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Archive for January, 2009

Mr. President, can’t we just fast forward to the NEP?

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 31, 2009

It might save everybody a lot of  grief, you included!

As I mentioned on my post Yes, You Canute!, the government doesn’t control reality, or even the economy, but that is actually a slight overstatement.  The governement can prevent market forces from operating by channeling resources into artificial channels.  Omnibus intervention, like pressing down on a car’s accelerator and brake simltaniously, is guranteed to make the economy stall out.  So the anwer to everyone’s question “How long is this downturn going to last?” is indeed largely within the control of the government, although not in the sense that most people in this administration conceive of it.  Our only hope is in an NEP.


NEP stands for New Economic Policy, and is, of course a riff on the early Bolshevick era of pragmatic liberalization conducted under Lenin in the early ’20.  It saved the Soviet Union by allowing the GNP to stabilize so that the Soviets could staunch the flight of manpower and resources out of Russia and fend off internal and external enemies.

I realize its rather unfair to compare our new president to someone as historically questionable to Nicolai Lenin.  President Obama claims to be a Christian, not a Marxist, and his inaugural address certainly gave homage to root American and Western values.  None the less, by intention or design, the United States has for many decades been sliping into socialism, first rather gradually, and then  apocalypticly under the military-industrial-financial Keynsianism of  the Bush administration.  At this point the new Democratic administration is clearly intent on accelerating the process.

The Obama era may be motivated by the best of intentions but there is no queston that the United States is drifting towards  a monopolar poltical society very different from the traditional American notion of civil society.  Today Reuters reports, in an almost lighthearted tone, that all American roads to power, economic as well as political, now run to Washington rather than New York.  At last America has achieved the idea of the perfect Fracophone state, one were there is a single metropolis (Paris, Dakar, or Pnom Pen) which dominates the provinces.  That is the kind of “socialism” which has been attained in America already, not of course any social contract involving labor and capital.

However if New York ceases to be the economic capital of the United States, forgoing any hope of remaining that of the world, nobody should expect “the world to dress in sackcloth, now that you have forsaken cake and ale”…no, there will be other financial centers willing  to take up the slack, in terms of distributing capital and talent.

Postbellum Blues

In a sense the United States is as socialized today as Russia was at the end of WWI, and for the same reasons.  War has wreaked havock with the distribution of economic resources, making an end run around the supply and demand functions of civil society.  In a sense Obama is in a more disadvantageous position than that of Lenin, since the process of national ruin was already complete when the latter was installed in power.

The problem is that in the America of the winter of 2009 the process has not yet run its full term.  There are still reputable people who think that the nation can afford both guns and butter.  Moreover these people are demanding an infinite series of second chances to prove their theories right.

Unfortunately their theories are not right, and the recession will continue to deepen as long as those theories (i.e., military and civil Keynsianism) are allowed to inform policy.  Yet the good news is that President Obama is constitutionally empowered to say “no” at any point along this precipitous decline.  For his own sake, as well as everyone elses, if would be better were he to reverse course sooner rather than later.  He has the power to stop the Treasury printing presses, to stop money transfers, to cap departmental budgets, to start liquidating public debt and assets.  Once he summons the will to do these things the recession will start to bottom out.

Unfortunately the administration’s Keynsian advisors arn’t going to tell the president any of this.  However there will come a time when the economic agonies caused by governement interventionism can no longer be ignored.  Then it will be a choice between NEP or national bankruptcy.    Then the adminsitration’s advisors will no longer be able to enjoy the luxury of saving face and saving their jobs.  They’ll have to be fired and replaced…if not by Ron Paul, at least by someone who knows economics.

Wouldn’t it be better, Mr. President, to forstall the suffering and just fast forward to the NEP now?  Of course people might start calling you a right-winger…or even a Menshevik.  Wait a minuite, was Nicolai Lenin a Menshevick?

Posted in Libertarianism | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Happy Day of the (Dumb) Ox! Giving the Saint of Intellectuals his Due

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 28, 2009

Thomas Aquinas 101 in 2009

As millions of mainland and overseas Chinese celebrate the Year of the Ox, I suspect only a small fraction of that number are aware that today, January 28th, is a memorial to Thomas Aquinas, let alone celebrating the event.  That  Thomas has become the butt of jokes for a variety of types ranging from atheists to mystics shouldn’t obscure the fact that the jokes started in his lifetime when he was known by a far different nickname than “The Angelic Doctor” which posterity bestowed on him.  I hope he had a sense of humor.

Far from being a Thomist, frankly, if the Doctor were to appear to me in angelic form in company with, say, the spirit of William of Occam I’m not sure which I would bow to first.  None the less anyone, whatever their religious views, who is concerned with civilization and ideas should have a warm spot for the “Dumb Ox” in their heart.

