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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of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.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).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
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.”
10
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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In Defense of “Man”

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 15, 2017

Not Even Wrong

Suddenly.

Not suddenly as you or I measure time, but suddenly according to the stately cadences of historical events, we have lost, if not yet our species, at least, and ominously, our name for it.  At some point in the not very distant past, “Man” vanished…not extinguished as an  organism, but as an object of consciousness.  For where there is no name there can be no consciousness, where there is no consciousness there can be no science.  Today there is no longer a science called Anthropology worthy of its name, for the name has been banished.   I don’t mean the entertaining science of bones and basket weaving and many other shining objects which is offered in college curricula as “Anthropology.”  I mean Anthropology in the most specific of species-centered meanings, inquiry into that simple question….”What is…what is…[bleep!].”   It is a question which can scarcely be asked today, let alone answered.

This masking of “Man” strikes me as an important development which deserves an extended and serious discussion.   To that end, some ground rules are necessary, concerning which I have some good news and some bad news.  Here goes both:  Sex will not be mentioned in the course of this article.  I have no interest whether the reader be sex-crazed or celibate, male or female or anywhere on the spectrum in-between.  I am only interested in whether you think this Anthropological murder mystery is worth of your time and consideration.

If you concur, then the omission of sex and his/her ugly sibling “gender” is good news indeed, because these things are monumental and, I would argue, intentional, distractions from the difficulties involved in Philosophical Anthropology.  Those bad news bears,  non-adults who think sexuality is the central, nay exclusive, issue in life, can adjourn to their favorite safe space, the Reading Room on Gender, where they can reinforce their own bias among those vast collections of literature which are supplemented daily by our subsidized scholars and their media mimes.

Now to be sure, there are other rabbit paths leading away from the essential inquiry, its just that sex and gender are the most obvious, if not the most obnoxious, and hence need to be eliminated first.  However, those other anti-Anthropological rabbit paths, though less celebrated, become increasingly subtle as the core of the problem is approached.  In any subject, the task is hard enough when we have been force-fed the wrong answers…the real difficulties start when we realize that we started off on the wrong foot by asking the wrong questions.  Today, when we encounter the fundamental question of  Philosophical Anthropology, to paraphrase the incidentally sexy but essentially humane Erin Brockovitch, “..all we have is two wrong feet and damn ugly shoes.”  We don’t know”bleep!”…and the absence of the word doesn’t help.

If we wish to restore that lost science, it will prove necessary to go back and wrap our brains around that simple word “Man” which was once the standard English term for the class of all human beings, much like its French equivalent “l’homme” etc..  Man has long since disappeared out of scholarly, correct and polite language , which means pretty much everywhere, since in casual idiom, if we discount “Man oh man!” and similar oddities, the universalizing nomenclature of Philosophical Anthropology is worse than useless.  After all, you can tell a good joke about Poles, or rabbis, or priests, or homosexuals, or women, and yes, even about “men” qua the male gender, but its hard (short of aliens or the envious algorithms of The Matrix) to envision a “Man” joke.  However, while the comedians won’t notice, there might be a few instances where, for the health of civilization, the ability to have a word for the human species could come in handy.  From this, we can derive another important consideration, once “Man” has been abolished, it  is unlikely to be missed by the broad masses.  The only people who are likely to be bothered are a few specialists in what it means to be a unique species, and these specialists are generally regarded an over-serious, isolated and boring bunch.  Likewise, if the word “epidemic” and all synonyms for “epidemic” were outlawed, the only people likely to get in a panic would be epidemiologists.  Everyone else would get along quite splendidly…at least for a while.

To be sure, the abolition of “Man” and the Abolition of Man, as per the essay by C.S. Lewis are not identical.  The latter concerns the weakening of the species, the former concerns the loss of its name.  Indeed, the distinction between signs and things signified is another treasure which must be jealously guarded against the ravages of post-modernity, which is trying to slouch its way back towards a magical worldview.  Be that as it may, we can still surmise that in the defense of something it might prove essential to be able to speak about it.

On the other hand, we have to make especially sure we don’t get lured down another popular rabbit path, a highly respectable path none the less leads away from the Anthropological core: The path of language.  For example, we could easily lump this abolition of “Man” (the word) together with similar language “correction.”  Pointing out the absurdity of these corrections is the strategy of many conservatives, such as British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton who talks about the way that gender neutrality reforms have “violated the natural cadences of the English language.”   On an esthetic level, there may still be some residual irritation at “people” (or similar substitutes) in lieu of “Man”.  Yet, while this is good Edmund Burke-vintage common sense, it heads off in a trivial and logic mincing direction, of the kind favored by British analytical philosophers and American word-pundits in the Bill Safire tradition.  It expresses a futile, rearguard, hope that inane reforms, like the substitution of his and hers by “hez” can be reversed by a return to  convention, or even mutual rationality.  Rather, the Postmodernist hoards are not likely to be stemmed by a grammar policeman, policewoman, or even policeperson holding up a gloved hand, shouting “Stop!”  Its not that the “reforms” can’t be exposed as illogical and unappealing, its that they are just the tip of the spear carried by acolytes in a far deeper struggle.

Whether the war over language is winnable, I maintain it is the war against Man (as a concept) which is primary, a battle with ideological motives rooted in the hoary past.  Call it a “conspiracy” if you will, keeping in mind that conspiracy is just  popular philosophy prosecuted by cadres of minimally educated but highly motivated minions.  The generals in this conspiracy knew that they could not launch a frontal assault on Man (a.k.a. the human race), so they focused their attention on “Man” at first as a concept and then as a word.  This history of this war is better measured by centuries than by decades and has taken many a convoluted turn.  Hence my belief that contemporary Feminism is, at best, a secondary effect.  It is the Amazon battalion thrown into the breach of the citadel after the the groundwork had been patiently laid and the initial battlefield secured.  That crucial battlefield was anthropology, and not what one is liable to think of as the field of anthropology, but its philosophical cousin, that key science of all sciences, namely, the “Philosophy of…[bleep!]…”

A good “Man” is wrong to find

One can admit something exists and is important without idolizing it.  There was all too much idolization of the human race after the Renaissance and building up to the Enlightenment, a period bookended by Pico de la Mirandola’s On the Dignity of [Bleep!] and Alexander Pope’s Essay on [Bleep!] tomes which style and economy have rendered, perhaps mercifully, unreadable today.  In those days, whenever errant scholars ventured too far from the Pauline/Augustinian double anthropology of fall and redemption, it spelled trouble.  However, personal repentance generally put a  limit to the damage which could be inflicted before the toxic juice of self-worship became endemic to society.  Mirandola befriended and was converted by Savonarola, that misunderstood Catholic puritan, while at least Pope never became the Pope nor were his verses rendered into binding encyclicals.  Savonarola taught the early humanists the secret of Christian Anthropology, that Man is both sacred and bad.  For his tuition, and other causes, he was burned at the stake.

The last child and virtual apotheosis (that is, one “made into God”) of the early modern period was Voltaire, who’s hatred of religion was legendary.  None the less, even Voltaire had too much common sense to think that his animus towards Christianity could be transmuted into a new and living faith.  He noted that “It is easy enough to start a new religion, all you have to do is get yourself crucified and then rise from the dead!”  In recent years, the late Rene Girard has documented Voltaire’s insight with numerous case-studies, illustrating how most human religions originate in scapgoating, death, and subsequent apotheosis.  However the wily Voltaire could see where all this was heading, and limited his disciples to the “cultivation of  their gardens” i.e., the enjoyment of a quiet and restrained sensuality.  We might call this soft-core Humanism, or the humanism of the self.   This early modern Man-ism, which today is probably the most popular (albeit unconscious) religion on the planet, is little more than a recrudescence of old Epicurus, whose famous doctrine Paul once debated on the field of Athenian Mars.  At worst the virtues of this philosophy, such as conviviality, apolitical repose, refined aesthetics etc., are disguised vices, vices centered on feelings.  Think of the the steriotypical Country Club Republican of today’s America.  Such people are pathetic, but not in any superficial sense of the word, since the purpose of their  life is “pathic”…that is, to have feelings, high quality feelings.

