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Escape from Egypt: Our universal passover in the year 2020

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 15, 2020

Do the huddled masses still yearn to be free?

In an uncanny turn of events, for the past week, much of the world’s population, knowingly or otherwise, spent Passover under identical conditions, confined to their dwellings and hoping, in some cases praying, that the angel of death would pass over their home.  This coincided with the ritual remembrance, by the Jewish people and their friends, of events which transpired in Egypt during the month of Nissan (roughly April) thirty-four centuries ago.  It is said that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.  A more pro-active variation on the same theme would be that those who fail to reenact history in ritual will suffer the consequences of history through their passivity.

Devotees of secular art and entertainment, to the extent that they know anything about the events which led up to and succeeded Passover, can thank Cecil B. DeMill and his epic three-and-a-half-hour movie, The Ten Commandments (1956).  DeMill, a man of strong political convictions, couldn’t wait to let the movie speak for itself, so he walked out on “stage” i.e., screen, and delivered a lengthy prologue.  This is likely to strike contemporary viewers as just plain weird, one more oddball distraction which renders this pre-computerized special effects movie even more campy than it would otherwise be.  Yet that campy prologue can be considered nothing short of the gold standard for understanding the significance of Passover.  Not the spiritual meaning to be sure.  It would be unfair to expect DeMill, neither priest nor rabbi but a conflicted secular man, to expound on the mystical depths of the event.  None the less, Passover and its consequent events have a universal significance, with as much relevance to gentile as to Jew, or to atheist as to God-fearing believer.  Before the American founding, before the Magna Carta, before the Roman jurists and the speculation of the Greek sages, there were those singular events which led a captive people out of Egypt.

No doubt thinking in evolutionary terms, someone once asked Frederic Bastiat (France, 19th century) whether it was not too early to abandon governmental control and hand over total freedom to the people.  Thinking in Messianic terms, Bastiat replied that it was already two-thousand years too late. Yet, from the perspective of Passover, Bastiat himself had underestimated by fourteen centuries, if indeed the events surrounding the Hebrew exodus from Egypt constitute the first charter of liberty proclaimed on this planet.  Cecil B. DeMill minced no words in describing the exact significance of the universal Passover.  Calling it “the story of the birth of freedom…” he further explained,

…the theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whim of a dictator like Ramses.  Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God?  This same battle continues throughout the world today.  Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the Divinely inspired story created three thousand years ago: the Five Books of Moses.

If one were to nitpick, like Bastiat, DeMill is way off on his chronology, since three thousand years only brings us back to the time of Saul and David.  But that is hardly the point, since The Ten Commandments is not archeology, Biblical or otherwise, but commentary on the human condition.  Rather, the salient point is “this same battle continues throughout the world today” keeping in mind that the concept of “today” didn’t get stuck sometime in 1956.  The battle for freedom is timeless.

Yet it is also timely.  The restrictions on human movement and behavior which have been instituted across the world over the past month, restrictions which by implication affect thought and speech as much as behavior, are unprecedented in the annals of human history.  No matter how well intended, these decrees must be noted and recognized for what they are, suspensions of constitutional liberties.  Whatever events ensue, we must obey the fundamental commandment which in some way underwrites all other commandments the imperative to “remember.”  Specifically we must remember that the heritage of freedom is the legacy of all human beings.

Go out!

If the first commandment is “to remember” the second is like unto it: “Go out!” At the present moment in history, the first approximation to this command is the very same idea which is on everyone’s mind, of going outside and grabbing some fresh air and vitamin D.  However the literal command, in the Bible and elsewhere, is likely but the most superficial level of interpretation.  For some people indeed, it may be that taking things literally is not such a great idea, and that for those in delicate health, voluntary rest and limitation of movement may be the most prudent and salutary course for the time being.

However the true “going out” includes far more than a mere rambling locomotion.  As with the Hebrews, exodus must entail not just escape but a purposeful journey towards a spiritual goal.  This spiritual going out is something which is incumbent on both the shut-in and the traveler.  It involves the same liberation which, indirectly referenced in the text of scripture, was most painful and difficult for the Hebrews in Egypt.  To extricate oneself from false beliefs and dependencies is the true “going out.”  Just as the Hebrews had to free themselves of mental servitude to soothsayers and sundry charlatans, contemporary citizens have to free themselves from the false ideologies fostered by media propagandists.

Without this spiritual “going out” our situation is dire indeed.  Yet, for better or worse, there seems to be a force operating in history which is urging us toward a choice.  We are being asked to leave Egypt.  Not that picturesque land bisected by the Nile river, but a state of mind, for in Hebrew the linguistic root of “Egypt” refers to being constricted.  It is our mental blinders which we must cast away, whether we seek mere sunshine or enlightenment.

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Christianity, Cinema, Constitution, Culture & Politics, Ethics, History, Libertarianism, Media, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ivan Illich, a philosopher for our times

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 11, 2020

Ivan Illich 1926-2002

Who’s afraid of Ivan Illich?

Friends and fellow Americans, I ask not your praises of Ivan Illich, but only note that we bury his memory at our peril in times which have rendered his work disturbingly prophetic.  If there were ever a neglected thinker who deserves a reading, or a corrective re-reading it would be Ivan Illich.  A radical critic of institutions, his writings are indicative of our present moment, when institutions have suddenly been either abolished or sanctified.  Yet who knows him today?  If he is not mistaken for the fictional character of Tolstoy’s famous short story, then he is pidgon-holed as a hot-headed educational refusenick.  Where is he encountered in our world, except perhaps on the musty knick-knack shelves of old hippies (the Bernie bros of their day) hiding somewhere under half-used packs of Zig-Zag “cigarette” wrappers?  As a European (Austrian) who adopted Latin America as his spiritual home at the height of Fidelismo he had numerous unkind things to say about the United States and the American way of doing things.  To be sure, we needn’t accept him as either priest or prophet, for like us all he was a creature of his time and place.

