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Who put the damn in Notre Dame?

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 16, 2019

We have met the enemy and he is us

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

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

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

From Christians to Europeans

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

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

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 31, 2019

A movement (rightly) divided

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word or Reason?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

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

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

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

The Test Case

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

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

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

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

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

How would Jesus think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

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

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

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

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 5, 2019

The Problem Stated

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no Moses like Moses until Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The motivations of Moses Maimonides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maimonides in retrospect

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

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, culture, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, General Branch Theory, Hermenutics, History, Kabbalah, Philosophy, Theology, Traditionalism | Leave a Comment »

“Cultural Marxism” is a Pleonasm

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 1, 2019

Cultural Marxism is just plain Culture (i.e., Culture Theory)…so no, you don’t need to say it twice

Granted, it takes people a long time to wake up.  For a long time a notion has been going around in conservative circles that everything was just hunky dory until Gramci and the Frankfurt school showed up.  It is implied that prior to that Western intellectuals inhabited some mental prelapsarian world.  Baloney!  The only thing that the so-called “critical” schools did was tighten the screws until it started hurting people.  Perhaps they have taught us an object lesson in intolerance…not entirely a bad thing if it motivates one to action.

I am tempted to say that there was never any such thing as a non-Marxist theory of culture, but that would be imprecise.  Rather, there was never such a thing as a non-materialist theory of culture.  The modern theory of culture was designed as an adjunct of materialism, a theory which would explain away the existence of consciousness, volition, sensation and much else which seems to contradict our impression of how an exclusively material world would appear.  None of this has much to do with Marx, at least with the mature Marx who gave himself to ponderous and erroneous speculations on economics.  The story begins in his youth and with his more precocious peers, the Young Hegelians, who were the clearest exponents of materialism as a theory-of-everything, where “everything” necessarily includes consciousness, ideas, traditions, institutions, and morals.

These pre-Marxist radicals were too honest for propaganda purposes, and the path back to their witticisms has been strategically and mercifully covered up.  You can’t say things like “what you eat you are” or “consciousness is just another excretion of the body, like sweat…or…” and have any possibility of being misunderstood.  Building an ideology requires misunderstanding.  Enter “the Theory of Culture.”

No, there never was a “Conservative Culture Theory”

Darwinism was a “theory of everything.”  Unfortunately it was not just a bad theory, it was an unpalatable theory, which made it unpardonable.  People don’t like to be told that they are machines.  The brutal materialists of the 18th century said precisely that, and not a few of them got the guillotine for their pains.  The post-romantic, post-idealist, ideologues of the 19th century were wiser than that, and after Darwin started turning people’s heads they realized that they needed an anthropological x-factor both to plug the gaps in materialist theory and to give human pride something to hang its hat on.  The idea of “culture” was seized upon, a word which previously had referred variously to gardening, schooling, and nurturing the arts.  Now it was expanded to mean everything which was outside the human body which gave meaning to life, especially social life.  It became the sociological equivalent to the Cartesian ego, a mental complement to the material world.

But not really.  The surface dualism was only an ideological mask, not a metaphysical reality.  In place of the “spirits” of religion and the “ideas” of philosophy, the natural scientists of the 19th century filled the extra-material human world full of “culture”.    Culture was claimed to be a superorganic life, superimposed on organic beings.  However this “superorganic” level of culture was only an abstraction from group behavior, which in turn was the net result of human brains and bodies acting according to lawful patterns.

The period from the eclipse of the Young Hegelians (apx. Darwin’s Origin 1859) to the rise of the critical schools in the 1930s saw the golden age of cultural anthropology.  Supposedly this was a time of socially neutral, objective, and even edifying research.  As such it payed lip service to the classical Western notion, frequently identified with Plato, that human beings were metaphysical amphibians, inhabiting two worlds, one designated as the world of matter, and the other as the world of spirit, ideas, or according to the increasingly popular nomenclature…culture.  Unfortunately, “culture” was a Trojan horse in the service of materialism.   In place of the guileless expression of the Young Hegelians “consciousness is an excretion of the body” there was now the formidable “superorganic” which sounded like dualism but was actually the cloak and extension of a monist materialism.

No doubt this fooled gentle souls like Ruth Benedict who probably thought of the culture theory as a kind of flexible idealism manifesting itself in the variety and color of thousands of ethnic groups.  In fact, the term “superorganic” was derived from the hard-headed Herbert Spencer, and picked up by Alfred Krober in American anthropology.  Hence its roots go back to Positivism, a theory which is no less monist in its materialism than Marxism.  The only difference is that Positivism was willing to tolerate, at least for a while, some conservative norms of Western culture.  Eventually the tolerance ran out, and the critical schools (a.k.a., “Cultural Marxists”) began their relentless march through the institutions, a march which continues today.

In retrospect, this creates an illusion where “gentlemen and ladies” era of social science seems to have been motivated by Platonic idealism.  I have tried to point out that this is an illusion.  The culture concept, a formulated by the various schools of American, British, German etc. anthropology and sociology was always a derivative complement to a deeper metaphysical materialism.

Yes, different peoples throughout the world have had different traditions…but they did not come from “culture”

The total victory of the critical schools in post-modern thought is an outgrowth of the total victory of cultural anthropology in modern thought.  The latter was in turn founded on the prejudice of modernity itself.  Culture replaced idealism, as idealism had replaced spiritualism.

Objections may be raised to this view.  What, the peoples of the world had no culture?  Of course they did, but not in accordance with the cannons of the “culture theory”.  They had customs, morals, and language.  Where did these come from?  They came from tradition, of course.  But where did tradition come from?  Here is the crux of the matter.  From the point of view of the ancients, the traditions were not of human origin, but had been given to their ancestors by spirits.  This view is unacceptable to modern science.  It has never been disproved, it is simply unacceptable.  One reason why the testimony of the ancients cannot be right is that it would render the modern scientist superfluous, and the modern scientist does not want to be rendered superfluous.  The post-modern critic may smile at the discomfort of the scientist, but the critic is himself parasitic on the scientist he criticizes.

Hence it is not the ancients, but the moderns who have placed the world on a pillar of supporting elephants who stretch back to infinity.  The ancients could always specify a point of origin.  It all originated with the spirits.  This is not to say that the spirits were necessarily good.  Quite to the contrary!  The ancient account was free from the modern rubrics of cultural and moral relativism.  Many of the spirits were wicked, and the institutions they inspired were wicked as well.  Yet behind even the spirits was a substratum of nature which was good, the work of the Most High God.  Among the peoples of the Earth, it was only Israel which recovered contact with this primal source of morals and institutions.  However even outside of Israel, there were no nations who constructed their morals and manners out of whole cloth, hence they are sometimes called “children of a lesser god.”

This anthropology divested of the humanist “culture theory” is not likely to make much headway in recognized institutions of higher learning.   Modernity, not to mention post-Modernity, cannot tolerate the notion that human beings are a hybrid of matter and spirit.  Such a recognition would shut down the way society operates, higher education most of all.  No matter how intelligent a case you might make for a spiritual world, it would be banned.  The closest an aspiring professor might come would be to teach a course in the history of Platonism or Eastern Religion.  In this environment, the modern theory of culture can expect to have a long shelf life within the halls of education.  It teaches people a materialist theory of consciousness and human institutions, while flattering them that they are creating their own world: Free spirits who, if you bother to read the fine print, are neither free nor even spirits.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christian Education, Conspriacy Theory, culture, Culture & Politics, Paleoconservativism, Theology, Traditionalism | Leave a Comment »

Beyond the social compact: Origins, vows, and the foundation of America

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 23, 2018

In search of an origin

There are certain schools of anthropology which seek out the origins of society in a “social compact” i.e., a primitive getting together of all humanity where the individuals comprising the species said something like, “We are tired of living in fear of one another, let’s invent an institution called civilization.  We will have laws, courts, good manners, and some method of dispute resolution superior to bludgeoning one another into compliance.”  Of course such a “primal scene” (as they call it) is a myth.

