Eumeswil, Or Whither Human Excellence?

Ernst Jünger’s Eumeswil, one of the famous German’s last works, published when he was eighty-two years old, is often regarded as an exposition of libertarian thought. This is understandable, but completely wrong. Such a reading attempts to shoehorn concepts in which Jünger had little interest, or toward which he was actively hostile, into an exploration of unrelated themes.

Moreover, it ignores that in this book, though somewhat masked, Jünger has more contempt for so-called liberal democracy than dislike for what some call tyranny. Thus, this book is not a call to rework society, or individual thought, along libertarian lines. It is instead a call for human excellence, and a criticism of the modern West for failure to achieve it, or to even try.

One cannot really understand Eumeswil without reading, preferably first reading, Jünger’s earlier The Forest Passage, which was published in 1951, twenty-six years before Eumeswil. On the surface, they are very different—this book is cast as dystopian science fiction, and The Forest Passage is a work of philosophical exposition.

But Jünger himself explicitly ties the two books together, linking the earlier book’s concept of the “forest rebel” with this book’s concept of the “anarch.” In both books, the author’s focus on freedom, specific to each individual, is easily misinterpreted, because what freedom means to most people today is not what Jünger means by the term. Jünger means an internal, spiritual freedom, an elitist freedom, not the freedom of license and consequent ennui. This confusion drives all the misunderstandings of Eumeswil.

While they fit together, a key difference between the books is often, or always, overlooked. Both are analyses of how a man should live under tyranny. But the tyrannies to which the protagonist in each book reacts are completely different.

Thus, while there are some differences between the forest rebel and the anarch, those differences are best explained not by developments in Jünger’s thought, but by the differences in the tyrannies examined in each book. That is to say, Jünger is looking at a general problem of stifled freedom from two radically different angles—in the earlier book, from the perspective of those trapped by Communism or other totalitarian ideologies; in the later book, from those trapped in a much different type of tyranny, one into which Jünger saw the West decaying, having nothing to do with Communism.

It is the difference between 1951 and 1977, one which often escapes us now, but was very evident to a person of the time, and should be even more evident to us today, since the defects found in 1977 in bud form are now in full and poisonous flower, while the evils of 1951 have disappeared entirely.

Not much actually happens, plot-wise, in Eumeswil. Most of the book consists of the private musings of the protagonist, Martin Venator. He lives in the city-state of Eumeswil, somewhere in today’s Morocco, after an unspecified global apocalypse some time before. (The name comes from Eumenes, the most clever of the Diadochi, the “successors” of Alexander, who fought over and divided his empire. The theme of such decline is everywhere in this book, starting with the city name itself). Eumeswil is ruled by a man referred to only as the Condor, a soldier who overthrew the “tribunes,” the leading men of a broad oligarchic and quasi-democratic order, the “republic,” whose adherents viewed, and still view, themselves as beneficent and liberal, in contrast to the Condor, whom they naturally loathe.

Venator, a young man, has two jobs. By day he is a historian, or rather some type of graduate student; by night he tends bar in the Condor’s palace, at the Condor’s private bar. This permits him to observe the Condor and his aides, as they interact and discuss both high and low events. In Venator’s dispassionate telling, the Condor and his men are far from fiends; they are competent and genial men, highly intelligent and rational, concerned mostly with possible rebellions in the city, maintaining order, keeping the people happy, and not getting on the wrong side of people more powerful than they.

Of those latter, there are really two—the Yellow Khan, apparently either a very powerful neighbor or some sort of overlord, who sometimes comes for state visits that are a combination of pleasure and peril for the Condor and his men; and the vague “catacombs,” subterranean realms of some kind from which come advanced technology, still being developed by unspecified people, not unearthed from dead ones.

To accompany these external forces, to the south, across the desert, lies the “Forest,” a mutated, wild land, where (spoiler alert) at the end of the book the Condor leads an expedition, joined by Venator, and none of them are ever heard from again.

Under both the tribunes and the Condor, Eumeswil is a place that is waiting, passing the time, forever, so far as can be seen. There are no grand plans or any real hope for the future. Here, at the end of all things, not much happens. Perhaps it will come around again, though there is no sign of it. (As M. John Harrison says of “defeated, resigned landscapes” in The Pastel City, “Or was it just waiting to be born? Who can tell at which end of Time these places have their existence”)?

Those in Eumeswil birth few children; two maximum, not by law but because people can’t be bothered and see no reason to have more children. Abortion is illegal but ignored in practice, along with other vices, such as pederasty and drug use. From a libertarian perspective, pretty much everyone is free to do as he wants, as long as he does not overtly upset the public order (and does not challenge the ruler, on whom more later). History is mostly ignored; the entire society smacks of what is today called postmodernism. In other words, Eumeswil is a stand-in for the modern West, and its people, regardless of their formal type of government, are not analogous to those under Communism in The Forest Passage, but to Jünger’s West German compatriots of the 1970s.

Martin’s father and brother do not approve either of his job with the Condor or of his disinterest in politics. They were prominent partisans of the tribunes, although they were not punished upon their overthrow. (It is not even very risky to oppose the Condor, who executes nobody except a handful of criminals, and governs with a very light touch, though he does exile the most problematic dissidents to offshore islands).

They talk politics incessantly, making family dinners unpleasant, while they hedge their bets, preen themselves, and do nothing, just like all their class. Venator has little sympathy with them (exacerbated by, as he repeatedly notes, his father unsuccessfully having tried to get his mother to kill him in the womb), but fulfils his filial and family obligations.

Venator’s repeated references to his father’s attempts to kill him do not seem incidental; what Jünger appears to be saying is that men like Venator’s father, supposedly devoted to freedom, are in fact mediocrities with no future, happy to serve their own interests (“his rights,” as Venator bitterly calls his father’s attempt to murder him) when push comes to shove, and afraid to take responsibility or take action. They are, thus, the opposite of the forest rebel.

Venator respects the Condor; he has nothing but a distant contempt for the tribunes, even though they seemed to offer more political freedom. They “had stylized the word ‘human’ into a sublime concept.” But their lofty ideals “all cost money, which, however, they collected from concrete and not ideal human beings.”

The tribunes, moreover, were addicted to regulation, such as forbidding private collection of salt so as to maintain their tax revenue, “patrolling by customers inspectors, who ambushed the poor.” They even required the salt sold in government stores to have “mixed in additives that their chemists praised as useful, even though they were injurious.

The fact that men with such minds consider themselves thinkers is forgivable; but they also claim to be benefactors.” Worst of all, the tribunes offered, if not utopias, abstract visions. “ ‘There is no progress,’ I often hear my [father] say; he seems to regard this is a misfortune. He also says, ‘Standing still means going backward.’ ” The little people, in contrast, are satisfied if everyday life remains constant; they prefer to see their chimneys smoking, not their houses.” The type of progress that Venator’s father looks for, in other words, is not progress at all, but false forward movement paid for by others.

Much of the book is taken up with disjointed thoughts, ranging from discussions of how the Condor’s palace, or citadel, the Casbah, is situated a few miles outside the city (complete with references to Machiavelli on such placements), to talk of Venator’s girlfriend, to lengthy expositions of the thought of Venator’s various teachers.

To make sense of Eumeswil, you have to pay close attention, pick out, and weave together what Venator says. The only steady and obvious thread is that he clearly and repeatedly identifies himself as an “anarch”; we can presume, I think, that Venator is here a stand-in for Jünger himself. “Such is the role of the anarch, who remains free of all commitments yet can turn in any direction.”

The anarch is emphatically not an anarchist. The anarchist is focused on overthrowing the existing order, which inevitably leads to its replacement by something not to the anarchist’s taste. The anarch’s goal is, on the contrary, to remain aloof from all political systems. He obeys the law of the state, just as he obeys, automatically, the laws of nature. His internal freedom is what matters.

This concept, of internal freedom, is as far as most mention of Eumeswil ever gets. Venator says, “I am an anarch in space, a metahistorian in time. Hence I am committed to neither the political present nor tradition; I am blank and also open and potent in any direction.” He does not oppose the rules of the society in which he lives. “One must know the rules, whether one is moving in a tyranny, a demos, or a bordello. This holds, above all, for the anarch—it is the second commandment, next to the first: ‘Know thyself.’”

Usually, this conception gets a nod as a type of pure, Zen-like freedom: the sovereign individual, keeping himself internally liberated, but not choosing to fight for formal freedom in the temporal realm. In other words, as with The Forest Passage, a common present-day interpretation of Jünger’s politics is as libertarian—the freedom to do as one chooses, which is what we would have if everyone could take the actions that germinate in an anarch’s head. This is completely wrong. Jünger is instead pushing an elite freedom, the freedom to avoid the mediocrity and oppression of the collective, not the freedom to do as one pleases. The anarch can move in any direction, true, but to what end?

It is the petty and controlling, fake benefactory and semi-utopian, nature of the tribunes to which Venator objects, rather than to their laws as such. The key is that he rejects the tearing down of authority. “Although an anarch, I am not anti-authoritarian. Quite the opposite: I need authority, although I do not believe in it.”

Those would who have unbridled freedom are parasitical and destructive. “Why do people who leave nothing unchallenged still make demands of their own? They live off the fact that gods, fathers, and poets used to exist. . . . In the animal kingdom, there are parasites that clandestinely hollow out a caterpillar.

Eventually, a mere wasp emerges instead of a butterfly. And that is what those people do with their heritage, and with language in particular.” That’s what Jünger really thinks of libertarians, and it’s not pretty. And for the same reasons, Jünger pretty obviously had no use for what liberal democracy has become, with its closely related destructive rush to atomized freedom and total emancipation.

Most of all, Venator objects to the tribunes’ utopian schemes. Remember, in my reading, the tribunes, and Eumeswil itself, are stand-ins for the modern society of the West, which by the 1970s was offering so-called liberal democracy as a utopian panacea, with an insufferable smugness that reached its high point only a few years later in Francis’s Fukuyama’s “end of history.”

Jünger, a man who lived through all the horrors the twentieth century had to offer, had no interest in offering utopias, whether political or philosophical, and had seen first-hand who pays the price for dreams of false progress. At an early age, Venator, and doubtless his alter-ego, Jünger, “formed [his] conviction of the imperfect and peaceless nature of the world.” Given that conviction, all utopias are a mistake, because they are impossible, and only result in misery.

Along these same lines, Venator endorses the core idea of Carl Schmitt that pinning rationales for war on utopian visions of an abstract humanity, rather than a recognition of who the enemy is by nature, results in far worse killing. “If humanity is written on the standard, then this means not only the exclusion of the enemy from society, but the deprivation of all his human rights.” The implication is that for all the supposed freedom under the tribunes, which Venator’s father and brother claim to miss so much, it did not mean anything at all that mattered, and cost more than it brought.

On the other hand, Venator seems to have little objection to the Condor. Yes, Venator regularly, though dispassionately, refers to the Condor as a tyrant. But is he really? If he is, he has nothing to do with modern totalitarianisms. More than once Venator ties him to Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth who died in 585 B.C. Periander was one of the Seven Sages, men of wisdom and power, who also included Thales of Miletus (to whom, among others, the Delphic maxim “Know thyself” is attributed), and Solon of Athens.

Eumeswil is not even a police state. In fact, it allows all sorts of ordered freedoms, and many disordered freedoms, within the constraints of not too directly challenging the ruler. A modest amount of vice is allowed and it appears that there is a sizable amount of low-level corruption greasing the skids of day-to-day life. What shows most of all that he’s not a real tyrant is that Condor can and does openly move around, “discreetly accompanied,” on the public streets and the waterfront, talking to and joking with the people, with whom he is popular. If he is a tyrant, he is a tyrant in the mold of Augustus.

The Condor is explicitly not a despot, by which Jünger means capricious or interested in degrading people to show his power. As far as is evident, Eumeswil has the rule of law. A moderately free press exists. The justice system works. “Tyranny [i.e., the Condor] must value a sound administration of justice in private matters. This, in turn, increases its political authority.”

The Condor does not offer any ideology and is pleased to encourage education and what culture there is, as well as try to improve himself. “The Condor sticks to Machiavelli’s doctrine that a good military and good laws are the fundaments of the state.” Really, the Condor is not dissimilar to Machiavelli’s “new princedom,” like that of, say, Francesco Sforza (who took over Milan in the fifteenth century). (I suspect that a close reading of The Prince with Eumeswil would show quite a few interesting overlaps).

The Condor is fiscally prudent, ensuring a hard money economy and restraining state spending, all of which benefits the common people (and is in contrast to the tribunes, who talked of the common people but despised and harmed them).

ünger may not regard the Condor as ideal, but he regards him as having a form of excellence, of aristocracy, and he thinks little of the mass of the population of Eumeswil, and especially the political class of Venator’s father and brother, where language is degraded, history is ignored, and nobody is very interested in excellence, or, for that matter, true freedom—all just like today’s liberal democracies, but not like Augustan-style “tyrannies.”

Jünger makes it explicit that the anarch is the same as the forest rebel—or at least one conception of the forest rebel. In Eumeswil, however, Jünger seems less enamored of actual action by the forest rebel in The Forest Passage. He denigrates partisan bands and other commitments to political change (such as anarchism), as “stuffy air, unclear ideas, lethal energy, which ultimately put abdicated monarchs and retired generals back in the saddle—and then they show their gratitude by liquidating those selfsame partisans.”

Joining the partisans makes on dependent on them; the anarch’s goal is to avoid dependence, even while he serves someone, whether the Condor or someone else. “The difference is that the forest [rebel] has been expelled from society, while the anarch has expelled society from himself.” Really, though, that’s a distinction without a difference, because the result is the same.

Perhaps, I think, what Jünger is saying is that under a totalitarian tyranny, that of the forest rebel, action may make more sense (something covered in The Forest Passage in some detail), but under the modern tyranny of liberal democracy, action is futile, because it is not the government that is the problem, but the society. If you extend Jünger’s line of thought, the Condor points toward a possible solution to the flaws of liberal democracy, not something against which rebellion is either necessary or desirable.

So what does that imply for the anarch, who can turn in any direction, but presumably will, at some point, choose a direction? Jünger is explicitly not a reactionary in the sense of wanting to return to a better past. In the words of his alter-ego, “It is not that I am awaiting a return to the past, like Chateaubriand, or a recurrence, like Boutefeu [a Nietzsche-like figure]; I leave those matters politically to the conservatives and cosmically to the stargazers. . . . No, I hope for something equal, nay, stronger, and not just in the human domain. Naglfar, the ship of the apocalypse, shifts into a calculable position.”

Naglfar is the ship, in Norse mythology, that will ferry dead men to fight the gods in the final battle, Ragnarök. That is, Jünger wants a renewal, but he sees no way that Eumeswil can be renewed in the usual course of life. The Condor cannot do it, nor does he try. But it is significant, in this context, that the book ends with Venator and the Condor marching into, and disappearing into, the Forest, seeking that which they would find. That is, the book ends with the Condor himself turning forest rebel.

It is just as significant that Venator, the exemplar of the anarch, chooses wholly voluntarily to accompany the Condor as his servant, as his “Xenophon,” on this expedition. Both of them seek excellence and a renewal of things through human action; they are the opposite of José Ortega y Gasset’s “mass man,” the necessary end product of liberal democracy. As one of Venator’s teachers tells him, urging him to go, “A dream comes true in each of our great transformations. You know this as a historian. We fail not because of our dreams but because we do not dream forcefully enough.”

This is not the language of libertarian inertia or pleasure maximization; it is the language of Godfrey in the gate. Nor is it random (nothing in this book is random, even if frequently it is opaque) that in the very brief postscript written by Venator’s brother, committing Venator’s writing to a sealed archive (presumably because his thought is dangerous), he says smugly, “A great deal has changed in the city and, if I may say so, for the better.

The Casbah is now desolate; goatherds pasture their goats inside the walls of the stronghold.” The Condor, and the anarch, may have failed in their goals, but at least they dreamed great dreams, and, even more importantly, took risks to achieve them, unlike the decayed people of Eumeswil, ruled by the even more decayed class of the tribunes.

Thus, despite the common misconception (including that of the excellent Introduction by Russell Berman), this is not a book about the tyranny of Communism, or about tyranny in general, such as that of some banana republic authoritarianism. It is about the specific tyranny and flaws of liberal democracy, the fatal defects of which Jünger saw clearly long before most.

Like Václav Havel, Jünger did not believe that liberal democracy was the solution to much of anything, even if it was better than totalitarianism. Jünger may not have seen, or anticipated, all the specifics of the defects of end-stage liberal democracy, the core problem of which is Ryszard Legutko’s “coercion to freedom.” (Jünger does explicitly prefigure Legutko when he has Venator remark that in Eumeswil, “freedom was consumed for the sake of equality”). Nor did he, at least here, narrate the inherent defects of the Enlightenment project of atomized freedom.

Presumably someone more familiar with Jünger’s voluminous output (much of which is untranslated and which, in the German, runs to twenty-two volumes) could offer a more precise answer, and a more precise slotting of this book into Jünger’s thought.

But still, it is fascinating that Jünger saw our current future long before most, and, perhaps, he also saw possible paths toward, if not finding a solution, at least addressing the problems. Maybe that path is something less dramatic than disappearing into the Forest—but maybe it is marching into it, for nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “Arbeit schaendet” (Work is a Disgrace), by Georg Scholz, painted 1920-1921.

Traditionalism, Or More Insanity

This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism. The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism. Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world.

I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered. Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something. But what? Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.

I read Against the Modern World as part of my ongoing analysis of the lesser-known branches of modern right-wing thought. I was dimly aware of one Traditionalist thinker, the Italian self-described “superfascist” Julius Evola, about whom there was a burp of interest in 2016 when Steve Bannon mentioned his name as someone with whom he was familiar.

George Hawley’s excellent Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism spent some time on Evola and other Traditionalists, expanding my minimal knowledge; it noted an overlap between Traditionalism and the French New Right, wellspring of people like Guillaume Faye and his Archeofuturism.

No Traditionalist is a household name; I therefore read this book hoping to gain more insight. I learned facts I did not know, but as far as insight, I was disappointed—although, to be fair, given that I expected no new wisdom, I can’t really complain.