Yet, whether we can dine at his table or drink the cup that Illich drank from,  we can at at least accept him as a gifted philosopher and gather up the mental crumbs which have been scattered throughout his diverse and unsystematic works.  The first step in granting Illich our full intellectual attention is to demystify the paralyzing left/right dichotomy, and see him as an independent thinker who’s insights ought not to be swept under omnibus historical categories like “liberation theology” or “60s radicalsim.”   As a man of engagement rather than a contemplative thinker his actions were taken in response to particular constellations of ideology and power salient at a given historical moment.  Yet the controversial activism was rooted in an appreciation of human dignity, a perrenial philosophy far closer to libertarianism, populism, or even conservatism, than any form of Marxism.  A passionate defender of the so-called “Third World” against what he deemed the corrosive effect of North American influence, his writings are increasingly relevant to the United States, a society which in some respects has joined the ranks of the Third World itself.  For, as they would have said in the 60s, “the chickens have come home to roost.”

WWIIT:  What would Ivan Illich think?

Think, not do, since we are interested in applying his thought to the contemporary situation, which in many respects is both different from, and an intensification of, the world Illich worked with.  Significantly, the kind of policy recommendations which would have once seemed leftish, today resonate as well, if not better with libertarian and conservative thought.  Application aside, what principles of thinking guided Ivan Illich, and are these the sort of principles which might miraculously turn the zombies of today’s chattering classes into independent thinkers?  At the risk of oversimplification, let’s pick out just three of Illich’s methodological principles: radical nominalism, methodological anti-institutionalism, and a critique of pure life.

1) Radical nominalism.  As a paleolibertarian I can empathize with what Richard Weaver called “Realism” to the extent of lamenting how modern education has abandoned Platonic ideals such Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  However in the dirty and detailed world of social criticism, nominalism, as a style of thought, comes into its element and leaves realism behind.    This is because a critical examination of the relationship between terms and their referents is a powerful antidote to uncritical acceptance of state and media propaganda.  Especially so, as the power institutions which dominate society are as much the creatures of nomenclature and modes of thinking as they are of human, material, and organizational factors.  Granted, unbridled nominalism can lead to magical thinking, but Illich was not building up castles in the air, he was critiquing the correspondence between words such as health, wealth, knowledge, and life one the one hand, and the phenomena which they so often misrepresent.  Illich realized that the nomenclature which large institutions use to capture “objective reality” is largely a mishmash of self-serving propaganda rather than a world-view based on disinterested observation.  Importantly, the kind of nominalism which Illich employed owed little if anything to the tradition of British analytic philosophy.  Rather it seems to have been a pragmatic adoption of the methodology which he encountered in anthropological linguistics.

2) Methodological anti-institutionalism.  As a dissenter from the world of “progress” I cherish institutions.  When I think of institutions my first reference is usually to family and kinship systems, religious organizations and whatnot.  In the unequivocal anti-institutionalism of Ivan Illich there are no sacred cows.  None the less, it is clear that his critique of institutions is primarily directed at the misuse of power, and especially the abuse which is characteristic of highly asymmetric power relations.  In the context of his writing the paradigmatic example would be a Third World village seduced by the blandishments of a multinational corporation.  Illich was aware that there are indeed institutions which are primarily dedicated to their functions, however he pointed out that beyond certain levels of scale and entrenchment, whatever remains of their functionality becomes secondary to the enhancement of power, wealth, and status.  As a Catholic Christian Illich was probably aware of Acton’s saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but regardless, the principle itself was a touchstone of his own understanding of institutions.  Illich was and is a helpful thinker since he understood that the injustices of modern institutions were seldom carried out as extensions of naked tyranny.  Rather they are typically cloaked with the trappings of benevolence and progress, the toxic effects of which only become observable in the long run.

3. A critique of pure life.  Illich came into his full powers when he turned his attention to bioethics.  He was investigating the meaning of medicine and health a generation in advance of the year 2020, when epidemic news suddenly seized the headlines.  His crucial contribution was the notion of a “biocracy” i.e. the superseding of democratic society in favor of the rule of life by experts, and especially medical experts.  This thesis of a developing rulership over all life in turn begs the question of what is meant by life.  Here Illich reveals himself to be a profound Christian philosopher, and perhaps a radical heretic within the context of his own church, for he insists on differentiating spiritual from biological life and affirming the ultimate priority of the former.  Indeed, Illich boldly hypothesized that the last and greatest idolatry would be an idolatry of life in which life itself was reduced to a matter of biological survival.

From Marxist to Mystic

In a more subtle fashion than, say, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who was once a Soviet officer) Illich seems to have awakened to the injustices of the world while he was still primarily a man of the left.  Always a priest and a Christian, his life took a more spiritual turn as his thought matured.  This sort of maturation, which is normally observed in an evolution of attitudes towards politics, morality or economics, showed itself in Illich predominantly with regard to language.  Originally an advocate of verbal communication as a panacea among contemporaries practicing “conviviality” Illich in his maturity acquired increased respect for the written text.  Interestingly enough, he turned his attention away from the 20th century and towards the work of Hugh of St. Victor in a book called In the Vinyard of the Text.  Here he tied together his insights about verbal communication with an appreciation of the way in which texts and manuscripts were used, as well as the use of the alphabet as a universal cognitive map, something we are inclined to take for granted today.

Surely few of Illich’s original fans would ever consider In the Vinyard of the Text the apex of his work.  After all, in the revolutionary ’60s it would not have been considered “relevant.”   Yet in taking up themes from the middle ages and Scholasticism (granted the many limitations of the latter) Illich was expanding “conviviality” from a social bond limited to the present, to a mystical conversation binding together the present, past, and future.  In other words, he was coming out in favor of tradition and the inheritance which the present receives from the past.  If that isn’t the earmark of a conservative thinker I don’t know what is.  Moreover I doubt that this was a novel turn in Illich’s thought, but rather the public revelation of a deep strata of his mind which had long been obscured by his active engagement with the hot-button issues of his times.

Whether or not, as I have been hinting, Ivan Illich can be repackaged as a conservative or a libertarian, his works deserve renewed appreciation.  At the very least, we should be looking at his work on bioethics, which ought to challenge the doctrinaire and dangerous consensus which has emerged at the top of our political class.  And as a final benefit, perhaps a rereading of Illich can bring together all those, of either the left or right, who are committed to human well-being, dignity, prosperity, and freedom.

