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American dark age: How did the Cold War Era change from history to politically correct mythology

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 18, 2018

Rightly dividing historical periods

Schopenhauer said that the world exists as our representation.  No where is this more true than in the field of history. Yet God has not shared with humanity His prerogative of creation-from-nothing rather, even in the world of fiction we are but sub-creators, building our worlds up from the elements of thought and language with which our Creator has endowed us.  Moving beyond fiction we come to history and journalism, where we may bring our narrative style to the table of fact, but we are forbidden to create fables.  None the less, the falsification of history by a sinful humanity is ubiquitous to the point that even the best  chronicles contain a great deal of myth.   Contrary to the expectations of the Enlightenment, this promiscuous myth-building has not been dispelled by the dawn of scientific historiography or the rise of quantitative methods in the social sciences.  Rather, increased sophistication of technique has led only to larger and more comprehensive myths.

As Jaques Elul would no doubt reminds us, we have long since passed through the ominous portals of the Propaganda Age and are now deep into its final, most degenerate stage. And was it not another Frenchman, Malbranch, who assured us,

Fear not that I will lead you into a strange country

Perchance I will teach you that you are a stranger in your own country

Alas, and passing strange would it be if this very America that we claim to know and love is little more than a tissue of myths held up for our mental adoration.   Yet that is the very claim of those who are generously denominated “the left”…those who have reduced the early history of Anglo-America to little more than caracature, a semi-comic tableau of Delaware crossings, cherry tree choppings, of log cabins and caps made from the fur of raccoons.  Against this bathos they juxtapose the high seriousness of critical history, with terse chronicles of minorities and women struggling for various quanta of equality along a variety of indicators.  In all this struggle between the comic and the tragic side of American history, the left fails to tell us that it is they, not conservatives, who are really teaching us only the expurgated and trite Classics, and that we are not supposed to raise any embarrassing questions about the origins of our actual social order, not quite the ominous “New World Order” but the socialized American order, one settling into a cantankerous middle age.

This is quite marvelous, since we are forever hearing that the left is the sworn enemy of Classicism, and champions of the raw, the real, and the contemporary.  Yet the truth is almost the exact opposite.  The left is loath to depart from the most ancient and shop worn narratives of early America.   It avoids talking about recent times, at least anything which is genuinely novel, except where it can find some narrative continuity with the corrupted remains of the ancients.  I know that this sounds paradoxical to the point of incredulity, but you will find that it is true if you can see history, and historiography, with new eyes.  The key to this paradox is simple.  The left only wants to talk about those periods of American history prior to the left’s complicity in establishing the present regime.  Everything after this establishment is taboo, while everything before the present regime is seen through a standard narrative, a new Classicism where America plays the same part that Rome did in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Finding a starting point

Dredging up facts is the herculean task of journalism, not history.  For history the great work is establishing the correct boundaries between eras which differ in their essential characteristics.  The standard narrative of American history has not been mythologized through the inclusion of false facts, plentiful as such errors might be.  Primarily, history has been mythologized because the boundary markers between different regimes have either been moved, or were never clearly demarcated to begin with.  It is the very chronological framework which has been tampered with, and false facts have only been introduced where they have been required to shore up a fictional framework.

The idea that there have been fundamentally different regimes operating underneath the legal and symbolic superstructure of American history, while hardly the staple of public school history, is a reality tacitly acknowledged by historians of various political ilks, all of whom can hardly be brushed away as eccentric or biased.  A good synoptic vision of America’s saga through tacit regime change can be found on the website of neo-Kantian philosopher Kelley Ross, where he refers to the First (1789-1860) Second (1861-1933) and Third (1934-present) Republics, which to any historically educated mind recalls the similar sounding, but standard, divisions of French political chronology.  Of course the reason this kind of division is non-standard for American history, reflects a situation where each of the “republics” in question did not, as in the case of France, originate through the public proclamation of a new constitution.

Admittedly,  the idea of constitutional emendation crops up during and immediately after the Civil War of 1861-1865, endowing the “Second Republic”with three amendments pertaining to slavery, citizenship, and civil rights.  Conversely, the onset of the third regime, dating from 1934, exhibits no explicit change whatsoever in the organic foundation of the American state.  The legal framework remains fundamentally the same as that promulgated in the Constitution of 1787, but the  interpretation and application of that framework is fitted to an entirely new understanding of governance and policy.  Therefore, this third change in regime was not so much a change in the laws as a transition from legal to post-legal norms of social governance.

Garet Garrett, journalist and political commentator, coined the phrase “revolution within the form” to describe the political transition beginning in 1934.  As per the above, the constitutional form was retained, giving all subsequent political life in America a duplicitous flavor, since there was, even at the level of ideas, a double standard of constitutional standards and policy goals, a duplicity qualitatively different from the corruption of moral and legal norms which characterize all political systems to one degree or another.  Unlike “corruption”, i.e., evasion of public morality, there were now two established but competing systems of public morality.

To Garet Garrett’s mind this “revolution within the form” was a veritable coup d’etat against the constitution.  However he was singularly unsuccessful in convincing his compatriots and contemporaries that a genuine regime change had been effected.  Hindsight has vindicated Garrett, but at the time there were a number of factors which rendered this regime change opaque.  I refer to factors other than the popularity of the New Deal, and that many felt it to be both a boon to the American people and in their own advantage.  Rather, those who opposed the New Deal rarely saw its revolutionary character.

There were a number of reasons for this, beginning with the relative ease with which the  New Deal revolution was commenced.  It seemed to be a revolution accomplished almost entirely without violence, commendable at first blush, but serving to desensitize the public to the magnitude of the changes which were being worked on the body politic.   Furthermore, the ways in which the new managerial state differed from a constitutional republic were obscure to the public.  It was not immediately apparent that the combination of legislative/judicial/executive functions within the “alphabet agencies” were at fundamental variance to the principles of classical liberalism and the separation of powers.

Change in parties vs. regime change

However the most important reason why the public was not alarmed at the occurrence of regime change in 20th century America was due to the conflation of two qualitatively different processes, change in parties within a parliamentary republic, and regime change.  The latter was made to look like an instance of the first, and more over, was dragged out  over such a long period of time that the process looked legitimate and moderate.

When we take a slice out of time and see party X (supposedly committed to ideology A) and party Y (supposedly committed to ideology B) iterate between themselves, it is electoral politics, in all its glory and/or shame.  However when we take two slices of time and see that, at time T1 party X was espousing ideology A and party Y advocating ideology A’, and at time T2 party X is now espousing ideology B and party Y is advocating ideology B’ we know that sometime between T1 and T2 regime change has occurred.   The problem is that it may be hard to locate the precise moment when this happened, since the process is likely to have been both covert and insidious.  Certainly this is what we see in the extra-constitutional evolution of the body politic in the United States.

Not for Americans the Gallic clarity of having a “Second Empire” or a “Third Republic”, or a historical deluge marked by barricades and clarion voices chanting the Marseilles.  Rather, it is as if we wanted to be tricked into our future, without either violence (commendable) or deliberation (lamentable).    Perhaps two theories, both inherited from perfidious Albion, explain this susceptibility to “revolution within the form”: Whig history and Darwinism, which are just the natural and political sides of one potent thought, both internally coherent and morally ambiguous, if not catastrophic.  For those convinced that change is both incremental and beneficial, there seems no compelling reason to set boundaries or limits to anything.  This is particularly obvious with regard to legislation, since continuously sitting legislatures guarantee that there will always be more statutes, not fewer, until the very notion of laws becomes too complex for the human mind and everything defaults to judicial fiat.  Hence there can be no such thing as regime change, even if moral day turns to immoral night, since all variations are points along a continuum.

The War Against Clarity

None the less, a good case can be made that the era of regime change, that is,change into the political system that we know and love (or love to loath) happened sometime early in what we call “the cold war.”  We might even accept the nomenclature of Dr. Ross and call ours a Third Republic, and yet dispute his identification of 1934 and the start of the New Deal with the start of a new regime.   During the 30s and 40s there was still an opposition to the New Deal, which maintained its status as a partisan ideology.  Only in the 1950s did the New Deal (as substance, not slogan) become the actual regime.  This is because the old Right, largely the Republican party, maintained its stance of opposition.  Granted the opposition was sporadic and not particularly effective.  However there was still some unknown quanta of potential energy stored up in the opposition, and the hopes and fears of those alive at the time were limited by the thought that the hammer would drop and the normality which had existed before the depression and the war would be restored.  After the election of Eisenhower the kinetic energy of this dream had been expended, and it quickly became apparent that bureaucratic centralism was the new normal.

The “Cold War” is in some sense a misnomer.  First if all, it contained within its ambit a number of very large-scale hot wars.  However it was also a kind of dark age, in the sense that it was a time of multiple contradictory narratives which entwined in such a way as to mutually invalidate one another.  Following upon WWII, the American people had gotten used to conditions of censorship in the media and the public square.  The half-light of a cold war prolonged the obscurity, and lowered public, and even Congressional, expectations of executive transparency.  Those elements of the left which remained embedded in the government continued their duplicity, which may be taken as a constant.  More salient was the failure of the conservatives at the time to understand the situation with any degree of clarity.  On the whole they seem to have been incensed by the threat of foreign operatives, and unwilling to see that there were flaws in the  body politic which automatically generated leftward drift.

It all depends on what you mean by “was” was

As Garet Garrett famously noted in the 50s that “the revolution was” and the republic of Lincoln had long since been supplanted by the social democracy of Roosevelt by the cold war.  Furthermore the social democracy and the national security state were essentially the same organism, continuing the apparatus used to fight the depression and WWII into the Truman years, and then normalized by Eisenhower.

The Old Right of the time was powerless to do much more than react with righteous indignation at the post-Constitutional character of the new order.  Part of this was due to a lack of developed economic and historical doctrines on a par with the seemingly sophisticated Marxist system.  Granted, a renaissance in conservative thinking was well underway, first popularized by the publication of F. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944.  However these findings, notably those of Austrian economics, were still ill-digested among conservative politicians and poorly propagated within society.  As a result conservatives gazed outward at the Soviet threat, and their program was easily confused with that of the national security bureaucracy.  Initially, these were two distinct tendencies, and only later would a political ideology arise (neoconservatism) where they merged.  Moral consistency and concern for the rule of law were largely restricted to anti-communist investigations, and even this was dampened down after the demise of McCarthy.

Hence Social Democracy had crept in over the objections of the Old Right, and even over the will of the American people to replace a Democratic administration with a Republican one.  However, if we can epitomize those Old Right objections according to the understanding of Garet Garrett, that “the revolution was” we are left with an enigmatic doctrine of history, one that is conspiratorial in the pejorative sense of the word.  This would be the notion that, through a ruse, the government had been cunningly usurped by social democrats in 1934.  That was the best historiography that most conservatives could muster in the 1950s.

Now that was certainly a true thesis as far as it went, it is just that it didn’t go back far enough, either in terms of chronology or causation.  In fact the Great Depression, long presumed to be the socio-economic Big Bang which necessitated the New Deal, in fact had antecedent causes in the policies followed by central bankers.  American central bankers were, in turn, creatures of the Federal Reserve Act (1913) which was in turn the outcome of a confluence of interests between the Trusts and the legislators of the Populist era.  Contrary to Garrett, this was an era in which both the constitutional form and the social substance changed.

So how many revolutions does that leave us with?  Well, following on the Civil War we have the Progressive era as our Third Republic.  Thus we must revise the scheme of Dr. Ross and rename the New Deal, and all subsequent to 1934, the “Fourth Republic.”  Nothing has really changed since then in terms of the extra-constitutional organization of the state.  The significance of the 1950s is that this was period in which reorganizations of America’s system of governance (not necessarily something sinister in itself) was surreptitiously and, as it were, retroactively codified into regime changes.