Hard-core Humanism was a novelty of Voltaire’s rival, J. J. Rousseau.  In contrast to the soft doctrine, here the object of action is the ideal of Man, not the feeling-satisfaction of individual human beings.   It was Rousseau who managed to transmute the Enlightenment’s carping animus against Christianity into something resembling a true religion.  As the founder of this new religion, which has variously been termed Modernism, Humanism, Socialism and much else, Rousseau should have found himself subject to the pitiless Law of the Scapegoat.  However he eluded martyrdom, and not just because he died a natural death nineteen years prior to the outbreak of the revolution he had inspired.  Rousseau’s Man differed in important ways from both Christian and Renaissance conceptions, which were predicated on either a personal God, or at any rate, a hierarchy of beings of which the human race was but one link in the chain of existence.  Although initially disguised by Deistic code-words, the new religion lifted up Man as the Head of the Cosmos.  Since this Man was a collective, it was not expedient that any individual anti-Christ need suffer the Law of the Scapegoat.  If there were to be any suffering, it would only be in accord with the tyrant Caligula’s wish for the Roman people, “If only they all had but one neck!”  In principle, the head which lifts itself too high gets chopped off.  Caligula himself  proved  no exception to the rule.

At all events, by the 2nd or 3rd  year of the Human Revolution (c. 1793AD) modern technology had outstripped antiquity, democratizing death and allowing Caligula’s dream to come true.  The guillotine enabled the disciples of Rousseau to liquidate the old political class en mass, and then in a predictable turn of events, those disciples themselves mounted the scaffold, suffering a kind of mechanical crucifixion to the god whom they had lifted up, Man.  It was a collective crucifixion to a collective god, for this “Man” was not the same as in the soft Humanism of Voltaire, which was just a category designating a collection of individuals.  Rather, this post-Rousseau “Man” was, if not quite a concrete organism, at least cohesive enough to have a single will, a doctrine as lethal as it was democratic.

The carnage of the Revolutionary/Napoleonic period was not repeated in Europe until 1914 and thereafter, after which great quantities of men and women again began to be killed as a consequence of political and military action.  Here  we would like to inquire whether this carnage (lit. carnal death) was in some sense related to the death (or life) of an abstraction.  Is there a relation between the death of humans and the death of “Man” as a concept and a word, and if so, is that relation positive or negative?  The example of the French Revolution would seem to caution us against a laudatory Humanism, on the suspicion that the higher the ideal of “Man” is lifted up, the more human individuals are likely to be subjected to political violence.

At this point in the argument however, such a conclusion would be premature.  The period between the exile of Napoleon and the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand in Bosnia, which saw relative calm in European politics was conversely that period which witnessed, for good or ill, a wholesale revolution in popular concept of “Man” under the impact of Evolution, Marxism, and Psycho-analysis.  However none of these epicenters of scientific upheaval were directly concerned with Anthropology, at least Philosophical Anthropology, rather they were centered on the cognate disciplines of biology, economics, and psychology.

More to the point, none of these revolutionaries set out to solve the problem, “What is… [bleep!]…”   However others took up that now forbidden question, and we should try to pick up their tracks from where they left off in the tumult of 19th century thought.

Philosophical Anthropology: The Conspiracy Thickens

Today if you mention “Illuminism” it is likely to conjure up secret societies, occultism and political skulduggery, critical investigation into which is no doubt important and proper.  However in the literary salons of Europe and America during the 1840s and 185os Illuminism had a second, though in all probability related, meaning.  It referred to the then-novel research which today’s theologians refer to as the “Higher Criticism.”  If you know about, say, the “Jesus Seminar” then you pretty much know what Illuminism a.k.a. “Higher Criticism” was, except that the contemporary Seminar is pretty much an isolated rehashing of themes which were treated with greater plausibility and seriousness 170 years before.  Those earlier 19th century critics of religion were advancing along the front of a broad intellectual movement which was in the early stages of transiting from spiritualism to materialism.  The cynosure of the movement was Germany in the years following, and in reaction to, the death of philosopher G.F.W. Hegel.  To simplify a very complex way of thinking, many people of that time had accepted Pantheism, the idea that the universe and God are the same thing.  Since most people are not very quick on the uptake, and are willing to sign on to a belief systems before they grasp all of its correlative implications.

Thus, many a happy Pantheist, circa 1840AD, was surprised and saddened to learn that their system no longer permitted them to believe in the personal divinity of Jesus, whom they had hoped to retain as a spiritual hedge in spite of their infidel inclinations .  They should have figured this out from reading Hegel, but it took the shock treatment administered by some young, radical, German intellectuals of the time (a.k.a.,  the Illuminists, Higher Critics etc.) to rub the noses of these au currant ladies and gentlemen in the compost of atheism.  After a halfhearted embrace of Pantheist ambiguity, some among the elite classes of Europe were again courting hard-core, Rousseau-vintage, Humanism, very much along the lines of the original French Revolution of 1789, albeit the European political revolutions of the 40s didn’t amount to much.  This time, humanism broke out with more scientific rigor and less heartfelt enthusiasm, “Man” was made the vehicle of those hopes and dreams which had previously been invested in God.  Moreover, the unprecedented technological progress of the times were conducive to putting faith in human works.

Yet those works, splendid as they might be, begged the nature of their creators.  What was the essence of Man?  Or as we would say today, “What is the essence of….[bleep!]?”  Amazing though it might seem in retrospect, some people of that era actually took the time and pains to ask the Anthropological question.  The man who best serves as archetype of those questioners, actually proposing and discarding several solutions over the course of his life, was the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872).  One thing that can be said of Feuerbach, even if we dismiss him as a serial wrong-guesser who justly earned posthumous obscurity, was his persistent and scrupulous engagement with the Anthropological question.  His best remembered quote,”You are what you eat!” might ornament a nutritionist more gloriously than a philosopher.  Yet we must consider that, as a thinker, he was an anvil and not a hammer, pounded left and right by forces which were not just making Modernity but shattering the classical mirror of Man (better known to us as “bleep!”).  Feurerbach’s lifetime bracketed an epochal turn in human self-definition, a turn which Feuerbach didn’t initiate so much as chronicle.

Therefore, meditate on the chronological sketch below and notice how the the turn from Anthropology to anti-Anthropology transpired in the space of a specific, species-haunted, generation.  I know this narrative will be easy to dismiss as a curmudgeon’s rant on “the origins of the left”  but if you visualize the broad movement behind, and independent of, individual intentions will you grasp  its Anthropological significance.  In spooky confirmation of a simultaneous and  universal (or at least pan-Western) turn of thought, the history of early Positivism could be adduced as  a development in synchronicity with Idealism, but in this case the decapitation of Man being conducted by French, and allegedly “conservative” social scientists from August Compte to Emile Durkheim.  But I rather prefer the bold and brooding history of Anglo-German radicalism.

1804  death of Immanuel  Kant, birth of L. Feuerbach

1806 Hegel publishes his Phenomenology, consciousness posited as the motive force in the history of the world, subjective (individual) consciousness conditioned in a “dialectical” relationship to objective (collective) consciousness.

1818-19 Lectures on the History of Philosophy, S. T. Coleridge introduces German Idealism to the English reading public, slowly Idealism will replace the reigning Scottish “common sense” philosophy in the English speaking world.

1831  death of Hegel

1835 Life of Jesus, by Strauss

1841 The Essence of Christianity by Feuerbach

1843 The Essence of Christianity translated by George Eliot

1844 Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, critical of objectivity and lack of political engagement in speculative Anthropology

1847-48 Revolutions in France and central Europe

1848 The Communist Manifesto

1850 The Great London Exposition, popular vindication of applied technology over philosophical and scientific theory

1854-56 Crimean War (only major European war between 1815-1914)  Nightingale, progressive transfer of humane care from family and church to state

1859 Charles Darwin, the Origin of Species, natural selection adduced as motive force in natural history

1860 Essays and Reviews, English theologians embrace the methods of Higher Criticism

1861-65 American civil war, first modern “total” war

1861 Marx, Capital vol. 1 published

1871 Charles Darwin, the Descent of Man

1872 Death of Feuerbach

Note that at the outset Man was The All-In-All, but at the end of the period, not even the  child of a monkey, rather, a scion of some anonymous animal.

In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach attempted to equate God with “good.”  In his view all the things which were posited of a Supreme Being were actually virtuous attributes of the human species-being.  Justice, mercy, love, fidelity, etc., were human characteristics, which had been mistakenly projected on to an alienated figment of the collective imagination and deified.  However, and here’s the rub, the human individual had no more ultimate reality than God.  Feuerbach’s Man was not men, or men and women, or even people, but the species as a collective.   Individuals were mortal but the species was immortal.  Man was God, Man was good, and Man would live forever.  At the time it seemed like a grand faith, a devotion to something tangible which might give meaning to the limited and fragile life of individuals.

