nation.

A recent comment thread on The Ochlophobist got me considering this assumption, however. In theory, the majority (and to my knowledge, all) of the participants in that go around are Orthodox Christians, or at least highly sympathetic to Orthodox Christianity. As such, there should be much closeness on knowledge of moral ends and images of healthy culture, etc. if not actual identity with a common set of aspirations. As such, the ideologies of Marxism or Liberalism in particular should hardly enter into the discussions, even if arguments appropriated from either lineage did, but rather diagnoses, hopes or even policies (on which there can be disagreement without the scepter of our ideological labels).

However, the tone of the Ochlophobist's discourse is latched on by some commentators, while others seek to use it as an opportunity to express agreement with one ideology, or statements to rally those who oppose the ideology they are against. While I certainly agree that "No people on earth are fit to practice socialism", I don't think any people on earth are fit to practice much of anything in the way of totalizing political ideologies, even those which claim to be non-totalizing based on their love of freedom as an abstract. (It is an often problematic accident of language that we have no one word to distinguish between the liberty of the Libertarian, and the liberty of St. Paul.) In any case, order naturally arises, and the trick is to have the natural aristocracy both in their place and humble about the powers they wield. Quotes such as the above, though, simply serve to rally proponents of one ideology while annoying the proponents of the other. I certainly have done (and will almost certainly do again) this myself, but coming from the background I do, I've never been able to make myself wholly immune to partisan fervor, and won't pretend otherwise.

June 20, 2010

June 10, 2010

traditionalism in the royal family

And no, it's not the good kind.

This really shouldn't be shocking (it's been out for many years that he wishes to be known as "Defender of Faith"––note the lack of a definite article––if he is ever King), but it's remarkably tone-deaf, even if he was speaking to an Islamic student group.

Occasionally (usually from Greeks, sometimes Russians), I hear Orthodox mention that Prince Charles has a spiritual father and visits Mt. Athos. Usually, I just nod about it, but sometimes they voice some secret hope that Charles is crypto-Orthodox (no one ever remembers that his father apostatized and became CoE), and then I feel a need to gently deflate said hope, but usually without any need to refer to Guénon, who the Prince is almost certainly a follower of, at least in spirit if not in conscious fact. Prince Charles has a spiritual father, and dedicates mosques, and is CoE, and so on and so forth because he believes in all that pleasant 19th-20th c. rot about the spiritual core of most (or all) religions being the same and their participation in one, grand tradition. I suppose that believers in the perennial philosophy are less annoying than other types, and relatively harmless now that their more dangerous doctrines have been carried out to their logical extreme by more popular movements, but it still isn't Tradition.

May 29, 2010

g.k. chesterton's birthday

The Myth of Arthur

O learned man who never learned to learn,
Save to deduce, by timid steps and small,
From towering smoke that fire can never burn
And from tall tales that men were never tall.
Say, have you thought what manner of man it is
Of who men say "He could strike giants down"?
Or what strong memories over time's abyss
Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown.
And why one banner all the background fills,
Beyond the pageants of so many spears,
And by what witchery in the western hills
A throne stands empty for a thousand years.
Who hold, unheeding this immense impact,
Immortal story for a mortal sin;
Lest human fable touch historic fact,
Chase myths like moths, and fight them with a pin.
Take comfort; rest––there needs not this ado.
You shall not be a myth, I promise you.

April 28, 2010

fideist fascists & other figments

In a rather well-done take-down of A.C. Grayling's Ideas that Matter, John Gray offers this from Grayling's work:

Later, in the entry on religion, Grayling writes:

Some religious thinkers in the nineteenth century adopted versions of fideism as a response to the advance of science, thus exempting themselves from having to put their beliefs to the same tests as scientific hypotheses standardly undergo. The most extreme fideist is the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), who said that faith requires a leap in the face of reason and evidence, and is all the more admirable therefore. What horrors can be justified by appeal to the authority of the non-rational, the traditional, the superstitious, the suppositious, the evidentially unsupported, and so forth, history too often bloodily teaches.

This tirade against Kierkegaard is a good example of that silliness that marks so much of Grayling’s oeuvre. The notion that irrationalist philosophers are responsible for the crimes of history smacks of Monty Python. Though Mussolini happened to praise the German egoist Max Stirner, a sharp critic of rationalism (and incidentally an atheist), this does not mean Stirner or his ilk can be blamed for the horrors of Fascism. I cannot think of a single tyrant who has cited Kierkegaard, and none of the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes celebrated their power by erecting statues of the unhappy Danish philosopher.

I was reminded, in reading this, of the first reply to a somewhat recent post at Of Information and Belief where a similar claim was made of Kierkegaard being a thoroughgoing (in this case, "systematic") fideist.

First of all, I am very unsure that anyone who is in the business of thinking about thinking could be a thoroughgoing fideist. This is why most accusations of fideism seem to dissipate upon much scrutiny. I perhaps have met a few persons so holy as to accept anything the Church teaches with full & immediate assent, but I do not know if even they would be fideists. While Orthodoxy certainly has its share of persons who believe that faith and reason are in some fashion at odds, even most of those use reason and even think of it as a good thing, when it goes under other names or guises. Part of this disconnect has to do with the prophets of reason––like Grayling––and not any understanding of the role of reason that would have been recognized centuries ago.

With Kierkegaard in particular, what is often missed is the transitional character of the "leap to faith" and the relatively small part it plays in his work as a whole. It is difficult to call Kierkegaard a systematic-anything, much less a fideist. (I'm not, I should say, congratulating or condemning this lack of systematic thought: It is, what it is.) To sort of paraphrase Kierkegaard's own terminology elsewhere, the leap to faith is a teleological suspension of the rational, so to speak.

Many honest thinkers, and not just persons of faith, recognize this character in all thought, how our rational discourse is built on foundations that are somehow independent of it. It does not mean that there is not an exercise of reason in the construction of such foundations, but they all are fundamentally outside the tools we use to exercise "proof". I don't think that this is some sort of frightening epistemological problem, either, just a fact of human discourse. While this is outside the particular religious and psychological contexts of Kierkegaard's concept, it is still fundamentally related.

We exercise reason when choosing to assent to the teachings of the Church, not just in seeing the rationality of its dogmatic theology, but also in the evidence of history, heart and community (none of which can be submitted to symbolic analysis) in finding it reasonable to trust the wisdom of the Church and the Spirit which guides it.

March 14, 2010


SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is turning fifty soon.. Actually, as strange scientific enterprises go, SETI has been very honest: It has a clear criteria for how it detects "intelligence", and has been pretty honest about its failings. The whole thing is largely run as a side-show now, and that's a good thing, but it was not too long ago that some very serious voices in public science policy were advancing it as Very Important. I think the last time I saw anyone advance it as Very Important, it was Wired magazine and a number of internet outlets around the beginnings of SETI@home.

