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Mendenhall throws in the towel: The reality and reputation of Cultural Marxism

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 10, 2019

The Fish, the Ocean, and Cultural Marxism

“Is Cultural Marxism real?”  That is the question which the intellectually well-endowed Allen Mendenhall asks, and answers in the affirmative.  Whether or not this is good news depends on what is really meat by “real.”  Is the “real” in question a stamp of authenticity, as per “the real deal” or is it something more sinister, a negative reality better expressed as “the clear and present danger.”  In lieu of a direct answer to this question, Mendenhall gives us a brief walk through the last century-and-a-half’s developments in the humanities and social sciences, just in case anyone was sleeping.  What is seemingly at issue is whether or not these developments are uniformly circumscribed  within the ambit of “Cultural Marxism.”  Again, Mendenhall answers yes, that for better or worse, we live in a world where the cultural turn of Marxism has become the cynosure of all social thought.

It doesn’t take a genius, or even an Allan Mendenhall, to understand why the phrase “Cultural Marxism”, as opposed to the movement it describes, has been brought into question by those who would prefer to keep their actions and allegiances tacit.  Whenever a phenomenon becomes ubiquitous in the world, and assuming that it might be viewed as noxious in certain quarters, it behooves those in sympathy with the phenomenon to hide its existence, or at least to deny that it has any special defining characteristics.  Rendered nameless and invisible, the phenomenon recedes into the background noise of existence and is thus insulated against overt criticism.  Or as people say these days, “it just is what it is.”

Allan Mendenhall and other scholars (he mentions Alexander Zubatov), are wise to this recent ploy and willing to call it out as a denial of reality.   Clearly, Cultural Marxism is more than just a cypher, a mythological snark roaming through the ruins of what were once called the Western Humanities.  It has a demonstrable pedigree, names, dates, books, and manifestos…aside from manifest consequences.  Ostensibly,  Mendenhall seeks to refute the premises and program of the Cultural Marxists,  a critical enterprise which can only commence after the object of criticism has been acknowledged.  However Mendenhall goes further and conveys the attitude that Cultural Marxism must be respected, at least in the basic sense that any scientific enterprise must respect the object of its investigation, whether the intent of the investigation be positive or critical.  In his own words,

“Scholars versed in [the] Theory [of Cultural Marxism] are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field.  Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny.  Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought.  To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and and spread into the broader culture.”(1)

The question of complicity

The last sentence from the above quote is noteworthy for its candor.  By declaring “In order to avoid complicity…” Mendenhall has acknowledged the danger of any engagement with Cultural Marxism, an engagement which is in some ways analogous to those who dabble in the occult in order to “research” and “refute” the occult.  It is the perennial dilemma of those who seek to unravel a cat’s cradle by adding complexity to complexity until it becomes an insolvable Gordian Knot, or one of those silly but effective Chinese puzzles which trap your finger in a tiny tourniquet.  After all, Cultural Marxism would not have become a predominant force within the humanities unless it had the ability to subtly absorb and convert its harshest critics.

Precisely because the danger that Mendenhall alludes to is terrifyingly real, we are justified in holding him to his word.   Is he complicit? No matter how earnest his dismay at the present academic culture might be, does Mendenhall’s survey of the subject serve to refute or, conversely, to legitimate the hegemony of the left over our so-called humane letters?  His essay is a concise and usable survey, one that could be handy for an aspiring undergraduate to use as a “crib” in discussing the various fields of the human and social sciences as they developed, or were perverted, in the course of the last few generations.  Though already a miracle of economy, I will try my hand at further simplifying the essay’s contents.

According to Mendenhall the relevant trends in the humanities and social sciences can be grouped under neo-Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, and the New Historicism.  These taxa should be enough to show that the Cultural Marxist world-view is not a single set of ideas, rather, that it consists of a large number of people attempting to look at human behavior from a variety of perspectives.  Those of us who have studied in these fields are aware of this variety, and those new to the subject shouldn’t be surprised.  Even for critics of Cultural Marxism, this variety of thinkers and theories can be a legitimate source of intellectual stimulation and interest.  Hence any naive critic who assumes that the obnoxiously “politically correct” tenor of higher education derives from a single source can be easily refuted.

However this representative naive critic, allegedly inhabiting what Zubatov called “the dark, dank silos of the far right” while certainly (like the Cultural Marxists themselves) more than mythological, also serves Mendenhall as a straw man against which his sophisticated and variegated treatment of neo-Marxist schools is shown to full advantage.   Again, there is nothing wrong with this, as long as one doesn’t allow one’s awe at the variety and creativity of error lead one into an attitude of endearment.   In the systematic study of intellectual error, as with the study of medical pathology, the variety of the phenomena should not lead to engrossed fascination.  It should not make one forget that the thing you are dealing with is something fundamentally bad.

The unifying framework

Variety tends to exculpate.  The slogan “Let a thousand flowers bloom” gives us a warm and optimistic feeling, and gratifies our libertarian conscience, even if we are mentally aware that the person who coined the phrase (Mao Tse Tung) was a bloody tyrant.  When intellectuals are introduced to Cultural Marxism in a variety of flavors, they are more apt to savor than criticize them.  Yet, as even Mendenhall understands, behind all these collectable cognitive butterflies lurks a master theory.  Indeed, this is Theory with a capital T since he admits,

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory.  The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general is the general heading, for research within the interpretive branches branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory–each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic.(2)

So these schools of thought, in spite of their surface variety, are united at their apex by something called “Theory.”  And what is “Theory”?  Mendenhall gives us a reasonably concise and accurate definition of “Theory” when he alludes to interpretive approaches in the social sciences and the humanities.  What should arouse our suspicion is that we now have a definition of something which has no name.  “Theory” is not a name.  Etymologically and historically “theory” derived from an ancient Greek verb, which once applied to the mystical contemplation of a god (i.e., theos, zeus).   However in early modern usage “theory” became a noun roughly corresponding to what Kuhn later clarified with his (then, 1962) neologism “paradigm.”  In other words, a “theory” was a  scientific conjecture about the nature of reality, a conjecture which might, or might not, be backed up by subsequent evidence.

In post-modern usage “theory” seems to have lost the hypothetical and tentative connotations which it once had for modern science.  Insidiously, it has become synonymous with the unquestioned foundation of the human sciences, and perhaps soon the physical sciences as well.  Yet common sense informs us what is now called “Theory” was once just one competing paradigm among many.  Mendenhall’s failure to name the paradigm and his complicity in referring to it as simply “Theory”  leaves him with little more than gentlemanly condescension towards his more leftward adversaries.  Apart from this condescension he can also share with his readership a sense of dread, dread of a beast which is once again on the march, the same beast which notoriously slaughtered 100 million in the course of the 20th century.  Then again, we might get lucky the next time around.

Naming names, The Hermenutic Invasion

While Mendenhall’s stance may not constitute willful complicity, neither does it provide any salient argument against Cultural Marxism.  With the mention of “Theory” we have come full circle.  Having pinned down Cultural Marxism as something identifiable, Mendenhall (following Zubatov) has preserved the possibility of criticizing the Left Academy.  Retaining the possibility of criticism isn’t much, but it is better than nothing.  However Cultural Marxism is itself only the consequence of something further upstream, something which Mendenhall is unwilling to name specifically, although he alludes to it using the originally nondescript term “Theory.”  Hence we are confronted with the same sort of problem which had been solved by the willingness to identify Cultural Marxism, but on a higher level, the problem of the unnamed common denominator.  Hence we must unmask “Theory” as no more than one theory among others, or to use Kuhn’s nomenclature, a paradigm.  As always, the consequence of not identifying a ubiquitous phenomenon is to render it natural, normal…or better yet in the case of mischief, invisible.

Before it became “Theory” the paradigm in question was called Hermenutics, or Cultural Hermenutics to distinguish it from the Hermeneutic branch of Theology which dealt with interpretation of the Bible.  Since Christians and Jews believe in an objective revelation, hermenutics in the the old style remained a sifting and seeking of truth, though necessarily approximate and incomplete.  In contrast, Cultural Hermentutics, as inspired by Martin Heidegger and elaborated by Hans George Gadamer is restricted to a framework immanent to this changing and contradictory world,  it is therefore an interpretation by the subjective, of the subjective, and for the subjective.  Thus its touchstone is not a natural order, whether or not such a natural order is discovered by either science or revelation or both.  Rather, it sees reality as the outcome of social and cultural self-creation, a kind of collective poetry in motion.  While this may seem charming at first blush (think of Boazian anthropology in the first half of the 20th century) a consistently subjectivist world-view ultimately leads to an outcome where there is no objective criteria through which to  resolve inter-group conflict.  This is the point at which we have arrived in American higher education, where ostracism has supplanted debate as a means of ensuring group consensus.

Mendenhall is well aware of this catastrophic outcome, and his essay highlighting the dangers of misidentifying Cultural Marxism is clearly intended to stem or even turn back the tide of academic persecution.  Yet oddly he fails to trace the present intellectual climate back to an arbitrary decision in favor of the interpretive paradigm, a.k.a., Hermenutics.  For him, Theory with a capital T seems to be something we must acquiesce in, just as if it were a force of nature.  Accordingly, we must accept that the only possible basis of the human sciences is interpretation, and our job as non-Marxists is to engage Marxists in dialogue, enlarging their scope of thought and bringing them around to a more charitable understanding of their fellow human beings.  To me this seems at best quixotic, and at worst complicit.

I don’t know Allan Mendenhall, who seems to be an earnest and engaging person, and I am not sure why he has pulled his punches in quite just the way he does in Cultural Marxism is Real.  I certainly don’t think he relishes complicity, or views himself as such.  None the less there are certain centrifugal forces which draw one towards the center of our post-modern world.  I have a hunch that Mendenhall, in addition to his aversion to Marxism, has an equal and opposite aversion to Positivism, and the way in which modern higher education has been turned into an adjunct facility for corporate research.  I can understand that as well.  Cultural Hermenutics promises the humanist (in all senses of that word) autonomy.  It promises a vast principality which is safe from the predation of the hard sciences.  Fine.  There is no compelling reason for humanists (qua professionals) to believe in the circulation of the blood or the sphere of the Earth.  However there is one science that it behooves humanists to pay homage to, and that is lowly and despised economics.  It was through the postern gate of economics that Marxism crept in and spoiled the utopian garden of the humanists.  God willing, I hope to explore the relation between hermenutics and economics in a future post.  For the time being I am sure that I have given poor Dr. Mendenhall too much of my attention already.

 

(1) from Cultural Marxism is Real by Allan Mendenhall James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Jan. 4, 2019  https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2019/01/cultural-marxism-is-real/

(2) ibid.

 

 

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Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Economics, History, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Beyond the social compact: Origins, vows, and the foundation of America

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 23, 2018

In search of an origin

There are certain schools of anthropology which seek out the origins of society in a “social compact” i.e., a primitive getting together of all humanity where the individuals comprising the species said something like, “We are tired of living in fear of one another, let’s invent an institution called civilization.  We will have laws, courts, good manners, and some method of dispute resolution superior to bludgeoning one another into compliance.”  Of course such a “primal scene” (as they call it) is a myth.

At least, it is a myth if we lump together the human species and try to assign an origin to “society” in general.  However it may not be a myth if we are willing to limit the concept of the “social compact” to the origins of nations.  Do we not have have a singular example of this in the foundation of America, on or about July 4th, in the year of our Lord 1776?  Well, yes and no.  Originalism, whatever its merits as framed by American judicial conservatives, cannot be expanded into a total outlook on society.

As much as I love the Constitution and the bill of rights, I was humbled by Tom Woods observation that “If you are going to be an idolator, one of the silliest forms of idolatry is the worship of a political compact.”  It struck me that Woods, though a great American, saw through many of the shibboleths of the conservative movement.  To be sure, if there can be such a critter as a “contractual nation” then America fits the bill.  Whether or not America is unique, it certainly had a time of inception, and a time prior to inception when it was not.  However wonderful the thought of Dr. Freidrich Hayek might be, the United States did not come about through the workings of what he calls the “spontaineous order”…rather, it came about through deliberation and prayer of a people being transformed from subjects of the British crown into patriots.  The nation, or at least this nation, is a creation, not an “evolute.”

Hence I will side with originalists over progressives every time.  If we are at the mercy of social evolution, every change in the editorial stance of the New York Times necessitates a trans-valuation of our fundamental morality.  This is worse than absurd, it is spiritually exhausting.  We need a baseline, not a “project.”  What and where is the baseline of American moral consensus?  Was it set at some privileged moment in the 18th century, or perchance earlier or later?  In search of it, we  must become intellectual archeologists, digging down into history until we find bedrock.

Origins, compacts, and peoples

The self-understanding of a “contractual nation” must be made expicit, since a contract is always signed on a particular date, and indeed without a recorded date no contract is valid.  America has not just one, but several candidates for its inception.  The constitutional convention of 1786 and the foundational documents which flowed from it are frequently made to bear excessive historical weight by theorists affiliated with the right wing of our political spectrum.  Yes, these documents formed a government, but did they actually found a nation?  One center-right line of thought (associated with Jaffre and Clairmont College) attempts to remedy this by expanding the contractual origins of the nation to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and even the Gettysburg Address (1863).  These are construed as supplying the missing philosophy, and even theology,  which is only implied in the text of the Constitution.  On this basis, what in anthropological jargon would be called the “ethnogenisis of the American nation” is thought to be secured.