Sedgwick’s writing isn’t great; he’s an academic, not a popularizer. But he seems to know an awful lot about his subject. Though British, for a long time he has worked in Denmark as a professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, so he is very familiar with the different threads of Islam, essential since the majority of Traditionalists have a close relationship to Islam (more specifically, Sufism).

In fact, his enemies say that Sedgwick long ago converted to Islam, which as far as I know he has neither denied nor confirmed. If that’s true, it does not appear to affect his writing in any way, so for these purposes it’s irrelevant.

Most of his book revolves, in one way or another, around Rene Guénon (1866–1951), the French founder of Traditionalism. Guénon espoused and spread what he viewed as the “Perennial Philosophy,” or “Perennialism,” the idea that there is some “primal truth” that precedes, and is contained in, many (but not all) of the world’s major religions.

The term arose with the Renaissance priest Marsilio Ficino, who tried to reconcile Plato and Christianity, and as whose heir Guénon viewed himself. This idea of reconciling Greek philosophy and Christianity wasn’t new with Ficino, of course—although Sedgwick doesn’t mention it, Christian Neoplatonists, such as Saint Augustine, worked along the same lines, and the tradition of an underlying truth had continued up until and after Ficino, both within Christianity, and, to a greater degree, among movements like Hermeticism. But it had died out in the early modern world, as modernism and materialism came to dominate the West.

What brought Traditionalism back was the perceived defects of the modern world; hence the title of this book. Sedgwick doesn’t do a great job of describing what defects Traditionalists saw (and see); they seem to revolve around spiritual anomie and excessive materialism, which are viewed as inevitably leading to collapse and barbarism.

The modern age is often thought of as the Hindu kali yuga, the fourth and final stage of human degeneration before the cycle begins anew. Such preoccupation with decline and collapse is a very twentieth-century preoccupation, and part of the larger culture beyond Traditionalism—Oswald Spengler being the most obvious example. The Traditionalists, however, put a specifically religious gloss on both the projected collapse and its solution.

My key initial objection, or concern, is that we are never told with any precision, by Sedgwick or anyone else, what the claimed tenets of the universalist “Perennial Religion” are. I don’t think that’s Sedgwick’s fault, but rather the Traditionalists’.

There is much talk of “ancient wisdom,” but nobody seems to think it particularly important to actually identify or specify that wisdom. The only belief that seems evident is in a transcendent deity of some type, source of all wisdom and perfection. The other characteristics of this deity seem opaque, and it is not because they are deliberately hidden in the Gnostic manner—Traditionalists wrote many books.

There is talk of “the sacred unity of reality,” whatever that means. As a side dish, there is muttering about the “Absolute which is indescribable,” which may be accurate, but is not very clarifying. What it all seems to boil down to is generic mysticism; a claimed path to approach, and to understand, the divine and ineffable without, and outside of, detailed rational thought.

Now, mysticism has a long and respectable pedigree in most of the world’s religions, tied to and found as an extension of core doctrines. In contrast, though, most or all Traditionalist mysticism seems to be solipsistic navel-gazing, unmoored from religion. It pays lip service to religious belief, but really thinks religious doctrine is fiction. To Traditionalists, that is probably a feature, not a bug, but it feels a lot like more sophisticated Oprah, pushing The Secret, talking about how the “Universe” wants each of us to have a new car.

One way to understand Traditionalist mysticism, from what I can tease out, is as an accelerated, shortcut, hobbled version of Orthodox theosis, union with the divine energies of God (but not with the divine essence). However, Orthodox doctrine, and thought outside doctrine, is extremely specific about the characteristics of the divine, what God requires, and in what manner it is necessary to approach God. (I imagine the same is true of other religious mysticisms, such as Sufism or those found in Hinduism).

Blathering about “ancient wisdom” and “unity,” beyond feeling like it was derived from a fortune cookie, seems calculated to impress other humans, not set one on an actual path to mystical experience. Probably that’s why, it seems, a lot of Traditionalists end up partaking of various rituals, many newly manufactured, to unlock the key to the divine presence.

Whether to prevent being sullied by the uninitiated, or to prevent being ridiculed, these are rarely publicized (hence the “secret intellectual history” of the book’s subtitle). That’s not new, either, though—the reason we know little about the original Christian Gnostics, other than that some of their thought was suppressed, is that, like all such movements throughout history, they were obsessively secretive about their “hidden knowledge,” a necessary element of their attraction.

At first glance, Traditionalism is thus just another in a long line of quasi-religions that have a strong shyster element. The most obvious precursor is late nineteenth-century Theosophy, progeny of the earlier Spiritualism and mishmash of fraudulence and silliness, associated with the conwoman Helena Blavatsky (died 1891), which lasted some decades as an undercurrent in American intellectual circles.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau had ties to it; later on, Henry Wallace, sometime Vice President to Franklin Roosevelt, lost his chance to become President, and impose Communism on America, by being exposed as a Theosophist. Sedgwick spends a good deal of time parsing various other related movements, such as Martinism (tied to Freemasonry). None of this is surprising—as Chesterton did not say, but should have, when men cease believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

Or, as Sedgwick names it, citing Bryan Wilson, we get a “cultic milieu,” where, like the Island of Misfit Toys, fringe beliefs collect to support each other in their fringiness.

Today we get New Age beliefs and various other clownish schools of “thought,” which, to be fair, are even more degenerate in their stupidity and lack of intellectual sophistication than Theosophy and its relatives. (Admittedly, these modern beliefs aren’t Gnostic, which makes them somewhat different in structure and approach. Maybe that’s confirmation of Traditionalist beliefs about modern degeneration—today, we can’t even manage a decent Gnosticism.)

The core of all Gnosticism has always been to promise initiation into some hidden, esoteric knowledge. Thus, it is no surprise that most Traditionalists end up connected to, and many formally received into, Sufism. Christianity has always treated Gnosticism as a heresy and held that truth is available openly to all.

Sufism, on the other hand, offers both orthodoxy and a distinction between exoteric and esoteric belief. All (or nearly all) Sufis are devout Sunni Muslims (despite occasional tension with those finding mysticism unpalatable), but they add a layer of esoteric belief. This maintains the precise certainty for believers, something that Islam offers most of all among the major religions, while also offering the feeling of secret knowledge, and thus superiority and being on the inside track, all at the same time, a neat trick.

A few of the Traditionalists profiled in this book tried to combine Perennialism with Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but the inherent tensions in that project seem to always pull them either toward orthodox belief or its opposite, formal universalism.

A few others, Evola being the most prominent, combined Traditionalism with a total rejection of monotheistic religion, focusing on what to them were real, earlier pagan gods.

Most Traditionalists seem to find much of value in Hinduism—easy to do in Hinduism, with its many threads and voluminous, opaque writings, which they pick and choose from as their starting point, but I suspect that actual, devout Hindus would not agree with Traditionalist thinking, and anyway all the Traditionalists seem to abandon everything but a few cherry-picked elements of Hinduism, moving on to focus on other religious traditions—from which they also cherry pick, since universalism is rejected by all such traditions.

Back to the history. Probably the reason Guénon got as much traction as he did was because in the early twentieth century mysticism was in the air, and more mainline figures, such as the prominent Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, initially sponsored his writing to some degree.

As with almost all Traditionalists, Guénon soon thought himself into being fundamentally opposed to actual Christian doctrine, as being both too exclusive in its claims and being a religion of enervation and femininity (shades of Nietzsche), so he went his own way.

A circle formed around Guénon and a new journal in which he was involved, The Veil of Isis, from the name of which you can tell which way they headed, toward secrecy and supposed Eastern wisdom. World War I helped Guénon’s project, in that it made the idea that modernity was fundamentally broken hard to argue. Still unsatisfied, Guénon ended up a Sufi, moving to Egypt and going native.

Sedgwick’s covers two basic periods, before and after Guénon’s death, in 1951, since his death caused divergence into several vaguely connected movements, and turned an already nebulous philosophy into a mishmash. In fact, at least according to Sedgwick, most of the influence of Traditionalism in the past several decades has been through what he calls “soft Traditionalism,” not always easy to identify.

Basically this consists of academics in various fields (all in the humanities), who dislike modernity and hold to the universalist beliefs popularized by Guénon, such that elements of Traditionalism appear in their works, but they are by no means necessarily devotees. Such soft Traditionalism extends to men like E. F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful, and even to Prince Charles, who to external appearances is mostly just soft in the head (though if he is pulled toward Traditionalism, this, more likely than actual devotion to Islam, explains his frequent positive comments about Islam).

In Russia, though, Traditionalism has lately had some apparent real political impact, through the “Eurasian” program of Alexander Dugin, alleged to influence Vladimir Putin and the Russian government (and having a great deal in common with Faye’s Archeofuturism).

Sedgwick talks about so many people, all obscure, that they are hard to keep straight. Thus, for the most part, I think this book is most valuable as a reference work, although to understand the overall framework you really have to read the whole book.

A few people stand out, or maybe they just stand out to me because these are the ones I’ve heard of. Isabelle Eberhardt, Swiss woman of dubious mental stability, who converted young to Islam, moved to French Algeria (cooperating with the French colonizers but also assisting the locals, and conducting a tangled relationship with Hubert Lyautey, the French officer and Legionnaire in charge), and died before she reached thirty.

The Italian Julius Evola, pagan occultist, worshipper of what he called the Absolute Individual, kept at arms’ length by both Mussolini and the Nazis, because he thought they did not go far enough in maintaining hierarchy, and that they were too materialist by believing in racial, as opposed to spiritual, superiority.

After the war he abandoned politics for his vision of “riding the tiger,” i.e., surviving modernity by ignoring it until it collapses (similar in some ways to Ernst Jünger’s concept of the Forest Rebel, or his related concept of the anarch).

Frithjof Schuon, whom I know of because he lived nearby while I was at school at Indiana University; what I did not know was his adoption of the usual cult leader practice of sleeping with his disciples’ wives, a practice to which he gave the elevated name of “vertical marriage.”

He only died in 1998, after a scandal involving naked carousing with underage girls; apparently even the Bloomington police have limits. Since then, only Dugin has any relevance today, so apparently, at least as against Traditionalism, the modern world is in the ascendant, despite more than a hundred years of effort.

What all the many people Sedgwick profiles had in common was subscribing to the Perennial Philosophy. Again, though, I can’t figure out what that means. I doubt if Eberhardt and Evola had much in common, other than a declared belief in some kind of transcendent unity of all things. What that implied for life meant very, very different things for them, and for most of the Traditionalists.

It seems to me that something that has no predictive value, that ex ante cannot describe the acts or thoughts at any relatively narrow level of generality of any person, is not a useful categorization.

I’m all for attacks on the modern world. This is a difficult argument to make today, because Steven Pinker isn’t wrong, that in a great number of important ways, we are better off than we used to be.

The ways in which we are not better off are harder to quantify, and counterintuitive—for example, excessive personal autonomy is bad, but it feels so good. Yes, there are external indicia of the problems, most notably the failure of all modern societies to reproduce themselves.

But Traditionalism is not a cure for modernity. It makes historical claims that are easily falsifiable. Its theology, to the extent it has any, smacks of pandering to the self-absorbed.

What is needed is a much more grounded philosophy and political program. I am working on it, you will be glad to hear. In the meantime, this book is an interesting exploration of a dead end.

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “The Punishment of Loki,” by James Doyle Penrose, a work on paper, published ca. 1912.

Carl Schmitt: The Man And His Ideas

Carl Schmitt, preeminent antiliberal, is that rare thing, the modern political philosopher relevant long after his time. The simple remember him only for his grasping embrace of Nazism, but the more astute, especially on the Left, have in recent times found much to ponder in Schmitt’s protean writings.

He did not offer ideology, as did so many forgotten political philosophers, but instead clear analysis of power relations, untied to any specific system or regime.

So, as the neoliberal new world order collapses, and the old dragons of man, lulled for decades by the false promises of liberal democracy, rise from slumber, such matters are become relevant once more, and Schmitt informs our times, echoing, as they do, his times.

This book, Gopal Balakrishnan’s The Enemy, slickly analyzes Schmitt’s complex and often contradictory writings. Because Schmitt offered no system, and often contradicted himself in sequential writings, or at least offered ideas hard to rationalize with each other, too often he is seen as an “affectively charged symbol, not as someone whose thought could be understood through a comprehensive and systematic study.”

Balakrishnan’s goal is to accomplish that latter task. “My objective is to reconstruct the main lines of his thought from 1919 to 1950 by identifying the problems he was addressing in context.”

The author makes clear up front that he wants to explore Schmitt’s thought, objectively, not through the lens of his association with Nazism: “Those who still insist on adopting the role of either prosecutor or defence attorney in discussing Schmitt can, I hope, be convinced that there are far more interesting issues involved.”

And, critically, while Balakrishnan is a leftist, his views never, as far as I can tell, infect the text in any way—perhaps, in part, because he feels strongly that Schmitt is not himself monolithically on the Right.

I have not read any Schmitt directly, yet, and so I cannot say if Balakrishnan’s summaries of Schmitt’s thought are accurate or complete. But I turned to Schmitt because his name kept coming up in modern books by leftists (and was used by #NeverTrumper Bill Kristol when trying to tar his opponents). Certainly, at first glance, his thought is relevant not only to the Left, but is just as relevant for today’s reactionaries, such as me.

This is because Schmitt’s thought did not revolve around a retreat to the past, imaginary or otherwise. He was not interested in such restorationism; he correctly saw it as a false path. Rather, all of Schmitt’s thought revolved around taking what exists today and, informed by the past instead of by some Utopian ideology, creating the future. He was master of identifying and rejecting the historical anachronism in favor of reality; such clarity is one key to effective Reaction.

Born in 1888, of a provincial Roman Catholic family in the Rhineland, Schmitt studied jurisprudence (which then included political science and political philosophy) in Berlin in the early 1900s.

At that time, the legal philosophy of positivism dominated German thinking. Positivism held that the law consisted only of, and was derived only from, legal pronouncements, and formed a seamless whole through and by which all legal decisions could be made uniformly and predictably, if only one looked hard enough.

This, a modernist concept beloved of liberals, had erased the earlier philosophy of natural law, under which much of the law existed outside specific legal mandates written down in books, whether divinely mandated or the result of custom and human nature.

Schmitt’s early writings expressed some doubt about positivism, which in the pre-war years had come under some attack as permitting, then ignoring, gaps, as well as for ignoring who made the law. The war, however, firmly set his thought on the path it was to take for the rest of his long life, which was opposition to positivism, as well as all other liberal forms of law.

Schmitt volunteered, but due to an injury, served in a non-combat capacity in Berlin. Here Schmitt associated not with the Prussian elite, but with a more bohemian crowd.

After the war and the post-war revolutionary disturbances, the mainline left-center parties, over the objections of the defeated rightists and cutting out the violent Left, promulgated the Weimar constitution, in August of 1919.

This document governed Germany until 1933, and it was ultimately the springboard for the most important of Schmitt’s thought. But Schmitt’s first major work was not on the new constitution; it was a book about aesthetics as related to politics, Political Romanticism.

Here, he attacked the German Romantics for refusal to politically commit, instead remaining detached observers of critical events, manipulating words to create emotional effect while standing back from history. They would not decide what was worth fighting for; they merely engaged in “endless conversation,” all talk, no action.

As Balakrishnan notes, this book is neither Left nor Right, and one cannot tell where on the political spectrum the author fell, though Romanticism was generally associated with the Right. Schmitt even cited Karl Marx to support his arguments. He thus, at this point, had very little in common with the anti-Weimar Conservative Revolutionaries, men such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck or Ernst Jünger. Not that he was a man of the Left; he was merely hard to classify.

Declining to work in government, Schmitt began his academic career in Munich, and in 1921 published The Dictator. Though the book was written earlier, 1921 was immediately after the various Communist revolts, as well as the Kapp Putsch; the political situation was, to say the least, still unsettled.

Article 48 of the new Weimar Constitution allowed the new office of President to rule by decree, using the army, in order to ensure “public safety,” a provision that assumed immense importance later.

Even though he mentioned this power, The Dictator wasn’t narrowly focused on Weimar; it was an analysis of all emergency power itself, and its use in the gaps that existed even under a system of legal positivism, where gaps were supposed to not exist.

Schmitt maintained that dictatorial power of some sort was essential in a political system, but distinguished between “commissarial dictatorship,” used to defend the existing constitutional order through temporary suspension (with the classic example of the Roman dictator), and “sovereign dictatorship,” a body or person acting to dissolve the old constitution and create a new one, in the name of, or on behalf of, the people as a whole.

The commissarial dictator has no power to change the structures or order of the state, which remained unchanged and in a sense unsullied by the dictator’s necessary actions; the sovereign dictator does have such power.

This had obvious applications to Weimar, but Schmitt did not focus on the modern; instead, his analysis revolved around sixteenth-century France, where the King claimed the right to suspend customary right in the execution of royal justice.

Opposed to the King were the Monarchomachs, part of a long tradition of political philosophy holding that a tyrannical or impious king could justly be overthrown, and that no extraordinary measures could be taken by the king without tyranny.

In between was Jean Bodin, author of The Six Books of the Republic, who argued that the king could indeed overthrow customary law, but only in exceptional situations, and only to the extent he did not violate natural law as it ruled persons and property.

This view, endorsed by Schmitt, rejects Machiavelli’s instrumentalism, and holds that the dictator is he, of whatever origin, who executes a commissarial dictatorship, as opposed to a sovereign, one who claims the right to execute a sovereign dictatorship. In the modern context, though, for Schmitt, the sovereign dictatorship is not always illegitimate, because the old structures have imploded.

What was wrong for the King of France in the sixteenth century was right for the Germans in 1919. That is, through his analysis, Schmitt concluded that the Weimar Constitution was wholly legitimate, even though it was the result of a sovereign dictatorship, because the sovereign dictator, the provisional legislative power, the pouvoir constituent (the power that makes the constitution), existed for a defined term and then dissolved itself.