Feuerbach’s intention was  to make a smooth transition from the crypto-Pantheism of Hegel, to a less infatuated, more earthy, Humanism.  Yet  his critics were were more likely to see this continuity with idealism as contamination by unrealistic nonsense.  As thinkers more cunning and sanguinary than Feuerbach were quick to point out, this alleged Human species-being never managed to will anything concrete and  unanimously, but rather, all real  history has been the history of antagonistic groups engaged in fratricidal strife.  For the critics, the ultimate meaning of history was far better illustrated by victorious parties dancing on the graves of the defeated than a universally inclusive chorus singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.  According to Karl Marx the antagonistic parties were economic classes, and to some extent nations.  Today we would add genders, races, religions, and even sexual orientations.  Under fire from its radical critics, Human species-being quickly melted into the solvent of class analysis.

Small wonder that Marx happily discarded Feuerbach’s anthropology for the naturalism of Darwin, at one point seeking (and being refused) permission to dedicate Capital to the British naturalist.  Darwin’s system was founded on the assumption of conflict and competition, not the deduction of human from divine virtues.  Feuerbach continued to revise his system in the direction of increasingly consistent materialism, but was no longer in the forefront of a generation which had jumped from philosophical speculation to natural science, now that the latter was backed up by the prestige of  rapidly developing technology.

More significantly, the capital which Darwin did not endorse was the capital M in Man.  In classical anthropology Man had been one of the primordial kinds, as in Spirit, Man, Animal, and Mineral.  Naturalists from Aristotle to Buffon had recognized that  qua organism, the human body was akin to other mammals, and especially to apes and monkeys.  However in a consistently despiritualized science, the one human species was no longer set apart from the myriad of other animals, but rather fell under the same biological and ethological constraints as any other organism.  This reduction may have deeply bothered Darwin personally, but as a scientist he never really posed the Anthropological question the same way that Feuerbach had done, rather he was resigned to viewing homo sapiens as a single object within the purview of the natural science.  In spite of the title, after The Decent of Man, Man ceased to exist as a problem for natural science.  Or more precisely, from a Darwinian point of view, Man, as a unique aspect of the world, had never existed to begin with.

From Man to “Man”

We began by hinting that the loss of “Man” was a harbinger of the death of our own species.  After some clarification we can now understand that the situation is rather worse than we had initially feared, in that, conceptually, Man was killed off sometime in the middle of the 19th century, while “Man” (the word) actually survived the concept by more than a hundred years.  To maintain clarity, we must remember that there are actually three deaths.  First, the death of the concept, second the death of the word, and third, and yet to happen, the actual species extinction of homo sapiens.  That the third death is yet to happen should not imply that it necessarily will, it is only a hypothesis.  None the less, the three deaths are cognitively related.  In particular, the death of Man (the concept) at the hands of Darwinism, is strongly associated with the putative mortality of the species.  If Man is subject to species extinction, as are all organic taxa according to the laws of natural selection, then Man cannot be considered a primary aspect of the world.  As an analogy, consider the concept of “states of matter” which are generally accepted as uniform, or at least ubiquitous, aspects of nature.  If, say, all liquids could disappear from the cosmos, it would put the schema of “states of matter” in serious doubt.  Something of that nature is what has happened with Man, due to the anti-Anthropological turn circa 1860.

Now, would it be too wicked for me to suggest that while Man is not a “species” in the same sense that felix domestica is a species, none the less Man bears an uncanny resemblance to the cat, that enigmatic creature of the proverbial nine lives?  Not only did the word “Man” persist far longer than one might have expected, but Anthropology entered a period of great fruition after the death of Darwin.  Here I’m not referring primarily to what people ordinarily think of as “Anthropology”, the post-Darwinian people-within-nature paradigm which covers everything from bones to basket weaving.  Be wary that, just as in politics, where the nomenclature for everything gets twisted around to its opposite, and we now are forced to call socialists “liberals” in similar fashion those post-Darwinian scholars who no longer believe in a human essence are liable to call themselves “Anthropologists.”  In fact, they are mostly anti-Anthropologists who just want to study the secondary attributes and accidental properties associated with human beings.   Granted, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and on the whole these so-called Anthropologists are not a bad lot, being no more consistently anti-Anthropological than the other professionals who have have inherited scattered fragments among the human sciences.  If the so-called Anthropologists have any besetting sins, those would be 1) they stole the name away from genuine Anthropology, 2) some sub-schools were virulently anti-cognitive, for example the ethnologist Franz Boaz who never saw a theory that he didn’t want to grind down into a powder of facts, 3) others, notably the Structuralists, were hyper-cognitive, and sought to gin up a Theory of Everything, based on some attribute (usually kinship or language) of human thought or behavior.

The anti-Anthropologists who called themselves “Anthropologists” loved “Man” (the word).  After all, it was their schtick, and made a nifty title for textbooks, even textbooks written by sophisticated Darwinians and Marxists who knew that human species-being had gone out of fashion with Feuerbach.  In the meantime, anything on two legs with an opposable thumb would do, and it was all great fun until Feminism put the kibosh on that particular branding.  None the less, so-called  “Anthropology” took the ban on “Man” in stride, since their usage of the term was based on a consistent nominalism, if not on a conscious memory of the anti-Anthropological roots of modern natural science.  Fortunately, due to the exclusion of classical languages, undergraduates could still take “Anthro” and not worry their heads that banned “Man” had never meant just  andro…indeed, that it had meant much more than both andro and gyno put together.

Yet, I wanted to mention the 2oth century miracle of Anthropology, not so-called “Anthropology” but genuine Philosophical Anthropology, as it flourished after, and in spite of, the anti-Anthropological turn of the previous generation.  If I thought that Man were a mere species and not an attribute of Created Being, my inclination would be to classify it somewhere within the family Leporidae, as a mammal with a capacity for making unexpected intellectual leaps, and multiplying thoughts faster than other species can reproduce their genes.  To that end, what great broods have been spawned, not just among the anti-Anthropologists, which is only to be expected, but even among genuine Anthropologists during the 20th and even 21st centuries!

Now remember, when I heap praise on the battered remnants of genuine, philosophical, Anthropology, I’m only lauding them for asking the right question, namely: “What is…[bleep!]”  And by now you understand what “bleep!” is and that a Philosophical Anthropologist is one who would know and say that “bleep!”=Man, and that possibly we should even come out and say “Man” when we mean Man.  I am not saying that many, or even any, of these Anthropologists have answered the question correctly, although I think there is an answer, and that some have made a closer approach to the correct solution than others.  Naturally I have my own views, but I would consider anyone a legitimate Anthropologist who asked the question aright.

There are schools of Philosophical Anthropology of every description.  Some are religious, some are frankly atheistic, but even the most starkly atheistic Anthropologists demure from post-Darwinian naturalism in positing something unique and essential about the human race.  In that sense, all Anthropologists, from atheists to Christians, are tendering a kind of “minority report” against the consensus view of modern science and society.  An atheistic, but genuine, Anthropologist might posit that the human race has a unique responsibility to conserve the cosmos and bring it to its best potential.  Countering this, the consensus view would maintain that such an assertion was errant nonsense, an arbitrary projection of human values into the unthinking and unthinkable void.

In a brief treatment, it is impossible to do more than allude to all the speculative “minority reports” which have been filed by Philosophical Anthropologists against the hegemony of post-Darwinian naturalism.  No doubt many of these speculations have been wrong-headed, but they have at least kept a window open to world-views outside the standard narrative.  If I had to pick a representative of the type it would be Max Scheler(German, d. 1928).  Feuerbach’s anthropolgy began with materialistic idealism and sloped inexorably down to idealistic materialism, however Scheler’s thought described a parabola, which at its height sought the divine in Man.   Personality, both Divine and Human, was arguably Scheler’s main concern, however his reluctance to deal with the limits imposed by a temporal creation, as per the Judeo-Christian scriptures, subordinated individuality to the vague infinity of deep time, a dilemma similar to that encountered by the ancient Gnostics.  Abandoning his initial, and intentionally Christian, viewpoint, Scheler made the alarming discovery that, in precluding a personal God, the amoral instinctual urges of the Cosmos were far stronger than  any principle of spiritual form or sentiment.   The intellectual public in Germany and beyond, repelled by such otiose metaphysics embraced existentialism, a doctrine which gave up on the reality of anything but individuals.  Anthropology once again retreated to the shadows.