I recently tried to re-watch Cosmos on Netflix Watch Instantly. After two-and-one-half episodes, I gave up. It wasn't the outdated information, the low production values, or even Carl Sagan's strange accent ("youmans"): It was the absolutely boring and droning ideology. There were times that Sagan could be downright inspiring––his Pale Blue Dot is something very like a secular eschatological text–but under that there was always a thick layer of Gibbonesque squalor. Mankind lived in total ignorance and darkest filth until the Early Modern Era, and since then, everything has been Enlightenment (except for those nasty nuclear weapons that may wipe out our species). This often involved misunderstanding the motivations of historical figures, or even outright fabrications of the sort good scholars could have simply corrected at the time of the original airing. I'm comparing this with my recent viewing of Terry Jones's Medieval Lives where, despite his obvious personal apathy to religion, Jones is very forward and honest about the work of medieval scholars, down to even suggesting that the Renaissance could have been a backwards-step in scientific awareness (certainly the Enlightenment's a priori sciences were, largely).

At his best, Sagan provided an emotional and even religious context for secular humanism. It did not matter to him that his religion was really only a religion of the priests (for even most of its advocates never take part in its higher ceremonies other than to derisively contrast them to traditional ones on the internet), or that the ideology even blinded him to facts–in history and in modern society–upon which his whole world-view was built. He was an evangelist, and one of rare power, given a fully-funded PBS series upon which to make his case. There was something very impressive and numinous about Cosmos as a boy; compared to the Orthodox faith, now, it falls a little flat.

• • •

Part of the worldview so enthusiastically advanced by Sagan was the cult of the "empirical" test. When "empiricism" becomes a cult, you know because empirical tests are designed which provide results overdetermined by the rational model they were inspired by, but are hailed as "proving the model", rather than simply demonstrating its rigor and applicability. To the point.

There is nothing in this experiment that "proves" Heidegger's model; it does provide more anecdotes about how the brain may interact with tools that become "part" of us. What is telling is that even the comments (which provide some good alternatives or other issues) do not point out that the noise was read in the way it was largely because it was expected to occur. There has been enough said about the issues with reduction in neuroscience to where I do not feel I have to repeat all the arguments; this is just a very particular example of means and method that should be a little more clear to most of us than the general cases.

• • •

I find myself incredibly generous, compared to many of my friends, in the labels I'm willing to use to describe many of the intellectual frameworks I use. In biology (and related disciplines), I'm a Darwinian. I say this with a long list of caveats involving some essential philosophical differences with most Darwinian logics, even down to the ones I most use. But, I am still a Darwinian: When confronted with the history of life on this planet, and when doing the work that is science within that history, I inevitably turn to the concepts and tools of evolutionary biology, whatever its weaknesses in confronting the human spirit.

Similarly, when I think about economics, I do so with a lot of information, models and structure inherited from Austrian (and to a lesser extent, Chicago school, economics). Unlike in the prior example, I almost never call myself an Austrian (for one, as my training is largely personal, I feel less of a reason to align myself with a school), but I will happily admit the influence that Mises and Rothbard have had on my thinking. This does not mean that I do not find the policy ideas and concept of the human person and culture of nearly all Austrians (including the two names before) to be hopelessly naïve at times, and evil at others. I take this as a weakness for which I am not going to throw out many of the very useful conceptual tools of the school; I read Austrianism as being wise when it is wise in spite of its classical liberalism, largely because it seems that many of its core insights undermine its liberalism, but like many ideological disciplines, it cannot part with them. (This often happens to historians of the French Revolution as well, I should note.) Similarly, while Marxism is nearly completely wrong on economics, and massively, truly evil in its execution, I would not throw out its sharp critiques of modern society, either (I just think that, similarly, they exist in tension with the whole rest of the ideological package.)

This all said: Most people are not very careful about how they use and appropriate their frameworks when working in science or social science, or whatever. (Note: Despite all the talk, I'm not a true instrumentalist, though I think the work that is science requires methodological instrumentalism due to the poverty of the human mind.) Enter Stephen Jay Gould:

"Professional training in philosophy does provide a set of tools, modes and approaches, not to mention a feeling for common dangers and fallacies, that few scientists (or few "smart fokls" of an untrained persuasion) are likely to possess by the simple good fortune of superior raw brainpower."

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

This is part of a passage in which Gould largely supports the lament of philosophers of science regarding the fact that scientists themselves are unwilling to listen to them. (Or simply ridicule them: See Richard Dawkins.) While I think that Gould is a little too hopeful for the intellectual honesty of professional philosophers, there is some truth to what he says. And, furthermore, the sorts of intellectual tools provided by philosophy to be able to step back from the work that is science and assess it from the point of view of truth, are not removed from the playing field for "normal", "untrained" smart persons: They just require the willingness to think hard about assumptions, logic and (alas!) metaphysics, combined with a willingness to read carefully and discourse civilly.

In the ideology of Sagan, no matter how urbane he could seem at times, there was ultimately no room for that sort of humility and non-mathematical grunt work. We are grasping the very stuff of stars, Sir, what have you to tell us?

• • •

At the core of many issues between Christian theology and science (and modern academic theology and the theology of the Church) is the fundamental view of rest, of contemplation.

"For the contemplative cleaves to truths rationally and with knowledge, not with effort and struggle, and apart from these he refuses to see anything else because of the pleasure that he has in them."

–St. Maximus the Confessor [trans. Louth, emphasis mine]

Part of the cult of progress is the idealization of intellectual struggle; there is no progress without struggle, struggle is eternal, the darkness always present. Even talk of "Grand Unified Theories" in no way gives up the concept of human struggle, and to the extent that it does, even many of its proponents lament the idea of such a theory being discovered (see: Hawking). Even advocates of Christian philosophy sometimes will find themselves in the language of struggle: There can be no rest, for rest is the end (as in death, not tελος) of the philosophical life.

For us, a contemplation of the truths of the Triune God is the true wellspring of philosophy, the only place where the restless mind can rest in order to reach back out to the world with true reason, true rationality. As rest in anything else would only cement us in error, no wonder the rest of the world embraces restlessness, an eternal end of principle. (Can you not admit the possibility of being wrong?) It would be wise if it didn't forget the necessity of rest, the need to turn away from change to begin to understand it.

He refuses to see anything else because of the pleasure he has in them.

March 12, 2010

sprawl west, young man

"The ubiquitous commercialism you see as you drive through America is not in itself deplorable. What’s deplorable is that Americans aren’t free to do anything else."

I think that a better way to put it would be that "Commercialism is less deplorable when there are other options in the culture", but that's a bit dense. In any case, the debate on sprawl which sparked that line has been fairly interesting, and worth looking over for folks who care about what makes a city.

