Through the kind courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, we here offer to our readers an excerpt from Medieval Philosophy Redefined As The Latin Age, a newly published work of the late John Deely, one of the foremost semioticians of our time. He taught at the University of Saint Thomas and Saint Vincent College and Seminary. He passed away in 2017.
In this excerpted work, Deely brilliantly establishes the continuity of medieval thought in modernity.
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The 17th century crash and burn of Scholasticism—the tradition of commentary on Aristotle (in philosophy) and Lombard (along with the Bible in theology) begun in the late 1100s—resulted from accumulated abuses on the part of authorities civil and religious, abuses in which the scholastic “establishment” within the universities was all-too-often complicit. What discredited the Scholastics in the end was the actual demonstration b men we now call “scientists” of basic truths about the universe that scholastics denied—while encouraging church and state officials to take actions of repression and thought-control. Not until 1757 did the Roman Church lift its prohibition from 1616 of books dealing with Copernicus’ view that the earth was not the center of the physical universe, and not until 1835 did an edition of the Index of Forbidden Books appear which no longer listed as prohibited the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler!
However understandable, the turning away from scholasticism in philosophy turned out to be a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; for thinkers of the time were so taken with the experimental and mathematical techniques that had shown the earth to move and the stars to be other suns that they came to believe that the whole edifice of human knowledge, without remainder, could be rebuilt on the basis of science in this modern, empirical and mathematical sense. The ascendancy of this belief defined the historical epoch that has come to be called the Enlightenment, the belief that philosophers might ask questions, but only scientists could actually give answers. If you think that this Enlightenment attitude is a thing of the past, you are mistaken. Yet increasingly has it come to be recognized that if the whole of the knowledge we acquire before becoming scientists has no independent validity, then science itself would have no validity.
The first major thinker seriously to recognize this situation, or at least most completely to do so, was Charles Sanders Peirce. Borrowing a terminology coined by Jeremy Bentham, Peirce pointed to the difference between critical knowledge based on common experience or “cenoscopy”, presupposed to the validity of the specialized foci of modern experimental and mathematical science, in contrast with the knowledge that only experimentation and mathematization of results can produce, or “ideoscopy”, which is science in the modern sense. Until now, philosophers generally, in desperation, have tried appealing to “common sense” as the basis upon which philosophy has a legitimacy of its own prior to and independent of science. But so discredited has the notion of “common sense” become in intellectual culture that appeal to it has little chance of persuading a wide audience. What is needed, rather, is the recognition that, while both science and “common sense” depend upon “the total everyday experience of many generations of multitudinous populations”, yet “such experience is worthless for distinctively scientific purposes”.
The “distinctively scientific purposes” includes, however, both exploration of human experience that requires experimentation to advance knowledge and the more general “scientific purpose” to evaluate and expose in critically controlled terms that overall framework of knowledge within and on the basis of which scientific research comes to be conducted in the first place. Articulation of the presupposed overall framework of knowledge and of independent results attainable within it too requires “science” (as critically controlled objectification), but not ideoscopic science: here is the domain proper to philosophy, cenoscopic science. It has a legitimacy of its own, and this is what the early moderns lost sight of in their enthusiasm for the then-firmly-established-possibilities of ideoscopy. Moreover, the most basic of the cenoscopic lines of investigation proves to be precisely inquiry into the action of signs, “semiosis”, because it turns out that cenoscopy and ideoscopy alike depend on this action throughout for whatever knowledge they succeed to establish.
Now it so happens that the first realization of semiosis as underlying the whole of animal experience and human knowledge — that it is the action of signs which makes experience and knowledge so much as possible in any form—was the distinctive achievement of the Latin Age. That is not the whole story of medieval thought, but it is the untold part of the story, the part without which (as all the modern “histories of philosophy” taken together illustrate) medieval philosophy cannot be seen in its distinctive unity overall, extending from the break with ancient Greek philosophy around Augustine’s time to the modern break with Latin philosophy in the lifetime of Galileo, Poinsot, and Descartes. The articulation and exposition of this cenoscopic foundation of all science, termed today “semiotics”, the Latins termed simply doctrina signorum.
Philosophy, then, as cenoscopic science, not only precedes ideoscopic science and provides its framework. Philosophy also, rightly understood, shows the inevitability of ideoscopic development in order for human thought to reach maturation—just what the authorities, Church and Civil, in the closing Latin centuries, failed to understand.
Exactly as Hannam says in the subtitle of his book: “the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science”; but the Latins achieved this feat, as it were, indirectly, mainly as a consequence or by-product of their exploring the dimensions and depths of cenoscopic knowledge out of which ideoscopic inquiries inevitably arise.
Latin focus on the doctrine of signs achieved clarity only late, and precisely in the closing scholastic centuries of the age glossed over or omitted entirely in the standard “history of medieval philosophy”; yet it is far from the whole or only story of medieval thought that this book aims to tell. Just as important are the broader results scientific in a cenoscopic sense that the Latins are able to achieve in exploring those dimensions of experience which cannot be reduced to experimental results available to sense-perception, as is required in ideoscopy. To restore in new light the remarkable preceding achievements of medieval philosophy in thinking through those larger dimensions of human experience which go beyond sensible instantiations is just as integral to the story of medieval philosophy as is semiotic as the doctrine of signs. So the doctrine of signs (or semiotics, as we now say) is only part of the “medieval story” that this book aims to tell; but it is that part which provides an “Ariadne’s thread” through the larger maze of medieval noetic development, the thread without which the whole does not appear.
This book, then, is a work equally of philosophy and of history. The two are not perfectly separable; for while it is possible to do history without doing philosophy, the converse is not equally true, as the Analytic tradition of late modern thought is just beginning to learn. Ideoscopic science requires laboratories to explore the consequences of its theories. Just so does cenoscopic science require historical awareness. The philosopher ignorant of the history of philosophy is crippled in ways that we have only to read Wittgenstein to realize—provided that we have ourselves come to that reading with an historical consciousness including Aristotle’s work (which Wittgenstein made it a point of pride not to read). (Plato provided the best prenotes to Aristotle; but in the history of philosophy after Aristotle, Plato himself becomes a footnote.)
So this book aims to redress the imbalance in human intellectual community that the “Enlightenment mentality” understandably introduced, and to do so mainly by restoring, while for the first time telling in the light of semiotics, something like the full story of Latin Age scholasticism, when cenoscopy achieved some of its highest peaks at the same time that it made the modern development of ideoscopic science inevitable in its own right—over the dead bodies of the “authorities” presuming to speak for God.
The featured image shows Saint Jerome offering his work to Saint Marcella, who is accompanied by Saint Principia. From a manuscript from the Notre Abbey in Citeaux, France; early 12th century. (Bibliothèque municipale, Dijon – ms. 132 folio 1).
This excerpt comes from William Morrisey’s latest book, Herman Melville’s Ship of State, which reads the classic novel, Moby-Dick, as an allegory of America, democracy and the reciprocal obligations of the individual and the state. Thus, is America Moby-Dick? Is its power a source of chaos or order? You will have to read the Morrissey’ intriguing book in order to arrive at the answers.
William Morrisey held the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College until his retirement in 2015. A native of Rumson, New Jersey, he served as Executive Director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission before his appointment at Hillsdale College in 2000. He is the author of eight books and has been an editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy since 1979. His reviews and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Social Science and Modern Society, Law and Liberty, The New Criterion, and many other publications.
Please support the excellent work being done by our friends over at St. Augustine’s Press and buy this book. You will not be disappointed.
In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of Democracy in America, his magisterial study based on observations he had made on his nine-month visit to the United States nearly a decade earlier. Although we Americans understandably read his book as a treatise about ourselves, Tocqueville wanted less to understand America than to understand democracy. By “democracy” he meant not primarily a political regime of the kind seen in ancient Athens or in a modern-day New England township, but the condition of social equality, a society free of an aristocratic class legally entitled to rule ‘the commoners.’ In America, everyone is a commoner, and those who pretend otherwise invite ridicule. As an aristocrat himself, Tocqueville saw the decline of his class in Europe, a decline accelerated by both monarchy and republicanism in his own country. He called America “the sample democracy” in the world, the place to go to see what an egalitarian society looked like, how it thought and felt, its “habits of the mind and heart”—habits soon coming to a country near you, my fellow noblemen.