At least, it is a myth if we lump together the human species and try to assign an origin to “society” in general.  However it may not be a myth if we are willing to limit the concept of the “social compact” to the origins of nations.  Do we not have have a singular example of this in the foundation of America, on or about July 4th, in the year of our Lord 1776?  Well, yes and no.  Originalism, whatever its merits as framed by American judicial conservatives, cannot be expanded into a total outlook on society.

As much as I love the Constitution and the bill of rights, I was humbled by Tom Woods observation that “If you are going to be an idolator, one of the silliest forms of idolatry is the worship of a political compact.”  It struck me that Woods, though a great American, saw through many of the shibboleths of the conservative movement.  To be sure, if there can be such a critter as a “contractual nation” then America fits the bill.  Whether or not America is unique, it certainly had a time of inception, and a time prior to inception when it was not.  However wonderful the thought of Dr. Freidrich Hayek might be, the United States did not come about through the workings of what he calls the “spontaineous order”…rather, it came about through deliberation and prayer of a people being transformed from subjects of the British crown into patriots.  The nation, or at least this nation, is a creation, not an “evolute.”

Hence I will side with originalists over progressives every time.  If we are at the mercy of social evolution, every change in the editorial stance of the New York Times necessitates a trans-valuation of our fundamental morality.  This is worse than absurd, it is spiritually exhausting.  We need a baseline, not a “project.”  What and where is the baseline of American moral consensus?  Was it set at some privileged moment in the 18th century, or perchance earlier or later?  In search of it, we  must become intellectual archeologists, digging down into history until we find bedrock.

Origins, compacts, and peoples

The self-understanding of a “contractual nation” must be made expicit, since a contract is always signed on a particular date, and indeed without a recorded date no contract is valid.  America has not just one, but several candidates for its inception.  The constitutional convention of 1786 and the foundational documents which flowed from it are frequently made to bear excessive historical weight by theorists affiliated with the right wing of our political spectrum.  Yes, these documents formed a government, but did they actually found a nation?  One center-right line of thought (associated with Jaffre and Clairmont College) attempts to remedy this by expanding the contractual origins of the nation to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and even the Gettysburg Address (1863).  These are construed as supplying the missing philosophy, and even theology,  which is only implied in the text of the Constitution.  On this basis, what in anthropological jargon would be called the “ethnogenisis of the American nation” is thought to be secured.

Conservatives and libertarians are the only ones who continue to care about this line of inquiry.   Progressives no longer think there is any such thing as an American nation, only hoards of hyphenated tribes squabbling over the riches of a largish continent.  This train of thought has been gaining traction on the left since the publication of Nathan and Glassier’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in the sixties, however it only became the undisputed progressive line in the past few years.    Here I’m not addressing progressives or the merit of their theses.  Rather, I’m wondering whether conservatives have put their understanding of American origins in the wrong basket.  They have become social contract theorists.  In other words, they have become Rousseuvians.  Now if you understand that J. J. Rousseau is the ideological fountain of leftward modernity then perhaps you will recognize that conservatives are resting their case on a treacherous foundation.  If you really want a social contract with teeth, then you should go past American statecraft and cross the Atlantic to view the tennis court oath of 1789 with its ensuing (First) French Republic.  That’s the one that came straight from Rousseau’s brain, bent on righteousness and vengeance.  The laws with teeth soon became more than a metaphor, as indeed the incisor of the guillotine began to chomp down indiscriminately on errant necks.

Even today the French are still working righteousness, and perhaps a new (would this be the sixth?) French Republic is in the offing.  We can only wish them luck.  Given the inability of social contracts to arrest the slide of the West towards bureaucratic domination and leftist lunacy, it is understandable that some conservative thinkers advocate placing the foundation of nations on some non-contractual basis.  That neglected luminary, Dr. Paul Gottfried, suggests that lip service to formal political contracts have become simply an item in the neoconservative toolbox to be put in the service of managerial globalism.   Against this background, he hints that it might be wise to reinstate, at least partially, a candid recognition that Western civilization did not arise in a vacuum but out of the historical experience of particular peoples.  This would constitute a strategic retreat from the sacred (at least in America) principle of lex soli, but none the less an inevitable counterfoil to the corroding influence of multiculturalism.  After all, if it works in Hungary, why shouldn’t it work in the United States?

For a variety of reasons, I hope this is not the path followed by conservative thought in the near future.  The most obvious, but ideally least important, reason being that this is precisely the avenue which has been mapped out for conservative ideology by the cultural Marxists.  For Marxists in general, Operation Barbarossa is the gift that keeps on giving.  Get their Hitler to attack your Stalin and, voala!, there you have your moral equivalence, if not moral superiority.  The same principle applies on the cultural level.  Even the smallest embrace of identity politics on the right would be seen as racism, not as a measured equivalent to the wholesale adoption of identity politics on the left.

I only mention the left because the their strategy is so easy to see.  It is never good to adopt a policy out of either consideration or antagonism to one’s enemies.  The real reason to make land, not blood, the basis of American citizenship is spiritual.  When I mention “spiritual” I am using the term in its broadest sense.  You don’t need to stop reading at this point just because you don’t meditate or speak in tongues…although if you do either I wouldn’t be one to object.  I would call the social contract theory spiritual.  Conversely, I would call the theory that nationality should be based on ties of blood non-spiritual.  I don’t want to see membership in the political community based on their DNA.  Some people do, they are called eugenicists.   On the other hand, I don’t want membership in the political community to be open to everyone.  Membership should be limited to those who are spiritually in agreement with the foundational principles of the political community.  If you aren’t in spiritual agreement with the foundations of the community, then you are either a traitor or a spy…or at the most charitable, very ignorant.  Those types of people are not good for the community.

Vows, Contracts, and Prayers

In spite of its fundamentally spiritual quality, I have been casting doubt on the efficacy of social contract theory as the foundation of American nationality.  Is there any other spiritual bond which might have formed the basis of the American union?  Again, I am using “spiritual” in the technical sense of an act of deliberation and will.  For example, what about the common possession of the English language?  No, because being born into a language community is not an act of will, although choosing to use that language might be.  Interestingly, during the 17th and 18th centuries there were English speaking expatriate communities in the Carabbean Sea and the Indian Ocean who formed independent, “buckaneer” republics, based on social contracts.  In spite of similarities in race and language, they were not the same nation as that formed by the thirteen English colonies on the eastern coast of North America.  They had their own separate “spiritual” foundations, based on values quite different from their linguistic cousins.  Out of deference to fans of Johnny Dep I won’t go into further description of their values.  Not to say that the American colonists were angels.  This is not an apology for their morals, it is just an attempt to identify the essence of their political identity.

That political identity was never grounded specifically on the French enlightenment theory of social contract.  Prior to independence, the British colonists were not citizens but subjects.  Directly, they were citizens of the British crown, but through that king, as head of the Anglican church, they were subject to the God of all Christians.  When  the ties with the crown were dissolved, the middle man, as it were, was cut out, and the American states came directly under the sovereignty of God.  Since the early days of the republic, there have been strong forces which have sought to obscure this point, and to conflate the origins of the American nation with social contract theory.  No doubt some thinkers, Thomas Jefferson comes to mind, were explicit in their allegiance to what might be called the Franco-American theory of American origins.  However Jefferson was an eccentric.  If there was any “general will” among the American people at the moment of separation from the British crown, it was a “general will” which was in direct contradiction to “general will” in the sense given to that term by J.J.Rousseau.    The general will of the American people was a collective surrender to the will of Divine Providence, a transcendental covenant, in stark contrast to the mutual compact of the French people among themselves during the same revolutionary epoch.