Propaganda, then and ever since

This metamorphosis of America’s history, from the story of constitutional development to the story of extra-constitutional evolution, is an artifact of the Propaganda Age, whose unstated goal is to remove from the population its capacity to rationally articulate the basis of the commonwealth in an objective social contract.  This inability has, as one of its major consequences, an incapacity to distinguish between licit behavior and criminality.  What then, is this “propaganda” this potent elixir which is deemed capable of thrusting civilizations back into a state of nature?

Ellul informs us that this vaunted “propaganda” is nothing more than “technique.”  Not all technique is propaganda, but all propaganda is technique.  Specifically, the technique of persuading populations to concerted opinion and action.  The replacement of contract with propaganda as the major bond of society is correlated with the replacement of principles by psychology.  We see the effects of this in the postmodern world with the increased emphasis on feelings at the expense of facts, particularly in educational contexts.

However this is only the consequence, of which propaganda is the cause.  The early 21st century is no more propaganda-driven than were the 1950s, at which time the process had already attained full-throttle.  The cold warriors found themselves in the middle of this syndrome, and not just on account of the bitter American-Soviet rivalry.  Due to the perceived necessity of bureaucracies to protect themselves and the ongoing alarms of perpetual war, information restriction and manipulation became normalized, with consequences too far ranging to be mentioned in a short essay.

Here I only note that the most important consequence of this fostered ignorance was the retrospective understanding of America’s history itself, which ceased to be the clear outline of a constitutional republic, but the narrative of a democracy in which the popular will was constantly engaged in social metamorphosis.  From a progressive point of view this is a good thing, and of course I have no objection, since there can be no dispute over first principles.  However what can be stated without argument is that the normalization of this “progressive” viewpoint was attained through propaganda, or the substitution of objective cognition by emotional manipulation.  Clarity was the first casualty.



Posted in Conspriacy Theory, Constitution, Constitutionalism, Culture & Politics, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Conspiracy low and conspiracy high

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 13, 2018

We need a “Critique of Pure Conspiracy”

For all things which are reproved are made manifest by light,
for whatever does make manifest is light (Ephesians 5:13)

What is generally called “conspiracy theory” has undergone a revival of considerable proportions.  Today everyone prides themselves on knowing that “all is not what it seems on the surface.”    This is obvious from the declining trust in public institutions, science, politics, and education.  Of course there never was a time when all was just what it seemed on the surface.  Still, there was indeed a time, and not so long ago, when propaganda systems enjoyed something closer to ubiquity due to the monopoly of broadcast technologies.

Now that everybody on your street (or at least your social media network) is a conspiracy theorist, one might reasonably ask why this hasn’t automatically translated into a free society.  Part of the answer to this question is that there is a whole lot more to establishing, or regaining, a free society than just the dissemination of information.  If there are elites who secretly control the world, they need to be fought, not just talked about.  In fact, there are indications that they enjoy being talked about, and that it fortifies and celebrates their power.

However, while mere information is not sufficient, it is certainly necessary in both great quantity and reasonable quality.  Today we certainly have the quantity, but much of what gets stuffed into that portmanteau phrase “conspiracy theory” is just plain bad.   Perhaps that’s just the way the conspiratorial cookie crumbles, as the mocking skeptics claim.  Or perhaps there is some sort of improvement in method which would at once validate and improve the quality of conspiracy theories.  As quixotic as it might seem, I would like to explore the latter possibility.

Why can’t you Kant?

What if we had a meta-theory of conspiracy theories in general?  It is one thing to support or debunk one or another notion, but are there some generic properties of conspiracy theory that make it vulnerable to skepticism?   Nobody denies that conspiracies, in the dictionary definition of the term, exist.  For example, “racketeering” is a phenomenon well known to forensic and legal science, and it always involves conspiracies in the most general sense.  Yet in our times Conspiracy Theory (yes, often spelled in caps) has become a stereotype.  It is not just a propensity to recognize that two or more persons are liable to combine towards secret and disreputable ends, but the claim that there is an all-inclusive Grand Conspiracy.   It is this this sort of all-inclusive theory which requires a meta-criticism, since  such Grand Conspiracy notions strive not just to understand particular conspiracies, but rather to construct a Theory of Everything (a phrase which gives rise to the quaint acronym TOE).

Contrary to the skeptics, not only do I think that the investigation of conspiracies is a worthy endeavor, but I am not even against a TOE on principle.  In pursuing a TOE, “conspiracy theory” is simply following the same procedure as any scientific paradigm.  All paradigms seek to subsume larger and larger data sets into their theories, and at its ultimate limit this would be a TOE.  However, I am wary of any claim that the TOE has been attained at a single bound, and this is what much of “conspiracy theory” sounds like.  Rather, conspiracy theorists need to arrive at a rational apportionment of their tasks, so that the TOE, when finally arrived at, will be both complete and plausible.

For the historically literate, this notion of an intellectual division of labor has a philosophical precedent in the works of Immanuel Kant.  Far from claiming his legacy, I am a severe critic of that sage of Koningsburg, yet in a notional sense, understanding the radically different ways in which our mind tries to figure out reality is just the right thing for lifting what we call “conspiracy theory” out of the abyss of speculation and into the the light of what used to be called “science”, but we can still claim as wisdom.

The Analysis of Conspiracy Theory: High and Low

Fortunately, conspiracy theory can be pulled apart into that most simple of analyses, a binary pair.  It is quite evident that some conspiracy theory deals with supernatural and paranormal phenomena, and this can be designated “high conspiracy”.  Distinct from this are those conspiracies which involve human actors operating in combination using natural, physical, and social means to conspire.  This can be termed “low conspiracy”.

It is frequently pointed out that the distinction between the supernatural and the natural is itself unnatural.  I agree.  Ultimately we live in a reality which is a continuum ranging from everyday entities like matchsticks and muffins and extending upward to auras and archangels.   Some day when we get our Theory of Everything worked out I am sure it will all prove to be a seamless web, equally natural and (because it is so wonderful) supernatural.  However in the meantime we must face up to what Immanuel Kant termed “the epistemological problem.”  That is to say, the limitations of our Earthly existence limits our knowledge in significant ways.  The knowledge that we have of palpable things is going to be different from the knowledge we have of spirits, and gaining each sort of knowledge requires different methods of investigation.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the understanding of conspiracies.  Conspiracies are, perforce, opaque things, realities towards which we are blind.   Furthermore, this opacity is complicated by the fact that we are dealing with intelligent, willing entities (humans or spirits) who are actively trying to obstruct our attainment of an accurate understanding.  So the task that confronts anyone trying to unravel any given conspiracy, let alone the Grand Conspiracy, is Herculean indeed.  Therefore the first step in making this task manageable needs to be a separation of our two ways of knowing, human and spiritual, or what we have been calling low and high conspiracy theory.

These two departments of theory require very different rules of evidence.  We cannot expect the kind of proof for high conspiracy which we demand of low conspiracy.  High conspiracy rests on faith more than provable assumptions.  Neither can we be so sloppy in our investigation of low conspiracy that we place our faith in every testimony.   Hence our methodology in each department is not just different, but in a sense, opposite.  When we investigate low conspiracy we must be skeptics, but when we turn to the contemplation of high conspiracy we may allow ourselves to be moved by faith and intuition.  I fully expect that some day, in both this world and the next,  these two departments will merge into a single Theory of Everything.  However in the meantime they tend to interfere with each other, and any preemptory synthesis is likely to mangle the testimony of both.

High Conspiracy isn’t for everybody

Not everybody believes in the supernatural.  This is tragic since there are a few things that everybody needs to believe in, notably, that God (as spirit) incarnated in the man Yehushua ben Yosef (as flesh).  For me, that is the bottom line.  However beyond a bare minimum of supernatural facts that everyone must assent to (conveniently summarized in a few creeds of the early church) I would assert that involvement in spiritual affairs is an option, not an obligation.  Even the Apostle Paul, whom we can take as the paragon of a spiritual warrior, saw what I am calling “high conspiracy” as an advanced topic.

For we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against principalities,
against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesisans 6:12)

Note that this was an insight which Paul had acquired by the time he wrote Ephesians, one of his latter “prison epistles” which implies that he already had a great deal of spiritual experiences, perhaps even what we would call experimentation, under his belt.   Yet we know that Paul, prior to writing even his earliest epistles, had a vigorous ministry.  While it would be wrong to say that Paul was ever blissfully ignorant of the forces of evil, still the idea of the political world’s domination by negative spiritual forces, or what we are calling “high conspiracy” was no doubt one of those insights which he had to work out step-by-step, “in fear and trembling.”  Thus we can infer that such wisdom, from Paul’s testimony at least, was and is supplemental to the normal life and faith of believers, let alone non-believers.  If it is too difficult or disturbing, it is best left alone.

I hasten to add that in my own world-view, as for many others, “high conspiracy” is an essential compliment to “low conspiracy” without which the data of my experience simply doesn’t add up.  However, like left and right shoes, things which are complimentary are neither substitutes for, nor identical with, each other.   Because they involve different methods of investigation, “high conspiracy” and “low conspiracy” need to be distinguished, and for some kinds of mentalities, the whole subject of “high conspiracy” should be avoided altogether.  There is no need to scandalize non-believers, or to disturb believers who’s faith is weak.  However we should keep the window of high conspiracy open, waiting for a time when we have better proofs, a time when skeptics will be able to overcome their cognitive dissonance and walk into the integral world of meaning which for us grand theorists is already a grand delight.

How low can you go?  Answer: Every man, woman, and child on deck!

For all things which are reproved are made manifest by light,
for whatever does make manifest is light (Ephesians 5:13)

It can be inferred from Ephesians 5:13, that everyone who is on God’s side should be shining their light in the darkness.  With the small flashlights of our ordinary minds it is hard to light up the heavens, since only the truly anointed with their spiritual searchlights can search the sky.  But our little flashlights should be able to clear up sundry mysteries on even the darkest night, provided we keep them pointed down.  Within those small but intense circles of light we can arrive at substantial conclusions, not speculations.

Please don’t think that I am advocating a false, foot-shuffling, humility or recommending preoccupation with safe and trivial matters.  Rather, I am sure you have already figured out that in the present context “high” has not been drawn from traditional usage, where “high conspiracy” once referred to courtly plots by princes and ambassadors (e.g., The Prisoner of Zenda), as opposed to the “low” of vulgar criminal gangs (e.g.,Ocean’s Eleven).  Likewise, here “low” refers to all activities down here on the surface of planet Earth, even if it involves countesses and caviar, bracketing out the influence of both Heaven and Hell.  Moreover, this “bracketing out” is a purely methodological principle, one which is not intended to deny the existence of transcendental realms.  However it is an essential measure, one which must be endured if we are to obtain initial clarity about any Earthly conspiracy.

In separating higher from lower, we not only avoid a lot of bad thinking, but we separate the Earthling from all claims to conscientious objector status in the war for the world.  In  the mind of a religious person, establishing the demonic origin of human malfeasance solidifies the assumption of evil, but to secular ears it sounds sufficiently like “the devil made them do it” to put legions of apathetic skeptics to sleep.  None the less, the secularist will normally abhor all the evil things that the believer witnesses to on Earth, namely murder, theft, fraud, addiction, lies, hatred, rape, slander, scapegoating and much else.  Yet in the mind of the secularist these evils are of purely human origin.   Be that as it may, as humans pledged to any sort of benevolent ethic, and moreover citizens of a particular community, the righteous secularist (no doubt endowed with an unacknowledged common grace) is obligated to inquire and to blow the whistle if and when the moral order of society has been subverted by sinister forces.

Two sets of rules

While “high conspiracy” theory can be synthetic and inclusive, “low conspiracy” theory must be analytic and exclusive.  Viewed from another angle, the latter must adhere to Popper’s principle of falsification.  It must be possible for the conspirators to be found guilty rather than innocent.  Hence, when the weight of data points to guilt, we can be satisfied that the outcome was evidence-based and not the formation of an appealing gestalt or some sort of confirmation bias.