Atheistic Thomists?

One of the intellectual curiosities of the 20th century was the emergence of “atheistic” Thomists.  This in itself should reasure the timorous that studying Aquinas will not turn one instantly into Ultrajectine fanatic or an infatuated ritualist.  None the less there is something rather snark-like about the alleged sighting of Thomism among certain conservative and libertarian thinkers during the middle part of the last century.  Richard Weaver, who had some genuinely religious sensibilities, is probably a special case of a Southern Agrarian with an appreciation of scholasticism in general.  Much odder was Ayn Rand, who’s philosophy of Objectivism owed no allegiance to any previous thinker apart from Aristotle, as mediated by…none other than the Dumb Ox!

As a result one gets the curious statments which are typical of Objectivist simplification of intellectual history, notably “After Thomas the darkness of the the dark ages began to lift…what Thomas contributed to civilization was the notion: It’s OK to think again.”  Certainly not your typical atheist “black legend”, and no doubt a tribute that neo-Scholastics should be appreciate, but is it tendentious?  Well, yes and no.  There was no sudden lifting of the veil of ignorance with the advent of Thomas, but his work was certainly an integral part of the development of medeval dialectics, a way of thinking which allowed the open discussion of hypotheses and their consequent affirmation or confutation.  By common consent Thomas represents the culmination of this movement, although one suspects Rand herself would have been more tempramentally compatible with Abelard or even Averroes.

Dialectic and Truth

So it would seem that the mode of thinking which Aquinas represents constitutes some sort of benchmark in the development of Western thought, and this would be interesting even if  this was a benchmark on a continuing upward curve toward enlightenment.  However it is not clear that the paradigms which replaced scholasticism were always and in all ways superior to that which reigned in the  dominant schools of the middle ages.  No where is this more obvious than in the corruption of the word “dialectic” itself by Hegel and subsequent thinkers.

Today whenever we hear the word dialect used we are likely to find it associated with one or another ontological adjective, so it might be “cultural dialectic” or “material dialectic” or even if no such ontological theory is presupposed then we have to use an adjective like “Socratic” to designate good old dialectic dialectic.  There are all sorts of historical reasons for this of course, but for the purposes of Aquinas 101, which is about as far as I go, lets just say that for Hegel dialectic is inside of culture, whereas for Aquinas and likeminded thinkers dialectic is a stairway to heaven, a bridge between human subjectivity and the thoughts of the angels.  Don’t worry if you don’t happen to believe in angels, because the modern concept of “an intelligent alien form of life” serves the same purpose.  So when NASA or some other space agency sends a message off into far space, they always try to take into consideration the fact that non-essential aspects of alien life may differ from our own, for example the aliens may not have hair, or their bodies might not be bilaterally semetrical, the only essential is that they be intelligent, and that consequentially a message like 2+2=4, encryptied in sufficiently universal symbols, will appear true and understandable to them.

Of course communication with aliens (or spirits) was very far from the concerns of Aquinas…actually more the sort of thing that his mentor Albertus Magnus would have speculated on.  But Aquinas’ understanding of dialect as a discovery process, lecturing “as if” there were aliens among his auditors, differs specifically from the procedure of Hegel.  For Hegel dialectic does not discover, so much as create truth.  World history is a series of intellectual conversations in which civilizations are engaged one-upping each other, the final one-upping being that of the West, in which Western thought becomes Global thought, an eventuality which can be described as “the end of history.”

However, in spite of the fact that Hegel died in 1831, the Hegelian dialectic has continued to ramble on and create its own nemesis in the form of multiculturalism, the doubt which attacks the primacy and finality of Western values.  If Hegel were alive today perhaps he would convert to Islam and wager that there would be one more (hopefully final) turn of the dialectic which would establish the Global “end” (in the sense of goal rather than annihilation) on the basis of say, Andalusia in the year 1000 rather than 19th century Prussia.  Unfortunately I don’t think the multiculturalists would let him get away with it.  Poor Hegel, in a very real sense he’s deader (as an intellectual, I’m not talking about the spirit world here) than Aquinas who was over half a millenium his elder!

Dumb Ox Howlers

I’m not saying that Aquinas never made any specious arguments, everybody admits that he did.  Well, everybody to my knowlege, and I havn’t visited Rome in several decades.  Still whether or not one agrees with Karl Popper’s “falsificationism” or not, it is a matter of common sense that thinkers who are willing to commit themselves to clear propositions are more likely to be embarassed by posterity than obscurantists, and the Dumb Ox has had many a century for critics to pick holes in his logic.  Thus, no matter how fickle the historical dialectic, the very obscurity of Hegel ensures a certain perrenial challenge.  By way of contrast, the tomes of Aquinas are rather well lit, albeit gothic, mental dwellings where it is rather easy to see what has been jerry built and collapsed and what still stands.