What, of course, can never be advanced as policy is reaching ends commonly associated with the values of the Left through the means commonly associated with the Right. The healthcare debate in this country has been struck by a particularly egregious example of this, for anyone who has worked in the industry and thought much about it (which I have, in a fairly grunt-like position, and many of my family members, in more exalted ones). The environmental debate suffers from a subtler example, for which one has to look at how law shapes large corporations which are detached from the ability of even somewhat informed consumers to properly understand and make intelligent decisions about commerce with them. In all cases, it is clear that our current system of governance can provide no way out of the woods that is not just another disgrace.

March 9, 2010

republican glory, republican bookselling

I'm nearly finished with Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, and the experience of actually reading the thing has made me think more about publishing and bookbinding.

I want to be sympathetic to cries of the downfall of the "independent bookseller". However, by and large, the independent bookseller has been less diverse and more restrictive of choice than either of the big boxes or especially Amazon in particular has made it possible for me to acquire all sorts of texts my lack of formal affiliation or financial largesse would have otherwise left inaccessible. Rather than participating in the further leveling of taste into easily marketed sub-cultures, the absolute vastness that is Amazon has made literary eccentricity a bit more possible, whatever my affections for independent business are. Even the most banal mall Waldenbooks would have been an improvement over the only non-religious bookshop in my hometown, and the eventual opening of a Barnes & Noble just over the county line was a definite improvement to the area's retail offerings, though it came after we had moved away. (That said, the local library was excellently stocked and staffed in a way that has left me unable to bear most city and suburban libraries. I have this–almost certainly false–romantic image of an Empire of small Kentucky town libraries carefully safeguarding culture while their city sisters have fallen to decadence.)

Connected to this is my–far greater–lack of concern about cries about the death of publishing. Books are dying not from being overpriced (when one considers how few persons actually buy books–a hard image for a reader from a family of readers–something like the mark down offered by Amazon seems very reasonable), its been in the way that the book as an instrument for the transmission of knowledge and art has been overtaken by a model where the book is designed to catch eyes on the shelf and drive impulse sales.

This means that a book like Empire of Liberty, with its near-800 pages of (approx.) 9"x6.5" dimensions is placed in a single volume, bold-spine reaching out to the browser. In an age when books where printed to be read, this would have been in at least two volumes of smaller dimensions, maybe three or more.

When the Peter Jackson "Rings" films started coming out and all those mass market one-volume paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings started popping up everywhere, I was pretty horrified, even though they were far easier to hold than Empire of Liberty. I stand by my 3-volume edition of LotR for a simple reason: If a book is too unwieldy to be comfortably read in the bath or laying on the couch, it is not made for human beings to read, but as a billboard. Obviously this involves some willful ignorance of the history of publishing and the manners in which persons have read, but few readers are prone to read extensively at a desk or table (unless eating), except when a text is technical and requires constant reference and interaction. There is no reason that a work of popular scholarship needs to be three pounds.

Despite this, I'm not thrilled about the concept of e-books, either, even if the "e-ink" screens are more like paper. Part of it is an aversion to the need to "charge" my book like any number of other appliances I'm reliant on (laptop, cell phone); when I camp to get away from electric noise, I don't camp to get away from books! Another part is the end of easy interaction with a text, and (sometimes) interaction with previous readers. Another part is the trend towards multi-functionality that makes me ultimately sure that any e-reader will ultimately be used largely for pursuits other than reading (hello, iPad). However, I have some vague hope that the ultimate trend to selling digital licenses for content rather than the published content itself will lead to some revival of bookbinding. Imagine: Being able to select the paper, dimensions and cover materials for each book you purchase; being able to divide into volumes, being able to select library binding for children's books, etc. I have no illusions that this isn't as technocratic a wonder as the whole "e-book" dream, but I think this actually puts technology to the purpose of enhancing the experience and enjoyment of those human beings we call readers, rather than divorcing them from their traditional comforts of smelling fresh books and old bindings.

• • •

That said, Empire of Liberty as a book is rather fascinating. Wood largely navigates a strong path between the various ideologically-inspired readings of the period to attempt to relate it more as it was and as it was experienced. This can become particularly notable in his treatments of controversial subjects like the religiosity of the Founders where he (for one example) denies pictures of Washington as a devout, orthodox Anglican and as a deistic freethinker.

Woods also relates the words of the Founders and other political writers of the period in a very honest fashion; you do not come away with any sort of impression of the Constitution as it is read by any judicial school, for example. The best example of this is in his near-rehabilitation of the Federalists, where he at least gives them the dignity of having convictions, and reasons for them. There is nothing of the modernizing modeling that takes place in some biographies of the Founders, rather Woods does a fairly good job of letting them speak for themselves, and in conversation with more popular voices.

I like also that the book manages to restore something of the strangeness of the whole American incident; readers will come away with the impression it is very little like the world they were taught in school. I thought myself knowledgeable (for a non-specialist) in the period, and Woods managed to surprise me quite a few times, especially in his coverage of how very real political antagonisms over the French Revolution were in the 1790s in America.

Reading American history is always an interesting time for me, emotionally, because I have strong patriotic feelings towards America (it is my country, after all), but a lot of mixed feelings towards Americanism. I suppose my career as a reactionary began at the age of nine when I decided to subvert an assignment given by my teacher from a letter from a colonist supporting the Revolution to a letter from a colonist who was supporting King George, instead.

thoughts in translation

I recently picked up a copy of Joe Sachs's translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics, because I was interested in the claims of his translation to render Aristotelean Greek in something approaching "plain English" (claims of Heidegger's influence also piqued my curiosity, but in a more mixed manner).

One doesn't have to go far in English-speaking Orthodoxy to encounter claims of proper vs improper translation from the Greek. Even persons unfamiliar with either language can be found ready to offer forth opinion on the dreadful influence of improper Latinate grammar on the teachings of the New Testament and Greek Fathers. Whatever the real and continued debates on this phenomenon are, it is clear that they are sometimes real issues, and so perhaps Orthodoxy has left me a little more inclined to appreciate a project like Sachs's over and against my general mistrust of new translations*.

I have not read much of Sachs's translation yet, but I want to get some thoughts down about the project as such as he puts it in his introduction and as hinted at by his Greek-English dictionary that prefaces the text (a convention I fully endorse, by the way).

Sachs's unitary reading of the Metaphysics seems to largely follow that of Reale, even though Reale only gets one brief mention in a footnote to his introduction. This isn't to underestimate any difference between their readings (for example, Sachs seems to be even stronger on reading the whole of the Metaphysics as a work of First Philosophy than Reale), but I am coming to think that any reader of Reale's The Concept of First Philosophy and the Unity of the Metaphysics of Aristotle would probably be aided in understanding by taking in a translation that explicitly endorses a unitary reading.