The resulting political problem, though, was that if a new constitution was promulgated in the name of the people, the people remained extant, as a separate point of reference, from which “emerges ever new forms, which it can at any time shatter, never limiting itself.”

This, combined with the revolutionary proletariat threatening civil society, created at least the conceptual need for quick elevation of a commissarial dictator, to deal with illegitimate revolutions, before the possible need for a sovereign dictator arose. Such was Cavaignac’s suppression of the Paris mob in 1848.

(It is no accident that Schmitt’s book, Dictatorship‘s subtitle, often omitted in mentions of it, is “From the Beginnings of the Modern Conception of Sovereignty to the Proletarian Class Struggle,” and Schmitt has much to say about internal Marxist debates of the time, another reason he is still read by the Left).

Schmitt viewed Article 48 as authorizing such a commissarial dictatorship—but under no circumstances authorizing a sovereign dictatorship, which had been foreclosed upon the promulgation of the new constitution, whatever external threats might still exist. Though that did not preclude, perhaps, another such moment, which, in fact, arrived soon enough.

As you can tell, The Enemy is in essence a sequential look at Schmitt’s written output, trying to fit each piece into the context of its immediate time, and with other pieces of Schmitt’s work. Balakrishnan next covers two short but influential books revolving around Roman Catholicism, Political Theology and Roman Catholicism and Political Form.

Although often Schmitt is seen as a Catholic thinker, he had a tense relationship with the Church (not helped by his inability to get an annulment for his first marriage), and much of his thinking was more Gnostic than Catholic. While very different from each other, both books more clearly set out Schmitt’s views on how European decline could be stopped, and it was not by more liberalism.

Political Theology begins with one of Schmitt’s most famous lines: “Sovereign is he who decides on the emergency situation.” The book is an exploration of what the rule of law is, in real life, not in theory; an attack on legal positivism as Utopian through a presentation of the critical gaps that positivism could not address; and an explication of the actual practice of provisions like Article 48.

Someone must be in charge when it really matters, in the “state of emergency”; who is that to be? It is not decided, at its root, by positive law; deep down, it is a theological question (hence the title).

Turning from his earlier suggestion that only a commissarial dictatorship was typically necessary, Schmitt came closer to endorsing sovereign dictatorship of an individual, not derived from the people, in opposition to the menace of proletarian revolution.

He praised another anti-proletarian of 1848, the obscure Spaniard Juan Donoso Cortes, who saw “reactionary adventurers heading regimes no longer sanctioned by tradition,” such as Napoleon, as the men who would fight back atheism and Communism, until the earthly eschaton would restore traditional rule.

This vision did not entrance Schmitt for long; it smacked too much of restorationism, of trying to turn back the clock, rather than creating a new thing informed by the old. Still, this was and is one of Schmitt’s most influential books.

Less influential, perhaps, but more interesting to me, is Roman Catholicism and Political Form. Schmitt had fairly close ties to the Catholic Center Party, but this book is not a political work. Nor is it a book of natural law; as Balakrishnan says, in it “names like Augustine and Aquinas are nowhere to be found.

His portrayal of the political identity of the Church was a cocktail of themes from Dostoevsky, Léon Bloy, Georges Sorel and Charles Maurras.” A diverse group, that.

The book portrayed the Roman Church as the potential pivot around which liberalism and aggressively sovereign monarchs of the old regimes could be brought together, through its role in myth and in standing above and apart from the contending classes, as well as being representative of all classes and peoples. (It sounds like this book has a lot in common with a current fascination of some on the American right, Catholic integralism, a topic I am going to take up soon).

What the people thought didn’t matter, but they should be represented and guided, in their own interests, by a combination of aristocrats and clerics, presumably.

Both these books, and for that matter all of Schmitt’s thought, saw modernity as a mistake, however characterized: as bourgeois capitalism, liberal democracy, or what have you. Spiritually arid, divisive, atomizing, impractical, and narrow, it had no future; the question was what future Europe was to have instead.

In 1923 Germany, it certainly seemed that things were about to fall apart, which called forth Schmitt’s next work, translated as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (though as Balakrishnan points out, and I have enough German to have noticed first myself, a better translation of the title is The Spiritual-Historical Situation of Today’s Parliamentarianism; the word “crisis” is not in the original title).

Here Schmitt lurched away from the idea of the sovereign imposing good government on the masses, and focused on the mass, the mobilization of the multitude that can give authority to the sovereign who decides on the state of exception, citing men like the violent French syndicalist Georges Sorel and impressing on the reader the power of political myth, rather than Roman Catholic truth.

Schmitt discussed the tension between liberalism and democracy, among other things focusing on rational discourse as the key to any parliamentary system, and that rational discourse tends to be lacking in proportion to the amount of direct democracy in a system, though Schmitt attributed that to the power of political myths creating political unity, not to the ignorance and credulity of the masses, as I would.

(This was once something that was universally recognized and assumed, but today the divide between rationality and democracy is ignored. This change, or debasement, derives from a combination of political ideology, in part informed by Marxism and cultural Marxism, and ignorance, from the forgetting of history and thousands of years of applied political thought. It will not end well).

Schmitt is not recommending a particular resolution or political program; Balakrishnan attributes that to Schmitt still building his own thought, without an ideological goal in mind.

To this extent, as I say, Schmitt is the correct type of reactionary: a man who sees what is wrong about today, and what is right about the past, and seeks to harmonize the two to create a better, but not Utopian, future.

Various other writings followed, responsive to the events of the 1920s. Among many interesting points, Balakrishnan notes that “Schmitt rejected what would later be called ‘Atlanticism’: the idea that the USA and Western Europe belonged to a common civilization, and thus shared political interests.”

(In the years after World War II this was a particular focus of Schmitt, giving him something in common with the later French New Right, as well as the Left in general).

He also mocked the League of Nations; if what matters is who is sovereign, international “law” is the final proof of the contempt in which positivism should be held. He wrote a massive work on German constitutional law (which is untranslated to English), analyzing the relationship between democracy and the Rechtstaat, the core structures of German law revolving around the rule of law, which did not presuppose any particular form of government.

In these writings, Schmitt addressed a wide range of thorny problems, including the legitimacy of law and who authorizes a new constitution, from which arise questions of legitimacy, and, just as importantly (and about to become more important at that time), questions of whose interpretation commands assent.

This latter set of questions began to crystallize Schmitt’s adherence to “decisionism”—the idea that what matters, above all, to the legitimacy of a decision is not its content, or its tie to some underlying document or system, but that it be made by a legitimate authority. This is, needless to say, directly contrary to the claims of legal positivism.

As German politics moved toward its climax, Schmitt’s next work was more theoretical, The Concept of the Political (first published in 1927, then substantially revised in 1932, in part as the result of correspondence with Leo Strauss). This book sounds like the most relevant to today, both in its topic and in the specifics it diagnoses about modern liberalism.

Its overarching theme is the most famous of Schmitt tropes: the enemy. While, like all Schmitt’s works, this book is complex, its premise is that “the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political,” and what ultimately defines the political is the opposition between friend and enemy—not, as Balakrishnan notes, private friends and enemies, but political communities opposed to each other.

Politics is thus, at its core, not separate from the rest of life, but, ultimately, the way in which a political community determines its destiny, in opposition to those who hold incompatible beliefs, through violent conflict if necessary. This is an internal decision to each political community, not susceptible to rational discussion with those outside the community, and it is not a moral, but rather a practical, decision.

Liberalism, which believes that politics is a matter of pure rationality with a moral overlay, not only misses the point, but by being wrong, exacerbates the chances of and costs of conflict, especially by turning all conflict into a crusade where the enemy is evil, rather than just different. Liberalism makes war and death more, rather than less, likely…

“Schmitt claimed that the logic of these decisions cannot be grasped from a non-partisan perspective. The point he was making was directed at those who, failing to understand the irreducibly partisan, emergent dynamics of such scenarios, see the causes of major political events in the small tricks and mistakes of individuals. Lenin, he said, understood that such people must be decisively refuted.”

In fact, conflicts which seem irrational after the fact are not at all irrational; we just cannot, if we ever could, see clearly the rational impulses that drove them, which, again, boil down to the friend/enemy distinction.

In the late 1920s, Schmitt moved to Berlin, and became part of circles there, mostly conservative but idiosyncratically so. He became close friends with Johannes Popitz (later executed for his role in the Stauffenberg plot), who opened doors in government for Schmitt.

He wrote on various topics, including, interestingly, on technology, noting presciently “From its onset the twentieth century appears not only as the age of technology but as the age of religious belief in technology.”

He did not think this was a good thing; it created unrealistic expectations, especially among the masses, and encouraged belief in technocratic, “Fordist” government, a disaster in the making, because technology could never solve human problems, or eradicate the friend/enemy distinction that underlay all human political relations—but it could make war worse, and it “dissolved the protective atmosphere of traditional morality which had shielded society from the dangers of nihilism.”

In many places throughout his career, whatever his own religious beliefs, Schmitt was very clear that man needed the view of history as a struggle reaching toward redemption. The disappearance of that belief would destroy the enchantment of the world, but would not reduce conflict, which would be more and more meaningless.

That’s pretty much the state we’ve reached today; Schmitt would not be surprised, nor he would be surprised by the attempt to resolve this problem by seeking redemption through technology.

As the clock ticked down to National Socialism in power, Schmitt became more involved in government, especially in advocating various forms of constitutional interpretation. Among other works, he wrote Legality and Legitimacy, analyzing the tension between majority rule and the legitimacy of its decisions with respect to the minority, casting a jaundiced eye at the ability of liberals to resist Communists and Nazis.

At this point, in the early 1930s, he was anti-Nazi, but that changed as the Nazis came to power, and Schmitt (always keenly interested in his own career) saw on which side his bread was buttered, although he was also fascinated by the Nazis and what their rise said about politics and political conflict; moreover, he made the typical error of intellectuals, to believe that he could influence and control the powerful through his intelligence.

He ramped-up his own anti-Semitism and, infamously, publicly justified the Night of the Long Knives as “the leader protecting the law.” Even here, he was precise in an interesting way—although his purpose was “nakedly apologetic,” he objected to the retrospective legalization of the Röhm purge, holding that part of the role of the sovereign was, in extreme cases, to extra-legally implement actions dictated by the friend/enemy distinction.

Soon enough, though, despite his attempts to become ever more shrilly anti-Semitic (among other dubious offerings, suggesting that Jewish scholars referred to in books have an asterisk placed by their name to identify them as Jewish). But he was still viewed with suspicion by the Nazis, as a Catholic and an opportunist, and within a few years he was exiled from political life, before the war began.

He did not suffer worse consequences, in part because he was protected by Hermann Göring. Still, he kept writing, among other things, using Thomas Hobbes as a springboard, developing a theory of the supersession of nation states by larger blocs embracing satellite states, as well as related theories of the political implications of Land and Sea.

After the war, Schmitt refused to submit to any form of denazification, so although he was not prosecuted, he was barred from teaching for the rest of his life—another forty years. He maintained intellectual contacts with a wide circle, though, and remained somewhat influential—an influence that has increased since his death in 1985.

Most interesting to me in his later writings is Schmitt’s theory of the katechon. This concept is taken from 2 Thessalonians, which discusses the Antichrist, the Man of Sin, who, verse 6 tells us, is restrained or “withheld” by a mysterious force, the katechon.

When the katechon is withdrawn, Antichrist will become fully manifest. Saint Paul, however, implies that his listeners know who the katechon is. Schmitt expanded this into an idea that some authority must restrain chaos and maintain order, perhaps the Emperor in Saint Paul’s time, another force now—but not the popular will, certainly, and not any element of liberal government.

To grasp the importance of this idea to Schmitt, it helps to know that he once wrote (although this quote is not in Balakrishnan’s book), “The history of the world is like a ship careening aimlessly through the sea, manned by a bunch of drunken sailors who scream and dance until God thrusts the ship under the waves so there will be silence.” Schmitt wasn’t big on history having an arrow, a key claim of liberalism.

Into the idea of the katechon fit most of Schmitt’s prior ideas, including the commissarial dictator, the sovereign who decides on the state of exception, and the variations on Hobbes’s Leviathan that Schmitt explored.

That’s not to say that Schmitt was predicting the rise of Antichrist, or offering a religious concept, rather that the acknowledging the key role of a Restrainer embodies the central theme of much of his thought. I think one can, perhaps, contrast such a role with the role suggested by the Left, of some person or a vanguard, who creates a wholly new system, often conceived of as Utopian.

In reactionary thought, therefore, the katechon plays the essential role of being rooted in reality and human nature; the force that, through a combination of power and inertia, prevents the horrors unleased by Utopian ideology.
As can be seen from the title he chose, Balakrishnan sees the distinction, organically arising in every time and place without the will of anybody, between friend and enemy, as the key distinction of Schmitt’s thought.

In Schmitt’s own words, “Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are.” You only have to pull a little on this string to come to disturbing conclusions, though, about today’s America. If the premise is that at some point the members of a once-united nation can be split by a friend/enemy distinction, which is certainly objectively possible, the question only becomes how it can be determined if this has happened, and what to do then?

Certainly the American Left long since recognized, since it is the necessary belief of any ideological worldview seeking Utopian goals, who is friend and who is enemy. And even a casual listen to the words of the Left today, from their foot soldiers to their elites, reveals an explicit acknowledgement of this view.

It is not just ideological, either; the Left thrives on the solidarity that comes from recognizing who the enemy is. The American Right, on the other hand, is still delusionally trapped in the idea that we can all get along, or at least, their leaders hope to be eaten last.

Meanwhile the Left marches its columns ever deeper into enemy territory, stopping at nothing and only avoiding widespread violence (though, certainly, there is plenty of Left violence already) because it is not yet adequately opposed. All this fits precisely into Schmitt’s framework; the only surprise is the one-sided nature of the battle.

The Left’s approach is subtly different, perhaps, than the one Schmitt outlined, because the Left insists on politicizing literally everything, rather than only the key points of difference (although maybe that is simply required battle on all fronts, since their ideology presupposes no private sphere).

This spreading thin, driven by ideology, potentially erodes their power, or would if they were being opposed at all, more so if effectively. Beyond that, though, the fatal weakness, in Schmittian terms, of the American Left’s approach, is total lack of both any sovereign decision-maker or source of legitimacy for its decisions, even within a strictly intra-Left frame.

Perhaps this is a universal flaw of the ideological left, from the French Revolution on, and the source of the truism that Left revolutions eat their own. Without a sovereign, no stability, and no future—only the capacity for destruction, on full display now, after which those not poisoned by the beliefs of the Left pick up the pieces.

But first, they have to be recognized as enemies, and treated as such. No time like the present to begin, and better late than never. Certainly, a competent, disciplined leader on the Right could take Schmitt’s theories and weave a coherent plan of defense and attack. Instead, we get Donald Trump, who is better than nothing, but not by much. Don’t get depressed, though, since that Man of Destiny may be just over the horizon. 2019 will be soon enough.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Again,” by Thomas Hart Benton, painted in 1941.

Review: The Forest Passage By Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger was one of the more fascinating men of the twentieth century.  Remembered in the English-speaking world primarily for his World War I memoir, The Storm of Steel, he was famous in Europe for a range of right-leaning thought spanning nearly eighty years (he lived from 1896 to 1998).

His output was prodigious, more than fifty books along with voluminous correspondence, and not meant or useful as a seamless ideology, although certain themes apparently recur. This book, The Forest Passage, was published in 1951, and is a compelling examination of how life should be conducted under modern ideological tyranny.

Jünger’s answer is jarring, both in its originality, and in its flat rejection of any relevancy of those modern (though failing) totems, liberal democracy and egalitarianism. Jünger was no Nazi; he contemptuously rejected their efforts to profit off his reputation, and was tangentially involved in the Stauffenberg plot. But he had just as little use for modern democracy or liberalism; much of his thought seems to have revolved around a type of social and political elitism with a spiritual core. It appears that The Forest Passage was his first exploration of the specific topic of resistance to tyranny; he developed the thought in this book further with a novel published in 1977, Eumeswil, which I have not read.

This is quite a difficult book to read; it can be opaque, and it assumes the reader’s recognition of various oblique references (I had to look up that Champollion was a decrypter of Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example).

This 2013 edition, from Telos Press, is greatly helped by occasional notes (though more would have been better), and an outstanding introduction from Russell Berman. Most of Jünger’s books have not been translated, and Telos, a left-leaning entity, has usefully been translating and reprinting at least a few, all of which I have bought and am now working through as I explore alternatives to our own crumbling social and political system.

Jünger had lived through World War I (barely), receiving numerous awards for bravery, and become famous for The Storm of Steel. That book was and is often criticized for being the mirror image of anti-war writings, from the British war poets to All Quiet on the Western Front.

Jünger did not oppose the war, even after its disastrous end; he liked certain aspects of it, regarding them as spiritually valuable, even epic.  (In this he was much like Erwin Rommel, who also wrote a memoir that made him famous, though Rommel was practical about his like for war, not spiritual).

During the interwar period Jünger was a key figure in the so-called “Conservative Revolution,” the loose movement of intellectuals (including Oswald Spengler and Carl Schmitt), opposed to Weimar and democracy, and more broadly to modernism and individualism, as well as to the coming thing, Communism.

During the war, Jünger also opposed the Nazis, mostly passively, although he wrote a novel implicitly critical of Hitler (On The Marble Cliffs), something he could get away with because of his fame. After the war, for decades, he was a leading public intellectual, never forgiven by the dominant Left for his rightist views, but able to haughtily ignore their carping, and widely honored until the end of his life.

In 1951, of course, Germany stood between the immediate past of Nazism and the immediate threat of Soviet Communism. This is the backdrop of The Forest Passage, and the book cannot be understood without keeping it in mind. That said,  Jünger’s thought is directed at challenging any ideological tyranny, which includes, increasingly, our own Western “liberal democracy.”

What should a person oppressed by such a tyrannical state do?  The book is really an answer on two levels: What he should do in the external world, and what he should do in his internal world. More precisely, it is an exploration of how the latter should drive the former.  Jünger was not George Orwell, predicting the victory of global tyranny.