The Wages of Realism

If there is anything radically wrong with the Thomistic style of thinking, then it must have something to do with an excess of clarity and reasoning.  Later I want to explain a sense in which this might actually be true, but for the moment I want to allay the fears which have attached themselves to rationalism in general and realism in particular, realism being the belief that species are real and that we can make sound propositions about a class of individuals which will hold good for each individual in that class.

Again, recalling the Randian’s compliment to Aquinas, I will go out on a limb and say that anyone who hasn’t spent a season thinking like a realist doesn’t know what thinking really is!  Once you learn how to think dialectically (in the scholastic rather than the Hegelian sense, mind you) your mind becomes a veritable Thomas the Tank Engine, or rather thought engine, puffing away at demonstrative logic, not only a really, really useful engine, but also one generative of novel hypotheses and insights.  And why shouldn’t it?  In stead of vague existential, pragmatic or statistical notions swimming around in your internal and external envioronment, suddenly you are possessed of ideas with a capital “I”…thoughts which actually correspond to the classes of objects which you happen to be thinking about.  Best of all you are able to subject those classes to judgments…both cognitively and in the real world.  I assure you, its a tremendously empowering experience!

This, of course, is precisely the danger that people always warn of when it comes to realism, usually with some veiled refernce to the Spanish Inquisition.  After all, the Angelic Doctor was a member of Dominican order, which in those days had some of the connotations which the word “lawyer” has taken on for us today.  But its much, much worse than that.  Any fool might guess how the certainty engendered by  philosophical realism might encourage the development of casuistry at law.  To be sure, rather than simply taking someone out and lynching them on the spot, which up to that time had been the norm, the rise of the philosophical dialectic abbeted “due process” which in today’s America we understand to be nothing more than cruel and inhuman punishment before the sentence.  No more dueling, no more judicial astrology…but rather the insidious developent of pleas, wittnesses, oaths of evidence and the rest of early modern legal paraphenalia.

But as I said, it gets worse, for it wasn’t just the Inquisition itself which was a product of philsophical realism…no the heresies which the Inquisition persecuted were also coined from the same philosophical mint.  The very certitude which possessed the inquisitor was also responsible for generating a multitude of heretical thought-forms.  And so the cycle continued, more intellectuals produced by philosophical realism, more intellectually motiviated heretics sure of their cause, more intellectual inquisitors seeking finer and finer distinctions for prosecuting heretics and so forth and so on.

This was a very compelling narrative prior to the rise of modernity in general and existentialism in particular.  The cultural dialectic of tolerance was supposed to work in the other direction: less thinking, less contention, more good feeling.  The perfect man of this new dispensation was the hippy of the American ’60s, confused and possibly addicted, but most of all happy and not spoiling for a fight.  Well, you can’t have everything, but it was a compromise which everybody was supposed to be able to live with.

The flaw in the argument was this: The inventor of existentialism was not an American hippy of the 1960s, he was a philosopher of Weimar Germany named Martin Heidegger.  Heidegger was that “worst case” mentioned above, in which a happless Hegel gets born into the 20th century, in which the West is already clearly and inexorably in decline.  He can’t throw out the West from his synthesis, the West must survive even though it has been betrayed by the logic of the historical dialect.  The solution is to throw out logic, and to substitute philosophical thought involving ideas with the phenomena of conciousness…henceforth to be called, indiscriminately, “thinking.”  How do you know that the thinking is valid?  If it is my thinking, i.e. Martin Heidegger’s thinking, it is valid.  If you think that it isn’t valid you don’t understand me.  How do we settle argumements in the absence of an ability to communicate rationally?  I think you can figure that one out for yourself.  Hint: Heidegger’s “boss” in the 30’s, the Chancellor of Germany, was a man named Adolf Hiter.

So, for all its tragedies, the 20th century did teach us one thing.  Violence and persecution are not, at least not exclusively, the result of philosophical realism.  Deep and turgid obscurantists seem to be very, very good at violence and persecution.

A Final Caveat

Just to say that the “Dumb Ox” and other representatives of high scholasticism have gotten a bum rap from modernity, is not to say that there is nothing problematic about realist modes of thought.  Valentin Tomberg (you knew I’d have to bring Tomberg into it didn’t you) saw realism and nominalism as synthetic opposites from his Hermetic Christian viewpoint.  To be a pure realist is to risk becoming a head in the cloud intellectual, even if one doesn’t succumb to fanaticism of some stripe.  To be a pure nominalist is to lose ones way in the trivia of everyday life, even if some people label their everyday life a “scientific reasearch paragdigm.”