In retrospect, Feurebach and Scheler seem like tragic figures who lifted up Man, in one or another guise, as a god, only to see their systems crushed down by more consistently nihilistic doctrines.  However it doubtful whether their contemporaries saw the loss of Anthropological hegemony as something to be lamented.  Rather, they were relieved to be unburdened of Man, just as they had greeted the earlier, and logically prior, “death of God” with satisfaction.

The return of Man, and the return of “Man”…which, both or neither?

The operational assumption is that people can get along perfectly well without a conception of their own species occupying a special place in the system of the world.  Underlying this assumption is the more fundamental axiom that the natural science narrative is our default outlook on the world.  After all, its “natural” is it not?

However the “minority report” of Philosophical Anthropology raises the  specter of a completely different world, a world in which the unique bearers of the divine image have been persuaded that they are but one of a myriad of animal species.  By this account, the conceptual framework of natural science within which the image bearers were circumscribed, was not so much a “discovery” as the imputation of a belief-system.  From this perspective, it is naturalism, not the classical Man-centered cosmology, which is fabulous.  To get the masses of humanity to believe such a deflating fable in the course of a few centuries, has been a superbly effective triumph of propaganda.  Although we have some hints as to who has disseminated this propaganda, the question of in whose interest it was disseminated remains enigmatic.

Within the English-speaking world, the banner of the old classical Anthropology (Christian or secular) was “Man.”  The banner was not furled up until long after the cause was lost.  Yet the banner itself was essential, so essential that the high command of anti-Anthropology decided to send in the Amazonian battalion to haul it down under the pretext of the gender wars.  Lost in the confusion of that particular skirmish, was the deep import of having a proper name for that key nexus of Creation through which the Divine, ideally, was to communicate its dominion over the visible world.  “People” is more than just an innocent substitute for “Man”, since, being a plural, it serves as a pretext for importing the entire philosophy of nominalism into the human sciences.  Nominalism views entities (you and me and the cat and the carpet) as capable of being grouped into any category which happens to be convenient.   Who’s convenience?

It can be safely inferred that this is a view well suited to those who want to abolish the boundaries between species.  Perhaps now the reader can see the relevance of all the preceding esoteric Anthropology, for looming on the event horizon of our world are a thousand crises brought about by relation of the human to the non-human.  Indeed, we are conjuring up new categories of non-humans day by day.  AI and aliens, robots and Chimeras, not to mention all those entities of the natural and spiritual world who are ancient in human lore.  I eagerly await the rebirth of the “dinosaur” from its amber-encased DNA.  Or will it be a dragon?   Names make a difference.

None the less, we proceed without caution, for the night-watch has been relieved of its duties as the evening of human history encroaches.  Isolated voices cry out, “There may be a problem here!” and anxiety is ubiquitous, but few are willing to “get real.”  This is not an accident.  The “real” tools, nay, the “real” weapons with which we might have fought were long ago taken away and beaten, not into plowshares, but into the bars of zoological confinement for what remains of the dignity of Man.  The “real” tools were realistic in a properly philosophical sense, exalting created kinds as the unalterable building blocks from which God created our world.  Such was Man.  Hence the necessity of having a personal name for the species.

Will Man come again?  I think so, but more on the basis of faith than calculation.  In the meantime others look towards a rapidly accelerating future, and begin to realize that “Nature” is hardly a better idol than secular Man, that the sense of “nature-in-itself” is an illusory effect of what psychologists call normalcy bias.  None the less, something is approaching, we know not what.  Intellectuals call it “the end of history” while technologists speak of “the singularity.”  Most just ignore it, but it will come nonetheless.

Suddenly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, Evolution, History, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

From Ike with love: The Age of Deception (1952-2016)

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 5, 2017

Nothing has changed except our point of view, but that counts for something

It is easy to think, as the left continues to overplay its cards, that something significant has occurred, and that our trajectory towards an Orwellian future has accelerated .  On the contrary, the Trump victory has triggered a new gestalt in people’s minds.  By 2017 fairly average people can see what only hardened conspiracy theorists were willing to hypothesize as late as 2015.   Whether or not we are at the beginning of a new era, for good or ill, is a matter of conjecture.  Indisputably, we have taken our leave of a period in political history which will prompt nostalgia among anyone but truth-seekers.  While it was hardly an era of good feelings, it was held up by its laureates as a time of consensus, or at least bi-partisanship.

Rather, it seems better to call our recent past the Age of Deception.  The Great Deception consisted in draping a de facto one party system in the vestments of a two party system.  If you had said this in 1965, or 1975, or 1980, or 1994, or 2001, or perhaps even 2008…most people would have called you an extremist.

However somebody, somebody who thought extremism in the cause of truth was no vice, had already pointed this out as early as 1958.  Sure enough, his opponents, and they were legion, labeled this man a slanderer, effectively burying  his work from the sight of the general public, first using savage opprobrium, subsequently silence, and at last retrospective ridicule.   The man was Robert Welch, and the “book” he wrote, initially penned as a private circular and later published as The Politician, targeted none other than President Dwight Eisenhower as an agent of communism.

Then as now, to the half-informed mind of the general reading public, such an allegation was patently absurd.  Eisenhower was venerated as a war hero on the basis of his direction of the Allied war efforts in Europe.  Now admitedly, there are a number of ways to think about the “heroism” of strategic commanders as opposed to direct combatants, but generally, if the war is won, the public will grant the former a triumph and allow them to retire in luxurious obscurity.  “Ike’s” not-so-obscure military retirement consisted of becoming President of Columbia University.  After that, for reasons most people are rather vague about, he was drafted to become the Republican candidate for another kind of presidency, nominated over Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, the last champion of the “Old Right.”

After that, we usually go to sleep in our American history class until it is time to wake up for Kennedy.  Indeed, this might be a kind of clue that something is amiss in the standard Eisenhower narrative, like the barking dog who falls strangely silent in the dead of night.  How many books, popular and scholarly, are published each year about JFK in comparison to good old “Ike” (even subtracting those chillers which focus entirely on Kennedy’s murder)?  I doubt that a ratio of a hundred to one would be far off base.  Either America’s political ’50s were incredibly boring, or there is a story which, in the view of some, were best left untold….

A few history mavens might even remember that “We…(presumably all Americans)..like Ike”…because (warning, redundancy!) he was “…a man who’s easy to like.”  And furthermore, as the campaign jingle continued with mesmerizing repetition…”Uncle Joe is worried, ’cause we like Ike!”  Of course, if Mr. Welch was anywhere close to on-target in The Politician, “Uncle Joe” a.k.a. Joseph Stalin had little to be worried about, at least in regard to Dwight Eisenhower.

If you are skeptical that “Ike” could have been a communist front man, then I can sympathize with you.  Frankly, I was skeptical myself…indeed, everybody has a right to be skeptical of startling claims.  On the other hand, if you think that it is disrespectful to raise the issue of presidential duplicity at all, then you are on shaky grounds.  You are on especially shaky grounds if you happen to be one of those people who think that our sitting president was sponsored by (today’s post-communist) Russia.

You see, after 2016 everything has changed.  Whether or not Mr. Welch’s claims regarding “Ike” can be vindicated, at the very least we are now in position to read The Politician as an objective historical account.  The Politician is a strong and scholarly witness of an already forgotten time, one that now can, and should, be approached without bias or malice.

Why Robert Welch didn’t “like Ike”

It is an uncomfortable but inescapable truth that once certain things come to one’s attention it is impossible  to “unsee” them.  There is a shift in perception which renders impossible any  return to “normal” however rosy that mythical past might have been.  For example, a beloved though eccentric uncle can seldom be restored to a family’s unguarded intimacy once he comes under suspicion of pederasty, and rightly so.  Likewise, the image of Eisenhower would be shattered, not so much as war hero, but as the epitome of a stable, normal and normalizing politician, were he to be exposed as a willing agent of communism.  Conversely, just as the suspect uncle would insist on due process, even if he knew himself to be guilty, the upholders of the Eisenhower legacy are apt to clamor for iron clad proof of what, according to mainstream historiography, would be considered an outrageous accusation.

