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Archive for March, 2019

The Cost of Pseudo-Enlightenment: Libertarian ideology at the cross-roads

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 31, 2019

A movement (rightly) divided

We  are slouching towards a civil war.  I’m not alluding to a civil war within the American body politic.  Hopefully the release of the Muller report has set that particular doomsday clock back a few minutes, although I fear that inertia and the instinct for self-preservation are the primary forces holding civil society together these days.

No, I mean a smaller but still momentous civil war, a simmering ideological conflict between “left” and “right” libertarians, which (even if we treat those handed labels with ambidexterous contempt) is quite real.  Unlike a military conflict, this war of ideas is to be welcomed as a necessary house cleaning.  Furthermore it is to be hoped that, unlike the left, both sides in this conflict can still abide by the rules of intelligent debate, i.e., that one is not wasting ones breath, or ink as the case may be.  Unlike our nuclear conflict with the left, we can do better than praying that some equivalent to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Distruction (MAD) will delay the apocalypse.  Rather, we can hope for genuine conversions, for an audience of men and women with enough integrity and humility to surrender good ideas for even better ones.  After all, that was what the conversation of the West was supposed to be about, was it not?

Among the most recent documents to appear as part of this ongoing conversation is an essay entitled “The Cost of the Enlightenment” by Daniel Ajamian, which he delivered as the Lou Church memorial lecture at the annual Conference on Austrian Economics.   Clearly Ajamian is addressing the aforementioned divide among libertarians, a divide in which the continuum of pro-liberty opinions could be bisected using any number of criteria (left/right, minarchist/anarchist, adventurist/opportunist, cultural liberals/economic liberals, etc.).   However drawing attention to the way Jonathan Goodman reformulated the question posed by Jordan Peterson, “What from the Enlightenment do you toss out the window before things get ugly?”  Ajamian proposes  apportioning the pro-liberty camp between disciples of European 18th century thought and Pre-Enlighteners.  “Pre-Enlighteners” is my coinage, as Ajamian would no doubt prefer “Traditionalists” but we both come down firmly against the 18th century, together with Goodman, who responded to Peterson’s question by asking “…what is required to be reintroduced that the Enlightenment destroyed?”

Peterson is a psychologist, not a historian, and like most people he associates things like due process, habeus corpus, and the other trappings of the rule of law with the 18th century and the foundational documents of the American republic.  No harm in that, as long as we are arguing against the left for civility over chaos, since they don’t read history, they just rewrite it.   However in the interests of self-clarification it is important to understand that the Bill of Rights et al were  the culmination of thinking which went back to well before the Magna Carta.  Just how far back into time is an interesting question, and I suppose that beyond a certain historical horizon Ajamian and I would have to part company.  None the less, his essay is a convenient broadside against the thesis claiming civilization, hence freedom, is a product of abstract reason, this being the kind of Reason which the editors of said-named libertarian magazine and their 18th century Encylopedia predecessors have always assured us would guarantee the endless betterment of humanity.  Ajamian’s criticism of this thesis takes the form of an appeal to counter-revolutionary thinkers from Burke to Solzhenitsyn.   Their insights are well worth reiteration, especially the observation that resistance to tyranny requires a virtuous population, and the broader notion that any centralized state erodes the moral capital of civil society.  None the less, this appeal to the wisdom of tradition is unlikely to convince those who have already been persuaded that history is bunk, a view ironically popularized by the now-forgotten but still influential thinkers of the 18th century.  Hence traditionalism is in the uncomfortable position of having to assume the very thing it is struggling to prove.

To his credit, Ajamian shifts the brunt of the argument from periods to principles.  After all, there was nothing uniquely villainous about the European 18th century, a time which already saw opposition (pietism, romanticism etc.) mustered against the heady rationalism inherited from Descartes, Newton and other primary sources of modernity.  However that century will always be remembered for the crystallization of a sociopolitical movement which openly embraced two premises targeted by Ajamian’s critique 1) Liberty without God, and 2) Reason without God.  Short of proving the existence of God, which is a task best left to the Spirit, what kind of argument can be made against these negations?  Since Ajamain is conversing among fellow libertarians, the nature of liberty is not the problematic issue, since it can be reliably defined according to the Non Aggression Principle (NAP).  Rather the problem with liberty, thus defined, is the seeming absence of any force which ensures its ultimate triumph in the concrete historical world.  Hence liberty, somewhat like “spirit” in Max Scheler’s latter philosophy, is something noble but impotent.  Liberty appears as an attractive sojourner inside history, waiting for something or someone, a “factor X” to give it a lift to its final victory.

Of course Ajamian, like the rest of us paleo-libertarians, is well aware that Enlightenment-based libertarians have a snap answer to this dilemma.  They present us with two items (factor X1 and X2) which will jointly serve as the engines of liberation: markets and reason.  Indeed, the liberal children of the Enlightenment have a robust confidence in these two factors, a confidence which rivals the faith of their collectivist adversaries in the Hegelian dialectic.  However markets, as repeatedly demonstrated during the 20th century, are vulnerable to politics, propaganda, and war.   Markets may be efficient, but the forces arrayed against them don’t prize this efficiency, and have the power to either suppress markets or pervert them to their own ends.  The Enlightenment liberal knows that politics cannot be countered with physical force since armed conflict sets in motion a cycle of events which simply reinforces the power of the state.   Ultimately the Enlightenment liberal must fall back on the power of reason to convert men and women to the principles of freedom and the market.  Is this a panacea or an illusion?