What political regimes would such societies see? Without the possibility of the rule of ‘the few,’ that left the rule of ‘the one’ or ‘the many.’ And because the long-ago replacement of small, ancient city-states with large modern nation-states precluded the direct rule of the people, rule of the many in the modern rule would mean representative government, republicanism. The regime alternatives for democratic societies in modern states were republicanism and despotism—to be seen, Tocqueville remarks, in America and Russia, respectively, “each destined to hold half the world in its hands one day.” To outline the structure of his preferred republican regime, he simply wrote an able summary of The Federalist, whose institutional structures might be adapted, although not simply carried over, by other ‘founders’ of republican regimes in other countries. But to describe democracy’s habits of heart and mind, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which egalitarian social conditions pervade the souls of those who live amidst them, this took several hundred pages.
The 1840s also saw the return to America of another voyager, Herman Melville. At the time Tocqueville was bringing out his Volume II, the young American, ten years Tocqueville’s junior, was signing up for his first whaling adventure, which began at the beginning of 1841. For nearly four years Melville experienced the democratic despotism of life at sea under several captains on a variety of ships, intermingled with sojourns on islands in the South Pacific, where a life of hedonist freedom rested uneasily on binges of cannibalism. The young sailor enjoyed the freedom without partaking of the fare; worrying that one day he might become part of a feast, he cut his island idyll short. For him, the remedy for shipboard despotism was either rebellion (he joined one mutiny) or exile (his adventures on shore occurred after he jumped his first ship).
The America he returned to in October 1944 was about to elect James K. Polk to the presidency. Along with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and former president Franklin Pierce,
Polk was part of a new intellectual and political movement which registered a generational shift in the American conception of the right basis for law and liberty. Whereas the founding generation had understood republican regime-building as an attempt to secure unalienable natural rights for “all men” under that regime, and the generation after that was divided over whether “all men” included slaves (New England said yes, the South, increasingly, said no), this third generation of Americans began to see republicanism less as security for rights as security for, and the best expression of, democracy itself, of the social egalitarianism Tocqueville had described. Might that not lead to majority tyranny, the rule of ‘the people’ in its might instead of popular sovereignty under the laws of nature and of nature’s God?
Having just voyaged on seas even broader than the American continent, seas where might is indeed taken to make right, whether in the form of a captain on a ship or of mighty Leviathan underneath that ship, Melville had seen that a diverse and egalitarian society could find its ruler not in a popular majority but in one person. With no aristocratic class to serve as mediator between the one and the many, each pole of the political world would threaten the other. Fear of the many might cause the one to rule by fear absolutized, by terror. Tocqueville never wrote on Napoleon or on the Russian czar. In Moby-Dick, Melville did.
He could do so because he had survived and learned from what might be described as the photographic negative of Tocqueville’s experience: Instead of voyaging to democratic-republican America from a Europe beset by unstable monarchies, a declining aristocracy, and constant threats of war and violent revolution, Melville had voyaged from America to societies in the condition of a state of nature—communitarian and pleasure-loving, to be sure, but with a sinister undercurrent of manslaughter, the faint smell of blood mingling with fragrance of the tropical flowers. He had voyaged on ships ruled by ‘princes’ (with the title of captain) wielding absolute power unknown to American landholders, even to the most adventurous pioneers. Returning to America, he too had an outsider’s perspective, the ability to think like what we now call a political comparativist. In Moby-Dick he shows what a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society would be under the regime of tyranny.
The featured image shows a portion of “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World,” by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, which was first exhibited in 1848. It is America’s longest painting, at 1275 feet in length.
Here is an excerpt from Richard Pope’s intriguing new book about man’s long fascination with birds and flight. It’s called, Flight from Grace, and the little sample that follows wonderfully demonstrates the genius of early man. The book takes wing immediately with little-known facts, supplemented by astonishing images of artifacts that stand testament to the human spirit.
Portable art, which includes carvings, figurines, and engravings on ivory, stone, bone, and antler, is found often, but not exclusively, in caves. Bird representations are not uncommon in this art, particularly in the Magdalenian period (15,000–10,000 BCE). In French Palaeolithic art alone, out of 121 possible bird representations, Dominique Buisson and Geneviève Pinçon accept 81 as certain. Of these 81 sure bird representations, 15 (19 per cent) are on cave walls and 67 (81 per cent) are portable. Birds are much more common in portable art everywhere during the Palaeolithic. It is also striking that of the 81 sure French birds, almost half of which are not identifiable to species (47.6 per cent), 37 per cent represent either web-footed birds like ducks, geese, and swans or crane-like waders, and 10 per cent are raptors. The popularity of these waterbirds and raptors is also attested throughout Palaeolithic bird art in general. R. Dale Guthrie is right to point out that not all of these representations are masterpieces. Often carved in difficult materials, they range from the relatively crude to the superb. The artistic quality of these birds would not, however, have affected their function as amulets, pendants, charms, and ex-votos.
At the mention of mammoth-ivory sculpture of the Palaeolithic, one’s first thought is of the numerous figurines of plump females – the so-called Palaeolithic Venuses – found from Spain right across to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. What is interesting for us, however, is the common association of these Venuses with carvings of birds. Although these early Venuses are never bird-headed, as they often are in the Neolithic, these cult objects are often found in association with bird figurines and pendants. The Palaeolithic Venuses are thought by many to be figures with cult significance, and I believe that the bird figurines generally reflect the same cult status and represent various early forms of bird worship.
Perhaps our oldest known bird sculpture, dating from at least 28,000 BCE, is a mammoth-ivory carving found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany – a charming representation of a flying waterbird, thought by some (not birders, I suspect) to be a cormorant but almost certainly some kind of duck. You can even see the feathers carved on the bird’s side. The only representation of a bird that is older is the Chauvet engraved owl and perhaps a partridge/quail engraving on a flint flake, discussed below.
Before considering this bird’s significance, it is interesting to note what else was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the period dating from before or around 30,000 BCE. There is an ivory Löwenmensch similar to, although less exquisite and smaller than, the famous one found in the Stadel Cave, which is known to date from about 38,000 BCE. Significantly, these Löwenmensch figurines are not carvings of humans wearing lion masks but of human figures with lion heads. They are monstrous hybrids that could exist only in the human imagination but must have been part of the local belief structure, as we can deduce from the fact that we have two such figurines from two different caves in the Swabian Jura, where one of the earliest settlements of human beings in Europe took place. Our oldest Palaeolithic Venus, possibly a pendant, was unearthed here in 2008 and found to be at least 37,000 years old; fragments of a second one were discovered in 2015. Although it seems slightly younger, dating from about 26,000 BCE, we also have a carved stone phallus measuring nearly 8 inches (20 centimetres), almost certainly associated with some kind of ritual or ceremony concerning procreation and fertility, as are the Palaeolithic Venuses. A stunning find was a fivehole flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture dating from about 33,000 BCE – an object suggestive of the dance floor, which is so closely connected to the origins of the sacred. Lastly, dating from about 28,000 BCE, there is a carving of the head of a horse, notably not a major food item for these humans, that is reminiscent of the horses in cave wall art. Clearly, this cave was some kind of sanctuary where religious beliefs were manifested. So, although we can never know the meaning of any Palaeolithic work of art for certain, the fact that the bird carving was found in the same cave as carvings of naked women, a Löwenmensch, a phallus, a horse, and a flute suggests that something more than art classes was taking place in this early cave and that our bird very likely had some kind of cult importance in the belief structure of these early humans.
We also have a number of exquisite flying-bird pendants (and three that are not flying) from the incredible Mal’ta site in Siberia northwest of Lake Baikal, excavated by the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov. Most of them were found in connection with hearths, and cult status is nearly certain. Several of them were found in the famous grave of a four-year-old child, the same child who clinched the genetic link between the Mal’ta-Buret’ people and North American Indigenous peoples. These mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants were originally thought to date from 23,000–19,000 BCE, although more recent radiocarbon dating has suggested a somewhat later Magdalenian date around 15,000 BCE.
Most of the Mal’ta bird figurines represent flying waterfowl, probably swans judging by the long necks. Thirteen of them are very similar in shape and are both phallic and snakelike in form, suggesting connections between the bird deity and two other potent symbols of the sacred.