Sadly, for the reputation of Eisenhower and our national narrative, the claims of Mr. Welch are well documented, coherent, detailed, and were compiled by a contemporary who knew the American political class of the 1950s like the back of his hand.  If you wish to keep Eisenhower in your pantheon of heroes, read no further.  If, on the other hand, you would like to see the claims against him substantiated, read The Politician.  Here, I can only provide a brief, albeit damning, sampling drawn from Mr. Welch’s researches.  Therein he documents the following egregious policies which were either authorized or enabled by Eisenhower:

*Even in his role as allied commander, the fountainhead of his public esteem, Eisenhower was allegedly (The Politician provides graphic details) complicit in the nefarious Operation Keelhaul, a rendition program which forcibly repatriated ex-Axis agents collaborating with the American forces to their home countries behind the iron curtain.  This eliminated numerous sources of “worry” for “Uncle Joe.”

*Eisenhower was instrumental, as President of Columbia University, in pushing that already left-leaning institution further in the same  direction.  He continued to associate with and hire left-wing and communist front faculty, procuring for them teaching/research endowments.  Again, the allegations in The Politician have been strengthened in the light of subsequent events.  Just ten years after the publication of Welch’s Eisenhower exposure, the University of Columbia erupted as an epicenter of the spreading “new left” movement of the ’60s.

*At the heart of The Politician’s allegations is “the politician” himself.  Prior to Eisenhower’s nomination as a candidate for president on the Republican ticket, all of his political associations had been with the left-wing of the Democrat party.  This is perhaps the most uncanny aspect of Eisenhower’s career, and the one most germane to the establishment of a faux two-party system beginning in the ’50s.  The only fig leaf concealing this duplicity was the absence of any prior political office holding (Democrat or Republican) by the President-to-be.  Again, historical retrospect adds, if not new facts, new irony to the narrative of The Politician.  Our current presidency is commonly considered exceptional, if not down right illegitimate, on grounds that Mr. Trump held no prior office and was not sufficiently initiated into the mysteries of the political class.  In the light of Eisenhower’s prior example this current “exceptionalism” can only be caviled at by those who either 1) adhere to the dangerous proposition that generalship is a political office, or 2) are willing to admit that such rules can only be broken on the left.

*Once inaugurated President Eisenhower continued the policies of FDR’s New Deal.  Indeed, programs and bureaucracies which existed only in embryo in previous administrations were fleshed out, expanded, and duplicated.  The agricultural sector is typical, and just one of the many that Welch enumerates. Amazingly, farm subsidies swelled to half of farmers’ revenue, a fact of which “Ike” was very proud.  Moreover, unlike FDR and the Democrats of the ’30s, these programs were not justified as “emergency” measures, but were considered a permanent and “normal” restructuring of the relation between the public and the private sector, i.e., de facto socialism.   This was enabled by the collapse of any meaningful two-party opposition due to the alliance between left-wing Democrats and the establishment Republicans who backed Eisenhower.  The monolithic bureaucracy, exemplified by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, long resisted by the “Old Right” was institutionalized under the faux two-party consensus.  Hence the public sector actually saw a spurt of growth in terms of employees and expenditure in the transition from Truman to Eisenhower.  Consequently, the national debt rose at a rate several times higher than even the Democrats had been willing to incur.

*As shocking as many of the above allegations might seem, the most controversial aspect of the Eisenhower administration was its acceptance and further entrenchment of the post-WWII National Security State system inaugurated under Harry Truman.  This has to be remembered both in conjunction with, and contrast to, the only quote that most people today are likely associate with Dwight Eisenhower, namely, his “prescient” warning against the dangers of the “military industrial complex.”  This utterance was prescient only in so far as Eisenhower was speaking prior to the Vietnam debacle, after which such forebodings became commonplace.  To the best of my knowledge Mr. Welch doesn’t reference this quote, which dates from a time subsequent to the initial redaction of The Politician, although not prior to later editions.  However, Mr. Welch frequently draws attention to rhetorical gestures made by Eisenhower through which he exculpated himself from responsibility for his suspect policies by seeming to condemn their inevitable negative consequences.   Thus he might condemn “galloping socialism” while rapidly expanding the public sector.  Seen in this light, we might take Ike’s warning against the “military industrial complex” to heart, while doubting the speaker’s innocence of the very thing he condemned.

Does this “Ancient History” even matter?

The short answer…yes, it does.

You might recall a scene in Starwars where Luke Skywalker asks Yoda about the future.  Yoda answers, “A strange thing the future, always in motion it is…”  In a sense the past is also in motion, shaped by the interpretation given it by the present.  Yet it would be too great a concession to the irrational forces of our times to say that this was a real, and not an apparent, motion.  The past must be uncovered, not invented…although the temptation to  invent myth is strong.

There is always a strong mental resistance to meddling with any society’s pantheon, or in more American terms, we might say, tampering with Mt. Rushmore.  In Mr. Welch’s day, The Politician seemed rude to the point of slander, while today it seems impious.  We might say “only” impious, when actually it’s the primal sin.  Mr. Welch mentioned something nobody was supposed to notice.  That’s impiety.

Or is it?  Note another odd thing about the Eisenhower myth, that there is no such myth!  Somehow or other Eisenhower has eluded both the pantheon and the rogue’s gallery of American history.  If the entire history of the Presidency during the ’50s elicits very little commentary, is that because the whole period was boring?  Hardly.  Rather, might not such a presidency be likened to a constant background noise, or better yet a universal solvent…the purpose of which is to set the standard of normality for “the end of history”?

Today we have come out the other end of “the end of history.”  Not that we really know how things will end, or for that matter continue.  All we know is that, for the first time in a long time the carefully scripted design for the future has suffered a setback.  The planners, whoever and whatever they may be (though from a galaxy far away I think they be not!) are in disarray and many things are back on the table which once were considered “settled.”  This may be a good thing, it may be a dangerous thing, and most likely both, but this is where we seem to be at present.

Consequently, under today’s conditions, reading, and taking seriously, the thesis in Mr. Welch’s The Politician, is no longer an act of impiety.  It is an essential measure of the road which we have traversed through the land of manipulated consensus.  Having finished that journey, we can look back at the trail-head, take stock, and get a new perspective.  However, in contrast to the fantasies of the “progressives” no perspective is better just because it is newer…only if it is truer to realities which transcend perspective itself.  Furthermore, to get at those realities one has to crunch a lot of historical data, and there is a lot of data to crunch, most of it rather unpleasant, in The Politician.

Only those with a deep urge for enlightenment need apply to the task.

 

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

The Surprising Salvation in Salvador Dali!

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 27, 2017

Art (1930AD) catches up to Augustine (400AD)

For several decades had I tried, without much success, to understand the work of Salvador Dali.  And “if” (the obligatory caveat) I understand his work now, that is only because my fumbling around finally located the key to Dali, a key hidden in plain sight, and a key which I am willing to share with you now.

Dali was a Christian.

Pay no attention to the fact that Dali wasn’t your kind of Christian.  Dali wasn’t anybody’s kind of Christian, except Dali’s and (hopefully) Christ’s.  Nominally, he was a Spanish Catholic, and while nobody has ever doubted that he was very Spanish, the assessment of Dali’s Catholicism remains dubious.  Towards the end of his life the priest assigned to Dali “suggested” he illustrate the Jerusalem Bible.  These illustrations, while excellent, were hardly Dali’s best, and show uncharacteristic restraint.  Evidently Dali was put on some sort of spiritual diet, and in the process of “trying to be good” produced, predictably, good rather than great art.

When I mention Dali’s Christian art, I don’t mean his sunset productions as a Biblical illustrator, but those most tortured and characteristic works which the whole world recognizes as Daliesque.   To me, and I’m hardly alone, this art initially seemed utterly grotesque, or at best interesting as a stage in art history.  I vastly preferred Classical art, and some of the more lean and geometrical modern works.   However I was wary of the surrealists, and for that matter, today I’m more wary of them than ever.   Yet I have come to love Dali.

What changed was my perception of Dali.  I no longer hold him to either the cannons of Classical or Modern art.  I see him as a Christian artist, mediating the dispute of the ancients and and moderns, and overcoming both.