Conservatives and libertarians are the only ones who continue to care about this line of inquiry.   Progressives no longer think there is any such thing as an American nation, only hoards of hyphenated tribes squabbling over the riches of a largish continent.  This train of thought has been gaining traction on the left since the publication of Nathan and Glassier’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in the sixties, however it only became the undisputed progressive line in the past few years.    Here I’m not addressing progressives or the merit of their theses.  Rather, I’m wondering whether conservatives have put their understanding of American origins in the wrong basket.  They have become social contract theorists.  In other words, they have become Rousseuvians.  Now if you understand that J. J. Rousseau is the ideological fountain of leftward modernity then perhaps you will recognize that conservatives are resting their case on a treacherous foundation.  If you really want a social contract with teeth, then you should go past American statecraft and cross the Atlantic to view the tennis court oath of 1789 with its ensuing (First) French Republic.  That’s the one that came straight from Rousseau’s brain, bent on righteousness and vengeance.  The laws with teeth soon became more than a metaphor, as indeed the incisor of the guillotine began to chomp down indiscriminately on errant necks.

Even today the French are still working righteousness, and perhaps a new (would this be the sixth?) French Republic is in the offing.  We can only wish them luck.  Given the inability of social contracts to arrest the slide of the West towards bureaucratic domination and leftist lunacy, it is understandable that some conservative thinkers advocate placing the foundation of nations on some non-contractual basis.  That neglected luminary, Dr. Paul Gottfried, suggests that lip service to formal political contracts have become simply an item in the neoconservative toolbox to be put in the service of managerial globalism.   Against this background, he hints that it might be wise to reinstate, at least partially, a candid recognition that Western civilization did not arise in a vacuum but out of the historical experience of particular peoples.  This would constitute a strategic retreat from the sacred (at least in America) principle of lex soli, but none the less an inevitable counterfoil to the corroding influence of multiculturalism.  After all, if it works in Hungary, why shouldn’t it work in the United States?

For a variety of reasons, I hope this is not the path followed by conservative thought in the near future.  The most obvious, but ideally least important, reason being that this is precisely the avenue which has been mapped out for conservative ideology by the cultural Marxists.  For Marxists in general, Operation Barbarossa is the gift that keeps on giving.  Get their Hitler to attack your Stalin and, voala!, there you have your moral equivalence, if not moral superiority.  The same principle applies on the cultural level.  Even the smallest embrace of identity politics on the right would be seen as racism, not as a measured equivalent to the wholesale adoption of identity politics on the left.

I only mention the left because the their strategy is so easy to see.  It is never good to adopt a policy out of either consideration or antagonism to one’s enemies.  The real reason to make land, not blood, the basis of American citizenship is spiritual.  When I mention “spiritual” I am using the term in its broadest sense.  You don’t need to stop reading at this point just because you don’t meditate or speak in tongues…although if you do either I wouldn’t be one to object.  I would call the social contract theory spiritual.  Conversely, I would call the theory that nationality should be based on ties of blood non-spiritual.  I don’t want to see membership in the political community based on their DNA.  Some people do, they are called eugenicists.   On the other hand, I don’t want membership in the political community to be open to everyone.  Membership should be limited to those who are spiritually in agreement with the foundational principles of the political community.  If you aren’t in spiritual agreement with the foundations of the community, then you are either a traitor or a spy…or at the most charitable, very ignorant.  Those types of people are not good for the community.

Vows, Contracts, and Prayers

In spite of its fundamentally spiritual quality, I have been casting doubt on the efficacy of social contract theory as the foundation of American nationality.  Is there any other spiritual bond which might have formed the basis of the American union?  Again, I am using “spiritual” in the technical sense of an act of deliberation and will.  For example, what about the common possession of the English language?  No, because being born into a language community is not an act of will, although choosing to use that language might be.  Interestingly, during the 17th and 18th centuries there were English speaking expatriate communities in the Carabbean Sea and the Indian Ocean who formed independent, “buckaneer” republics, based on social contracts.  In spite of similarities in race and language, they were not the same nation as that formed by the thirteen English colonies on the eastern coast of North America.  They had their own separate “spiritual” foundations, based on values quite different from their linguistic cousins.  Out of deference to fans of Johnny Dep I won’t go into further description of their values.  Not to say that the American colonists were angels.  This is not an apology for their morals, it is just an attempt to identify the essence of their political identity.

That political identity was never grounded specifically on the French enlightenment theory of social contract.  Prior to independence, the British colonists were not citizens but subjects.  Directly, they were citizens of the British crown, but through that king, as head of the Anglican church, they were subject to the God of all Christians.  When  the ties with the crown were dissolved, the middle man, as it were, was cut out, and the American states came directly under the sovereignty of God.  Since the early days of the republic, there have been strong forces which have sought to obscure this point, and to conflate the origins of the American nation with social contract theory.  No doubt some thinkers, Thomas Jefferson comes to mind, were explicit in their allegiance to what might be called the Franco-American theory of American origins.  However Jefferson was an eccentric.  If there was any “general will” among the American people at the moment of separation from the British crown, it was a “general will” which was in direct contradiction to “general will” in the sense given to that term by J.J.Rousseau.    The general will of the American people was a collective surrender to the will of Divine Providence, a transcendental covenant, in stark contrast to the mutual compact of the French people among themselves during the same revolutionary epoch.

One reason why so few people recognize this covenantal basis of American nationhood is the benevolent, but mistaken, myth of constitutional origins.  I say “constitutional origins” advisedly, since I don’t want to dissuade anyone from constitutional advocacy.   None the less, the American nation was not founded by any one sheet of parchment, however right-thinking and venerable.  It was founded by the inner vows and aspirations of countless patriots at the time of political separation, vows which more often than not took the form of formal, public, prayer.  Furthermore these vows transferring direct political sovereignty from the British crown to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are not just rumors from oral history but were the subject of ample and official documentation.   One major reason contributing to contemporary ignorance of these facts is the prestige of the constitution and the bill of rights in contrast to the obscurity of  many documents where the proclamations and enabling legislation pertaining to the divine sovereignty are recorded.  I urge readers to investigate this subject on their own, and to see what the public documents the era (not private political pamphlets, whether by Paine, Jefferson or whomever) have to say on the subject of sovereignty, and whether it is based, ultimately, on the will of God or of the people.  Then, I think, you will have a solution to the enigma of American nationality, that it was forged in common through allegiance to a common God.

As a significant example of a public declaration of divine sovereignty during the transition from colonial to independent America, consider the following document proclaiming a collective desire “to seek God in time of war” issued by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777.  This states,

“That with one Heart and one Voice the good People may express the grateful feeling of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and…they may join the penitent Confession of their Manifold Sins…and their humble supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive them and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him Graciously to afford his blessings on the government of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole…to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”

This is not a document of political federation.  None the less it is evidence that at some point a spiritual bond of unity had been forged, through a common allegiance to God.  It is not a mutual and direct unity, such as described in social contract theory.  Rather, the political community is brought about through a mediated and transcendental unity, with God replacing the British crown as the common fountain of sovereignty among the states.  Here a word of caution is in order, this theocentric unity did not establish a theonomic regime.  The “good People” recognized the sovereignty of God working through Providence, but they did not in any way replace secular law with a system of ecclesiastical courts.  On the contrary, such ecclesiastical courts as were already in existence were speedily abolished, at least in the paradigmatic state of Virginia.  In that regard the “good People” of 1777 were acting more like common sense products of the Enlightenment age than Puritans, albeit their “common sense” was more pious than that attributed to Thomas Paine.   But common sense and the fear of God were enough.  Enough to accomplish what the modern mind would deem an impossibility, forming a nation on a basis which is neither biological nor contractual, but spiritual.

 

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Dr. Savage and the case against Mass Madness

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 2, 2018

Lashing out against the latest lunacy

From its style and content one might suppose that Dr. Michael Savage wants rank-and-file left wingers to read his latest work Stop Mass Hysteria (Center Street, 2018) as a first step towards the restoration of their mental balance .  Of course they won’t.  You know that, and so do I, and the good doctor knows it as well as anyone.  Yet this is a timely book, and one which fully deserves to be bought, read to taters, passed on to a friend…or better yet, presented as a fresh copy to a “frenemy”.  Indeed, if it were a psychiatric prescription and not a broadside, the title would have shouted Stop Being Hysterical…At Least When You Are Out In Public!  The default title is a sad admission that we, the conservatives and right-leaning libertarians who must suffer the antics of the Left, will be the book’s likely readership.  Alas, what a waste if so, since the testimonies of numerous ex-Communists during the 20th century demonstrated that most of them were drawn into leftism for the most noble of reasons.  They were not “insane” at the onset, though driven so in the outcome. Thus rare are those who, now as then, can “walk away” from the hypnotic trance of ideological deception.  Savage knows the odds he is up against and it drives him to heroic frenzies, frenzies which on the surface might be described as…well…hysterical.    That being said, if self-disclosure is a good measure for separating moral indignation from madness, then Savage is notable in his willingness to bear his wounds in public.

“They [the left] cannot see or feel because their entire worldview is a hysterical tantrum…My own personal rage has been building since the first American flag was burned in protest during the Vietnam War.” (SMH p. 175)

Hence, laying aside the question of the good doctor’s sanity, we ought to at least hear him out, if only to see if he has found a panacea for the infantile disease of leftism.

As even Jesus said, “We danced with you and you would not dance, we cried with you and you would not cry.”  Likewise, the legendary Michael Savage who has battled the progressive mob for decades on air, occasionally resorts to reasoned book-length prose in hopes of getting a better hearing.  The books are not written in a vacuum, but are presented as an alternative answer to critics who won’t abide civil discourse while streaming on-line.  As Savage mentions,

“I believe in many [i.e., variously left to right] positions but I am not a strict ideologue.  If people have rational ideas, I want to hear them.  It’s what I do every weekday on the radio.  But it is almost universal that liberals who phone my radio show are hysterics who place the call to shout memes, spit bile, and depart–convincing no one and hearing nothing.”

Indeed, Savage isn’t some smug conservative intellectual dredged up from the not-so-golden Age of Buckley.  He is the son of an immigrant, and himself a refugee from the frying pan of progressive New York into the mad hippy heat of San Francisco.  Far from being the kind of purse-lipped traditionalist who would disavow knowledge of Beatlemania or Haight-Ashbury, Savage can rattle off a virtual people’s encylopeadia of factoids that have conveniently been dropped down the memory hole in recent decades.  For example, who was the editor of MAD magazine?  When did Americans start smoking marijuana, and why? Arcane digressions of this sort constitute both the marrow and the charm of Stop Mass Hysteria, which takes the form of an inventory of America’s flirtations with collective insanity.  These include, but are by no means limited to: The Salem With Trials, the Tea Party (original version), Reconstruction and Anti-Reconstruction riots, the Red Scare, Marijuana Madness, and the radical ’60.  Moderates will be glad to know, and conservatives forced to remember, that until recently hysteria was a solidly bi-partisan tradition.  Then something happened and it would seem as if the left acquired a coveted monopoly on mental derangement.  With some degree of success, Dr. Savage seeks to highlight this transformation, together with the clear and present danger it poses to the values he espouses, neatly summarized as national “borders, language, and culture.”  His conclusion, which is hard to avoid, is that the transvaluation of those three values, gets us nothing but the supreme anti-value: Chaos.  We probably don’t need Dr. Savage to inform us of that, but his entertaining narratives connect many obscure dots which, filling out the historical picture, should supply conservatives with a fresh magazine of  intellectual ammunition.

Is there a doctor in the house?

According to the standard narrative, American mass hysteria has typically been a knee-jerk response by outraged apostles of normality.  To a certain extent Dr. Savage is willing to go along with this legacy of center-left cultural criticism.   Yet, on at least one hysteria-invoking issue, Marijuana Madness, he sacrifices his San Francisco “old hippy” card by committing the gross heresy of condemning the  sacred weed itself.   According to Savage this is not willful deviation, but only a decent respect for facts.

“I have a doctorate in ethnobotany and I can tell you that crops have dramatically shaped civilization, whether through ensuring an adequate supply of food that allows people to settle in an area, or the cultivation of cash crops that open up commercial possibilities, or in the introduction of invasive speices of plants that can destroy an ecosystem.  In fact, there is evidence that past societies have used this idea as an early form of ‘special ops’ warfare.”(SMH p. 95)

On this basis he documents the increasing acceptance of marijuana as integral to the dumbing down of American minds. Here we have an instance where Savage’s understanding of science (pharmacology) trumps his libertarian impulses.  On this issue and others throughout the book he (correctly) attempts to transcend the deceptive left/right dualism by embedding his critique of political correctness and hysteria within the larger history of scapegoating and persecuting movements in America.

Scapegoats aren’t just people, but any hysterical object which can be focused on to limit empirical investigation into the actual causes of America’s social ills, ills in which the left is often complicit.  One compelling problem is the rise in school shootings, where the left is frantic to limit all discussion to the physical instruments of violence.  Any informed citizen might conjecture that the availability of guns are not necessarily the salient cause of increased school violence.  However Dr. Savage has additional credibility to state,

“If we examine the school shootings in America, in almost every case the deranged child was on antidepressant medications but inevitably it is swept away by the drug companies before we can recognize the perils.” (SMH p. 108)

Yet, for better or worse, the narrative format of Stop Mass Hysteria brings the good doctor up against a dilemma which is never resolved to complete satisfaction, at least in the eyes of this reader.  On the one hand Savage wants to highlight the exceptional badness of the new madness.  Yet on the other he wants to use his street cred as a tree-hugging, cetacean-loving, left-coaster to distinguish himself from the middle-brow National Review set.  So what are we to think?  Are today’s leftoid temper-tantrums  a harbinger of the apocalypse or just another iteration in the left/right dance of persecutor vs. persecuted?