Sachs's unitary reading, however, focuses on a symphonic character to the Aristotelean corpus, one that would seem very familiar to anyone who has spent much time with Biblical hermeneutics; in fact, Sachs makes explicit this analogy to Scripture: "As with the Hebrew Bible, the various parts of the Metaphysics abound in repetitions, overlapping treatments of related topics, gaps between successive passages and plainly contradictory statements. But while the books of the Bible have been carved up, disassembled, and assigned various sources, the Metaphysics has never been accused of multiple authorship by anyone whose arguments were widely credited."

A conflation of contradiction as part of a rhetorical strategy designed to reach different audiences (or even the same audience at different points) and the logical contradiction of positivism (which is something close to a default position in our world) is a common technique for critical destruction of a text or authorship. It is used by many on the Bible. Another clear example, I think, is the use of Kierkegaard's love of paradox to read his authorship has containing contradictory statements from which the inner school must be derived–usually as some form of Anabaptist Radicalism–against clear statements against such a conception in his own voice. While such a reading of the Metaphysics is becoming increasingly passé (as German-style historical criticism is in theological faculties, though to a lesser degree), it is still good to have a translator who voices against it and for the essential integrity of the work, and embraces that view in translation.

He places this symphonic (my word, not his, I should note) reading in context through an interpretation of dialectic that would not have to be novel if scholarship wasn't so dense. He takes Plato's observations in Meno seriously, and proposes that dialectic is merely the way of communicating about truths that is conducive to friendly conversation. Because of this, we must start with where people are. (This technique only has limited utility in late modernity, where too many persons are apt to deny they are anywhere, or at least anywhere where anyone could possibly communicate intelligibly with them. You go your way and I'll go mine, ok?)

Probably the most controversial of Aristotle's formulations in the Metaphysics has been "being as being". Sachs's reading is dependent on Book Γ, and he renders it in full as "being as being is being as it is in its own right"; this means that everything we can think has existence in some fashion. I also recall Andrew Louth in the introduction to The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition:

"Here we come to a particular point which we shall meet in the ensuing pages, the Greek word nous and its derivatives. Nous is usually translated as 'mind' or 'intellect'. […] The words 'mind' and 'intellect and their derivatives (intellection, intellectual, etc.) have quite different overtones from the Greek nous. The most fundamental reason for this is a cultural one: the Greeks were pre-Cartesian; we are all post-Cartesian. We say, 'I think, therefore I am'. that is, thinking is an activity I engage in and there must therefore be an 'I' to engage in it; the Greeks would say, 'I think, therefore there is that which I think –– to noeta."

This concern with Greek thought as Greek thought and not with interpretive layers is key. It has been noted that it is hard to approach St. Augustine without some residue of the interpretive lens of Thomas Aquinas, and if that is so it goes doubly for Aristotle, and triply for the Metaphysics in particular, where Thomas's commentary is probably the great volume to rebel against or act in favor of. In particular, the traditional terminology of the Metaphysics in English is "Latinate" and derived from the Latin translations of the Middle Ages and of its commentaries. Fresh translations (or fresh borrowings direct from the Greek) have improved our understanding of Patristic literature, and Sachs's project shows some hope, here.

Beyond following Reale in his rejection of the theses of Jaeger**, et al regarding the incoherence of the work, the primary influence on Sachs seems to be Heidegger. Getting a reasonable grasp on Heidegger (largely to try and interpret the fascination he holds for so many "theologians" inside and outside the Church) is something of an ongoing project here, so any intelligent grasp of how Heidegger truly informs Sachs's translation will have to come from another person or my self some time in the dim future.

However, the Heideggerian influence is definitely notable in Sachs's use of long, compound constructions. Orthodox readers will likely be familiar with controversies such as the translation of ουσια as "substance" or even ενεργεια as "activity". In the former case, Sachs opts for a simple, explainable alternative: "thinghood". But with ενεργεια, we get a complicated alternative: "being-at-work". Despite Sachs's claims, I am not entirely sure if such constructions are more readily grasped than Latin, and tend to encourage my favored solution of simply borrowing words (as a good speaker of English should, I'll add). The difficulty of ενεργεια is in its range of mundane and philosophical finery; I think that David Bradshaw's choice to simply render it as energeia, prefacing his work with a chapter covering Aristotle's use, is the best choice for any in depth English approach to the concept. Whether or not it works in a text which is supposed to introduce students to the Metaphysics, I am less sure.

While I would say that solutions such as translating ενεργεια by its cognate, "energy", have led to their own problems (for example, I think that for most English speakers, talk of "the Divine energies" is more likely to be misleading than "the Divine activities", because "energy" is inevitably bound up in conceptions of physical force, electricity or the various energies of our imaginations: phasers, psionics and psychic). To complicate it further, Sachs's translation in no way works for every way in which Aristotle employs the word, perhaps even within the Metaphysics itself (more certainty there after reading his translation), but certainly outside of it. If one needs a plain English rendering, it may be better to split up the "richness" of the Greek, but include some explanatory apparatus, as Fr. Louth does with νους above.

Other constructions have similar issues: Sachs renders τι ην ειναι as "what is for something to be", rather than essence. This has the quality of capturing something more like the thrust of the Greek, but I can't help but think that most native English speakers (myself included) will simply fold this as another possible rendering of "essence" into their heads and simply push forward.

Some of the changes are sensible, and have plenty of scholarly apparatus outside of Sachs and even Aristotelean studies to justify them. His rendering of δυναμις is "potency" rather than "potentiality", but this is actually a fairly common shift in modern scholarship by my very anecdotal impressions. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, the best new translation of Aristotle would likely largely embrace new scholarship's conclusions while being overall conservative about the traditions of translating Aristotle.

Some few other changes are cosmetic, but these could possibly have value: e.g. his translation for απορια is "impasse" rather than "difficulty". Overall, I cannot much evaluate either his case against another revisionist translation of Aristotle–that of Ross–because my only familiarity with his text comes from the frequent reliance upon it in John R. Catan's translations of Reale.

The problem of translating Aristotle fascinates me because it can bring up a lot of the problems of translation in general. As Christians, we are not entitled to believe that truth can only be expressed in one tongue, or that our Liturgies or Scripture are somehow invalid when sung in a new tongue. However, when approaching the texts as intellects, we recognize a certain primacy of the "original", and seek to impregnate the new language with the sense of that text. This is why anti-Western writers are not deranged for lamenting the use of Latin terminology in Orthodox theology, for example, because the terminology has been loaded with other meanings, and we want to impregnate the language used in English to express Orthodox theology with the meanings of words as they are to the Fathers, monastics and teachers.