One reason why so few people recognize this covenantal basis of American nationhood is the benevolent, but mistaken, myth of constitutional origins.  I say “constitutional origins” advisedly, since I don’t want to dissuade anyone from constitutional advocacy.   None the less, the American nation was not founded by any one sheet of parchment, however right-thinking and venerable.  It was founded by the inner vows and aspirations of countless patriots at the time of political separation, vows which more often than not took the form of formal, public, prayer.  Furthermore these vows transferring direct political sovereignty from the British crown to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are not just rumors from oral history but were the subject of ample and official documentation.   One major reason contributing to contemporary ignorance of these facts is the prestige of the constitution and the bill of rights in contrast to the obscurity of  many documents where the proclamations and enabling legislation pertaining to the divine sovereignty are recorded.  I urge readers to investigate this subject on their own, and to see what the public documents the era (not private political pamphlets, whether by Paine, Jefferson or whomever) have to say on the subject of sovereignty, and whether it is based, ultimately, on the will of God or of the people.  Then, I think, you will have a solution to the enigma of American nationality, that it was forged in common through allegiance to a common God.

As a significant example of a public declaration of divine sovereignty during the transition from colonial to independent America, consider the following document proclaiming a collective desire “to seek God in time of war” issued by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777.  This states,

“That with one Heart and one Voice the good People may express the grateful feeling of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and…they may join the penitent Confession of their Manifold Sins…and their humble supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive them and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him Graciously to afford his blessings on the government of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole…to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”

This is not a document of political federation.  None the less it is evidence that at some point a spiritual bond of unity had been forged, through a common allegiance to God.  It is not a mutual and direct unity, such as described in social contract theory.  Rather, the political community is brought about through a mediated and transcendental unity, with God replacing the British crown as the common fountain of sovereignty among the states.  Here a word of caution is in order, this theocentric unity did not establish a theonomic regime.  The “good People” recognized the sovereignty of God working through Providence, but they did not in any way replace secular law with a system of ecclesiastical courts.  On the contrary, such ecclesiastical courts as were already in existence were speedily abolished, at least in the paradigmatic state of Virginia.  In that regard the “good People” of 1777 were acting more like common sense products of the Enlightenment age than Puritans, albeit their “common sense” was more pious than that attributed to Thomas Paine.   But common sense and the fear of God were enough.  Enough to accomplish what the modern mind would deem an impossibility, forming a nation on a basis which is neither biological nor contractual, but spiritual.

 

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

Dr. Savage and the case against Mass Madness

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 2, 2018

Lashing out against the latest lunacy

From its style and content one might suppose that Dr. Michael Savage wants rank-and-file left wingers to read his latest work Stop Mass Hysteria (Center Street, 2018) as a first step towards the restoration of their mental balance .  Of course they won’t.  You know that, and so do I, and the good doctor knows it as well as anyone.  Yet this is a timely book, and one which fully deserves to be bought, read to taters, passed on to a friend…or better yet, presented as a fresh copy to a “frenemy”.  Indeed, if it were a psychiatric prescription and not a broadside, the title would have shouted Stop Being Hysterical…At Least When You Are Out In Public!  The default title is a sad admission that we, the conservatives and right-leaning libertarians who must suffer the antics of the Left, will be the book’s likely readership.  Alas, what a waste if so, since the testimonies of numerous ex-Communists during the 20th century demonstrated that most of them were drawn into leftism for the most noble of reasons.  They were not “insane” at the onset, though driven so in the outcome. Thus rare are those who, now as then, can “walk away” from the hypnotic trance of ideological deception.  Savage knows the odds he is up against and it drives him to heroic frenzies, frenzies which on the surface might be described as…well…hysterical.    That being said, if self-disclosure is a good measure for separating moral indignation from madness, then Savage is notable in his willingness to bear his wounds in public.

“They [the left] cannot see or feel because their entire worldview is a hysterical tantrum…My own personal rage has been building since the first American flag was burned in protest during the Vietnam War.” (SMH p. 175)

Hence, laying aside the question of the good doctor’s sanity, we ought to at least hear him out, if only to see if he has found a panacea for the infantile disease of leftism.

As even Jesus said, “We danced with you and you would not dance, we cried with you and you would not cry.”  Likewise, the legendary Michael Savage who has battled the progressive mob for decades on air, occasionally resorts to reasoned book-length prose in hopes of getting a better hearing.  The books are not written in a vacuum, but are presented as an alternative answer to critics who won’t abide civil discourse while streaming on-line.  As Savage mentions,

“I believe in many [i.e., variously left to right] positions but I am not a strict ideologue.  If people have rational ideas, I want to hear them.  It’s what I do every weekday on the radio.  But it is almost universal that liberals who phone my radio show are hysterics who place the call to shout memes, spit bile, and depart–convincing no one and hearing nothing.”

Indeed, Savage isn’t some smug conservative intellectual dredged up from the not-so-golden Age of Buckley.  He is the son of an immigrant, and himself a refugee from the frying pan of progressive New York into the mad hippy heat of San Francisco.  Far from being the kind of purse-lipped traditionalist who would disavow knowledge of Beatlemania or Haight-Ashbury, Savage can rattle off a virtual people’s encylopeadia of factoids that have conveniently been dropped down the memory hole in recent decades.  For example, who was the editor of MAD magazine?  When did Americans start smoking marijuana, and why? Arcane digressions of this sort constitute both the marrow and the charm of Stop Mass Hysteria, which takes the form of an inventory of America’s flirtations with collective insanity.  These include, but are by no means limited to: The Salem With Trials, the Tea Party (original version), Reconstruction and Anti-Reconstruction riots, the Red Scare, Marijuana Madness, and the radical ’60.  Moderates will be glad to know, and conservatives forced to remember, that until recently hysteria was a solidly bi-partisan tradition.  Then something happened and it would seem as if the left acquired a coveted monopoly on mental derangement.  With some degree of success, Dr. Savage seeks to highlight this transformation, together with the clear and present danger it poses to the values he espouses, neatly summarized as national “borders, language, and culture.”  His conclusion, which is hard to avoid, is that the transvaluation of those three values, gets us nothing but the supreme anti-value: Chaos.  We probably don’t need Dr. Savage to inform us of that, but his entertaining narratives connect many obscure dots which, filling out the historical picture, should supply conservatives with a fresh magazine of  intellectual ammunition.

Is there a doctor in the house?

According to the standard narrative, American mass hysteria has typically been a knee-jerk response by outraged apostles of normality.  To a certain extent Dr. Savage is willing to go along with this legacy of center-left cultural criticism.   Yet, on at least one hysteria-invoking issue, Marijuana Madness, he sacrifices his San Francisco “old hippy” card by committing the gross heresy of condemning the  sacred weed itself.   According to Savage this is not willful deviation, but only a decent respect for facts.

“I have a doctorate in ethnobotany and I can tell you that crops have dramatically shaped civilization, whether through ensuring an adequate supply of food that allows people to settle in an area, or the cultivation of cash crops that open up commercial possibilities, or in the introduction of invasive speices of plants that can destroy an ecosystem.  In fact, there is evidence that past societies have used this idea as an early form of ‘special ops’ warfare.”(SMH p. 95)

On this basis he documents the increasing acceptance of marijuana as integral to the dumbing down of American minds. Here we have an instance where Savage’s understanding of science (pharmacology) trumps his libertarian impulses.  On this issue and others throughout the book he (correctly) attempts to transcend the deceptive left/right dualism by embedding his critique of political correctness and hysteria within the larger history of scapegoating and persecuting movements in America.