This ambiguity isn’t what we would expect of a philosopher or a social scientist, but Dr. Savage, though writing in book-length format, remains a journalist at heart.  Even when he drops his journalistic persona to reveal some scholarly insight, it is only for technical corroboration of historical facts.  The reader will have to go elsewhere for a systematic treatment of “mass hysteria” or even a definition.  The closest we get to definitions are rhetorical statements intended to highlight the very insanity of the insanity itself.  For example, Savage notes how corporate self-censorship has increasingly come into line with the agenda of social justice warfare.

“If there is a chance that some consumer or some viewer may not like something, it gets jettisoned…fast.  No hearing, No due process.  Just a professional execution.  That is the very definition of hysteria.”  (SMH p. 270)

Of course, that is not a definition.  None the less it is a provocative statement, one which points to a larger problem than the phenomenon of “mass hysteria” considered in isolation.  Hysteria in itself is only the point of the spear, behind which lurks a coldly calculated agenda formulated by the minds behind the agitators.  Not to say that the phenomena labeled “hysteria” are without interest.  As a discredited medical diagnosis and as a synonym for the irrationality of crowds, hysteria has a checkered but fascinating history.  However Savage uses mass hysteria as a kind of portmanteau word for any current of social indignation, currents originating in such factories of half-baked ideas as illuminated salons and modern campuses, whose mental secretions only mutate into street violence during the final scene of the social tragedy.

Painting with such a broad brush, it is hard to see how the good doctor can execute his initial objective, which is to demonstrate the unique monstrosity of the contemporary left’s campaign to delegitimate the Trump administration.  Savage begins his volume with a thumbnail description of the Muller investigation as an official “witch hunt”  but, seized by the metaphor, quickly delves into the history of (alleged) real witches, Puritan divines, Cristobal Colon and other fascinations, signaling his resolution to be solidly historical rather than hysterical.    As a fisher of men, or rather a fisher of persons, and left-wing persons in particular, Savage ingratiates by casting his net as widely as possible.  However the exercise is in vain unless he has some way of closing the net, and can show that the dangerous deviation of the modern left is qualitatively distinct from the “normal” mass hysteria which, according to Savage, characterizes virtually all of American (a.k.a., USA) history.  Presumably, Dr. Savage intended Stop Mass Hysteria to be a definitive case against progressive praxis, and not just entertaining folklore.

Further, we can safely presume that the good doctor did not intend to bait the left into its favorite line of defense, which is ever to set up a false moral equivalence which voids the accusation.  Yet this peculiar combination of author and subject makes such a counterattack all but inevitable.  “After all,” the argument goes,” isn’t Michael Savage himself a notorious hysteric projecting his syndrome onto all those good people who are struggling to make this Earth a better world?”  Actually, there is a huge gap between an indignant talk show host and the sentiments of the mob, but knowing that isn’t a conclusive argument, it just makes you a fan.  What we need is an air-tight demonstration of that quality (whatever it might be) which separates the anger and frustration felt by conservatives from its hysterical counterpart on the left.  Indeed, we need that distinction fast, since the “progressive” in progressive hysteria is both a both an ideology and a prognosis.

Dr. Savage seems to understand that there is a need to divide the genera of mass hysteria into various species, but his taxonomy is somewhat opaque.  A significant fork in the road occurs when the narrative moves from Salem to Boston Harbor.  With the exception of a small number of conspiracy analysts such as James Perloff, most American historians have striven to explain how the Tea Party of 1773 was a riot-within-reason, and Dr. Savage pretty much falls into step with the consensus view.  Indeed, it becomes a singular type within his general paradigm of the good, or at least better, sort of hysteria.  As he explains this subtle distinction,

“There is significant difference between mass hysteria to achieve an outcome and and mass hysteria to change an outcome.  The witch burnings were the former.  Fueled by fear and prejudice, the fervor of the populace was renewed every time a new victim was arrested and brought to trial.” (SMH p. 111)

Presumably the persecution for the sake of persecution in Salem is being contrasted with the Boston riot, which was intended to deflect the imposition of the British tax.  Going berserk to deflect an undesired outcome seems to be a viable strategy in some cases.  After all, Prince Vlad (a.k.a. “Dracula”) managed to deflect a Mongol invasion by decimating his Wallachian subjects, thus convincing the invaders that he was dangerous, i.e., dangerously insane.  Effective, yes, and of course morally problematic.  Indeed, going insane for a good cause, perhaps better than anything else, shows the pitfalls of what philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe called “consequentialist” ethics, the notion that we can do anything we want as long as it makes the future a better place.  With that in mind, it might have been more lucid, or at least in line with libertarian nomenclature, if Dr. Savage had coined fresh terms like “aggressive hysteria” and “defensive hysteria” in place of struggling with the difference between that hysteria which achieves outcomes vs. that which changes outcomes.  But the good doctor may well have had his own motives for obscurity, realizing that, in the context of our victim-centered politics, any notion of “defensive hysteria” would surely uncap a Pandora’s box of bad theory and worse practice.

However Savage is writing historically, not topically, and thus can be excused from the making of air-tight definitions.  In accord with his anthropological background, he prefers the comparative method to deduction.  Following his bent, our author delights in giving his chapters double titles (“From Plymouth Rock to City Hall”, “From Treason to Tomorrow” etc.), which gives the book a kind of Plutarch’s Lives feeling, except with hysterical Americans standing in for heroic Greeks and Romans.   In this way, Savage attempts to illustrate how assorted ravings during different decades are nothing but outbreaks of the same virulent hysteria  which has seldom lain dormant for long in the American body politic.  The comparisons in themselves are instructive and entertaining, but they don’t produce any smoking gun to convict the contemporary left of unparalleled insanity.

None the less, it soon becomes clear that Savage is in a tacit agreement with his readers to show that, yes, the modern left is just as apocalyptic as your worst fears imagine.  This tacit agreement, though concealed by the the pairings of the chapter titles, is revealed by the ark of the narrative considered as a whole.  We are presumed to think that that there was a false turn in history when the left attained dominance within public institutions and has been rubbing our noses in it ever since.  Dr. Savage doesn’t isolate this precise turning point, but he chronicles the events which accompanied it in general.

Indeed this presumption of an axial period in modern American history rests on solid ground.  Whatever their differences, both mainstream historians and conspiracy analysts note that there was some sort of paradigm shift in the American governance system between the end of the Second World War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Here again Savage provides his characteristic interpretation of events, stretching the term “hysteria” to include the peculiar state of collective amnesia and scapegoating which accompanies and legitimates a change in regime.  French Postmodernist philosophers, with their penchant for jargon, call this an “epistemic rupture”, and the late Rene Girard, who was head and shoulders above that crowd, called it the “mimetic crisis.”  Our good doctor with his universal diagnosis of “mass hysteria” provides a rough and ready handle with which the uninitiated can grasp the enormity of events.  It all amounts to the same thing:  At some point in history, truth was inverted, the bodies were buried, and the trail was covered up.

Fortunately Savage has access to the actual events on which the false, but consensus, narrative is based.  Notably, with regard to the crucial battles between Senator Joe McCarthy and his opponents, he draws attention to the canonization of McCarthy as the archetype of a “Red Scare” hysteric in American political memory.  However, Savage goes on to put the matter within a broader context where the facts of history have been uncovered, but the effects of the initial lies have continued to radiate out and corrupt society.

“But there is one stubborn little fact that the Establishment glosses over and that the public, in the grip of this mass hysteria, isn’t curious about–McCarthy’s allegations were true.” (SMH p.220)  “Thus the official story was written, McCarthy was a vindictive bully who exaggerated communist influence and ruthlessly destroyed many innocent people.  Sixty-four years later, a generation of Americans who accept this mass hysteria about McCarthy as reality now believe socialism is superior to capitalism.” (ibid, p.221)

Here at last we have the makings of a distinction between fictional and actual hysteria.  Fear of actual dangers (falsely impugned as “hysteria”), in contrast to the hysterical twisting and denial of truth.

The flipping of McCarthy from hero to villain was an important milestone in the transit of “normal” America from center-right to center-left and points beyond, or rather, a change in those protean terms “left” and “right.”  The marginalized left of the early and mid-twentieth century, had some genuine empathy for victims.  Those were the lost times of the “bleeding heart liberals.”  Indeed, it was a time when calling a progressive a “liberal” was not a complete oxymoron, since there was still some ideological commonality between the left and its roots in classical liberalism, or libertarianism.  After the capture of the institutions, the left became normal, and like all who attain to power, the progressives turned from defending victims to victimizing their enemies.

The paradigm institution in this transition was the education system, and especially higher education.  Savage summarizes this as follows.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern political madness gained its toehold in the United States, thanks to academia.  Professors who had been students in the Marxist-embracing 1960s now had tenure, and they wanted to use their status for power.  The question was how to do it without a Russian-style revolution–which indeed, many of them advocated.  What grew, like mushrooms in this intellectual darkness, was modern political madness.” (SMH p. 260)

Thus from the stigmatizing of conservatism after McCarthy, to the sixties, and on to the dissemination of radicalism as embodied in gender feminism, minority identity movements, and transgenderism, each wave retreating for a while but leaving “sleeper cells” of graduate students and younger faculty waiting for tenure, the Cultural Marxist flood came not as a deluge but as a rising tide which lifted its own ships as it submerged the old landmarks of Western civilization.

Play it again, Maimonides

With society-wide victory, and all the major institutions under its control, one would expect the left to be magnanimous, or at least sane.  That didn’t happen, and the fact that it didn’t happen is why Dr. Savage can sell us a title which rests on a tacit premise, i.e.,  Stop Mass Hysteriaand you know exactly who we mean!  In spite of the theory that Trump Derangement Syndrome was triggered by a uniquely bad man with orange hair, it should be clear to any reader of Dr. Savage’s work, or any number of similar works on recent political history, that hysteria is the left’s default response to any barricade erected against its agenda, regardless of who is manning that barricade.

My own pet theory is that the left hates Trump, not because he is a “right-winger” (whatever that might consist of) but precisely because Trump is a centrist.  If there had been a authentic conservative in the oval office, say, a President Cruz, then the left would have had its defensive positions validated, on, for example, abortion, LBGT rights, and so forth.  In lieu of a conservative the left was forced to depart, not only from its script, but from reality itself.  The “Donald Trump” of the left’s imagination is a bogeyman, constructed, if not quite out of whole cloth, then out of disconnected gossip and character flaws, which, though numerous and egregious are politically irrelevant.  Cognitive dissonance seems to be a price that the left is willing to pay for the optics of battling against the Great Orange Dragon.

Savage is not alone in referencing this latest stage of progressive mania, although he is unusual in framing it around the context of America’s hysterical past.   Other pundits have published similar hardbacks alerting American citizens to the dementia of the globalists and the progressives.   What sustains this cottage industry is not the prospect of “red pilling” their readership.  These readers are more like a constituency of those who have already been brought to enlightenment through other media, and are now looking for a lawyer’s brief to back up their opinions.  The hardbacks have become the fanzines of those willing to boost the reputation of their favorite journalists and talk show hosts.

In the context of this overcrowded cottage industry, is there any compelling reason to pick up Stop Mass Hysteria in preference to some other muckraking account of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, etc.?  Actually, yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the methodology Dr. Savage employs in his work.  Savage tries to do justice to both the psychology and history of American politics , but both of these approaches are flawed if taken up in isolation.  The real distinction of the Michael Savage books is that, in spite of their irascible author, they edify.   One comes away, not just hating (for example) Hillary Clinton, but loving America, with all of its flaws, all the more.  One becomes more of a mench.

This heart-warming experience is rather mysterious.  I ascribe it to the following, 1) Michael Savage believes in God, 2) the God of Michael Savage is a God who pushes his children into the shallow water before they get in too deep.  The real danger that libertarians and conservatives face today is that they will go “too deep” in their strategies for the defense of natural rights and the constitution.  We can win the battle against the globalists and their useful leftist idiots.  We can’t necessarily win the battle against UFOs or aliens, even if, or especially if, they turn out to be non-existent.

It might be best to take our clue from another good Jewish doctor, Moses Maimonides.  Maimonides would probably have been willing to eat a ham sandwich with Aristotle (anachronistically speaking) if that would have gotten the whole of humanity on board with the logical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.  Those three principles authored by a God otherwise unknown would have been enough for the two philosophers to converse in peace.  In the forum of public opinion we need just enough of God to guarantee public sanity, the rule of law, and the sanctity of contract.  Insisting on more than that is the beginning of trouble.  Interestingly, Michael Savage doesn’t talk much about God in Stop Mass Hysteria, but when he does it is in the unflattering context of fanaticism and hysteria, the bane of our adoptive puritan ancestors who steered the body politic too deep into the divisive waters of theology and occult speculation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that supernatural phenomena which the puritan divines took for granted are unreal.  However the fact that such phenomena are not susceptible to experimental demonstration implies that they are also not suitable as judicial evidence.  In today’s counter-currents of independent social media journalism, a vast array of esoteric phenomena are constantly brought up for uncritical discussion.  This is the epistemological (not moral) equivalent of establishment-left hysteria on the part of the alternative media.  The basic error here is an increasingly popular assumption that simply being able to imagine an entity proves its existence.   Contrary to what the David Ikes of our world may think, what we need is not a richer demonology with which to unmask our enemies, but a stronger faith in the God who is on our side.  To take the former course is to wander endlessly in a Meinongian jungle, while the latter holds out the prospect of restoring a moral community, or at least a minimalist meta-community along Maimonidean lines.