Translation is not only an art or a science, but also best understood as being a position of guardianship of truth not unlike that of the real calling of the philosopher in some ways. Where the philosopher defends truth through reason, the translator should properly defend reason through a love of the truth. You uphold the essential rationality of the Fathers by translating them properly, and to do less would be a failure not just of scholarship, but of the care of souls, to a sense. (If you find this extreme, think of how minds can be warped by mistranslations or poorly-interpreted renderings of Scripture!)

Obviously, with Aristotle, who is not a Father nor Scripture (though the role of his thought in preparing the intellectual ground for the rational exploration of human encounter with the Triune God through the Incarnation and the Church cannot be dismissed as delusional), the stakes seem far less high, and we are able to think a bit clearer about the meanings of good translation, rather than get absorbed in the political stances which characterize most positions on the use of translations for the Church. Even efforts so obviously flawed as the "Septuagint" of the OSB are defended from positions of high passion, rather than following the God who says, "Let us reason together." Because of this, I'm fascinated by the opportunity analyzing an effort like Sachs's–however flawed or successful–gives me to look into my own mind before I continue any act of translation of my own.

*A distrust that doesn't stem from any particular intellectual justification other than my hatred of most new Biblical translations.

**He does throw a good barb at Michelet's Hegelian-inspired interpretation of the Metaphysics as a purposed synthesis: "The doctrines of Hegel are not universally accepted, and ought not to be projected onto an author who had no acquaintance with them." For someone who began his blog with an attack on Alasdair MacIntyre's synthetic reading of Thomas, you can understand the warm thoughts.

March 3, 2010

hagiographical difficulties

The Ochlophobist has a great post up about St. Non, and the problem all those virgin martyrs who chose death over violation pose for modern ears. Hagiography in general, I think, is a hard pill to swallow for us, so divorced from our ancestors.

For Christmas, I received St. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People from a good friend of mine who is an Anglican priest. (He noted that anyone with any sort of English background who didn't own the work, needed to own it. I stood convicted.) I just got around to reading it–in small bites, because it favors those–and I recently stopped during this account:

AS they were returning from thence, Germanus fell and broke his leg, by the contrivance of the Devil, who did not know that, like Job, his merits would be enhanced by the affliction of his body. Whilst he was thus detained some time in the same place by illness, a fire broke out in a cottage neighbouring to that in which he was; and having burned down the other houses which were thatched with reed, was carried on by the wind to the dwelling in which he lay. The people all flocked to the prelate, entreating that they might lift him in their arms, and save him from the impending danger. He, however, rebuked them, and relying on faith, would not suffer himself to be removed. The multitude, in despair, ran to oppose the conflagration; however, for the greater manifestation of the Divine power, whatsoever the crowd endeavoured to save, was destroyed; but what he who was disabled and motionless occupied, the flame avoided, sparing the house that gave entertainment to the holy man, and raging about on every side of it; whilst the house in which he lay appeared untouched, amid the general conflagration. The multitude rejoiced at the miracle, and praised the superior power of God. An infinite number of the poorer sort watched day and night before the cottage; some to heal their souls, and some their bodies. It is impossible to relate what Christ wrought by his servant, what wonders the sick man performed: for whilst he would suffer no medicines to be applied to his distemper, he one night saw a person in garments as white as snow, standing by him, who reaching out his hand, seemed to raise him up, and ordered him to stand boldly upon his feet; from which time his pain ceased, and he was so perfectly restored, that when the day came on, he, without any hesitation, set forth upon his journey.

The translation I've been reading says that the crowd was "overjoyed" at the demonstration of the power of God; I can hardly imagine a multitude in this nation praising God for burning down their houses, foiling their attempts at extinguishing the fires, while leaving one bishop untouched. Were anyone to praise this as proof of the power of God, new atheist and theologian alike would certainly be quick to the fray: "Then your God is a monster!" says the atheist, "God is no monster!" says the theologian…

To quote another blogger's recent entry: 'Even those “hard” passages in the Old Testament have been detoxified as “mythic.”'

It is for this reason that I can never quite accept attempts made to push God out of the suffering of this world. We are taught that suffering is call to repentance, but we seem to deny also that it has any constructive use. We want to speak of ascetism without suffering, fasting without hunger. The idea that the all-powerful Triune God we worship is somewhat taken aback by natural disaster, fire and more seems naïve. In their defense, most theologians writing on these issues confess the Biblical narratives, but we might condemn Pat Robertson while turning an uncomfortably blind eye to a Patriarch of our Church. I happen to think there is a difference, but it would be nice if it could be articulated boldly.

We want to assert the truth: That God does not work evil upon men. We also want to leave all modern consciences unassailed, so we sanitize: God does not allow even suffering, God does not condemn, God does not demonstrate his power to convict minds of his glory.

I could not begin to claim that I have answers to these problems, or even am particularly "traditional" about them. I have a modern conscience. The first religions of my youth were those of the Enlightenment, not the one of God, and my outlook will likely be dimmed by them for as long as I do not cooperate fully in the exorcism. Like the Ochlophobist, I'm much more inclined to like the hagiography of St. Non's rape, rather than that of St. Agnes, but it is likely a fault of mine that I see a distinction, rather than holy women living out lives for God in a depraved world.

Similarly, I want God in Bede's story of Germanus to extinguish all the flames, or have them burn miraculously without consummation, I don't want the power of God demonstrated in some sort of act of caprice, wherein one house is saved while others burn. But our God is a God who does not shy from scandal, so the fault is mine, the fault is mine.

February 21, 2010

he accepted to be described

"On the basis of the musical heritage of Byzantium the defender of the legitimacy of icons in Christian worship, Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople (ca. 758-829)–commenting on the Trisagion, the "Holy, Holy, Holy" sung by the angels appearing to Isaiah in his inaugural vision (Isa. 6:3)–spoke of the "theological knowledge" conveyed by the images. They were, he said, "expressive of the silence of God, exhibiting in themselves the ineffability of a mystery that transcends being. Without ceasing and without silence, they praise the goodness of God, in that venerable and thrice-illumined melody of theology."

–Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary

February 19, 2010

not all

Lent brings this to mind:

"It is said, Not all are apostles, nor all prophets, but this is not now heeded in many of the churches. For many, still in need of being purified from the way they have lived, unwashed and full of spots in their life's garment and protecting themselves only with their irrational sense, make an assault on the divine mountain. So it happens that they are stoned by their own reasonings, for heretical opinions are in effect stone which crush the inventor of evil doctrines."

–St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (trans. Malherbe & Ferguson)

February 18, 2010

uncoercive propagandizing?

I like books that I can read in a reasonably short trip to the bookstore or library, and yesterday I found myself reading B.R. Myers's The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. If you have much interest in North Korea, the book will be compelling, and if you have interest in propaganda and marketing, it will be doubly so. Myers's interpretation is sometimes explicitly Freudian, but I do not think that undermines the overall usefulness of the book; he obviously has more interest in what North Koreans actually think than many Korea-watchers (an expertise which seems primarily interested in justifying various political ideologies), He builds a case that the DPRK is not a communist or Confucian dictatorship, focusing instead on the racial ideology inherited from propaganda efforts during Japanese rule. I am no expert (or even well-informed amateur) on the question, but I find his arguments to be fairly compelling, especially on the matter of whether or not Juche represents an actual ideology or the semblance of one.