I concur with Ajamian that a certain kind of reason, a naked reason in the service of no higher principle, is an illusion and a dangerous one.   Unfortunately he leaves the critique of reason tacit, preferring to summarize the wisdom of the West in its current state of expression.  Perhaps because he is consorting with Austrian economists and those of similar intellectual caliber, Ajamian felt that a fundamental critique of reason would belabor the obvious.  However in the moral wasteland which America has become, nothing can be assumed any more, so a brief reprise of elementary logic is anything but superfluous.

Fundamentally, reason, unless we are using the word as a cypher for something different (in such  cases the capital R is usually a giveaway) is nothing more than a tool of logical demonstration.  Arguments may be valid, but their truth is entirely dependent on the quality of the premises which they are founded upon.  All men are Socrates, Socrates is a banana, therefore all men are bananas.  That’s a completely valid conclusion, although it probably drives you bananas because you know, deep in your heart, that there is something profoundly wrong going on with the argument.  The premises are the thing, and premises are not inherently rational or irrational.  I say the moon is made of green cheese and you say it is mainly silicon dust.  Granted, there might be more evidence for your thesis, but as statements, both premises are equally rational.

The problem with the Enlightenment-based liberals (a.k.a. libertarians) is that, in spite of their appropriation of reason (capital R) they expect people to embrace their premises without argumentation.  They presume that humanity has arrived at a consensus that freedom is more important than any other value, when in fact there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.  I suppose Ajamian would agree with me on this, but I wanted to draw out a premise of his argument which he had left tacit.  However let’s go back even further than this basic critique of reason.

Word or Reason?

I don’t know Ajamian personally, so this is only conjecture, but I suspect that his own world-view is based on an enlightened premise.  Unlike the left-libertarians his enlightenment did not erupt into history around the time of the 18th century.  Rather, it started in the 12th century with the recovery of the Aristotelian corpus, and the rediscovery of dialectic (not historical and Marxist, but rational and Socratic)  If this is not Ajamian’s view, my apologies, but it is has certainly been  a perennial and popular understanding within the circles of Western conservative and libertarian thought.  Perhaps the best exemplar of this type of thinking was Richard Weaver, although he was deep enough to see its limitations.  It is certainly an attractive way of thinking for intellectuals.  Whereas the 18th century (like contemporary left-libertarians) just used “reason” as a slogan and a smokescreen, the 12th century actually recovered reason as a method of logical discovery and argumentation.  Unfortunately, like its 18th century imitator, this more genuine rationalism is fairly useless for the salvation of the human race.

Here is the basic problem.  Even if there is a transcendent truth, it must traverse the cognitive wasteland of human psychology before manifesting itself in the life-world of concrete action.  Because of the distortions of subjectivity, human cognition is morally weak.  This is not to say that cognition is weak in the sense that materialists claim, that thought is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of physical factors.  In fact, mental factors are surprisingly strong.  Like the invisible wind in the sails of a massive ship, human mental life is capable of reversing the course of material reality.  Impotence, whatever Max Scheler might have said in his last years, is not a quality of “spirit.”  The problem is that the mental winds are apt to blow in the wrong direction.  The tremendous power of “spirit” is subverted by propaganda and other cunningly devised lies and deceptions, including self-deception both by societies and individuals.

Ideas are powerful, and as Weaver said, they have consequences.  Unfortunately, good ideas are not powerful enough to stand up against the bad ideas which have been amplified by the coefficient of what Ajamian terms “the strongman.”  I don’t think the strongman is a literal gangster or dictator with a physical gun in his hands.  Rather, and especially today, the strongman is equipped with psychological techniques which subvert the human quest for truth, and make it serve the strongman’s agenda.  Hence humanity stands in thrall to the strongman, the incipient good ideas of individuals always in danger of being overwhelmed by techniques which herd the masses towards tyranny.

The obvious need is for a man who is both strong and good to counter the tyrant “strongman” and to author good ideas in place of bad ones.  Such a man would have to have one foot in eternity and the other in our world, in order to wrest sovereignty from the tyrant of Earth.  From its inception, the Christian church had some notion of this good man, who was a manifestation of a Good Idea.  He was called the Logos.  Goodness, but not the impotent goodness of mere ideas, rather a kind of Idea armed to the teeth.

Armed with this wonderful Idea, how was the church bested even by the half-baked philosophers of the 18th century?  That is a deep enigma indeed, and one which I can hardly investigate in the brief space of this essay.  However I do have an inkling as to a solution.  It may be that Richard Weaver’s thesis about the abandonment of reason in the modern world is the precise opposite of the truth.  Weaver believed that we needed to return to the enlightenment of the 12th century, and back to a belief in the priority of ideas over concrete things.  If this is a plea for objective standards in law and morality, for society not being “a respecter of persons” then it is admirable.  However what if Weaver got his historical narrative wrong?  What if the church, in the 12th century and under the influence of Aristotle, made the Logos too abstract and depersonalized?

If this is the case, then most of us, even those of us who fancy ourselves “paleo-libertarians”…we are largely, if not entirely, post-Enlightenment liberals.  If Western Christianity has appealed to a God who is little more than the author of abstractions, then what was the philosophy of the 18th century but the chickens coming home to roost?  Only if our God is a person do we have the leverage to fight against the strongman with our otherwise puny ideas.  Fortunately, in every age believers have never lost their grasp on the God who is a person, however churches, in their quest for universal moral and social doctrines, have tended towards abstraction.  Out of this earlier theological misstep came the great leveling doctrines of secular modernity.  Contrary to what Richard Weaver may have envisioned, the nominalism of the late Scholastics, refreshed by the concreteness of Hebrew sources (via Nicholas of Lyra) may have been the antidote rather than the disease.  Furthermore, it was this nominalistic Scholasticism (not Thomism) which was the immediate predecessor to the revival of moral and natural philosophy in Western Europe.  Today, as we search for a moral philosophy which goes beyond the frayed paradigm of social contracts and other formal ethics, conservatives and libertarians would do well to study the works of the nominalists, and ultimately the Hebraic mindset which was their source and inspiration.  If so, then they will have in their grasp a counter-Enligtenment which is indeed enlightening.