In western Europe, echoing Mal’ta, we again find representations of waterfowl: a carving of waterfowl with young at the Mas d’Azil Cave, a swan engraved on stone at the Gourdan Cave and one at the Teyjat Cave, a duck/goose engraved on horn at Gourdan and one at the Caves of Nerja, and a duck engraved on stone at the Cave of Espélugues in Lourdes. Michèle Crémades and colleagues illustrate several ducks from the Parapalló and Escabasses Caves and geese from the Labastide and Gourdan Caves.
Waterbirds, such as grebes, loons, ducks, geese, and swans, were sacred to subsistence-hunting peoples in the Palaeolithic and still revered in the Neolithic and historic periods. Diving birds, like the zhingibis (grebe and the maang (loon), still play an important role to this day in Ojibwe trickster stories and creation legends, as well as in the Ojibwe clan system, where we find Crane, Loon, Black Duck, and Goose among the totems. You might well ask, why diving birds? But think about it: grebes, loons, and diving ducks are perhaps the only creatures that are at home in the murky depths of lakes and rivers, nest on dry land, and are at home in the sky, being strong migratory fliers. The ability to survive in all three elements makes them obvious candidates for magical status.
Equally important, ducks, geese, swans, and cranes are markers of the retreat and reappearance of winter; they are among the last to leave in autumn and the first to arrive in spring. Migration must have been very mysterious and seemed magical, like eclipses and solstices; birds, the sun, and the seasons disappear and then, hopefully, reappear – a source of major anxiety. Wherever did these mysterious beings go? What if they did not reappear? Hence the reverence for waterbirds, the sun, and the spring, along with the need to devise rituals in order to ensure their return. And last but not least, ducks, geese, and swans were a crucial food source for the people who hunted them, collected their eggs, and reaped them in great numbers during the flightless period of the moult. It is natural to revere fellow creatures that you rely on for food. These are birds you would not want to offend lest they abandon you. Perhaps indicative of their power is the touching, late-Neolithic burial at Vedbaek in Denmark of a tiny baby boy next to its young mother, the baby cradled in a whooper swan’s wing. The swan may have been meant to escort the child to the other world.
It is interesting to note that this waterfowl cult persisted in various societies throughout the Neolithic until modern times. In Russia and Siberia, Margarita Aleksandrovna Kiriyak tells us, “[b]irds are a widespread subject of rock drawings in the Neolithic art of north Eurasian tribes. Both waterfowl and birds of prey are encountered among the images.” There are also many carvings. She provides us with a photograph of a beautifully carved, upright goose made of smoky obsidian that is sitting with its neck stretched up, found at the Neolithic Tytyl’ IV site in western Chukhotka. Joseph Campbell points out that “early Russian missionaries and voyagers in Siberia … found among the tribes numerous images of geese with extended wings.” Steven Mithin reminds us that, “[a]mong the nineteenth-century Saami people of northern Europe, swans and waterfowl were the messengers of the gods.” The Canadian High Arctic was peopled by immigrants from Siberia, so we are not surprised to find Palaeo-Eskimo carvings of birds, such as waterbirds, cranes, and falcons, like the carvings of the Dorset (Tuniit) culture (500 BCE–ca. 1200 CE), which long preceded the later Inuit culture. Coastal-dwelling peoples who made their living from the sea revered the seabirds, which were so crucial to their existence. Newfoundland’s Beothuks, for example, appear to have had such “birds at the centre of their belief system.” Beothuks were buried in seaside graves with the feet of actual birds – guillemots – attached to their leggings and with various carved and engraved ivory and bone pendants, of which over 400 have been found, all plausibly identified as representing seabirds’ feet, seabirds’ primary wing feathers, or the tails of Arctic terns in flight. Since one equips the dead with precisely those items needed for the journey to the afterlife, which in this case entailed flight over water to an island paradise, these birds were doubtless crucial helpers serving in their classic role as psychopomps.
In his Folklore of Birds (1958), Edward Armstrong devotes three whole chapters to the ubiquitous cult of waterfowl – geese, swans, and loons in particular – that survives in later, worldwide folklore. This was a tenacious tradition!
Among the long-legged waders, cranes are well attested in Palaeolithic art. Jean-Jacques Cleyet-Merle and Stéphane Madelaine, after careful study of a Magdalenian engraving on a perforated stick of reindeer antler from Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne region, convincingly established that the engraved wader was a common crane by cleverly fitting two separate pieces back together. They say that there is a striking similarity between this bird and the two engraved on the piece of schist found in the Labastide Cave, which they take to be cranes as well. Crémades and colleagues illustrate a crane-like wader found in the Gargas Cave in the Pyrenees and add three recently discovered engraved cranes, one on a spear point, from Magdalenian sites in the Pyrenees. In the Belvis Cave, there is an engraving on bone of a very odd, horizontal wading bird – longnecked like a crane or heron. In the Morín Cave, there is an engraving on a rib fragment of what appear to be five overlapping bird heads; although Don Hitchcock thinks that they are ducks or swans, I think that they look more like large, long-billed waders – cranes or herons. In any case, this edible, upright, dancing bird, which marked off the seasons by its migration, was obviously very special for early modern humans. It is not surprising, then, that among the special dances performed in ancient Greek sanctuaries was the Crane Dance, performed “with tortuous, labyrinthian movements.”
After the owls in the Chauvet and Trois Fréres Caves, it will come as no surprise that owls figure in Palaeolithic portable art as well. We have at least four very old owl representations dating from about 25,000 BCE at the sites of Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov in Moravia in the Czech Republic. Two are owl pendants, which were probably worn either for clan reasons or as amulets offering protection by a deity, just as one might wear a Saint Christopher medal or a cross around one’s neck today or hang a Magnetic Mary in the car. The other two are baked-clay figurines of owls, neither of which are earless, making them perhaps Eurasian eagle-owls. There is also an Upper Palaeolithic owl carved from an animal tooth that was found in the Mas d’Azil Cave, which is quite similar to the Dolní Věstonice figurines. Lastly, we have a handle of some sort with a carved face of an owl found at the Russian site of Avdeevo dating from about 19,000–18,000 BCE.
Waterbirds and owls do not exhaust our list of birds in Palaeolithic portable art. In Mezin, a Magdalenian settlement near Kiev, six little mammoth-ivory figurines of birds were found dating from about 15,000– 13,000 BCE. They are beautifully and delicately carved with fat bodies and flat tails and incised with delicate patterns of lines presenting our earliest known example of the meander pattern. Some are flying birds and some are not, and none of them seem to be waterfowl. They appear to represent plump, edible birds, and judging by their fat bodies and longish, flat tails, my best guess is that they represent some kind of a grouse, partridge, or ptarmigan. They are linked to the goddess motif by the etched pubic triangles – vulva symbols – on their backs.
Ptarmigan will continue to be an important theme in art when we move into the Neolithic. In far northeastern Russia in Chukhotka, among the many small stone bird carvings, we find a number of ptarmigan.
It is noteworthy that grouse and ptarmigan were also revered in western Europe. There is a detailed carving of a grouse, with the head missing, on the end of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, made of antler that was found in Mas d’Azil. The Gönnersdorf Cave, an Upper Palaeolithic site on the Middle Rhine with over 150 engravings of animals on slate, also has a few lifelike bird engravings from around 15,000 BCE, one of which is a ptarmigan. A bird that Armstrong, probably rightly, takes to be a ptarmigan engraved on a reindeer antler was found in the Isturitz Cave. There is an engraving on a limestone pebble from Laugerie-Basse that is either a corvid – scavenging bird – or a capercaillie.
There is a bird engraved using the sunken relief method on a flint flake found at the open-air site Cantalouette II in the Dordogne region. It is interesting because of the sunken relief technique and its Aurignacian origins (33,000–29,000 BCE). It is one of our oldest pieces of Palaeolithic bird art – along with the Hohle Fels waterbird and the Chauvet owl – and it may be a grey partridge or a common quail.
The grouse/ptarmigan can hardly have been a fortuitous choice for carvers; to assume that it is just a pretty design is an anachronistic assumption. Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic artists did not work that way; this crucial winter food source was probably chosen for clan and totem reasons or because the carvings were seen as fetishes and carried with one to please and appease the grouse spirit. These carvings were not baubles.