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Conspriacy Theory, Economics, History, Medicine, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, propaganda, Science, technology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Flesh Gordon, or why the crises are different these days

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 2, 2020

Elite Panic

It seems we have entered into a new age.  I doubt that the present “health crisis” should be taken as its onset, but rather as the symptom of something which has been building up for a long time.  Furthermore the “something” which I refer to isn’t a  biological threat in our environment, as real as the biological threats might be.  Rather, the something which has broken out, and which has been a long time simmering, is panic.  Furthermore I don’t mean mass panic, although toilet paper and other goods disappearing from shelves would indicate that mass panic is latent and dangerous.  Rather I mean a new kind of panic, a panic which is both opposite to, and in some way symbiotic with, the panic of the masses: elite panic.  The masses haven’t shut down the world, although so far they have complied with that shut down.  Only the elites had the power to shut down the world, and they have demonstrated that power, with great authority, during the past few weeks.

For those of us who talk, perhaps too glibly, of “elites,” this should prompt a critical review of our principles.  After all, as our theories go, the elites control the world, and the world-system is the source of their power.  A shut down is against everybody’s interest, but it is most of all against the interests of the elites themselves.  What are we to make of this?  I am skeptical enough to think that there has been an overreaction to the pandemic, although the pandemic is a reality.  Of course I might be wrong, but even if I were wrong, the salient point is that one would expect the elites to err in the opposite direction.  One might expect elites to sacrifice public health to economics.  But that hasn’t happened, and instead the world economy has been put on indefinite hold.  This bodes poorly for the near term future.

Indeed, it bodes so poorly, that, for those of us who think that a world depression would kill far more people than a pandemic, the possibility of malice naturally occurs.  Perhaps the elites, like Ming the Magnificent in the space opera Flash Gordon, tiring of using planet Earth as their plaything, have resolved to destroy it.  However I think not.  As bad as the elites might be, they are neither wicked spirits nor space aliens, but rather composed of the same flesh as you and I.  In destroying the world they would destroy themselves as well.  While to the masses the elites appear to be in the drivers seat, they are actually driven themselves, by desire, by fear, and ultimately panic.  As pawns in their own game, they resemble a desperate Dr. Faustus more than a scheming Mephisto, let alone a planet destroying Vader or Ming.  Here I want to make a conjecture as to what drives them, and ironically drives them to destruction while seeking self-preservation.  And sadly, not just “them” but us as well, elite or non-elite.  I will try to avoid demonizing anyone, and will stop just short of the diabolical, to pause in the kingdom of the magical and the heroic.  Along the way we may have to make a stop at the planet Mongo as well, but not to see the Emperor.  I am more interested in the fatal flaws of heroes than the malice of villains.  Perhaps we can survive the onslaughts of villains, but can we see through the fatal flaws of our own best intentions?

From God to heros

Furthermore in criticizing elites, I’m not necessarily talking about world political and financial elites, although that class is obviously riddled with bad actors.  I mean the kind of elite which you or I would be flattered to belong to, as if someone exclaimed,”Wow, you’re elite stuff!”  I’m talking about the ideals and aspirations of our professions and the power of expert knowledge.  We assume that this is good stuff, even “the right stuff.”  We all embrace the principle that knowledge is superior to nescience, and that skill is superior to inability.  Generally speaking, this is true.  However as with everything in life, there is a limit to the application of the general principle.

By the third decade of the 21st century, we have reached some sort of tipping point.  Call it “the singularity” if you want, although I dislike the term.  None the less, we have gotten to a place where most people, at least in the West, consider expert knowledge the world’s highest source of wisdom.  All other forms of wisdom, whether that be revelation, tradition, or personal experience, are considered either bogus or supplementary to expert knowledge.  Of course there are dissenters to this world-view, but such dissent no longer plays much of a role in broad social discourse.  It is assumed that humanity has attained its maturity and has cut the cords which once kept it under the control of nature, let alone God, assuming that the latter had ever existed.  The world is now humanity’s to make, break, or repair.

According to Issac Asimov, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Today the priests of the High God have been banished (literally, in the case of the present shut down of churches) and the magicians are now in undisputed control.  We have arrived at the age of the unchallenged expert.  Only the trappings of our once vaunted “democracy” remain, and as for our religions, sometimes not even the trappings.

By and large, people seem happy with this.  All the divine qualities that were once imputed to the High God have now been transferred over to the expert: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.  This is not just a magical age, but an epoch of magical monotheism, an era where the magician has no competitors.  This is accepted because the millenia in which the High God ruled are now considered backward, and the handful of centuries since the Enlightenment seem, if not yet having delivered, at least showing promise towards fulfilling the demands which humanity makes of its gods: infinite life, perfect health, and universal prosperity.  After having patiently endured through a series of rough industrial stages an expectant humanity now awaits the full fruits of science and technology.

Malpractice and Magical Monotheism

In short, the modern magician (whatever professional label secular society might apply to him or her) has inherited the mantle of the High God.  At first blush, this is an exhilarating ascendance.   Yet, delving into the dark psyche of human history, one is alarmed to discover that the deepest collective emotion of the human race is an implacable hatred of God.  Here followers of the Abrahamic religions will instantly recognize the ubiquity of sin.  Yet even those who deny the Torah or its sequels will find disturbing pointers towards god-hatred throughout the anthropological record.  Like Job, humanity frames its own questions and hurls them out into the void: “Who is the mysterious bad actor who has managed to ruin humanity’s prospect of infinite life, perfect health, and universal prosperity?”  The riotous masses are ill-disposed to blame themselves.  Instead, they search for a scapegoat.  From the beginning, the obvious scapegoat was the Creator of the world.  Ignoring the scriptures, humanity concocted its own gnostic myths which portrayed the creator as a blind and potentially malevolent being.

As shocking as that might be, what ensued was even more shocking.  Miraculously, God, concurring with the desires of humanity, willingly offered himself up as a scapegoat.  Out of this miracle issued what Alexander Solzhentizen called “the fragile and diminishing capital of the Christian centuries.”  As a spiritual legacy this is simply the principle of charity but in terms of social capital it had the effect of underwriting the benevolent principle of limited moral liability.  Though never perfect, this enabled God-complient societies to function with temporary moratoriums on vendettas and witch-hunts.   In effect, God offered himself as a buffer between the warring tribes of humanity.