A repeated refrain throughout the book is that the regime actually enjoys a level of support among normal North Korean citizens; Meyers backs this up with evidence and anecdote. What I found odd, though, was a single caption, which noted that the regime enjoys a level of "uncoerced support" denied by most Western observers.


For a book that spills so much ink on the ability of carefully selected propaganda and imagery to massage and mold human minds and feelings, it seems very odd to make the casual assertion that support garnered in such a matter is "uncoerced". This works with a definition of coercion which requires the threat of physical harm; however, when a government, or system, enjoys uninhibited, unpreventable access to the human subject, the views conditioned through such are coerced. I would even go so far as to say that certain marketing/propaganda modes are always coercive in a way that is immoral (especially when applied on children), but "free speech" ideology has seemed to have prevented many Americans from thinking reasonably about what sort of things are political speech and what sort of things are deliberate programming. Imagery has an effect on the human passions that the newsprint of the Founders's day could never have; the emerging research on the poisonous effects of pornography on human minds, and the actual addictive effect it has, could not be more relevant, here.

"the main thing to avoid in fasting…"

"…is eating one another."

[Found here.]

February 1, 2010

analogy, monarchy, etc.

This recent post on Logismoi provides a useful jumping off point to what I have to say on the article of Geréby's recently discussed at the Ochlophobist. I say this because Aaron's earlier post over the Nativity season on the Church's use of the Augustan Peace as both image and preparation for the saving mission of Christ was something at the front of my mind when reading Geréby's article. The comments are quite good, as well.

When Aaron upholds the legitimacy of Christian interaction with secular culture, this also upholds the legitimacy of Christian interaction with political culture, despite the argument put forth by Peterson (or Geréby via Peterson) of the inability of theology to properly influence political thought. While Orthodox Christians should certainly not argue from the nature of the Godhead to the form of politics, I am unsure if this is what is happening in the cases Geréby describes (despite the words against analogia entis in the final pages). I am, however, especially interested in the claims regarding the legitimacy of monarchy, or the capability of theology to legitimize it. (To lay out my suspicions before justifying them in my lateral fashion: I do not think that theology can universally justify monarchy, but not for the reasons that seem to be presumed by the article, or at least by an interpretation of it.)

Any approach to what Christianity does or does not have to say about the legitimacy of monarchy must begin with the Old Testament, and thus with seeing Christ in the light of kingship, especially David's.

Much has been made by liberal Christians of the words against kingship given to Israel through Samuel, and the comparison of the Davidic monarchy with the form of government given to Israel under the Judges. If I can be excused coining a word, the depiction of Judges by these theorists is a sort of aristo-anarchism, where God reigns directly as the only true sovereign, and the only legitimate authority are certain aristoi chosen by God for a particular task, who then fade away when said task is done. Joshua becomes a hero of liberty for these persons, and the state of Judges is seen as one that represents God's true intentions for mankind. As tempting as this view may be in light of the Old Testament narrative, it does not follow from how the New Testament sees Christ in the light of kingship, especially in the Psalms. While it is correct to point out that kingship is allowed as a concession to the wishes of the Israelites, not on the basis of its rightness as being a type of God's interior monarchy, it would be dangerous to ignore the role that kingship plays in the Bible–and the Liturgy.

Geréby's article makes much of assertions of Peterson's that Patristic notions of monarchy in the Godhead would have had political implications for contemporary readers. He provides very little evidence that this is so, and even his supposed definite example, from St. Gregory of Nyssa seems to be, once again, simply theological. I am not enough of a scholar of ancient texts to know for sure, but I do not know of any texts that attempt to use divine monarchy as a justification for earthly, or the lack thereof as an argument against it. Even the more overtly political of the late Platonists, such as Iamblichus and Julian argue for the fitness of theurgic Platonism for Empire and vice-versa on grounds that are primarily moral and hierarchical, not based on analogy to a sort of alien sovereignty possessed by a monarchic Godhead.

Even the case in favor of monarchy in the Godhead and in the political sphere from Aquinas stems more from the fitness of monarchy for humanity than from the presence of monarchy in the Godhead. In the passage in question, Aquinas reasons that the governing principle of the Trinity is monarchy because that is the best governing principle of human society for ordering said society to the Good, not vice versa.

In fact. Geréby's words against the analogia entis may be a red herring as far as understanding Peterson goes, because he presents Peterson's argument against the ability of theology to support monarchism as being due to the fact that a proper Trinitarian theology provides no analogy to earthly monarchy. This line of reasoning assumes, rather than undermines, the value of the analogia entis.

In fact, it assumes it to such a degree that Geréby claims that, for Peterson, "any correspondence [between the political and the theological] was precluded in principle". This seems to me to be claiming a rather impoverished view of the ways in which theology can comment upon politics, even considering Peterson's conception of the Church itself as a political community.

For the Orthodox Christian, considering the role in our Nativity hymnography, Geréby's claim that Christian claims that the Augustan peace paved the way or in some way imaged the saving work of Christ and the founding of the Catholic Church, involved "Romanizing" Christ in some illegitimate fashion must be contested. In fact, Gereby's argues against a relatively extreme case, where the reign of Augustus is portrayed as an utopia, one that actually "fulfills the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem". Even the extremes of Eusebius do not seem to make this strong of case, much less the hymnography of the Church. To claim that the claim that the "many kingdoms of the earth" had come to an end under Augustus was understood literally and not typologically would be arguing for a sort of ignorance among early Christians that is unsupportable. As Aaron points out, this does not claim the reign of Augustus as a golden age, but rather its prefigurement.

Geréby uses Augustine as support against his claims of an improper assumption of Augustus or the Roman Empire by Christians. This would be quite valid, but it is hard to argue that such a case was really made during the Patristic age, but rather that the most extreme claims for the role of the Roman Empire are of medieval vintage, especially in the rhetoric of Ghibellines in support of the Holy Roman Emperor. (An example of this extreme case can be found in Dante, with his use of the betrayal of Julius Caesar as a type of the betrayal of Christ in the shared punishment of Judas, Brutus and Cassius.) As far as this goes, I do not think that Orthodox need be worried that our hymnography falls under the critique offered. As far as the "Romanizing" of Christ goes, no example is offered, and I am left suspecting that the worry is largely one of modern scholarly categories, where "Romanization" is something inherently illegitimate, without need of explanation.