Personally, I’ve started to get the feeling that William of Occam had the final word.  So far I’ve scrupulously avoided any comment on the content of St. Thomas’ works, restricting myself to what we today call “methodology.”  But as we all know he was discussing God, and the uniqueness of the Christian God lies in the fact that he became a concrete historical individual.  Without giving due consideration to the uniqueness of the individual it is impossible to understand the Christian message, and all we are left with is a lot of dogmas which, in the absence of personal relevance becomes nothing more than excess intellectual baggage.  So in the end we have to learn to speak more like Occam than Aquinas.

None the less, in a world still recovering from the brutality and anti-intellectualism of the 20th century, Thomas remains a very, very useful thought engine.  Or, to put it in less anachronistic terms, a good ox to plow with!

Posted in Christianity, Culture & Politics, Philosophy, Theology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

St. Jerome and the Christian Kabbalah

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 22, 2009

Was the Western Church “Kabbalistic” from Ancient Times?

In the discourse of comparative religion and historical studies, that is to say the standard academic view of people like Gersholm Scholem, a movement designated by the word “Kabbalah” itself doesn’t go back much further than the 12th century, that is to say the presumed date of the Bahir, and then only as a preocupation of Rabbinical Judaism.  Christian Kabbalah is pictured as only a late and imitative phenomena starting in the 15th (Pico della Mirandola) or even 16th (Reuchelin)  centuries.  However this begs the question of what we mean by “kabbalah” since as Scholem himself pointed out it was just a repackaging of a perrenial stream of  “mysticism” one which not only antedated the European middle ages, but included Christians as well as Jews.  For Scholem the Christians in question are members of small Gnostic sects such as the Marcosians, a rather libidinous group which flourished around the second century in Gaul.  The consensus seems to be that even the proto-tradtions which existed before being designated “kabbalah” were either an exclusively Jewish affair or at most one shared by highly deviant forms of Christianity.  Rarely is it suggested that there could be anything “kabbalistic” about orthodox Christian theology during the patristic age.

Of course this would be so if we allow Kabbalah to be defined as, to take one of Scholem’s titles, “Jewish Mysticism” or more inclusively, but improbably, “Any Western spirituality in which mysticism shades imperceptably into magic.”  No orthodox Christian theology, either Eastern or Western, could define itself in such terms.  But if one were to define kabbalah as, say “Any hermenutic basing itself on a mystical interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures”…which strikes me as a more cogent starting point, then the possibility of a kabbalistic patrology seems much more plausable.

J.N.D Kelly on Jerome:World-Class Genius or World-Class Jerk?

If we are searching for a kabbalist among the church fathers then the obvious place to start looking is in the life and works of Jerome, provided, that is, we accept the last of the above definitions of Kabbalah.  Jerome was the first church father to reintroduce the study of the Hebrew scriptures as the basis of Christian Biblical studies.  This “hebraic turn” which largely effected the West via Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (which used the Jewish Tanach as the basis for its Old Testement) is not entirely non-controversial.  Although the consesus view, at least in the West, is that Hebrew would naturally be the ur-source of the scriptures, there is also a feeling, among Eastern Christians and their sympathizers, that the Septuagint (LXX) is not only a more coherent text from the Christian point of view, but as a redaction from the Hellenistic 3rd century BC, may in fact represent a deeper strata of textual matter than any Tanach which Jerome could have had access to by the turn of the  fourth/fifth centuries AD.

Apart from the matter of not having the cognitive or linguistic tools to broach this rather dangerously divisive issue, I think there is something to be said for leaving the whole matter moot, and relocating the difference between the LXX and the Tanach/Vulgate at the level of methodological preferences.  Moreover long as one has some tolerance for anachronistic labeling (and lets face it, all thinking about the past would grind to a halt if one did not) I propose that there is nothing at all absurd about calling any alegorical reading of the Tanach or a Tanach based text for Christian hermenutic purposes “Christian Kabbalah” while alegorical readings based on the LXX may be catagorized as extra- or non-kabbalistic.

If one accepts the above premise, then the first Christian Kabbalist was not Pico della Mirandola, or any other Renaissance or medeval dabbler, but non other than St. Jerome himself!  Well then, so what?  Everyone knows that he was the man who gave the West its first “standard” Bible, but apart from that, who was this guy?  As a matter of fact I happen to be readingJerome His Life Writings and Controversies
by J.N.D. Kelly.  Kelly himself is a sound scholar and talented writer but his irritation with Jerome’s flawed personality shows through, turning the book into a kind of anti-hagiography.  Jerome did have a nasty streak in him, one which tended to progress as he got older, and Kelley spares us none of the details.  Secularist readers (I’m not apprised as to what Kelly’s own religious views are) will of course put this down to supposed Christian “resentment” in combination with the frustrations of celibacy.  However a close attention to Kelly’s narrative shows that a more plausible explanation is the stress attendant on membership in the late Roman political-ecclesiastical class.