Posted in Anthropology, Christianity, Culture & Politics, History, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The book of Esther and the right of self-defense

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 20, 2019

You can’t make this stuff up

The book of Esther is a comedy.  I don’t mean a “hoo-hoo-ha-ha” laugh it up kind of comedy, although as a story it can certainly be read in that way, for great pleasure and enjoyment.  However on a deeper level it is comedy in the classical sense of the word, a dramatic narrative in which right wins out over wrong and we are able to close the book with a feeling of deep moral satisfaction.  In that sense, the entire Bible might be described as a comedy, ending with the establishment of the Messianic kingdom.  True, there are many biblical moments which seem tragic, but they are only interludes within a larger framework,  a plot-line which the Divine Author has mapped out with a happy ending in mind.

Esther was one of the last books admitted to the Hebrew cannon, a delay caused by doubts raised due the absence of Divine Names in the text.  After all, aren’t authors supposed to sign their works?  Well, not always, and even when they don’t textual critics are frequently able to identify the author from the style.  Therefore, since the Bible as a whole is comic (i.e., “happy-ending-ish”), can we not see the same trait in the author behind Esther?  Laughing at Haman’s fate is pure schadenfreude when it is not pure slapstick.   But Mordechai and Esther emerging alive from a dire situation is comedy in the higher sense.  As believers we understand that they are saved by God, but there are no obvious miracles in the book of Esther, just a lot of “coincidences” which those who have no spiritual sight are quick to label “blind luck.”  Indeed, the festival commemorating Esther is called Purim, from pur, which means a “lot” as in the casting of lots.  Hence it can either be dismissed as a ridiculous story with too many serendipitous episodes, or the recorded workings of some “mysterious force” which favors the protagonists in a non-random sequence of events.  In the end, the Jewish bride and her uncle wind up with up to half the kingdom while their enemy Haman is hung high on a fifty foot gallows.  Luck?  Legend?  Say what you will, I don’t think you can make this kind of stuff up…but He can.

So…Does this nonsense have any practical application?

For the discerning reader, Esther is a challenge, i.e., “Can you see a pattern under all the craziness?”  OK, we get it, that there is an unnamed Someone behind the curtain of this comedy pulling the levers.  Indeed, there’s more to Purim than just the pur, and that “more” is Providence.  But how, aside from a penchant for anthropomorphism, does Providence differ from luck?  Actually, there is quite a difference, all the difference between waiting for your lotto ticket to be called and hitting an unlikely home run.  Providence demands a certain degree of cooperation between God and humanity, even if God is willing to do the planning and the heavy lifting.  Providence requires getting up to the plate.  If you were a young Jewish woman living in the harem of the Persian Emperor and your people were in danger, saving them might involve doing quite a few things which were both risky and ethically, or at least aesthetically, repugnant.  Or so the story goes.  The moral here is that what most people mistake for “spirituality” is little more than a convenient mental passivity.  As illustrated by the rough and rude events in Esther, Providence does not replace human action,  rather, it facilitates action whenever the human and Divine wills are in alignment.

Providentially, the Book of Esther teaches us post-moderns quite a bit about the laws of sociology.  I hope that I am in good company (i.e., with God and the classical economists) in asserting that these laws are trans-historical.  They should apply to us just as well or ill as they applied to Mordechai, Haman, and the other dramatis personne in Esther.  Some of these laws, like “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” coined by Acton, would have been tacitly understood even at the time of the Achaemenids twenty four centuries before his time.  Others, like the law of marginal utility, were invisible, though like the God of Esther, they might have been discerned through a careful observation of effects.  At least we can look back and see the falsity of the converse, since if pyramidal economies, resting on the “proper” distribution of goods possessing objective value, had been viable then, we might even see the Achaemenid Empire alive and kicking today.   Fortunately, like all economic pyramids (or perhaps zigurats in this case) the economy collapsed under its own weight, an inner demise symbolized by the outer limit reached at Thermopylae, and the subsequent incursion of Greek mercenaries into the domains of the “great king.”  Unfortunately, that collapse came too late to rescue Mordechai and Esther.  Only a miracle could save them.

When resistance was futile

Mordechai and Esther lived in a world where freedom was abnormal.  It wasn’t a world where the ruling classes had to station a detachment of mounted Median knights in every village among the 125 provinces of the empire.  That would have been prohibitively expensive and unnecessary.  Already the Middle East was old with the odious legacy of multiple, superimposed, imperial civilizations.  Its peoples had become habituated to mind control and moral passivity, to the extent that, by the time the Persians arrived they were greeted with yawns and perfunctory praise as “liberators.”  Only among the Jews, if we are to believe the account in Esther, did some flame of resistance still flicker.  A Jew could be “outed” by the surly reception he or she granted to the symbols of idolatry.  However even among the Jews moral resistance had become spiritual and episodic.  Hope in a true Messiah was at an ebb.  The best that could be wished for was that a magnanimous ruler would sit on the throne of the Achaemenid dynasty.  He would become a kind of substitute Messiah…a pseudo-Messiah if you will.

Yet this total tyranny of the ancients was not totalitarian in our modern sense.  It was unaided by electronic technology, or modern techniques of finance and organization.  It didn’t need such, but rested on the mutually supporting pillars of mind-control (false religion) and outsourced violence.  The crack troops were needed at the margins of empire and had no resources left over for internal police work.  In the prevailing atmosphere of mental passivity and fatalism, the stability of the interior could be handled by local gangs and militia.  In the absence of a regular constabulary, gang leaders, such as Haman in the Book of Esther, were able to gain clout with the emperor by promising the continuing obedience of the hinterland and a steady flow of revenues into the metropolitan cities.  This, in the short run at least, was an efficient way to run an empire, economical both in terms of material and human resources.