Scapegoats aren’t just people, but any hysterical object which can be focused on to limit empirical investigation into the actual causes of America’s social ills, ills in which the left is often complicit.  One compelling problem is the rise in school shootings, where the left is frantic to limit all discussion to the physical instruments of violence.  Any informed citizen might conjecture that the availability of guns are not necessarily the salient cause of increased school violence.  However Dr. Savage has additional credibility to state,

“If we examine the school shootings in America, in almost every case the deranged child was on antidepressant medications but inevitably it is swept away by the drug companies before we can recognize the perils.” (SMH p. 108)

Yet, for better or worse, the narrative format of Stop Mass Hysteria brings the good doctor up against a dilemma which is never resolved to complete satisfaction, at least in the eyes of this reader.  On the one hand Savage wants to highlight the exceptional badness of the new madness.  Yet on the other he wants to use his street cred as a tree-hugging, cetacean-loving, left-coaster to distinguish himself from the middle-brow National Review set.  So what are we to think?  Are today’s leftoid temper-tantrums  a harbinger of the apocalypse or just another iteration in the left/right dance of persecutor vs. persecuted?

This ambiguity isn’t what we would expect of a philosopher or a social scientist, but Dr. Savage, though writing in book-length format, remains a journalist at heart.  Even when he drops his journalistic persona to reveal some scholarly insight, it is only for technical corroboration of historical facts.  The reader will have to go elsewhere for a systematic treatment of “mass hysteria” or even a definition.  The closest we get to definitions are rhetorical statements intended to highlight the very insanity of the insanity itself.  For example, Savage notes how corporate self-censorship has increasingly come into line with the agenda of social justice warfare.

“If there is a chance that some consumer or some viewer may not like something, it gets jettisoned…fast.  No hearing, No due process.  Just a professional execution.  That is the very definition of hysteria.”  (SMH p. 270)

Of course, that is not a definition.  None the less it is a provocative statement, one which points to a larger problem than the phenomenon of “mass hysteria” considered in isolation.  Hysteria in itself is only the point of the spear, behind which lurks a coldly calculated agenda formulated by the minds behind the agitators.  Not to say that the phenomena labeled “hysteria” are without interest.  As a discredited medical diagnosis and as a synonym for the irrationality of crowds, hysteria has a checkered but fascinating history.  However Savage uses mass hysteria as a kind of portmanteau word for any current of social indignation, currents originating in such factories of half-baked ideas as illuminated salons and modern campuses, whose mental secretions only mutate into street violence during the final scene of the social tragedy.

Painting with such a broad brush, it is hard to see how the good doctor can execute his initial objective, which is to demonstrate the unique monstrosity of the contemporary left’s campaign to delegitimate the Trump administration.  Savage begins his volume with a thumbnail description of the Muller investigation as an official “witch hunt”  but, seized by the metaphor, quickly delves into the history of (alleged) real witches, Puritan divines, Cristobal Colon and other fascinations, signaling his resolution to be solidly historical rather than hysterical.    As a fisher of men, or rather a fisher of persons, and left-wing persons in particular, Savage ingratiates by casting his net as widely as possible.  However the exercise is in vain unless he has some way of closing the net, and can show that the dangerous deviation of the modern left is qualitatively distinct from the “normal” mass hysteria which, according to Savage, characterizes virtually all of American (a.k.a., USA) history.  Presumably, Dr. Savage intended Stop Mass Hysteria to be a definitive case against progressive praxis, and not just entertaining folklore.

Further, we can safely presume that the good doctor did not intend to bait the left into its favorite line of defense, which is ever to set up a false moral equivalence which voids the accusation.  Yet this peculiar combination of author and subject makes such a counterattack all but inevitable.  “After all,” the argument goes,” isn’t Michael Savage himself a notorious hysteric projecting his syndrome onto all those good people who are struggling to make this Earth a better world?”  Actually, there is a huge gap between an indignant talk show host and the sentiments of the mob, but knowing that isn’t a conclusive argument, it just makes you a fan.  What we need is an air-tight demonstration of that quality (whatever it might be) which separates the anger and frustration felt by conservatives from its hysterical counterpart on the left.  Indeed, we need that distinction fast, since the “progressive” in progressive hysteria is both a both an ideology and a prognosis.

Dr. Savage seems to understand that there is a need to divide the genera of mass hysteria into various species, but his taxonomy is somewhat opaque.  A significant fork in the road occurs when the narrative moves from Salem to Boston Harbor.  With the exception of a small number of conspiracy analysts such as James Perloff, most American historians have striven to explain how the Tea Party of 1773 was a riot-within-reason, and Dr. Savage pretty much falls into step with the consensus view.  Indeed, it becomes a singular type within his general paradigm of the good, or at least better, sort of hysteria.  As he explains this subtle distinction,

“There is significant difference between mass hysteria to achieve an outcome and and mass hysteria to change an outcome.  The witch burnings were the former.  Fueled by fear and prejudice, the fervor of the populace was renewed every time a new victim was arrested and brought to trial.” (SMH p. 111)

Presumably the persecution for the sake of persecution in Salem is being contrasted with the Boston riot, which was intended to deflect the imposition of the British tax.  Going berserk to deflect an undesired outcome seems to be a viable strategy in some cases.  After all, Prince Vlad (a.k.a. “Dracula”) managed to deflect a Mongol invasion by decimating his Wallachian subjects, thus convincing the invaders that he was dangerous, i.e., dangerously insane.  Effective, yes, and of course morally problematic.  Indeed, going insane for a good cause, perhaps better than anything else, shows the pitfalls of what philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe called “consequentialist” ethics, the notion that we can do anything we want as long as it makes the future a better place.  With that in mind, it might have been more lucid, or at least in line with libertarian nomenclature, if Dr. Savage had coined fresh terms like “aggressive hysteria” and “defensive hysteria” in place of struggling with the difference between that hysteria which achieves outcomes vs. that which changes outcomes.  But the good doctor may well have had his own motives for obscurity, realizing that, in the context of our victim-centered politics, any notion of “defensive hysteria” would surely uncap a Pandora’s box of bad theory and worse practice.

However Savage is writing historically, not topically, and thus can be excused from the making of air-tight definitions.  In accord with his anthropological background, he prefers the comparative method to deduction.  Following his bent, our author delights in giving his chapters double titles (“From Plymouth Rock to City Hall”, “From Treason to Tomorrow” etc.), which gives the book a kind of Plutarch’s Lives feeling, except with hysterical Americans standing in for heroic Greeks and Romans.   In this way, Savage attempts to illustrate how assorted ravings during different decades are nothing but outbreaks of the same virulent hysteria  which has seldom lain dormant for long in the American body politic.  The comparisons in themselves are instructive and entertaining, but they don’t produce any smoking gun to convict the contemporary left of unparalleled insanity.

None the less, it soon becomes clear that Savage is in a tacit agreement with his readers to show that, yes, the modern left is just as apocalyptic as your worst fears imagine.  This tacit agreement, though concealed by the the pairings of the chapter titles, is revealed by the ark of the narrative considered as a whole.  We are presumed to think that that there was a false turn in history when the left attained dominance within public institutions and has been rubbing our noses in it ever since.  Dr. Savage doesn’t isolate this precise turning point, but he chronicles the events which accompanied it in general.

Indeed this presumption of an axial period in modern American history rests on solid ground.  Whatever their differences, both mainstream historians and conspiracy analysts note that there was some sort of paradigm shift in the American governance system between the end of the Second World War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Here again Savage provides his characteristic interpretation of events, stretching the term “hysteria” to include the peculiar state of collective amnesia and scapegoating which accompanies and legitimates a change in regime.  French Postmodernist philosophers, with their penchant for jargon, call this an “epistemic rupture”, and the late Rene Girard, who was head and shoulders above that crowd, called it the “mimetic crisis.”  Our good doctor with his universal diagnosis of “mass hysteria” provides a rough and ready handle with which the uninitiated can grasp the enormity of events.  It all amounts to the same thing:  At some point in history, truth was inverted, the bodies were buried, and the trail was covered up.