There seem to be few Palaeolithic representations of birds other than waterbirds, birds of prey, namely owls, and birds of the grouse type in our early portable art. There is a bird pendant carved from a cave bear’s canine tooth that was found in the Solutrean layer (20,000–15,000 BCE) of the Buxu Cave in Spain. It is thought to be some kind of crake or other member of the Rallidae family, although that is doubtful. There are a few bustards, like the two from the Gourdan Cave, one from Laugerie-Basse, and one from Abri de la Madeleine, although they can be hard to tell from geese. There is a bird, together with a bison, engraved on sandstone in the Cave of Puy-de-Lacan, and it is usually thought to be a long-legged duck or goose, although it is much more likely a bustard. Apart from these edible birds, there are hardly any others.
The great tradition of Palaeolithic art came to an end around 9500 BCE after at least 25,000 years, “perhaps the greatest art tradition humankind has ever known.” The uniformity of subjects and techniques over so long a period is astounding.
What we see in these bird drawings, figurines, pendants, and engravings is a 20,000-year continuum of representations of various birds that demonstrates the persistence of the bird as cult object and sacred amulet throughout the Palaeolithic. It is not accidental that birds, snakes, Venuses, and penises turn up so regularly in this animistic culture, where humans need all the help that they can get to survive. It will not be surprising if earlier finds from the Middle Palaeolithic (298,000–48,000 BCE) turn up, and if they do, we can bet that among them there will be birds.
As we prepare with regret to leave the Palaeolithic and enter the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (10,000–6500 BCE), what can we conclude about the role of birds in human eyes up to this time? Any thought that birds were just pretty or edible creatures that could serve as the subjects of objets d’art must be banished. As Armstrong puts it, “to man in the Old Stone Age [or Palaeolithic] birds were not merely acceptable as food but symbolized mysterious powers which pervaded the wilderness in which he hungered, hunted and wove strange dreams.” Birds, in various forms, from diving birds to owls and grouse, were sacred and thought to have spirits whose help was sought for coping with life and death. Birds were carved from mammoth ivory, bone, antler, and stone, depicted on atlatls, worn on the body as pendants, buried in the grave with children, carried as fetishes, or simply kept as cult representations deep in caves, where they were painted or etched on the walls of inner sanctum rooms in positions of honour that reflected the degree of sacredness imputed to these feathered deities. From our earliest Upper Palaeolithic finds at Hohle Fels and Chauvet to our youngest ones at Lascaux and Mas d’Azil, the importance of birds for humans remains paramount.
The featured image shows, “Margaret (‘Peg’) Woffington (the actress),” by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, painted ca. 1738.
Well over half a century after the end of the fascist era in 1945, fascism remains in common use as a term, if not as a coherent concept. Never in history has a completely obliterated political phenomenon remained so alive in the imagination of its would-be adversaries. For more than seventy years, journalists and political commentators have searched assiduously to identify the emergence of some form of neofascism; eventually professional historians began to join in this perpetually disappointing endeavor.
The most recent major excitement was generated by the American presidential campaign of 2016 and 2020, when journalists bedeviled academic specialists, including this writer, with the repeated query “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” The results of this persistent search for a new fascism have been uniformly negative. When a new political phenomenon of some importance is identified, it turns out not to be genuinely fascist. If the novel entity does bear some sort of genuine resemblance to historical fascism, it turns out—partly for that reason—to be totally marginalized and doomed to insignificance. A splendid analysis of such exercises as applied to the case of contemporary Italy may be found in the very recent volume, Chi è fascista (2019), by Emilio Gentile, that country’s leading historian of fascism.
From its origins in 1919, fascism has been hard to understand. This is not because of its radicalism and violence, since at that time radical and violent new political phenomena were rampant in Europe, led by the nascent Soviet regime. Fascism, however, was like communism in its violence and authoritarianism, but otherwise unique in its complex combination of features, neither clearly of the left nor the right. It was the only genuinely new kind of political movement to emerge from the wreckage of World War I and had no clear predecessor. It persistently confused observers, but in its analogous German form briefly rose to world-historical prominence, unleashing the most destructive single conflict history had ever seen. Even after it concluded, as an historical phenomenon and as a concept fascism, broadly defined, continued to be difficult to grasp. For two decades after 1945, study of fascism was limited to national histories and monographic work on individual movements.
The true “fascism debate” did not develop until nearly a generation had passed, initiated by Ernst Nolte’s Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, the first major comparative study, and Eugen Weber’s brief Varieties of Fascism, both of which appeared in 1964. Both agreed that there was such a thing as a “generic fascism” (of which Nolte provided a brief philosophical definition), but also that it was an extremely pluriform phenomenon, with quite different manifestations in various countries. Nolte, particularly, concluded that it had defined an entire era, the “era of fascism,” which ended in 1945; that it had been dependent on historical forces peculiar to that period; and that historic fascism was not likely to reappear in the future. Rather than constituting a recurrent form or concept, such as democracy or socialism, it was characteristic only of one specific historical era.
The fascism debate continued into the 1990s and seemed to wane briefly, until further important work appeared after the turn of the century. The debate concerned specific fascist movements and regimes, as well as the dilemma regarding an adequate “generic” concept. The understanding and interpretation of fascism matured in the process, with increasing agreement that fascism, or its constituent movements, did indeed have a specific ideology; that it occupied its own autonomous political space (not merely as the “agent” of some other force); that it was not necessarily “anti-modern” and that it constituted a revolutionary interclass movement.
In a new anthology that he published in 1998 (International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus), Roger Griffin, one of the best of the younger scholars to emerge during this discussion, could confidently present a “new consensus,” though not everyone agreed. In the new century, the debate was renewed by others, with such notable books as Michael Mann’s Fascists (2004), the best work of political sociology in the field, Griffin’s highly original Modernism and Fascism (2007), and Constantin Iordachi’s anthology, Comparative Fascist Studies: New Perspectives (2010). With the assistance of Matthew Feldman, Griffin also published Fascism in five volumes (2004), a massive collection of key texts, studies and interpretations. The case of France has been treated anew in the outstanding set of studies edited by Michel Winock and Serge Berstein, Fascisme français: La controverse (2014).
Paul Gottfried’s new book is the best broadly interpretative study on fascism to have appeared in this century’s second decade. It undertakes a fresh analysis from the critical perspective of someone with a deep background in major aspects of modern political thought, concerned first with the perpetually vexing problem of the definition of the term. It then addresses the concept or understanding of fascism by followers of the fascist movements themselves. The use and abuse of the concept of fascism is the major focus of this study, especially the way that it has been understood and employed by self-proclaimed anti-fascists. In reality, Gottfried finds that amid contemporary political discourse and popular historical reference, most of historical fascism has disappeared from view, so that when fascism is mentioned, the term almost always refers to Nazism, always the most popular “other” in twenty-first-century discourse and entertainment. Islamic Jihadis work diligently to achieve equal status, but have not gained equivalent eminence.
In the broadest sense, of course, “fascist” is simply the most popular term of denunciation, its usage only indicating that whatever is referred to “displeases” the speaker, as Gottfried says. Hence the frequency with which journalists and commentators have applied the term to Donald Trump, though they sometimes admit they do not really know what it might actually mean. At the most common level of leftist discourse, “fascism” often merely implies “failing to keep up with social changes introduced long after the Second World War.” The trivialization is absurd, with the result that the term fascism has become what linguists call an “empty signifier” into which any kind of meaning may be injected.
Gottfried accepts the categorization of “generic fascism” only at a very high level of abstraction, but, more fundamentally, concludes that National Socialism was so different from Italian Fascism and other fascisms in its character, doctrine and historical significance that to include them all in the same taxonomic category involves a good deal of distortion. In this he agrees with Nolte, the pioneer of comparative fascist studies, and, for that matter, with German historians generally. For Nolte, National Socialism was unique both in its prime characteristics and in its radicalism and destructiveness, remaining “borderline” in its relation to generic fascism. German historians generally have tended to view it as relatively unique, and since the early achievements of Nolte have made only somewhat limited contributions to comparative fascist studies.
Nazism was of primary historical importance to Europe and the world, while fascism in general was quite secondary in significance, to the extent that, absent Nazism, there could hardly have been a “fascist era.” Gottfried prefers to employ the term to refer to most of the other movements (that rarely were regimes), though without insisting on any tight definition. He agrees with other scholars for whom fascism was strictly an epochal phenomenon, confined largely to interwar Europe, after which conditions became so drastically altered as to make impossible the development of any subsequent movement with the same characteristics, particularly in Europe. This is not to deny the occasional existence of tiny groups and cults, which have existed and will continue to exist in diverse venues.