Yet the system had a flaw, one which was in evidence long before the “barbarians” (a.k.a. free people) counterattacked from across the Aegean sea.   This flaw was the middle men themselves, the state contractors, as those who greased the wheels of the imperial economy were apt to grease their own palms with even greater zeal.  Even dropping our usual pretense of moral indignation, it is clear that this “corruption” whether or not it was viewed as such, reflected monopoly contracts which inevitably would have led to a misallocation of capital, in turn causing an insidious decline within the “oekumen” or ancient world-economy.   Still, this consuming greed was only an incremental stage in the progress of empire towards total tyranny.

Enter Haman.  Whether or not you are a believer or a skeptic, anyone who takes the time to read the book of Esther will recognize him for what he is, an archetype of the narcissistic personality disorder.  We can enjoy the story for pleasure, and laugh at him as a caricature of evil.  However anyone who knows much about narcissism will understand that this no caricature, but the real thing.  As I warned from the beginning, you can’t make this stuff up.  Furthermore, Haman is more than a ghost from the ancient past, easily exorcised with bells and rattles, and his ubiquity (as a type to be sure) is guaranteed by the insidious working out of Acton’s Law.

Haman’s problems went beyond bad business and worse politics.  His god was social recognition, and when this was denied he transmuted his self-love into a hatred for those who barred his aspirations.  His family and tribal faction had gone about as far as they could go in accumulating wealth, and this triggered a morbid obsession with what they deemed a higher emotion than mere greed, namely hatred bred of injured pride, the satisfaction of which could only be gained at the expense of their feuding enemies of times gone by, who happened to be the Jews.  With Haman’s climb into the elite of the Persian metropolis, the path to revenge seemed smooth and easy, since the imperial legal system had become corrupted and now served the interests of whatever faction could establish its hegemony within the palace.  We are given to understand that, perhaps, the Persians once had just laws, which were very difficult to tamper with.  However by the time of Esther the state has been consolidated under a monarch, and this very immutability of the laws had been reinterpreted to mean that the imperial edicts could never be challenged or altered.


The miracle of self-defense 

As a consequence anyone who managed to control the reins of state, whether that be the monarch or the leader of a dominant court faction, was empowered to make decrees with god-like impunity.   Whether or not any given leader was likely to abuse these god-like powers, it was a virtual guarantee that at some point a narcissist would arise who would push the flaws of the system to maximum advantage.  Yet the most surprising thing about the whole narrative is not that a narcissist would wish to become a god, or that he got to the verge of making his dream come true.   The surprising thing is that he was able to accumulate police state powers in a world where there were no police.

How did that work?  Well according to our sources, it was very simple, the emperor wrote out an edict condemning a person to death…and they died.  Or the emperor wrote out an edict proclaiming that an entire population was to be wiped out…and they were wiped out.  How easy!  None of our modern notions about the  difficulty of enforcing sanctions.  Did the victims of such “justice” enjoy their fate?  No, their urge for survival was as strong as ours.  Did they accept it none the less?  Yes, because they knew that resistance was futile.  How did they know that?  They knew it because a thousand years of brainwashing had told them so.

The Jews were the canary in the mine shaft.  If there was any people in the entire empire that might have resisted, it would have been the Jews.  Yet, sadly, they weren’t quite up to it, at least initially.  They might not have gone as meekly as some other population.  They might have gone out in dignity, singing hymns to the Creator rather than pleading for mercy to the gods of the Earth.  But for whatever reason, they were part of the system, and they knew the system always won.  But they didn’t go, because a miracle occurred.

It wasn’t that the emperor changed his mind.  The emperor, a victim of his own immutable constitution, wasn’t allowed to change his mind.  The edict for the murder of the Jews still stood, and I suppose that in Achaemenid legal theory (assuming that wretched thing has some ideal immortality) it is still in effect today.  However it never was carried out, because the Jews were granted something infinitely greater than any fickle emperor’s repentance.  They were granted the right of self-defence against Haman and all his gang.  How did they defend themselves, and what odious restrictions on the arming of the general population were lifted for their benefit?  Was it rock-control?  Or club control?  Or knife-control?  Or perhaps the Jews suddenly came into possession of the most sophisticated weapons of that time, like the segmented Sythian bow?  Does it really matter.  The only thing that mattered was the lifting of will-control.  More importantly, the Jews used it to full advantage.  Whether or not they have made good use of that right since, it is none the less one which they retain in perpetuity.

As to the fate of Haman, his family and associates, the less said the better.  We know that, as in all good stories, Mordechai and Esther lived happily ever after.  None the less, for me the most enigmatic character is the emperor himself, a kind of playboy, reluctantly compelled by Providence to exercise a unique office, as Messiah-for-a-day, during which he was allowed to alter the course of all humanity.  For indeed, the Jews are the canary in the world’s mine shaft.  Once they secured a right, all the other nations of the world were bound to follow suit.  The process of imitation began at Thermopylae and continued to march through the world, or at least much of the West, finding its clearest expression in the sentiments expressed in the halls of Philadelphia Pennsylvania during and shortly after the war for American independence.  It is a right which has always been challenged, and no more so than today, when powerful forces have lined up to abrogate it.  Yet it bears the stamp of Divine authority, and the promise of Providence in its exercise.

Have a happy Purim!