In fact, he was quite optimistic about the future, predicting elsewhere that ultimately technology would allow a global state, a “planetary order,” to emerge under which humans could flourish.  But in The Forest Passage he was interested in tyrannies present or future, whatever their origin, and how one should live under them.

Jünger begins by discussing how in an oppressive state the mere act of voting “no” where ninety-eight percent vote “yes,” as demanded and enforced by the state and by one’s fellow voters, is an act of rebellion.

It does not matter that the state actually wants fewer than one hundred percent to vote “yes,” because that way the vote seems more realistic, and, more importantly, the state can thereby justify further action against its opponents, whose existence is by the vote made visible to all, and also therefore the need for their suppression so that Utopia can finally be reached (although, as in Zeno’s Paradox, it can never actually be, for that would deprive the dictatorship of its reason for seeking more power).

“Dictatorships cannot survive on pure affirmation—they need hate, and with it terror, to provide a simultaneous counterbalance.” (This is true also of proto-dictatorships, such as today’s American Left. As Shelby Steele has recently pointed out, the Left existentially needs to see racism everywhere, so they can keep whipping up hate to augment their power through terror).

Rather, the point of, and the meaning of, the vote “no” is not to “shake the opponent, but [to] change the person who has decided to go through with it.”  He, by the choice of voting “no,” or by any equivalent choice, becomes a “forest rebel,” transformed into something new, who takes the “forest passage,” taking actions that are also something new.

Here, “something new” is not a throwaway line of mere contrast to the existing tyranny.  The newness of the forest rebel’s path is critical to Jünger’s analysis.  The man who votes “no,” the freshly minted forest rebel, is not trying to turn back to the old ways of democracy, or any other specific prior political system.  Those are dead and gone, along with his own past individual nature. He is on a new path.

“This is why the numerous attempts under the Caesars to return to the republic had to fail.  The republicans either fell in the civil war, or they came out of it transformed.” You cannot go back. The way is shut. While Jünger is focused on tyranny, this principle is more generally applicable, as Jünger’s reference to Rome shows.

In fact, I think that newness is a critical element in planning our own future. For Reaction, something I wish to implement after the inevitable rupture as our own system dies, is properly viewed not a turning back, as its caricaturists and opponents would have it, but the creation of a new thing informed, in part, by the wisdom of the past.

This is what Jünger calls “retrospection,” conducted by a small minority, made possible because “in the nature of things,” “when catastrophes announce themselves . . . the initiative will always pass into the hands of a select minority who prefer danger to servitude.” Failing to grasp that newness is essential, and must be accepted and made central, will lead to nostalgia, and thence to dissonance and failure of all political plans and action.

What most of all characterizes the forest rebel is his devotion to freedom. He is internally completely free, and he works for external freedom as well. These things set him apart from both the tyrannical state and the mass of men. But it essential to note that Jünger is not a libertarian. His idea of freedom has very little in common with Robert Nozick and less with Milton Friedman.

The freedom of the forest rebel is not the freedom to do as he pleases; it is not the unbridled autonomy and atomized individualism that were the poison at the heart of the Enlightenment and are the engine of its destruction. Those are “unworthy interpretations” of freedom;  Jünger specifically sneers at the French Revolution. Nor is it exactly the older conception of freedom, the ability to choose rightly, although it is much closer to that than to libertarianism.

Rather, it is a modernized version of that, consisting of two related threads.  First, and concretely, the refusal to obey or even acknowledge the commands of an oppressive and malevolent, state. Second, and abstractly, a spiritual core with which the forest rebel analyzes his decisions, informed by a rejection of degrading “automatism” and its consequence, “fatalism,” in favor of self-rule and of the virtues of “art, philosophy, and theology.”

Jünger’s analysis of voting under tyranny prefigures Václav Havel’s famous analysis of the grocer who refuses to put the sign, “Workers of the World, Unite!” in his shop window. For Havel, this is refusing to “live within a lie,” which allows the grocer to reclaim his identity and dignity, but for which he must pay, because even this minor act of defiance threatens the entire regime, even though it has no explicitly political intent or meaning.

The forest rebel’s attitude is much the same.  And even though Jünger focuses more on the rebel’s internal mental state than his specific external actions, he is quite clear that he expects the forest rebel, ultimately, to act, rather than merely ruminate.

Confusingly, at the same time Jünger sometimes seems to say that the forest rebel mostly lives and acts completely in isolation, in the forest, a type of garden, but a solitary one. True, the forest rebel battles “Leviathan,” but his is sometimes characterized as a holding action, to keep himself from the degradation of the masses who acquiesce, and, implicitly, to form the core of something to come.

This ambiguity as to the actual actions to be taken may be deliberate, for Jünger knows that context dictates action, and he has no Marxist-flavored belief in inevitable turns of history.  Ultimately, he says that “The armor of the new Leviathans has its own weak points, which must continually be felt out, and this assumes both caution and daring of a previously unknown quality.

We may imagine an elite opening this battle for a new freedom, a battle that will demand great sacrifices and which should leave no room for any interpretations that are unworthy of it.” Thus, Jünger always returns to the concept of battle, and it is a fair conclusion that is what he expects of the ideal forest rebel.  “The task of the forest rebel is to stake out vis-à-vis the Leviathan the measures of freedom that are to obtain in future ages. He will not get by this opponent with mere ideas.”

The forest rebel is therefore exemplified by William Tell, mentioned twice in this brief book.  Tell, of course, was the (probably mythical, but no matter) fifteenth-century Swiss crossbowman who shot an apple off his son’s head at the command of the malevolent state, represented by Albrecht Gessler, proxy for the Habsburg dukes who ruled Tell’s canton.

Gessler’s command was punishment for Tell refusing to salute Gessler’s hat, which he had placed on a pole and then required the people to salute, in order to humiliate them and bring low their spirit.  Most of us remember that Tell put two crossbow bolts in his belt, and when asked by Gessler, after successfully shooting the apple, why he had done that, replied that the second was for Gessler, had Tell hit his son.

Most of us probably do not remember the second act of the story—Tell escapes, to the forest, and then soon ambushes Gessler and assassinates him, starting a successful rebellion.  (By coincidence, I bought several books on Tell for my children a few weeks ago.

I am glad I did that; these are important lessons and guides to action, and I am willing to bet zero children are told Tell’s story in most schools today.)  Tell was no libertarian—he was a free man in a free society, but he was bound by, and loyal to, that society and its rules.  His was the freedom of Leonidas, not of Hugh Hefner.

Tell is, however, not the only rebel Jünger praises—one other, an anonymous man, gets his nod. Speaking of the breakdown of the rule of law in 1933 Berlin, and the acquiescence of the population in Nazi suppression of political opponents, he says, “A laudable exception deserves mention here, that of a young social democrat who shot down half a dozen so-called auxiliary policemen [i.e., NSDAP storm troopers] at the entrance of his apartment.

He still partook of the substance of the old Germanic freedom, which his enemies only celebrated in theory.”  It’s hard to miss Jünger’s message, and it’s not that the forest rebel should meditate silently on freedom while sitting at home.

Both by such examples, and by explicit statements, Jünger is clear that his contemplated rebellion is not one of raising an army, but of ad hoc or guerrilla warfare. When striking physically at the state, the forest rebel is not to worry unduly about the mechanics of rebellion. Instead, he must focus on tools and getting the party started. The details will take care of themselves.

“In regard to organizing maneuvers and exercises, setting up bases and systems adapted to the new form of resistance—in short, in regard to the whole practical side of things, people will always emerge who will occupy themselves with these aspects and give them form.” Therefore, “More important is to apply the old maxim that a free man be armed—and not with arms under lock and key in an armory or barracks, but arms kept in his apartment, under his own bed.”

Moreover, in matters of arms, a man “makes his own sovereign decisions.”  Jünger would not approve of today’s gun grabbers, any more than he did of the gun grabbing by the Nazis or the Bolsheviks, because he saw clearly what the seizure of arms always made possible and was, and is, intended to make possible, whether by Lenin or Dianne Feinstein—the triumph of the totalitarian state.

Even aside from open rebellion, though, the forest rebel has an outsized effect relative to his numbers.  He is a “chemical reagent,” because he is (physically) surrounded by others, he will influence them. Hence the growth in police in oppressive states, and “these wolves [the forest rebels] are not only strong in themselves; there is also the danger that one fine morning they will transmit their characteristics to the masses, so that the flock turns into a pack. This is a ruler’s nightmare.”

(Here Jünger departs from Havel, since Havel thinks that the “wolf” is actually representative of the majority of people, and Jünger thinks most people are intellectually complicit with the tyrannical state, which is perhaps why Havel rejected revolt, preferring the power of example.)

How are those characteristics transmitted? Through imagination, which “provides the basic force for the action.” Imagination is not itself enough, but it, poetry writ large, provides the spark. I would only add that the impact of imagination cannot be predicted.  Cometh the hour, cometh the man, but it is impossible to know anything more in advance, which makes it essential that the forest rebel keep the powder needed to set alight the conflagration dry and ready to hand.

Jünger, and the forest rebel, laugh at the idea of egalitarianism as a denial of basic reality. The forest rebel is an aristocrat, not of blood, but of virtue, which is real aristocracy. To Jünger and the forest rebel, it is blindingly obvious that all men are not equal—they may be equal before God, but the forest rebel is the superior of the masses, for his choice is hard and risk-filled, yet objectively better.

Not for Jünger the idea that each man’s choice is merely each man’s choice.  No, some choices are better, and therefore, the people who make them are superior.  They are a “heroic elite.” This aristocracy is open to all; Jünger says that the freedom he calls for “is prefigured in myth and in religions, and it always returns; so, too, the giants and the titans always manifest with the same apparent superiority.

The free man brings them down; and he need not always be a prince or a Hercules.  A stone from a shepherd’s sling, a flag raised by a virgin, and a crossbow have already proven sufficient.”  David the son of Jesse, Joan of Arc, and William Tell are the elite.

“This miracle has happened, even countless times, when a man stepped out of the lifeless numbers to extend a helping hand to others. . . . Whatever the situation, whoever the other, the individual can become this fellow human being—and thereby reveal his native nobility.

The origins of aristocracy lay in giving protection, protection from the threat of monsters and demons.  This is the hallmark of nobility, and it still shines today in the guard who secretly slips a piece of bread to a prisoner. This cannot be lost, and on this the world subsists.”

It is not only in his demand for private weapons and his disdain for egalitarianism that Jünger is wildly not politically correct, a bone in the throat of today’s Left.  Not for Jünger other modern ideas, such as false gender equality or the idea that the liberal democratic state is the real bulwark of our real freedoms.

“Long periods of peace foster certain optical illusions:  one is the conviction that the inviolability of the home is grounded in the constitution, which should guarantee it. In reality, it is grounded in the family father, who, sons at his side, fills the doorway with an axe in hand.” This is not a fashionable set of ideas, but I’m betting all of them are about to gain fresh traction.

Along the same lines, it is very clear, though mostly below the surface in this book, that Jünger thinks highly of vigorous religious belief, as opposed to modern godless ideologies, as a key part of a forest rebel’s thought. A transcendent belief is necessary for the forest rebel to succeed, or even to be a forest rebel.

Jünger praises “churches and sects” as a counterpoint to what drives the tyrannies he fears, “natural science raised to the level of philosophical perfection.”  (He also specifically exalts Helmuth James von Moltke, the deeply Christian founder of the Kreisau Circle, executed by the Nazis in 1945).

Faith means freedom; materialism reinforces tyranny. Religion (implicitly Christianity, for Jünger tells us Christ has shown the way to conquer the root of all fears, the fear of death) is good, it prepares man “for paths that lead into darkness and the unknown,” though not enough by itself, and in any case it will always be persecuted by the tyrannical state, which insists on absolute power.  Thus, we find “tyrannical regimes so rabidly persecuting such harmless creatures as the Jehovah’s Witnesses—the same tyrannies that reserve seats of honor for their nuclear physicists.”

All this is very interesting, and offers much material for reflection. We get a very good idea of the type of system Jünger does not want—modern ideological tyrannies, in short, the heirs of the French Revolution. We understand the mechanism for resistance and eventual overthrow. But what system does Jünger want?  On that he is less clear, but there are occasional glimpses.

It is most definitely not modern liberal democracy, although again there is little direct criticism of such modern systems, even if in the 1930s Jünger had vociferously criticized Weimar.

We can get a clue, though, when Jünger refers to the “virtuous way” as derived from “simple people . . . who were not overcome by the hate, the terror, the mechanicalness of platitudes. These people withstood the propaganda and its plainly demonic insinuations.

When such virtues also manifest in a leader of people, endless blessings can result, as with Augustus for example. This is the stuff of empires. The ruler reigns not by taking but by giving life. And therein lies one of the great hopes:  that one perfect human being will step forth among the millions.” That is, Jünger wants a Man of Destiny, to free us of ideological tyranny, and lead us to the sunlit uplands.

This resonates very strongly with me; as I have written elsewhere, we await that Man of Destiny, an Augustus for the new age, and he will not come borne on the wings of so-called liberal democracy.

My feeling is that as the cracks spread in the West, tyrannies and oppressions of one sort or another are increasingly likely to offer to oppress us, in a way that seemed inconceivable even fifteen years ago, and they will have to be resisted, with shot and shell.  Who could have predicted, so soon after the fall of Communism and the apparent end of ideological tyranny in the West, that a book like The Forest Passage would become relevant again? Not me. But that’s where we are, and perhaps some of Jünger’s thought will shorten the path through, and time spent in, the forest.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Leipziger Street Berlin,” by Albert Birkle, painted in 1923.

Stasiland: Or Why Communism Is Beyond Reproach

The wicked reality of Communism has, over the past twenty-five years, been deliberately erased from Western education and, more broadly, from the Western mind. This was entirely predictable. The reasons behind the erasure are not complex. The ruling classes and social tastemakers in the West at the time that Communism fell, and for decades before and since, had and have a lot of sympathy for Communism.

They were appalled by efforts, like Reagan’s, to actually end Communism, and  they had no real problem with it in practice. To nobody’s surprise, today they have no interest in admitting their support for evil, or in exposing their guilt to a new generation.

Moreover, as Ryszard Legutko has explained at length, Communism has much in common with modern liberal democracy—far more than liberal democracy has with pre-liberal forms of political thought. Education and the media are today controlled by these philo-Communists, throughout the West (with a few virtuous exceptions, notably Poland and Hungary).

As a result, from a combination of self-interest and ideological sympathy/compatibility, the vast majority of people under forty today have little idea that Communism was the most evil and most lethal political system ever derived, because the truth has been deliberately hidden from them.

Anna Funder’s Stasiland, written in 2002 but covering the author’s journeys through the former East Germany in 1996 and 2000, is a partial corrective to this erasure of memory. The Stasi, of course, were the East German secret police.

Stasiland is more of an introspective examination of individuals and their stories, heavy on emotions, including the author’s, than an abstract or statistical examination of tyranny. Certainly, tyranny is very evident in this book, but it is not a history of the horror of Communism in East Germany, it is a history of a handful of people who lived through that horror.

Perhaps, though, this is a more effective way of bringing home the reality of Communism. The Black Book of Communism documents precisely how Communism killed 100 million people, but the death of millions, as Joseph Stalin himself supposedly said, is a statistic, not a tragedy.

Stasiland vividly shows us the inescapable and inevitable reality of Communism that is almost never taught and rarely talked about in America today.

You will have to read the book to learn the stories told by Funder’s interlocutors. It is impossible to do the stories justice, both factually and to convey their emotional impact, in a summary. Not all of her interlocutors are those who were persecuted. Some of them are Stasi agents and Stasi informers. Funder even talked to Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, famous as the rage-filled talking head on GDR (“German Democratic Republic,” for those who have forgotten) television given the task of countering facts in broadcasts from the West.

She quotes him at length justifying shooting anyone daring to try to escape from the GDR, as “humane” and necessary because “here in the GDR, peace has been elevated to a governing principle of the state.”  That reasoning is pretty much par for the course for the former agents of the East German state that Funder interviews. But, aside from the stories themselves, several key points pop out to the reader.

One is that no Communists were ever punished in any meaningful way for their crimes. Funder chalks this up to a desire to forget on the part of the Germans. This is not correct, or rather it is incomplete. Doubtless some want to forget, but the Germans have not forgotten the Nazis, because they have not allowed themselves to forget.

The key principle at work, though, can be seen not in post-Nazi history, but in the more pedestrian history of the numerous leftist and rightist regimes that have ruled in various places over the past decades. When any right-wing authoritarian regime has ended in the past hundred years and been replaced with a more democratic regime, in which the Left is again allowed free reign, those in power under the prior regime, from the lowliest functionary to the maximum leader, are always persecuted around the globe until their death.

This is done regardless of any formal legislation to the contrary, the rule of law, the doctrine forbidding ex post facto laws, or any other principle that might limit the revenge of the Left on their enemies, and it is conducted globally by the well-funded, well-connected, tightly allied Left, rabid dogs to a man.

The best prominent recent example of this is Augusto Pinochet, and perhaps Alberto Fujimori. It is easy to adduce hundreds of examples, and when such men (often heroes, like Pinochet, who saved the lives of innumerable Chilean citizens) are not judicially persecuted, they are ostracized and humiliated, spat on and forbidden to travel.

But not a single example can be adduced of the reverse process, of the persecution of leftists formerly in power, anywhere on the globe, at any time, even though leftists have killed far, far, more people than rightist regimes. It is amazing, if you think about it. No Communist or leftist formerly in power in Central or South America, or Europe, or anywhere, has ever been punished with anything more than a slap on the wrist, no matter how many tens of thousands they killed.

In most cases, like Fidel Castro, they have been globally lionized, free to travel in luxury anywhere, at any time, with no fear of criticism, much less punishment. While Funder does not draw this specific contrast between the treatment of Left and Right, she does cover how Erich Honecker, Erich Mielke, and other mass murderers, along with tens of thousands of other killers and torturers, received zero punishment. (Bizarrely, the only crime Mielke was convicted of was two murders of policemen committed in 1931).