With “high conspiracy” this kind of falsification is impossible, since we are taking an eagle eye’s view of the world as a whole, and the we are not at liberty (whatever progressives might think) to recreate the world.  It is the whole puzzle with all the pieces locked in place.  We can take the Book of Revelation as the best example.  The scripture itself is God-breathed and outside of time, therefore the events will never change, although we may arrive at a deeper understanding of the events through interpretation.  However when we look at a particular event or epoch in secular history, we only are viewing one particular corner of the world-puzzle.  This makes us less knowledgeable, our ignorant “low” as against an omniscient “high”…but it also gives us more freedom.  It will be possible for us to move pieces of the puzzle around to different locations, keeping the outcome in doubt until just the right fit is found and the outcome is locked in.

This freedom and confidence derives from the very strictures imposed on our investigations.  I can’t make an exhaustive list of these strictures, but there is no need to, since they correspond largely to what we assume whenever we deal with everyday, common-sense, reality.  Generally speaking, all of our investigative procedures must conform to the  constraints of time, space, and corporal existence.  For example, the same entity cannot located in two places at the same time.  Likewise, the causes of things must exist prior to their effects, albeit in various senses depending on whether we are dealing with efficient (mechanical) or teleological (planning) causes.  The fact that low conspiracies must be embedded in time, space, and corporal existence means that it should be possible to establish a chain of evidence for the deeds of the conspirators.

No, I am not saying that in the ultimate scheme of things these unities of time, space and corporal existence are absolutes.  Even without resorting to spiritual witnesses, consider physics, where quantum theory violates these strictures all the time.  However from the point of view of an investigator into low conspiracy, these violations of natural law lie on the other side of the division of labor.  For example, suppose we have a book containing records of great import which suddenly disappear from their repository, hindering the investigation of the conspiracy.  Of course, the book could have been translated into a different dimension through the agency of a demon or an angel.  I don’t deny that such a thing might occur.  However the investigator into low conspiracy would be in dereliction of their duty if this were their first assumption.  Rather, such an investigator has an obligation to explore every possible explanation for the disappearance which does not violate the unities of time, space and corporal existence.  If this avenue is pursued all the way to the bitter end, either the investigator will bag the conspiracy or the whole process will be revealed as a snark hunt.  It may be that during the process of investigation certain anomalies will crop up with rare persistence.  If so they should be noted and turned over to courts of high conspiracy theory.  However the work of the low conspiracy investigator is at an end.

In Conclusion

One should always provide concrete examples.  Our example of a Theory of Everything (TOE) is the Book of Revelations delivered to the Apostle John on the isle of Patmos.  For an example of a limited conspiracy amenable to empirical investigation, pick anything smaller than the universe.  In a future post I hope, God willing, to turn my attention to a really big (though low) conspiracy of the 20th century which still affects our intellectual climate today.  However the contemporary political world is smaller, stupider, and especially more vulgar…even worse than the 20th century, if such a thing is possible.   Unfortunately if I had to pick the most celebrated conspiracy de jour it would have be the Muller investigation into the present administration’s alleged conspiratorial  ties to Russia.  It is hard to call this a limited investigation, since it seems to have no limits of time or subject, none the less it is “low” in the sense that we have been using here.  Or is the Muller investigation itself a conspiracy?  I will leave that question to the discretion of Senator Gowdy and his colleagues.

All I want to say is that people should avoid calling Special Prosecutor Muller the Antichrist.  No doubt this will be a very satisfactory tie in to a Theory of Everything for some aspiring investigator into high conspiracy.  However the temptation should be resisted.  Speaking personally, if it does indeed turn out that Robert Muller is the Antichrist at the end of time…I’m walking out of the theater and asking God for my money back.


There’s conspiracy low and conspiracy high
and often the twain shall meet.
If  there neither were higher nor lower at all
it would indicate something akin to deceit.
Yet in spite of much evidence
lower and higher
the hawker of theory still sinks in the mire

(from “Counterindicators”-by M.R.S.)

Posted in Christianity, Conspriacy Theory, Constitution, Constitutionalism, culture, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, Law, Media, Politics, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The case against Space

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 7, 2018

Losing my religion?

Space is a hoax!

I don’t mean that Apollo 11 and the others didn’t go to the Moon.   I’m quite sure they did, and although I can’t prove it, nobody can prove the contrary.  Sure, we all know that it is harder to prove the non-existence of a nothing-burger than a fistful of factual fries, but clearly, even the best (non-rocket) shots of the Apollo skeptics miss their target by a wide margin.  By far the most salient objection to the historical reality of the Moon landings is the supposed impossibility of passing through the Van Allen radiation belts.  Although these ugly belts (which actually make life on Earth safe from cosmic rays) conjure up grotesque images of astronauts being zapped into zombies, they are actually pretty easy to navigate, once the ballistics of trans-orbital insertion has been mastered.  Granted the belts are not very good to lounge around for any considerable duration, which is why the International Space Station and similar ventures always park themselves at disappointing altitudes like 200 miles above Earth.  However the Apollo rocket was able to zip through the belts before the astronauts got zapped through the guts, at least by anything close to a lethal dose.  And from an engineering point of view, it was actually easier for the vacuum-tube technology of the 1960s to traverse the belts than for the sensitive circuitry of the 21st century to endure cosmic bombardment.  Even down on the ground, our cell phones, TV remotes, bluetooth interface and other devices, the more intelligent they seem, the more they seem to go haywire.  Back then,  they had safety brakes called “retro-rockets” and it seems that when it comes to rocket science, retro often rules!

Oh yeah, and there is all that suspicious photography.  I still can’t figure out what made the American flag flap in a vacuum, but I am sure some future genius will figure it out.  To me, a far greater enigma would be some sort of omnipotent gag rule which prevented tens of thousands of NASA and affiliated personnel from leaking the hoax of the millennium.  Furthermore, it would be a sad comment on some of the most intelligent and heroic persons in our nation’s history if they had been secretly recruited into a conspiracy to hoax the public.  These persons, the engineers, scientists, technicians, support staff, and (most importantly) the astronauts themselves, were the cream of American society in the ’60s and early ’70s.  Whatever their failings as sinful human beings might have been this didn’t extend to such a gross crime as faking a Moon shot.

None the less, while the astronauts and their support team did their jobs superbly well, like anyone else they were not necessarily happy with the way their “shop” was run.  With the termination of the glamorous Apollo space program they were “rotated out.”  In other words, they lost their jobs on a massive scale.  Today, those of us struggling between the heroic official narrative and the inverted narrative of the Apollo deniers have to be willing to lose something more than a job, we have to be willing to lose our religion, the Religion of Space.  This is hard, because the Religion of Space is one of the most beautiful and compelling myths ever to be hatched from the minds of men or demons.  Let me elaborate on that.

Misdirection more powerful than any hoax

Even though the Apollo astronauts really did go to the Moon (albeit Apollo 13 only orbited, not land) the space program of the 1960s was in essence a grand illusion.  Subsequent programs have also been illusory, albeit progressively diminished from the grand gesture of the Moon landings.  That those landings had a palpable reality adds, rather than subtracts, from the illusion.

Consider stage magic.  A magician might draw the attention of her audience to an egg in her right hand while concealing a bird under her left sleeve, ready to be produced as “the prestige” i.e.,the reappearance of something which had mysteriously vanished.  Now does the egg itself have to be illusory?  Certainly not, and in fact a tangible egg is all the better, since its function is to misdirect the attention of the audience from the bird.  Likewise, the space program has accomplished actual feats of engineering and events in space.  However it has seldom (even today, and certainly in the 1960s)  been motivated by any intrinsic scientific or economic benefit.  Rather, it has functioned as propaganda for a hidden political order.  Much like the misdirecting egg in the hand of the magician, the space program has managed to draw attention away from affairs on Earth which were thought best unnoticed.

Thus have our eyes been drawn towards the Heavens.  Compare the space program to the Bible.  Perhaps 2% (being very generous!) of the Biblical narration consists of scenes which take place in the courtyards of the Lord.  For example, there is the famous audience of Satan with God at the beginning of the Book of Job, and a few other passages scattered throughout scripture, which leaves  98% of the action to occur on planet Earth.  Indeed, the Bible is an anthropology book written by God, not a theology book written by men.  Since the Bible is intended to enlighten us, it  draws our attention towards those matters which ought to be of most concern to us.  Thus there is mention of angels in the Bible, enough to let us know that angels exist and have importance, both to our persons and in the history of the world.  However those individuals who have sought to major in “Angelology” often express frustration at the lack of information provided by scripture, and eventually resort to extra-canonical sources.

Hell on Earth and Pie in the Sky…circa 1957

The Cold War was a kind of hell on Earth, a hell with which historical accounts have never been adequately settled.  Of course, as General Grant famously said, (hot) war is  hell, however the Cold War had certain peculiar characteristics, for in addition to circumscribing a number of actual hot wars, it raised the level of political duplicity to heights perhaps unparalleled in the history of civilization.  If the general run of American citizens had possessed both discernment and adequate information, and they had access to neither, they might have sensed something sinister in the zeitgeist…left wing Western elites professing opposition to Communism, joined in semi- (or perchance pseudo-) conflict with right wing Eastern elites professing opposition to Capitalism.  These battle lines, or lack thereof, were fundamentally at variance with the narrative which represented the acceptable limits of opinion for the ordinary citizen, a narrative in which the American government was supposed to be a sincere advocate, on a global scale, of freedom along the lines represented by its Founders.  Actually, though the fearful motifs of the Cold war were ubiquitous throughout the 1950s and early 60s, sustained meditation on the topic was tacitly discouraged.  It was just part of the atmosphere, something not to be analyzed.   Then as now, there were plenty of distractions, from music to movies to sports to humor…but the situation was so grave that mere distraction was insufficient.  What was needed was misdirection, and misdirection on that order of magnitude required nothing less than a new religion.

“Sputnick,” the first man-made satellite, provided the new gospel with a convenient incarnation, an orbiting spermatozoon launched by the spirit of Antichrist.  After a moment of terror, it impregnated the American consciousness,  eliciting admiration, and more importantly, emulation.  Suddenly, the Religion of Space, which had been little more than a cult of Russian rocketeers and futurists dating back to the early 1900s, acquired a mass following in America.   It broke in at an opportune time, when political sleight of hand was gestating what we today call “the deep state” and when the traditional Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism of America had lost their unifying power.  Americans at last had something which would provide them with a rallying point.  Not something negative like anti-Russian xenophobia, but something they could be proud of, something daring, and something which prolonged the traditions of manifest destiny all the way to infinity…a “new fronteer.”

A god which failed

If the Apollo moon landings had been a hoax, they would have been much more cost-effective.  For better or worse, they were for real, and drained a vast amount of revenue from the federal government at the time.  By any objective measurement, it was a colossal waste.  However values are not objective.  The value of a national religion, one which persisted throughout the otherwise factious 60s, was incalculable.

Furthermore, affection for the religion was not feigned.  I know because I was one of the more fanatical followers myself.  Even after official support for the faith had been withdrawn, it experienced a major revival during the late 70s, with the “O’Neel concept” of artificial habitats in space.  Leading the charge was the arch-hippy Timothy O’Leary,  for whom psychotropic chemicals were but an entrance drug to the stronger and more addictive Religion of Space.  However time and tragedy took their toll on the faithful, until the Religion of Space dwindled to what it is today, a minor cult within the pantheon of the 21st century’s secular gods.  On a positive note, space is at last becoming a legitimate industry, with sustained revenues flowing from essential services.  That holds true especially for near space, however the further out in the cosmos one goes, the more likely that the old religious mentality will cling to a project, the latest refuge of dream-mongering scoundrels being…drum-roll….Mars.