Today this spiritual capital is all but exhausted, and the magicians (i.e., experts, professionals) sit on the seat of the Almighty.  However the masses still assert the same list of non-negotiable demands as they did during the theological ages: infinite life, perfect health, and universal prosperity.  With the disappearance of God, the burden of satisfying these demands has shifted to the expert classes and professions.  They can no longer afford to fail, and yet they are human, only too human.

This hatred remains latent until the experts exhaust their resources, and then it flares forth with implacable fury.  Here we find the answer to our question: What is the origin of elite panic?  It is the fear of total liability.  A total liability assumed for the finite conditions of the human condition, mortality and scarcity.

Can flesh save flesh?

Whether or not the top elites of the political and financial worlds are worried or not, the professional and expert elites are most certainly living in a state of constant anxiety.  It is not the villains, the bad actors, who have a panic problem.  Rather it is the good actors, the heroes, who face the prospect of damnation by humanity if they fail to acquit themselves as beings who possess the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.

There is nothing worse than the fate of a failed magician who is being hunted down as a sorcerer.  Yet this is one consequence of the new Godless social construct which has been erected on the foundation of modern propaganda and technology.  The salient effect of total liability is to render expert elites extremely cautious.  Since the prospect of utter damnation in the court of humanity is so frightful, whether or not it leads to ostracism or the guillotine, prudence borders on panic.  Prudence is, of course, a virtue.  But a new fear seems to have pushed the frontier of prudence towards panic.  What is this new fear?  It cannot be the fear of germs or bullets, meteorological or geological calamity, for these things have been with us for a long time.  If this new fear had any antecedent in traditional societies, it would be what anthropologists call “the evil eye.”  However this new “eye” has been magnified to the dimensions of a global village.  Like the local village of yore, the global village keeps it’s eye on the gods-d’jour waiting for the smallest infraction to cast them in the role of scapegoats.  Under such stringent conditions is it any wonder that panic prevails over common sense?

Yes, we love our heroes of the professional and expert elites, perhaps we even love them to death.  For in removing God from our presence we have also given our elites a deferred death sentence, a question of moral if not physical death.  Their newfound omnipotence is as toxic to heroes as it is intoxicating to the masses.  As Queen sang of Flash Gordon, “He’s saving every one of us!  He’s saving every one of us!”  Yes, that is our unilateral and non-negotiable demand, that everyone be saved.  Unfortunately our Flash Gordons are not up to the task, because Flash is, after all, only flesh.  It is murderously unfair to ask of flesh what can only be accomplished by God.  And yet, there is One who indeed can save, but he is not, contrary to Queen‘s lyrics, “…just a man.”

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Conspriacy Theory, Culture & Politics, Economics, Ethics, Paleoconservativism, propaganda, Science, technology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Can the Praxiology of Mises be considered a special case of Max Scheler’s value objectivism?

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 25, 2020

The thin ethics of libertarianism: In search of a solution

Daniel Ajamian has recently restated Murray Rothbard’s philosophical foundation for libertarian ethics.  As all who are familiar with the philosophy of “paleo-” (or somewhat misleadingly “conservative” ) libertarianism will be aware, Rothbard rejected the utilitarian framework of Ludwig von Mises in favor of an absolutist theory based on natural law.  By the stadards of today’s market of ideas this is a superb world-view, and one which I would be very happy to endorse.  None the less, I am not convinced that Rothbardian natural law theory, based ultimately on Aristotle and Aquinas, is the best that we can do.  Thus in the interests of that “competition” beloved of free-market theorists, I would like to propose an alternative.

Specifically, I would like to consider Max Scheler’s value-objectivism as a meta-ethical framework, within which Misesian praxiology can be comfortably placed as a specific science with its own principles and parameters.  Not only would this be far superior to the vulgar libertarian elevation of Praxiology into a “theory of everything” or TOE, but it would provide an equally ethical, and more integral, meta-ethics compared to that offered by the natural law/virtue theory approach.

Libertarian promise and poverty

Among the deepest objections raised against libertarian ethics are those concerned over the primacy of negative formulations.  Such objections bear a family resemblance to anti-legalistic arguments.  Hence libertarian ethics is seen as a “thou shall not” philosophy.  Of course libertarian legal theorists rightly endorse the primacy of negative rights over the modern obsession with entitlements.  However this is a principle proper to the science of law, a particular department of life and one which falls short of a philosophical anthropology.  Defining human beings as “the animals who can and ought to obey the non-aggression principle” is not an adequate statement of human essence, even if certain libertarians might find it sufficient for their immediate purposes.

One can imagine a world in which all human beings have vanished from the Earth.  In such a world written formulations of the non-aggression axiom would still survive, in libraries, on computer hard-drives and elsewhere.  Even in this scenario, such statements of the non-aggression axiom would remain formally true.  However they would lose all their application, together with most of their meaning.  Such meaning as was retained in a depopulated world would pertain only to a kind of potential being which was no longer actual.  Any non-human intelligences as might decipher these formulae (angels, AI, aliens or whatever) would understand that they referred to some species no longer found on Earth.  If, for example, tigers still remained on the planet, it would be manifest that the non-agression principal had no application to tigers, and was certainly not an artifact of tiger thought or communication.

Perhaps one can think of other, and better, illustrations.  However the inescapable truth is that ethics, not just the non-aggression principle (NAP) but any possible ethics, is a branch of philosophical anthropology, and not the other way around.  To clarify, I use the adjective “philosophical” to distinguish the science of human nature from that interesting and occasionally useful discipline (also called anthropology) which studies bones, tools, genes and words in minute detail.  It is a science which can provide many facts about human beings, but which has become too focused and materialistic to pose philosophical questions about the human essence.

Not that there have been any lack of philosophical anthropologies in the strict sense.  A particular variation of philosophical anthropology is one of the twin pillars on which the whole of Judeo-Christian thought rests, the other being theology.  As for Greek humanism, we tacitly invoke its anthropology whenever we employ the post-Linnean term “homo sapiens.”  Even non-Western thought could not escape the problem of anthropology.  For example Buddhism, though talking grandly of “sentient beings” when called upon to get down to details, expounds on the unique promise and responsibilities of a human incarnation.