What is left out is the ability of the moral and anthropological dimensions of theology to comment upon the legitimacy or illegitimacy of certain forms of governance. While (as the quote from St. Augustine supports) the Church is no respecter of customs, but rather obeys them, it does have things to say about the laws of men. There is no case I can think of where the conversion of a people or its rulers is not also followed by a change in the laws to better image the Christian ethos. The lack of this discussion may be purposed: Geréby seems to be deeply affected by the reasoning of Schmitt on the role of Christian theology in legitimizing secular absolutism, and thus needs a firewall between theology and political philosophy in order to save Christianity from being "discredited" by the "disasters" of 20th century political absolutism. While there is certainly something to be learned from such a deep disturbance (as I hold that there is something to learn from David Bentley Hart's deep disturbance at the claims of power and truth in postmodernism), we should be careful to also step outside such a defense from a particular disturbance to prevent poisoning ourselves with the antidote. There is always a temptation to resolve the conflict between Christianity and society with either quietism or theocracy, and both must be carefully avoided, it seems to me.

Geréby's claim that the end of history is not a part of history is certainly true (how else does Christ return like a thief in the night?), but it is not true that the end is not imaged in history. Nor is this imaging somehow political: the use of the Roman Empire as an image is not an endorsement of the empire, and the use of Christian morals to influence the law is not necessarily an image.

Geréby's later claim that "the political and the strictly orthodox theological can be independent from each other, but unorthodox theologies cannot" is rather more interesting. I would relate it to claims regarding philosophy as the source of all heresies, while still admitting of the usefulness of philosophy in both the refinement of the intellect and for the use of by theology. For Orthodoxy, I would argue, such independence stems not from total separation, but from a lack of being determined by the political. As for the dependence on the political for heresy, I would note that while cases from Arianism to Monophytism to Liberation theology make a case for that identification, it is important to remember that heresy is easily overdetermined, because all sin is a mess of fallen motive and never pure. Heresy lives in a world where the nihilist dialectic of power is really real, with Peterson, I would claim that theology is above such enslavement.

A number of readers have commented on the role of the insufficient Trinitarianism of Western theology in the formation of political absolutism in the West. This certainly seems reasonable, but must be met with the caveat that once absolutism was birthed, it was able to exist on its own terms, slowly removing itself from its reliance on theological concepts. Absolutism–whether of the state, market or individual–has infected the Orthodox world as well, and we must be on guard to not allow its concepts to flow backwards into our theology.

However, by comparing (implicitly) modern absolutist regimes with the Roman Empire or monarchy in general, the paper does some violence. Certainly, Christianity cannot support absolutist regimes, they always violate that concern of Christian political theology: That any regime is legitimate insofar as it does not prevent the free practice of the religion of the Catholic Church. Christianity is beyond favoring particular regimes (for, following St. Paul, we are all cosmopolitans of a sort, with our absolute loyalty going to no earthy city) and always understands all sovereignty as being a subset of the only real sovereignty belonging to God alone. However, Christians certainly can support a monarchy, and even support monarchy over other forms of governance as being better suited for the nature and dignity of man or even better suited for the free practice of the Christian religion. Such discussions fall outside the realm of theology, to be sure, but they are informed and infused by them in a fashion that is not necessarily illegitimate. What would be illegitimate would be an argument from the nature of God to the fitness of monarchy, thus bringing the political within theology, proper. (Or worse, arguing from the fitness of monarchy to the existence of monarchy in the Godhead, as in the selection from Aquinas.)

This critique standing, I found much of use in the essay, and any sort of extended critique is always an indication that there is value in the work, even if only in a negative sense, which is not true. There is much useful corrective in Geréby's summation of Peterson's case, even if I believe that case (at least as presented here) to be extreme. This is not an exhaustive critique, either, and I welcome discussion and expansion.

January 17, 2010

on the use and misuse of a certain french word

Orrologion reprinted a comment I made at The Ochlophobist, and it prompted a reply that I was misapplying the term "bourgeoise" because the proletariat in this country have regular work schedules as well. My reply:


This thread is possibly already dead, but I'll answer the objection, anyhow.

In America, there is not yet a significant proletariat (though it is growing, and it does not have a "normal work schedule"), and no upper class at all. (Or, a vanishingly small one.) America is all bourgeoisie, more or less (this is good & bad). Re-defining "bourgeoisie" as being equivalent to the American "middle class", defined as it is solely on income (we know no "genteel poor", for example) serves only as a distraction, a sort of attempt to bring class war to a country that really does not take to it very well.

American social theorists–from the era immediately after the Revolution–identified American uniqueness with the rise of the "middling" sorts, which was the 18th c. English equivalent for "bourgeoisie". As a sometimes purist, I would almost like to bring back the term, but part of me likes the polemical edge provided by the latter. The Federalist/Anti-Federalist struggle was often openly defined as one about the role of the "middling" people and much was said about the rise and possible triumph of that sort over all of American society. In the end, we came to celebrate our lack of both aristocracy and proletariat. As an American through-and-through, I have a lot of sympathy for that enthusiasm, but I believe that it was not, in the end, properly tempered with a respect for the dangers of a homogenized culture built around the bourgeoisie "acquisitiveness". I'm not sure what the answer to these sorts of social questions are, but I am fascinated by them.

As for the "work schedule" remark, I was totally serious. There are many–largely converts and American-born "cradles"–who find the idea of Church services they could not possibly attend to be somewhat offensive. It would seem to say that those who attend them are "holier" even though they really just "don't have jobs" or "anything better to do". This language is really used, and I've head it in enough contexts, and in enough different parts of the country, to know that it is not simply an artifact of a particular community. This actually is not unrelated to an old American hostility towards much church-going in general, especially in the frontier, as it was seen to interfere with honest work and be an escape for weak men and women (obviously this was both in tension with, and supported by, revivalist periods in history and regions). While we are more gentle about those sorts of prejudices now, they certainly have only morphed into other forms.

As someone who has spent most of the past three years existing at various levels of un-or-under-employed I often had–even well meaning people–comment upon my attendance at daily services as something that was ok for someone who did not have much else to do. Never mind that I find attending ANY service most hard when I have no productive role. This may be nonsensical (I think there is value in what I do even when "idle"), but my sense of shame at being outside the productive sphere is deeply engrained.

January 13, 2010

on liberalism & liberty

Despite some misunderstanding to the contrary, this is not a "book review blog", it is simply my blog. The emphasis of the title should be placed on "season" and "another", in terms of why I chose it.

That said, I think that the most convenient way to approach some topics I have been recently considering is as a book review. I just finished reading Paul A. Rahe's Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. The book was, thankfully, much better than its title.