In retrospect, the period from 1957 to the mid-70s of the last century witnessed a dislocation of America’s social consciousness, not dissimilar to the dislocation created by the events of 9/11 post-2001.  However there were significant differences.  The shock of Sputnick was not altogether unpleasant.  Rather, it combined on the one hand numenous terror with, on the other, an almost erotic desire for rapture, the essential components of all religious feeling.  It was remarkably effective for many years, then, like a drug, it wore off.  Most people barely noticed its disappearance, but others, addicted to space, fought against the powers that be to reinstate the “new fronteer” on something like its 1960s scale.  To no avail.

The moon landing denial movement, though bizarre in its claims, is perhaps the final stage in the extinction of the Religion of Space, at least in its classic 1960s form.  As with any broken trust, the victim lashes out in hostility to whatever has previously given life meaning…now exposed as a fraud.  In the case of space, not a literal fraud, and we can expect the garden to technology to continue its outward growth from the Earth.  None the less, the materialistic spirituality of the Religion of Space served the forces of corruption well, a story which is seldom grasped in its entirety.  The damage that it did was commensurate to the high ideals and daring that it exploited.




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

The mob above and the mob below

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 31, 2017

Why don’t we act like human beings?….well, actually…

Ralph Adams Cram’s 1932 essay “Why Don’t We Act Like Human Beings?” created a major sensation in its time.  Cram’s answer “because most of us are not!” was decried as elitist during that historical moment of rising populist resentment against the upper crust.  Cram was simply saying that if we frame the quintessentially human according to the inspiring heroes and saints who emerge periodically from the mass of the human gene pool most of us fail lamentably.  Or today we might say “deplorably.”

Cram probably thought of himself as one of the authentic representatives of the species.  From the retrospect of today, it is important to realize that Cram wasn’t talking about any particular group being racially or genetically superior.  Although in the 1930s there were many movements of that ilk, Cram was not talking about the superiority of one group over others, but rather the superior humanity of special individuals over and against all groups, including that into which he or she was born.  He postulated that  a “true human” was just an atavism thrust up on rare occasion from the mass of bipedal hominids.

Perhaps Cram arrived at this notion because he was a very intellectual man who embedded his most beautiful thoughts in stone, notably in Gothic cathedrals.   Because this was a new style for America, it met resistance.  Though historically an old style, it was hard for the crowd on the street to look up and appreciate Cram’s new/old style.    It must have caused a man of Cram’s sensibilities great pain to see the vulgar masses mock his works.  Hence his individualism became tinged with bitterness.

Cram’s relegation of vulgar humanity to sub-human status may be extreme, yet elitism, or perhaps contempt of non-elites , endured through and beyond the populism of the 1930s precisely because it keyed into a primal motif of all human endeavor, to rise above the crowd.  If we come from humble beginnings, we want to make more of ourselves, to rise to the surface of the human pool.  And there is an additional factor, for in addition to contempt there is actual fear.  The crowd is not just crowd, it is a potential mob.  If vulgarity is less than human, doesn’t  any gravitation back to our vulgar roots in Old Adam threaten not just our life prospects but our very humanity itself?  If the vulgar classes fall short of humanity, salvation lies in our own improvement, economic improvement, educational improvement, and social improvement.  It is a salvation for which we must heroically struggle until we have passed from the desert of vulgarity into the Promised Land of the elites.

Yet even if, perchance, we arrive in the Promised Land of elite society we may find the inhabitants uncongenial.  Like Joshua, Caleb, and the other spies sent out by Moses we soon discover that giants have occupied the territory.   These giants are likely to concur with Ralph Adams Cram’s idea, that the sub-elites are also sub-human, or they may, along the lines suggested by Frederick Nietzsche  consider the masses “mere humans” and themselves to be super-human.  The nomenclature is different but the meaning is the same.  The elites are gods, the masses are animals.  Or so say the elites.

Now, as dangerous as many animals can be, if you are going to get into the fight with someone…far better a dumb animal than a god.  The pagans indulged the gods, and worshiped them.  In Greek, these superhuman beings were called daemons, forces to be reckoned with for good or ill.  A daemon might possess a man or a woman, perchance turning him or her into a creative genius (genius being the latin equivalent of Greek daemon)…or perchance driving them mad.  With the coming of the Gospel these spirits lost much of their respect, and were hence referred to in a derogatory manner, as reflected in our English word “demon.”

Cram and Christ

Strangely enough (or perhaps not strange, since Cram claimed to be a Christian) the idea of the sub-human human finds an antecedent in Christ.  Christ’s love for all people was not predicated on any illusions about innate human nobility.  Like Cram, Christ saw that most humans are fools, and this foolishness is amplified wherever they are grouped together in crowds.  Jesus would never dehumanize anyone, but he is the ultimate originator of our contemporary term,  “the sheeple” which we use for the masses when they blindly follow their leaders.  Yet Jesus used the analogy of sheep in a compassionate manner.  Since most people can neither think on their own or stand their moral ground, they take refuge under the authority (moral, political, or educational) of some strong man or woman who may be likened to a “shepherd.”   This is a very rational system, whereby responsibility and power is delegated upward to those who can handle authority.  However it has a fatal defect.  The powerful are either corrupt from the beginning or tend towards corruption over time.  Hence they are likely to use their wards in a cunning and exploitative fashion.  What starts off as rational delegation of authority tends to wind up as a protection racket.  Jesus likened this to wolves devouring sheep.

It is important to understand that Jesus was just using these words, words like sheep and wolves as types for human tendencies.  He didn’t literally mean that people have four legs, woolly hides etc..  Likewise I don’t think that Cram really thought that the common citizens of America were of a different species, just that they didn’t have the heroic characteristics we normally associate with human exemplars.  Neither do the elites, even if they have publicity agents paid to make us think otherwise.

In fact, when the elites gang together as a mob they are far more dangerous than any vulgar crowd.  This is something that most people, in their search for upward mobility, are apt to forget.  The “rulers of this world” are not kind people, they have colluded to build a system which benefits themselves and themselves only.  To this end they have provided us with a history, institutions, and a culture which bind together society, making common cause with the most vulgar of the vulgar in order to empower the topmost of the topmost.   In the Gospel we have the classical illustration of this.  It is the elites who conspire to kill Christ, using the vulgar crowd to shout “Give us Barrabbas!”

While populists fail to appreciate the vulgarity of the crowd, libertarians and individualists are often blind to the dangers of elites.  The anthropological elitism of Ralph Adams Cram is an exaggerated instance of elite-worship.  He rightly rejected the sub-humanity of much popular culture and social behavior.  Yet his worship of a supra-humanity was misplaced.  Cram was certainly heroic himself, and in many ways closer in spirit to Ayn Rand’s  character Howard Roark than the modernist Frank Lloyd Wright.  Many have taken this fictional character as a touchstone of success and integrity, supposing that any criticism of heroic endeavor is a criticism of the basic human drive towards prosperity and success.

However we must separate out the goodness of success and riches from the perils of power.  Once again, Christ is a better guide than Cram.  While the vulgar are sinful, their sin has a ready antidote in exhortation and edification.  They are down, but they can be lifted up.  But what of those who (at least in their own eyes) are “up”?  What about those who are in the process of becoming gods….gods without godlyness?  This is perilous indeed.

We must also guard against the perversion of Christianity into tyranny.  While Christ said “the poor you shall always have with you” he didn’t mean that the Church should turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy by making a virtue of poverty.  Christ used the words “rulers” and “the rich” interchangeably, so one must be careful to distinguish prosperity (good) from oppression (bad).  It is not wealth itself which is bad, but those who use wealth and power as a means of social control who are subject to Christ’s condemnation.

Indeed, the “gods” are more dangerous than the “animals” and that on two counts.  First, they are more dangerous to society, because “society” is actually their creature.  What we call “society” is what the Bible calls “the world.”  The world would be no better if it were controlled by the masses, but in fact it is controlled by the elites, sometimes directly but more often through manipulation of the masses.

Second, the gods are dangerous to themselves.  They are most dangerous when they are successful, but sometimes they fail, to their own salvation.  As Christ said, “With God all things are possible.”  So in conclusion we may concur with Ralph Adams Cram, short of anthropological literalism, concerning the inhumanity of the vulgar.  However it is not the only inhumanity that we must confront, nor is it the most compelling.


Posted in Anthropology, Architecture, Art, Christianity, Culture & Politics, History, Movies, Philosophy, Politics, Ralph Adams Cram, Theology, Traditionalism | Leave a Comment »

The Three Liberals from the East and how they found the Promised Child

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 22, 2017

The Three Liberals from the East and how they found the Promised Child

{Disclaimer: The following is a fictional narrative.  It is not a genuine portrayal of any real persons or events featured in Biblical, Historical, or Contemporary records.}

Once upon a time in the days of the of the census and Caesar and the tax all that other stuff there were three Liberals who dwelt in the East, not very far to the East necessarily, or even as far as the East River, but possibly somewhere in Manhattan or Jersey.  Now these were very wise Liberals, wise enough to realize that, in all likelihood, everything they had ever been taught was a bunch of hokum, so they unsubscribed from their newspapers and turned to watching the sky for fun and profit.  It was in the sky that they first saw the sign of the Promised Child, and so they hastened to sell all that they had and take the long and dangerous journey through fly-over country in search of the Promised King.

After many terrifying adventures among the deplorable residents of the fly-over country the three Liberals from the East arrived on the Left Coast.  Now in those days Soros was King of the Left Coast and the wise Liberals hastened to his court, in order to tell him the glad tidings of the Promised Child.

“Oh yes,” said Soros, “Tell me of this Promised Child and how you came to seek him!”

The three Liberals were eager to divulge everything they knew to Soros.  They explained that the Promised Child was one who would bring justice to the world.

“Excellent,” King Soros exclaimed, “We need more enraged prophets who will bring social justice to this land!”

The three wise liberals shook their heads in disagreement.  “No,” said Durrell.  (Durrell was their spokesperson, who was much better known by his pen name, ‘Balthazar’.)  “We discovered the prophecy of the Promised Child by searching the scriptures.  At first we thought he would be an incredible bad-ass, like some sort of comic book hero.  We thought he would smash everything and then hand out the fragments of civilization to his cronies.”

Soros nodded with enthusiasm. “Yes, a bold plan indeed!”

“And of course, we imagined that we would be some of his closest cronies…getting in on the ground floor, so to speak.  After all, he’s only a kid, and we might show him a few tricks in exchange for a piece of the action.”

“I can see that you are indeed very wise Liberals.”

“Well, that was at first….but for some reason we developed a compulsion to keep searching the scriptures. Gradually it dawned on us that the Promised Child would never violate any of the basic commandments written in scripture.  For example, in the scriptures it says that one ought not to steal.  So if the Promised Child is indeed the King who will enforce the law of scripture, he won’t do what all Kings always do, taxing and debasing the coinage and all the other tricks that they use to raise revenue.”

“Is that so?” King Soros mused, donning his best poker-face.  “Tell me what other discoveries you have made in scripture.”

“Oh, we won’t bore your majesty with the details.  There was a bunch of stuff like not killing people except in self-defence.   Really just common sense items.  But then we thought ‘wait a minute, this is kings we’re talk’n here’….so, maybe if you held them to the same standard as the rest of us, wow, that would really be something different.  Of course nobody ever does…but then, they predict that  this Promised Child guy is actually going to be rule-compliant.  If and when he comes, that is.”

Soros, who had been listening very intently to all of this, let out a sigh.  “A big if!  And what kind of a king would that be anyway?  You claim to be liberals, and you know very well that a king, in order to maintain a high standard of liberality, must have access to vast revenues.”