Normally authors tout their most recent book as their best.  Not so Michael Savage, who refers us back to his previous work  God, Faith, and Reason as his personal favorite. There he shows us a God who is less minimal and more intimate, a God of the heart who instills good character.  This God can build up individuals even while communities are breaking down.  According to Savage there is a kind of transitive order which starts from God, moves on to the individual, and then finds fruition in the community.  In God, Faith, and Reason he notes,

“As I said in the beginning of this book, God does not do the heavy lifting for us.  It is up to us to find our connection to God and to do his will here.  I truly believe that my lifelong fight for our borders, language and culture is part of my mission.  As I’ve said many times, it is indisputable that I helped Trump get elected.  It’s equally indisputable that, as imperfect as he is, he represented the only chance to restore a free, just, and godly nation given the crossroads we were at last November [2016]”(p. 147)

While screaming agitators are the most obvious manifestation of the irrationality of progressive politics, the deeper madness lies in the cool headed theory that our world is nothing but solid bodies wandering through the icy vacuum of space.   Whatever one may think of either Michael Savage or his God, his is reason and purpose with a vengeance.  Or rather, reason with a higher purpose than mere vengeance.

 

 

 

 

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Time, Truth and Value: An essay on the fundamental metaphysics of revelation

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 15, 2018

The false foundation of the Modernist movement

“There is a way which looks right to a man, but its end is in death.”–Proverbs

Modernism is the desire for a new religion, a new and more accurate understanding of truth and goodness.  In one sense this is laudable, and in another sense it is impossible.  As finite beings living in the stream of time, we want to see a tomorrow which is better than today.  We want to reform, repent, innovate, exceed, and improve.  This desire for betterment, whether it is the betterment of ourselves or others, is deeply ingrained in our minds, and we ought to thank God that it is.  In the absence of adequate reflection it would seem as if the Modernist movement, and especially its late-stage manifestation as “the Progressive movement” were the very flower and acme of all benevolent aspirations for human betterment.  Alas, this is an illusion, and more than an illusion, it is the very gate through which evil pours into our lives.

There are very precise reasons why this is so.  Granted, a Christian, accepting revelation through the golden path of faith, need not labor through a proof of her world view.    Conversely, philosophers have always insisted on the silver path of reasoning before accepting what is manifest to both the physical senses and common sense.  Today, since the doctrine of progress and especially the transvaluation of values have pushed our civilization to the brink of madness, it behooves both our contemporary Platos as well as our brothers and sisters in faith to have a sound understanding of the metaphysics of theism, and most especially the theism behind the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  Bad metaphysics lies deep down at the root of Modernism.  It is easy enough to see the destructive tendencies of Cultural Marxism, the Frankfort School, Progressive Education, and Statism.   However, behind all these more recent movements is bad metaphysics and bad Christian theology in particular.  Erick Voeglin referred to all of these off-base Christian theologies as “gnosticism” while other critics have used different nomenclature.  In all the elaborate studies of Gnosticism/Modernity as a collection of social movements, the simplicity of the Modernist mistake is often overlooked.  Here I will try, with as much economy as I can, to outline the essential error behind what Voeglin calls “gnosticism.”  False revelation will be shown to be intrinsically relativistic, while true revelation will be shown in harmony with good metaphysics.

Progress vs. Revelation

The triumph of the modern enlightenment is frequently depicted as an epistemological struggle between revelation and empiricism.  While there is something to be said for this way of thinking, it seems rather shallow to me.  Ultimately all human cognition is based on revelation, even empiricism being itself a species of revelation.  What differentiates different forms of revelation is the proximity of one’s epistemological horizon.  Expert knowledge and social propaganda are the forms of revelation which are accessible to the greatest number of people under conditions of modernity.  However there are eccentrics, people who sometimes call themselves “zetetics” who will not accept the truth-claim of any scientific doctrine unless they have observed it experimentally with their own senses, or with equipment which they have either acquired or constructed by themselves.  An even more proximate epistemological horizon would be that of classical skepticism (Pyrronism) in which even one’s own senses are considered  a dubious revelation.  Yet even the classical skeptic would allow that their reasoning reveals truth to them, if only the truth that truth is undiscoverable.

Historically, the dispute over the nature of the world has been a dispute over where to locate the horizon of revelation.  In contrast with the subjectivism of modernity, primitive thought began with an objective idea of the cosmos which was revealed to the ancestors and then handed down through tradition.  The concept of a “discovery process” was absent.  This is not to say that people didn’t make discoveries, for example a tribe wandering into a new climactic region would certainly discover new species of plants and animals and incorporate them into their catalogue of knowledge.   However the idea of a world-view built up from scratch through a discovery process was absent from the minds of primitive humanity.  To maintain otherwise is to anachronistically transpose the disputes of the 17th/18th century Western enlightenment thinking onto other ages.

When disputes did occur (and they soon did) over world-views, these disputes had nothing to do with the discovery of facts which invalidated previous knowledge.  Rather these disputes arose over the how proximate revelation was to those receiving it.  Do we go by the received revelation, or should we switch over to a new oracle?  Whatever the “Babel event” might have been, it seems reasonable to infer that at some such time, in addition to separate languages and novel ethnicities, new mythologies where instituted, whether through signs in the heavens or through communication with “daemones” good, bad, or indifferent.  If, as all people of sound moral instincts agree, the human race had a single origin, there was also a single wisdom held in common prior to Babel.  When the new revelations of Babel were received, the dominant tendency was to drop the old universal wisdom, and to embrace the new, national, wisdoms.  Yet the primitive wisdom survived in fragments, not only among the family of Abraham, but also admixed with the new mythologies of the nations after the Babel event.  This foreshortening of the horizon of revelation went hand in hand with a replacement theology, as the name of the High God was eclipsed by the intermediary pantheons of the nations.

If anyone had a right to a replacement theology it would have been Moses:  Moses the public revelator to an assembled nation, in contrast to the single, isolated, household of Terah’s children; Moses the sophisticated Egyptian prince, compared to Abraham the wandering shepherd.  Yet what emerged from the Sinai event was not a Tetratibibilos of Moses set up against a book of Abraham.  Rather, what emerged was an integral Torah, otherwise known as the Pentateuch.   Multidimentional to be sure, but a single teaching none the less.

Here the salient point is that the teaching of Moses was not an abrogation of Abraham’s faith.  Rather it was an elaboration and restatement of the original doctrines, applied to conditions appropriate to an entire nation.  It was a supplemental teaching, not a new teaching.  From here on, let’s call the notion of a new teaching which abrogates on older teaching by the name of “progressive revelation.”

Progressive Revelation

In excising the Torah from the Gospel, the sectarian leader Marcion (Rome, 2nd c. AD) did to Moses what Moses had refrained from doing to Abraham.  Granted, revelation had not stopped, it had continued after Moses with the latter prophets and writers.  For the Christians, it had further continued with the writings of the evangelists and the apostles.  Were these later writings supplements or replacements?

Marcion not only considered the New Testament a completely different Bible from the Torah, he went to the extreme of expurgating all apostolic writings which were too closely associated with earlier revelation.  This left Marcion’s followers with a very slender Bible indeed, which was evidently his intention.  After a few centuries, Marcionism died out, but the history of the movement retains more than arcane interest, since much Christian theology has retained the spirit, if not the letter, of Marcion’s reforms.  Among many Christians today,  only the New Testament is considered the “real” Bible, and Torah (together with its associated writings) is relegated to the status of an archive of lore useful for interpreting the Gospel.

Islam is even more consistent in rejecting earlier revelation, not simply editing (as per Marcion) but entirely replacing both the Old and New Testaments of Christianity.  Voeglin and kindred thinkers would include Islam within their portmanteau word “gnosticism.”  Once the trolley of progressive revelation starts to accelerate, it is impossible to stop the car and alight at one’s preferred destination.  Rather the whole of the human species is increasingly drawn into a series of new movements:  Islam, Medieval Chiliasm, the the Radical Enlightenment, Marxism, Fascism, etc. each of which took on the characteristics of superceding revelations, each with their own sacred text, rituals and practices.

 

So, what’s wrong with that?

I have gone through a brief excursion into the history of revelation in order to show how disputes over the horizon of revelation are the most bitter and consequential of epistemological contentions.  If, as I have tried to indicate, all epistemological differences express faith in different revelations, it becomes very hard to judge the truth-claims of various revelations on any basis other than faith.  It would appear that we are forced back into a position of relativism, or at best making our judgement of revelatory texts dependent on secondary considerations, such as which text seems to be expressed in language indicative of transcendent origin.

From the outset I have been hinting that false revelation engenders chaos, while true revelation is grounded in reality and engenders reason and order.  Now, as we switch the weight of our argument from its epistemological left leg to its metaphysical right leg, we can turn from the impossible task of judging different historical species to a different procedure, one which promises a definitive conclusion.  All relativism is based on the notion that there can be “new truth” while absolutism is based on the premise that truth is outside of time.  Construing alternative epistemological systems as variations on “discovery processes” begs the question as to whether truth is, or is not, something outside of time.  If we accept such a starting point to our investigations, then the category “truth” will always be subordinated to the category “time.”  Therefore I have been at pains to define epistemology from the standpoint of revelation rather than inquiry.  If we accept this as our starting point, we retain the possibility of two alternative conclusions, either truth changes or it does not.  If the first case holds, then we live in a world governed by progressive revelation, if the second case holds, we live in a world governed by an original and integral revelation.

 

The world of Time and the world of Truth

In order to secure the claims of revelation, we must briefly absent ourselves from the Portico of Solomon and take up residence in the Grove of the Philosophers, since we have to rid ourselves of the sloppy understanding of the moderns and return to the strict reasoning of the ancients.  Emotionalism is a keynote of modernity, especially since the Enlightenment, and a strong hint that all is not well in the predominant secular world view.  Yet we must refrain from using it as anything but a hint, since if anti-Modernists were to use the emotionalism of our opponents as a substantive argument we would fall into the same ad hominum trap as they have.  We will not be able to deal with human thinking, let alone emotion, before we have dealt with time.

Unless we can assume that there is something which is outside of time, then nothing, not even time itself, can exist.  Aristotle’s notion of an Unmoved Mover, though predicated on currently unacceptable notions about celestial spheres, is an apt parable concerning a metaphysical reality.  Without a point of reference there can be no movement, and in the broadest sense this applies to time, which only is rendered actual if there is movement.  There is a something, we might even call it a place, which forms the background of our cosmos yet which is its qualitative opposite.  In religious language we can call this Eternity.

Humanity, as a natural species, lives inside of time.  All the things that human beings can sense are inside time.  We experience time and space, good and evil, truth and falsehood.  Using only these three pairs of opposed qualities, we can begin to evaluate the rival claims of original and progressive revelation.  For the benefit of our imaginations, we can look at Eternity as a circle.  Inside the circle we can draw a line which represents time.  The line is entirely inside the circle, and stops far short of touching any part of the circle’s imaginary circumference.  The line could be thick, drawn with a marker rather than a pen, since it really represents space-time rather than time in itself.

We are carried along the line much like a lily pad is swept down a river.  We want our journey to be happy and not sad, pleasant and not painful.  Hence we look at the prospect downstream and hope that it will be as good, or better than where we have come from.  This is our desire-nature, and at root it is a good and necessary thing.  We want things to get better, not to deteriorate.  However what we consider good and bad are based on subjective evaluations.  It is impossible for human beings to evaluate objectively.  There are individual evaluations, and there are the aggregated evaluations of groups, but the latter are just as subjective as the former.

Now let’s alter the diagram.  In this second version, which might be called the gnostic version, we will eliminate the circle surrounding the thick line.  There is now no longer an Eternity surrounding the cosmos.  In the original diagram we wanted to make the circle as large as possible in relation to the interior line.  Ideally, though impractical for purposes of illustration, the circle should have been infinite in diameter.  Erasing that huge circle, even one which we have scaled down for purposes of comparison, will naturally leave us with a sense of claustrophobia.  Since in this version the cosmos of the time-space world is all-there-is, we will need more room.  We will want to stretch the time line out as far as possible into geological or mythological time.  Also, we will want to thicken the line to get more land area, even if most of our land turns out to be empty space.  Eventually we will get an oblong universe which, at least from our own perspective, looks nearly as big as the “time-space world plus Eternity” of the original version.

Do these diagrams allow us to compare the transcendental and the immanent ( a.k.a. gnostic) world-views?  Yes, but they aren’t really decisive enough to let us pick one over the other.  They illustrate some interesting points of gnostic-immanent psychology, like the desire to inflate time and space to compensate for the loss of eternity.  Since these are only illustrative diagrams, for all we know, the immanent position might be right.  Unless we can adduce better reasons, we are forced to entertain the possibility that nothing exists outside of the time-space cosmos.  All the transcendent version has going for it, as a purely cosmological illustration, is something similar to Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”  Hence our diagrams are liable to be criticized as bloodless abstractions.  After all, that’s exactly what they are.