For all of that, and admitting that Kelly’s work in its time (the ’70s) was a needed correction to previous encomiums, I found that the biographer’s prejudices extended to more than taking the Jerome cult down a peg or two.  He puts down without comment the remarkable fact that Jerome’s advanced diciples (at least Paula, a woman who was a kind of celebate partner to him) chanted the Psalms in Hebrew.  To me this is a remarkable observation.  We commonly think of translators as standing between the original and the people who are to be the recievers (there’s that word again!) of the translation-object.  But here we have Jerome dishing out the “real stuff” to Paula and who knows who else!

Not only is the virgin Paula chanting in Hebrew, but Jerome sees fit to enlighten her, while explicating the accrostic psalms such as Ps. 118/9, on the letter-meanings of the Hebrew alphabet…for example that Beit is “house” and that Gimmel is “fullness” and so on.  In any other context this would be recognized as the Literal Kabbalah, but Kelly passes it by with a sneer at Jerome’s “self-delusion.”  Of course it seems to be self delusion because the whole thing seems pointless, except possibly as a mnemonic, as long as one is wedded to the opinion that there is nothing contained in the Bible but a narrative of historical events.   Confusingly, this fundamentalist anti-mystical hermenutic is also called “literal” in the sense of a plain meaning, whereas literal, when used as an adjective in Literal Kabbalah, means a hidden layer of (letter) meaning underneath what modern linguists would call the morphological level, i.e., words and parts of words which bear meaning in ordinary discourse.

So what Jerome was teaching Paula was Kabbalah, just as you or I speak prose even if we dont call what we are doing “speaking prose.”  Whether Paula quite understood what Jerome was trying to communicate is another question, for elsewhere Kelly indicates that Paula was more interested in the history contained in the Bible than any alegorical or hidden meanings.  Kelly also doesn’t go particularly deep into what motivated Jerome to translate the Tanach into Latin in the first place.  We presume that we know the answer already, so the question is not even worth raising.  For example we presume to know that any Hebrew text would be original compared to any Greek text which would be derivative.  As I have have already indicated there are doubts about this.  At any rate it is safe to say that Jerome felt he was getting closer to the original sources with Hebrew.  Another and related motivation would be making an end run around the Eastern church’s “patent” on scripture, and giving the Latin West a “more original” Old Testment than the LXX.

That much any historian could figure out, but Jerome, with his great thirst for deeper and deeper levels of meaning, certainly had additional motivations in approaching the Hebrew text.  From his teaching of the acrostics to Paula it is evident that he was familiar with the idea of concealed meanings at the letter level, and perhaps even the matrx like ways in which letters could be recombined to yeild alternate readings on the discursive level, something which would have been impossible with a Greek text like the LXX.

Wordsmith scholars like J.N.D. Kelly, however good they may be at their own arts, are unlikely to pick up on the significance of this hidden dimension.  They use narrative accounts of historical concretes and project them back to some psychological or material factor to explain causes and effects.  Thus Jerome’s translation of the Tanach into Latin must, on a priori grounds since we presume the Literal Kabbalah to be nonesense, have been based on scholarly ambition, sectarianism, or subtle “resentment” rather than genuine curiosity.  However I suggest that, however encrusted by worldly barnacles, the element of curiosity was salient.

Curiosity, Licit and Illicit

However, even admiting the hypothesis that there is a kabbalistic strain in mainstream Western Christianity going back at least to the time of St. Jerome, the question of whether Kabbalah can be embraced as part of the legitimate deposit of faith remains uncertain.  We must recall that Pico della Mirandola’s theses were rejected by the see of Rome, and that Mirandola himself submitted to this judgement, later distancing himself from kabbalah and becoming a diciple of the Dominican monk Savanarola.  Many things separate the fourth century of Jerome from the fifteenth century of Mirandola, the popularization of the word kabbalah to discribe the various arts under discussion being only one of them.  For one thing Jews and Christians had had ten more centuries to become estranged and develop doctrine in diametrically different directions.  So when Pico della Mirandola presented this more intensely Jewish kabbalah to the public, and further mixed it up with the resurgent paganism and magic of the Renaissance, it was clear that its chances of replacing Thomism as the official philosophy of the Western Church were slim indeed.  A second round of this battle was play out within Protestantism.  However Protestanism having already adopted the philosemetic attitude of Jerome and playing its hebrew cards against Catholicism, drew the line at the “joker’s wild” gambit of invoking the Kabbalah.   Within Lutheranism the Christian Kabbalists, under the new moniker of “Rosicrucians” lost out, first to Lutheran scholastics and latter to modernists.  Even such a dedicated Christian Hebraist as Issac Newton loathed the Kabbalah as a manifestation of Jewish backsliding into magic and paganism.