Durrell and his companions looked at one another in embarrassment.  “That’s the thing.  We’re not even sure we’re liberals any more, at least in the sense people use the word today.  I suppose if we are liberals at all, we’re old fashioned liberals, or classical liberals.  I know it sounds utopian, but if this Promised Child turns out to be the true King, everything is going to be on the up and up from now on.  No more funny business, no more financial, political and military cabals, no more fractional reserve banking, no more false flag operations, you know, all that bad stuff, it will be over with…. just honesty and righteousness for ever and ever.”

King Soros turned aside to his minions, instructing them to see that all of the Three Liberal’s needs were amply provided for.  Then returning to the wise Durrell and his two equally wise associates, Soros exclaimed,  “You have greatly aroused my interest in this Promised Child.  As a reward you can have the run of the palace, and anything your heart desires which can be found on the Left Coast is yours.  In return all I ask is a single favour.  When you locate the Promised Child wire me his coordinates.”

The next morning the Three Wise Liberals, having overindulged somewhat and seeing more stars than were actually necessary to find their way to the Promised Child, assured Soros that they would describe the location of the Future King with pinpoint accuracy.  Low and behold, they did indeed find the Promised Child, adored him, and gave him lavish presents from the up-scale Eastern merchandise houses.  However in all the excitement they forgot to inform Soros of their location.  Moreover, being very wise, they had a vague premonition that it might be prudent to put some distance between themselves and the Child’s location before giving Soros the exact coordinates.  Therefore they checked into a motel and resolved to communicate their findings to the government the next morning.

That night Durrell, Charley, and Monroe each had the worst dream of their entire lives.  The creepy thing about it was that it was the same dream, dreamed simultaneously by each of them, with the exception of a few highly significant details.  In the dream each of them was being stuffed into a sandwich and eaten by King Soros.  Durrell had been stuffed into a Pastrami on Rye, Charley into a Philly Cheese Steak, and Monroe into a Hamburger-all-the-way-but-hold-the-pickles.  After they had stopped screaming they turned on the lights and sat around discussing what to do.

“I think,” Durrell gasped, “that is what they call ‘lucid dreaming’.”

Charley shook his head, “No, It’s an omen.  The last thing that we need to do is have any more doings with that King Soros guy.”

“But,” Monroe ventured in a trembling voice, “we gave him our word that we would help him pinpoint the Promised Child’s location.”

Durrell concurred, “We would seriously undercut our reputation as wise men if we breached a contractual arrangement with someone as celebrated as King Soros.  On the other hand, I have the distinct feeling that we’ve gotten ourselves way over our heads with this one.”

They continued to ponder their dilemma until the early light of the morning started glowing through the motel window.  Finally Durrell came up with the semblance of a plan, one which adequately managed their risk without defaulting on their basic contractual obligations.

“Ok, here is what we do,” Durrell said in an authoritative voice, “…we put everything on hold until we find out the exact meaning of the dream.”

That settled everything.  None of the wise Liberals was wise enough to understand their dream, but being from the East they were wise enough understand that they needed to call on the help of competent professionals in the relevant field.  Returning hence, they looked up the most reputable dream-workers that money could buy, and, not to skimp, each wise Liberal agreed to undergo a complete psychoanalysis.  Durrell and the others resolved not to contact the government on the Left Coast until everyone’s analysis had been completed to total satisfaction.

And that is how matters stand until this very day.

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Human Action as a treatise on Philosophical Anthropology

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 4, 2017

Human Action;  It’s not your college “Economics”…but what is it?

Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the works of Ludwig von Mises knows that, while his works deal with economics, his thought is distinguished by what might be called,  misleadingly, a “multidisciplinary” approach.  I say misleading because Mises doesn’t just wander into various fields of history and policy at random.  Rather, at least in his magnum opus, Human Action, von Mises bases his exposition of economics and other social phenomena on a level of abstraction far too general to be circumscribed within one particular field of the social, or better said, the human sciences.  Even the term “science” here is somewhat suspect as importing all sorts of positivist notions regarding predictability, measurability, and so forth.  Perhaps “human studies” is the broadest description of areas which Mises was wont to involve himself in.  If we were to find a single word equivalent to “human studies” then certainly Anthropology would be the most apt substitute.  Yet nobody calls Human Action a work of Anthropology.  Why?

Superficially, this is because Mises takes an implicit understanding of Classical Christian anthropology and develops it in the direction of what we call “economics.”  More fundamentally, it is because few people today would even recognize Classical Christian anthropology, especially when it manifests itself in the work of an author who neither professed Christianity nor was writing explicitly on anthropology.  After all, von Mises embraced all sorts of moral and intellectual tenants which comport poorly with the classical Christian world-view, such as evolution and (fortunately, non-quantifiable!) utilitarianism.  None the less, because von Mises was part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition, the bedrock of Christian Anthropology frequently breaks through the surface exposition of his putative “economic” treatise.  However, you won’t see it if you don’t know what to look for, and it doesn’t help that this classical, or Christian, anthropology goes against the very grain of Modernist and Post-Modernist “common sense.”

While in most Modernist views the human race is little more than the end result of myriad material causes, in classical Christian anthropology, “Man” in the sense of a singular “Anthropos” is the principle behind the universe, from which, as “Word” or “Logos” all other realities proceed.  The entire framework of this classical anthropology can be summarized as a movement through four terms, as follows:  From the Anthropos proceeds the individual, from the individual proceeds the species, from the species proceed groups.  Elsewhere I will try to explicate the framework in more detail, here I want to show how it is manifested in such an unlikely place as von Mises’ treatise, Human Action.

Again, I don’t want to make von Mises into some sort of Christianizing Platonist, or deny that much of the content of Human Action is based on Neo-Kantian or utilitarian principles which are alien to the basic framework.  None the less, the classical framework manifests itself in the very organization of the work, as can be seen from the arrangement of the contents.  The organization of the work in seven parts actually can be reduced to four themes.  I have highlighted the ontological/anthropological categories which Mises seems to have in mind at the right hand column.

I. The ideal

  1. Action as human essence         pt. 1            Anthropos–>Individual
  2.  Society                                         pt.2            Species–> Groups
  3. Individual exchange                 pt. 3             Anthropos–> Individual
  4. Market                                        pt. 4           Species–> Groups
  • The pathology, collectivism pt. 5              Groups–>Individual
  • attempts to compromise the ideal and pathology  pt. 6
    • History                              pt. 7

Structure of Human Action itself points the reader in the direction of methodological individualism.  You should be able to see the topical movement from essence, to individual, to species to group, repeated twice.

It may be that this organizational structure is not to be taken literally as von Mises’ last word on the ontological place of humanity within the universe.  It may even be that this organization was just the way von Mises thought a primary treatise on human action should be properly structured, somewhat like the scholars of the middle ages who felt that all treatises should be arranged according to the framework of Peter the Lombard, whether or not they agreed with Peter’s content or not.  None the less the framework bears the imprint of the classical Anthropological model, and testifies to  that model’s ubiquity and importance.  Certainly it differs from standard modernist and positivist expositions, which are based on the framework “from matter proceeds things.” This latter being what your man or woman on the street thinks of as “economics.”

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An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.

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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.


How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.



How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”


Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.





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A god who failed: William F. Buckley and his “conservative” movement

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 30, 2017

A Fabian Conservatism?

There are two systems operating on this Earth.  According to one, every man, woman, and child strives with carnal jealously to grasp and hold on to their rights to self and things, and when there is more than enough, the excess is disposed of, given away, or traded on the open market.  That is the better of the two systems.  According to the other system, men and women quest for virtue and renown, seeking to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to this world, by violence if necessary, and we are further told that at the end of this process a man shall appear who resembles Christ in certain regards.  It is this second system which attracts the best and the brightest.  The late William F. Buckley Jr., 1925-2008, practicing Catholic, family man, nominal patriot and putative spy, Yale graduate, novelist, journalist, polymath and polyglot, yet above all things, “intellectual”, was certainly among the brightest of his generation.  As a general principle, we ought not speak ill of those whom God has loved and endowed with great talents, yet it is incumbent upon anyone who wishes to preserve both truth and memory to render judgement on matters of public record, and especially those actions or omissions which have led the American body politic down its present primrose path.  If we are the proverbial tin can, well then, Mr. Buckley was a chief contender among those who kicked us down the road and into the ditch.  Assuredly, we have every right to inquire into his mind and motives.

My first memory of William F. Buckley is the televised image of two posh, erudite men engaged in a furious altercation over the merits of the Republican presidential nominee in 1964.   The one on the left (from the viewers perspective) was a scandalous representative of the liberal avant guard, an inconsistent and curmudgeonly  libertarian/left/democrat, surely an entertaining character if one were to consider him in isolation.  However he could barely gain a point against the other man, the one on the right (again keeping perspective in mind) who seemed an utter novelty, the Adam of a new race which was awaiting formation, or rather self-formation.  Gore Vidal, (stage left) has kept a loyal following of fans and detractors, yet Vidal by himself would never have become an epochal, or a defining figure of those crisis years.  It was Buckley’s, not Vidal’s, video debut , which marked off a new era, not (sadly) of American political thought, but of rhetoric and reality television.

Thus was born, at least in the viewing public’s mind, that oxymoron, the “conservative intellectual.”  The hokum of Dogpatch, an image of the American right as rustic buffoons so carefully crafted by liberal opinion makers was momentarily shattered by a visible presence.  Since I was a kid, I didn’t know that Buckley had already attained considerable celebrity in literary and journalistic circles, as early as 1950, with the publication of his  God and Man at Yale, but now the word had become flesh, visible to millions upon millions of couch dwellers and potato chip eaters.   He spoke, and he spoke well, interspersing his verbal darts with the flick of a serpentine tongue across tightly drawn lips.  Suddenly, the viewers glimpsed a crack of light shining through the deadening conformity of consensus politics.  Was this the chiaroscuro dawn of a new day, or just a hoax?  It was ominous when, in a fit of peek, the new god dropped his smooth mask to coin a notorious neologism.  Vidal, he fulminated, was an “octo-moron!”  In those days of civil discourse you didn’t just go calling someone an eight-fold idiot in front of America’s families…not to mention the lexicographers!

Fast forwarding to the present, and the perspective of the post-Trump, post-civil discourse era, it becomes painfully clear that this erudite “conservatism”  has failed. Someone once observed that Hegel only “died” in 1933, a watershed beyond which many conceded that his “dialectic of history” bore scant resemblance to the logical deductions of some charitable and edifying Deity.  We might likewise reckon that  Buckley “died” in 2016, when it became abundantly clear that the chattering of the political class could no longer be confined to a salon discussion constrained by the niceties of an Americanized high tea.   Today we must reluctantly acknowledge that even domestic politics is war, perhaps not quite violent war, but war none the less.  But then, shouldn’t we have known that all along?  If we didn’t it was mainly our own fault, yet no thanks to Bill Buckley and others who were only too happy to perpetuate our fond illusions.  Hence, those moderates who have managed to wake up to the situation often discover that they are very late into a long war of attrition conducted by the left, poised on unfavorable terrain, and desperately short of intellectual ammunition.

Not that all possible ideologies which might be denominated as conservative are bankrupt, rather, it is especially the smug, above-the-fray “conservatism” defined by William F. Buckley which circumstances have rendered impotent.  Herein is the real eight-fold idiocy, not that Buckley was able to concoct a new ideology, which he had the brains and the perfect right to do, but that he usurped the nomenclature of a previous movement, the Old Right, and applied it to his novelties.  A guileless Buckley would have decanted his fresh ideological wine into new, or at least newly labeled, wine-skins.  Accordingly, Buckley might have dubbed his concoction “Fabian Conservatism” or some such critter…but he insisted on preserving the illusion of continuity with the anti-New Deal coalition.   Ironically, the moderate Socialists of the early 20th century showed a greater respect for intellectual property rights by relabeling themselves as Fabians, thus permitting the revolutionary Bolshoi to maintain their identity as “Reds.”