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Culture & Politics, History, Humor, Judaism, Kabbalah, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 3) Saturdays with Scheler

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

If my hunches are correct, then we will have to understand what Max Scheler meant by the difference between formal and value ethics if we are to have any hope of grounding conservative/libertarian thought on something deeper than its present eclectic ideology.  I hope to examine that ideology in a future post, but for now simply allow the compound “conservative/libertarian” vouch for its eclectic nature.  Now, in order to get a precise understanding of the difference between value ethics and formal ethics, we would have to delve into the dense jungle of philosophical and phenomenological investigation, the very prospect of which would cause any sane person to cry out for Divine deliverance!

Fortunately, Godly help has long since arrived, in the form of a Jewish teacher who walked our planet some two millennia ago, one Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Fortunately (from the perspective of our own autonomy as persons) He was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, but a wonderful poet and parable maker, a man stamped with the legacy of David, His ancestor, both king and composer.  The sayings of Yeshua are frequently enigmatic nuggets, intended for careful unpacking over time.   There is always considerable danger when we try to interpret such dense teachings, especially what Peter Leithardt has called the danger of “eisegesis” i.e., imputing our own ideas to a text, rather than the “exegesis” of carefully unpacking the text to find its true meaning.  I happen to think that the royal road into value ethics runs though the teachings of Yeshua, but you would be justifiably suspicious that I am engaging in eisegesis unless we can locate an issue where His sayings are pointing us directly towards the contrast between value and form.

In fact, it is the teachings of the Messiah on the Sabbath which provide (for non-philosophers at least) the most accessible portal into the form/value distinction.  The church has tended to treat this issue as either secondary (in the sense that ethics is secondary to the doctrine of salvation) or to use the sayings of Yeshua as proof-texts licensing either a change in, or abolition of, the Sabbath.   I must make clear that my purpose in this essay is neither to advocate for or against Sabbath observance.  However it is in the context of this seemingly arcane and irrelevant issue that we can both elucidate the way the Messiah would have us think of forms and values, and apply them to contemporary social and political conditions.

The Test Case

In Matthew chapter 12 vv. 1-14 a sequence of events occur involving questions by 1st century (i.e.,Tannaic age) Jewish teachers and responses by Yeshua.  These responses highlight the circumstances under which the Messiah feels that it is permissible to perform actions which would normally be prohibited between sundown of Friday night and sundown of Saturday night.  It is doubtful that his auditors were open minded enough to profit from his teaching.  However we in the 21st century may profit in an unexpected way if these teachings point us towards the distinction between formal ethics and value ethics.  It is almost as if the Fourth Word (i.e., fourth commandment) together with the Messiah’s response, were inserted into scripture by the Almighty to start us thinking in new ways about the foundations of ethics.

Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue), which mentions the Sabbath, is uniquely suited as a test case for critiquing the concept of a formal ethics.  The fifth through tenth words comport only too well with our common understanding of morality, to such an extent that Divine authorship seems almost superfluous.  Conversely, the first through third flatter us during our pious moods, and fill us with numinous terror at other times.   All of the Words, including the fourth, are conveyed as imperatives.  However only the Forth Word arouses our suspicion that it is an arbitrary and extra-moral formalism.  Readers of Matthew 12:1-14, unless they happen to be Talmudists, will instinctively side with the response of the Messiah as a mere reiteration of common sense.  However this facile assent preempts a deeper appreciation of both the Fourth Word and the Messiah’s emendations.

The thinking behind this near-automatic assent goes as follows.  Sabbath keeping is framed in the imperative, and to the extent that it applies (of course, this is a matter of dispute) must be complied with.   However, this rule of the Sabbath is subordinate to a higher rule, that which mandates the preservation of human life.  This subordination of the Sabbath is illustrated by the actions and sayings of the Messiah in two or three categories, 1) staving off hunger by gleaning from fields, 2) healing the sick, and possibly 3) animal rescue (actually a limiting case dealing with property).

We are now liable to jump to the conclusion that we have adequately understood the difference between formal and value ethics.   It is all too easy to make the Fourth Word a stereotype of any possible formal ethics.  After all, it is an imperative and sharply delimits the kind of behavior ( or absence of behavior) permissible within certain boundaries of time and space.   Superficially, the Fourth Word is not about a good, or any kind of pleasure, but about a duty to be performed.  It would  seem to follow that whatever is antithetical to the Fourth Word automatically counts as a value ethics.  Hence, violations of the Sabbath in the cause of preserving life clearly promote a good, arguably the highest good of all, the ultimate value of human life.  Thus we might see in the tension between the Fourth Word and the attitude of the Messiah, a contrast between formal ethics and value ethics.

However this understanding is premature.  If we sifted them through the sieve of Scheler’s analysis, we would find both alternatives fall entirely within the world of formal ethics.  First we are presented with the formal ethics of Divine imperatives, which we feel authorized to forsake in favor of an alternative formal ethics which invokes the sanctity of life.  In effect, we have replaced the God of the Bible with another god, “Life” on the basis of which we can construct an allegedly superior system of formal ethics.  This way of thinking (life-ethics) has considerable appeal (and in the political context, both among liberals and conservatives) because it seems to rest on a solid axiom out of which moral imperatives can be generated.   However there is a difficulty here for anyone who wishes to invoke the sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef in support of this second system of formal ethics, a system which rests on the imperatives of life.  As it happens, this is not what the Master is really teaching in Matthew 12.

How would Jesus think?