In fact, all former Communists for the most part quickly became embedded in the new regimes, often personally greatly profiting, and not facing even social ostracism. Moreover, the higher profile Communists were, after their fall, openly celebrated around the world by the Left. Their lives were mostly awesome, post-Communism. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, but a few more such bad men floating face-down in canals, if the law will not do its job, would have been, and still is, a good idea.

A second key point is the total corrosion of civil society that was created by the informer state set up by the Stasi. “Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or the other of you could be one of them. Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence.”

This is not surprising, given that there was one informer in every seven citizens, and that the Left, unlike rightist authoritarian regimes, functions mostly on terror (rather than simple political repression), of which informants are a critical element.

Funder gives an excellent flavor of this corrosive terror, which is also well shown in The Lives of Others, the 2006 film about life in the GDR (although that film was criticized by some, including Funder, for inaccurately portraying the GDR and the Stasi as softer and more humanized than they really were).

A third point is that Funder explains why anyone would join the Stasi, or become an informant, at all. To us, living in a mostly free society, it seems like an odd choice to voluntarily become an agent of terror.

But, “In a society riven into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ an ambitious young person might well want to be one of the group in the know, one of the unmolested. If there was never going to be an end to your country, and you could never leave, why wouldn’t you opt for a peaceful life and a satisfying career?”

This strikes me as a cogent analysis, especially in a society where Christian morality has been erased and all that is left is self-interest, with no responsibility to one’s fellow man. And it is closely related to C. S. Lewis’s concept of the “Inner Ring”—that people will often compromise themselves without limit merely to obtain a sense of being in the ruling group.

In another passage in the book, Funder quotes a Stasi officer, asked “Why did [the informers] do it?,” as responding “Well, some of them were convinced of the [Communist] cause. But I think it was mainly because informers got the feeling that, doing it, they were somebody…They felt they had it over other people.”

This feeling of “having it over other people” is a key driver of the Left’s will to power, and a major reason why leftist regimes are able to maintain their power even when they are obvious criminal states not even bothering to pretend to adhere to their own ideological premises.

Most interesting, perhaps, is something not covered in the book at all, and that is the book’s reception in Germany. In 2016, in connection with the re-release of the book, Funder discussed at length that Germans received her book mostly with either active hostility, in the case of innumerable former Stasi agents or informers and their allies, or with icy silence, in the case of most other Germans.

In the latter category fit both West Germans who, for the most part (as Funder also notes in the book itself) don’t like to talk about Communism, probably for the same reasons that the American ruling classes don’t like to talk about Communism, some combination of shame at their own actions and active sympathy for Communism, and East Germans who want to believe that the GDR was somehow not all that bad.

Funder cited (in 2016) one of her interlocutors, “Miriam,” who now refused to give her real name publicly in connection with the book, because in her new job in public broadcasting her bosses were all former Stasi informers who loathed her for having been a political prisoner:

“[Her bosses] disliked, too, that she sometimes objected to the news directors relegating an item showing the GDR or the Stasi in a bad light to the end of the bulletin, or not broadcasting such pieces at all. [Miriam] objected to what she saw as strenuous efforts, in the public broadcaster, to show the GDR as a harmless, safe welfare state with high ideals; she objected to the rampant Ostalgie [simpering nostalgia for the GDR], the Verharmlosung (rendering harmless), and the Schönreden (whitewashing). Miriam had spent almost her whole life battling the Stasi, and they were still there. She was tired, on a short-term contract and vulnerable. It would simply have made her working life too difficult to publicly ‘out’ herself. She decided not to come on television.”

Funder chalks this up, with an analogy to those who fought Nazism, to the need for some decades to pass for heroes who resisted tyranny to be rewarded. Sadly, this is not correct. She says it will probably take twenty or even twenty-five years.

But that time has passed, and there is no such movement at all, as Funder’s 2016 discussions showed. I can confidently predict that in twenty years from now, or forty, or sixty, not only will there be no such recognition of heroism, but the heroes will be mostly forgotten, and when remembered, cast in a dubious light.

They will be viewed as men and women of mixed character, who, because the evils of Communism have been mostly or totally forgotten and suppressed, will be criticized for extremism and failure to recognize the supposed good aspects of Communism, which resisters to Communism will be seen as having undercut by their opposition. Thus, they will receive no honor at all.

The naked truth is that the Left, which controls all of German social and political life today, likes and has always liked Communism, and hates and hated those who opposed it. Until their power is broken (which may, indeed, happen before twenty years are up, in which case I withdraw my prediction), there will be no recognition of the heroes who resisted at great personal cost.

In Hungary and Poland, which have, fortunately, already partially broken the power of the Left, such recognition has occurred and is continuing, suggesting I am right, and Funder is wrong.

In fairness, though, Funder does acknowledge the possibility of recognition never coming, though under a different mechanism:  “There may never be [such recognition], if the Stasi win the PR war they have been waging, a war apparently supported by a general public that does not want to have to acknowledge this second lot of twentieth-century-German evildoers.”

But it is not just the former Stasi—it is their allies and comrades in arms, the Left in general, both in Germany and globally. They are responsible for the evils of Communism, not, as they would have it, some unspecified, vague set of forgotten men and women, more sinned against than sinning, misled by their desire to achieve human happiness. All of them should be held to account, and punished accordingly.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

 

The photo shows, “Requiem” by Werner Tübke, painted in 1965. 

On Preemptive Apologies by Conservatives

A disability afflicts nearly all conservative arguments today. Rather than being a robust picture of vigor and health, as they should given their firm ground in reality and the fantasies that underlie their opponents’ cancerous and bankrupt ideologies, conservative arguments present themselves at the door like starving beggars clad in rags.

This is bad, but even worse is the source of this weakness, for it is not imposed from the outside, but voluntarily, by conservatives choosing to cut themselves off at the knees. How? By crippling their arguments through larding them with preemptive apologies.

You may not have noticed the dull roar of conservative preemptive apologies, because they are white noise behind nearly all conservative writing (and other forms of communication), and so the background of all Left-Right political discourse today.

But I can assure you that you will notice them, if you look around, after you are done reading this analysis. By preemptive apology, I mean any aside, great or small, in an argument that is meant to show the writer is aware of counterarguments based in leftist thought and acknowledges that those arguments have merit that cut against the conservative’s claims.

Often these apologies take the form of kowtowing to the existence of, and to the Left interpretation of, past events that the Left propaganda machine claims are related to the species of conservative argument being made and that supposedly exemplify something bad about conservatives (even though often the real historical fault, if any, is usually of the Left, or of nobody at all, very rarely of conservatives, and almost never of present-day conservatives).

Other times the apologies consist merely of bowing and scraping to the outlines, coherently and respectfully presented in a positive light, of Left arguments against the conservative argument. Still other times they are simple abasement, in the form of acknowledgement that the Right also behaves badly in the same manner as for which the Left is being criticized, even though that is often untrue. (A variation on this is ascribing blame to both sides when only the Left is to blame for some bad thing).  Naturally, it will not surprise you to find, looking around, that the Left never engages in any of these types of apologies.

(It may appear that the Left sometimes offers apologies, but what appears to be apologies from the Left are never real apologies at all. This type of “apology” most often takes the form of showing one’s Left bona fides by shouting about one’s own “privilege” or unearned benefit. This is really just a way of claiming superiority through virtue signaling, crafted so as to be a form of reinforcement of the main argument, usually not through logic, but by calling down emotion.

In no way does it ever cut against or undermine the argument of the writer, nor is it meant to suggest any actual fault on the part of the writer or weakness in his arguments. Such “apologies” are never found among conservatives, who have had it beaten into them that they have no virtue to signal).

Real preemptive apologies are found exclusively on the Right, who offer actual, formal preemptive apologies of one of the types I outline above. They also offer a variation that is different enough in substance to be acknowledged as technically not the same. It’s the slight nod in the direction of alternative views, the acknowledgement that other views are possible and legitimate, and the recognition that everything has tradeoffs.

This variation is conceptually different, because in a society where everyone is held to logic, it is merely a nod to reality. It results from training in valid discourse and in intellectual rigor, and should be unremarkable and without effect on the main argument. But in a society where emotivism and Twitter are dominant, it functions in practice as a merely less aggressive abasement than the second type. Both are forms of surrender.

Let me give you an example.  Law professor Richard Epstein, a seventy-five-year-old eminence who taught me my very first class in law school, yesterday wrote a short piece in Politico on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.  Epstein is a brilliant man, who thinks and speaks in whole paragraphs. He is no stranger to great controversy, on which he thrives.

His position in the academy and in society cannot be threatened or changed and he is angling for no higher office. He wrote an aggressive piece attacking the clown show allegations against Kavanaugh, including (correctly) calling them “a disgusting piece of political propaganda.”

That sounds like he is flying the conservative flag high, and he certainly is, compared to the other semi-conservatives featured in the Politico article (which is why his piece is placed at the very end, after nine others, in the position least likely to be read).

Yet of the 614 words Epstein wrote, the first 150 are primarily a series of apologies, capped off in the last sentence of the paragraph, which in a good writer should be the most powerful support for his own argument, by the bizarre, self-hating claim that “[T]he decision not to hold any hearings on [Merrick] Garland . . . spared Garland and the nation a similar disgraceful exhibition of intolerance that some conservative opponents of Garland may well have launched to tarnish his confirmation chances.”

Not only do none of the (seven) Left commentators in Politico make any apologies at all, they don’t claim that conservatives might ever engage in a “disgraceful exhibition” of any kind, because such a claim is completely unmoored from reality, akin to saying that William the Conqueror was possibly Brett Kavanaugh’s father.

Even a moment’s thought would cause any person not insane to admit that zero conservative intolerance, in the form of anything that could be characterized as “disgraceful,” has ever been on display in any Supreme Court nomination. Such activity has always been only the province of the Left, originated in 1987, upon the nomination of Robert Bork.

No Democratic nominee has ever been subjected even to aggressive questioning, much less character assassination or personal insults. And Epstein himself knows this, as his phrasing “may well have launched” shows, a locution nobody actually thinking something is true uses.  That Richard Epstein, world-bestriding colossus, feels compelled to spin fantasies attacking his own position that occupy a quarter of his entire argument shows how deep the rot of preemptive apologies has gotten.

But such apologies, by conservatives, are everywhere.  Like the 1980s movie They Live, where wearing special glasses shows that aliens control everything, once you see, you can’t unsee.

Everything Jonah Goldberg and his crowd of go-along, get-along conservatives says is hedged around with apologies, along with everything said by every other conservative aspiring to be accepted on the national media and cocktail party scene, which is nearly every Republican or “conservative commentator.”

It is true of discussions other than pure politics, such as history, as well. Any book on the Crusades, when mentioning Muslim atrocities, in every instance hastens to compare them to Christian atrocities. But when Christian atrocities are the topic at hand, Muslim atrocities are never mentioned at all.

Similarly, the American Left never apologizes for their century-long enabling of Communism and their active participation in the killing of a hundred million people, yet the Right must constantly apologize for a long list of less effectively murderous rightist tyrants to whom they had no ties and whose behavior has no relevancy at all to today, unlike Communism.

Try framing a controversial argument to yourself, if you’re conservative. You will quickly find that the impulse to add preemptive apologies will creep up on you, if it does not sweep over you. You will have trouble resisting—but the first step is admitting you have a problem.

The only very prominent person who rarely offers such apologies is Jordan Peterson, which is one reason he is so hated by the Left, though I suspect the reason for that hatred is not realized by them.

It is because they feel the power of a conservative who refuses to cripple himself by apologizing, and instead throws back in their faces any demands to apologize preemptively. He sees and names them for what they are, corruptions of the truth. They know, in the marrow of their bones, that if all conservative adopted this approach, it would shake the pillars of their halls of power.

So why does the Right engage in this heinous and self-harming practice? It is like seeing a man hitting himself in the head with a hammer. One wonders why, and doubts there is a good reason. It is not, as one might think, a result of actually attempting to address weaknesses in one’s argument.

If that were true, any apology would typically come after the main argument, and each part of an apology would be directly and simultaneously addressed with the best counter-argument of the writer, or, failing that, an attempt to minimize impact, importance, or relevancy. Or, as a fallback, an appeal to emotion, or an attempt to change the topic.

Instead, conservative apologies are put front and center, highlighted, and then often repeated throughout and at the end, and no attempt is made to argue them. They are public abasement, as in the Cultural Revolution.

Their unanswered presence is the reason they exist. Nor are the apologies meant to insulate the writer’s arguments against obvious objections, lest his main arguments be rejected out of hand as inadequately thought out or motivated by feelings rather than reason.

Again, if that were the case, the writer would attempt to counter the perceived need for apologies, since after all, any unanswered attack contained within the body of a writing weakens the arguments contained in it.

So why is it?  I think it is because such apologies have been conditioned for decades, probably since the 1960s, into conservatives. The Left discovered, as the quality of their own arguments and reasoning declined, as they became more ideological and less educated, that “What about X?!” was an effective response to put conservatives on the defensive and not require the Left to actually offer reasoning or facts, as long as “X” was perceived as bad enough to be incapable of being ignored.

(It is really a form of ad hominem attack, recognized for millennia as a logical fallacy used by inferior minds or those with inferior arguments). Conservatives reacted, knowing this response would be made, by trying to get ahead of it by acknowledging it, so as to keep their arguments on track.

By itself this would probably have been a side matter, occasionally seen and of limited impact. But it expanded to swallow all conservative argumentation, through the mechanism of social pressure, reinforced by financial pressure, because the Left has since the 1960s effectively controlled all organs of public discourse, and preemptive apology allows conservatives to buy a ticket to not be dismissed outright by those who decide what is news and what is allowed in public discourse.

And, after all, nothing delights most conservatives in public life today like winning the favor of the Left. What a thrill to eat a few crumbs dropped from the table, to earn through self-abasement and servile cringing the ability to say that you are approved by the tastemakers in New York and Washington, that you are not a member of the “dregs of society,” as Joe Biden recently referred to Trump supporters! What a refreshing feeling when your social superiors, who also claim to be and assume they are your intellectual superiors as naturally as they breathe, deign to acknowledge your presence on the social or political scene, or offer you a job, contingent, of course, on knowing your place!

What a sinking feeling when you are deemed too far beyond the pale for them to acknowledge you exist! What a keen resultant need to signal up front, as if you were a neutron, a non-gang-affiliated man in a prison, that you will limit your claims and submit to what they do to you! And it’s so easy—just pack your discourse with preemptive apologies of the type you’ve been reading for decades.

There is no answer to this other than to break the spell. But as Jordan Peterson shows, that can be done. What has been conditioned can be de-conditioned, and if conservatives get a taste of the vigor and strength that comes from rising from one’s knees, no longer crippled, they may get to like it.

This is a main reason the Left is so desperate to censor to destruction conservatives on digital media (though as I say, I doubt they realize this particular need, to maintain the miasma of preemptive apology, explicitly). Alternative media channels allow conservatives a relatively easy way to get the self-reinforcing sugar high of unapologetic victory, which cannot be permitted.

Thus, this is the coming battle, yet another reason the Lords of Tech must be brought low, though a battle in which, given the Quisling state of the Republican Party, conservatives have limited weapons. Finding and using better weapons is, therefore, the order of the day.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

 

The photo shows, “Priam Begging for the Body of Hector,” by Théobald Chartran, painted in 1876.

The Orthodox Church – Christianity’s Future?

As I and my family continue our inevitable pivot toward Orthodoxy, I have been reading more works on, you guessed it, Orthodoxy. This book, by the English theologian Timothy Ware, who as a bishop uses the baptismal name Kallistos, is a classic introduction to Orthodoxy.

It was first published in 1963 but has more recently been revised, so it is fully up to date on history—and doctrine has not changed in Orthodoxy since 1963, or 963, for that matter.  I’ve actually owned the book for several years, but have only now read it, having been told by several people that it is very much worth reading. And they were right—it is an excellent book.

People in the modern West, even Christians, are largely ignorant of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox, to some extent at least, return the favor—Ware notes that Robert Curzon, a well-traveled English baron, in the 1830s was “disconcerted to find that the Patriarch of Constantinople had never heard of the Archbishop of Canterbury.” (He was not the Curzon who was Viceroy of India at the turn of the twentieth century and regarded as England’s greatest expert of the time on the Orient, though I imagine they were related somehow).

In the twentieth century and today, with modern communications and emigration, the Orthodox have become somewhat more prominent in the West—especially in America, where large numbers of Orthodox immigrants have established their own churches. Ware’s book is an attempt bridge the knowledge gap for Westerners.

The first two-thirds of the book is a detailed and well-written history of Orthodoxy.  Ware begins, naturally enough, with a definition of Orthodoxy: “…the Christians who are in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.”  This excludes Roman Catholics and Protestants, of course, and also the Oriental Orthodox—the Church of the East, today rabidly persecuted by Muslims in places like Syria, and the Monophysite Churches, such as the Coptic Church in Egypt.

He also explains the organization of the modern Orthodox Church, which is complicated, but basically boils down to “a family of self-governing Churches,” all in communion and which, in theory, decide any disputed questions by convening in councils.  There is therefore no equivalent to the Pope, something that is turning out, after all, to be a feature, not a bug.

Ware discusses the seven general councils, the last one in 787, which determined the outlines of mainstream Christian beliefs. Naturally, since the Great Schism, the breach between Orthodoxy and Roman Christianity, is traditionally dated to 1054, these beliefs are shared by all Roman Catholics, and by many Protestants as well.

As remembered today, the most critical issues related to the nature of God in Christian doctrine, though many other matters were also decided at these councils.  For Orthodoxy, another critical matter was the treatment of icons, which are more central to worship than are images in the West.

Ware identifies iconoclasm with the ever-present Gnostic temptation in Christianity to denigrate the physical world as inferior and to be superseded in ages to come, whereas Orthodox (and all correct Christian) belief is that the material world is “very good” in God’s eyes and is itself ultimately to be “redeemed and glorified.”