Actually, “Fabian” would have been a far better moniker for whatever Buckley was up to.  For one thing, the progressives, then and now, have never intended to give up a single inch of political gain.  It is always a matter of advance to the front, either slow and Fabian or fast and revolutionary.  In contrast,”conservatism” as it was reinvented by Buckley’s National Review in in the 1950s, has been much closer to the strategy of Quintus Fabius “the delayer”(Rome, 3rd c BC)…defining itself as the weaker side and then enlisting for a long, indeed perpetual, retreat.  Today we are experiencing the results of this capitulation.   Buckley, much like Keynes “in the long run”, did not live to see the full consequences of this “Fabian” defeatism, a nation in which the conservative brand as a whole has been discredited, and where only a retrenched populism and leftism remain as the primary  engines of our uncivil  discourse.

Pied Piper of the Establishment

Was Buckley’s defeatism a matter of principle?  Was it motivated by an Oswald-Spenglerian ennui in the face of irresistible winds of change?  Or was it something else, something less intellectual but more human, a quest for power and social acceptance by a man with the smarts and social connections to become a celebrity, combined with a secret contempt for moral absolutes?   John F. McManus considers this question in his William F. Buckley Jr.: Pied Piper of the Establishment, a look at the public words and actions of America’s most famous, so to speak, “conservative.”  In this concise and readable work McManus illustrates how virtually every major premise of conservatism was contravened by Mr. Buckley and his associated writers at National Review.  Did Buckley really “delay” the advent of the current unpleasant situation through judicious compromise, such as might merit the title Fabian Conservatism?  Or did he hasten on the day of reckoning by sapping the bulwarks of more authentic brands of resistance?  Mr. McManus doesn’t rush to judgement, but judge he does, by patiently building up a bill of particulars which will strongly incline the reader to embrace the latter hypothesis.  The major, though not the only, items that McManus itemizes in the antithetical “conservatism” of Mr. Buckley are the following.

  1. Buckley substituted an unidentified “conservatism” for the explicit definition of good government found in the Constitution.
  2. He shielded an unholy alliance between leftists, capitalists, and statists, or what Mr. McManus calls, “the conspiracy” from the public, by denying its existence and targeting its foes.
  3. By accepting membership in the Council on Foreign relations, he supplied dignity and cover to a key element of this conspiratorial apparatus, or what today might be called the shadow government of the deep state.
  4. He contributed to the undermining of the nation’s morality.
  5. He led Americans away from involvement in the kind of principled activism (a.k.a. any continuation of the anti-war, non-interventionist Old Right conservatism, such as flourished in the Robert Taft era).

If Mr. McManus has been able to give us a comprehensive account of Mr. Buckley, his ideology, friends, and actions, it is because, as a young conservative he was a Buckleyite himself.  Initially having no alternative to the narrative introduced by National Review which smeared the remnants of the Old Right, and in particular its revival in the organizational form of the John Birch Society, Mr. McManus was an enthusiastic “Fabian” conservative.  However the providential arrival of a letter from a total stranger (in those days before the internet when it was hard to canvass opinions beyond one’s circle or standard journalism) led McManus to question the spin which National Review had put on the distinction between “right-wing” and “conservative.”  Subsequently, McManus did his own investigations which forced him to completely rethink the ambiguous ideology of William Buckley and embrace a principled philosophy of freedom.  This in turn led to membership and later leadership in his once-scorned but now beloved John Birch Society.

Now in order to form a just estimate of William Buckley, such as McManus and others have attempted, one has to understand the context of the world into which this new “conservatism” (Buckleyite, Fabian, or just “faux”) emerged.  The Second World War had been a global victory which came at the price of weakening every domestic institution in America other than the state, and the conscience of the Old Right urged a return to something like a peacetime society and economy.  It was well understood, and not just by conservatives, that there was a natural iteration between times of war and times of peace, and that a condition of perpetual war was a recipe for tyranny.  True, there was the very real threat of Communism to be dealt with, but it had to be dealt with in such a way that the very institutions used to fight Communism did not replicate the evil they were designed to overcome.

However the wisdom of turning America back into a normal society was not so easily put into practice.  The vast wartime tangle of bureaus and red tape (into which many actual “Reds” had insinuated themselves) proved easier to dedicate to new missions than to mothball.  Predictably, the same political party which had given America the New Deal were enthusiasts for the National Security State (activated by legislation passed in 1947) which perpetuated and legitimated all the essential wartime security and military apparatus.

This rapidly consolidating system was rightfully seen by many conservatives as “Orwellian” (a coinage of that era, since 1984 was written in 1948).  Moreover, for objectors the remedy was both obvious and Constitutional, i.e., “Throw the bums out!” and restore a peacetime, lassez-faire economy.  According to the myth of the two party system, that was the expected order of things, with frequent turnarounds in power both affirming the sovereignty of the people and harmonizing  extremes of policy.  Around 1954, similar to the Trump election of 2016, enemies of the status quo envisaged that if their party won fair and square the “loyal opposition”  would consent to a fundamental reorientation of national policy.  Alas, then as now, the concept of “loyal opposition” proved to be an oxymoron…if not an eightfold idiocy!  Whatever the hardships and tragedy of the New Deal and the Second World War, the truly sinister development wasn’t triggered until, after a twenty years hiatus, a Republican administration was finally inaugurated.  To the shock and dismay of genuine conservatives, rather than a return to normality, under Eisenhower the progress towards a managerial welfare/warfare state was affirmed and even accelerated.

It was at this juncture of history that William F. Buckley Jr. appeared in the forums of public life.  Initially National Review shared the outrage of the Old Right, sill smarting from the primary defeat of Taft, at the wholesale adoption of New Deal programs and apparatus by the nominally Republican administration which had replaced Truman.  McManus notes that…

In December 1957 Buckley himself scolded President Eisenhower for his sorry leadership.  During a forum in New York City sponsored by National Review he excoriated Ike for having allowed the “problem of internal security” to grow to “to a state far worse than that under Mr. Truman.”  Insisting that “Mr. Eisenhower must, inevitably, be repudiated.”  Buckley lamented that he didn’t expect anything to be done because “Eisenhower does not take stands, except against [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and the Bricker Amendment [stipulation that treaty law did not supervene US sovereignty].”  His remarks were later published in the National Review.

Thus, early on in the editorial career of the National Review, a policy line was taken which seemed indistinguishable from the base of the Old Right/Taft Republican movement.  However as soon as these conservative bona fides were established, Buckley took a new tack, ingratiating himself to left and center by taking a more establishment approach to the issues, and, most importantly, positioning himself on the acceptable side of the “right-wing extremist” vs. “conservative” divide.   Conveniently, the criteria for judging this distinction were largely devised by Mr. Buckley himself. An initial omen of this strategy was McCarthy and his Enemies (1954) a book coauthored by Buckley  on the anti-Communist investigator, an ostensible defense which contained so many unseemly observations of its subject and his cause that it diminished both.  By the early ’60s it should have been clear that Buckley had done a two-step, 1) appropriate the label “conservative” through his initial appeals to the Old Right, and  2) change the definition of “conservative” by stigmatizing most of the positions traditionally held by the Old Right.

It is important to remember that the Old Right (used here as equivalent to the anti-New Deal coalition) was a lassez-faire, generally anti-war, limited government movement.  It was not “right-wing” in the pejorative sense that subsequent political rhetoric has framed the term.  Significantly, such genuine rightists as existed in the America of the ’30s and ’40s seldom opposed the New Deal in principle.  The segregationist “Dixicrats” were all aboard FDR’s gravy train, and the scattering of minuscule groups which sought to ape European fascism could only complain that the New Deal was insufficiently centralized, militarized, technocratic, paganized or dictatorial.

The making of a god

However, if one is positioning oneself as the ascending god of public opinion, it is not sufficient, though it may be necessary, to redraw a nation’s ideological cartography.  As McManus repeatedly points out in his criticism of Buckley, which is in fact a criticism of the way conservatives “do politics,” ideology is generally overrated as a ground of human action.  Contrary to whatever Richard Weaver may have intended, it is people, not ideas, who create political  consequences…at least in the short run.  To put it according to the myths of the old pagans, whether one is Oedipus or the King of Alba Longa, one must slay the god of the harvest if one wishes to establish a new religion.  In the case of William F. Buckley Jr., it was not enough to displace, disparage, and assume the mantle of a bloodless abstraction such as “conservatism” or the generic, and geriatric, “Old Right.”  As in days of yore, a living sacrifice was necessary.

Now it so happened that, preceding and shadowing the career of our Ivy League tyro was another man, a very different sort of fellow, a practical businessman and independent researcher, yet one who, in the technical definition of anthropologist Rene Girard might be reckoned as Buckley’s “double.”   That man was Robert Welch, who founded the John Birch Society in 1958.  Whatever the merits of Girard’s theories might be, it  is said that in a mimetic universe (that is, a society populated by imitative creatures, which indeed sounds rather familiar) it is impossible for doubles to long coexist.  Buckley and Welch were doubles in the sense that one or the other was destined to become the rallying point of the conservative cause.  One or the other, not both.

To translate from mythic to political terms, an assassination was in order!  Fortunately for Welch, especially considering Buckley’s career in operational intelligence, assassination of character was deemed sufficient.  Welch, having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil  (something Buckley was especially dedicated to preventing among his fledgling “conservatives”) was cast out of the paradise of polite company, and into the valley of wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Except that Welch neither wailed nor gnashed his teeth, but took his public stigma, or what Girard would call his “skapegoating” with charitable fortitude.

Just as Girard’s mimetic theory would predict, it worked like a charm, this exchange of fates between Welch and Buckley.  McManus quotes Buckley biographer Judis on the potent effects…

Buckley’s attack on the John Birch Society also transformed him as a public figure.  He [Buckley] was no longer the pariah of the McCarthy days.  He was a public representative of the new conservatism that television producers and college deans could invite to appear without provoking an outcry.  Whether intentional or not, Buckley’s attack on the John Birch Society prepared the way for his own celebrity. (McManus p. 153)

[N.B., Pay attention to how  “without provoking an outcry” appears, from the vantage of the present,  on the forward side of a half-century historical parenthesis! Intimidation of speech outside of the left’s allowed parameters is not a novelty of the post-Trump era, but has been a frequent academic constraint in both 20th and 21st century America.  Perhaps the intermission of good feeling and toleration was only due to “Fabian” self-censorship on the part of conservatives.]

The scapegoating of Welch and the new ideological cartography mutually reinforced and validated each other.  One doesn’t have to be a Harry Turtledove to imagine an alternative historical scenario, a world in which Welch did the scapegoating and Buckley became the sacrifice.  The major obstacle to the realization of this alternative universe was the basic decency and fair-play of Welch himself, who refused to be drawn into mimetic rivalry with fellow conservatives.  Welch illustrated his own attitude by prefacing his response to the scapegoating with lines from the poet Edwin Markham…

He drew a circle and shut me out–

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!  (McManus p.154)

Furthermore, the inverted ideological map of the alternative universe would actually make far more sense, with Welch positioned as the centrist and Buckley as “far right-wing.”  Most people at the mid-point of the 20th century would, setting aside propaganda, have regarded Welch as the solid “bourgeois” and Buckley as the scheming, effete, aristocrat.  Indeed, it was this almost French Bourbon air of amorality and private immunity which gave Buckley much of his charm and influence.  And if such quirks of character were not enough enough to make one suspect that Buckley was far to the “right” of Welch, what about the secret societies, the espionage, the pornography and similar intrigue?  I won’t go into the details here as McManus documents them extensively in his book.  However it might be  useful to take a synoptic glance at what McManus evidently considers Buckley’s most damning characteristic.

Barking up the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

To reiterate, Buckley made a sacrifice of Welch, thus becoming a divinity, the god of a new conservative movement formed in his own image.  However, there is a curse attendant on all mortals who pretend to godhood, that they must sleeplessly patrol the bounds of their sacred groves against the onslaught of fresh rivals.  We may liken Buckley to the cherub charged with guarding paradise, however the tree that he was set guard over was not that of life, but rather concerned a very specific form of knowledge.