Keep in mind that Dali was always respectful of (or if “respect” is too un-Dali, “consciously indebted to”) Classical art.  In particular, he lionized Vermeer and Velasquez.  This must have irritated the artistic and literary radicals of  the mid-20th century.  The best thing that George Orwell (more sympathetic than most) could say was that Dali could pose as “a great draftsman.”  Modernists portrayed classicism as pictorial realism which had been rendered obsolete by the invention of photography.  Hence to imitate the classics was to reduce oneself to the level of a draftsman…an artist’s apprentice.

However the Christian critique of Classical art goes much deeper, in that, from the point of view of Christian witness to the effects of sin, any Classical “realism” is a lie.  However pious a Michaelangelo or even a Vermeer might be in private, the public image of their art remains essentially pagan, a portrayal of the beautiful surface of reality.  A panting like “The Artist in His Studio” by Vermeer, is either trivial or Platonic.  At worst it is trivial, a kind of pre-photograph which entertains us with the glimmering play of light on human and artificial surfaces.  At best, it is a Platonic illustration of timeless perfection, which unfortunately ignores the sin nature of both the artist and the subject.

This is the kind criticism of pagan art which Augustine of Hippo (c. 400AD) would have understood.  My hypothesis is that the young Dali had some similar inkling when he was a young man transiting from the drafting table to the surrealist salon.  Of course Dali was no theologian at the time, and whether he ever became one is a matter of conjecture.  But his intuition told him that representative art was either trivial or a lie, and thus to overcome Classical art, Dali would have to bear his cross and descend into hell.  And thus he entered the hell of surrealism.

Dali’s Divine Comedy

Here I must treat Dali’s decent into hell as a parenthesis.  The whole story is best categorized under the rubric of Cultural Marxism and sundry systems which have substituted the worship of the human mind and society for that of Abraham’s God.  I have written elsewhere, and at length, on this subject, and pending God’s permission, may do so in the future.  Suffice to say that Dali learned all the techniques of the diabolical arts and propaganda better than his masters themselves.  This greatly irritated them at the time and increasingly thereafter.

At the risk of oversimplification, a risk that I will harrow in preference to ambiguity, the surrealists were developing a technology which they hoped would drive men and women mad, not just as individuals, but in the mass, through the propagation of mass-art.  Today we are inured to the aftereffects of surrealism, in venues as diverse as European politics and American advertising.  We dismiss the MAD men as little more than a toponymic pun and reassure ourselves that nobody ever got food poisoning from watching a can of Andy Warhol’s soup.  However at its inception, the surrealist movement developed a toxic concentrate of images which were intended to drug the senses and more particularly to destroy the “common sense” of Western Civilization.  Today we can see that they, in collusion with other forces, have been quite successful.  However it took more time than the surrealists (mostly “revolution now” types) were willing to envision, which in turn has obscured their cause on our effect.

But for the moment, let’s voyage back to the mid-20th century, back to Dali.  Gradually it became clear that either Dali was not a genuine surrealist or that (as per Dali’s own view) he was the only surrealist and the others were all frauds.  Beyond the name-calling, what was really going on?  The surrealists expected Salvador Dali to put his technique at the service of their ideology.  However for Dali surrealism wasn’t an ideology, just another technique for the artist to command.  The Marxists and Nihilists could never understand this.  You aren’t supposed to be able revolt against the revolution or to annihilate nothingness.

Yet Dali did precisely that, through the employ of his not-so-secret weapon…humor.  Like Dante, he had descended into hell and emerged on the other side of the world, the side of God.  However there is a great difference between Dante’s Divine Comedy and that of Salvador Dali, i.e., the latter is actually funny.  Dante edifies but Dali entertains.

Yet there is a serious side to Dali as well.  Armed with two contrasting techniques, Classical realism and Surrealist illusion, the Spaniard was able to work in high fidelity to the message of the scriptures.  Humanity is indeed distorted and grotesque, an agent of sin descended from generations of twisted experience in the vicissitudes of time and lust.  None the less, the primal image of God is never quite erased.  Classical form remains as the necessary substance which perpetuates human existence, even when that existence has been twisted into monstrosities.  From this duality emerges an authentic picture of the human condition, a picture which neither Modernity nor Classicism on their own can portray.

Like his great predecessor El Greco, Dali distorts the classic form.  But while El Greco could only distort along one dimension (height, and that perhaps due to an ocular distortion) Dali could distort along multiple dimensions.  To give the devil his due, Dali learned this as a journeyman surrealist. Consequently, in Dali we see the painful weaving together of Humanity it both its fallen and its original state.  That this groaning of the  fallen world creates pleasure, even levity, when viewed as art is one of the enigmas of Dali, and not just of Dali but of that larger mystery of Christ in which that artist participated as a witness.

Posted in Art, Christianity, culture, Media, Politics, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Slouching towards the Post-Legal Society (Introduction: “The Beast”)

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 23, 2017

Cultural Marxism:  From show trials to no trials

If property is the proverbial nine points of the law, it is not surprising that Marxism, its frontal attack on property having stalled out (NB: ideology aside, we all like our “stuff”) would have eventually gotten around to launching a second front against law itself.  The total annihilation of law never succeeded with Communism Classic (Stalin’s version), since the Soviet state needed a judicial apparatus to highlight its superiority to “bourgeois law” …not to mention providing a half-way house on the way to the Gulag.  The nightmare of totalitarianism having been quietly put aside, if not entirely exorcised, we have emerged into the glaring, and presumably lawful, light of the Global Village.  Or have we?

Today, the legal “reforms” of the (allegedly) defunct Soviet state are held to be little more than antiquarian curiosities.  However this does not mean that “bourgeois law” a.k.a., classic legal principles of the Civil and Common law, have triumphed throughout the world.  Rather, the struggle against law has gone underground, or rather above ground and hidden in plain sight.  It dares not risk exposing itself, and therefore avoids clear opposition to the institution which makes civilization possible: Objective Law.  Since it eschews both thesis and antithesis, running for the dense cover of ambiguity, it must be tracked like a beast…by locating and examining its spores.  We know not what it is, but like W. B. Yeats, we can at least pose the question…

And what rough beast, its hour come at last

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

But at least we have a track, where the beast has digested large swaths of civilization’s foliage and left us a species-specific excrement where form has been neatly reduced to matter.   If we can track the down the spoor-dropper, perhaps it can be slain.  Or perhaps not.  But at least we may come to know who, or what, our adversary is.

Antinomianism

We must pick up the beast’s trail in the foothills of religion, and especially false religion.  The journeyman tracker will think that we have found the beast itself, and with a gleeful cry of “Antinomianism! Antinomianism!” presume that they have him treed, when in fact it is just a spoor, albeit very a significant find.  Actually the beast has moved on to an entirely different part of the forest, since the “true” false region of today is not a religion at all, but science, or rather scientism.

However there are enough who still believe in ersatz-Christianity to cloud the contemporary scene with a subtle contempt for law.  This is an Oedipal Christianity in which the God of Law is slain by the Son of Love, a doctrine preached by a vague figure named Jesus something or other.  Scientifically this is supposed to be Yeshua ben Yosef, but it really doesn’t matter, since this ersatz-Christianity has been purified of all but universal truths which all good natured people ought to be able to agree to.  Among these is that law is mean and should be dispensed with in favor of good will.

Yeats was assuming that the reader of his poem knew that he was talking about the “Antichrist.”  However if we get too hung up on the idea of the Antichrist being an ugly, brutal, beast then we are likely to be deceived.  Granted, there are many cults which like to dress up in spandex costumes, going about sporting horns and tridents.  They may even enjoy frightening middle-class people on Halloween and sundry sabbaths with their clownish antics.  But this is all an exercise in misdirection.  Such cultists may be “anti-Christs” but not the final beast who arrives at the end of history. The real threat to our spiritual well being doesn’t come from avowed nihilists who dance around impersonating a cartoon Satan.

The real threat comes when the world-system (what the Bible calls the “Aeon”) proceeds to abolish law in favor of a “higher morality.”  In today’s virtue-signaling pseudo-saints we see a harbinger of the real Antichrist.  The real Antichrist will not look evil or demonic, in fact the real Antichrist will try to resemble Christ to  whatever extent that might be possible.  After all, Christ did transpose law-abiding to a higher abiding in Him.   Call that a “higher morality” if you will.  However the “higher morality” of the Antichrist will not be based on fear of the Creator, but fear of the creatures.  Specifically, it will involve fear of the Human collective, a fear that will initially manifest itself as virtue-signaling, but in fact will rest upon appeasement of human (and ultimately demonic) lusts.