On all the above, there is little argument between myself and Mr. Ajamian, or for that matter Rothbard himself.  Unlike the vulgar libertarian for whom a particular (albeit correct) version of ethics has become a religion, the natural law libertarian understands that the non-aggression axiom is meaningless unless it is embedded within a larger theory of nature, and specifically human nature.

Virtue ethics vs. an objective ethics of values

In short, I agree with Mr. Ajamian, Murray Rothbard, C.S. Lewis and all the other good guys that “the abolition of Man” is something we don’t want to do.  Not only do we want human beings as such to thrive and survive, but we want to preserve the unique place in our sciences for “the human” as a category within the cosmos.   However, and this is where I begin to part company with Rothbard and Ajamian, there are several ways in which this might be done.  One is broad path laid out by Aristotle, Aquinas, and the late Scholasitics, starting out with the Catholics, branching out to Protestant Scholasticism, and on down to our day, possibly including such offshoots as the Straussians.  This is the natural law tradition, in all its venerable, rational, and well-demonstated glory.  However I think there is at least one other way to embed libertarian principles within a larger human and natural context.  This other way is less familiar and somewhat more difficult to understand than the natural law tradition.  However I think it holds the promise of a closer connection between ontology and ethics than is possible in the hybrid natural-law-plus-libertarianism approach of Rothbard and his close adherents.  Without depreciating the genius of Rothbard, for me it is enough to be a loose adherent.

This path less chosen is the non-formal ethics of values discovered by Max Scheler.  The key concepts in Scheler’s ethics are value and person.  In contrast to the economic concept of value (found in its pure form only in the Austrian school) Scheler’s ethics are objective, not subjective.  This sounds, at first blush, like a basic incompatibility.  However Scheler’s system of ethics is notable for its hierarchical arrangement of values.  This calls to mind the way in which Austrian graphs demonstrate valuation in ordinal units.  However Scheler’s hierarchy is much broader in scope, dealing with the basic structure of human needs rather than individual acts of choice.  In general, Scheler’s hierarchy ranges from material values at or near the bottom, up to spiritual values at the top.  Hence it is not a value-free method, of the sort endorsed by Ludwig von Mises, but later criticized by Rothbard as an inadequate basis for ethics.  Of course Rothbard endorsed both subjectivism and value freedom within the parameters of the theory of exchange.  Like Scheler, Rothbard did not feel that economic subjectivism could be expanded into a “theory of everything” and to head off any such vulgar assumption he had recourse to the bedrock notions of natural law theory.

Rothbard’s natural-law objectivism provides a workable philosophy for libertarians who sense they need to base their opinions on something more substantial than utilitarianism, even the judicious meta-utilitarianism of Ludwig von Mises.  However, as Mr. Ajamian is candid enough to admit, there is something adventitious about Rothbard’s synthesis of modern libertarian theory and the natural law tradition.  Anyone with a historical appreciation of that tradition will realize that, from Aristotle onward, that it contains the concept of the “political animal” as an integral component.  Born out of the pagan polis, albeit Christianized over the centuries, the bedrock layer of natural law theory is collectivist, albeit a collectivism which has been increasingly modified in the direction of individualism with the passing of the ages.

Up until Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (the former presenting any historian of thought with peculiar problems) the modern libertarian movement bore much greater resemblance to Kantianism than the natural law tradition.  The representative American libertarian of the 20th century was, like Kant, an advocate of the supremacy of ethics over life.  This may be considered a gross overstatement, and unfair both to the subtlety of Immanuel Kant and the benevolence of libertarians, but I am trying to paint the spirit of a movement in the boldest possible colors.  Yet at a more cognitive level, it should be obvious to any philosophically informed reader of Ludwig von Mises that he was a very original, but also very orthodox neo-Kantian.

Mises vs. Scheler, the men vs. their methods

Unfortunately it appears that Mises and Scheler, though contemporaries, never met.  Worse, what they knew of one another, either through publication or third parties, was mutually misunderstood.  What Scheler thought of economics is probably irrelevant.  What is more relevant is his historical relationship to Immanuel Kant.  Up until Scheler all philosophy was either non-Kantian (Thomism, Scottish Realism etc.) or neo-Kantianism.   Scheler, at least according to his own claims, was the first genuinely post-Kantian thinker.  In other words, he was the first philosopher to critically examine Kant, extract what was true in his thinking, and then set out in a completely different direction.  One might think this was of relevance in light of what I mentioned concerning the affinity between American-style libertarianism and Kantian thought.

At a more substantial level, Scheler’s thought was tightly wrapped around the primacy of persons.  He made a sharp distinction between the person, which he considered a real entity, and the individual which he deemed little more than an abstraction.  Given this, and that he had no great regard for either Manchester Liberalism or Herbert Spencer, it is no wonder that the insights of Scheler’s thought have remained largely invisible to libertarians.  None the less, a strong family resemblance remains between personalists and individualists.  In the case of Scheler, the theory of personalism is developed to such depths that it can incorporate both individualist and collectivist approaches to the person.

Finally, and most critically, we arrive at the objectivity and hierarchical nature of values.  This, it seems to me, is the most promising alternative to natural law theory as a foundation for libertarian thought and practice.  The question of the compatibility of Austrian value-subjectivism and Schelerian value-objectivism is easily answered by noting that first, that “values” referred to are different concepts , and second, that one is a special case of the other.  Scheler actually hints that the subjective nature of economic calculation is intrinsic to its (rather low) position on his hierarchy of values.  This might be a blow to the ego of economists, but should bear no reflection on the worth of their science.

Both Schelerian value-ethics and the virtue ethics of natural law theory are adequate to circumscribe and support libertarian thought.  This is because both assert the value and dignity of the human person.  My preference for Scheler is based on a hunch that value-ethics will tend to be more flexible and less collectivist in the long run, while remaining just as objective as the natural law tradition.  A correlative hunch is that virtue ethics bears considerable affinity with statism (remember Robespierre’s “cult of virtue”).