Gottfried also concurs that fascism was a revolutionary movement but does not agree with those who judge that this quality carried it beyond the left-right spectrum. The dividing line between left and right nominally rests on the issues of egalitarianism and hierarchy, and the acceptance or rejection of the myth of progress. For Gottfried, the fascist position on these key issues reveals fascism to be a peculiar form of the right, the only sector of the right that was “revolutionary,” and here one might add revolutionary as distinct from merely being radical or extremist. There were numerous expressions of a radical right during the era of fascism, but they all sought either to preserve or revive traditional institutions, and always fell short of the revolutionary characteristics of fascism. This is a reasonably convincing conclusion, though it fails to resolve such issues altogether, since subsequently the left would strongly embrace its own forms of nationalism, elitism, hierarchy, particularity and identitarian politics. Thus, in the broader view, fascism might still be seen as a unique type of revolutionism, beyond both the left and right in their classic forms.
Yet, though fascism has been confused with the conservative or even radical right, its revolutionary thrust was so great that in its final conflagration it not merely destroyed itself but also brought nearly the entire nationalist hard-right wing of Western politics down with it. Gottfried observes accurately that since 1945 the political life of the Western world has tended almost exclusively toward the left. What passes even for “conservatism,” much less the hard right, is simply a conservative or moderate form of liberalism, even of part of social democracy, and all the efforts to revive the right as a significant and separate force have failed, political contests taking place almost exclusively between forms of moderate liberalism and a more “advanced” left.
Though he takes issue with aspects of the quasi-consensus developed in fascist studies, a significant part of Gottfried’s book is devoted to the “career” of the concept since 1945 and the role of the idea of fascism in a post-fascist world. The initial concept was defined for political purposes by the Comintern in 1923, the first non-Italian political organization to raise a categorical banner of “anti-fascism,” subsequently deliberately conflating all manner of other phenomena with fascism as a calculated propaganda device. Only after 1945 would this Comintern practice pass into more general usage in other political sectors. It should be remembered, however, that genuine anti-fascists were much more numerous than fascists, or, for that matter, even those more vaguely fascistophile, even in the heyday of the “fascist era.” It is a mistake to confuse the potency of Nazi Germany with any notion of an extremely widely diffused attraction to fascism that in fact never existed.
It was the political triumph of Hitler in Germany in 1933 that considerably increased the appeal of fascism in other countries, yet the initial enthusiasm did not last in the great majority of European polities; in general, the growth of anti-fascism was considerably greater. On the left it produced a sharp shift in Communist tactics toward the Popular Front, and elsewhere encouraged increasing imitation of the Comintern line that conflated a wide variety of political forces with fascism. In Spain, beginning in the final months of 1933, the left termed everything from the center-right and beyond simply “fascist.” By 1935, both Soviet policy and that of the Comintern had wrapped themselves in the banner of anti-fascism; this was fundamental to the Communist line from that point forward, except for the biennium of 1939 to 1941.
During those two brief years Stalin was an ally of Hitler and, in propaganda theory, exempted National Socialism from the category of fascism. From 1941 to the very end of the Soviet system, anti-fascism, almost as much as Marxism-Leninism, was the propagandistic bedrock of Sovietism. It was always useful in winning support for Sovietism among anti-fascist moderates that otherwise would probably never have been forthcoming. François Furet analyzed this phenomenon with great skill. Moreover, from 1941 to 1945 anti-fascism in the broad sense was the bedrock for the most powerful international military alliance in world history, yet anti-fascism either as a genuine force or as a propagandistic argument has received much less attention in historiography than has fascism. This is the more surprising given the prominence of anti-fascism in political doctrine and propaganda since 1945.
Gottfried’s thirty-page chapter “Fascism as the Unconquered Past” addresses the place of fascism in leftist theory and propaganda. He grounds this not in Comintern propaganda, which was always opportunist, but in the intellectually most serious leftist cluster of the 1930s, the Frankfurt School. These émigré German philosophers, psychologists and social thinkers transformed the concept of fascism from that of a political force or forces in contemporary Europe into a permanent “psychic condition” or temptation of all Western culture. This intellectual sleight of hand enormously magnified the potential or latent state of fascism even beyond the political conflation generated by Comintern propaganda. Ideologues of the Frankfurt School created their “Critical Theory” for the analysis of all Western history, culture, institutions, society and politics. It relied not on Marxist economics but on the adaptation of Freudian psychology, pushing the latter “in a visionary direction that Freud himself would have never recognized” by offering cultural analysis in the guise of social and political criticism. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer then adapted Marxism to their “negative dialectic” “by which existing social and cultural institutions were exposed to critical assault” on a continuing basis.
Fundamental to this critique was the danger of “fascism,” for which they invented a particular typology, creating an arbitrary “F scale” to measure something that they termed “The Authoritarian Personality” (TAP). This purported to assess the extent to which literally anyone might be prone to “fascism,” claiming to identify dangerous proclivities lurking almost everywhere. According to the Frankfurt theorists, these could be overcome only by doing away with advanced capitalism, so long as that could be achieved simultaneously with complete sexual liberation. Their theory contended that fascism was based not merely on capitalism but on sexual repression (a concept that would have astounded Mussolini). As quasi- or pseudo-Freudians, they generally ignored the basic Freudian injunction “that the repression and redirection of primal urges was necessary for human civilization.” It was characteristic of the Frankfurt theorists that the TAP critique was especially aimed not at fascist or post-fascist societies but “at an American society that was believed to be suffering from a democracy deficit.” Immediately after achieving the total destruction of European fascism, American society and culture were held to be generating their own “fascism.” Such notions have been broadly expressed and elaborated in the discourse and politics of the left throughout the Western world during the past half century, directed not merely against American society and culture, but also against those of democratic Western Europe.
Nowhere has radical anti-fascism held sway so fully as in Germany, briefly the homeland of the most radical fascism. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” created by critical theories of anti-fascism has de-legitimized invocation of German patriotism and has dominated cultural and political life in the Federal Republic of Germany, while in the German Democratic Republic anti-fascism came to enjoy an even more predominant place. After the public discrediting of Stalinism in 1956, anti-fascism tended increasingly to take the place of Marxism-Leninism in legitimating the regime’s ideology and practice.
Thus, the existence of fascism was not at all necessary in order to generate the most intense anti-fascism. It could be artificially but dramatically recreated as an ever-present danger that lurked perpetually. Rather than being directed against fascism, anti-fascism was a concept and a propaganda banner that in some ways became more useful and intense in its application the farther that any given society moved away from fascism, an ultimate symbol for the left long after the traditional social classes, classic Marxism or fascism itself had disappeared. In Europe a prime example may be found in Spain, where the left declared itself more “antifranquista” in 2016, after living memory of franquismo had virtually disappeared, than in 1980 or 1985, when franquismo had been a recent reality. Emilio Gentile has examined the same phenomena in Italy.
More broadly, the specious scientism of these theorists provided the background for what ultimately developed into the very broad leftist “pathologizing of dissent” in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Under this rubric, the first really dangerous neofascism was discovered in the United States in the 1950s. From that point, this standard hermeneutics of suspicion has gone on to find neofascists under every bed, even though every single case has turned out to be a false alarm. Stigmatization seems indispensable to political polemics, and no other form is so intrinsically appealing as “fascist.” No other adjective, not even “Stalinist,” has acquired such totally pejorative connotations, while the very vagueness of the term, together with its uniquely sinister phonetic qualities, stimulates protean usage.
Gottfried’s book is thus unique in the way that it addresses both sides of the fascist phenomenon—history and historical meaning on the one hand, and the long history of pejorative polemics on the other. No other book in the recent scholarly literature treats these problems so comprehensively. It elucidates both a major historical problem and a major feature of contemporary debate, and is the most useful book on fascism to have been published during the last decade.
The featured image shows, “The Hands of the Italian People,” by Giacomo Balla, painted in 1925.