All this was hammered out within the framework of the (Eastern) Roman empire, of which Ware and other Orthodox tend to have a highly favorable view. The traditional Western view is more negative, conditioned by Roman Catholic hostility and Edward Gibbon’s bigoted, dubious history, and tends, on a political level, to denigrate the Empire as Caesaropapist—that is, with the state dominating the church. Ware, at least, sees it as a symbiotic, cooperative, relationship, and he (along with many Orthodox, I suspect) sees Byzantium at its height as, if still far from an ideal society, the closest Christendom has gotten to one.

Next Ware narrates the complex events leading up to and following the Great Schism, covering everything from the theologian Saint Photius to the Normans in Italy to the Crusades. Interesting information, particularly showing contrasts to the West, frequently crops up, such as the continued prevalence and prominence of lay theologians in the East, where the secular education system had not collapsed as it had in the West.

Interspersed in this history is quite a bit of doctrinal discussion, such as details of the Hesychast Controversy, and the related distinctions made in Orthodoxy between God’s essence and energies, a topic that overlaps with the Scholastic innovation of univocity.

Later chapters cover, among other matters, the conversion of the Slavs, with a long and fascinating narrative about the Orthodox in Russia, and then detailed coverage of the twentieth century, a time of trials for the Orthodox (and renewed conflict between Orthodox and Roman Catholics in the Balkans, unfortunately).

Along the way, Ware also covers the precise current organizational structure of the Church (who knew that Finland was part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople?), and similar administrative matters, both in theory and practice.

The Orthodox, with justification, have a dim view of the Crusades, especially the Fourth, but Ware does tend to elide important details running counter to that narrative, such as that the First Crusade (in 1095) was largely a response to a specific request for aid by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, after a series of brutal defeats at the hands of the Turks, beginning at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.

In his complaints about the Crusaders, some of which are wholly legitimate, Ware even uses as fact the claim by Raymond of Argiles after the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 that “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” You often hear this quote trotted out; I remember Bill Clinton doing so after September 11. Its modern use is to shift the focus from today’s Muslim atrocities to claimed thousand-year-old Christian ones, as if those were equivalent, or rather the latter far more important. Its earlier use, before the age of global Muslim terror, was to attack Roman Catholics and Christianity generally; it appears in atheist Enlightenment tracts.

No doubt, as in all medieval wars, lots of people were killed by the Crusaders.  But the quote itself is merely a metaphoric citation to Revelation 14:20, describing the end of the world and the slaughter by angels of the opponents of Christ, “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” That is, Raymond of Argiles wasn’t puffing himself for the number of people killed, but comparing the battle to the End Times.

Oddly, I have never seen this basic fact noted anywhere, though I must have seen the quote itself a hundred times.  Ware also relies heavily on biased and outdated sources like Steven Runciman, which undermines what he has to say.

Still, the Orthodox aversion to the Crusades is understandable.  But what is less understandable is the relatively gentle touch Ware gives to Muslim conquest of the East and the subsequent destruction of most of Eastern Christianity, which seems like a much larger imposition on the Orthodox than were the Crusades.

On the other hand, at least Ware quotes an Englishman visiting Constantinople in 1677, “It doth go hugely against the grain to see the crescent exalted everywhere, where the Cross stood so long triumphant.”  (With any luck this exaltation can be reversed in the near future; as Europe careens into a ditch, aggressive renewal is as likely an outcome as permanent decline of the West, which might provide an opportunity such as, for example, Russia returning to the excellent goal of conquering Constantinople.)

Ware also notes the truism that although direct violent persecution of Christians was intermittent under Islam (though certainly frequent enough to keep the Christians in their place, and Christians were always required to be subordinate or face death), what ultimately caused most conversion to Islam was simply the financial and social benefits accruing to Muslims—martyrdom inspires, social debility does not.

Moreover, it is not really the Ottomans’ fault that their system of treating religious leaders of Christians as being simultaneously ethnic leaders has led to a long history of unfortunate intertwining of the two roles among the Orthodox, as well as corruption and ethnic chauvinism among the different Orthodox churches that were under Ottoman rule (i.e., all of them, except the Russians).

But the Armenian genocide rates not a word, probably because the Turks, on whose land (for now) the Ecumenical Patriarch must live, don’t want to hear about their recent slaughter of Christians.  On the whole, therefore, Ware lets the Muslims off far too easy, something that seems very common among the Orthodox.

In several places, Ware points out the tendency of the Orthodox toward slowness of action, of any type. This is partially organizational, the nature of conciliar decision making, and partially simply a trait that in this age of liquid modernity has so far been immeasurably beneficial (though I doubt if the Orthodox will be wholly immune to this corrosion in the wars to come—and, in fact, Ware himself was seen to be hedging his bets on homosexual “marriage” earlier this year).

The downside of this is that those not fond of action are also those less likely to accomplish things, which is, perhaps, why it is the Roman Catholics of the West who made the modern world, followed by the Protestants. The introspective nature of Orthodox practice and theology, focused on unchanging ritual, does not lend itself to crusade or, perhaps, to the drive that pushes humanity forward.

That begs the question, of course, whether pushing humanity forward is a good thing, or, instead, the monks of Mount Athos have the right of it. But for someone like me, who likes rockets to Mars, and beyond, the spirit of the Jesuits (the seventeenth-century ones, not today’s ones), or of Cortes, who “conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same,” is beneficial to humanity, and that is not really found among the Orthodox. Maybe there is a synthesis to be had, but I suspect that what makes the Orthodox who they are would not survive an attempt to make them more active and outward-looking.

The latter third of the book is doctrine, which, like the first part, is excellent. Here various Orthodox practices that contrast with their Western analogues are noticeable, especially the emphasis on mysticism over strict rationality, and that the Orthodox are more comfortable with some degree of ambiguity, with not delineating every matter of doctrine specifically.

Most differences between Orthodox and Roman Catholics are really matters of emphasis, such as Christ as victim versus Christ as victor, but Ware does an excellent job explaining the importance of certain differences that seem, at first glance, utterly obscure and unimportant, but are really not, such as the “Filoque,” the question (in the Nicene Creed) whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (the Orthodox position) or the Father and the Son (the Roman position, a medieval innovation).

Among other subtleties, Ware notes that the Orthodox belief is that the Roman position depreciates the personal characteristics of each individual member of the Trinity (an effect similar to, though arising differently from, the abominable use of “gender-neutral” language for God).

Around that explanation Ware also offers a fantastic discussion of the Trinity itself. He further discusses the importance of prayer and ritual, the rejection of Quietism, the specifics of ritual, and much more. And he notes the crucial Orthodox emphasis on theosis, the goal of divinization, of ultimate unity with God’s energies (though not His essence).

He ends with a plea for reunion of Christians, something devoutly to be wished, but which looks even less likely nowadays, given the corruption of most Western Christians—though maybe the focus should not be on the West, but on the rest of the world, and what can be done there. We will see soon enough, but either way, my bet is that Orthodoxy will have a much more prominent role in the immediate future of the world than it has played in the past thousand years.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

 

The photo shows, “Holy Russia,” by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov, painted 1901-1906.

Orthodox Christianity: A Faith For Our Times

In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life. These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day.

The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism. This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday. Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.

That man, Kyriacos Markides, is a Greek Cypriot, whose education and academic career (in sociology) were centered in America. As he describes, until the writing of this book his spiritual life had gradually moved from stock Western academic agnosticism to an interest in various forms of mysticism, ending up, at the conclusion of this book, in an ambiguous, but very favorably disposed, relationship with Orthodoxy.

Markides also wrote an earlier book, Riding with the Lion, about the Orthodox monastic communities on Mount Athos, in Greece. Confusingly, this book, whose title refers to Mount Athos, takes places nearly exclusively on Cyprus. Regardless, the form of this book is essentially narrated dialogues between Markides and an Orthodox monk, here called “Father Maximos,” who was sent to Cyprus from Mount Athos in 1993 to form a new monastery (and who is now Bishop of Limassol, the second-largest city in Cyprus).

Other people and places appear, and there are travelogue aspects and digressions about the politics of Cyprus, but the core of the book is an ongoing conversation between those two men. The goal of these dialogues is to primarily to narrate and explicate Orthodox spirituality, with heavy emphasis on its mystical aspects.

Through his dialogues with Father Maximos, Markides develops several threads of Orthodox spiritual thought, on their own terms, in relation to Western Christian (that is, for all practical purposes, Roman Catholic) thought, and, to a lesser extent, in relation to non-Christian spirituality and even secular psychology. (Though accurate here, I hesitate to use the term “spiritual,” because it smacks of the odious phrase “spiritual but not religious,” which is code for “stupid”).

The reason that Markides was able to open his mind to Orthodoxy was his prior realization that “materialist superstition had kept Western thought stranded and imprisoned for the last three hundred years”—a realization, though only nascent, that the Enlightenment was far from the unalloyed benefit it is often portrayed. That realization is what makes this book possible; it is neither Orthodox fanboy-ism, or a cloaked attack by a skeptic, but an honest attempt to find the truth.

A substantial part of Markides’s approach is that he identifies up front, and then directly asks Father Maximos to address, problems and questions that are commonly raised in objection to Orthodox or Christian beliefs.

These include questions with a practical basis, such as whether monks are wasting their lives, or are self-centered or inward focused when they should be serving their fellow man, or whether abbots psychologically coerce vulnerable individuals to join the monastic life. It’s these questions, in fact, that Markides addresses first.

Then he turns to questions about belief, both theology and practice, including ones often asked by Protestants, such as whether icons are idols (that one is easy, but many aren’t). This segues into broader theological questions—ultimately, into the meaning of life. All this is done in dialogue; the author taped his conversations, so presumably they are accurately set forth.

The focus here is on monastic practice, but that is portrayed as merely a more perfect form of the practice to which all Christians are called. While Maximos’s explanations of the reasons for, and the value of, monasticism are best read in their entirety, they revolve around the necessity of some set of people’s “providentially assigned life’s task” to be an “exclusive preoccupation with the reality of God.”

It is apprehending and approaching that reality towards which monastic life in Orthodoxy is oriented. Such monastic life is eremitic, more so than communal (though some meals and some worship are typically communal), in the spirit of the early monastics, and is not directed toward external acts of service in the way of some Western monastics.

The vast majority of the monk’s day is devoted simply to prayer, especially the Efche (the “Jesus Prayer”), often (but not necessarily) along with some manual labor. Fasting and other forms of periodic self-denial are also important in creating the necessary focus.

Collectively, these practices are askesis, the root word of “ascetic,” but here it means spiritual athleticism, not (just) suffering through self-mortification. The repeated message is that such practices, applied to a lesser degree, are the path to holiness and union with God for all people.

In Markides’s telling (I cannot opine myself), Orthodox spirituality does not rely on strict rationality and logic nearly to the degree that Western Christianity does. Thomism, scholasticism and the like, tied to Aristotle, is not so much denigrated as regarded as incomplete (although Father Maximos comes very close to rejecting metaphysics entirely).

The ability of certain saintly men and women to directly apprehend the divine, and thereby to benefit and illuminate others, is prized and assumed much more than it would be in Catholicism, where the structures permit and recognize it, but usually not without hesitation.

This shows up most clearly in the nearly continuous references by Father Maximos to Elder Paisios, an Athonite monk and wonderworker who died in 1993. But signs and wonders, including such dramatic events as the physical appearance of Christ Himself to individual monks, as well as the appearance of saints in the flesh, and direct physical contact with demons and angels, are held as normal, or at least not infrequent, events in Orthodox monasticism, which (again, in Markides’s telling) has not been infected with Western materialism and skepticism. Markides himself does show some skepticism about the frequency of reported miracles, including querying whether they might be explained by science or hallucinations, but by no means wholesale skepticism.

It’s not just materialism and skepticism that can undermine askesis, though, but also an over-exaltation of knowledge itself. As Father Maximos says, “Spiritual knowledge by itself does not lead us to God. It may in fact push us in the opposite direction.

We may succumb to the temptation and fantasize that because we are knowledgeable we are especially favored by God. It could stimulate our pride and vanity.” Speaking from experience, I agree with this—not that I have all that much spiritual knowledge, but I am keenly interested in theology, and too proud of the many books I have on it (though, even worse, part of my pride is in impressing visitors with my books—bad me).

Still, as I discuss below, and as Markides also seems to feel, despite the potential pitfalls, I don’t think metaphysics or other forms of rational spiritual knowledge should be denigrated excessively, especially as they relate to society overall.

This all fits within the overriding theme that runs through all Markides’s discussions with Father Maximos, which is theosis—the Orthodox belief that not only is our purpose and goal union with God, but that goal can be approached in this life, and that through it, in this life or the next, the believer can directly partake of the divine, in a form of ecstatic communion.

This state is reached not through study, or logical deduction, but by spiritual exercise devoted to reaching total humility and indifference to material things, while also being totally open to God. To reach theosis, both askesis and spiritual guidance are necessary, obtained from the lives of the saints and (ideally) from an elder. (Implicit in this is that self-guidance by reading the Bible in isolation to reach one’s own conclusions, the hallmark of Protestantism, is inadequate and foolish).

Theosis is a superseding goal—as Maximos says, “Christ didn’t come into the world to teach us how to become good fellows, how to behave properly, or how to live a righteous life in this world.” It’s not that those things are bad; rather it is that “the ultimate goal is to become perfect in the same way as our Heavenly Father is perfect, to become one with God.”

Several subthemes also show up repeatedly. One is the importance of overcoming temptations—not merely temptations as traditionally viewed in the West, where we picture Satan on our shoulder, but various troubles and difficulties, as well as good things that may happen, all of which are opportunities for spiritual development requiring an appropriate response.

An important category of these is logismoi, assaultive thoughts, defense against which is a matter discussed at considerable length in this book, with successful defense being a critical step in spiritual development, the defense resulting from repentance and humility. Another is the importance not only of personal humility, but of actively seeing the image of God in every other human being, no matter how evil he may act, and of loving that person as a consequence—and even loving demons (“as suffering entities,” despite their evil).

A third is that freedom does not consist in following one’s own desires, but being liberated from slavery to passions, and instead subordinating oneself to Christ. This is, of course, the only concept of freedom held in the West prior to the Enlightenment (not always with reference to Christ, naturally, since the ancient Greeks held it), but it has been mostly forgotten in the West, except, it seems, by antiquarians (though my guess is that its time is coming around again). None of these themes is exclusive to Orthodoxy, of course, but the emphasis on them seems much greater than in Western Christianity, or at least modern Western Christianity, of any brand.

It is important to note that in many cases, the Orthodox do not necessarily hold theological positions on which a final position has been reached, both because there is no single authority (other than a council and the approval of the laity) that can finally decide a matter, and because reaching a final decision is regarded as less important than in Catholicism, within certain basic parameters.

That said, three theological discussions in this book held special interest for me. The first is the possibility admitted in Orthodoxy, but almost totally denied in Catholicism, of the apocatastasis—the universal reconciliation, in which all humans, or even all created beings, including the Devil, will reach theosis. The Orthodox reject Purgatory, but a mainstream thread of Orthodox thought functionally treats Hell as Purgatory.

Markides focuses on it, but it’s hard for me to tell how prominent this line of thought is in Orthodoxy. It’s a lot more prominent than in the Roman Church, though, which mostly rejects it as heresy, although if pressed, some theologians (Hans Urs von Balthasar being the most notable modern example) will admit the possibility.

A second is the idea that the point of Christianity is not to improve this world. Father Maximos has never heard of “liberation theology” (monks are deliberately not up on the news). If he had heard of it, he would be revolted. As Father Maximos tells Markides, “[Christ] was not trying to make this world better and more just. Whatever Christ offered us through the Gospel had a deeper meaning, the salvation of humanity, our eternal restoration within the Kingdom of God.” No doubt, “Christ did go about doing good. . . . But that was not His chief mission for coming into the world.”

In the modern world, for the majority of Western Christians, this is the grossest heresy, or would be, if they knew what a heresy was. Certainly, the Presbyterian church my wife and I recently abandoned saw this as their only goal—implementing a left-wing vision of justice, cribbed from Rawls, not Romans.

In the words of that church’s new pastor, in the last sermon we heard before our family vomited him and his works out of our mouth, we are required to show that we are Christian to others, and our sole purpose in so doing is to aggressively demonstrate to non-Christians that we “reject theologies of hatred and exclusion”—that is, our chief goal as “Christians” must be to demonstrate our rejection of any form of traditional Christianity. So long, sucker. (I suppose my attitude here towards the pastor shows I am not making much progress on the path to theosis, though).

A third is the question of whether God wills a reason for all happenings. This seems to me clearly false; I agree strongly with the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who in his meditation on the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, concluded that “God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark [a reference to a passage from Dostoevsky] were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ ”

But Father Maximos is just as emphatic that “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in the Universe without a deeper meaning to it.” I don’t buy it. I could harmonize Hart’s and Father Maximos’s statements, since “deeper meaning” is not the exact same thing as “willed reason,” but I think it would be sophistry—Hart’s and Father Maximos’s seem to be actually opposed opinions, and I am not sure which is closer to the Orthodox mainstream.

Regardless, I just can’t stand it when people say “I believe everything happens for a reason.” (It’s especially annoying when said by people who don’t believe in God at all, though. What reason is that then, exactly)? It doesn’t; much of history is false and damnable. This is also part of why theodicy has never seemed like a significant problem to me. God doesn’t owe us anything, and much less does he owe us current happiness. That’s easy for me to say, blessed beyond all words and measure. But it still seems obvious to me.

Anyway, on a more abstract level, and given that much of my thinking nowadays revolves around how, perhaps, the West can be dragged out of its dead end and return to flourishing, and that part of that flourishing relates to purely secular matters, I find the relative approaches of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity illuminating in relation to that goal.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the West, rather than the East, created the modern world. By “modern world,” I mean the approach to thinking, and thus to science, that ended in the Scientific Revolution and therefore the Industrial Revolution (to neither of which, of course, the Enlightenment had any relevance at all, so we can peel away the Enlightenment and return to continued material flourishing, or at least that’s my theory).