I have been revisiting, over the past few months, territory I first covered as a teenager: Tocqueville, Jefferson, Rousseau, the Federalist, the Anti-Federalist, John Adams. For someone like myself whose last ancestor–as far as I know–to not have been born in North America was a Scottish soldier in the British army, who fought in the Revolutionary War, but stayed behind in the new country, deserting his nation and post, I cannot reasonably claim to be the inheritor of any governmental tradition other than the American. I was once an ardent "classical liberal", but have since come to wonder if the deep pathologies in our political culture (and outside it) are not because of betrayals of liberalism, but rather brought on by it.

The majority of the book is quote-heavy, a blow-by-blow selection of quotes from the title authors. The form is actually somewhat Hegelian, though Rahe takes the appropriate liberal shots at Hegel himself. Tocqueville is positioned as a synthesizer of Montesquieu's liberalism and Rousseau's anti-enlightenment critique. I cannot evaluate this part of the book, but Rahe's evidence that Tocqueville was inspired by Rousseau despite the lack of citation seems both reasonable and perhaps even inevitable.

Rahe tracks Tocqueville's pro-democratic approach to evaluating the diseases proper to democracy, and largely endorses it. There is some mention of Montesquieu's warnings regarding the dissolution of traditional privileges and how it would undo the social character those privileges sustained, but little follow-through. This part of the book is somewhat marred by repetition, but this may just be for me. Those who are fairly well-versed in Tocqueville will likely find themselves simply skimming much of the middle of the book. You know what Rahe is quoting, it is time to understand why.

The last twenty pages, however, are Rahe's program for reform, such as it is. It is mostly reactionary: end the worst abuses of the current progressive administrative state. It seems unclear that any "turning back" of the clock would result in any sort of re-capture of former democratic, liberal virtue on the part of the American people. Rahe correctly notes that the American ruling class has no concept of noblesse oblige, but are rather as self-aggrandizing as any bourgeoise striver. He touches on Rousseau's warning regarding market society and the restriction of intellectual freedom, and again on Tocqueville's mention of the lack of true dissent in American society, but does not draw the line as to what that means for his program. This does not mean I do not favor his reforms (especially in the ending of the institutionalized murder of children for whim and profit), but rather that I have no illusions as to their improving the condition of the American people as such for self-rule.

That democratic, progressive society hates true talent is self-evident. Perhaps it is sharper for myself, who grew up in a public schooling regime whose main goal was to keep children with talent from not embarrassing the normal ones, with the drive becoming more openly abusive the more different the child was. Rahe writes as if this is a feature of American education post-"No Child Left Behind", but it has been there for much longer in many parts of the country. He writes also of the destruction of masculinity and femininity, but nothing of how persons who have never felt free to be either can suddenly learn how to be so again. At this point, I think nothing more than the march of generations will bring back much of virtue to American public life.

The core question, however, is one of the virtues inherent to self-rule. This problem is where I have broke with my classical liberal background, and likely will always do so. The problem is that the great liberals were nearly all aristocrats, surrounded by aristocrats. They saw largely those who were raised to be rulers of themselves, and who had the resources to do so. What they saw of the bourgeoise was largely that of an upwardly mobile sort, also obviously ready for some form of self-rule in a culture that still had limits set on it by morality and custom. Few had even considered preparing or allowing the "lower orders" to self-rule, though the logic of liberal government made that broadening inevitable, whether it happened relatively suddenly (as in the USA) or gradually (as in the United Kingdom). Obviously, the ability to be a natural aristocrat is not all in birth, but aristocracies have traditionally been more willing to allow the elevation of brilliant and competent outsiders than our modern democracies. That the perhaps excessive liberality of the aristocrats helped seed their downfall should not doubted by anyone, as studies of both the French and Russian revolutions have continually uncovered.

The question is whether it is fair to force self-rule upon persons who have little interest in it, whether the broadening of political power does anything but allow the functionaries called "career politicians" to have the pretense of working on a "mandate" form "the people". That this sort of talk was prefigured by monarchs speaking of their "nations" is true, but the distinction is not without difference.

There is no despotism in the Western world that no longer has the pretense of being a despotism of "the people". All obey democratic forms, and some even leave the essence intact. The complaint of many liberals is that if they were only allowed to educate the people via the media, they could change the tide, but the question is also whether the people want to be educated. And besides, it is not by the news that we are motivated to vote for one candidate or another, it is by marketing and the emotive appeals found in our entertainments. More people will react to the marketing techniques of the Green movement because they saw Avatar than ever would because they saw Al Gore appear on MSNBC.

The question is–to evoke Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn–liberty or equality, specifically the equality implied by the infinite franchise and progressive programming.

Much has been made of "positive" versus "negative" definitions of liberty. I think that, to the extent that that dichotomy is even legitimate (I doubt it is), that Christians should be concerned with positive liberty, which has more in common with the theological uses of the term. Put simply, the goal of a governance aimed at liberty should be a state where none are compelled to do obvious evil and all are free to work obvious good.

Such a philosophic definition of the end of governance cannot blossom in mass politics. It has forever been true that the only real restraint on rulers has been themselves and the strength of their enemies, and for our state the prospect for both looks weak. Restraint in the use of power is something that is either educated into a person or due to the sort of virtue that would make them shy from democratic prostitution.

That a truly liberal state would likely be impossible for a fallen humanity should be obvious, but that should not prevent us from considering the best paths towards it. It becomes obvious that mass politics, which both encourage and are exacerbated by coercive marketing are not conducive to good order or a state where the human soul can at least work out its salvation in the Church in relative peace. Any state, also, where the greater drives of the human person are ruthlessly suppressed or made into kitsch should also be suspect. For all that Orthodox converts love to speak of beauty, there is little of it in Orthodox America, and much fear of it. Beholden to the egalitarian impulse, we even try to destroy the music of the services in order to fulfill an ideological impulse, projecting our ideas of "the people" onto the laïcs of the Church. Is it so hard to see that this cannot go on?

This is all poorly organized, but I have more to say on this, but from another angle.

January 5, 2010


Daniel Mitsui offers us this quote meditating on the role of kitsch filling up the void left without faith.

The oddest thing about kitsch, of course, is that its buyers & sellers can be compelled to fight with the fury of a crusader that their marketing postures are the Real Thing and should, naturally, be treated as such. The marketing success is proof of the reality of the technique; X number at the altar call proves that Y revival technique works. And do not for a second think that this disease is unique to Protestants: it encroaches on all religious culture in our society.

While we have been right to mock Rousseau's idea of the natural man, there has been less praise of his prophetic ability to see how, if left unchecked by moral law, bourgeois acquisitiveness would proceed to conquer all. Even scholarly thought would succumb to the urge for being fashionable, creating a more dangerous Inquisition than even the Jesuits whom he despised (we have not quite yet reached, in this country, the point where Rousseau said even mere belief in God would call down fury). When he saw in the person of Voltaire the forerunner of the modern intellectual celebrity, whose status as secular priest creates a new law through his fashionableness and popularity, well, we have only to look to see how right he was.