To be sure, Buckley was not against knowledge or intellect, and with the exception of one particular form of knowing, he was pleased to spread abroad all sorts of chatty information and innuendo.  This included exposure of the more outrageous left wing follies, and to this was added his police function as a maintainer of conservative standards of belief and decorum.  In short, he was smart, and he was on a mission to save America from its own stupidity, stupidity and error of such magnitude that it threatened to lose the Cold War and bring Western Civilization to an untimely end.  Nor was he against knowledge in the sense of “carnal knowledge” and he had a Playboy interview to prove it.  That too was smart, in the sense of currying favor with “the smart set” of the ’60s.

Most significantly, as intellectual-in-chief, Buckley enjoyed the role of contrarian, stimulating all sorts of fascinating conversations by reversing conservative thought on key social and economic issues.  Should Richard Nixon have instituted wage-and-price controls?  Well, why not give it try?  Contrary to everything which the Austrian school of economics had painstakingly demonstrated, that wage-and-price controls would sabotage production and exchange, Buckley felt that one had to be open minded on the topic.  Should the Supreme court have had authority to determine whether abortion was murder?  Why not?  True, two-thousand years of Christian teaching had already provided a clear answer to this question.  However Mr. Buckley, though a Catholic, felt that discussion on the topic needed to be opened up and freed from dogma.  In addition to abortion and price controls, Mr. McManus lists over a dozen “indefensible positions”(pp. 220-229) where Buckley either reversed the conservative stand or introduced moral ambiguity.  And should we have been surprised?  After all, settled doctrines don’t sell magazines or increase the ratings of televised talk shows the way that controversy and factional in-fighting do.

Yet for all his delight in upsetting the apple cart of knowledge, there was one angle which Buckley declared taboo.  With regard to American government policy, and to some extent other institutions of society, all investigation had to take place within the smart/stupid framework.  The alternative framework, the good/evil framework, was strictly out of bounds.  Any policy commentator who suggested that there was a conspiracy in high places actively engaged in undermining America’s best interests, was just a dog barking up the tree of forbidden knowledge, and needing to be silenced.  These barking dogs were many, including not just Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Robert Welch, and Herbert Hoover, but ironically Buckley himself together with the staff of National Review, prior to his apotheosis as the god of a new conservatism.  Yet as early the mid-’50s it was clear that a new paradigm was taking hold.

In August 1956, at about the same time that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was warning of a “conspiracy so monstrous” that one “cannot believe that it exists,” Buckley offered his contrary view that America’s problems were occurring “spontaneously, not in compliance with a continuously imposed discipline.”  In effect, he was saying, “Don’t listen to Hoover, the House Committee, or the Senate Subcommittee.  Ignore even my own statement in McCarthy and His Enemies.  The bad that happens to our nation is the result of spontaneous stupidity, not orchestrated design.”  (McManus pp. 128-129)

Apart from questions of historical accuracy, why is this still a big deal?  Of all the trees in the political garden, why does the fruit of this one matter in a unique way?  Let’s pay attention to the observations of Mr. McManus….

Concluding that willful conspirators rather than mere bumbling do-gooders are at the root of such problems stimulates activity because of human nature’s most powerful instinct: self-preservation.  Most who decide that the disastrous transformation of America is the work of deliberate evildoers will do whatever they can to save their country, themselves, and their loved ones.

But those who become convinced that the damage being done results from well-intentioned mistakes will do little except grumble.  Even while witnessing the ongoing destruction, they will shrug their shoulders, continue working to keep their heads above water, and naively expect others in government and elesewhere to eventually see the error of their ways and take corrective action.

Today, as never before, many are willing to impute evil to their governing officials.  Unpleasant as this might be, it at least gives us grounds for reevaluating Buckley’s assessment that stupidity and not conspiracy was at the root of America’s ills.  Fewer and fewer people today would concur with this assessment, however time and energy have been lost through distractions…not the least of distractions being Buckley’s influence, an influence which both intellectualized and demoralized political discourse on the right.

Postscript on Intellectuals and Pseudo-Intellectuals

It was a balm to the pride of conservatives in the 20th century that thinkers on the left consisted not of actual, but of false or “pseudo”, intellectuals.  In contrast, Mr. Buckley and his cohorts could be trotted out as examples of the genuine article.  To be sure, Buckley and his friends were more erudite, not to mention amiable, than your average Weatherman.  However, in some ultimate sense Mr. Buckley was as “pseudo” as they came, and for reasons that should now be apparent, that, being a conscientious objector to the war against evil, he whiled away his time in the garden of ideas.

That is not to say that ideas cannot be serious.  However the number of people for whom ideas are central to existence is few indeed.  For Bill Buckley ideas were toys, baubles of the mind which could be entertained as hypotheses, not principles which compelled moral action.  How many of us can say that we deal with ideas in any other way?  Are we all not pseudo-intellectuals to one degree or another?  Perhaps that is our nature, the nature of those of us who are less than gods.  Perhaps it is good to be only a pseudo-intellectual.

Those who truly sought salvation in ideas have nearly vanished from the Earth.  Plato, Plotinus, Hypatia of Alexandria, and later during the Renaissance, Pletho and  Pico before his conversion by Savonarola, and perhaps a few others.  William F. Buckley was not among their company, and neither was Jesus of Nazareth.  So in spite of old Bill’s long list of sins, which I have barely touched upon here, this speaks well for his soul, that he was not an intellectual in the absolute sense.  There is always hope.



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The singularity…was

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 31, 2017

A meditation on the space between Genesis 11 and 12

Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah fathered Abram…

(Genesis 11:27)

Today we hear more and more about the “singularity”…a near future techno-event which will flip our reality upside down with the ease of a skinny judo sensei slamming a portly yellow-belt to the floor.  No doubt the future will witness some startling transformations in the relationship between the human species and whatever salient force is supposedly controlling our environment, therefore we reckon that Biblical prophecy should be flattered, not by these ominous portraits depicted through science fiction and futurology, but that imitation affirms the original.

It is not that I doubt “the singularity” rather, I think it is a more apt term for an event which took place long ago, somewhere in the range of thirty-six or thirty-seven centuries before the present.  This was an all encompassing event which, in the twinkling of an eye (historically speaking!) altered the human condition forever, and it had nothing, or very little to do with technology.  It wasn’t the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” or the “Urban Revolution” although such changes in technology and demographics were certainly ongoing at the time.  Rather, it was a change in the relationship between Man (a.k.a.,humans of both sexes!) and God.

Having let that slip, the atheists have got up and left the room!  Well, fine, because I’m not talking to atheists, I’m talking to philosophers, which (contrary to the prejudice of some believers) is not a distinction without a difference.  The true philosopher not only believes in God, or at least a god, but can even affirm the Hebrew scriptures…up to a point.

That point is the singularity, not a hypothetical future singularity, but the real, past, singularity which transpired once, and only once, at a time and place which we can determine with fair accuracy.  Before that time the human species as a whole was to worship God through reason.  Then suddenly, one man began to worship God through faith.  Understandably, the philosophers think this was a wrong turning, a path out into the wilderness which has distracted humanity from the level causeway of science.

To the philosophers, this turning is doubly offensive.  The first offense is the alleged substitution of faith for reason.  Endless lamps have burned late into the night refuting this accusation, but allow me a momentary respite from this main theme in Christian apologia.  The second offense is the shift from universal to special revelation.  I think this second issue strikes deeper into the heart of philosophical objections to scripture, that is, the narrative as it has been received from Moses onward, where the story of the world up through Genesis 11 must make way for the story of a family, the family of Abraham, beginning with chapter 12.

On the face of it, the philosophers have an easy case to make.  Perhaps that case is better stated in terms of science fiction rather than science.  For Christians, the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek sequel are a  kind of Guidebook to the Universe.  Now, one would expect a Guidebook to the Universe to explain the entire universe in sweeping and satisfying generalities.  Of course the Bible does no such thing, and for that matter, neither does the Guidebook to the Universe.  Any book which did would be a colossal bore, with the emphasis equally distributed between “colossal” and “bore.”   The Bible was written by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the human race, no doubt in the knowledge that a book without human interest would never find a human reader.

That is about as far as pastoral theology is likely to take the scene-change between Genesis 11 and 12.  However I know that the philosophers are unimpressed by folksy analogies, and I am determined to meet their objections in earnest.   I know that for the good philosopher, the kind who wants to believe in a Creator God and an orderly world, Abraham  is a stumbling block.  Such a philosopher, if pushed into a corner, will even declare that he or she could write a better Bible than the one which the Holy Spirit has authored.  Furthermore, some have gone ahead and made the attempt.

From the Universal to the Individual

And the whole Earth was of one language and one speech…

(Genesis 11:1)

Now, in the interests of clarity, let us absolve our hypothetical philosopher of any prejudice towards Abraham qua Abraham.  In 1800BC we are still too early for anti-Semitism, but not too early to get derailed by irrelevancies.  No, the hypothetical philosopher against whom we are arguing objects to the naked singularity, not to the qualities which make Abraham “the father of faith.”

For purposes of illustration lets do a thought-experiment.  Let’s take Genesis 1-11 as a unit, a unit which can be accepted by anyone who is a theist and a creationist.  Of course this will include Christian and Jewish creationists, but it will also include any “pagans” (or whatever you wish to call them) who acknowledge the High God who created the heavens, the earth, and the human race.  In our Bible, Genesis 1-11 is followed by Genesis 12-50, Exodus, Leviticus…and so on.  However in their “Bibles” after Genesis 1-11 the succeeding traditions go on to record the various ethnic histories other than that of the family of Abraham.  Keep in mind, this is only a thought-experiment, and I don’t claim that the nations actually had an accurate narrative of Genesis 1-11.  So in the case of some hypothetically creationist Greeks, the books in their “Bible” would be Genesis 1-11, followed by the Illiad, then the Odyssey, followed, perhaps, by the Works of Hesoid…and so forth.   I wont insist on the details as long as you see the general drift of the argument.

The import of the illustration is not to call attention to the ubiquity of creationism, but to pinpoint the disjuncture where our hypothetical philosopher has become scandalized.  The philosopher whom I am imagining would be just as offended by Achilles as Abraham.  As an apostle of reason, the philosopher does not want science mixed up in personal narratives.  The reasoning is that once personal narratives get mixed up into our scientific premises those premises cease to be objective.  In this view, the Bible from Genesis 12 and beyond is tainted by particularity, just as much as the Illiad, or any other tribal lore.  Granted there are names and persons in Genesis 1-11, but the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Dispersion can all be affirmed as principles of doctrine, of whom the associated personalities are either real or mythical archetypes.  However once we get characters like Achilles or Abraham mucking around, not as representatives of humanity, but protagonists of particular families and nations, then the high ground of objective discourse on the nature of the world has been surrendered and we have seemingly landed in a pandemonium of  individual conflicts and claims.  Personally, I think there is far more depth to Abraham than Achilles, but I have pledged not to pull that card.  Doing so would be to argue for or against particular individuals, and it is particularity itself which the philosopher objects to.

To be blunt, what the philosopher wants is a Bible which only contains universal truths, and does not descend into the conflicts of individuals.  To take up the cause of Abraham, Achilles or anyone else would, in the mind of such a philosopher, betray the universal fatherhood of God to the idols of the tribe.  Moreover, the zealous among the universal philosophers have not contented themselves with carping at the Hebrew scriptures, rather they have authored many substitutes, sundry tomes which could be considered”corrected” Bibles, redolent of reason and purged of particularity.