In contrast to hard totalitarianism, the soft, democratic version does not seem to create dissidents, and thereby the wider opposition that might resist it. If opposition does happen to emerge, it is quickly condemned as sexist, misogynist, racist, etc., and almost never given mass support. Communism, on the other hand, produced legions of dissidents. The names of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josif Brodsky, Gleb Jakunin, Andrei Zacharov, Alexander Zinoviev, Vladimir Bukowski, Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Vaclav Havel, and Milovan Dzilas are only a handful of the best-known. To them, and to those who supported them, it was obvious that they fought evil, and they were willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives to do so. Yet importantly, they knew they had the quiet or open support of the overwhelming remainder of society. It was almost an instinctual recognition that totalitarianism is evil, and it was the realization of its evil that created the opposition.
The rejection of communism was, among other things, an attempt to free one’s mind from ideological enslavement in order to reclaim the idea of right and wrong, good and evil—and all this was accomplished independent of politics. Politics was thought to be subservient to values, and as things stood it was clear that politics could corrupt our understanding of what is good and right. The suffering and death of victims of the new totalitarian regime was one reason to believe that good, truth, and justice are not relative, and there was no compromise to be struck. The opposition manifested itself either as a private and quiet attitude of ordinary people, or in open and loud protests of the opponents. Different levels of participation depended on the courage of each individual, and the willingness to take the risk. The most courageous of them became dissidents. They were admired and venerated by the quiet majority. In contrast to the masses under communism, the democratic masses are not just quiet, but seem to be almost deaf to a moral call, and often act as if they reject morality altogether.
According to classical Christian metaphysics, evil is privation, or lack of good; it is a force to be found in man, in his perverted will. It was understood that the role of the State is to constrain evil tendencies in man, or, as the Greeks believed, the task of politics was to create conditions for the development of virtues. As Aristotle wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics, “The function of a lawgiver is to make citizens good.” Such understanding of evil and the role of the State was rejected by the liberal thinkers. The writings of John Stuart Mill, probably the most representative of the liberal doctrine, are virtually peppered with the word “evil.” However, the reader of his writings quickly realizes that its meaning departs from the traditional—classical and Christian—understanding of it. Hundreds of sentences in which the term “evil” occurs in Mill’s writings allow the reader to infer that evil is of a social nature, and is the result of unequal distribution of power. The terms “fairness” and “social justice,” which definitively entered socio-political vocabulary in the 1950s made this a reality. “Fairness” and “social justice” came to signify the situation in which no one has more power than someone else, or that someone does not have more goods than others. Even elevating people out of poverty to the unprecedented level of material well-being and limiting abuses of judicial system are not satisfactory to those who think of evil the way Mill conceived of it.
The shift from a metaphysical conception of evil to a social one stems from the liberal understanding of power. Power, as Mill famously remarked in his argument for freedom of speech, is illegitimate, and therefore evil. Thus, for example, “[The power] of the aristocracy in the government is not only no benefit, but a positive evil.” Similarly, the power of husband over wife, of parent over child, etc., are evil as well. Good, on the other hand, is what diminishes the political power and social authority. The purpose of diminishing authority is to expand equality; and because progress is part of a historical process, as history develops so does the scope of equality. At the end of this historical process, as Mill says in the conclusion of his Utilitarianism, we will witness a slow death of aristocracies of race, sex, and color. Looking at things from today’s perspective, Mill must be given credit for understanding the consequences of his own doctrine. He predicted that as long as there is still a single minority “left behind,” to use contemporary vocabulary, the fight against authority will continue. And it does.
However, socializing the idea of evil turned out not to be without serious consequences. In his discussion of fairness as an ethical principle, Erich Fromm notes that the principle of fairness “is the ethical principle governing the life of the marketing personality. The principle of fairness, no doubt, makes for a certain type of ethical behavior. You do not lie, cheat or use force… if you act according to the code of fairness. But to love your neighbor, to feel one with him, to devote your life to the aim of developing your spiritual powers, is not part of the fairness ethics. We live in a paradoxical situation: we practice fairness ethics, and profess Christian ethics.” Nothing could be further from truth. Today, sixty-five years after Fromm wrote the above words, we hear the leaders of Christian Churches and Reformed Jewish synagogues announce the same message about social justice and hardly a word about our individual responsibility for our next-door neighbor. The answer to the question of how we reached the point of turning away from the individual man and his responsibility within a social collective, toward impersonal help in the form of high taxation, can be traced to Mill’s writings.
Mill’s understanding of the nature of the historical process is similar to that of Marx and Engels, according to whom “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In Marx, it is the class of the capitalists who oppress the workers, whereas in Mill the oppressed classes are minorities. Once we accept such a view of history, we must come to the conclusion that the goal of politics is to end inequality. Accordingly, those who either attempt to slow down or stop the progress of equality are perpetrators of evil. In other words, those who fight authority (of whatever kind) fight oppression, and are therefore on the side of good and right, whereas those who uphold the status quo are oppressors who are on the wrong side, are evil.
The idea that authority is evil must sound strange to someone who thinks of evil as a destructive or corruptive moral force to be found in man. But this is what Mill rejected. He socialized the moral right and wrong, and in doing so Mill denied them their former metaphysical validity, rendering right and wrong an instrument of politics. To put it simply, what is good is what promotes equality; what is bad is what prevents its implementation. The consequence of this socialization of good and right, of evil and wrong, is that the words “evil” and “wrong” could no longer be applied to the partisans of progress and equality. Progress and equality are by definition good, and those who are on the side of progress promote the good. In such a conceptual-linguistic framework, the term evil might be legitimately applied only to those who defend authority, or who fight the desired social and political changes.
A perfect illustration of this process of socialization of good and evil is the position of almost all of the current Democratic presidential candidates. In the words of Beto O’Rourke, “Religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—they should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage.” A similar attitude concerning different ills experienced by the LGBTQ community was expressed by Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. All of them see the support for the progressive causes, however unrealistic or insane they may be, as using political force as normal. There are no economic, social, or other kinds of problems; everything comes down to fighting discrimination, that is, to bringing about more equality. No one voices concerns that such policies are intrusive, undesirable in some respect, or as a violation of individual conscience. The reason is that the aim of politics, according to them, is total submission of conscience to politics. And if it requires war against Christianity, its representatives being the churches of all the different denominations, let it be. Biblical teaching regarding right and wrong, people’s commitment to national culture, transcendence, and conscience do not matter. Their views are simply wrong. And we know them to be wrong because they run counter to the ethics of social fairness.
Let me substantiate my claim with a quotation from a recent news story.
On October 2, 2019, United Kingdom Employment Tribunal Ruled that Biblical View of Sexes is ‘Incompatible with Human Dignity.’ The tribunal in the United Kingdom ruled against a Christian doctor who alleged that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) breached his freedom of thought, conscience and religion pursuant to the Equality Act. Disability assessor Dr. David Mackereth claimed discrimination after the DWP failed to accommodate his refusal to use pronouns which did not correspond with the biological sex of clients. In its decision, the panel stated that Dr. Mackereth’s belief that “the Bible teaches us that God made humans male or female” was “incompatible with human dignity”… In June 2018, about a week after being hired, Dr. Mackereth attended a training course for assessors, including on DWP’s policy to refer to transgender clients by their preferred name and title. Dr. Mackereth said “As a Christian, I cannot use pronouns in that way in good conscience… I am a Christian, and in good conscience I cannot do what the DWP are requiring of me.
The ruling, no doubt, runs counter to Biblical teaching and common sense. But above all, such a ruling amounts to a violation of individual conscience on the part of the State. However, given that liberalism did away with the transcendent view of right and wrong, what the tribunal declares must be right. Thus. it is not religion that is found is on the side of right and wrong, but the feelings and claims of the LGBTQ community.
In this, the minorities act like the communists of old who threatened their opponents and made them abandon their values for the sake of equality. Lack of acquiescence to the new or socialist morality means one is destined to end up in the dustbin of history.
The acceptance of such a socialized view of right and wrong ejects the individual who dares to adhere to a different ethical code than that of fairness from the social collective. It also explains why dissent in liberal democracies is extremely rare, and when it happens the dissenters are attacked and condemned as perpetrators of “social injustice,” and are being labeled as sexist, racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, and ageist––that is, as those who oppose progress. Almost nothing else is evil or wrong except being one of the above. Dissent means disagreement with progressive causes, and is viewed as an implicit attempt to restore authority, to roll history back, to return to the oppressive past, to impose the old-fashioned and obsolete moral standards of behavior onto others, or as an attempt to increase the power of the state (or “power structure”) over the individual. Hardly ever is it thought of as an attempt to stop or slow down the changes perceived as socially undesirable, sometimes dangerous, or an attempt to restore a sense of national pride and a return to virtue, sanity, renewal of man’s moral rectitude, or promotion of decency and sanity.