Fortunately Savage has access to the actual events on which the false, but consensus, narrative is based.  Notably, with regard to the crucial battles between Senator Joe McCarthy and his opponents, he draws attention to the canonization of McCarthy as the archetype of a “Red Scare” hysteric in American political memory.  However, Savage goes on to put the matter within a broader context where the facts of history have been uncovered, but the effects of the initial lies have continued to radiate out and corrupt society.

“But there is one stubborn little fact that the Establishment glosses over and that the public, in the grip of this mass hysteria, isn’t curious about–McCarthy’s allegations were true.” (SMH p.220)  “Thus the official story was written, McCarthy was a vindictive bully who exaggerated communist influence and ruthlessly destroyed many innocent people.  Sixty-four years later, a generation of Americans who accept this mass hysteria about McCarthy as reality now believe socialism is superior to capitalism.” (ibid, p.221)

Here at last we have the makings of a distinction between fictional and actual hysteria.  Fear of actual dangers (falsely impugned as “hysteria”), in contrast to the hysterical twisting and denial of truth.

The flipping of McCarthy from hero to villain was an important milestone in the transit of “normal” America from center-right to center-left and points beyond, or rather, a change in those protean terms “left” and “right.”  The marginalized left of the early and mid-twentieth century, had some genuine empathy for victims.  Those were the lost times of the “bleeding heart liberals.”  Indeed, it was a time when calling a progressive a “liberal” was not a complete oxymoron, since there was still some ideological commonality between the left and its roots in classical liberalism, or libertarianism.  After the capture of the institutions, the left became normal, and like all who attain to power, the progressives turned from defending victims to victimizing their enemies.

The paradigm institution in this transition was the education system, and especially higher education.  Savage summarizes this as follows.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern political madness gained its toehold in the United States, thanks to academia.  Professors who had been students in the Marxist-embracing 1960s now had tenure, and they wanted to use their status for power.  The question was how to do it without a Russian-style revolution–which indeed, many of them advocated.  What grew, like mushrooms in this intellectual darkness, was modern political madness.” (SMH p. 260)

Thus from the stigmatizing of conservatism after McCarthy, to the sixties, and on to the dissemination of radicalism as embodied in gender feminism, minority identity movements, and transgenderism, each wave retreating for a while but leaving “sleeper cells” of graduate students and younger faculty waiting for tenure, the Cultural Marxist flood came not as a deluge but as a rising tide which lifted its own ships as it submerged the old landmarks of Western civilization.

Play it again, Maimonides

With society-wide victory, and all the major institutions under its control, one would expect the left to be magnanimous, or at least sane.  That didn’t happen, and the fact that it didn’t happen is why Dr. Savage can sell us a title which rests on a tacit premise, i.e.,  Stop Mass Hysteriaand you know exactly who we mean!  In spite of the theory that Trump Derangement Syndrome was triggered by a uniquely bad man with orange hair, it should be clear to any reader of Dr. Savage’s work, or any number of similar works on recent political history, that hysteria is the left’s default response to any barricade erected against its agenda, regardless of who is manning that barricade.

My own pet theory is that the left hates Trump, not because he is a “right-winger” (whatever that might consist of) but precisely because Trump is a centrist.  If there had been a authentic conservative in the oval office, say, a President Cruz, then the left would have had its defensive positions validated, on, for example, abortion, LBGT rights, and so forth.  In lieu of a conservative the left was forced to depart, not only from its script, but from reality itself.  The “Donald Trump” of the left’s imagination is a bogeyman, constructed, if not quite out of whole cloth, then out of disconnected gossip and character flaws, which, though numerous and egregious are politically irrelevant.  Cognitive dissonance seems to be a price that the left is willing to pay for the optics of battling against the Great Orange Dragon.

Savage is not alone in referencing this latest stage of progressive mania, although he is unusual in framing it around the context of America’s hysterical past.   Other pundits have published similar hardbacks alerting American citizens to the dementia of the globalists and the progressives.   What sustains this cottage industry is not the prospect of “red pilling” their readership.  These readers are more like a constituency of those who have already been brought to enlightenment through other media, and are now looking for a lawyer’s brief to back up their opinions.  The hardbacks have become the fanzines of those willing to boost the reputation of their favorite journalists and talk show hosts.

In the context of this overcrowded cottage industry, is there any compelling reason to pick up Stop Mass Hysteria in preference to some other muckraking account of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, etc.?  Actually, yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the methodology Dr. Savage employs in his work.  Savage tries to do justice to both the psychology and history of American politics , but both of these approaches are flawed if taken up in isolation.  The real distinction of the Michael Savage books is that, in spite of their irascible author, they edify.   One comes away, not just hating (for example) Hillary Clinton, but loving America, with all of its flaws, all the more.  One becomes more of a mench.

This heart-warming experience is rather mysterious.  I ascribe it to the following, 1) Michael Savage believes in God, 2) the God of Michael Savage is a God who pushes his children into the shallow water before they get in too deep.  The real danger that libertarians and conservatives face today is that they will go “too deep” in their strategies for the defense of natural rights and the constitution.  We can win the battle against the globalists and their useful leftist idiots.  We can’t necessarily win the battle against UFOs or aliens, even if, or especially if, they turn out to be non-existent.

It might be best to take our clue from another good Jewish doctor, Moses Maimonides.  Maimonides would probably have been willing to eat a ham sandwich with Aristotle (anachronistically speaking) if that would have gotten the whole of humanity on board with the logical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.  Those three principles authored by a God otherwise unknown would have been enough for the two philosophers to converse in peace.  In the forum of public opinion we need just enough of God to guarantee public sanity, the rule of law, and the sanctity of contract.  Insisting on more than that is the beginning of trouble.  Interestingly, Michael Savage doesn’t talk much about God in Stop Mass Hysteria, but when he does it is in the unflattering context of fanaticism and hysteria, the bane of our adoptive puritan ancestors who steered the body politic too deep into the divisive waters of theology and occult speculation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that supernatural phenomena which the puritan divines took for granted are unreal.  However the fact that such phenomena are not susceptible to experimental demonstration implies that they are also not suitable as judicial evidence.  In today’s counter-currents of independent social media journalism, a vast array of esoteric phenomena are constantly brought up for uncritical discussion.  This is the epistemological (not moral) equivalent of establishment-left hysteria on the part of the alternative media.  The basic error here is an increasingly popular assumption that simply being able to imagine an entity proves its existence.   Contrary to what the David Ikes of our world may think, what we need is not a richer demonology with which to unmask our enemies, but a stronger faith in the God who is on our side.  To take the former course is to wander endlessly in a Meinongian jungle, while the latter holds out the prospect of restoring a moral community, or at least a minimalist meta-community along Maimonidean lines.

Normally authors tout their most recent book as their best.  Not so Michael Savage, who refers us back to his previous work  God, Faith, and Reason as his personal favorite. There he shows us a God who is less minimal and more intimate, a God of the heart who instills good character.  This God can build up individuals even while communities are breaking down.  According to Savage there is a kind of transitive order which starts from God, moves on to the individual, and then finds fruition in the community.  In God, Faith, and Reason he notes,

“As I said in the beginning of this book, God does not do the heavy lifting for us.  It is up to us to find our connection to God and to do his will here.  I truly believe that my lifelong fight for our borders, language and culture is part of my mission.  As I’ve said many times, it is indisputable that I helped Trump get elected.  It’s equally indisputable that, as imperfect as he is, he represented the only chance to restore a free, just, and godly nation given the crossroads we were at last November [2016]”(p. 147)

While screaming agitators are the most obvious manifestation of the irrationality of progressive politics, the deeper madness lies in the cool headed theory that our world is nothing but solid bodies wandering through the icy vacuum of space.   Whatever one may think of either Michael Savage or his God, his is reason and purpose with a vengeance.  Or rather, reason with a higher purpose than mere vengeance.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Conspriacy Theory, Constitutionalism, culture, Culture & Politics, Law, Libertarianism, Media, Movies, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

A Song of Ascents: Some curmudgeonly criticism of the Southeast Students for Liberty Conference

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 5, 2018

Why is freedom good?