But this accusation of “illicit curiosity” leveled against the Kabbalah during the Renaissance was, I am maintaining, already aimed against nothing more than a second, and second-best attempt, to adopt the full implications of Hebrew allegory in the West.  The first time around, under the auspices of Jerome, it had already been tacitly adopted in a much purer form.  That it was not called “kabbalah” did not keep it from informing peoples expectations of mystical exegesis, even during those centuries when Western Christians had ceased to use Hebrew as a scholarly language.  However this doesn’t mean that it was entirely non-controversial, and that some Western usages didn’t appear strangely Jewish to Eastern Christians.

Was even this early Christian “kabbalism” which came in with Jerome entirely licit?  The history of Protestantism, or rather of extremist Protestant sects, suggests that it was not entirely without dangers.  There has always been the danger of a highly Hebraized Christianity retroverting to Ebionism, or some such doctrine which sees Jesus as a very good man in the service of the Almighty.  Since Ebionism has been in disarray for some time, that too provides little hope of a resting place, and one might go further and embrace the doctrine of the Talmud, that Jesus was actually a bad man and a heretic.

Be that as it may, none of this came to pass with Jerome.  Indeed his studies of the Hebrew scriptures drove him further and deeper into an orthodox outlook.   He consistently maintained that at many points the Trinitarian and Messianic implications of scripture were actually clearer in the Hebrew text than the LXX.  A cantankerous crumudgeon he may have been, but his reputation has remained solid among Christian thinkers of every confessional stripe.  True if we were to say that he was the first Christian to receive the batton of the Kabbalah from the teachers of the Jews, people may cavil that this represents development in doctrine and not, as Jude (i.e. “the Jew”) wrote “the faith recieved once and for all” from the apostolic generation.

And might not someone demonstrate that the apostles themselves were Kabbalists?  Indeed someone might, but not me, at least not now, for even these few random observations on Jerome have taxed my wits.  But do give it a thought.

Posted in Christianity, Esoterism, Kabbalah, Theology, Traditionalism | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Yes You Canute! What our new President could learn from ancient legend.

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 20, 2009

God Bless You President Obama!  And may everything that I fear about the incoming administration be proved completely wrong.

Yes, I’ll admit to having been a naysayer.  As exciting as it will be to see a JFKesque intellectual inaugurated as our first African-American president, emotionalism can’t abrogate reality.  American reality today is defined by the economic, political, and military debacles left behind by George W. Bush.  If the team assembled to take over from Bush’s White House were apostles of radical change, I would have some grounds for hope that things would actually get better.  As it is, in the absence of hope, all I can muster is good will and a prayer for good luck.  Yes, with the team of Keynsian technocrats and global interventionists surrounding our new president, it is starting to look like a who’s who of the establishment…or as another Who put it so aptly “Meet the new boss…same as the old boss!”

But even though I may not belive in “change”…I’m willing, up to a certain point, to be “fooled again”…if only because one thing always is succeptable of change: the power of  individual men and  women to change their minds.  Our new president strikes me as a pretty intelligent and adaptable guy, the only problem is that he has a tendency to adapt to the wrong sort of crowd.  It started off badly enough when he started running with the socialists of the new Old Left  in the ’90s, but these traits can be dismissed as the typical enthusiasms of a youthful idealist…albeit one who has fallen (as what American university grad hasn’t) into the clutches of the educational establishment.  From there he moved to the center…unfortunately into the center of Chicago machine politics, the inner machinations of which I don’t want to know, and he was probably wise enough to keep from knowing, but a lot of people (think of all those National Enquirer readers) are positively dying to know.   Stay tuned!  And since then it has been on and up into national politics and into the clutches of the various pressure groups that control Washington.

Still, I am enough of a believer in the Old Republic, that I would desperately like our new president to be his own man.  Call it a hopelessly romantic “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” kind of syndrome.  True, I would like him to read himself into a mature neo-liberal constitutional noninterventionism.  I would like him to read Hayek and Mises and the critiques of globalism which were written in the last century.  If he did so he would realize that increased governmental intervention at home and abroad will just dig us deeper into the pit that Keynsian (civil and military) expenditure has put us into.  But of course this is a vain hope, because the new president is going to be a very busy man…and he’s going to have a lot on his plate besides reading a lot of curmudgeonly authors whom he is in ideological disagreement with.

But somehow, some way, he still might get it (the freedom idea as libertarians understand it) by osmosis.  Sometimes it happens that, like Saul on the road to Damascus, people change their minds for no apparent reason short of the miraculous.  Even though he has no philosophical basis or education for such moves, President Obama might start to radically reduce the mission of the American military abroad, or he might start to work on reducing the national debt and selling off (rather than acquiring) bad government assests.