 

Good, evil, time, desire

When we plug ethics and value into our diagrams, they become more than bloodless illustrations.  They become bloody illustrations.  As terrible as that may sound (and its working out in the concrete world is indeed terrible) such diagrams will be much more informative.  In the transcendent diagram the circle of eternity now doubles as a moral compass.  Movement along the time line now becomes movement towards or away from an outside standard.  Human will and desire remain subjective, but they are measurable according to criteria external to either individual or collective evaluation.

In the immanent-gnostic diagram, where the circle of eternity does not exist, value and morality coincide.  If not individually, at least collectively, whatever is valued is moral, and whatever is moral is valued.  In the immanent-gnostic system there can be no such thing as hypocrisy and no such thing as desire which is frustrated by moral sanctions.  In this system, collectives, if not individuals, are able to attain moral autonomy.  Whatever they will is good and the good is what they will.  There is no failure, and more ominously, there is no freedom to fail.

The transcendent system is heteronomous.  There is often a clash between individual, or even collective, desires and an outside criteria.  What is valued may not be good, and the good may not be valued.  At first sight, the system of  moral heteronomy seems more stressful and conflicted than the system of moral autonomy.

We can call the gnostic-immanent system by other names.  One of them is the secular system.  This is particularly apt since the root meaning of “secular” refers to time.   The gods of this system live inside time, compete with each other, and engage in subjective evaluation of ends.  They may, or may not, be human beings.  If they are human beings they are identical to human beings in the other system in that they desire improvement in their future outcomes in relation to their present state.  They want change for the better.  We all do.

However the gods within the immanent system (whether they are the majority, elite conspirators, or others) have the power to change the criteria of what is good and what is bad in accordance with their desires.  This is called “transvaluation” in accordance with the nomenclature popularized by Nietzsche.  Hence progress along the line of time does not resemble a football game where the ball is moved towards or away from the goal line.  Rather, progress resembles a game in which the ball and the goal posts move in tandem with one another.  In such a game losing is impossible.  However one wonders if winning has any meaning either.

In the immanent-gnostic system humanity attains its desires through transformation, which entails a loss of identity.   In the transcendent system human beings attain their subjective goals by conforming them to objective criteria external to individual and collective desires.   In the transcendent system these desires are frustrated but the species and the individuals who comprise it have a chance to retain their identity.  Time devours its children, while Eternity preserves its own.  From a human point of view, this is the primary benefit of a double decker universe, with Eternity wrapped around time.

 

Revelation, Progress, and Originalism

By the end of the Enlightenment, the oracular though-forms of immanent gnosis had lost their conscious identity as revelation.  Even the ponderous pronouncements of G. F. W. Hegel were considered “secular” in the common sense of non-religious.  However Marcion, Joaquin of Florence, and Hegel were all “secular” in the broader sense of immanent time-worship…they were all revelators of an ongoing time-space continuum, processed through the prophetic faculties of the human brain.   Today, with Cultural Marxism unchained, we are experiencing a new revelation, a new gnosis, with every generation, if not every decade.  Time, at least eschatological time, seems to be accelerating.

The solution will not be returning to whatever shreds of truth the last generation, or even some past century, was hanging on to.  Will you stand your ground defending the virtues exemplified by John Travolta’s Grease, or even the Greece of Werner Jaeger’s Paedia?  The solution must be sought far back beyond the obvious distortions of pagan myth.  Indeed, it must go behind the numerous contortions and confusions of Christian theology, back to the original revelation where Time met Eternity.

When one has returned to the original bedrock of revelation, a point of origin where, admittedly, many things, including soterology, remain tacit…only at that point has one found solid ground.   And only there can one stand one’s ground.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Conspriacy Theory, Esoterism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

A Song of Ascents: Some curmudgeonly criticism of the Southeast Students for Liberty Conference

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 5, 2018

Why is freedom good?

The regional Students for Liberty southwest regional conference was held on October 29th.  Being a fellow-traveler of all things libertarian I was pleased when a friend of mine told me he was scheduled to speak at the conference and I was invited to attend.  There are many things that might be said about SFL, both pro and con, but the salient issue on today’s campuses is the issue of freedom of speech and how to make an informational end-run around what has been dubbed “the Left University.”  SFL is one of a handful of organizations seeking to give college students a perspective which differs from that of the compulsory Left Classroom, and hence I deem it worthy of everyone’s support.

The alleged topic of the conference/seminar was “The problem of Authoritarianism.”  I have no idea why SFL picked that theme, but it was largely honored through avoidance.  Instead, another theme seemed to emerge spontaneously as the talks progressed.  It was briefly articulated by the philosopher who spoke mid-way through the conference: “Why is freedom good?”  Indeed, that is the nub of everything, is it not?

I suspect that I was the oldest person at the conference, and probably the only one who had the privilege of meeting such bygone freedom advocates as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio.   As such,  I was well positioned to play the role of the old curmudgeon bringing to bare all sorts of technicalities and arcane lore.  However, my better self realized that was unsporting, so I decided to join in the applause and stuff my carping criticism into these notes.  After all, the conference did what it did quite well, since, to put it in Biblical terms, there is “milk for babes” and there is “meat for the apostles.”  Now is the time to raise up children for the freedom movement, the business of ideological fine-tuning can be left to the apostles of the future…if there is to be a future.

Yet, to my surprise and delight, the talks seemed to mount a stairway of increasing significance and application.  Indeed, I felt myself riding on an intellectual escalator, at the top of which was the supreme answer to our question: “Why is freedom good?”  Of course this was just my personal perception, and each person’s mental escalation may be the moral deflation of someone else.  So let me give you a brief critical treatment of five speakers from the conference, and you may decide if you agree that the order of presentation was also an order of ascending significance.

The five presenters, each of whom represented a significant rung on the stairway to freedom, were in sequence: 1) an Advocate for Entreprenuership, 2) a Philosopher, 3) a Movement Leader, 4) a Libertarian Muslim, and finally 5) a Rogue Scholar.

 

The Advocate for Entrepreneurship

This presentation was the real milk for babes, and it was well done indeed.  Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that freedom, economic efficiency, and technological progress go together?  Unfortunately, yes, today’s youths, living within a cornucopia of technological wonders, are blocked from seeing the obvious connections between information and the free market through the interference of the Left Academy.  That’s why we need informal presentations to help people see the forest of capitalism from the trees of technical devices.  As the speaker noted, technological progress gets a spurt every time there is deregulation of an industry.  Today’s smart phone applications are an outcome of the unregulated environment of the 90s.  The Advocate did an excellent job of illustrating this with copious examples.  He was by far the most trend conscious and personable of the presenters, only occasionally slipping up with a reference to Taylor Swift, who apparently is now passe.

Nuf said!  After all, we all need to recognize that freedom promotes technology, the spread of information, and economic efficiency.  Well, except that, being the curmudgeon that I am,  I can’t help but peer around the corner of this tried-and-true thesis.  Is there no dark shadow behind the cheery gospel of technological optimism?  Are not command economies more efficient at generating instruments of destruction?  Not all technologies are benevolent.  What kind of technologies would we have today if the First and Second World Wars had never occurred?  In the absence of those cataclysms perhaps our technology today would resemble developments along the lines laid out by Tessla (the man, not the company)?  Instead we have a wide spectrum of technologies, some of them benevolent, but others highly problematic.  Just a thought…which I am tossing out like a monkey wrench into the wonderful but fragile works of the Randians and kindred humanistic utopians.

 

The Philosopher

The first job of a philosopher is to find the salient question in any venue and then pose it with clarity.  The fine representative of that profession who appeared at the SFL conference was able to articulate its basic theme: “Why is freedom good?”  He then proceeded to give what seemed like an exhaustive survey of all possible answers to the question.  He attempted to accomplish through analysis what I am trying to recap here synthetically.  Is there not a hierarchy of motives which impel us toward freedom, some of which are closer to wanting freedom for its own sake and some of which are only using freedom as an instrumentality for some other value which is considered the supreme end of life and action?  In short, the visiting philosopher seemed to be treating us to a “Critique of Pure Freedom.”  Fortunately his presentation was not quite as long or as frustrating as any of Kant’s critiques.

Again, the curmudgeon must make a confession.  I don’t particularly care for this kind of approach.  I’m sure that the visiting philosopher would have been miffed if I had labeled him as an “analytic philosopher”…since that moniker rightly belongs to the linguistic philosophers of the last century.  Rather, his philosophy, or rather his presentation was analytical in the sense that it came down to decision trees and processes of elimination.  If you are reading this and you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, that is understandable, since such a method is better shown graphically than discursively.   I consider that a weakness.   Its not that analysis doesn’t have its place.  The image of correct demonstration I have in mind is that of Kierkegaard using the ladder of reason to mount up to faith (or some primary axiom) and then throwing it down after having reached the summit.  To my mind, the visiting philosopher seemed overly attached to the ladder.

 

The Movement Leader

I am keeping people in this essay anonymous,  ostensibly to protect them from persecution.  To tell the truth, that’s mostly bullshit…I just have a bad memory and seem to have lost my notes.  None the less, there is some justification for the ostensible reason.  As they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.  Here I will outdo myself in subtlety and keep not only the speaker but his country of origin anonymous.  Actually, if you have a computer and the intelligence of a six year old child you should be able to find out the names of all the presenters in under three minutes, maximum.

Having said that, the next speaker was no mere scholar, but a front lines political activist from one of the most important nations of Latin America.  In the 1970s and 1980s this nation was the freest and most prosperous in the region.  Then something happened, and today it has become a brutal, impoverished, Marxist dictatorship.  Certainly this defies all logic, at least the utilitarian logic which states that people, having once tasted freedom, will never go back to slavery.  How is this possible?  Fortunately this speaker opened the floor to Q&A so that the attendees of the conference could probe him on this enigma.

According to the speaker, the key institution implicated in the downfall of his country was the military.  Although a “showcase of democracy” his country’s military retained the same privileged position which the armed forces of lesser developed Latin American nations occupied in their respective societies.  As the economy of the nation contracted after the oil boom of the 70s, the military contracted an unholy alliance with left wing politicians to retain its wealth and influence at the expense of other sectors of society.  I was not surprised at this analysis, but somewhat disappointed.  What, I wondered, about the influence of other sectors, notably the universities.  He said, yes, the universities were leftist, but the military factor outweighed all other sectors of the society.

He ended with an appeal for support, and an admonition that people in the United States maintain vigilance over their own freedoms.  He remained rather more sanguine about the prospects for freedom here than in Latin America, which is understandable given his perspective.  My own take away was that the notion of an irreversible evolution of freedom is part of the Hegelian, not the Classical Liberal, tradition.  For better or worse institutions need to be under constant repair and renewal in the face of the entropic forces of power lust and opportunism.

And again: “Is freedom good?”  This speaker did not directly address the question, taking it as a given.  However the context of his talk indicated a striving for societal good, a populist or democratic freedom rather than a libertarian ideology.  Freedom is good because it advances the well being of the nation.  It is well known that, until recently, libertarians had nothing but scorn for populism and nationalism.  However presented in the context of a Latin American country struggling against tyranny, one can more easily see that patriotism (in spite of its collectivist overtones) can be a potent adversary against the kind of left-wing nationalism which (paradoxically) is often in secret or not-so-secret alliance with the forces of globalism.  Perhaps for most people, freedom under an independent and limited national government is the most realistic goal on the historical horizon.  None the less, being a utilitarian construct, it falls short of the Holy Grail of libertarian theory…freedom for its own sake.

 

The Libertarian Muslim

Our penultimate speaker was that rarest of animals in the libertarian menagerie, a libertarian muslim.  Opening with a prayer, which I couldn’t follow well because of my extremely limited Arabic, he launched into his forceful and very articulate presentation.  Unfortunately it was pitched far above the heads of the audience, who were thinking of little other than “How in heck can you be a muslim and a libertarian?”  They had trouble getting beyond the messenger and into his message, a message which in itself was quite sophisticated.  I didn’t agree completely with his thesis, and it could have been challenged on its own premises, but so far as I could tell nobody else was in the mood or equipped for that kind of conversation.  This isn’t a dig at young people or college students, who I think gave the libertarian muslim a more courteous reception than he would have gotten among almost any other audience.  Of course I am discounting the two-faced reception of politically correct crowds, who would have smiled at the muslim in hopes of political alliance while secretly despising him for his belief in God.

However I relished the libertarian muslim’s talk as a survival, or perhaps revival, of a line in libertarian thinking which has long been dinned out by the clash of rival civilizations.  It is the same thread of reasoning which Rose Wilder Lane took up, only to be dropped by subsequent publicists.  This notion indicates that freedom is good because it advances the cause of civilization.  In this view, civilization is understood as a vast tapestry stretching, without significant breach, over the course of roughly the past five thousand years.  The term civilization therefore is twofold, having both a general and a specific meaning.  One the one hand there are specific civilizations, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European etc., and on the other hand there is the cumulative civilization of humanity.  At critical points of juncture, the cumulative knowledge of the human species “jumps” from one regional civilization to another.