Yeshua ha Moshiach (a.k.a. Jesus) actually gives two complementary justifications for “working” on the Sabbath, justifications which seem, according to the modern mind, congenial to life-ethics, but which in fact are based on radically different premises.  The first justification returns us to the original theme of these essays, the primacy of the person, and in this case the primacy of a Person.  If we resort to the insights of Scheler and certain other philosophers, we will note that they draw an important distinction between the concept of an “individual” and a “person.”  Granted in American usage we tend to talk about individuals in a robust way that conflates this analysis, as in “she is a colorful individual.”  However Scheler restricts the meaning of individual to the legal individual who stands as one unit within a democratic society.  In contrast to individuals, persons are not only unique, but morally asymmetrical in their relations among themselves.  Drawing on the test-case of the Sabbath for his illustrations. Yeshua, who as Messiah is authorized to speak on his own behalf, becomes the expositor of the Biblical system of ethics where a supreme Person is sovereign over all formal ethics.  From this initial, and supremely asymmetrical relation, we are ushered into a world where persons at large possess sovereignty over forms.  This because, while qua God, Yeshua is unique, qua human, he is the first born among the benei Elohim (sons of God).  It is this sovereignty over forms which was subsequently epitomized (by Paul and countless others) in the slogan “Christian freedom” a notion which should never be confused with the supposed abrogation of the Torah, which is at most an illustration or a test-case of a much broader issue.

The above, personalist, justification of Sabbath “work” can (in my opinion) be unpacked from verse 8, “The Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat.”  However Matthew 12 contains an important, correlative justification of Sabbath “work.”  This correlative justification is actually more interesting and foundational, even though it dwells on a level further down on the hierarchy of persons.  The Messiah gives the illustrative case in vv. 11-12.

He said to them, “What man among you will not grab his sheep and lift it out, if it falls into a pit on Shabbat?  How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.”

Again, the modern temptation is to assimilate this illustration to an ethics of life.  Parenthetically, it is not entirely clear (as per modern animal advocates) if the merely organic life of an individual sheep is of any less worth than that of individual of the homo sapiens species.  Never the less, I feel it best to depart from this line of thought in order to concentrate on the way the passage as a whole discloses the foundations of value-ethics, and in particular the way in which an objective value-ethics can be distinguished from the subjective valuation of objects.  I am grateful that the TLV passage actually uses “valuable” for the word which is translated “worth” in the Authorized version (KJV).

Now it should be obvious that “value” here does not refer to the subjective exchange cost of the man and the sheep.  Not that one couldn’t find some scholars who might be willing to follow that particular rabbit hole to its logical, and dreary, conclusion.  Thus, supposing we could find out what the average rent value of a laborer’s time or the purchase value of a slave was in the Levant during the 1st century of the Common Era, and then express such values as ratios against the price of a single head of sheep during the same period, we could no doubt test whether the assertion “the man was more valuable than the sheep” was true historically.  We could attempt such a historical investigation because “the man was more valuable than the sheep” is a meaningful assertion which is susceptible to testing.

However this is not the meaning which the Messiah gives the the assertion about “value.”  The word here is a conjugation of diapheroo which can mean any number of things, including “value” or “worth.”   However from the context alone it is clear that Yeshua is not speaking of subjective exchange value, but of what might be called an ordo amoris (i.e., an “order of the heart”) a phrase coined by Blaise Pascal but given closer treatment by Scheler.  The man is loved and the sheep is loved, but the loves are not equal in value.  If there is an underlying ordo amoris then the human being would stand higher in valuation even if the market price for a slave were lower than that of a sheep.  This is because, according to the kind of personalism which Pascal and Scheler advocate, there is an objective order of values which is independent of era, place, or economic calculation.  In the illustration provided by the Messiah, it is implied that there are sacred and intellectual values which bode forth through the thoughts and actions of the human being which are inaccessible to the sheep.  It is urgent to save the sheep, but it is even more urgent to save the man.  Both the necessity of saving the sheep and the man supersede compliance with formal ethics, as here represented by observance of (rabbinical) Sabbath regulations.

No right thinking person (even among the Talmudists!) actually disputes the response given by Yeshua to the Sabbath dilemma.  None the less, sloppy and casual treatment of the case has often led to either generalized and trivial conclusions or hair-splitting and divisive historicism.  For example, one might say, religious customs should not stand in the way of protecting life.  That is certainly true, but if we condemn formal ethics in the name of an ad hoc and indiscriminate category called “life” we are taking the first step towards materialism and utilitarianism.  Eventually we will have to sacrifice not only formal ethics but mind and the spirit as well.  Embracing value ethics saves both life and the Sabbath, in so far as it gives consideration both to the creatures and the ultimate Person, God Himself. It is the universal asymmetry of objective values which give them substance, in comparison with which both rules regulating time and protecting life stand as abstract generalizations.

It is only to be expected that historicists, relativists, materialists, positivists, modernists and post-modernists would all reject the idea of an objective order of values.  It is more tragic that those who oppose these main stream schools, i.e., paleoconservatives, paleolibertarians, traditionalists et al, are not in one accord with regard to the trans-historical objectivity of values.   This is a matter for further discussion, but hopefully Matthew 12 has epitomized the issues in question .  My contention has been that viewing the Sabbath controversy within the framework of formal vs. value ethics, brings out a broader meaning than that of either life-ethics or the Torah/anti-Torah diatribes, and (hopefully and prayerfully) is closer to the meaning intended by the Messiah Himself.  If that is so, then the dilemma of the Sabbath can be transformed into a two way street, with ethics illuminating religious practice and Scripture illuminating what we mean by value ethics.



Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Hermenutics, History, Law, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Problematic Primacy of the Person: (Part 2) What’s love got to do with it?