Who knows but that he doesn’t have some mental image in his head which will be triggered when he realizes, as he surely will at some point or other, that the plans of his interventionist advisors are bound to fail.  After all, most people first learned about freedom and the danger of hubris in high places from legends and fairy tales, not from specialized literature in economics.  Surely Barry Obama was no exception.

Yes, he surely knows the story of how King Canute ordered the  sea to turn back during the incoming tide.  Canute had an image problem diametrically opposite of modern heads of state.  Today presidents and prime ministers must give off an aura of omniscience and omnipotence…or at least be acnowlegded as privy to expert opinion eminating from policy wonks of a highly arcane and infallible ilk.  Canute, on the other hand, was trying to separate his monarchy from magic.  As James Frazier argued in his anthropological classic The Golden Bow, in Europe, as almost everywhere else…kings were held to be magical, and almost superhuman.  The problem with being thought superhuman is that as soon as people catch on to the fact that you aren’t, rather than give up their illusions they are likely to dispose of you and find another candidate for superhumanity.

Canute was no anthropologist of the caliber of Frazier or Rene Girard, but he was prudent enough to figure out that people have a penchant for turning on their gods and making them scapegoats for their own problems.  His ready response was a preemptive attack on any and all panderers who wanted to turn him into more than what he was, namely, an old Viking who had managed by cunning and inheritance to possess a large portion of the British Isles.  So his bold self-demytholization, in failing to turn the tide, turned luck in his favor…and ensured that he would go down in history as a worthy man, rather than a wicker man.

In modern jargon, Canute discovered the power of reduced expectations.  It is certainly a power that our new president could avail himself of, and he dosn’t have to read a lot of arcane economic treatises to find out about it.  It is written, and largely unwritten, in the wisdom of the ages…all those fairy tales and legends that say there is no omnipotent king this side of the Kingdom of Heaven…and that worldy kings who aspire to godhood sooner or later pay the price for their hubris.

So what should Obama do if he wants to be a Canute rather than an Agamemnon?  I’m not in the bussiness of giving policy advice…there are too many people in that line of work already.  I think Mr. Obama can figure it out by himself, as soon as he recognizes a few basic principles.  The basic principle is that governments don’t control reality…all they can do is cope with it.  A government is just one organization is a vast sea called society, and the ebb and flow of society’s tides are so complex and conditional on a variety of factors, natural and human, that the wisest thing to do is just to go with the flow…as the Physiocrats would say “lassez faire” or as the Taoists would say “wu-wei”…or as King Canute would say “I give up!”

If the American government would give up trying to micromanage the world economically, politically, millitarily, and environmentally the results would, I believe, be paradoxical.  The governement would actually become a more effective instrument in the control of those who are supposedly sovereign…the voting public.  A government which attempted to do less would be a government which might actually be more effective, surfing, like Canute, with the current of the markets and popular opinion rather than swimming against the rip tides.   Its the kind of policy which could save a presidency, and a country.

Its the sort of policy which I think the course of events will eventually force Mr. Obama to consider, but I’m not so deluded as to think that it will happen any time soon.  Right now is party time…in both senses of the word, and in a political sense I even suppose the Democrats deserve it.  Some are caviling at the cost of the inauguration, 150 million dollars, but lets face it, in terms of recent government expenditures, that’s chump change.  If it were up to me I’d even add an extra touch.  I’d appoint someone to sit behind Barrak Obama in Caddilac One and whisper, like the Romans did to their generals during a triumph, “you are a mortal…”

Canute knew that, and deep down I suspect that President Obama differs from his more deluded followers in acnowleging his own limitations.  Public acnowlegement of those limitation could be the begining of real change, a reversal of the tide of power which has accumulated in Washington and the rise of a powerful current flowing back towards the people.

Yes we Canute!

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Valentin Tomberg on the reality (and unreality) of Evolution

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 10, 2009

The Hermit

The Hermit

A doubly “Hermetic” meditation

Although I don’t claim to have understood all the myteries touched on by Valentin Tomberg’s masterpiece Meditations on the Tarot, and am unlikely ever to do so, it is sufficiently clear to me that its ninth chapter “The Hermit” contains the methodological key to the whole. Indeed, Tomberg, who concealed his name in the work’s title but otherwise was quite forthcoming in his explanations of the arcana, states as much in the text.

I have often thought of using this blog as a venue for an extended commentary on Mediataions on the Tarot, but the work is so massive and dense that any systematic treatment would take more time and energy than is available to yours truely. None the less if one were to start a commentary the best place to begin would be the middle rather than the beginning, since the work is itself organized around the principle of an unbound codex, or what we call a “deck of cards”…i.e. its structure is geometrical rather than sequential. Cartomancers, for example, lay the tarot cards out in various geometrical spreads for purposes of divination. Of course, divination is not the use which Tomberg, a Christian mystic, puts the tarot to. Rather he uses them as iconographic clues to tease out “arcana” or keys to wisdom.