Whether I am right about this or not, it is better not to approach Scheler’s philosophy with excessive veneration for Scheler’s opinions, political or otherwise.  He was a man of constant changes, embracing a wide variety of causes, and equally willing to repent of his past mistakes.  Libertarians should view his sneers at Manchester liberalism and Herbert Spencer as typical of a man of insatiable curiosity who frequently jumped to conclusions before jumping off to other matters.  However this was only at the edges, at his core Scheler professed a deep and consistent theory of ethics, one which in its objectivity and compatibility with human dignity rivals the natural law tradition.  One should not expect to agree with the man entirely, any more than Murray Rothbard would have agreed with Thomas Aquinas entirely.

Posted in Anthropology, Ayn Rand, Christianity, culture, Economics, History, Judaism, Law, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Yiskah Lopez sings us a new song in prose and spirit

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 4, 2019

Yiskah Lopez sings us a new song in prose and in spirit

A review of “The Open Door to My Soul” by Yiskah Lopez

This book is written in a special language.  Never mind that, apart from a light seasoning of Hebrew, which only serves to enhance its taste, Ms. Lopez’s small volume is mostly written in easy to understand English.  Rather, the actual language is one of the heart, written in symbols which communicate intimately to the soul.  Some people call this “the language of roots and branches” and there are various other esoteric and academic names for this as well, but knowing any of this is unnecessary to appreciate the substance of the work.  Indeed, there is quite a difference between a deep story and a sophisticated book.  In many ways they are opposites, and “The Open Door to My Soul” definitely falls into the first category.

Exoterically, this is a romantic tale about love, horses, and the desert.  Actually, you don’t need to know anything about horses or the desert to appreciate the story.  Certainly I don’t, although the author (and here I refer to the carnal plane of our world) knows a great deal about both.  So when we see things occurring in the story which don’t seem justified by our mundane experience, we can’t simply assume that this is a mistake committed through a lack of expert knowledge.  Rather, we are being invited to check our assumptions, and enter into the gates of a different mode of experience.

In literature, a gate of transcendence sometimes appears as a concrete device within the story itself.  For example, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia the gate is a wardrobe in the back of an apartment during the Battle of Britain.  Likewise, in Ms. Lopez’s tale, we enter through the historical experience of Yemenite Jews in the year 1948, just as they are on the verge of disappearing as a separate people, and entering upon an ethnic afterlife as an Israeli ethnic group.  However the story takes on a life of its own, and a critical reader using this narrative to glean concrete facts about Yemen in 1948 is as wrongheaded as someone trying to use Narnia as a London street map.

None the less, the transposition of the narrative from history to symbolism doesn’t nullify the significance of the Yemeni background.  Much like today, there were horrible things taking place in the Yemen of 1948.  Even though these realities aren’t explored in gruesome detail, Ms. Lopez, or perchance her angel, expects us to be aware of them, and much, much more.  We are expected to know that the people of Teman (a.k.a. the “Yemenite Jews”) were a separated people within a separate people, and that their historical consciousness and records stretched back through a spiritual stratigraphy into the depths of Biblical times.  For the inquiring historian, there are plenty of other books covering the particulars of their mores, customs and literature, a few of which are referenced at the back of Ms. Lopez’s volume.  Needless to say, the very existence of such a people was and is a living reproach to religions and traditions of more recent pedigree.

Granted, “The Open Door…” is not a realistic treatment of either ethnology or history.  The words “radio” and “automobile” never appear in the text, although many such artefacts existed in both the Kingdom of Yemen and the Aiden Protectorate by mid-20th century. More subtly, as a symbolic venture Ms. Lopez’s work fails to teach us the technicalities of the equestrian arts or the ecology of desert biomes, yet its purpose is indeed to teach us something, which brings us to the third item in its trinity of noematic objects: Love.   This is a handbook of how to love victoriously in a world dominated by a wicked angel, a god of hate.  If we take this as a given, there is even less point in dwelling on the specifics of pogroms than the vanished glories of Temani liturgics.  The deed is done, and the protagonist’s family is sanctified by the second chapter.  Henceforth we depart from history and enter into the world of symbols.

If we were look through the eyes of psychology, we could easily dismiss the rest of the story as the protagonist’s zoomorphic transposition of trauma, a kind of self defence mechanism, somewhat along the lines “the life of Pi.”  However, this is not the author’s intention, and we should not reject her invitation to a more spiritual perspective.  After all, the protagonist and her murdered parents are just as fictional as the powerful equine characters who shortly enter the narrative.  For the critical theorist, any sort of spirituality is bound to appear delusional, however this is not psychology, but allegory, a hallmark of which is that the protagonist takes a very activist and ultimately victorious stance in overcoming her situation.  Psychology, at least the kind of “talking-psychology” which was popular in the last century, is big on interpretation and short on rectification, hence endless analysis.

Unlike psychotherapy, romantic fiction always comes to a resolution.  In this respect, romantic fiction, an innovation of the West, it is an outgrowth of the Messianic impulse imparted to the European world by Christianity.  Yet “The Open Door to My Soul” is not romantic fiction either, rather it may be likened to a stream flowing out of that primitive aquafer from which the waters of Western romanticism had been originally diverted.  Now that the West has rejected its God, the sons of Japeth are no longer worthy of dwelling in the tents of Shem.  Henceforth, those of us among the mixed multitude fleeing nihilism will have to make it back to the tents of Shem without the aid of the crumbling artefacts of the Western mind.

At the risk of being mistaken for simple minded infatuation, “The Open Door to My Soul” reverts to this primitive Messianic mode of expression.  The language of love is never improved by sophistication, and this is especially true of symbolic prose, which tries to depict spiritual realities using the broad brushstrokes of powerful, animate, descriptions.  This kind of spiritual literature attains a simple mindedness analogous to the visual simple mindedness of a Blake painting.  Of course this is not real simple mindedness, but elegance, as in the elegance of a mathematical proof.

Not believing in spoilers, I have tried to be circumspect on the specifics of Ms. Lopez’s work, to the point where I have even neglected to name its protagonist.  On that point I’ll relent and tell you that her name is Azia, which Ms. Lopez informs us means “the rising sun” in Arabic, that tongue being a tact and tacit mode of expression among the vulnerable Jewish community of pre-1948 Yemen.   Azia is portrayed as being very young, but if I am not mistaken would be about sixty years Ms. Lopez’s senior in historical time.  But of course this story takes place in archetypal time so the separation between the soul of Azia and Ms. Lopez, or for that matter between either of their souls and any of ours, is not as great as one might assume.  Ultimately, this story is an instruction, not a history.

I fear that, in having defended Ms. Lopez from the charge of a merely romantic simplicity, I have laid myself open to the accusation of reading too much esoteric content into a simple love story.  So in order to establish some degree of credibility I’ll throw another spoiler into the pot.  At one point early in the narrative Azia and the dark horse who rescued her are suddenly joined by 70 other horses of all different colours.  Keep in mind that this story is set against a background of war and problematic international relations.  Do you see what is going on?  Do you understand what the significance of the seventy is?  If so you can read the language that “The Open Door to My Soul” is written in.  You may also know that this language has been perverted and abused by forces which seek to harm the human race.

Therefore I have glad tidings for you.  In hands such as that of Ms. Lopez, this language is capable of being restored to the original innocence intended by its Creator.  In spite of its dark setting, “The Open Door to My Soul” is an instruction of hope, and is sure to be a blessing to any who read it.

But what if you don’t understand?  Even so, it won’t do you any harm, which is saying a great deal considering the quality of much contemporary literature.  At worst, you will be able to enjoy scoffing at the story as another hackneyed tale of a girl, a horse, and a mysterious lover.  However it may leave you perplexed, when, having pigeonholed it as a romantic potboiler, it refuses to end the way a proper romantic novel is supposed to.  Enjoy!

—Mark Sunwall

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Christianity, culture, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, Historical Romance, Historical Romance, Judaism, Kabbalah, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

Why do we love? vs. Why should we love?

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 24, 2019

The answer is determined by our initial question

When our conversations come around to love, sometimes it’s “Why do we?” and sometimes it’s “Why should we?”   In the course of ordinary life, and in the distorted mirror of the tabloid press, the first question wins the popularity prize hands down.  “Why did she run away from home to hitch up with the leader of the motorcycle gang?”  For love!  Yet we occasionally hear another, smaller voice, making similar but distinct inquiries. “Why should we feed the poor and care for the widow and the orphan?”  For love!  Love may not answer all questions, but it certainly poses as an answer to a surprising range of situations.  Unless we can learn to make some distinctions, we are liable to wind up in a maze of contradictory life-decisions based on an attractive but undefined word.

Shaul of Tarsus (a.k.a., the Apostle Paul) famously noted that without love, our moral pretensions are little more than “clanging cymbals.”   Yet it seems to me that the bare word “love” devoid of understanding, is more dangerous than any clanging cymbal, rather love itself is a clanging, and often changing, symbol.  Plausibly, the word “love” is the most consequential, and dangerous, instance of what linguists call the gap between sign and signified.  In a sense everyone recognizes the chameleon like quality of the “l-word” which makes it such a fruitful source double meaning in art and media.  Yet beyond the word-play is a serious question of philosophical anthropology.  After all, human beings generally seem to have love-on-the brain in one or another sense.  Hence, should the human race be characterized as a species of loving animals, in a style similar to Aristotle’s classification of humanity as the species of rational animals?  That’s a very attractive, very humanistic, line of thought.  Moreover, by “humanism” I don’t mean a threadbare secular humanism, but a humanism which arises from the noblest sentiments of the Christian tradition.  I’m sorry, but that line of thought comes to a dead end.  That’s a “spoiler” in more senses than one, since I would like to follow up by giving the claims of the love-party (and I mean a philosophical school, not an orgy) the serious consideration which they deserve.  What are human beings that we should love them?

Form or Essence?

It seems to me that this was the very rock on which Western civilization floundered.  At some point in history, let’s conjecture that it was around the time of the First World War, it was decided, at least in the Western world, that there was no such thing as human nature.  True, there were bipedal organisms walking around talking and acting, but they were plastic in nature, or in our modern cybernetic terminology, we would say that they were “reprogramible”…instead of a human nature, there was a human “x”.  Now, how does that comport with our notions about loving our fellow beings?  Previously I pointed out that there are two primary notions about love.  1) the formal (or duty) theory, “You shall love your fellow x as yourself!”, and 2) the personalist (or humanist) notion “You will naturally love x because x is intrinsically lovable.”  I don’t know about you, but I find both of those statements very unsatisfying.  How are you supposed to have any sort of attitude (least of all love!) towards something who’s nature you are unaware of?  How do you love an “x” in the algebraic sense?

One of the last major hold-outs for the idea that there was such a thing as “human nature” was Max Scheler.  I have been drawing attention to Scheler as a touchstone for understanding the decline of modern thought.  I don’t claim to be a Scheler scholar, and still less a “Schelerian” even if such a school has survived down to the present.   On the contrary, I consider his philosophy to have been a failure, but a very instructive one.  Scheler’s system was the proverbial canary in the mine shaft, the death of which was a harbinger of the darkening of Western thought.  Though Scheler, the man, died too young, he had already outlived his mature thought.  In retrospect, this seems tragic, but it didn’t seem so to Scheler at the time.  Rather, he spent his last years busying himself with a different system, a kind of forerunner to what would soon be marketed as “existence-philosophy” or existentialism.  Although it was too early to say as much, by the late 20s of the  last century Scheler was already transitioning from essentialism to existentialism.

During his classic, essentialist, period Scheler was a leading advocate for “love potion #2” as described above.  He strongly opposed “love potion #1” particularly in the form given it by Immanuel Kant, that one has a duty to care for one’s fellow humans as if one loved them, even if one were not emotionally on-board with the sentiment we normally call love towards them.  As a phenomenologist, Scheler felt that shared values could overcome the separation between individual minds, and that the lovability of certain types of people who embodied positive values would naturally evoke a love response.  Moreover he posited a hierarchy of values, embodied by persons who’s appreciation would enable their loving admirers to climb a ladder of ethics, and ultimately lead to their sanctification.  It is hard to imagine a more satisfactory way of resolving the problems of life.  Time-slipping seventy years into the future Huey Lewis and the News would sing.