The regional Students for Liberty southwest regional conference was held on October 29th.  Being a fellow-traveler of all things libertarian I was pleased when a friend of mine told me he was scheduled to speak at the conference and I was invited to attend.  There are many things that might be said about SFL, both pro and con, but the salient issue on today’s campuses is the issue of freedom of speech and how to make an informational end-run around what has been dubbed “the Left University.”  SFL is one of a handful of organizations seeking to give college students a perspective which differs from that of the compulsory Left Classroom, and hence I deem it worthy of everyone’s support.

The alleged topic of the conference/seminar was “The problem of Authoritarianism.”  I have no idea why SFL picked that theme, but it was largely honored through avoidance.  Instead, another theme seemed to emerge spontaneously as the talks progressed.  It was briefly articulated by the philosopher who spoke mid-way through the conference: “Why is freedom good?”  Indeed, that is the nub of everything, is it not?

I suspect that I was the oldest person at the conference, and probably the only one who had the privilege of meeting such bygone freedom advocates as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio.   As such,  I was well positioned to play the role of the old curmudgeon bringing to bare all sorts of technicalities and arcane lore.  However, my better self realized that was unsporting, so I decided to join in the applause and stuff my carping criticism into these notes.  After all, the conference did what it did quite well, since, to put it in Biblical terms, there is “milk for babes” and there is “meat for the apostles.”  Now is the time to raise up children for the freedom movement, the business of ideological fine-tuning can be left to the apostles of the future…if there is to be a future.

Yet, to my surprise and delight, the talks seemed to mount a stairway of increasing significance and application.  Indeed, I felt myself riding on an intellectual escalator, at the top of which was the supreme answer to our question: “Why is freedom good?”  Of course this was just my personal perception, and each person’s mental escalation may be the moral deflation of someone else.  So let me give you a brief critical treatment of five speakers from the conference, and you may decide if you agree that the order of presentation was also an order of ascending significance.

The five presenters, each of whom represented a significant rung on the stairway to freedom, were in sequence: 1) an Advocate for Entreprenuership, 2) a Philosopher, 3) a Movement Leader, 4) a Libertarian Muslim, and finally 5) a Rogue Scholar.

 

The Advocate for Entrepreneurship

This presentation was the real milk for babes, and it was well done indeed.  Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that freedom, economic efficiency, and technological progress go together?  Unfortunately, yes, today’s youths, living within a cornucopia of technological wonders, are blocked from seeing the obvious connections between information and the free market through the interference of the Left Academy.  That’s why we need informal presentations to help people see the forest of capitalism from the trees of technical devices.  As the speaker noted, technological progress gets a spurt every time there is deregulation of an industry.  Today’s smart phone applications are an outcome of the unregulated environment of the 90s.  The Advocate did an excellent job of illustrating this with copious examples.  He was by far the most trend conscious and personable of the presenters, only occasionally slipping up with a reference to Taylor Swift, who apparently is now passe.

Nuf said!  After all, we all need to recognize that freedom promotes technology, the spread of information, and economic efficiency.  Well, except that, being the curmudgeon that I am,  I can’t help but peer around the corner of this tried-and-true thesis.  Is there no dark shadow behind the cheery gospel of technological optimism?  Are not command economies more efficient at generating instruments of destruction?  Not all technologies are benevolent.  What kind of technologies would we have today if the First and Second World Wars had never occurred?  In the absence of those cataclysms perhaps our technology today would resemble developments along the lines laid out by Tessla (the man, not the company)?  Instead we have a wide spectrum of technologies, some of them benevolent, but others highly problematic.  Just a thought…which I am tossing out like a monkey wrench into the wonderful but fragile works of the Randians and kindred humanistic utopians.

 

The Philosopher

The first job of a philosopher is to find the salient question in any venue and then pose it with clarity.  The fine representative of that profession who appeared at the SFL conference was able to articulate its basic theme: “Why is freedom good?”  He then proceeded to give what seemed like an exhaustive survey of all possible answers to the question.  He attempted to accomplish through analysis what I am trying to recap here synthetically.  Is there not a hierarchy of motives which impel us toward freedom, some of which are closer to wanting freedom for its own sake and some of which are only using freedom as an instrumentality for some other value which is considered the supreme end of life and action?  In short, the visiting philosopher seemed to be treating us to a “Critique of Pure Freedom.”  Fortunately his presentation was not quite as long or as frustrating as any of Kant’s critiques.

Again, the curmudgeon must make a confession.  I don’t particularly care for this kind of approach.  I’m sure that the visiting philosopher would have been miffed if I had labeled him as an “analytic philosopher”…since that moniker rightly belongs to the linguistic philosophers of the last century.  Rather, his philosophy, or rather his presentation was analytical in the sense that it came down to decision trees and processes of elimination.  If you are reading this and you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, that is understandable, since such a method is better shown graphically than discursively.   I consider that a weakness.   Its not that analysis doesn’t have its place.  The image of correct demonstration I have in mind is that of Kierkegaard using the ladder of reason to mount up to faith (or some primary axiom) and then throwing it down after having reached the summit.  To my mind, the visiting philosopher seemed overly attached to the ladder.

 

The Movement Leader

I am keeping people in this essay anonymous,  ostensibly to protect them from persecution.  To tell the truth, that’s mostly bullshit…I just have a bad memory and seem to have lost my notes.  None the less, there is some justification for the ostensible reason.  As they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.  Here I will outdo myself in subtlety and keep not only the speaker but his country of origin anonymous.  Actually, if you have a computer and the intelligence of a six year old child you should be able to find out the names of all the presenters in under three minutes, maximum.

Having said that, the next speaker was no mere scholar, but a front lines political activist from one of the most important nations of Latin America.  In the 1970s and 1980s this nation was the freest and most prosperous in the region.  Then something happened, and today it has become a brutal, impoverished, Marxist dictatorship.  Certainly this defies all logic, at least the utilitarian logic which states that people, having once tasted freedom, will never go back to slavery.  How is this possible?  Fortunately this speaker opened the floor to Q&A so that the attendees of the conference could probe him on this enigma.

According to the speaker, the key institution implicated in the downfall of his country was the military.  Although a “showcase of democracy” his country’s military retained the same privileged position which the armed forces of lesser developed Latin American nations occupied in their respective societies.  As the economy of the nation contracted after the oil boom of the 70s, the military contracted an unholy alliance with left wing politicians to retain its wealth and influence at the expense of other sectors of society.  I was not surprised at this analysis, but somewhat disappointed.  What, I wondered, about the influence of other sectors, notably the universities.  He said, yes, the universities were leftist, but the military factor outweighed all other sectors of the society.

He ended with an appeal for support, and an admonition that people in the United States maintain vigilance over their own freedoms.  He remained rather more sanguine about the prospects for freedom here than in Latin America, which is understandable given his perspective.  My own take away was that the notion of an irreversible evolution of freedom is part of the Hegelian, not the Classical Liberal, tradition.  For better or worse institutions need to be under constant repair and renewal in the face of the entropic forces of power lust and opportunism.

And again: “Is freedom good?”  This speaker did not directly address the question, taking it as a given.  However the context of his talk indicated a striving for societal good, a populist or democratic freedom rather than a libertarian ideology.  Freedom is good because it advances the well being of the nation.  It is well known that, until recently, libertarians had nothing but scorn for populism and nationalism.  However presented in the context of a Latin American country struggling against tyranny, one can more easily see that patriotism (in spite of its collectivist overtones) can be a potent adversary against the kind of left-wing nationalism which (paradoxically) is often in secret or not-so-secret alliance with the forces of globalism.  Perhaps for most people, freedom under an independent and limited national government is the most realistic goal on the historical horizon.  None the less, being a utilitarian construct, it falls short of the Holy Grail of libertarian theory…freedom for its own sake.