Having broken through the firewall of law (whether we choose to call such formal restraints law, culture, morality, ethics, or whatever) the direct confluence of collective human lusts and fears will create a Democracy of Desire.  Initially such a state of affairs may not seem ugly to behold.  It may even appear to be morally beautiful.

A beautiful beast.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Charismata, Christianity, Constitutionalism, History, Law, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Slouching towards the Post-Legal Society: Pt. 2 The “Antinomian Controversy”

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 22, 2017

Surf’s up!

Yesterday we took a trip to the beach and watched two young men struggle out into the water with their boards, a long-haired and bearded duo whom we instantly dubbed “Jesus” and “Peter.”  Both were tanned and seasoned surfers who understood how to catch a wave at the max and ride it all the way to the shoreline.  What neither of them seemed to catch was the sign on the pier which said “No swimming or surfing within 150 feet.”

And what could be more in accord with the spirit of apostolic Christianity than to ignore the ordinances of mere mortals and ride on to an invulnerable finish at a cis-150 range of the pier? Isn’t that how all right thinking…or rather, right feeling, saints will savor the moment?

And are you that stupid?

I didn’t think so.  On the contrary, perhaps we have caught just the right theological wave, surfing right up to the edges of the crises generated by our increasingly lawless post-modern era.  This theological wave even has a technical name:Antinomianism.  It is the error of Christians who think that the law has been abolished, not fulfilled, by our Messiah.

Actually, law remains, but only in true Christianity, not ersatz-Christianity.  In ersatz-Christianity we are groping (I’m afraid the word is apt!) towards the Democracy of Love, not the Kingdom of God, towards a state in which all moral distinctions are abolished, under the pretext that people don’t need human rights as long as they can get enough human love.  And if there isn’t enough love to go around the state will make up the deficit, in terms of belonging, security, and a can-do mission.  Not the bourgeois law state, but the on-the-march state militarized for either domestic or foreign war.  This means the replacement of law and order with orders…both standing orders and changes in orders.

Following Ovid, the most honest label for this ideology might be The Party of Metamorphosis.  However “change” is a slow seller unless people can be convinced it means “change for the better.”  Hence it calls itself the party of “progress” or even “liberalism”i.e., change in the direction of more freedom.  Thus ersatz-Christianity is pleased to call itself Progressive or Liberal, as the case may be.

Believers of the non-ersatz variety might call out Liberal Christians as “Antinomians”…but this would be a mistake.  More precisely, it would be what philosophers call a category mistake.  It might be the oddest thing, but antinomianism is almost, kinda, the genuine truth as far as Christian theology is concerned.  That is because nobody is saved from their sins by trying to live a moral life.  One is saved from one’s sins by throwing oneself on the mercy of Christ.

Suppose a prisoner, a murderer, is waiting on death row under sentence of execution.  The prisoner appeals to the governor of the state to be spared as an act of mercy.  The governor, receiving a petition from the prisoner, grants the plea and the prisoner avoids execution.  What has happened?  The prisoner is alive due to an act of grace by the governing authorities.  What has not happened?  The laws against murder are still on the books.  They have not been abrogated or even mitigated on the basis of an act of grace.

Thinking that pardoning the prisoner repeals the law, might serve as an illustration of what theologians call “antinomianism”  a word derived from the latin meaning anti-law.  But what, if any, relation is there between theological antinomianism and the increasing lawlessness of postmodern thought and society.

The Secularist distortion of Theological Doctrine

Even sincere believers are prone to stumble when it comes to doctrine.  One the one hand there are those who are inclined to add some sort of discipline or ritual to saving grace.  On the other hand there are those who presume upon grace, inferring that grace has somehow abrogated God’s moral standards.  This is the marrow of theological controversy and pastoral council.  However the Antinomian controversy is at best tangential to the secularist trend in the direction of lawlessness, at worst it is a source of confusion, deliberately sown to confuse the distinction between genuine and ersatz Christianity.

At its root, “Progressive” or “Liberal” Christianity is little more than a front group organized by the forces of Secularism for its own nefarious purposes.  Secularism generates ersatz-Christianity by transposing antithetical theological terms from one set of referents to another.  Thus the law/grace antithesis is transposed into a law/psychology antithesis.  “Law” in the first antithesis refers to fundamental morality, while “law” in the second antithesis refers to the public ordinances of civil society.

The secularist will try to get the Christian to conflate these two similar-sounding antitheses.  If, from the point of view of some “higher life” theology, grace is far superior to law, likewise it is maintained that a world in which people relate to each other through their feelings about one another as individuals is far superior to a society where individuals’ relations to one another is mediated by status, legal personality, and civil institutions.  The catch to this world-view is that one all-powerful institution is necessary to referee the atomized and psychologized world after all other institutions, such as the family, churches, and voluntary associations, have withered away.  Inevitably, this singular institution is the modern managerial state.

Grace, because it fulfills rather than abolishes law, leads to freedom. Grace is based on the trans-individual claims of Christ, and hence builds up a society based on objective law.  The individuals in a grace-based society, as pointed out repeatedly by the apostle Paul, retain their differences of status and function.  Like stones with well defined edges, they are none the less capable of being stacked up into a larger edifice.

However the reduction of society to individual claims based on feelings really does abolish law. Each individual, striving for perfection, is like a smooth sphere centered upon itself.  Like marbles, they cannot be stacked into a larger edifice.  Instead of forming into a structure, the marbles will scatter into random chaos until captured and put into the confinement of a bag.  In our world, this bag is the managerial state.

It is tempting to call the psychological momentum of post-modernist society “antinomian” and hence fall into the trap laid by secularist rhetoric.  Such nomenclature would grant postmodernism a legitimate pedigree in Paul’s theology of grace.  This is a big deal, because it endorses the movement from psychology to statism, from chaos to tyranny.

Theological antinomianism, whatever moral baggage it might be freighted with, should stop short of toxic associations with postmodernity.  It should never get much worse than Jesus surfing too close to the pier.

 

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Constitutional Contrary or Conundrum? The Imperial Presidency vs. the Unitary Executive

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 4, 2017

Strong President, Weak President

Setting boundaries and limits to power is the essence of politics in a republic.  No Latin word was ever belabored more than imperium in the era prior to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.  Originally it referred to the “sphere of power” which was exercised by a magistrate, great or small, beyond which the office holder infringed upon the rival authority of some other elected official.  With the atrophy of the Republic, it became a personal noun, the Imperator, the root of our term for a King of Kings, an “Emperor.”  The word, thus transformed, described a  person who’s “sphere of power” had become the whole world, thus annihilating the use to which its root had once been put, namely, to define and limit power.

Last year I predicted that Donald Trump, if elected President, would not become a fascist dictator, an “Emperor” so to speak.  Rather, the tremendous forces arrayed against him would ensure that the office would be brought to heel to a much greater degree than those who fear an Imperial Presidency are wont to imagine.  None the less, even I have been surprised by the extent of the weakness in the executive.  If we have passed any Rubicon, it seems rather that we have passed over from a concealed, to an open, form of oligarchy.

One way of coming to grips with this non-revolution is to admit from the outset that 1) the Imperial Presidency, and 2) the unitary executive, are contraries, not complements.  If we were to talk about official spheres of power with the fastidiousness of the ancient Romans, we might call the first, the President’s “lateral power” and the second the President’s “upright power.”  Imagine that presidential power is a rectangle of fixed area which loses depth whenever it is stretched horizontally.  I know that is a rather strange image to put in the service of a radical hypothesis, but bear with me.

Why the unitary executive is a great Constitutional doctrine

Generally when we ( and by “we”I mean, libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists, natural rights advocates, strict constructionists, etc.) hear the word “president” modified by the word “strong” we go into a fit of moral indignation, if not outright hysteria.  Yes, generally heads of state should be weak, lest they turn into tyrants.  However the American presidency is a unique institution, one which the founders of the Republic intended as a safeguard of liberty, just as much as the legislative and judicial branches.  To begin with, the very notion that the American president is a “head of state” is an extra-Constitutional notion, one which arises from the necessity of adjusting American nomenclature to the standards of  diplomacy.  Indeed, since the Congress is our premier branch of government, the Speaker of the House has a fairly good claim to be the federal head of state, on the analogy of parliamentary systems.