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 5, 2019

Knowledge and Emotions

Behind the bravado, it is tacitly understood by most conservatives that civilization is going down the tubes at an accelerating rate.  The sundry ideologists (libertarians, traditionalists, natural rights theorists) charged with guarding the city of morals and manners are scrambling for exits and excuses.  The most popular line goes somewhat as follows:  Ideas, contrary to what we had been taught, really don’t count for much at all.  Why not?  Because we live in a world dominated by increasingly sophisticated conspiracies, technologies and propaganda.  That is a bleak outlook, but it is more popular, and less embarrassing, than the alternative explanation.

The alternative explanation would be that our (conservative/libertarian) ideas are no match for left wing ideology.  Please note that this is not the same as saying that right ideas are wrong and the left ideas are right.  No, it is rather that the persuasive power of left wing ideology and rhetoric (even if false) is apt to overwhelm its right-thinking but fragile opposition.  Increasingly we hear that the left bases its claims on emotions, that they are nothing more than a besotted band of snowflakes, unicorns, and cry-babies.   Conversely, the right bases its case on reason, dispassionate claims, and principle.  So what sways the court of public opinion, principle or pathos?  With disturbing regularity, the left emerges triumphant.

For many, the notion that conservative/libertarian thought isn’t up to the challenge is too disconcerting to take seriously, and those who do take it seriously are liable to react in a counterproductive manner.   Among these “reactionaries” the more emotional and irrational the left becomes, the more desirable it seems to appear cool and logical.  This reflects the perennial urge to counter adversity by doing more and more of what you had tried even though it hadn’t worked before.  If Ayn Rand were alive today, she would be egging us on towards more logical thinking and less emotion.  Reason for Rand was an unlimited good, like wine for Polythemis.  More!

Contrary to the claims of her followers, I doubt that Ayn Rand was the greatest philosopher of 20th century.  In my present state of knowledge I would be inclined to give that palm to Max Scheler.  Of course  I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a little dose of Schelerian phenomenology, like chicken soup, can’t do any harm, and might even be salutary in a seemingly hopeless historical situation.   Yet in significant ways Scheler was far less orthodox in relation to the Western tradition than Rand.  Indeed, for all her hatred of Immanuel Kant, Rand was able to offer little more than a simplified Kantian ethics.  As such she stood in the center of the tradition, albeit as a handmaiden, not the prodigy that her followers claim.

Conversely, Scheler was a heretic in almost every sense of the word, both philosophical and religious.  On the overt level, his wayward thoughts and actions cost him both academic tenure and church membership.   Yet his deepest heresy was a total reversal of Western thought, in which the emotions were made foundational and knowledge secondary.  To rationalists, and many who just profess to be rational, this reversal will sound wrongheaded, if not toxic.  To others, especially psychologists, it will seem to belabor the obvious.  The rationalists are more accurate in their (ab-) reaction, in so far as Scheler was not trying to be a psychologist, in which case his insights about the mind and its emotions would have been trivial.  Rather, as a phenomenologist, Scheler was relating the action of the mind to the objective structure of the world.  He wasn’t just saying that individual people’s minds are emotional (trivial), he meant that in some sense the world itself, as we understand it, is based on emotions (heresy).

To any sensible and conservative thinker this reversal of knowledge and the emotions will sound suspiciously like “bad news for modern man” and without a doubt the initial impact and misappropriation of Scheler’s thought was pernicious.  From the 1930s onward in Europe, Scheler, if remembered at all, was considered to be little more than the precursor of succeeding, irrationalist, philosophies of existence.  These succeeding varieties of  existence-philosophy, manifesting in the popularity of Heidegger (fascism) and Sartre (communism) might be seen as either co-opting Scheler into the lineage of nihilism or making him a byword for intellectual and moral default.     My own view of Scheler is predicated on the conviction that European thought as a whole reached its peak prior to the First World War, and in the shattering aftermath of that conflict entered a period of steep decline.  Unfortunately this “peak Europe” was also “peak Scheler” as well, as characterized by his later (1920s) attempt to disengage his ethics from his (new) metaphysics.  This move is a source of continued controversy, and one way or the other makes Scheler look like a transitional figure.  However, I prefer to see his value theory as the culmination of previous thinking, from Augustine to Eucken, rather than as a prophetic interlude prior to a titanic onslaught on civilization which he would have deplored.  This framing of Scheler as a conservative, someone who encapsulated previous ethics prior to his attempts to improve on them, should give contemporary defenders of morality and freedom access to a method of thought which they might otherwise neglect.

Even if conservatives and libertarians manage not to be put off by a line of thought which attained its terminal expression in Weimar Germany, they may understandably balk at regrounding their political theory in a phenomenology of the emotions.  On the face of it, taking the emotions as primary not only smacks of the left’s methods, it just sounds plain wrong.  Hence, to make the most plausible case, before venturing into a contrast of formal vs. value ethics, I’ll take up the case of the emotion par excellance: Love.

Gnostic Love vs. Christian Love

We will have to make a wide arc from religion to politics and back to religion.  By insinuating that conservatives don’t have their ducks lined up correctly, I don’t mean that we need a new idea.  Perhaps we need to return to an old idea, which will turn out to be nothing but Christianity expressed in thought.  Not that the experience of Christianity has ever been lost, but the conceptual articulation of that experience is fraught with extraordinary difficulties.   As Paul said, we must work it out “in fear and trembling.” So much is this so, that the history of the West might be summed up as a succession of varied misinterpretations of Christianity.  Erick Voeglin has chronicled the stumbling misapplication of the Gospel from the time of the ancient gnostics to the rise of modern politics and the (pseudo-) messianic totalitarian state.  While there may not be a direct teaching lineage stretching from the ancient to the modern gnostics, they are both typified by the notion of salvation by self-effort, either collective or individual.  The great irony of this movement can be seen from the contrast between its origin and its final outcome.  Gnosticism began as an attempt to ground Christian doctrine in Greek philosophy, while today, in its final stages, it is manifesting as an effort by the left to shut down “the conversation of the West” and replace it with something that looks frighteningly like a hive-mind.