 

The Libertarian Muslim

Our penultimate speaker was that rarest of animals in the libertarian menagerie, a libertarian muslim.  Opening with a prayer, which I couldn’t follow well because of my extremely limited Arabic, he launched into his forceful and very articulate presentation.  Unfortunately it was pitched far above the heads of the audience, who were thinking of little other than “How in heck can you be a muslim and a libertarian?”  They had trouble getting beyond the messenger and into his message, a message which in itself was quite sophisticated.  I didn’t agree completely with his thesis, and it could have been challenged on its own premises, but so far as I could tell nobody else was in the mood or equipped for that kind of conversation.  This isn’t a dig at young people or college students, who I think gave the libertarian muslim a more courteous reception than he would have gotten among almost any other audience.  Of course I am discounting the two-faced reception of politically correct crowds, who would have smiled at the muslim in hopes of political alliance while secretly despising him for his belief in God.

However I relished the libertarian muslim’s talk as a survival, or perhaps revival, of a line in libertarian thinking which has long been dinned out by the clash of rival civilizations.  It is the same thread of reasoning which Rose Wilder Lane took up, only to be dropped by subsequent publicists.  This notion indicates that freedom is good because it advances the cause of civilization.  In this view, civilization is understood as a vast tapestry stretching, without significant breach, over the course of roughly the past five thousand years.  The term civilization therefore is twofold, having both a general and a specific meaning.  One the one hand there are specific civilizations, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European etc., and on the other hand there is the cumulative civilization of humanity.  At critical points of juncture, the cumulative knowledge of the human species “jumps” from one regional civilization to another.

In tried and true Rose Wilder Lane fashion, the libertarian muslim was at pains to illustrate that the pedigree of rationalism, a key component of the freedom philosophy, was not indigenous to Europe, but rather jumped into Western Scholasticism from the “filosofia” of the muslim sages.  In truth, and in very truth, and not in lies, say I, this is pretty much correct.  The tradition of rationalism did indeed pass through a muslim (or at least Arabic) parenthesis from about the ninth to the twelfth centuries of the Western era.  I could quibble about a meta-civilization which absorbs all previous civilizations, but I won’t at this juncture.

Rather, the foremost question regarding the Lane thesis should be the relationship between reason and freedom.  Many philosophers who have claimed that their systems were the acme of rationalism have also claimed to be champions of freedom.  The prime example of such a philosopher, who’s claims are generally acknowledged by the Left but rejected by Classical Liberals is G. W. F. Hegel.  According to the Lane thesis, ibn-Rushd, (latinized as “Averroes”) is a kind of Hegel for Classical Liberals (a.k.a., contemporary conservatives and libertarians).  He was the bridge who transmitted reason from the Middle East to the Western World, thus becoming the middle term between Aristotle and Modernity.   This broader view of history eliminates any “dark ages” or rather localizes it in Europe.  Hence the light of reason never goes out, indeed, it never even flickers.  This view is comforting to those who seek to identify the progress of freedom with a putative uninterrupted progress of civilization.  Naturally, it is also very congenial to those who are either religiously or ethnically connected to the Middle East.  For the most part, the libertarian muslim’s presentation involved a restatement and elaboration of the Lane thesis, but this seems to have generally gone over the heads of those in attendance.

Although many other Middle Eastern luminaries can be thrown into this kind of discourse, ibn Rushd/Averroes (properly speaking an Andelusian, not a Middle Easterner) is the man to beat.  Unsurprisingly, nobody at the conference jumped into a technical discussion of Averroism…not even the philosopher, who I believe still remained in attendance.  If such an engagement had occurred, someone would have eventually broached the question of whether the rationalism of Averroes is indeed a philosophy of freedom.  Actually the metaphysical views of Averroes in relation to the human individual and freedom are highly problematic, and in many ways he is less a predecessor of John Locke (as per the Lane thesis) than the metaphysical collectivism of Teillard de Jarden.  Few people think of Teillard as a libertarian, in fact few think about him at all, they just hear about his system and say “gee wizz!”

In lieu of meaningful philosophical engagement, by the end of his talk the libertarian muslim was reduced to abandoning the philosophy of history entirely and switching to an impassioned cry for libertarian activism on the part of people from all faiths and factions.  Actually he didn’t advocate abandoning theory, only an obsession with redundant arguments over shopworn libertarian issues.  This is certainly a sensible admonition.  However there is also the troubling prospect of people forgetting or altering their fundamental principles in the heat of political conflict.  Certainly in today’s political hothouse, with its clash of civilizations and so-called “cultures” it is more difficult than ever to keep a rational head.  Meanwhile one must remember that rationality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for “freedom” in the sense that libertarians use that term.

This is because “freedom” as it has come down through the Classical Liberal/Old Right/Libertarian tradition, e.g., through thinkers such as von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, means individual freedom.  In the system of Averroes, perhaps even more so than in the system of Hegel, “freedom” is an attribute of a collective organism which we would feign call by the reassuring name “civilization.”  While a sophisticated civilization may nurture individual freedom, excessive veneration of civilization and especially “a” civilization can be dangerous for liberty.  Furthermore, from any religious point of view (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.)”civilization” construed as the supreme value of human life can be considered a form of idolatry, or at least an attempt to reduce the transcendence of God to immanence.

Bearing this in mind, it should be clear that Averroism and Islam have little in common, other than coexisting in the head of an individual philosopher who lived nine centuries ago.  How Ibn-Rushd reconcilled his “filosofia” and his faith, I don’t know and it is not my place to know.  Similarly, there is something paradoxical about a libertarian muslim, but the speaker at our conference acquitted himself with courage and clarity.  If he failed to impart a deeper understanding of “civilization” to his audience, at the very least he inspired them with a clarion call for libertarian activism and engagement.   Similar to being a movement leader in militarized Latin America, being a libertarian muslim is a tough row to hoe.  The speaker has obviously experienced persecution, and expects further challenges in the future.

 

The Rogue Scholar

There are Rhodes scholars and there are rogue scholars, and which kind you are inclined to trust says a lot about you.  The legendary Justin Raimondo, writing from his sick bed, is presently lamenting the fact that his organization never received any awards.  True.  The information and research organizations which got the awards, never spoke up and changed the consciousness, or afflicted the conscience of America like the Randolph Bourn Institute and its web presence, the antiwar.com.  As for the decorated and the endowed, it is written “They have their reward already.”

Likewise, the late Rene Girard, though amply recognized in the twilight of his life by a seat in the French Academy, never fit comfortably into the departmental cubbyholes of academia.  Expatriated from his native land and with no proper profession, he was seen variously as an itinerant literary critic, a sociologist, a psychologist, a philosopher, or an anthropologist.  If he had lived a hundred years earlier he probably could have founded his own discipline, but he lived in an era when Western thought had ossified into exclusive, jealous compartments.  He brought a form of wisdom to the study of human behavior which was at once new and yet discoverable in both the Bible and the corrupted witness of mythology.  It showed how the bond of society was forged through force of imitation, and yet how, at a critical point in each society’s foundation the bond turned into the blood of sacrifice.  He called this mimetic theory (MT for short) and it has become a growing undercurrent in the social sciences for the last few decades.

In Girard’s understanding, increasing convergence on a model for imitation creates the primary tension within societies, as they reach the point where individuals lose their individuality in the frantic search for identity with the model.  The tension is only relieved when the model is expelled (through exile or death) and demonized, relieving the jealousy in society and replacing the dynamic of imitation with the bonds of collective guilt in the aftermath of mutual conspiracy.  This is what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism, and he saw in it the basis of all societal transformation.