That is to say that as the cards are meditated on, a certain chain of ideas begins to suggest itself, hopefully leading to the resolution of some previously intractable philosophical problem. In my opinion, and evidently Tomberg’s, this use of the cards as a philosophical machine is far more interesting than divining to see who you are going to have lunch with tommorrow. Of course the answers that one arrives at using this Hermetic method may not be the optimal ones, something Tomberg readily concedes, however in my experience it sharpens the acuity with which the problems can be grasped.

The chapter on the Hermit serves as a kind of methodological template of this meditative proceedure, and Tomberg has the audacity to “resolve” within the space of less than a dozen pages three of the toughest antinomies in philosophy: 1) realism vs. idealism, 2) universals vs. particulars, and 3) science vs. faith. It would be double hubris for me to attempt (within the ambit of one post) a satisfactory commentary on Tomberg’s Hermeticism of the Hermit Card, but as a sort of apendix to question three “science vs. faith” he casually throws out a) and explanation of the Fall, and b) a theory reconciling Creation with Evolution, and I would like to draw out some of the remarkable implications which his writing contains on those topics. At any rate, perhaps one can see why this book, a commentary on a traditional source of symbolism, itself requires a sub-commentary!

The Fall of Man and Evolution

Since the two topics, as treated by Tomberg, are interconnected, I’ll deal with them under the same rubric. First of all there is the very interesting exegesis of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil Heb.עץהדעתטובורע the fruit of the etz daat tov va rah. Now this is taken in anti-theistic hermenutics to be a prohibition on acquiring the means to make moral disinctions, which is obviously the sort of tyranical limitation which purveyors of the Promethean model of human-divine relations are wont to assume.

Tombergs understanding of the fall, and I am calling it his understanding because I have never encountered it anywhere else, though for all I know there may be circles where it is a commonplace…completely obviates what might be called the tyrannical command theory. But that is just a bonus of the theory, for at a more salient level it provides a critical tool for unravelling the conundrum of Creationism/Evolutionism. I call this Creationism/Evolutionism antinomy a conundrum because we have on the one hand what would seem to be a crude myth which leads to all the moral insights upon which a theory of human dignity must be based, and on the other hand a superbly sophisticated scientific theory which leads to moral obscenities and possibly the destruction of the human race.

So what theory of the Fall does Tomberg have in mind which will allow him to resolve this antinomy? First of all, let me paraphase what is evidently the intention of the Meditations, for while the expression does not occur quite as explicitly in Tomberg, or rather in the rendition of his English translator Powell, the forbidden fruit was actually that of the knowlege daat which grants empowerment regardless of good or evil consequences hatov va rah. In other words the Fall-inducing knowlege is none other than the kind of instrumentalizing, pragmatic knowlege by which science grants power to the human race, a knowlege which will inevitably have both good and bad consequences. But then, from the point of view of Adam and Eve, consequences be damned…pun intended.

Now if Tomberg left it at this we would have a kind of Manicheanism, perhaps of the fashionably contemporary Green variety. Moreover, Tomberg is, like Augustine of Hippo, a kind of ex-Manichean…yet in some ways even more interesting than Augustine, since we do not possess any Manichean writings by the African bishop, but we do have a double Tomberg corpus, one Anthroposophical and one Catholic. Furthermore, just as Augustine could see certain things about Catholic doctrine which eluded his contemporaries precisely because he had labored long in the fields of Manicheanism, likewise Tomberg, without the background in Rudolph Steiners teaching would not have been in the position to baptize the Tarot, somewhat after the fashion that Augustine baptized ancient philosophy and rhetoric.

Therefore Tomberg invokes the image of the serpent as the image of temporal evolution and human progress as lineal empowerment. However he never goes so far in the direction of Manicheanism as saying that Satan is the God of Evolution. This is because he sees the horizontile path of the serpent of knowlege as one arm intersected by the verticle path of salvation, the Tree of Life. Indeed, the Tree of Life is none other than the Cross, upon which the serpent must be crucified. Therefore even modern science, which is so obviously Satanic in many of its manifestations, is capable of redemption. Likewise, knowlege of an evolving cosmos, as long as it is seen as pragmatic understanding rather than a credo or a total world-view, is capable of being baptized to the service of Christ.

Having epitomized what is clearly the salient insight in Tomberg regarding the Hermit card, I hope you will read the chapter yourself and make further commentary. You, whoever you may be in your annonymity.

Posted in Christianity, Esoterism, Kabbalah, Philosophy, Tarot | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »