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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

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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.

 

 

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

The book of Esther and the right of self-defense

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 20, 2019

You can’t make this stuff up

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

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

So…Does this nonsense have any practical application?

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

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

When resistance was futile

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

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

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

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

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

 

The miracle of self-defense 

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

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

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

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

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

Have a happy Purim!

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

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

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

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

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

The Test Case

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

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

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

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

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

How would Jesus think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 5, 2019

Knowledge and Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gnostic Love vs. Christian Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 1) Do we need to go back to school with Max Scheler?

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A man who could not decide whether he wanted to be a playboy or a philosopher is probably not the best advertisement for a new ethics of love.   Yet out of charity it should at least be noted that Max Scheler was considered by his contemporaries (and I concur) the most brilliant thinker of his country and generation.  This was no mean accomplishment since the “time and place” was a still vibrant and relatively free Germany at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even if you havn’t heard of Scheler, and there are many reasons why you probably havn’t, none the less there are serious grounds for reexamining the kind of problems Scheler grappled with.    Notably this included the question: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?”  Furthermore, according to our understanding of “what a person is” what impact does that have on the relationship between rights and obligations, between law and love?

I’m not saying that Scheler resolved these problems in a completely satisfactory way.  Indeed, his philosophy resembles a ruined cathedral, at one time complete from foundation to tower, where the builder suddenly changed his mind and tore everything down to the second story.  That foundation, which Scheler insisted was serviceable no matter what religion (or none) one professed, was what he called a “non-formal ethics of values. ” Admittedly, this “non-formal ethics of values”, is just the sort of jawbreaker that you might expect to emerge from the cerebral jungles of German scholarship.  Yet, rightly understood a non-formal ethics of values gives us a key to deal with many thorny problems where the post-modern world has come up against a conceptual dead end.

For example, whom should we consider the rightful inheritor of Christ’s spiritual mantle, the modern political left or the modern political right?  Weighty and irreconcilable claims to a moral, if not apostolic, succession are made on both sides of the aisle.   To oversimplify, which should we acknowledge as the true gospel of political ethics: the left’s advocacy of indiscriminate and unconditional love or the right’s advocacy of absolute rights and righteousness?  The catch phrase here is “to oversimplify” since without further analysis of these bald claims, they both seem to rest on valid premises.   Agreed, we need to be both righteous and loving, and until we come up against a crisis where decisive action is required one way or the other, it would seem that we can eat our cake and have it too.  But then what?  In order to resolve this issue, and many like it, we need greater sensitivity.  Not greater emotional sensitivity (although that might be a desirable consequence) but a greater intellectual sensitivity.  Through phenomenological investigation Max Scheler developed his understanding of the difference between formal ethics and a non-formal ethics of values.  We need not endorse his conclusions, but we can utilize some of his discoveries as tools for resolving the dilemmas of modernity post-modernity.  It all starts by reexamining what we mean by “the person” and “persons.”  Indeed, are persons important at all, or just illusory sparkles on the surface of a vast ocean of existence?

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

Let’s begin with the person of the hour.  Love him or hate him, everyone agrees that Mr. Trump has shaken things up on a grand scale.  Even his supporters are divided over the extent to which he has succeeded in fulfilling his promises.  But nobody doubts that his presidency has been educational.  For good or for ill, many things have been brought to light which were hidden prior to the last few years.  Most of these revelations have been social and political, and concern the influence of elites and/or the frustration of the popular will.  Yet hiding in plain sight is possibly the most important revelation of all, a metaphysical revelation in the truest sense.  Trump, of all people, has reminded everyone on the planet about the primacy of personal.

Central to the modernist movement has been an insinuation that all history, human as well as cosmic, reflects the movement of vast impersonal forces, within which individuals have little significance except to appear on the stage of life as pathetic victims.  Negatively, this expresses itself through seemingly self-evident critiques of “great man” theories, to which the adjective “discredited” is always applied.  Positively, it manifested through much of the 20th century as existentialism, the idea that the most heroic thing a human being could do was to accept the futility of life and derive meaning through suffering.  Both these moments in the self-depreciation of human life have a certain plausibility.  After all, heaven forbid that we return to the kind of hero-worship depicted by Thomas Carlyle, which reflected the Victorian world’s trauma in the aftermath of the Napoleonic episode.  Likewise, the ubiquity of human suffering certainly justifies highlighting the limitations and frustrations of existence.

Yet, viewing the 20th century in hindsight, it appears that the devaluation of the person was as much a product of propaganda as intrinsic plausibility.  Indeed, it was the high-tide of that movement against theism and personalism which was birthed in the so-called Enlightenment and then picked up momentum among the ideologues of the 19th century.  Through it all, personalist world-views never lacked exponents, of whom Max Scheler was but one voice, yet the general atmosphere of thought weighed heavily in favor of the subordination spiritual life to inexorable forces: mechanical, biological, social and (here is where it gets dicey) psychological.  If we drift spiritually, we are apt to forget that we, both self and others, are persons.  That is precisely what “they” i.e. the adversaries of personalism, who are arguably not forces but persons-in-hiding themselves, want us to forget.

In that context, consider how an individual like Donald Trump might be threatening to adherents of the impersonalist world-view.  After all, he seems to be an atavism, a sport of nature, an exception to the uniformity of history.  Naturally he is hated by those who detest his policies, but he is even disparaged by those who would normally be considered fellow travelers.  The common line is that policies are supposed to be planned and enacted by teamwork, not by rogue agents.  Yet there he is, right or wrong, reminding us that an individual can divert the course of history, if not to order, at least to some extent.  This might be the furthest thing in the world from ethical individualism, yet it demonstrates, as nothing else could, the plausibility of a personalist world-view.

Apart from being playboys, Scheler and Trump would seem worlds apart.  The reflective thinker on the one hand, the impulsive actor on the other.  Yet the present moment in history is one of flux, one which gives lie to the myth of material forces proceeding on to a determined end.  The individual has returned with a vengeance, and this should lead us to renewed reflection on personalism in both ethics and metaphysics.

 

 

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Moses and Monotheism: The rationalization of faith and theological divergence between Judaism and Christianity

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 5, 2019

The Problem Stated

This article “Moses and Monotheism” is intended as one contribution within what will hopefully be a series of articles on the original schism, from the first century CE onward, within the religion of the Bible, a schism which led to the development of two systems of religion, one called Christianity and the other called Judaism.   It will be taken as axiomatic that the religion of the apostles (including the apostle Paul) was one Jewish sect among many, and arguably the most promising at the time.  It is not important what we call this original, integral faith, as any number of names could be suggested, such as the “church of Yakob (brother of Jesus/Yeshua)”, the “Mother church of Jerusalem/Yerusalayim”, the “Ebionites” or whatever.   For a variety of reasons, from a very early point in the history of the Jesus movement, forces began to exert themselves pulling the faith in diametrically opposed directions.

Over the centuries the systems called Christianity and Judaism became increasingly distinct and alienated from one another.  This process of divergence continued until, as some would maintain, the time of the European enlightenment (17th, 18th centuries CE) after which some movements towards partial convergence began to appear.  Yet today the issues of “who owns the Bible” or rather, has a right to interpret it, remains tense and chaotic.  Obviously the question involves a vast array of issues which need to be separated and treated in detail.  Methodological materialists will maintain that the salient factors were invariably those concerned with politics and ethnicity.  I don’t deny that these factors were crucial in historical development, however these essays are intended to be contributions to the history of ideas.  What, we wonder, was the content of faith among the various groups claiming to be the people of God.  To the extent that these ideas were similar, we presume convergence, while to the extent the content of faith differed, we presume divergence among the different communities.  Ideas have consequences.

Although this author is not a supporter of the theory of evolution, evolutionary metaphor has become ubiquitous in our language, and can be used with advantage to describe the historical movement of religious thought and practice.  In evolutionary terms, I suggest that the Judaism/Christianity distinction did not result from a sudden discontinuous jump, or what scholars call a “saltation.”  In tacit testimony to the weakness of the original theory, many evolutionary biologists today endorse a theory of “saltations” or punctuated evolution in which new species appeared through sudden mutation and immediately flourished.  Analogously, the split between Judaism and Christianity is frequently described as issuing from a once and forever bill of divorce, although the timing of the split (was it at Pentacost, or the council of Jerusalem…or as late as Nicea?) depends on where each particular historian locates the “saltation.”

Conversely, the view of doctrinal divergence found here resembles the older theories of evolution, which depicted the gradual separation of species over vast periods of time.  Although different in both substance and time-scale, the gradual drifting apart of Christianity and Judaism can be described in similar evolutionary language.  Possession of common scriptures ensured that there would forever be some common denominator within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However theological and intellectual developments (among others) tended to polarize and distance the core doctrines of the two systems.  Judaism and Christianity were further apart in the year 800 CE than they had been in 400 CE, and further apart in 1800 CE than in 1100 CE.  This pulling apart of a common Judeo-Christian heritage and identity was not necessarily the consequence of animus or ill-will on either side, although it was certainly set against a civilizational background of increasing animosity.  For here I am not speaking of polemics between Christians and Jews, but rather doctrinal disputes within each of the religious systems, in which the victorious opinion nearly always resulted in a consensus which was increasingly opposed to the parallel and ongoing consensus of the other religious system.  To give a significant example, we can imagine a world in which the iconoclasts (“icon breakers”) had carried the day in the 8th c. CE among orthodox Christians.  However it was their theological adversaries, the iconodules (“icon lovers”), who actually won.  The dispute had little to do with Jews or Judaism, however the victory of the iconodules removed Christian beliefs and practices even further from those of Judaism.

Rather than being a simple morality play starring theological villains, the gradual ripping apart of a Judeo-Christian theological consensus was frequently the result of well-intended attempts to purify doctrine either on the Jewish or the Christian side.  Working with significantly different initial premises, the substantial gap between Jewish and Christian religious thought was accentuated as religious thinking became more explicit.  Thus notions common to Christians and Jews, notions such as Creation, Sin, Redemption, and Messiah, which from the outsider standpoint of pagans, witnessed to such a strong family resemblance between the two faiths…these very notions, subject to doctrinal analysis and elaboration, became the most divisive issues  of all.

One final, and supremely important caveat is in order.  This is not an essay on soterology.  Religions may “evolve” but the choice to give one’s allegiance to a Messiah is an either/or choice.  The best analogy for this Messianic choice would be from secular politics, e.g., an individual choosing or rejecting a candidate for office in the voting booth, which is a demonstrated, instantaneous, choice.  Conversely, the discussion which follows, according to the political analogy, would resemble the ex post constitutional legitimation of a particular electoral result, which might entail a discussion of political norms as they developed through time.  Thus while these issues are intimately related, the one concerns a single, instantaneous act, while the other describes a process transpiring through an extended period.  Furthermore, the first concerns the actions of individuals, and the second the moral and doctrinal consensus of faith communities.  Hence from a soterological point of view, yes, there was an instantaneous split between Jews who accepted and Jews who rejected Yeshua ha-Mochiah in the First Century CE.  Here however we are talking about the evolution of Christianity and Judaism into two separate religions, something which required time.  Furthermore, in this essay, I will not be focusing on the initial estrangement, but on the work of one Jewish philosopher who at a much later period of time played  a major part in sealing the split and rendering it irreconcilable.

There was no Moses like Moses until Moses

For my own ideosyncratic reasons I am going to highlight Moses Maimonides who can be located well past the mid-way point in the divergence between Judaism and Christianity.  Maimonides was a polymath who wrote extensively on medicine, Jewish law, and philosophy.  Here we will be focusing on his philosophical and theological opinions, and in particular his critique of anthropomorphism.  I will be supporting the thesis that the Maimonidean critique of anthropomorphism, whether or not it was consciously aimed at Christianity, had the net effect of driving Judaism and Christianity further apart.  As a result of post-Maimonidean theology,  today we have alternate taxonomies of Judaism within the field of comparative religion.  According to one taxonomy, Judaism-Islam represent parallel continuations of the primitive Abrahamic faith.  In the alternative taxonomy, Judeo-Christian religion is seen as a continuum based on shared scriptures.  Arguably the first view has attained majority status.  For example, Gordon Melton’s encyclopedia of American faiths, after starting with “Roman Catholicism” as its initial entry, places “Judaism-Islam” in its own chapter, unrelated to any Christian sects.  Such a placement is jarring to students who are familiar with the use of “Judeo-Christian” in American political rhetoric, but justified according to the Maimonidean reform of Jewish theology which was initiated around the 12th century CE.

Why Maimonides?  Like most religions, Judaism denies that it has developed in principle, while maintaining a scrupulous record of its own development, even giving names to the successive generations of rabbis who have contributed to the refinement of law, doctrine, and custom.  However within this smooth arc of development, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) represents something of a discontinuity.  Although many factors contribute to his unique celebrity within the history of both orthodox and extra-orthodox Judaism, his status as the originator of “Jewish theology” is the salient factor within the context of the present discussion.  Here too, the title of “Father of Jewish Theology” would be misleading, since obviously Jews have been arguing about theological ideas since the revelation on Sinai.  What is unique to Maimonides, and which shaped philosophical and theological discussion in subsequent generations, was rendering hitherto tacit theological opinions explicit.  Prior to Maimonides there was no attempt to draw up a Jewish creed with the kind of unequivocal clarity which characterized the Nicean creed of trinitarian Christianity.   The creed of Maimonides was not only first, but set the standard for similar attempts by subsequent Jewish philosophers, none of which ever supplanted it in popularity among Jewish communities.  Likewise  The Guide for the Perplexed was his attempt to hammer out precise ideas on a variety of topics related to theology and philosophy.  Since it concerned a leading issue of the day, i.e., the relation of science (a.k.a., Aristotle) to religion, it became an instant classic.   Today it is more honored than read, yet the effect of the Guide on both Jewish and world thought is incalculable.

Of the various chapters in the Guide, none have been more celebrated among both Christians and Jews than those which focus on the issue of anthropomorphism. Always anxious to distance themselves from what were considered the “crudities” of the so-called “Old Testament”  the Scholastics of the the middle ages were happy to find a rabbi who endorsed the allegorical treatment of embarrassing passages within scripture.  In the Christian world Maimonides was well received qua philosopher, though of course not as a Jewish apologist.  Since church doctrine was divided between Theology and Christology, the Scholastics were able to appropriate the insights of Maimonides in the former field while ignoring their implications for the latter.  The high middle ages witnessed the heyday of “negative theology” and many thinkers of that time were convinced that it was both safer and truer to define God according to what He was not rather than making any positive attributions to the Godhead.  In this rarified atmosphere the anti-anthropomorphism of Maimonides found great favor.  However this appreciation fell short of genuine intellectual  convergence, which was rendered moot since Christian anthropomorphism had simply, and quite properly, migrated from the field of Theology (“What is God?”) to Christology (“Who is Christ?”).  The former question was thought to be resolvable by reflections on abstract philosophy and the laws of nature, (“realism” according to the nomenclature of the time) while the latter question was only resolvable according to direct experience of concrete things and events (again, according to the nomenclature of the time, this was called “nominalism.”  Parenthetically, the Protestantism of a later time would grow out of this “nominalism”).  Accordingly, the insights of Maimonides were utilized in the first field and ignored in the latter.

In contrast to this generally favorable appreciation of Maimonides among the Scholastics, his thought became an instant bone of contention among his fellow Jews, at least in so far as they had strong convictions in theology and philosophy.  While respected as a rabbi and physician, no sooner was the Guide published than the Jewish world became divided between Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans.  This philosophical and theological division persists, albeit in a very low key manner, even today, in spite of a general desire to paper over the fine points and present Jewish, or at least orthodox, thought as an integral whole.

The older Jewish Theology (a.k.a., Kabbalah)

What was so objectionable to Maimonides, that the publication of his tome would spark a storm of criticism among his fellow rabbis?  The theological clarification which Maimonides sought to bestow on his faith community was viewed by many as an innovation, not as a restatement of tradition.  The tacit, and in part underground theology which had characterized Judaism up to Maimonides was more or less equivalent to what we would today call the speculative Kabbalah, albeit a Kabbalah prior to the publication of its standard text, the Zohar, not to mention much else of what is categorized as “Kabbalah” today.  Indeed, it is perilous to bring up a discussion of Kabbalah in the context of a discussion of theology, since the very term suggests dubious and irrelevant topics such as mysticism, magic, and even occultism.

What is salient in the context of the present discussion, is that the older Jewish theology (whether or not we call it “kabbalistic”) had a much more flexible conception of the Godhead than was latter allowed for in the exoteric, post-Maimonidean, discussions of Jewish theology.  The God of the earlier rabbis was a God capable of corporal interactions with human beings (or at least with prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs).  With the rise of Aristotelian philosophy around the 12cCE, and its tendency to subject all truth claims to logical analysis, anthropomorphic depictions of the Godhead were placed under increasing scrutiny by the “enlighteners” of the age.  Indeed, a parallel might be drawn between the enlightenment of the high middle ages and that of the 18th century CE.  In both cases religious traditions came under scathing criticism.

None the less, there were major differences between the Aristotelian enlightenment of the 12th century and the secular Enlightenment of the 18th century.   Unlike the latter day European secularists, Western philosophers in the 12th century, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim were generally pious members of their respective faith communities, who earnestly sought a reconciliation between religion and reason.  In some cases (Aquinas, Maimonides) they seem to have been satisfied with the fruits of their reconciliation.   In other cases, notably among the Christian followers of Ibn Rushid (Averroes), they threw up their hands in resignation, allowing science and religion to proceed on parallel tracks.  However all the philosophers of that age seem to have earnestly desired to preserve the essence of faith from groundless attacks of reason, or at least “reason” as defined by Aristotelian philosophy.

Naturally the advocates of the older theologies preferred a wholesale rejection of Aristotelian thought to a reconciliation.  In their view, the knowledge of God among the faithful was being threatened by  the incursion of a barbaric and simplistic rationalism.  No where was this reaction more bitter than in those Jewish communities which rejected the philosophical works of Maimonides.  While the followers of Maimonides fought under the banner of a consistent and philosophically purified monotheism, their adversaries held out for a literal, indeed super-literal, interpretation of scripture, according to “drash” i.e., flexible interpolation of additional information into scripture using a literalist method of extracting more data from the text itself.    Over the centuries this method had gradually built up a body of theological ideas, although these ideas were held only tacitly among the Jewish community at large, being handed down explicitly among a restricted group of tradition-transmitters (i.e., a secret, or crypto-theology, in other words, a “kabbalah”).

Much of this crypto-theology was couched in blatantly anthropomorphic terms, which bordered on the fantastic.  God not only had a body, but that body was said to be half again the size of the universe.  To give another charming anthropomorphism various aspects of the universe were explained as emanations from the hairs of God’s beard.  For all the differences between Jews and Christians, it is interesting to note that their respective theologians both agreed that God had a beard.  For the Kabbalists it was the cosmic beard of Adam Kadmon, the archetypal emanation of humanity out of the Divine Essence.  Likewise, for the Church Fathers it was the beard on the face of the Second Adam, appearing in history as Jesus of Nazareth.  Whatever else might have been at issue, up until the time of Maimonides, anthropomorphism remained a point of contact within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However, it was only a point of contact, not a point of convergence.  Jewish crypto-theology (whether we call it “kabbalah” or something else) was profoundly synthetic, incorporating as much as possible within the Godhead.  In contrast, the Christian theologies were analytic, observing the aforesaid distinctions between Theology and Christology, eternity and history, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the nominal.

Yet for all their differences in both method and substance, Christian and Jewish thought retained strong family resemblances.  Compared to philosophy, or even the simplicity of Islam, this family resemblance might be summed up, for want of a more dignified word, as “messiness.”  The messiness of both Christianity and Judaism, with their logical perplexities and multi-layered messages, can only be justified on the grounds that we live in a messy universe with messy problems, and perhaps the answers to these problems require more than an elegant rationalism or the judicious application of Occam’s razor.  Furthermore, at the very heart of this messiness lies anthropomorphism.  Thus throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures we find the overlapping and intermingling of the divine presence and human existence, often both depicted in corporal form.  Indeed, the Bible may be viewed as a textual tableaux suggestive of the soft, flowing figures in a Chagal canvass.  Moderns repulsed by Biblical messiness, like Spinoza, have tended to forsake the church and the synagogue, and hence proceeding to write their own bibles, philosophical manifestos which reconstructed the universe according to principles of geometrical clarity, lucid but dead.

In spite of some novel opinions voiced in recent times by a school of obtuse commentators, I don’t think the latter-day infidelity of the moderns can be laid at the doorstep of Maimonides.  He was an “enlightener” in the 12th, not the 18th century sense of the word.  Accordingly, his intent in the Guide was to purify monotheism, not abolish it.  His linguistic and logical critique of anthropomorphism is both elegant and convincing, and provides an excellent “donkey bridge” for the safe passage of erstwhile atheists into faith, especially those who are apt to be offended by the concreteness and particularity of the Bible.

However in spite of the brilliance of the Guide, like the noontime brilliance which can either illuminate or bring on sunstroke, the work had both positive and negative effects.  The rejection of anthropomorphism, by necessity, tended to distance God from intimacy with his creations, at least his human creations.  Of course Maimonides was aware of this, and in the context of his thought the intimacy of the Divine-human nexus was retained through an intensified emphasis on the prophets and prophecy.  Here we are not critiquing the philosophy of Maimonides per se or inquiring whether this theory of prophecy was an adequate replacement for anthropomorphism.  Rather, we are looking at the effect of the Maimonides-inspired Aristotelian turn in Jewish theology, and to what extent it further distanced Judaism from Christianity.

The elephant in the living room, so to speak, is that this turn towards rationalism empowered Jewish philosophers to present their doctrine as the purest form of monotheism among the three competing Abrahamic faiths.  (N.B., Maimonides had very different objections to Islamic theology, which are only indirectly relevant to the issues considered here.)  Conversely, this implied that Christian trinitarian theology was either borderline or outright tri-theism.  Without taking sides on this issue one way or the other (after all, there seem to have been some actual tri-theists in the history of Christian theology) clearly this newly rationalized Judaism found itself at an even further remove from its Christian cousin.  A clear cut monotheism now confronted the “messy” or at least difficult to comprehend, trinitarian doctrine of the Christian theologians.

In retrospect, how different this was from times when the various schools teaching a speculative Kabbala dominated the heart of the Jewish world view.  That was a world-view in which God could still be manifest through various faces (partsufim) according to the aspect of the world addressed by the Creator.  It differed from Christianity in one essential respect, none of the faces bore the name of Yeshua-ha-Mochiach.  As long as the old theology prevailed the issue between Judaism and Christianity remained a kind of judicial proceeding which the issue of contention was the identity of the Messiah.  After Maimonides this became less of a judicial than a metaphysical contention, thus raising the doctrinal tension between Christianity and Judaism to a higher level.

The motivations of Moses Maimonides

To settle the matter in a morally satisfying way, we need to conclude by asking ourselves whether this further distancing of Judaism from Christianity in and after the 12cCE was an unintentional effect of rationalized faith, or whether it was the intended result of a project initiated by Maimonides himself.  According to my present understanding, it was indeed an unintentional effect, and not a deliberate aim.  If we can fathom the motives of Maimonides in sharpening and deepening the philosophical understanding of Jewish monotheism, then we ought to be able to glean some support for this opinion.  Therefore lets look at some possible motivations.

First one must consider whether this distancing from Christian theology was motivated by the low esteem in which Maimonides held the “founder of the Christian religion.”  It is no secret that Maimonides held Jesus, or “Yeshu” responsible for setting in motion forces which led to the destruction of the Second Temple forty years after his ministry.  Maimonides “Yeshu” who is portrayed as a hasty and ill-informed zelot, is in some sense (at least to this writer) a more interesting figure than the effeminate and defeatist “Jesus” whom people sometimes misapprehend from church teachings.  Both are misrepresentations of the actual Yeshua-ha-Moshiach a.k.a., Jesus of Nazareth, who is testified to in the gospels.  However we can hardly imagine that Maimonides constructed his theology in reaction to a person for who he had so little regard or interest in.  Those particular individuals whom Maimonides felt either to be, or not to be the Messiah, is an irrelevancy here.  One of his primary objectives was to remove the issue of “Messiah” from the sphere of metaphysical speculation and make it a purely historical question.  In this sense, yes, he distanced Jewish theology further from Christianity, but in a broader sense he also contradicted the speculative ideas about the Messiah found throughout the older “kabbalistic” theology, and thus modified the criteria for not just for Yeshua, but for rival candidates throughout history, many of whom (contrary to Maimonides) viewed the office of Messiah as having supernatural as well as secular significance.

A second and related possibility is that Maimonides sought to distance his philosophy from Christian speculation since he disdained the Christian world as barbaric in contrast to Judeo-Moslem civilization of Spain and the southern Mediterranean.  This is suggested by the equivalence monotheists=civilization, polytheists=barbarism, where alleged tri-theism places the Christian religion into the unenviable category of polytheism.   Indeed, this was the consequence of Maimonides’ philosophy, both in what we would today call “comparative religion” as well as within subsequent Rabbinical law (hallacha) in so far as it followed his teaching.  However a consequence does not prove a motive.  While Maimonides viewed, correctly, European technology, science, and hygiene as inferior to that of the Islamic world of the 12th century, there is no evidence that his thought was primarily motivated by an attempt to refute or react to contemporary Christian teaching.  Oddly, one Christian thinker whom he engaged in a constructive way was John Philoponus, a theologian who actually pushed the boundaries of trinitarian thought in a tri-theistic direction.

The third possibility is in some sense an inversion of the second.  Plausibly, Maimonides was motivated in his philosophy to approach and apply the stringent Islamic standards of monotheism.  Indeed, the Guide treats extensively of Islamic philosophers and theologians.  However it is important to make a distinction here.  In so far as the muslim thinkers he references were philosophers in the strict sense (Aristotelians) he engages them in an appreciative, indeed an appropriating way.  However Maimonides’ treatment of muslim theologians is consistently critical.  While detailed treatment of this criticism would take us far from the topic of our discussion, suffice to say that Maimonides had no interest in simply appropriating muslim monotheism and applying it to Jewish theology.

What, then, motivated Maimonides to reject the older “proto-kabbalistic” Jewish theology in favor of a more stringent monotheism?  Fortunately there is a plausible and obvious answer to this question.  A stricter monotheism was mandated by philosophy itself, or at least “philosophy” as it was universally understood at the time of Maimonides.  It must be understood that this so-called “Aristotelian” philosophy was actually a synthesis of Neo-Platonism with the Aristotelian cannon.  Neo-Platonism offered not just a system of idealism, but a strongly unified world view, in which the cosmos was understood as emanating out of a singularity, a transcendent One.

Hence, out of a desire to unify philosophy and theology, Maimonides instituted a more stringently monotheistic doctrine.  Jewish thinking had always been monotheistic, with its ultimate root in the Shema itself, the “Hear Israel…” and its ensuing profession of the unity of God.  However the word for oneness ehad is generally understood to indicate a composite oneness, i.e., a unification of parts.  Authorized by this “liberal” understanding of the Shema, not to mention many other passages of the Torah, the older Jewish doctrine of God felt comfortable describing various faces and attributes of Deity, almost as if they were distinct parts, albeit combined.  Under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy, Maimonides posited the oneness of God as a singularity, an absolute unity that is impossible to analyze.  Indeed, a unity so absolute that it rendered it impossible to talk about God, except in negative language as “Not many” or “Not having a body” etc..

Within the confines of this essay I am not taking sides with either the older Jewish theology or the post-Maimonidean rationalism which partially replaced it in the 12th and subsequent centuries CE.  However I trust that it has been made clear how the older theology was much more compatible with its Christian counterpart.  Even today, superficial encounters between mainstream Jewish and Christian thinkers are initially framed in terms of the strict monotheism of the former and the loose anthropomorphism of the latter.  However when one penetrates beyond the outer “Maimonidean” layer of religious doctrine, the differences are no longer so clear cut.  Naturally, there are disincentives to immersing one’s thought in these deeper Kabbalistic levels of thought, in so far as deceptive systems of magic and occultism have been grafted onto the Kabbalistic synthesis.  However at the core of the Kabbalah is a soft, or “liberal” monotheism, a monotheism which allows for the incorporation of both unity and particularity into the Godhead.  Arguably, the remains of this pre-Maimonidean doctrine points back to a primitive theology antecedent to the split between Judaism and Christianity.  In that sense the Maimonidean reform, however well intended,  has for eight centuries blocked the way back to an integral  Judeo-Christian restoration.

Maimonides in retrospect

Since one consequence of his system was a further separation of Judaism and Christianity, Maimonides would be worthy of a critical reading on that ground alone.  However there are many reasons for giving Maimonides a respectful reading, readings which are not necessarily restricted to historical or critical treatments.  Ironically, the same philosopher who contributed to the estrangement of the two religious systems, may also be a rabbi instrumental in their convergence.  Maimonides was also an innovator in the field of law, being among first and most significant thinker to depart from purely formal transmission of ordinances (hachallot) in preference to their logical/moral foundations.  This foundational approach to Torah, which abjures thoughtless repetition of form for an appropriation of genuine meaning an understanding, is suggestive of the kind of innovation necessary to the restoration of an integral Judeo-Christianity.  Such a restored Judeo-Christianity is likely to take its stand in a space somewhere between the hyperformalism of Jewish orthodoxy and antinomianism which is rampant due to abuse of grace in the church.  If so, the influence of Maimonides, hitherto a force for divergence, may be a future source of convergence.

 

 

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 10, 2019

The Fish, the Ocean, and Cultural Marxism

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

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

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

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

The question of complicity

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

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

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

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

The unifying framework

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

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

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

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

Naming names, The Hermenutic Invasion

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

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

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

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

 

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

(2) ibid.

 

 

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