It don’t take money

It don’t take fame

Don’t need no credit card to ride that train

Its the power, that’s the power of Love!

So what went wrong?  At one moment it seemed as if Scheler’s system of value-ethics would supplant that of Thomas Aquinas as the foremost philosophy of the Christian world.  Then suddenly Scheler becomes an atheist, giving philosophical pointers to Martin Heidigger, who in turn gives pointers to Jean Paul Sartre (a Nazi and a Communist respectively).

Saints or Heros?

At the risk of oversimplifying the complexities of his thought, it seems to me that Max Scheler was a victim of wishful thinking.  True, he acknowledged that on the lower register of values, love-attraction would be based on thinking which was indistinguishable from utilitarianism (Scheler opposed utilitarianism), i.e., “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  However at the high end he posited two embodied values, the saint and the hero, which would evoke love in its purest form.  My feeling is that the value of the hero got in the way of the value of the saint, even though it is nominally secondary in Scheler’s classical system.  Scheler wants to say that the heroic is the penultimate stepping stone on the upward path to sanctification.  Once we have learned a whole hearted love of Achilles we are on the brink of understanding and loving Christ.

Now in fairness, I doubt that Scheler ever used the transition from Achilles to Christ as an illustration of his hierarchy of values.  Rather, I am bringing it up to point out a fundamental weakness in Scheler’s ethics, since it should be obvious that the values in question are not complimentary but contradictory.  It is a far cry from the self-deification of Achilles to the kenosis of the Messiah, although to conflate them would presumably remove some of the rough edges from Christianity and serve the interest of the Western project by integrating Hellenism and Hebraism.   Indeed, the idea of a progressive (note that word!) hierarchy of values, is essential to the theory of human nature which Scheler espoused, at least in his early thought.  In this system, not only does the human species have a nature, but that nature is essentially good.

Alas, we cannot freeze history at the flourishing of “classic Scheler” even if we wanted to.  As a matter of fact, the Non-Formal Ethics of Values was being released in installments just as the Great War was decimating the populations of Europe.  After that debacle, there was less appetite for heroes and heroism.  Philosophically, the concept of a human nature began to evoke discomfort, and ultimately skepticism.  At the time, it seemed more realistic to view humanity as a collection of finite individuals, anxious about their mortality and insignificance in the cosmos.  Hence, until the rise of something even worse (post-Modernism), the fall back philosophy for generic intellectuals became a vague “existentialism.”  Human beings survived, but anthropology (in a philosophical sense) was abandoned.

Far from advocating a “return to Scheler” perhaps we should examine whether the optimist/essential vs. pessimist/existential opposition exhausts all possibilities.  What about the pessimist/essential doctrine found in the Biblical narrative of sin and the fall?  And that brings us back to love.  If, empirically, human beings are best characterized by their viciousness rather than their virtues, then the worst mistake we could make would be to love them “for who they are”!  We are left with a seemingly dismal alternative, either not to love at all (since to love human beings is to love evil) or to love because we are commanded to love.  Since the latter alternative is preferable by far, it would seem that Kant has won the argument and Scheler has lost.

Yes, we must love, and that whether or not our emotions feel like loving or not.  What a paradox!  No wonder that most people find Kant to be a dry and formidable thinker.  But the situation may not be as bleak as all that.  Max Scheler, for all of his faults, was closer to being a man of religious feeling than Kant ever was.  If we were able to find even one man who was intrinsically lovable, then perhaps we can salvage something of Scheler’s personalism.  Indeed, there are many who believe that just such a man existed, a Jewish rabbi who walked on this Earth some two thousand years ago.  And if on his account, we love all the rest…what harm is there in that?


Posted in Anthropology, Art, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Hermenutics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Who put the damn in Notre Dame?

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 16, 2019

We have met the enemy and he is us

There is a near universal sadness and shock at the loss of what is arguably the most iconic cathedral, not just of France, but of Western Christianity.  There will no doubt arise an acrimonious debate about penultimate causes.  Who’s negligence?  Or was it terrorism?  I foresee a thousand theories launched.  Let’s skip all that and proceed to the ultimate cause, who is God.  And by the way, who is God?

Does this offend you?  That God would burn down his own cathedral, using whatever human agency might be at hand.  If you are offended, then good, since it means you have already inferred the reasoning behind God’s action, that we are no longer worthy of Notre Dame, or any of the beautiful things which were made by men and women of faith (however imperfect that faith might have been) to glorify their Creator.

What kind of God would do such a thing?  A God with integrity.  If you think, no, that is impossible, then your god isn’t even as honorable as the hero in an Ayn Rand novel.  Rand was an atheist, but she tried to endow her characters with fragments of the very divinity which she denied.  In The Fountainhead, when architect Howard Roark’s plans for a housing project are compromised by faithless colleague, architect turns arsonist and burns down his own creation.  God is like that.  It is odd that many atheists have a better grasp on a theology which they eschew, than self-professed “Christians.”

From Christians to Europeans

The reaction is predictably histrionic.  Even with the flames still licking at the nave, Macron vows to rebuild.  The very Macron who perfectly epitomizes the essence of post-Christian, post-national Europe.  Why rebuild?  Because it is a symbol?  A symbol of what?  Perhaps a symbol of an ancient faith, like the Parthenon, which has been preserved for aesthetic and historical reasons.   The one thing we can be sure of, is that Notre Dame no longer symbolizes the reality of the secular society which surrounds it.  Secular France replaced Christianity, and Europe (if Macron has any say about it) will replace France, just as the Planetary Over-soul is scheduled to replace Europe and the other regional civilizations.  In the meantime the historic buildings are to be kept around, as a solace for the nostalgic and a lure for the tourist industry.

This is what the Bible calls an “abomination” and even those who are loath to receive Moses might take note of how gently a certain Yeshua ben Yosef treated merchants who commercialized sacred space.  That’s God in action, and he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry about Notre Dame, but I didn’t make the rules, He did.

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

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.



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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!

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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.



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