The Rogue Scholar stumbled, unfashionably late, into the conference.  It was not a promising beginning.  I asked him if he had a power point presentation prepared.

“No.”

I wondered how he would explain the subtle nuances of the Mimetic Triangle without graphic support.  It didn’t seem to bother him.  He strode up to the front of the hall with confidence and pulled out his sole prop, his cell phone.  Then he dialed a federal prison in the state of Illinois.

“Hello, can I speak to Craig Cesal?”

“Hi, it’s me!”

As it turned out, Craig Cesal was serving a life sentence without parole for a victimless crime.  According to the Rogue Scholar, Craig had been a garage mechanic occasionally repairing trucks destined for shipping marijuana across the US/Mexican border.  Apparently many of the big guys in the smuggling conspiracy had gotten off making pleas for lighter time, but Craig had neither clout nor information to bargain with.   When asked what the most bitter aspect of his existence was, Craig mentioned the fact that perpetrators of violent crime, up to and including murderers, routinely rotated through the system with five, ten, or fifteen year sentences, while he was stuck there for the rest of his life.

Craig was a scapegoat.

Instead of explaining what a scapegoat was, the Rogue Scholar gave us a heart rending example of how human societies, whether those societies are criminal or civil, routinely scapegoat individuals.  The session ended with a heartfelt appeal to support Craig and his family.  In the end, nobody felt that they had been deprived of a thorough explanation of Rene Girard’s theory.  The theory had actually become incarnate, through the witness of an incarcerated man.

 

Conclusion:  Why is freedom good?

Freedom is good for any number of reasons.  It grows technology and expands the economy.  It gives us more choices and let’s us choose our own ideologies, even if they happen to be inimical to freedom.  Free minds and free markets strengthen every nation which embrace them.  Finally, liberty gives meaning to the story of human civilization, which is, or at least ought to be, a record of freedom’s victories.

Yet ultimately, for the libertarian there is no such thing as civilization, or even the human species, apart from the individuals who comprise it.  Just as the cosmos has no existence apart from the brilliant stars of which it is composed, society has no meaning apart from the individual person.  The dignity and autonomy of the person, although subsisting in relation to other persons, should be the building block from which all social realities are constructed.  Yet historically we see that societies are built not through trade and coexistence, but through sacrifice.

It was Satan speaking through a human mouth who said, “It is expedient that one man’s life be taken lest the people perish.”   Yet the measure of meaning is the sanctity of the individual.  Freedom is good because it is an inalienable aspect of the person.  On the other hand, it makes good political sense to isolate a small group and use animus to increase the degree of social cohesion among the majority. By logical extension, the most efficient and economical way of attaining world unity would be to turn the universal hatred of the human race against one man.  Yet such a unity would be a toxic unity, based on bloody sacrifice.

In the end it is a choice between human sacrifice and the Tenth Commandment, the word against envy.  We must learn to live and let live.  And more than just coexist, we must tolerate the fact that some people will be happier than ourselves.  We must resist the urge to destroy them, in full knowledge that as long as they live, our own happiness will be inferior to theirs.  That is the bare minimum requirement for calling oneself a “libertarian.”  The opposite of a libertarian would be an egalitarian.  All egalitarianism ends in human sacrifice, i.e., in death.   As long as there is even one sacrifice, even one individual to whom the great rights (great because negative, not their positive counterfeits) of life, liberty, and property  are not granted, then that is not a free society.

Or as they say these days, “Where we go one, we go all!”

 

 

 

 

 

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Too many Jesuses…not enough Jesus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 27, 2018

Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man

Everybody loves Jesus, but do they love the right Jesus?   If Jesus is a real individual, then he is just one person among a potentially infinite number of persons.  Our minds are further clouded by an inability to grasp things-in-themselves.  We must make do with images, perceptions, and archetypes which float around in our brains and attempt to match each to the thing signified.  Obviously not everyone named Jesus, film directors, prize fighters, chefs etc, mostly, but not always, Hispanic, is our Jesus of faith.  Or to  mention a more plausible confusion, keep in mind that there were at least eleven men named Jesus (Yashua) in the history of the Jewish wars recorded by Josephus.  Will the real Jesus stand up?

While only a simpleton would mistake any random person with the name of Jesus for Jesus of Nazareth, there is a more serious confusion over the personality of Jesus.  Any number of false Christs have been offered up for adoration by the devotees of modernity.   Some of them even bear an alleged physical resemblance to Jesus.  Among these, let’s pick out Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man for special attention.  Apart from the fact that one was a historical character and the other a commercial logo, we can consider them both archetypes of what many consider (mistakenly) to be Christ-like-ness.

Thus we have Che Guevara murdering his way across Latin America in search of social justice.  No doubt this is very attractive to certain kinds of people, and Che had his own justification for his thoughts and deeds.  However to interpret Jesus of Nazareth according to the archetype of a Marxist revolutionary is, frankly, an abomination.  Jesus, unlike Che, was not a class-theorist.  Certainly Jesus empathized with the poor and recognized the class divisions of his own day, but he never indicated that justice is subjective to one’s class position, or that the means justifies the end in a class struggle.

I was never big on Che, but I must confess to having a soft spot for the Zig Zag man.  In case you don’t remember, or never knew, the Zig Zag man adorns packages of cigarette wrappers intended for impromptu use by smokers of tobacco and other substances.  The Zig Zag man, or something like him, is many people’s Jesus of choice.  Many of us want to roll our own religion, the primary ingredient of which is an easy-going Jesus who saves and then leaves us on our own. That’s the Jesus of no hassles and not getting on anyone’s case.  I infinitely prefer him to the moralistic, murdering Che, but both are equally false.

 

The mind of the true Jesus is the mind of Torah

Che and the Zig Zag guy are amusing straw men, and you don’t have to be much of a theologian to poke holes in those who take them as their “Jesus.”  But the problem of the pseudo-Jesus goes back deep into the early centuries of Christian faith.  Che, the Zig Zag man, and all the other false Christs of modernity are the grandchildren of Gnosticism.  There is only one true Jesus, but there are many Gnostic christs.  This proliferation of christs comes from the Gnostic rejection of the Hebrew scriptures.

That is why we cant just regurgitate the slogan “the true Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible.”  In the minds of many people today “The Bible” for all practical purposes consists of nothing more than the books from Matthew to Revelation.  Like the ancient Gnostics, they have excised the so-called “Old Testament” from their religion, and as a consequence they have created their own out-of-context Christs.  The ancient Gnostics were more consistent in their treatment of scripture.  They didn’t just excise the Old Testament they demonized it.  Their Jesus was a Jesus at war against the Creator, whom they considered at best a fool, and at worst malevolent.

Hence, from a Gnostic point of view, the Gospel must be seen as antithetical to, instead of fulfilling, the Torah.  Logically, this would lead to a trans-valuation of values and an inverted decaloge, to wit

Hate God, idolize, curse, work without intermission, disrespect parents, kill, steal, lie, cheat, envy…all these in the imperative, mind you.

While this kind of explicit antinomianism was rare, even in ancient Gnosticism, many of the psuedo-Jesus idols of modernity, up to and including Che and the Zig Zag man, are based on severing Torah from Gospel.  Unless we know Torah, we simply don’t understand what the motivations of Jesus were in the Gospel accounts.  The Gospel records actions.  From a Gnostic viewpoint the purpose of the actions was to liberate humanity from Torah.  From a Christian point of view the purpose was to pay the penalty which humanity had already incurred by breaking Torah.  Simply having the Gospel account doesn’t inform us fully as to which of these motivations underpin the actions of Jesus.  However if we understand the mind of Jesus as the mind revealed in Torah, then we know who the real Jesus is.  He is one with his Father in Heaven, not the antagonist of the Creator.

 

 

 

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