In tried and true Rose Wilder Lane fashion, the libertarian muslim was at pains to illustrate that the pedigree of rationalism, a key component of the freedom philosophy, was not indigenous to Europe, but rather jumped into Western Scholasticism from the “filosofia” of the muslim sages.  In truth, and in very truth, and not in lies, say I, this is pretty much correct.  The tradition of rationalism did indeed pass through a muslim (or at least Arabic) parenthesis from about the ninth to the twelfth centuries of the Western era.  I could quibble about a meta-civilization which absorbs all previous civilizations, but I won’t at this juncture.

Rather, the foremost question regarding the Lane thesis should be the relationship between reason and freedom.  Many philosophers who have claimed that their systems were the acme of rationalism have also claimed to be champions of freedom.  The prime example of such a philosopher, who’s claims are generally acknowledged by the Left but rejected by Classical Liberals is G. W. F. Hegel.  According to the Lane thesis, ibn-Rushd, (latinized as “Averroes”) is a kind of Hegel for Classical Liberals (a.k.a., contemporary conservatives and libertarians).  He was the bridge who transmitted reason from the Middle East to the Western World, thus becoming the middle term between Aristotle and Modernity.   This broader view of history eliminates any “dark ages” or rather localizes it in Europe.  Hence the light of reason never goes out, indeed, it never even flickers.  This view is comforting to those who seek to identify the progress of freedom with a putative uninterrupted progress of civilization.  Naturally, it is also very congenial to those who are either religiously or ethnically connected to the Middle East.  For the most part, the libertarian muslim’s presentation involved a restatement and elaboration of the Lane thesis, but this seems to have generally gone over the heads of those in attendance.

Although many other Middle Eastern luminaries can be thrown into this kind of discourse, ibn Rushd/Averroes (properly speaking an Andelusian, not a Middle Easterner) is the man to beat.  Unsurprisingly, nobody at the conference jumped into a technical discussion of Averroism…not even the philosopher, who I believe still remained in attendance.  If such an engagement had occurred, someone would have eventually broached the question of whether the rationalism of Averroes is indeed a philosophy of freedom.  Actually the metaphysical views of Averroes in relation to the human individual and freedom are highly problematic, and in many ways he is less a predecessor of John Locke (as per the Lane thesis) than the metaphysical collectivism of Teillard de Jarden.  Few people think of Teillard as a libertarian, in fact few think about him at all, they just hear about his system and say “gee wizz!”

In lieu of meaningful philosophical engagement, by the end of his talk the libertarian muslim was reduced to abandoning the philosophy of history entirely and switching to an impassioned cry for libertarian activism on the part of people from all faiths and factions.  Actually he didn’t advocate abandoning theory, only an obsession with redundant arguments over shopworn libertarian issues.  This is certainly a sensible admonition.  However there is also the troubling prospect of people forgetting or altering their fundamental principles in the heat of political conflict.  Certainly in today’s political hothouse, with its clash of civilizations and so-called “cultures” it is more difficult than ever to keep a rational head.  Meanwhile one must remember that rationality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for “freedom” in the sense that libertarians use that term.

This is because “freedom” as it has come down through the Classical Liberal/Old Right/Libertarian tradition, e.g., through thinkers such as von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, means individual freedom.  In the system of Averroes, perhaps even more so than in the system of Hegel, “freedom” is an attribute of a collective organism which we would feign call by the reassuring name “civilization.”  While a sophisticated civilization may nurture individual freedom, excessive veneration of civilization and especially “a” civilization can be dangerous for liberty.  Furthermore, from any religious point of view (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.)”civilization” construed as the supreme value of human life can be considered a form of idolatry, or at least an attempt to reduce the transcendence of God to immanence.

Bearing this in mind, it should be clear that Averroism and Islam have little in common, other than coexisting in the head of an individual philosopher who lived nine centuries ago.  How Ibn-Rushd reconcilled his “filosofia” and his faith, I don’t know and it is not my place to know.  Similarly, there is something paradoxical about a libertarian muslim, but the speaker at our conference acquitted himself with courage and clarity.  If he failed to impart a deeper understanding of “civilization” to his audience, at the very least he inspired them with a clarion call for libertarian activism and engagement.   Similar to being a movement leader in militarized Latin America, being a libertarian muslim is a tough row to hoe.  The speaker has obviously experienced persecution, and expects further challenges in the future.

 

The Rogue Scholar

There are Rhodes scholars and there are rogue scholars, and which kind you are inclined to trust says a lot about you.  The legendary Justin Raimondo, writing from his sick bed, is presently lamenting the fact that his organization never received any awards.  True.  The information and research organizations which got the awards, never spoke up and changed the consciousness, or afflicted the conscience of America like the Randolph Bourn Institute and its web presence, the antiwar.com.  As for the decorated and the endowed, it is written “They have their reward already.”

Likewise, the late Rene Girard, though amply recognized in the twilight of his life by a seat in the French Academy, never fit comfortably into the departmental cubbyholes of academia.  Expatriated from his native land and with no proper profession, he was seen variously as an itinerant literary critic, a sociologist, a psychologist, a philosopher, or an anthropologist.  If he had lived a hundred years earlier he probably could have founded his own discipline, but he lived in an era when Western thought had ossified into exclusive, jealous compartments.  He brought a form of wisdom to the study of human behavior which was at once new and yet discoverable in both the Bible and the corrupted witness of mythology.  It showed how the bond of society was forged through force of imitation, and yet how, at a critical point in each society’s foundation the bond turned into the blood of sacrifice.  He called this mimetic theory (MT for short) and it has become a growing undercurrent in the social sciences for the last few decades.

In Girard’s understanding, increasing convergence on a model for imitation creates the primary tension within societies, as they reach the point where individuals lose their individuality in the frantic search for identity with the model.  The tension is only relieved when the model is expelled (through exile or death) and demonized, relieving the jealousy in society and replacing the dynamic of imitation with the bonds of collective guilt in the aftermath of mutual conspiracy.  This is what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism, and he saw in it the basis of all societal transformation.

The Rogue Scholar stumbled, unfashionably late, into the conference.  It was not a promising beginning.  I asked him if he had a power point presentation prepared.

“No.”

I wondered how he would explain the subtle nuances of the Mimetic Triangle without graphic support.  It didn’t seem to bother him.  He strode up to the front of the hall with confidence and pulled out his sole prop, his cell phone.  Then he dialed a federal prison in the state of Illinois.

“Hello, can I speak to Craig Cesal?”

“Hi, it’s me!”

As it turned out, Craig Cesal was serving a life sentence without parole for a victimless crime.  According to the Rogue Scholar, Craig had been a garage mechanic occasionally repairing trucks destined for shipping marijuana across the US/Mexican border.  Apparently many of the big guys in the smuggling conspiracy had gotten off making pleas for lighter time, but Craig had neither clout nor information to bargain with.   When asked what the most bitter aspect of his existence was, Craig mentioned the fact that perpetrators of violent crime, up to and including murderers, routinely rotated through the system with five, ten, or fifteen year sentences, while he was stuck there for the rest of his life.

Craig was a scapegoat.

Instead of explaining what a scapegoat was, the Rogue Scholar gave us a heart rending example of how human societies, whether those societies are criminal or civil, routinely scapegoat individuals.  The session ended with a heartfelt appeal to support Craig and his family.  In the end, nobody felt that they had been deprived of a thorough explanation of Rene Girard’s theory.  The theory had actually become incarnate, through the witness of an incarcerated man.

 

Conclusion:  Why is freedom good?

Freedom is good for any number of reasons.  It grows technology and expands the economy.  It gives us more choices and let’s us choose our own ideologies, even if they happen to be inimical to freedom.  Free minds and free markets strengthen every nation which embrace them.  Finally, liberty gives meaning to the story of human civilization, which is, or at least ought to be, a record of freedom’s victories.

Yet ultimately, for the libertarian there is no such thing as civilization, or even the human species, apart from the individuals who comprise it.  Just as the cosmos has no existence apart from the brilliant stars of which it is composed, society has no meaning apart from the individual person.  The dignity and autonomy of the person, although subsisting in relation to other persons, should be the building block from which all social realities are constructed.  Yet historically we see that societies are built not through trade and coexistence, but through sacrifice.

It was Satan speaking through a human mouth who said, “It is expedient that one man’s life be taken lest the people perish.”   Yet the measure of meaning is the sanctity of the individual.  Freedom is good because it is an inalienable aspect of the person.  On the other hand, it makes good political sense to isolate a small group and use animus to increase the degree of social cohesion among the majority. By logical extension, the most efficient and economical way of attaining world unity would be to turn the universal hatred of the human race against one man.  Yet such a unity would be a toxic unity, based on bloody sacrifice.

In the end it is a choice between human sacrifice and the Tenth Commandment, the word against envy.  We must learn to live and let live.  And more than just coexist, we must tolerate the fact that some people will be happier than ourselves.  We must resist the urge to destroy them, in full knowledge that as long as they live, our own happiness will be inferior to theirs.  That is the bare minimum requirement for calling oneself a “libertarian.”  The opposite of a libertarian would be an egalitarian.  All egalitarianism ends in human sacrifice, i.e., in death.   As long as there is even one sacrifice, even one individual to whom the great rights (great because negative, not their positive counterfeits) of life, liberty, and property  are not granted, then that is not a free society.

Or as they say these days, “Where we go one, we go all!”

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Christianity, Culture & Politics, Economics, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Too many Jesuses…not enough Jesus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 27, 2018

Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man

Everybody loves Jesus, but do they love the right Jesus?   If Jesus is a real individual, then he is just one person among a potentially infinite number of persons.  Our minds are further clouded by an inability to grasp things-in-themselves.  We must make do with images, perceptions, and archetypes which float around in our brains and attempt to match each to the thing signified.  Obviously not everyone named Jesus, film directors, prize fighters, chefs etc, mostly, but not always, Hispanic, is our Jesus of faith.  Or to  mention a more plausible confusion, keep in mind that there were at least eleven men named Jesus (Yashua) in the history of the Jewish wars recorded by Josephus.  Will the real Jesus stand up?

While only a simpleton would mistake any random person with the name of Jesus for Jesus of Nazareth, there is a more serious confusion over the personality of Jesus.  Any number of false Christs have been offered up for adoration by the devotees of modernity.   Some of them even bear an alleged physical resemblance to Jesus.  Among these, let’s pick out Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man for special attention.  Apart from the fact that one was a historical character and the other a commercial logo, we can consider them both archetypes of what many consider (mistakenly) to be Christ-like-ness.

Thus we have Che Guevara murdering his way across Latin America in search of social justice.  No doubt this is very attractive to certain kinds of people, and Che had his own justification for his thoughts and deeds.  However to interpret Jesus of Nazareth according to the archetype of a Marxist revolutionary is, frankly, an abomination.  Jesus, unlike Che, was not a class-theorist.  Certainly Jesus empathized with the poor and recognized the class divisions of his own day, but he never indicated that justice is subjective to one’s class position, or that the means justifies the end in a class struggle.

I was never big on Che, but I must confess to having a soft spot for the Zig Zag man.  In case you don’t remember, or never knew, the Zig Zag man adorns packages of cigarette wrappers intended for impromptu use by smokers of tobacco and other substances.  The Zig Zag man, or something like him, is many people’s Jesus of choice.  Many of us want to roll our own religion, the primary ingredient of which is an easy-going Jesus who saves and then leaves us on our own. That’s the Jesus of no hassles and not getting on anyone’s case.  I infinitely prefer him to the moralistic, murdering Che, but both are equally false.

 

The mind of the true Jesus is the mind of Torah

Che and the Zig Zag guy are amusing straw men, and you don’t have to be much of a theologian to poke holes in those who take them as their “Jesus.”  But the problem of the pseudo-Jesus goes back deep into the early centuries of Christian faith.  Che, the Zig Zag man, and all the other false Christs of modernity are the grandchildren of Gnosticism.  There is only one true Jesus, but there are many Gnostic christs.  This proliferation of christs comes from the Gnostic rejection of the Hebrew scriptures.

That is why we cant just regurgitate the slogan “the true Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible.”  In the minds of many people today “The Bible” for all practical purposes consists of nothing more than the books from Matthew to Revelation.  Like the ancient Gnostics, they have excised the so-called “Old Testament” from their religion, and as a consequence they have created their own out-of-context Christs.  The ancient Gnostics were more consistent in their treatment of scripture.  They didn’t just excise the Old Testament they demonized it.  Their Jesus was a Jesus at war against the Creator, whom they considered at best a fool, and at worst malevolent.

Hence, from a Gnostic point of view, the Gospel must be seen as antithetical to, instead of fulfilling, the Torah.  Logically, this would lead to a trans-valuation of values and an inverted decaloge, to wit

Hate God, idolize, curse, work without intermission, disrespect parents, kill, steal, lie, cheat, envy…all these in the imperative, mind you.

While this kind of explicit antinomianism was rare, even in ancient Gnosticism, many of the psuedo-Jesus idols of modernity, up to and including Che and the Zig Zag man, are based on severing Torah from Gospel.  Unless we know Torah, we simply don’t understand what the motivations of Jesus were in the Gospel accounts.  The Gospel records actions.  From a Gnostic viewpoint the purpose of the actions was to liberate humanity from Torah.  From a Christian point of view the purpose was to pay the penalty which humanity had already incurred by breaking Torah.  Simply having the Gospel account doesn’t inform us fully as to which of these motivations underpin the actions of Jesus.  However if we understand the mind of Jesus as the mind revealed in Torah, then we know who the real Jesus is.  He is one with his Father in Heaven, not the antagonist of the Creator.