A Monument of Monotonous Monotheism

Neither shall your name any more be called Abram but Abraham for a father of many nations I have made you…

(Genesis 17:5)

One of the better thought out and well-intended Bible-substitutes was Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, written in the mid-17th century Netherlands, by a Jewish philosopher who worked a day job as an optician.  As befits the masterpiece of an optician, the Ethics is a very clean and translucent book.  A virtuous philosopher might carry it about as a vaudemecum, a portable Guide to the Universe, and never suffer any embarrassment.  Since the Ethics reduces reality to a set of logical propositions, it contains no narratives of rampaging heroes like Homer’s Achilles, or worse, perplexing anti-heroes like Abraham.  Already, in the war against religious perplexity, Maimonides (1135-1204), an important influence on Spinoza, had explained away God’s body.  Spinoza got rid of His emotions and personality as well.  Thus, Spinoza’s God was essentially the same as nature, although he made a distinction between two kinds of nature, creating nature and created nature.  Hence much of posterity has come to the conclusion that Spinoza was an atheist, either because they were scandalized by his ideas, or conversely, as atheism became stylish rather than stigmatized, they wished to honor him as a forerunner of Enlightenment infidelity.

Others, and I am counting our hypothetical philosopher among them, have taken Spinoza at his word, as a “God-intoxicated man” who sought to preserve the honor of the Deity from the scandal of particularity, and in particular from association with Abraham and his descendants.  One must wonder if Spinoza also wished to clean up the image of his people among the gentiles, an image formed by Abraham, David, and a rogues gallery of assorted sinners, to be replaced by gentler and more edifying examples of Hebrew scientists and scholars…a people among whom Baruch Spinoza himself stands out as a respectable archetype.  None the less, and without respect to Spinoza’s motives, we ought to deal with his theology on its own terms, as a theology and not (as per Leo Strauss and others) a crypto-atheistic doctrine, for we are trying to find out what kind of God would stand above all the messy facts of human history, and whether, as claimed, such a God is preferable to the God who reveals himself in Genesis 12 and beyond.

The value of philosophy is its ruthless consistency.  Many people reject the Bible out of squeamish aversion to nasty particulars, but they have no alternative world-view to substitute for scripture.  However rationalistic philosophers, of whom Spinoza is typical, have taken great pains to describe a God who is above all passions and particulars.   Now the salient characteristic of such a God is that He (if He is a he!) is closest to general laws and further from particular instances of those laws.  One might go so far as to say that He is the laws of the universe Himself.  This sounds quite reasonable, as does the converse, that such a God is furthest from individuals, since individuals are the most particular things in the universe, at the opposite pole from general laws.

Such a God, a god of generalities, might be reconciled to a Bible which ends at Genesis 11.  In the first part of Genesis God is seen as the creator of kinds, or what we call species.  In His dealing with men, it is as representatives of moral types, thus Cain is rebellious and Able is obedient, however after the Flood, and particularly after the Dispersion, the differentiation between individuals and races no longer expresses clear moral contraries, rather, it is variegated in the common sense of non-moral distinctiveness.   The human tribes emerging from the Dispersion are no longer different the way that Good and Evil are different, rather, they are different in the way that Apples and Oranges are different.

The Singularity

And I will make your seed as the dust of the Earth…

(Genesis 13:16)

The various “tables of the nations” after the Flood bear out this “Apples and Oranges” ethnology.  Gone are the scary Antediluvian cast of characters who are susceptible  of a Manichean interpretation.  After the early chapters of Genesis, people are just people, though chastened by the Flood and the Dispersion, and for a while God deals with them just as any rationalistic philosopher would have Him do, through the means of common grace and natural revelation.

Until Abraham.

This is the point at which human reason chokes.  Why, after having created a variegated species does God pick out one man in one family for special revelation?   The rationalistic philosopher would have God blaze his laws in the sky, for all the Earth to see without particularity or prejudice.  Instead, the singularity takes place in the nocturnal solitude of Abraham’s tents.  Humanity has never quite gotten over this event, this solicitude of God to one man and his family.  Here we are not concerned with the problematic reactions of posterity to “the choice” either the complaints of the Anti-Semites that the whole thing was a hoax or the apprehensions of Jews who feel it as an albatross around their neck.  Like it or not, the singularity was.   Rather, we are trying lift our eyes up to the purposes of the Creator, and weigh the claims of His two most plausible and noble interpreters, reason and special revelation.  Make no mistake, one of these two must be primary, and the second reduced to either a handmaiden or an allusion.

What we think about the source of our knowledge (reason vs. special revelation) will determine how we think about the the singularity, i.e., the “Abraham event.”  Conversely, how we understand the Abraham event will determine which is primary, special revelation or reason.  If we are to proceed philosophically, we will first want to understand in what sense these two sources of knowledge are similar, and then examine their differences.

At the risk of appearing commonplace, it needs to be acknowledged that both rational exposition and Biblical revelation are propositional forms of knowledge.  Now some people, especially those who claim to be mystics, are going to want to cavil at this assertion.  However I am not saying that all the things which are communicated by God to human beings take the form of propositions.  None the less, if we restrict ourselves to the revelations in the Bible, they are clearly propositional statements, such as “thou shalt not kill,” or “Cain traveled to the east and founded a city.”  They are logical statements intended for human comprehension.  Famously, during an age when men and women had drunk too deeply from the tap of mysticism, Dr. Luther objected that the Bible was a model of perspicuity, a plain message which didn’t require any spiritual advancement or academic prowess to understand.

Once we have acknowledged that both rational exposition and special revelation are propositional, it is easy to find the critical difference between these two sources of knowledge.  Rational exposition is dialectical, that is to say, it is a kind of machine for finding truth.  On the other hand special revelation is relational.  From our human standpoint, we could say that special revelation is similar to rhetoric, providing we are willing to ignore the negativity which surrounds the word “rhetoric.”  The ideal of rational exposition is independence from the prejudices of any hypothetical auditor.  In contrast, special revelation is more than just exposition, it is communication.

This is the “secret” of special revelation, which is not really a secret, but rather so obvious that it seldom occurs to anyone to give it much thought: The message of revelation is not just the propositional content of what is being revealed, rather the persons from whom and to whom the message is sent is part of the meaning itself, indeed, sometimes it is the main import of the revelation.  Revelation, i.e.,special revelation, can be defined as relationship + content.

Therefore something of critical importance is going on from the moment that God starts speaking with Abraham.  Personality, rather than matter, has been affirmed as the building block of the universe.  Or rather, since God is on one side of the equation, personality has been affirmed as the builder/building blocks of the universe.  An occasionalist would say that while he was talking with Abraham, God was actually creating the idea of personality.  Fortunately occasionalists (philosophers who think time is an illusion) are pretty nutty, so we can ignore their opinion.   Rather, if we adhere to the reality of creation, we can safely assume that personalities, both Divine and human, existed prior to the Abraham event, but that with that event the full meaning of “personality” was revealed to us.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the content of the revelation was irrelevant or trivial.  God didn’t tell Abraham “one two buckle your shoe” although that would have sufficed to initiate a Divine/human relationship.  Rather, all the things that God told Abraham and asked him to do were intended for not just for his good, but for our edification as well.

Singularity over Substance

…and the souls that they had gotten in Harran.

(Genesis 12:5)

Perhaps I am picking rather unfairly on Baruch Spinoza.  I am sure he was a very nice man.  However the great divide in this world is not between nice men and not-so-nice men (and ditto for women).  Rather, the great divide is between those who are on the side of Abraham and those who are on the other side, and I am not talking, at least primarily, about ethnicity.  In his goodness, Spinoza took solace in the concept of “substance” which was universal and inclusive of all people and things, the all-in-all.  Was this a universal cosmos-worship which denied a separate God, or a universal theism which denied the created universe?  I am sure that God  is not particularly troubled by the confusions of philosophers over nomenclature.  What should be troubling for us is the absence of personality in this metaphysical system, an absence which oddly manages to coexist with the egoistic basis of Spinoza’s ethics.  It is as if Spinoza were telling us, “Take care of yourself, but don’t take yourself too seriously…in the end you will drift away into the vapors!”

In contrast, Abraham takes himself and the fortunes of his family very seriously.  We would tend to count this as one of Abraham’s many faults if it were not that God took Abraham at least, if not more, seriously than Abraham did himself.  Abraham is a singularity, not a spoonful of the universal substance, but rather, a substance-in-himself.  Paradoxically, the fact that God authorizes Abraham’s uniqueness, and takes an interest in his survival, confirms the substantial reality of all the individuals who ever have and ever will exist throughout human history.  Not in vain was it written that those who bless Abraham will be blessed by God.

At last we have arrived at the point were the philosopher is most offended, yet the very point were the believer takes most satisfaction.  This is the scandal of the inclusion of the species inside the individual.  Here we are not speaking, primarily, about procreation.  Adam, Noah, Charles Darwin, or whomever,  may contain a population within their body, as we all know.  However Abraham is different, as all are different who are “in” Abraham, whether they be his biological descendants or not.  The naturalistic philosopher puts this “in” stuff down as an aberration of the apostle Paul, who is summarily dismissed as a poor logician, if not totally insane. However it is not logic which motivates these skeptics, but rather a nagging apprehension that Abraham is just the opening wedge in a fault line which will eventually pull asunder the veil between God and humanity some seventeen centuries later.  They want the veil to stay.

The common sense objections to “in” are based on a conflation of logic and ontology.  Although there are certain kinds of fanatics who delight in the irrational (a generation ago they were called existentialists, today it’s postmodernists)  God never contradicts himself.  He made the laws of logic and He’s sticking to them. To say that a species can be “in” an individual is not the same as claiming that a genus can be inside a species.  If I start a religion which claims that all mammals are zebras, I may have great faith, but  it is bad faith because the object of my faith is a falsehood.  A genus cannot be part of a species.  That would be a logical contradiction.

However a species can subsist within an individual.  This might be true in any number of senses, most of which are irrelevant to the issue at hand.  Procreation has already been mentioned.  Even people who don’t believe in Adam and Eve have heard of “mitochondrial Eve” although there might be resistance to talk of being “in” her, since secularists don’t like bracketing out time in their speculations, not to mention more commonplace squeamishness.  And speaking about what makes us squeamish, what about Legion?   Although “he” is hardly an pleasant topic, we have as sure testimony to Legion as anybody in scripture, including Abraham.   Legion was a species, or at least a population, who (prior to the Lord’s intervention) inhabited an individual.  Skeptics can dispute the truth of the story since they deny the reality of demonic possession, however they cannot claim that the story is logically contradictory, only that it violates their notions of ontological possibility.  If “he” had been a species of bacteria, it would be acceptable to naturalists.

However there is nothing of this biological or spiritually squeamish stuff going on with the “in” of Abraham.  Incorporation into the body of Abraham is incorporation “only” in the sense of being part of a body politic.  Although this may seem intangible in comparison to biological descent, nothing is more fundamental to human existence than having a legal personality which allows one to function in society.  This is easy to see in a worldly sense.  However when one has a standing in relation to Someone who is outside of time and space, it means that one is no longer just a drop in the ocean of universal substance.  Rather, it means that you have your own substance, an individuality which will persist beyond time.  It means that whatever you do will effect eternity.

Whether this is a good thing or not is yet a different question.  In the absence of some mechanism for the atonement for sin, one would have to be very careful indeed.  Considering the liabilities of eternal, individual, existence, it is easy to sympathize with those who wish nothing more than to dissolve into the ocean of Being.  Should life be lived seriously, or should it be viewed with amusement as a passing vanity?  The serious life begins with the singularity of the Abraham event, but fortunately it doesn’t end there, since with individuality comes the recognition of responsibility for sin, and setting sin straight would be a crushing burden if outside help were not forthcoming.  The help arrives when the outside help becomes inside help, and only those who have been tutored in the school of Abraham are prepared to understand how the “out” becomes the “in.”  They are the ones who understand that the uniformity of nature has been split apart, giving rise to individuals, nay, to souls, perchance saints.

Grace is now, but the singularity…was…


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