Certainly, the Roman East had less opportunity—under siege from Islam (which itself could never have created the modern world), not to mention it was abused at times by the West (the Orthodox remember the Fourth Crusade, forgotten in the West). But the mystical, otherworldly focus that, at least in this book, strongly characterizes Orthodoxy, and the related downplaying of high rationality and metaphysics, seems to me inherently likely to pinch material advancement.

The Western approach has its pitfalls, obviously, among them those outlined by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation. I also often wonder if a truly wealthy society can be a virtuous society at all.

Not to mention that many aspects of modern science can be, and are being, used for utterly pernicious purposes, such as transhumanism and better ways of killing infants in the womb, so sometimes I wonder if we’d not all be better off, in the long run, living in the fourth century A.D.

In any case, it seems to me that Markides’s analogy of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity as “two lungs,” both contributing air and life, is a good one, and one that might conduce to a real renaissance in both West and East. And, despite Orthodox resentment against and distaste for the Roman Church, a rapprochement among traditional Catholics and the Orthodox is probably a necessary element to fight the forces that would destroy both, so some form of joint action would have both spiritual and secular benefits.

Finally, at the risk of seeming like a curmudgeon, I note (as I often do) that the book isn’t perfect. As probably in any book by a sociologist who likes to deal with shamans, there are irritating parts and odd claims about non-religious matters.

The frequent side references to the “eco-peace villages” that Markides’s wife apparently was devoted to, whatever those are, grate (mostly because they sound nonsensical).

Markides treats it as something other than ludicrous when someone asks him what penance the monks have done for “having killed millions of women as witches.” You just have to glide over those sections, though, and focus on the words of Father Maximos, to really receive benefit. I suggest you do that, today.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

 

The photo shows, “In Russia, Soul of the People,” by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov. This was one of the last religious paintings by Nesterov before the Revolution of 1917.

The Roots Of Secularism

Exhaustively documented, and in some ways just exhausting, though at the same time exhilarating, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a towering achievement. It synthesizes centuries of history and multiple avenues of thought to analyze how we arrived at certain negative aspects of modernity.

Gregory’s claim is that we got here as the result of the unintended consequences of choices made in response to “major, perceived human problems.”  Those choices were, initially, the Reformation’s religious choices, which ran counter to the entire worldview of medieval Christianity.

But the Reformation did not solve the problems—it made them worse, in a declining spiral, accelerated and exacerbated by subsequent secularization, itself partially the result of the Reformation. The result is a world in which the ability of humans to find meaning in their lives has been crippled, rather than enhanced. We would, implicitly, be better off with something more like the High Medieval synthesis destroyed by Martin Luther.

This is a reactionary book, of course, even if that is not the author’s intent. Any book that, in effect, revolves around the idea that the medieval European tag team of church and state, each in its own sphere, together produced a better society than the one we have today, a superior “institutionalized worldview,” is necessarily reactionary.

Étienne Gilson sighs contentedly in his grave; Jacques Maritain smiles; Carl Schmitt chuckles grimly. Of course, reaction as a political program, as I have said before, is not a return to some past Golden Age, or, more drily phrased, to the status quo ante. Such a definition is meant to be both pejorative and to absolve progressives of any need to respond to reactionary thought. Rather, reactionary political thought is any thought directed at what should be done now, if and to the extent such thought relies or is based on reference to the past as a positive guide.

The most critical element of reactionary thought is, therefore, that it does not regard the past as superseded. All supersessionist narratives are automatically rejected as incoherent. There is no arc of history; it has no right side.

History embodies good and evil, justice and injustice, truth and falsehood, and the task of the political thinker of the Now is to take these strands and make of them a world in which fallen human beings can flourish. Much of this book is an explicit rejection of “supersessionist history,” the Whig or progressive idea that the world today is the way it is because that is the way it was destined to be.

The past is not even past, and human life is, contra writers like Steven Pinker and Jonah Goldberg, not explained and justified by the Enlightenment. It is explained by the choices we have made; some of those choices were bad, and they should be unspooled, if possible, and new, better choices made.

In fact, I hold that a necessary element of a reactionary political program is viewing the world with, if not new eyes, from fresh perspectives, those lacking today as the sun sets on the Enlightenment experiment. More and more, I think of Enlightenment thought as the picture of Dorian Gray, whose flaws were concealed until they weren’t. Or, perhaps, the Enlightenment is one of those rockets under which the fire flares, and it majestically rises from its launchpad, a study in power and might—but something is wrong; it hesitates; it halts; it falls backward, downward to destruction.

Reaction by definition finds the present wanting, and the present projected forward even more wanting, which is a view that necessarily conflicts with the unexamined common assumptions of our time. Thus, Gregory’s book is, if Reaction is radical, a very radical work, though it doesn’t feel like it while you’re reading it, and Gregory might disagree.

That’s a lot of talk about myself in a review of someone else’s book. I offer those initial thoughts because I am now formally turning to my study of Reaction, in preparation for completing and offering my own book-length thoughts on Reaction as a viable political program. I have already begun this project, in a stop-start manner, with analysis of Mark Lilla’s book on reactionary thought, The Shipwrecked Mind, as well as in some other reviews, in particular of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus and Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin.

In my turn to reading on Reaction, I intend to focus not on formally reactionary pamphlets or roadmaps (although those, and much else, will appear), but on a wide variety of books that shed light at an angle, as it were, on political philosophy as it exists in the early twenty-first-century West. We will spend much time traveling back in time, and maybe a little traveling forward in time (I do like science fiction, after all).

As with all my reviews, though, I’m doing this for me, not for you. I intend this to be the homework for, and assist me in writing, my very own work of political thought, which I plan to be an actual roadmap for political Reaction—for, after all, it is easy to analyze, and easier to criticize, but hard to create a positive and coherent program.

So, to Brad Gregory’s book. This book took me forever to read. It is only four hundred pages, but it has two hundred more pages of footnotes, most of which I studied and pondered, and for a non-trivial amount of which I examined the works to which Gregory refers, something Amazon and an unlimited budget for buying books permits.

But such depth does not mean the book is bad; it is quite good, and it has gotten a lot of attention, though probably more attention than actual readers, I suspect. It is now five hundred years since the Reformation, and Gregory does not think it was a good five hundred years. The Reformation ruined the medieval institutional synthesis, which, while far from perfect, had many virtues missing today.

And the Reformation necessarily and directly led to the worst aspects of modernity, mediated by the aggressive secularism of the Enlightenment. First, to atomization and polarization. Second, to unbridled consumerism, to the “goods culture” (as opposed to the “culture of the good”), with no “acquisitive ceiling” and with the loss of the concept of excess, which leads to spiritual anomie and other harms such as environmental catastrophe (including climate change). Third, and perhaps most importantly, if most abstractly, to an inability to reconcile competing “truth claims,” and in fact the rejection of the entire category of truth, leading to “hyperpluralism,” excessive emancipation and, implicitly, to the near destruction of the entire Christian project, although Gregory does not directly predict that outcome. Explaining an entire culture and its changes over five hundred years is no small task.

Gregory therefore breaks his analysis into six separate narratives, while cautioning that they are not, and cannot be, separate in real life, and are to act in conjunction in his book. “As a whole the book thus constitutes an explanation about the makings of modernity as both a multifaceted rejection and a variegated appropriation of different elements of medieval Christianity. . . .The six strands in the analysis focus respectively on the relationship among religion, science, and metaphysics; the basis for truth claims related to human values and meaning; the institutional locus of the public exercise of power; moral discourse and moral behavior; human desires and capitalism; and the relationship between higher education and assumptions about knowledge.”

You begin to see what I mean by saying this book is exhausting.

Gregory’s first thread, on “religion, science, and metaphysics,” revolves around a common complaint of modern conservative thinkers, that late medieval Schoolmen, most notably William of Ockham, endorsed nominalism and thereby laid the groundwork for modern relativism and secularism. But this is secondary to Gregory’s main focus, on thought preceding but tied to nominalism, centering on “univocity.”

This is the change from holding, with Aquinas, that God has nothing in common with humans, but can only be understood in His characteristics by analogy, to holding that God shares with us the characteristic of “being” or “existence,” even if in a qualitatively different way than humans. (By chance I am also currently reading David Bentley Hart’s outstanding The Experience of God, which extensively covers the same topic).

In Gregory’s reading, this change, led by John Duns Scotus, leads to the effective lowering of God, whom it becomes easy to view as one being among others, even if superior in every way. God becomes a mere demiurge, or at most the God of Deism, not the transcendental ground of all reality.

The basis for this move to univocity was that otherwise it was deemed impossible to reason about God, a desired end of the Scholastics. Analogy was held to be an unsatisfactory method of analysis, although until that date it was the universal method in Christianity.

What the Schoolmen did not see was that if univocity is true, yet no direct evidence for God is seen in the natural world, it becomes easy to exclude God when reasoning about any topic at all, since the logical conclusion under univocity is that He does not exist, or if He does, it is impossible to prove. Science and faith thus began to be seen as logical opposites, though that is certainly not what the original proponents of univocity intended, nor is it a rational stance.

The Reformation exacerbated this problem, with many reformers, especially in the Zwinglian dispensations, rejecting sacramentality, with such rejection being fundamentally a univocal approach, a disenchantment of God’s role in the universe. And as the Scientific Revolution proceeded (driven by other aspects of European Christianity, but that is another story), and Ockham’s Razor used as the basis for approaching theories of the natural world, it became modish, therefore, to hold that God was disproven, or logically unproven, or at least unnecessary to reckon with.

Under the traditional understanding of God’s nature, nothing could be farther from the truth. And in the new analysis, God was not in fact disproven, nor were any of the traditional and highly sophisticated analyses of His nature undercut—rather, a category error swallowed the whole analysis.

But increasingly, and to this day, proponents of naturalistic philosophy acted as if God were disproven and traditional analyses obviated—in which acting they were helped by the intellectual weakness of their Christian opponents, increasingly fragmented and untutored in the realization that they had themselves absorbed univocal premises.

But given that this is how intellectual fashion developed, the effect was to exclude God from an ever-widening philosophical sphere. Moreover, the fragmentation of Christian thought and unity produced by the Reformation further eroded any possible influence of Christian belief, since there were so many competing, and inherently incompatible, views on critical matters. Easier to ignore and dismiss them all.

Gregory’s main point is that “truth claims” are different if the claimant believes in God (really believes, not pseudo-believes, like followers of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). If God has no relevance, moreover, emancipation can plausibly become a more elevated goal.  And, importantly, religion becomes mere, and burdened by, sentiment—hence, feelings and emotivism, which, in a feedback loop, leads to the conclusion that science and faith are opposites.

Moreover, the disenchantment of the world leads to its instrumental use; the road leads directly from Francis Bacon to mountaintop removal, the Great Pacific garbage patch, and global warming.

Gregory’s second thread, which therefore follows from the conclusion of the first, “the basis for truth claims related to human values and meaning,” is really the hinge of the entire book. If such truth claims didn’t matter, there would be no point in decrying the inability to find a coherent basis for them.

The point here is simple, though fleshed out in detail. It is that truth claims matter, and that the Reformation, a justified, or at least understandable, response to the massive moral failings of fifteenth-century Christians, instead of making the basis for those truth claims more robust, destroyed it by making every man his own priest. Truth claims are, in essence, “Life Questions”—what should we believe, and why?

What is meaningful in life?  How should I lead life?  Until the modern era, religion, Christianity in the West, uniformly provided the answers, or at least the starting points and midpoints for answers, to such questions. Not that the answers were entirely uniform before the Reformation—not only personal idiosyncrasy, but the wide range of diverse answers within Christendom made that untrue. “The late medieval church was a large playground, but one enclosed by forbidding fences. . . .”

The Reformation principle of sola scriptura was meant to hack off the supposed encrustations of the Roman Church, not to allow every person to form his own opinion about all matters of doctrine, but once the principle was admitted, there was, and never could be, any logical stopping point.

Thus, the Reformation produced an exponential growth in competing truth claims, made worse when biblical interpretation was joined by claims of interpretation guided by the Holy Spirit, as those made by Quakers. The end result, after centuries, is incoherence and religion as Philip Rieff’s “therapeutic culture,” religion as a vague feeling of being good and feeling good, since there is no firm ground—what Gregory repeatedly calls “the Kingdom of Whatever.”

The trend toward this end, combined with the Wars of Religion, supported the Pyrrhonian skepticism that emerged at the beginning of the Enlightenment, and Gregory covers Descartes, Hume, Montaigne, and many others in this light. His point, though, is not to endorse them, but to note that all of these, and many other more modern philosophers, are equally unable to agree on answers to the Life Questions, so incoherence is not a function of religion; it is equally applicable to analysis sola ratio. Whose fault?  The Reformation’s.

Gregory’s third element in his conjunction is “the institutional locus of the public exercise of power.”  From the perspective of secular rulers, ever more fractalization of truth claims was intolerable (especially after the Peasants’ War), so they chose winners and enforced their claims in each ruler’s domain.

As a result, we tend to perceive a less wide range of doctrine in Protestantism than actually existed, since the “magisterial” churches (basically Lutheranism and Calvinism) became important due to their adoption and enforcement by the state, and the “radical” churches became fragmented and of much less public importance, except in a few notable or dramatic instances, such as the Anabaptists in Münster.

Even today, the result is that “our respective sovereign states dictate what individuals and institutions can and cannot do in exercising religious faith” (a tension we saw this week in the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision).

To get to discussing this post-Reformation problem, Gregory reviews the tangled Western history of church and state, both in its historical highlights and in the practical effects, including the regular failures of the church, and Christians, to live up to Christ’s commands.

The effect of the post-Reformation increase in state power over the role of churches has been that “churches in general would [now] exert only as much public power and authority as they were permitted,” which used to be a lot, but which, “in the early twenty-first century, when sovereign states rule together with the market, it is almost none.”

Again, to Gregory, this is a bug, not a feature. Concurrently, state power itself rose, and religion became a prime driver of war, ultimately resulting in the not-illogical conclusion, beginning with the Dutch, that we would all be better off with fewer religious disputes. Gregory reviews, among others, Locke, Jefferson, and Tocqueville, noting that where we have ended up is with the dominance of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is not really Christianity at all, and that end was, in retrospect, inevitable.

As Gregory points out, a human community of not-wholly autonomous individuals is the necessary bedrock of both the Christian life and of any healthy society, in its living, in its transmission, and in its recognition and practice of virtue. Instead, what we have is Charles Taylor’s “secular age.”

Gregory focuses on the role of the state, in particular the American judiciary, in the dissolution of truth claims, but does not focus on the increasing use of the state to repress orthodox Christian belief, though the latter is also a necessary consequence of the former. In any case, the system we have ended up with “also meant the separation of politics from morality—or rather, a transition from a Christian ethics of the good to a secular ethics of rights in combination with a distinction between public and private spheres in conjunction with the privatization of religion.”

It is the consequences of that separation that are the topic of Gregory’s fourth thread, “moral discourse and moral behavior”—more precisely, the subjectivizing of it. Here, Alisdair MacIntyre, a man whose revival has come, if it ever really left, is front and center.

MacIntyre’s project (his book, After Virtue, is on my Reaction reading list, of course, for the bedrock of his claims is the rejection of supersessionism) was the revival of Aristotelean concepts of virtue, a sally against Enlightenment rejection of the same and with an inescapable logical end in Christianity.

MacIntyre sought to restore the teleology of Man (a concept that ninety-nine out of a hundred people today, chosen already for the rare characteristic of knowing what “teleology” means, would reject as equivalent to believing in mermaids—nice to imagine, silly to believe in). By this means, relativism would be dispelled, emotivism rejected as the basis for answering Life Questions, and rational moral discourse restored. Up with the common good, down with John Stuart Mill.

Much of this chapter is taken up with how we got to the point where MacIntyre had to rescue the past to inform the future. Again, naturally, it’s a result of the Reformation (a cause Gregory claims MacIntyre missed, or ignored), but the Reformation’s exaltation, in effect, of individual choice was, again, an understandable reaction to the failures of most of Christendom to live up to its ideals, most centrally that of caritas.

The usual suspects in removing virtue from modern political life, including Machiavelli and Nietzsche, also appear. Gregory further ties the “jettisoning of the ethics of the good” to the ever increasing demands for emancipation and for consumer goods.

Still, Christian virtues informed politics and society—until very recently, when they began to fade, allowing delusional people like John Rawls to believe that somehow Christian virtues can be derived without Christianity.

The end result, it is not difficult to realize, is that as the animating energy of Christianity dissipates from within the body politic, we will return to a pre-Christian time, where none of the virtues we take for granted, even if only honored in aspiration, are recognized at all. Without Christianity (or an equally powerful moral framework, none other of which has ever existed in or informed the West), the very idea of “human rights” is incoherent nonsense.

A recurrent theme of this book, and perhaps the key point Gregory aims to prove, is that “[t]he persistent, even adamant, positing of rights has no evidentiary basis given the metaphysical assumptions and epistemological demands that govern not only the natural sciences, but knowledge-making across the disciplines in the academy.”  And since the state has been brought in to use ever greater force to ensure ever greater emancipation, where the only moral crime is failing to subjectivize morality, disaster awaits, or, actually, is unfolding as we speak.

The fifth strand is “human desires and capitalism,” or, as the chapter title says, “Manufacturing the Goods Life.”  This expands on a point in the previous chapter, that consumerism dictated by individual unbridled choice substitutes, in many ways, for the common good. After all, nature abhors a vacuum, and something must fill the human desire for meaning.

And, choosing among modern options, if you don’t seek transcendence through the ideology of emancipation, for yourselves or others, consumerism is another, more peaceful and perhaps more enjoyable, way to fill your life. While Gregory discusses Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant origin of modern capitalism, this is really a different phenomenon from what Weber identified (leaving aside how right Weber was). Gregory instead ties the rise of consumer culture to the post-Reformation Dutch, with their turning aside from confessional differences and the refocusing on profit and consumption, and the spread of that view in the wake of weariness of religious disputes.

Prior to the Reformation the goods culture was always formally rejected by Christianity, as a failure to implement caritas in a world that viewed economics as zero-sum, though that hardly prevented greed. Money (and especially money, rather than barter), not itself inherently wrong and something that might, if properly viewed and handled, promote human flourishing, nonetheless often subverted the common good by inflating greed through its ease of use and by itself becoming the object of human desire.