Escaping from this ironic history requires getting beyond the simple equation Left=emotions, Right=reason.  Rather, it requires a reexamination of the metaphysical filters by which we decide what we mean alternatively by reason or emotion, and within emotion, the valuations we assign to various states of mind, for better or for worse.  As the lyrics of a popular song went, “Love is a battleground”…and there is no more important battleground in either politics or the war of ideas than the definition and understanding of what we mean by love.  Contemporary political rhetoric is dominated by the struggle over who is compassionate and who is insensitive.  Surely, only an all knowing God could objectively determine the extent to which one particular individual really cared about other individuals, short of such omniscience even depth psychology or a phenomenology of the emotions would be helpless.  Yet as historians we can critically examine the doctrines which have been offered up to epitomize love, doctrines which have shaped the convictions and behavior of humanity.  Strange as it may seem, our capacity to love is affected by our metaphysics, our view of the world.  Notoriously, someone who believes human beings to be mere lumps of flesh will have a different attitude towards others than another person who believes all humans have a soul.  Yet not everyone who shouts “Lord! Lord!” or even “soul, soul” is speaking the same language.  If, as per Eric Voeglin, the history of the West is a history of heresy, we can expect that both life and love have been variously defined according to sundry ideologies, all of which have at one time or another sought to portray themselves as the true “Christianity.”

Following Voeglin, if we understand the modern movement in politics, with all its chaotic tendencies, as the extension of an ancient spiritual impulse, it becomes clear the West has long carried the seed of its own destruction deep within.    This insight is gladly embraced by those who follow Nietzsche in identifying the destructive agent as Christianity itself.  However Voeglin makes a distinction between genuine Christianity and the power-drive of its heretical imitators.  Indeed, we could construct a jerrybuilt argument against modern politics by simply by identifying Christianity with love and calling out modernity as  an extension of ancient preoccupations with power and knowledge.  However this is not satisfactory for a number of reasons, among them, that it hands both knowledge and power over to the enemy.  Even more importantly, an exclusively anti-gnostic argument abandons the battleground of love, a commanding height which the enemy believes he has already captured.

It is the singular quality of modern tyranny, that it finds its ultimate justification in neither law nor reason, but a peculiar doctrine of love.  Behind the cruel edicts of Robespierre were the musings of J. J. Rousseau, a “man of feeling” and philosopher of love.  In more recent times, who was Che Guevara except a romeo of revolution?  Whatever revisions critical scholarship might make to his biography, which might show his character to be quite different from that supposed by his idolators, it is unlikely to tarnish the archetype.  Examples of the type could be multiplied without limit.  This is not, of course, “romantic love” in the vulgar sense of the word.  Nobody cares that Leon Trotsky was the lover of Frieda Kahlo, only that he was the lover of humanity as a whole.  Indeed, he loved humanity so much that he could wish it nothing better than perpetual war in pursuit of a perfection doomed to recede into an infinite future.  Where does this peculiar love come from, this love which is spiritual while professing doctrinaire materialism?  Indeed, how do we explain a form of love which is at once universal, and in its concrete manifestation indistinguishable from hate?

In his essay on “Love and Knowledge” Scheler delves somewhat deeper into this enigma than Voeglin was able to do even in his very detailed and historically subsequent work.  Granted, Scheler’s Greek-Indian type is a bit broader than what Voeglin identifies as gnosticism.  If modern political movements had only a doctrine of hate, and were explicit in their call for class war, then we could be satisfied with labeling them gnostic, with the dualism that implies.  However, (and here I think it is Scheler who is to be commended for perspicuity even though he doesn’t draw the modern political implications as clearly as I am doing), the dualism is actually driven by a deeper monism.  It is not that the incendiary movements are simply appealing to “love” as a deceitful propaganda ploy, but rather that they are sincere in both their emotions and metaphysics.  Scheler notes that the predominant characteristic of Greek-Indian (a.k.a., gnostic) thought is monism.  From this he points out that we can expect a pantheistic doctrine of love to be grounded on the attraction of similarity.  The movement of love will be in the direction of grounding solidarity in sameness, and its end result will be the homogenization of the lover and the loved.  Hence this kind of love is both the expression and actualization of pantheism.

If we are willing to entertain the idea that love is connected to metaphysics, then it should be apparent that the Greek-Indian, or gnostic, love contrasts broadly with Christian, or Judeo-Christian love.  The Judeo-Christian God is not a god like that of Aristotle, who can only recognize universal ideas.  Rather, He is the God of particulars, not just the God of the universe, but the God of Abraham, of Issac, and of Jacob.   This God (of Abraham etc.) is even further from pantheism than He is from being the god of Aristotle.  The salient point here is that love in such a God’s creation will not negate particularity as it would do in a pantheistic universe.  Indeed the whole point of love in such a creation will not be the overcoming but the cherishing of difference.

Returning to the doctrines of the modern political left, we see with increasing clarity a growing intolerance for any distinctions of either heredity or merit within the human species.  In spite of lip service paid to “multiculturalism” in the interests of equalizing the fortunes of sundry demographics, it is clear that any substantive differences in life practices are scheduled for progressive elimination.  The overall thrust of modern politics in a managerial state is towards the leveling and homogenization of society.  This is promoted under the oxymoron term “democratization” but an enthusiasm for democracy is unaccountable if we stop to consider that it is no more than a method of political administration.  Behind the bloodless terminology of politics lurk the emotions love and hate, and since the latter is only the shadow side of the former we have been concentrating here on love.  Yet even behind love lurks religion.  Which religion determines which love.  Choose wisely.


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