Once we accept a new understanding of evil, everything is decried as fascist. Mussolini and Hitler were fascists, but so was Aristotle because he endowed the polis with considerable authority over the individual. But even if we leave aside the political projects of classical philosophers, the absurdity of such reasoning does not disappear. After the collapse of communism in Russia, it was natural for the former oppressed countries to ponder what post-Soviet reality should look like. One of the voices in the debate was that of the former arch-dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In his writings, he offers a program of moral regeneration of his country by looking into the past. Soon after, Solzhenitsyn, who spent decades in a gulag for his opposition to communism, was accused by liberal critics (Cathy Young in the Boston Globe and Zinovy Zinik in the TLS) of being “the theoretician of Putin-style authoritarianism and even a quasi-fascist.” Such accusations leveled against former anti-communist dissidents and members of former anti-communist opposition have become almost a norm in today’s liberal West.
In the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum, a well-respected journalist, historian, and author of several books, including an excellent Gulag: A History, wrote a long article titled “A Warning from Europe” as part of The Atlantic’s larger section: “Is Democracy Dying?” In it, she devoted considerable space to Poland and Hungary, addressing the rise of authoritarianism, intolerance, and other ills in these countries. The culprit is of course the past and its defenders, organized into political parties whose policies allegedly threaten democracy. The paradox that emerges while reading articles about former communist countries, written by and large by liberal commentators, is that many of those who represent the parties which supposedly threaten democracy are the former members of anti-communist opposition. Given the anti-totalitarian credentials of the new “totalitarians,” one wonders how credible is the claim that the former anti-totalitarian fighters have become the destroyers of the freedoms they fought for, and, consequently, whether such a reading of political life in Poland, Hungary, and Trump’s America, is correct.
Such claims can be true only if one measures the health of democracy by today’s standards of the socialized right and wrong. Thus, democracy in Hungary and Poland is threatened because of a firm commitment to tradition and religious values that helped the nation to survive forty-four years of communism, or German occupation that wiped out one-fourth of the population, or today’s anti-immigration stance on Muslims to those countries (the disastrous effects we can observe in the countries that did in fact receive them), and the reluctant acquiescence to LGBTQ demands. Any attempt to resist such demands is perceived as anti-democratic, intolerant, or evil.
Lenin once remarked that he wanted “to purge Russia of all the harmful insects.” Such an attitude was responsible for the gulags, murders, brutal interrogations, merciless persecution of dissenting voices, fear, and intimidation. The prime example of such policy exercised today is the case of the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson. Peterson made a name for himself in 2016, during the debate concerning the Bill C-16 in Canada. The bill’s intention was to advance human-rights law by expanding “gender identity and gender expression.” As Peterson argued, such a law would violate free speech because of the way the ‘transgender’ and so called ‘non-binary’ people use pronouns such as ‘they’ (for singular). The Ontario Human Rights Commission concluded that if public institutions (workplace or schools) refuse to refer “to a trans person by their chosen name and a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity,” it could be a violation of non-discrimination principles. Peterson refused and said: “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest. And that’s that.”
It would appear, one would think, to every commonsensical person that the debate was over nothing or is simply silly. Plural cannot be singular! Yet Peterson’s obstinacy became a social explosion and the psychology professor was soon the most persecuted man in North America. His public pronouncements about the use of pronouns may have triggered a reaction among some, but it is an unlikely explanation of why the attacks have continued for years and never stopped. An explanation should instead be sought in his views, which he laid out in his 12 Rules for Life. An Antidote to Chaos. The book is what it says it is, but it is also a well-presented case against enforcing equality of outcome, as well as ideological brainwashing; and it is a defense of hierarchy. Let me use a few quotations to illustrate Peterson’s position:
What such studies imply is that we could probably minimize the innate differences between boys and girls, if we were willing to exert enough pressure. This would in no way ensure that we are freeing people of either gender to make their own choices. But choice has no place in the ideological picture: if men and women act, voluntarily, to produce gender-unequal outcomes, those very choices must have been determined by cultural bias. In consequence, everyone is a brainwashed victim, wherever gender differences exist, and the rigorous critical theoretician is morally obligated to set them straight. This means that those already equity-minded Scandinavian males, who aren’t much into nursing, require even more retraining. The same goes, in principle, for Scandinavian females, who aren’t much into engineering. Such things are often pushed past any reasonable limit before they are discontinued. What might such retraining look like? Where might its limits lie?… Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution should have taught us that.
A shared cultural system stabilizes human interaction, but it is also a system of value—a hierarchy value, where some things are given priority and importance and others are not. In the absence of such a system of value, people simply cannot act. In fact, they can’t even perceive, because both action and perception require a goal, and a valid goal is, by necessity, something valued.
What Peterson says, if an additional explanation is needed, is that contemporary progressivists—just like the former communist architects of the gulag—are trying to force an ideological vision on people by turning them into what they think the people should be, by training them to act as they “ought to.” None of it is done with any concern for their individual well-being. Its most likely effect will be what the history of communism was––utter brutality. The second fragment states it clearly: Hierarchy is a fundamental part of healthy human existence. It is the scaffold without which the world would plunge into chaos, and therefore, the liberal position, according to which all values are equal, is actually morally destructive. One might go further and say that living according to ad hoc whims, by which the progressive liberals want to organize private and public life, is a recipe for chaos. This is what the book is trying to prevent.
One should also add that the book is rich in serious philosophical reflections, references to Christianity, Jesus (who is referred to as Christ), poets, and philosophers. Even though it is a book written by a clinical psychologist, it has an incredibly broad humanistic scope. Clearly, it is written by someone who cares for his fellow man. His 12 Rules is not a personal statement or confession of his religious beliefs, nor is it a book about religion, but Peterson does not hide his sympathy for Christian religion. This in itself, one can suspect, may be a reason why he caused such an uproar. But, more importantly, it explains why he is so difficult to destroy. He was literarily persecuted by his colleagues who wanted his removal from his university post at the University of Toronto. But Peterson refused to give in and bow to ideological dictates that would compromise his moral stance. During the unfortunate two years of attacks against him, he gained many followers and admirers, adding more fuel to the old controversy.
In the Wall Street Journal (January 25, 2018), a well-known journalist, Peggy Noonan, wrote the following:
Mr. Peterson is called ‘controversial’ because he has been critical, as an academic, of various forms of the rising authoritarianism of the moment—from identity politics to cultural appropriation to white privilege and postmodern feminism. He has refused to address or refer to transgendered people by the pronouns “zhe” and “zher.” He has opposed governmental edicts in his native Canada that aim, perhaps honestly, at inclusion, but in practice limit views, thoughts and speech… This is unusual in a professor but not yet illegal, so I bought his book to encourage him. Deeper in, you understand the reasons he might be targeted for annihilation.
Noonan is right on two counts. First, screenings of the new documentary about Peterson in Toronto and New York were recently cancelled, signifying that some desperately wish for the public to forget about Peterson. “ShapeShifter Lab, an event space in Brooklyn, has cancelled a screening of the newly-released Jordan Peterson biopic because of staff complaints. The New York cancellation mirrors a similar incident in Toronto, where a scheduled week-long theatrical run of The Rise of Jordan Peterson was cancelled after some members of the staff vented their displeasure with the film.” Noonan’s prediction about annihilating him was, no doubt, prophetic. However, the idea that one can understand why anyone should “be targeted for annihilation” simply for refusing to use personal pronouns in an incomprehensible and ungrammatical manner, is truly mind-boggling. But perhaps not so much if one keeps reminding oneself that Peterson’s case is not an isolated incident.
In August of 2017, a young software engineer James Damore was fired from Google for circulating an internal memo in which he suggested that the disparity in employment between the sexes may be due to biological differences. Here is a fragment from an article he wrote for The Wall Street Journal (August 11, 2017).
I was fired by Google this past Monday for a document that I wrote and circulated internally raising questions about cultural taboos and how they cloud our thinking about gender diversity at the company and in the wider tech sector. I suggested that at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences (and, yes, I said that bias against women was a factor too). Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai declared that portions of my statement violated the company’s code of conduct and “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.