Moreover, it tended to depersonalize social relationships. But the turn to a monetized, market economy had its own inexorable logic and internal pressure, so even before the Reformation it was changing Christian ways, and the Reformation, once more, with its fragmentation, accelerated that process.

This was true even though many of the reformers themselves were far more focused on suppressing greed than the princes of the medieval Church. This result came about, again, because of the new primacy of the individual’s determination of conscience, and because of the rejection of teleological virtue ethics (à la MacIntyre) in exchange for, in most cases, a theology that denigrated or rejected works as relevant to salvation.

Nor were Catholics immune; Gregory cites the motto of the Spanish military captain Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, in 1600:  “By compass and by sword / More and more and more and more.”  (Gregory does not note that Vargas Machuca was a main propagandist for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and for the subjugation of the inhabitants—he also attempted to refute Bartolomé de las Casas’s harsh criticism of the Spanish conquests and the Spanish treatment of the natives).

Toleration, starting with the Dutch, was indeed one effect of the primacy of commerce and money, but there were other, undesirable, knock-on effects. This new consumerism mostly affected the upper crust, and was often justified as familial duty, not a mere “piling up of unnecessary consumer goods for oneself,” though this itself tended away from the common good, and created new social distances and new “varieties of social othering,” or, viewed at from another angle, new ways to seek the approval of others, as Adam Smith analyzed astutely.

Governments soon enough discovered that all this made for easier-to-govern and happier subjects, who paid more taxes, so these lines of development were naturally encouraged. And, in time, the Enlightenment formally endorsed avarice as the backbone of a good and well-run society. Today, we are the unlucky beneficiaries of these centuries-long developments, where meaning is sought through the “goods culture,” and no meaning can be found.

A common response to such lines of thought is that whatever may be the moral drawbacks of the pursuit of money, acquisitiveness drives society forward in terms of beneficial material progress, though the exact mechanism for this is often disputed. Gregory seems to reject this linkage; I am not so sure he is correct.

While it is certainly true that the Scientific Revolution had nothing to do with the Enlightenment, and the modern world in all its technological might, created wholly by the West, would probably exist in much the same form if the Enlightenment had never happened, it seems to me that the habits of thought revolving around money are necessary for creating the economic value, the formation of assets originating from human effort, that makes the modern world what it is materially, and capable of achieving the advances we have made.

Critiques of consumerism are rarely as historically oriented as Gregory’s, but they typically ignore this question, and they also suffer from a lack of clarity as to whether consumerism is bad because it is immoral, or because it causes some form of harm, to people or to the world. As with other modern critics, Gregory basically says both are the reason, citing, for the latter contention, global warming and other environmental impacts.

But this implies that if the harms can be alleviated, especially by technology, there is less of a problem, and that’s not really what Gregory means. Along the same lines, he certainly admits that raising up most of humanity, and all of Western humanity, from destitution contributes to human flourishing, but there is no clear dividing line in that process, such that it, absent some countervailing force, seems like it must necessarily end in some version of today’s “goods culture.”  In the end, Gregory notes that “the manufactured goods life is needed to hold Western hyperpluralism together,” which is probably true, but it seems to me the manufactured goods are necessary, both to exit destitution and to arrive at our beneficial technological advances, but the hyperpluralism is not. That is, you could imagine a world where manufactured goods are more common, and receive more focus, than in the medieval barter economy, but still do not exercise the same grip on the average individual, who receives meaning from other sources tending to the common good.

The book’s sixth thread is “the relationship between higher education and assumptions about knowledge.”  Here, we talk about the “secularizing of knowledge,” primarily in universities. We return to the division, unnecessary but perhaps inevitable in historical context, between faith and science.

This is an area Gregory cares deeply about (he is, after all, a university professor) and the analysis is penetrating and detailed, citing a wide range of thinkers and thoughts, from Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum to Bacon’s New Atlantis. Continuing his overarching theme, Gregory blames the Reformation, of course, along with the naïve belief among some Catholics, such as Erasmus, that more individual focus on scriptural interpretation would lead to moral transformation among those leading flawed lives.

For other reasons, as well, such as the desire for comity among academics corresponding with each other, faith was more and more “downgraded to subjective opinion.”  Again, the state contributed to and concretized this process, and even explicitly confessional centers of learning adopted, in effect, univocity and “neo-Arian” doctrines, since their second-rate thinkers were unable to compete with the flood of top-quality Enlightenment thought, and the early modern papacy was no use at all in this competition.

So, today, secularism utterly dominates universities, and, if questioned, a false supersessionist narrative is offered to explain why.

Viewing responses to this book, most come from Protestant evangelicals, who dislike it because it blames their forebears, though they try to conceal that ground for their dislike, and fail. Most interestingly to me, Gregory seems to have some kind of relationship with the liberal public intellectual Mark Lilla (who I had thought is Jewish, since he is very knowledgeable about Judaism, but apparently he is an apostate Catholic).

It is interesting to me because there is no obvious reason for the two to cite each other, yet Gregory’s book repeatedly cites Lilla, and Lilla cites, or attacks, Gregory in his book The Shipwrecked Mind. I agree with Lilla—the correct way to view Gregory’s work is as “a shadow-puppet play on the wall of some Vatican cave.”

Lilla means that negatively, but I mean it positively. What Gregory is laying is groundwork for a revival, not a return, and a shadow-puppet play is as good a way to introduce that as any. In his lengthy discussion of Gregory in his short book, Lilla accuses Gregory of advocating for a return to the “Road Not Taken”—in other words, that we should return to the crossroads, and turn north instead of south.

This is true enough, I think. But Lilla takes this to mean that Gregory would disagree with his own thought, “The lesson of Saint Augustine remains as timely as it was fifteen hundred years ago: that we are destined to pave our road as we go.”  But Gregory would say the same, since we now are where we are—just that our paving stones should be constructed based on what we have learned of road engineering from observing our past.

Gregory ends with a brief suggestion that he wants to avoid nostalgia. He sums up, “[M]edieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing, but each in different ways and with different consequences, and each in ways that continue to remain important in the present.”

Gregory does not recommend a way forward (he notes “I wish this book could have had a happier ending”), but it is clear enough to me how he fits into current reactionary thinking. He provides an exhaustive historical and theoretical underpinning for Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which is, contrary to what many people seem to think, not a call for withdrawal, but a call for renewed Christian community and small-scale focus on the common good and human flourishing, both as an inherent good and to act as the scaffold for a future society-wide renewal, in a way that cannot be seen now.

After all, the very name “Benedict Option” is taken from a phrase of Alisdair MacIntyre’s, who plays a major role in this book. Dreher is much more of a popularizer than Gregory, though, and I have to admit that this book is really only suitable for those strongly interested in either history or intellectual calisthenics, or, preferably, both. Taken together, though, Dreher’s and Gregory’s thought is a very strong core for a new construction, informed by what has gone before.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

 

The photo shows, “Student Cafe” by Jean Beraud, painted in 1889.

The Populist Revolt

Most honest postmortems of Trump’s election are by Democrats focusing on what they missed.   Usually, they are either narrow exercises in vote counting or more holistic attempts to understand Trump voters.  In the latter group are Joan Williams’s White Working Class and Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me.

The common thread in these is discovery, a dawning realization that there are people out there with legitimate, even compelling, reasons to vote for Trump. Republicans, on the other hand, haven’t engaged much in postmortems.  They have engaged in recriminations, or a facile triumphalism, but few seem to have analyzed Trump’s election in a focused, professional, way.  The Great Revolt fills that gap.

There’s nothing truly startling in this book, but it’s still interesting.  The authors’ core point is that Trump’s election is not a fluke; whatever his faults may be, they do not outweigh his good points in the view of a wide variety of voters, including groups of people who, on the surface, have little in common with each other and seem like they shouldn’t like Trump.

Moreover, most of these people were previously reliably Democratic voters.  To analyze this and to demonstrate their thesis, Salena Zito (a journalist) and Brad Todd (a Republican pollster and consultant) conducted detailed opinion surveys, and then let people talk for themselves to supplement and exemplify the aggregate results, using individuals, meant as archetypes, from ten very different counties in five different swing states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan).

Zito and Todd break the Trump voters they examine into seven groups, each with specific demographic characteristics.  “Red-Blooded and Blue-Collared” are those who “had worked a blue-collar, hourly wage, or physical labor job after the age of twenty-one, and had experienced a job loss in the last seven years either personally or in their immediate families.”  “Girl Gun Power” are women under forty-five who owns guns for self-defense.  “Rough Rebounders” are those who have overcome significant obstacles (and thus resonate with Trump’s story).  “Rotary Reliables” are Chamber of Commerce Republicans—but with a twist, that they are from smaller towns, and therefore are surrounded by, and socialize with, conservatives and the working class, thus appreciating their concerns, similar to the way that such Republicans in bigger towns and cities are surrounded by liberals and therefore function as liberals.

That is to say, these Rotary Reliables are diverse and inclusive, more so than their Republican counterparts in the cities.  “King Cyrus Christians” are religious believers who are willing to overlook Trump’s dissolute personal life, as the Jews took advantage of the heathen Cyrus the Great’s release of the Jews from Babylonian captivity.

(While I don’t understand why some evangelicals, like Franklin Graham, fawn over Trump, other than to be close to power, it is perfectly understandable, given that Hillary was the Right Hand of Satan, that devout Christians would vote for Trump, since, to coin a phrase, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”).

“Silent Suburban Moms” are upper-middle class women somewhat turned off by Trump’s boorishness, and fearful of the hatred directed at them if they openly support Trump, but who support Trump nonetheless.  Collectively, I am not sure that these really constitute the “populist coalition” of the subtitle, but they have more in common than just supporting Trump, and more in common than a casual observer might think.

In particular, in all these groups the same three specific issues keep cropping up (along with some other issues that are more or less important to specific groups).  Given the significant differences across these sets of people, this consistency is surprising.

These three issues are who controls the Supreme Court, gun rights, and, most interestingly, the habit Obama had of apologizing, purportedly on behalf of the United States.  (As all such studies find, and utterly contrary to the view of progressives, racial issues almost never crop up, and illegal immigrants less than you would expect.)  The first two have a straightforward analysis—Democrats have for decades tried to evade democratic rule by using the Supreme Court as a leftist super-legislature, and Republican voters are well aware of that.

Gun rights require even less discussion—in fact, in the past few months, driven mad by anti-Trump frenzy, prominent Democrats have begun openly declaring what they always lied about in the past, but which has always been true—that yes, they want to take away every single gun normal Americans own.

But I would not have thought the constant apologizing was so important, and so disturbing, to voters.  These people are not wrong about Obama’s habit of apologizing.

He began his term by apologizing to the entire Muslim world and then in nearly every (or perhaps every) foreign speech he made ensured that his speechwriters worked in some form of abasement for supposed past misdeeds of the United States.  Usually those misdeeds were left a little vague, such that the listeners were expected to fill in the specifics of their own particular grievance, so as to maximize the breadth and perceived impact of the apology.  The substance or rationale of these apologies, though, doesn’t really interest me.  Rather, I am curious why the voters were so upset.

It seems to me that apologies can vary on two basic axes—by whom, and to whom.  On the former axis, they can be made by the wrongdoer (Class A), or on his behalf by a legitimate representative (Class A’).  Or they can be made by a successor in interest, who did not participate in the original wrong but has a material link to that person (Class B).

On the latter axis, apologies can be made to people who are wronged (Class 1), or to their successors in interest (Class 2).  (I put into Class 2 also those who have only suffered a lesser, derivative wrong, but those could be a third class, if you wanted to complicate the analysis.)

Most people across the political spectrum would agree, I think, that apologies by Class A or Class A’ to Class 1 are unexceptional and some combination of desirable and necessary (or rather, they are unexceptional in the West, infused with Christian values—in a place like China, very different rules apply, which we will ignore here).  Apologies by Class A to Class 2 seem less required and desirable.

This is because the person wronged is the person who is “owed” the apology and is able to forgive—someone who has not suffered a wrong has neither the same right nor ability to forgive, and by the same token, is less deserving of an apology.

Even less required or desirable is an apology from Class B to Class 1, since personal responsibility only attaches to a wrongdoer.  Least appropriate of all is an apology from Class B to Class 2, where all parties involved have no actual connection to the wrong at issue.

I think what rubbed the people in this book the wrong way is that all of Obama’s apologies were in that last and least deserving category (or, arguably, were in a fifth category, of a supposed Class B person apologizing for something done earlier that was not a wrong at all).

Obama was not a Class A’ representative, although he may have viewed himself that way, because he was not representing any actual wrongdoers, either because the actual wrongdoers are dead, or because no wrong was committed at all.  And naturally, Obama never apologized for something he did—only for wrongs done by elements of the United States government, or elements of our ruling class (and sometimes even for elements of other governments and ruling classes).

Even if we assume that these wrongs were actual wrongs, and were as bad as Obama said, it is evident from what they say that the voters profiled in this book were viscerally outraged both by the stupidity of any “Class B to Class 2” apology, which necessarily humiliates the United States for no good reason.

They also were angered by the knowledge that Obama in no way blamed the recipients of the apologies, much less himself, or his cronies, or progressives, or any of their predecessors in interest, for anything.  Instead, all blame was to attach to a subset of current day Americans, who had done nothing at all to anybody—namely, the voters profiled in this book.

Hillary Clinton was more explicit on this point, but nobody was fooled that Obama didn’t think the same way—he was just smoother.  So maybe that this theme keeps cropping up as an element of Trump’s support isn’t all that surprising after all.

One claim by the authors rings false, though.  They say that Facebook, not the New York Times, “now drives the national conversation with the horsepower of its search traffic and algorithms.”

But it is the NYT, with a junior role played by a handful of media outlets equally totally under the control of leftists, that sets both what is considered to be news and what the agenda behind that selection is.  Anything not fitting the agenda is not considered to be news among the ruling classes and therefore is ignored and functionally suppressed; “it’s just Fox News.”

This indirect censorship is extremely powerful, and Facebook does not overcome it, even if it used to allow alternative new sources to rise to the top of its news feed.  And, since the election, Facebook has gotten in line, changing  its news feed from showing what people are actually choosing to view, to forcing down on people only approved outlets (that is, the NYT and its cronies), along with using leftist “fact checkers” such as Snopes and Politifact as cover for direct censorship.

Moreover, they (and Twitter, etc.) are moving, just in time for the 2018 election, to further censor “hate speech,” defined as conservative speech.  So, between a combination of Facebook not setting the agenda itself, but rather taking direction from the Left, and actively cooperating in driving the news coverage to favor the Left, nothing has changed at all.

In fact, contrary to conservatives’ hopes of the early 2000s, the NYT has much more power to set what is news and what is the agenda, since almost all alternative media enterprises of any public standing and reputation, that did not feel obliged to always toe the line, are out of business or a shadow of their former selves.

That said, again and again the people in this book say that they have completely tuned out of the news, because it is so obviously unhinged leftist propaganda.  This suggests that the impact of the NYT’s death grip on curating the news may be less than the Left hopes, or the Right fears.

Tied to this is another fact that comes up time and again—many of the interviewees self-censor on social media, afraid of the hatred directed at them by their “friends” for the political views, a problem never faced by their political opposites, who preen themselves on their alignment with the selected news they are shown and regard pouring malice on those who disagree with leftist views as a holy cause.

But when one group grows silent, they do not thereby agree more, and they are more likely just becoming submarine voters, which is the authors’ point.  True, some voters may still be soaking in the propaganda, unwilling or unable to cut the cancer out of their lives, but my guess is that nearly all have tuned out the vast majority of it.

I certainly have, even though I subscribe to the NYT—for years, now decades, I used to just ignore the editorial pages, but now I ignore all articles that are not completely unrelated to politics (an ever-shrinking group), since any article even tangentially involving politics is indistinguishable from the op-ed page.

So what does this mean for the immediate future?  Nearly all of the counties profiled voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then swung hard to Trump in 2016.  The authors note that this is an unstable situation—the voters could easily swing back.

In many instances, their voting for Trump was a combination of Trump’s stands and an explicit feeling that the Democrats left them, not the reverse.  (We are constantly showered with claims by supposed former Republicans that their party left them, but the media never suggests the same process is equally possible for Democrats.)

If the Republicans nominated some Chamber of Commerce blob like Jeb Bush, or even a zombie Reaganite like Ted Cruz, and the Democrats nominated someone not a shrill, hateful, decaying crone or an elderly Communist, or dialed back their obsessive focus on the politics of identity and grievance in favor of acknowledging the concerns of the people interviewed in this book, I bet that’s exactly what would happen.

Still, Zito and Todd believe that the more likely outcome is that the Trump coalition holds together, and that neither party has fully grasped this likelihood.  (On a related note, the reason that progressives want to get rid of the electoral college is precisely to avoid this outcome, by making it unnecessary for national politicians to capture any votes outside urban areas).
Naturally, this book has been ignored by the liberal media, which suggests a continuing failure to grasp this obstacle to leftist dominance.

But the core social problems that make these counties suffer are not going away anytime soon.  Unemployment might be addressed by a different economic policy, but that is unlikely to happen with the levers of economic power being held by globalists, and even if we changed our policies, it is not likely that the 1950s will come again.

And this is true not just because it’s impossible to go back—in addition, the social fabric of these counties is utterly destroyed, although the voters don’t seem to want to realize that.  The biggest single problem is opiates, followed by a breakdown in families and the same atomization of society found everywhere.

Even if $30/hour jobs returned, these problems would persist.  This suggests that to the extent voters hope Trump will make a dent in their social problems, they are likely to be disappointed.  Yes, he will protect their guns and their religious liberty; he will issue no apologies; and he will stick his finger in the eye of the liberal media.

But is that enough?  Probably to keep their votes for a while.  In the end, the question is whether substantive change is required for these voters to be happy, or merely fighting on their behalf.  We’ll find out soon enough.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

 

The photo shows, “La fiumana [Stream of People]” by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, painted ca. 1895-1896.