Leaving aside the symbolic, and rather silly, issue of heads of state, let’s turn to a more fundamental question which impacts on the idea of the unitary executive.  Each of the branches of the Federal government must conduct its internal affairs in hermetic isolation of the other, while being in constant cooperation as corporate bodies to conduct the governance of these United States.  Naturally, each of the branches will attempt to extend its sphere of authority, or what the Romans called, their imperium.

Now the matters which are of concern to each branch are well spelled out in the Constitution, but each of the branches always attempts to grow its authority by multiplying those things by which it exerts authority.   Thus the legislative branch attempts to grow its authority by increasing the volume and complexity of legislation, while the judicial branch attempts to grow its authority through the multiplication of rulings, judgements, and injunctions.  On the other hand, it is primarily the executive branch which attempts to grow its authority through the multiplication of offices.  Sad to note, but the three branches may remain evenly balanced while all of them grow in concert, disrupting the larger balance between governmental and non-governmental institutions in civil society.

Whatever cure there might be for the exponential growth of government in the legislative and judicial spheres, the theory of the unitary executive provides both a unique analysis and possible cure for burgeoning bureaucracy.  How so?

Strictly speaking, in the American republic there can never be more than one government officer at a given time.  The name of this officer is the President of the United States!

Oh yes, if you must quibble, there is also a deputy in case of death or incapacitation, the anomalous Veep.  None the less, two officers is a pretty strict limit for the bureaucracy of a large republic.  It reminds one of the twin consuls of Rome, a historical precedent which was never far from the thoughts of the American founders.  In terms of modern political theory we have arrived at genuine “minarchism”…an ungainly word which has been coined to express the most limited of limited governments.

Of course, for true unity of will and purpose, a person can never really trust anyone else to do their own job.  Hence the most pristine unitary executive would be one in which the President did all the work of executive branch personally.  We can imagine a President who, dispensing with the service of a secretary, was able to handle all executive correspondence personally.  (NB: The reason we can imagine it is that we live in a world of word processors, computers, and the internet.)  However other things, such as warfare, might be a bit more tricky, unless our chief magistrate had the strength of the Biblical Samson or a modern-day comic super-hero.

So to be on the realistic side, even our pristine unitary executive would, of necessity, need to contract out for a few staffers.  Hopefully these would all be temporary workers.  After all, the chief magistrate himself is a temporary worker, limited to four, or at the maximum, eight years of employment by the American people.

Now before you dismiss this as nothing more than utopian swamp fever, perhaps we should take a look at the way the doctrine of the unitary executive has played out in the history of the Republic.

 

The historical roots of a weakening unitary executive

Unfortunately, while the imperial Presidency is the most realistic of real-political realities, the concept of a “unitary executive” is little more than a constitutional doctrine which has had to go hat in hand through the corridors of history in search of application.  To put the theory in its clearest form, the unitary executive is the President himself, who is at once both the only employee of the American people, and also the boss of every federal office holder outside of the Congress and the Judiciary.  The theory seemed most incarnate in the reign of those generals who seemed to be able to wield their authority with the same imperious might in the Oval Office as on the battlefield.  One thinks of Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.

That was then, and now is now, when Mr. Trump’s executive leadership seems more like an exercise in herding cats.  Yet people with even a tad of historical lore under their skulls recognize that The Donald didn’t suddenly fumble the unitary executive to the horror of his fans and the delight of his detractors.  Common wisdom suggests that the unitary executive began to unravel, at the very latest, in the aftermath of the Watergate (1973) scandals.  Legislation which sought to limit the presidential imperium resulted in severe checks on arbitrary presidential power.  However these reforms failed to check arbitrary governmental power in general, or to stave off the multiplication of executive projects, expenditures and offices.  Rather, by setting up checks and balances within the executive branch of the federal government, they added to the executive bureaucracy.  And this went to the extent that the “special prosecutors” who were the plumb in the cake of the post-Watergate reforms threatened to become a “Fourth Branch” of trans-Constitutional governance.

Those who can see beyond the historical horizon of Watergate are more likely to see the first unraveling of the unitary executive in the New Deal, and the multiplication of those “alphabet agencies” such as the ICC, TVA, and NRA, each of whom were endowed with judicial as well as executive authority.  Yet an earlier starting point is the Progressive era, which saw the rise of the intellectual in the federal administration, a creature who was less likely to be constrained by, or even understood by, whatever folksy president inherited the legacy of those hybrid characters like Wilson who both studied and practiced administration.

Loyalty vs. Merit

However these movements were actually just footnotes to the unitary executive’s original fall from grace, which coincided with the rise of a merit based civil service.  It was the Pendelton Act of 1878 which consolidated the system of permanently employed government service.  After that there was little reason to think that officers would be loyal to a politician who’s term of office was likely to be far shorter than the duration of their career.   Like all sea changes in the policy of the republic, the effect of this reform was not immediately apparent.  After all, presidents in the late 19th century were just expected to be “weak.”  Think Grover Cleveland.

Today, because we read history from public school textbooks, the pre-reform civil service gets a bad press.  Typically it is referred to as the “spoils system” which conjures up images (not entirely unsubstantiated) of bribery and largess.  However there is another side to this issue.  We should at least try to be “Mugwumps” that fanciful word for a person who was willing to consider the merits and demerits of a permanent civil service.  In the interests of fairness, I would like to exercise a bit of Mugwumpery and dub the temporary civil servant system the “Loyalty System.”  After all, the politically appointable (and removable) civil servant would at least have no vested interest sabotaging the chief executive who, unlike him or herself, was directly chosen through the electoral mechanisms of the Republic.

In certain moods our progressives and our conservatives might even agree that disloyalty is a bad thing and moreover presidents should at least have the chance to formulate policy on their own turf before being challenged by either the courts or the legislature.  However there is a libertarian remnant which stubbornly insists that a strong president is a bad president, and indeed that a strong administration is nothing more than a step along the primrose path to empire.

However, as illogical as it may seem, the presidency became “weak” before it became imperial.  After WWI and as the 20th century wore on, there was need to have an emperor to complement the existence of an empire.  However the discipline of the bureaucracy which manifested itself at this time was not due to the charismatic appeal of those politicians who became, willy-nilly, chief magistrates of the republic.  Rather, it was due to the professional association of those who had a vested interest in the expansion of state power, both internationally and domestically.  Presidential orders were obeyed because presidents of whatever party were (to a greater or lesser extent)  aligned with the expansion of a robust administrative state. In 1952 Sen. Taft of Ohio lost the Republican nomination against General Dwight Eisenhower.  Taft was the last mainstream presidential candidate to seriously challenge the operational premise of expanding state power.  Barry Goldwater and Ron Paul would later mount doomed, albeit educational, campaigns dedicated to challenging that same premise.

Then in 2016 Donald Trump was elected after campaigning on many of the same anti-statist planks that animated Taft, Goldwater, Paul and (very inconsistently) Reagan.  Trump had the good sense to mix his contrarian rhetoric with a dash of jingoist appeal.  So far, the bureaucracy is in somewhat less than full scale revolt.  But only a very naive observer would be surprised that the doctrine of the unitary executive has been utterly abrogated.

The not-so-deep-state and the demise of the unitary executive

Today when “deep state” has become a household expression, it is easy to substitute James Bond intrigue for fundamental political analysis.  No doubt there is a great deal of skulduggery going on in high places these days, but the unitary executive would have floundered without any alienation between the Oval Office and the intelligence services.  It is not just the Praetorian Guard who are in revolt, but the clerks…and there are a lot of clerks.  It is not just a cabal, but the system, a system in which managers are independent of elected policy-makers.  In the EU this system appears in its most naked form.  In the US it still has to make end runs around the remains of a Constitutional Republic.

As Richard Weaver said, “Ideas have consequences!”  One of the great, pure, ideas of the 19th century was civil service reform.  However in creating a permanent state independent of politics, civil service reform ensured that all future reforms would be bound inside the parameters of the managerial state.  The owl of Minerva takes flight at night, and only now do we see the luster of those single-minded individuals whom the progressives have been eager to denounce as dictators-in-waiting.  The aristocratic Washington, the Jacobin Jefferson, mean old Andy Jackson, the imperious Polk and (though they were already compromised by the permanent state) later figures such as Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

Finally, we can at last see the wisdom of the Founders in endowing one third of the federal government with a vestige of monarchy.  At very worst a monarchy, but never, ever, an empire, since a strong individual, unencumbered by bureaucracy and backed by the people, might indeed succeed in ruling the daily affairs of one nation…but then it would be bedtime.

 

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