 

 

 

Posted in Appologetics, Hermenutics, Theology, Traditionalism | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Good Pharisee: Meditations on Nicodemus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 9, 2018

What was a Pharisee?  The backstory behind Christianity’s favorite religious rogue gallery

The word Pharisee has long been established as a term of abuse in Christian circles.  It does not appear as an explicitly negative term in the Gospels, but whenever Pharisees enter the story they usually serve as a foil for the actions and teachings of Jesus.  From this the most likely interpretation is that the Pharisees are either fools or villains or most likely both.   An additional historical complication arises from the fact that the Pharisees are the undisputed predecessors of all later forms of orthodox Judaism.  The hagiography contained in Pirke Avot features the same individuals who appear (albeit anonymously) as the bad guys in the Gospels.

Spoiler alert!  I am stating my conclusion right up front: Jesus was himself a Pharisee.  I am neither alone nor original in holding this view.  The statement is only shocking because of the negative connotations which have clustered around the word “Pharisee” as derived from the Gospels.  Naturally I (and the scholars who uphold this view) don’t mean that Jesus was a hypocrite or a villain.  Rather Jesus split off from a particular school of Judaism, and that happened to be the school of the Pharisees.

To see the plausibility of this thesis, look at what has frequently happened to modern social and political movements when they split, one group taking the name and the other the substance of the movement’s ideology.  Hear the vitrolic way that conservatives use the word “liberal” and you would never guess that conservatives (at least American conservatives) were the original liberals, a word which once signified free enterprise, small government, and the writings of John Locke.  At the other end of the spectrum we read about Vladmir Lenin “fighting against the socialists” …which would be quite confusing of we didn’t know the historical context of the Bolshevick/Menshevick split, and that the former renamed themselves the communists in order to signal  a purer and more aggressive form of socialism.

Given the historical context, it should be understandable that Jesus fought more often and more vigorously against the Pharisees than anyone else, precisely because we generally fight against those who are closest to us, and not in just a geographical sense.  We fight against those with whom we share our basic principles, since we know enough about their minds that we can have a worthwhile disagreement with them.  There were many other ethnic and ideological groups present in first century Palestine.  Somehow or other, it is always the Pharisees that Jesus is running into.  This is no accident.

A typology of religious attitudes

We can use the groups present on the historical scene during the generation of Jesus ( on his human side) to understand the broader religious choices which have been available to humanity before, then, and ever since.  One could endlessly ponder the particulars of the Pharisees as a religious movement, but for purposes of application to our own spiritual struggles it might be better to look at the contrasting world views which characterize the Pharisees, their opponents, and each of their moral equivalents in other generations.   This simplification leaves out a lot, but it gets to the heart of the matter.  We can distill the essence of religious life down to a few types.

The wicked believe in neither God nor Torah

The Greeks, believe in God without the Torah, (a.k.a. the “unknown God” the many gods, or the god of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.)

The Sadduccies believe in the Torah but not in God.

The Samaratains believe in God and a defective Torah

The Pharisees believe in both God and Torah

It should be fairly obvious which group Jesus lines up with.  None the less, there seems to be a problem with the Pharisees.  We might guess that they had some sort of problem even if we didn’t know about their  numerous run-ins with the John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles.  It is not a problem with the ideals of the Pharisees, who’s name meant “separate”…in the sense of separate from their surrounding Hellenistic social environment.  Perhaps they weren’t separate enough.  That was the view of the Essene sect which went to great length in forming an alternative society.  Was that also the view of Jesus?

Not necessarily.  Remember that Jesus was accused of being more lax than John the Baptist, who was probably an Essene.  John and the Essene sectaries lived in the wilderness, but Jesus was willing to go into town and fellowship with urban dwellers, Pharisees in particular.  One gets the impression that Jesus was willing to take Pharisee life and practice (their “Torah”) as an initial baseline for godly living.  The major problem wasn’t that the Pharisee interpretation of the Torah was too lax or too strict, although Jesus was forthright in offering a different interpretation of halacha (i.e., rules for the walk of life) when called upon to do so.  No, it is something more fundamental than a disagreement of halachic particulars (for example, whether or not healing is permitted on the Sabbath) however important those might be.

Nicodemus

Fortunately we have a concrete example of a good Pharisee, a Pharisee to whom Jesus could divulge his full council.    In the encounter with Nicodemus we glimpse the fundamental deficiency which rendered the walk of the Pharisees out of accord with Jesus, and by implication, with God.  This deficiency was the failure of the Pharisees to be Pharisees in the sense defined above, those who putatively believe in both God and the Torah.  It was a failure in terms of the standards which the Pharisees had set for themselves.

In visiting Jesus under the cover of night, Nicodemus was out of alignment with at least one of the two axiomatic principles of the Pharisees.  Whatever the quality of his Torah observance might have been, Nicodemus was deficient in faith towards God.  We know this because he feared men more than his Creator.  He demonstrates this visiting Jesus under the cover of night.  At this point, Nicodemus may not even recognize Jesus as Messiah.  However he knows that Jesus is “of God”…perhaps a prophet.

Yet he fears the opinions of men.  Is this what it means to believe in God and Torah?  What about “not having any idol in front of my face” as the first of the “ten words” would have it?  Belief in God doesn’t mean just understanding the concept of God, it means a living faith in God.  So is Nicodemus, who is perhaps the best of all the Pharisees, even a Pharisee himself?  Is he not a crypto-Sadducean, an atheist who conforms to Torah outwardly?

You Must Be Born From Above

Herein lies the embarrassment of Nicodemus.  He seems to have been convinced that Jesus was, if not God, at least the voice of God in his own generation, otherwise the highly respected Pharisee would not have taken the trouble to pay a visit to the upstart rabbi.  Yet he visits Jesus at night, thus testifying that for him the wrath of men is more to be feared than the power of God.  Hence Nicodemus reveals himself to be an atheist, if not in theory, at least in practice.  In some respects he is worse off than the Saducees who winked at the idea of a living God, but who, like Voltaire centuries later, understood that a facade of divinely sanctioned morality (Torah) was necessary for the functioning of society.  At least the Sadducees and kindred thinkers are only in the business of deceiving others, not themselves. In contrast, Nicodemus desperately wants to believe in God, and not just the cosmic god of the Saducees and Aristotle, but a living God who concerns himself with the welfare of His creatures.  Yet the fear of Nicodemus overcomes his faith.  As the first words in the Decalogue put the matter, he allows the face of human power to interpose itself between his soul and its creator.

Jesus, sensing this fear in the heart of Nicodemus, derails the interview by an appeal to fundamentals.  It is not that Jesus is asking Nicodemus to undergo some mystical initiation into  a higher life.  This has been the standard interpretation of much of evangelical Christianity for the last three hundred years.  In a way it is much simpler than that.  Jesus is implicitly asking Nicodemus, “Do you, or do you not believe in God and the promises of God?”  It is not a matter of grasping the concept “God” or having a historical knowledge that made promises at certain times and in certain places.  Rather, do you trust in this God and order your life accordingly?  Nicodemus doesn’t trust God to protect him from men, but relies instead on the darkness of night.  He behaves the way any frightened creature would.  He normal,  being no more than a typical creature of God.  In order to go beyond normal, he would have to be procreated, and not just created, by God.  He would have to partake in God’s attributes of omniscience and omnipotence.  Then he would no longer fear anything.  Isn’t that what we would all like?

Before the Cross

There may have been many good Samaritans, but there was only one good Pharisee, Jesus of Nazareth.  All the others were to some extent impostors.  The failure was so total that, after the Pharisees split with Jesus and the apostles, the type flipped over into its anti-type.  The word Pharisee, which originally denoted righteousness and sanctification, has come to mean a hypocrite, a make-believer rather than a true believer.  Although “Pharisee” is a useful term of abuse for any bully pulpit, if we want to approach the matter as a serious historical study, we will need to take a more empathetic view.  Then perhaps we will discover that the Pharisees are more deserving of our pity than our condemnation.

Compared to the Sadducees the Pharisees were probably a pretty stressed out group.  As a sect, the Sadducees were in the business of deceiving others, not themselves.  They reasoned that there was little harm in adopting bit of Greek culture.  The people of the country could be introduced to the world outside of Judaism bit by bit, reassured by nominal adherence to the  Torah.  Beyond the amiable conversation common to moderates everywhere, the Sadducees must have shared the secret joy of conspirators who know they are “pulling a fast one” on the general public.  Jewish on the outside, Greek on the inside.  Is not variety the spice of life?

In contrast to the genial secularism of the Sadducees, the Pharisees must have been bad company.   Far from being conscious hypocrites, their bane was their own sincerity.  Only sincere people can be stung by the accusation of hypocrisy.  We can safely assume that not just Jesus, but other Pharisees commonly accused one another of hypocrisy.  Unlike the Sadducees they each wanted desperately to keep faith with the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.  Yet each in their own heart knew that they fell short.  Though they were gregarious, their social events must have been haunted by the fear that the mask of belief would be torn from their face by less than generous colleagues.

This contrast between the happy Sadducee and the grim Pharisee is of more than historical interest.  It is a perennial paradox of the spirit.  The higher we set the bar of our spiritual life, the more dissatisfied we become.  Sometimes we become so dissatisfied that we are apt to envy the carefree attitude of stone cold atheistic secularists.  Yet we are wrong to do so, for as David frequently notes in his Psalms…”we can see their end.”

After the Cross

We shouldn’t take the story of Nicodemus and his encounter with Jesus out of context.  The typical evangelical interpretation, that Nicodemus was lacking a special spiritual experience which would have lifted his life onto a higher plane, misses the main point.  Certainly we should strive for spiritual enlightenment and edification.  However the main point is chronological.  Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus prior to the cross.  Moreover, Jesus is not just speaking to Nicodemus, but to all God-believers or wannabe God-believers.  The more sincere one is in striving towards faith the more one falls short, and in frustration things other than God often wind up being more important.  This might be called the Pharisee’s Paradox.

That was before the cross.  After the cross human inability is accounted for and redeemed.  We are all like Nicodemus, apt to wait to the dead of the night to seek God, for fear of the crowd.  As we are filled by the Holy Spirit some of us become bolder, and are willing to proclaim him in the light of day.  Either way, it is no longer a salvation issue, since God knows our weaknesses, and even, or especially, the weakness of our faith.  It is the weakness of a child, not a bond servant, and is pardoned.  Pardoned and often indulged, on the understanding that we can do better, and will be helped to do better.

Like Nicodemus we are apt to put the face of man between our soul and the face of our creator.  However our creator understands this because he is our procreator as well, and knows our souls from the inside out.  This is already foretold in the Torah and the Prophets.  When David incurred God’s wrath by enumerating the Israelites in a census he was given the choice of whether to suffer at the hand of human beings or of God.  He chose to suffer from God out of fear of human beings.  God permits this, although it would seem to go against the criticism of Nicodemus mentioned previously.  Here we have the two fears stood on their head, as it were,  since here fear means the opposite of love, not a synonym for respect.  Hence the fears of David, and by implication our fears as well, are rendered licit by a merciful God.  This is not to say that it is good to fear, even to fear evil.  Rather one should laugh at fear in derision.  However, until we are able to do that, God is a loving parent and understands.

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The Great Hero goes out with his Star

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 3, 2018

The Great Hero goes out with his Star

 

O Ruby Planet, thou who haunt our recent nights

Harbinger of a season to atone

Striking terror into gentle dames and gentlemen

But granting gifts of death to those who take you for their own

 

I ask of you, what kind of man was he?

Whom you swept up at your apogee…

…and not at all like Samuel Clemens’

Mocking meteoric sign, only showing up for curtain time

 

Rather, this was a forsworn, constant man

And a paragon of loyalty

But of loyalty to what was he?

A velvet mailed fist, worn by a hand we aren’t allowed to see…

 

Beach ball bikini

Bombing Persians into sand

These are the words of monsters, not of man

Oh yes, he was man enough, and moreover one who suffered much,

Yet few who suffer are given powers to understand.

 

“There is a current in the affairs of men, which if taken…”

And it took him and it used him well.

But to what end…O Ruby One, will you not tell?

 

He had his lovers, of that there is no doubt

And fortunate, in so far as they had clout

And for the rest of us, the fools, he did a passable John Wayne

Though “Beloved Republic” was not his true refrain.

 

This passionate and passible one, being past, is surely now with you…

O Ruby One, O shining hope!

Thou who art no pale and placid orb, but a brilliant point

Like the crimson tracer from a sniper’s scope.

 

Not like the God of Jacob, or those who enter Sabbath rest

The spouses of the ruby deity, the god of war

(and this upon their own request)

…are given more

 

Granted, it is not for us to pierce the ruby veil of mystery

For these are only speculations gleaned from recent history

Therefore, let us leave his name unmentioned

Lest it be sullied or diminished

 

For, as a greater God than even you

O Ruby One,

Once uttered,

“It is finished!”

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Culture & Politics, Paleoconservativism, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Jesus, teacher of the full Torah

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 20, 2018

JESUS, TEACHER OF THE FULL TORAH

…work out your salvation in fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:13)

The full Gospel and the full Torah

Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 2:2  Paul gives us the full Gospel, explaining that he is determined to convey only his  knowledge of Christ and him crucified.  This knowledge does not refer to consciousness, information, or skills.  Paul was not an anchorite meditating on the Crucifixion of Christ 7/24 in a cell with disciples shoving him meals through a crack in the wall.  Paul had skills, wrote a lot, made stuff on weekdays, like tents, and preached on the sabbath.   In Corinthians Paul writes in Greek but thinks in Hebrew, where knowledge (Heb. daát) means something like intimate connection, as in the euphemism “he knew her in the Biblical sense.”

Jesus is our exclusive savior, but the Gospel, in the sense of evangelism, is not our exclusive preoccupation.  Paul’s words in Philippians are problematic because contemporary Christians tend to jump to evangelical conclusions.  This  makes the verse liable to a salvation-by-works reading which contradicts the Pauline doctrine of of grace.  However the phrase “work out your salvation” does not refer to the initial free gift of salvation.  It refers to the unpacking, assembling, and use of God’s gift.  What are the principles which ought to guide the life of someone who has gotten Jesus for free.  Do we send a thank you note?  How do you send a thank you note to God?  Surely we send it with our lives…as a “living letter.”

But then again, do we even need send a thank you note?  The antinomian would say “no”…that sending a thank you note is an insult to God.  Rather, we ought to live our lives with riotous abandon…showing the heathen what a great God we have who saves even the most contemptible sinners.  This view, though a minority position among theologians, actually crops up from time to time.  Let’s leave that discussion alone, since most Christians, whatever their failings in practice, are unlikely to be antinomians in principle…unless perhaps their common sense has been interfered with by too much theological subtlety.

Jesus the Teacher of the completed Torah

Most people will want to send God a thank you letter with their lives.  They will want to live their lives according to a pattern which is pleasing to God.  However they will also be careful not to give others the impression that they have earned their salvation through good works.  The antinomian is a rare but dangerous breed, and ever ready to pounce upon those who “trust in the law and not in grace.”

Yet, apart from those rare and eccentric antinomians , it is usually acceptable to be good, and even ever so, very, very squeaky clean good if you really want to be.  However if you ground your goodness according to Biblical standards, be prepared to face criticism, and not just from hard-core antinomians and kindred free-spirits.  Be prepared to face criticism from Christians, and even, perhaps especially, from morally rigorous Christians.

Morally rigorous Christians will agree that the gift of the gospel should evoke an ethical response from the believers.   However they are wary of the so-called “Old Testement”…a.k.a., the Torah that both Jesus and Paul knew and taught, albeit in a way which differed radically from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis of their times.  Torah (the life instructions and guidelines found in the beginning of the Bible) is supposed to be something other than, if not contradictory to, Christianity.  If you are determined to be good, then at least you should add some extra-Biblical criteria of goodness to your faith.  How about some virtue-ethics from Aristotle?  Or how about some Stoicism or Buddhism?  Marx anyone?  The last thing we want is an ethics drawn straight from the Bible, lest we be called Hebrisers…or worse, actual Jews!

Furthermore, weren’t the lives of both Jesus and Paul a string of unrelenting debate with Torah rabbis?  Well, yes, but that actually proves the opposite.  Jesus and the Pharisees were rivals, which means that both were struggling for the same thing.  They were both struggling for Torah.  The Torah of Jesus seems like a “new” teaching, or Torah.  However it was actually the teaching of the Pharisees which was new.  The teaching of Jesus was actually the old Torah of Moses, which was new in the sense that we speak of a priceless antique being “made like new” once the patina has been removed from its surface.

What was the difference between the Torah of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and the Torah of the scribes and Pharisees on the other?  Jesus taught the full Torah, his contemporaries taught only a partial Torah.  What does this mean?  Well, it is said that there are 613 precepts in the Torah.  Does this mean the Pharisees were teaching only 612 and Jesus was preaching the full 613?

Is this numerology or something?  Heaven forbid!

To avoid majoring in the minors, we need a succinct summary of the Torah.   As long as God has been kind enough to provide us with just “ten words” in the Bible which we need to obey, let’s lay aside the notion of 613, or some such number, precepts.  Usually these Divine Words are called “the ten commandments” but out of sensitivity to the law-phobic let’s call them words.  There is another reason to call them the “ten words”…since God’s words flow together as a single idea, expressed in a complete sentence.  If you take one of the words out it changes the meaning of the sentence completely.  That is the meaning of “you must keep the whole of the law”…not that anyone is actually expected to keep 613 “mitzvot” or commandments.

The scribes and the Pharisees were very good at keeping nine out of the ten commandments.  These nine are all things that one can do, or refrain from doing, with the body or using outward verbal expression.  The tenth commandment is different.  It is completely mental.  Superficially it seems to be a law against envy.  The authorized version uses the old-fashioned word “covet” which means “wanting to have something which other people have.”

Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat on your spouse.  So far, if your conscience has even a spark of life in it, so good.  But what about “Don’t even think about any of that stuff!”

That’s the Jesus difference.  Jesus was teaching the full Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching only 9/10ths of the Torah.  It is not that most scribes and the Pharisees fit the cruel caricatures in which they are often depicted in Christian drama.  As far as intentions are concerned, they were probably outstanding in the degree of kindness and consideration they exhibited towards their peers.  In particular, they wanted to exculpate their contemporaries, and especially themselves, from the onus of violating the psychological implications of Torah. Their reasoning was as follows:

“Look, we know that the human mind is impossible to control.  The prophet Jeremiah himself said that it is the slipperiest and most deceptive thing in all creation.  Let’s be realistic.  If you will just act in a way which is socially responsible and morally decent, we will give you a pass.  What you think is your own business.”

This sounds reasonable, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last word of the ten words.  That word is not just about cravings for sex or the possession of buildings and domestic animals.  It is about the normal mental disposition of fallen humanity, a disposition which makes us so unsatisfied with our lives that we are, in extremity, driven to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill.  These actions don’t suddenly appear without cause.

The late Rene Girard, a French emigre who taught anthropology at Stanford University, noted that the object of the tenth word, i.e. “coveting” was the wellspring of all fallen humanity’s actions.  According to Girard, we are driven by a desire, not just to usurp the possessions of others, but to displace them in their very existence.  In the eyes of the (tenth) commandment breaker, the crime of the man or woman in our own chosen field (our neighbor) is not just that they have more “stuff” than we do.  Rather, it is their existence itself which is offensive to us.   We think, even if we do not say, “So and so has my same ideas, aspirations and attributes, and in fact is more successful than me in promotion of these things, yet paradoxically, so and so is not me!   What am I to do?  I must displace him or her…since there cannot be two of ‘me’!”  The preferred method of rivalry is to imitate the rival, to become a more successful version of the rival.  Yet who can become a better ego than their rival alter ego?  Hence elimination follows upon the failure of imitation.  Indeed, if things were allowed to take their natural course, breaking the Tenth Word in thought would lead back, by degrees, to breaking the Sixth Word in practice.

Jesus had an intuitive grasp of all these deep and unsettling truths, since they lurked at the bottom of the Tenth Word of the Torah, disguised by homely language about houses and cattle.  He recognized the essence of the matter and was not afraid to teach it.  He knew that breaking the last word, like removing the keystone from an arch, would cause the structure of the prior commandments to collapse. His rivals, intent on establishing a practical religion of action (both performed actions and prohibited actions) were horrified that the firewall between the body and the mind had been breached.  They feared that a psychological Torah would be impossible for anyone to keep.

Their fears were well founded, but Jesus continued to preach a psychological Torah anyway.  In this regard, as in all others, it was Jesus who was the orthodox Torah teacher, since Moses had already insisted on purity of mind as well as body.  His rivals were content with a seemingly tolerant, but increasingly minute religion of actions, an “orthopraxy” in the stead of “orthodoxy.”

Fear and Trembling

It is not that anyone needs to practice the Ten Words in order to get into heaven.  That is not what the “fear and trembling” is about.  The fear and trembling is the vision that we all should have of the contrast between a perfect God and the manifestly depraved tendency of the human mind when left to its own devices.  The Tenth Word, the word against Envy, is the capstone of Torah, just as the monotheism of the First Word is its foundation.

Just as his rivals feared, Jesus, in preaching a Torah which condemned the mental quality of envy as well as the increasingly vicious actions which proceed from envy, was preaching a Torah which is impossible for human beings to keep.  Moses had already understood the incompatible relationship between the moral teachings of Torah and the imperfections of human life, which is why the sacrifices of atonement were instituted in the temple.  With much greater confidence, Jesus, looking forward to the Messianic atonement, taught perfect doctrine to imperfect creatures.

We cannot live utterly without envy, and even if we could, it would not get us into heaven.  However we can “work out” our heavenly destiny by unpacking and living out the teachings of the anti-envy doctrine, which is one of the treasures which has been delivered to the saints.  It is edifying for us, and also a great way to say “thank you” to the God of our salvation.

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The Four Story Mountain, or, the Judeo-Christian worldview explained while standing on one foot

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 15, 2018

Four levels of reality

Perhaps these should be called dimensions.  I know some will think that the term “dimension” has a kind of flaky New Age feel to it.  Actually if I were going to be precise I would prefer to call these four pairs of antinomies.  You like dimensions better?  I thought so.

The first level of reality, the dimension in which we live and pursue our life-goals,  is the world of the good and the bad.  I don’t need to tell you about this.  We know, inherently, when we are in a good state of mind and when we are feeling bad.  In this dimension life is about getting into the pleasant, the successful, the desirable, and avoiding their opposites in all departments of our experience, aesthetic, gustatory, sexual, social, intellectual…and so forth.  We can call this the natural dimension.  There is nothing wrong with it, we can say it “is what it is”…since rightness and wrongness only arise when we proceed to the next level.

Ethics

This is where it gets dicey.  I’m defining each dimension of human life in terms of an opposition between a positive and a negative state.  The problem is that the words “good” and “bad” in English and many other languages refer to several opposed qualities which are quite different in nature.  Initially I mentioned those good things and situations which were pleasant or desirable.   There “good” and “bad” referred to contrasting states which were distinct from a moral goodness which is opposed to wickedness.

This is the major donkey bridge on the entire route up the four story mountain.  Many people maintain that ethical goodness and material well-being are just two aspects of the same thing.  The usual suspects when it comes to this error are naturalists, materialists, and utilitarians.  Yet even apart from these hardened expositors of a world which is confined to a single dimension, there is a popular prejudice that happiness and goodness ought to go together.

It is hard to argue people out of this position, since it is so appealing.  Only experience can teach that there are many wicked people who seem perfectly happy.  Of all those who have lived on Earth few have had David son of Jessey’s range of experience, from shepherd to king and both sinner and saint.  A major theme of his poems is the disjunction between existence and ethics.  The evidence of human affairs is that there is little if any connection between happiness and goodness, or wickedness and suffering.  Only by raising himself out of the mire of human affairs and seeing that there was a higher level of accountability outside of creation was David able to assure himself that  the principle of justice was ultimately vindicated.  The very souls which wax fat in the material world become lean in the spiritual world.  Virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment.  But not here…somewhere else.

The Spiritual

So there is a somewhere else.  However this somewhere else is separate from not only the material pleasant and unpleasant, but from the ethical and the unethical.  Material pleasure and ethics pertain only to life on Earth.  The goodness of the spiritual world is not the same goodness as the indulgences of this world.  In the material world goodness is a goodness of confluence with experience, while the essence of spiritual goodness is separation from worldly delights and desires.

Likewise with ethics, since where there is no desire, there is no need for such.  Ethics is only necessary when there is a need to apportion Earthly goods among rivals.  Once again, we have to disentangle ourselves from that homonym “good” which means something entirely different in a different world or dimension.  The opposite of spiritual goodness is not badness or wickedness in an ethical sense.  Its opposite is whatever is not spiritual, whatever is not separated from the material world, a.k.a., the “unspiritual.”

The more spiritual one is the less one is afflicted by the pleasant/unpleasant and the good/evil of the lower dimensions.  This is an attractive path for some, especially those who are attracted to the Eastern Religions.  However it is ultimately a wasteful trajectory since it consigns the lower two levels to the garbage heap.  In spite its apparent monism, spirituality apart from redemption is actually a duality comprised of a despised world and an attractive refuge.

Godliness

The worldview of the Judeo-Christian scriptures posits a further dimension beyond that of any agnostic “spirituality.”  It is a world of Godliness in opposition to…well, really nothing since everything is of God, however for the sake of the argument, let’s say ungodliness.   Not just any god (everyone has a god) but the Creator, who, while a spirit, made the material world and is determined not to waste it.  This means that the spiritual cannot be “beyond good and evil” since God must bend down to concern himself with even the lowest, the natural (or rather the created) world.  This requires an act of redemption, but in the end it unifies everything, in contrast to the dualism of the Eastern paths.  And you thought it was the other way around didn’t you!  So in essence we have four dimensions or worlds and each defined according to the polarity of a different “good” and “bad”

desirable/ undesirable

righteous/wicked

separated/engrossed (from the material world)

Godly/separated (from the Creator)

Of course if we take these out of our sequential argument, label them, and flip them over so that they correspond to a hierarchical order we have

Divinity

Spirituality

Ethics

Creation

That, to the best of my understanding, is about the simplest outline that you are likely to find that maps out the Judeo-Christian world-view.  However it is not the simplest possible account of the universe, and hence it fails by the criteria of Occam’s razor.  The simplest account would be that of the materialistic naturalists.  None the less, I feel that this account has one overriding advantage…it’s true.

Furthermore, I must confess, I couldn’t stand on one leg throughout that exposition.  So any apostles of yogic duality who have been holding their stork posture, yeah, you win.  The posture competition…not the argument.

 

 

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