My 10-page document set out what I considered a reasoned, well-researched, good-faith argument, but as I wrote, the viewpoint I was putting forward is generally suppressed at Google because of the company’s “ideological echo chamber.” My firing neatly confirms that point. How did Google, the company that hires the smartest people in the world, become so ideologically driven and intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument?
Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.
Mr. Damore became an instant celebrity, but his fame did not last for very long. His case, like Jordan Peterson’s, is symptomatic of how liberal-democracies operate and punish people for their convictions. Neither Damore nor Peterson were sent to a gulag, but the former suffered the highest punishment that the dissidents can suffer in a democracy: losing a job, becoming a social pariah and being decried as an enemy—the enemy of equality. We may never have communist style gulags, but then again nor do we need them. Ideological training, reminding people that there is no right and wrong independent of the social context, that Biblical teaching is wrong, that the ‘good’ is what diminishes authority and expands equality, is all that is needed. And the American educational system is doing just that.
What we all seem to know, but are too afraid to say clearly and openly in public, is that we fear “being purged like insects,” the way Mr. Damore was, and that we are being intimidated daily by the Leninist policies of minority groups instigated by a class of egalitarian ideologues. Those who insist that anyone should use “zhe” and “zher,” (or “comrade,” as was spoken under communism, or “citizen,” as used during the French Revolution), or that we attend various “training” to learn the new norms (unless we want to be fired), are political terrorists. We all should admit that the new progressive terrorists have hijacked public life in America, Canada, and elsewhere, and that America and Canada are not much different from the Leninist State.
Let us also note that policies that require mind-transformation, stifling free speech, thought and actions, are not the work of the right, ultra-right, White-supremacists, or nationalist parties. These policies stem from the liberal ideological dictates. It is enough to compare eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary—described by liberal journalists as places where democracies are dying—and the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and ask: In which of the above countries does one find greater freedom, and which parties or segments in their respective societies impose ideological rules on others? Or, to put it differently, which of the above countries are closer to being totalitarian?
Anne Applebaum’s article is symptomatic of the perception of danger. Such a perception, if accepted by a large number of people, may miss the real threat to the existence of democratic institutions. She sees one side of the problem and ignores the other––namely, the rise of totalitarianism in America, which poses a greater danger to the health and preservation of a democracy than anything else. The expansion of equality, which can only be done if the State forces the entire population to accept certain views, while ruling contradictory beliefs illegal as was done in the UK (whose tribunal ruled biblical teaching wrong) will transform democracy into a totalitarian system. Even if we agree with her that some of the policies and laws (or, attempts to establish them) in post-communist countries are restrictive and misguided, they are, and always were, simply part of a normal political game: the struggle for influence and power, conflict between social and political claims, competing visions of a nation’s future, all of which stem from normal human motivations.
What one cannot say about politics in those countries is that the parties propagate mind-enslaving ideology as the Democratic Party does in the United States, or like such publications and news outlets as The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. Right-wing or conservative magazines exist in Poland and Hungary, just as they do elsewhere, but their influence is limited to a small group of readers who have a certain way of thinking, but are hardly the outlet for ideological brainwashing. Neither Poland nor Hungary have a Canadian-style Bill C-16, the United Kingdom’s 2006 “Racial and Religious Hatred Act” (or the 2016 M-103), sensitivity and sexual harassment training, mandatory ideologically driven courses for students, the De Blasio American bill—which threatens people with a fine of 250,000 dollars for the use of the term “illegal alien”—or a bill that prohibits students in New York schools from eating meat on Mondays. Polish and Hungarian languages are still in good shape in contrast to the American Newspeak, which permits certain phraseology and discards others, such as requiring the use of “maintenance hole” instead of “manhole.” What is more important, unlike the Delaware Regulation 225, which says that “all students enrolled in a Delaware public school may self-identify gender or race” without even consulting their parents, Polish and Hungarian parents have control over the mental well-being of their children. No political party in those two countries worries about parts of the population following Sharia Law, and the Biblical teaching that there are only two natural sexes is accepted by the overwhelming majority of the population. Absence of such regulations, laws, and views leaves the population of those two countries a considerable degree of freedom, something one cannot say about America and Canada, which embody Lenin’s ideal of the State.
Whence came such similarities between the former Soviet Union and North America? Liberalism and Marxism operate according to the same principle: Both view history as teleological, moving in a definite direction. Its aim and end are known. It is the ultimate realization of equality through man’s liberation from the shackles of oppression, which in liberal ideology is authority and hierarchy. Opposing any progress toward equality is tantamount to opposing history that unfolds itself in an inevitable way. The individual is helpless to stop it, nothing can be done to redirect its course. The conviction that “nothing can be done” and that the notions of good and evil, right and wrong, belong to the discarded dictionary of past historical formations forced many people to resign themselves and accept communism. But it also allowed the totalitarians to keep the atrocities they were committing from occupying their minds. Their moral numbness and dismissal of the idea that they did anything wrong can be explained by their exclusive focus on bringing about more equality. Progressive interpretation of history provided them with absolution for destroying those who opposed progress toward equality, or who had little or no faith in it.
However, it was not the communists who invented the idea of equality. In his Gods will Have Blood (Les dieux ont soif), the French writer Anatole France gives a fictionalized account of the French Revolution, which he had written long before the rise of fascism and communism.
Did you know, Louise, that this Tribunal, which is about to put the Queen of France on trial, yesterday condemned to death a young servant girl for shouting ‘Long live the Queen!’ She was convicted of malicious intent to destroy the Republic.
You must be more careful, Citizen Brotteaux,” he begun, “far more careful! There is a time for laughing and a time for being serious. Jokes are sometimes taken seriously. A member of the Committee of Safety of the Section inspected my shop yesterday and when he saw your dancing dolls, he declared they were anti-revolutionary.
Anatole France’s description of how the revolutionary spirit operates aptly renders the atmosphere in today’s America, where the Barbie doll—her color and size—became a matter of serious controversy, and the Oreo cookies—black on the outside, white on the inside—found themselves in the midst of an ideological whirlpool.
Communism is gone, and, ironically, it was brought down by those who retained the belief that truth, right and wrong, good and evil, are not man-made categories, and yet they are not the product of a historical process, either. They are objective and transcendent standards in which private and public life should be grounded. Only then can human existence, individually or collectively, be fully experienced.
Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is not a silly 12 step program book for idiots or dummies. It is an attempt to return an insane world to normalcy, from the subjective whims in which we create our own personal and collective destiny, language of standards for right and wrong, or strange personal pronouns according to which one person can be many. It is a book about the human psyche, God, politics, culture, society, human decency, and compassion for the weak. In this respect Peterson, as a psychologist, can be put in the same category as one of his great predecessors, Carl Gustav Jung—a man of infinite compassion for human frailty and understanding of man’s place in the universe. Like Peterson, Jung understood the danger of totalitarian systems. If there is an explanation for why Peterson is still around, it is because of his unwavering commitment to values, religion, hierarchy and decency. That is probably why he is so difficult to destroy, and why he infuriates his foes.
The experience of brutality and death, as in the Soviet Union, made communism a fertile ground for breeding opposition and dissidents. The absence of brutality and death in soft-totalitarianism makes it more difficult to perceive the evil of equality. However, the other reason why dissent grew under communism was a strong sense of moral right and wrong taught by religion. The communists, despite their efforts, did not succeed in entirely socializing right and wrong, and where they did, the opposition was weak, as in Bulgaria or Romania, because religiosity was weak. In Poland, on the other hand, where the Church was strong, ideological opposition was unprecedented.
Given the different faces of opposition in communist countries, one can say a few things with confidence. A rapid decline in religiosity among Americans may be one reason why the country is becoming totalitarian. Young Americans’ sense of right and wrong seems weak, and if it is strong it is often limited to students who graduated from religious, predominantly Catholic, schools. One can also add that the weak perception of evil may stem from the fact that Americans have not experienced the atrocities that other nations have; they don’t even know about them. Furthermore, the high standard of living also contributes to the changes to perception of what real evil is.
The infusion of ideology into education, which is partly responsible for moral weakness, is truly unprecedented. There is no point of drawing any parallels between communism and today’s America because one could not find such parallels. The young American’s sense of right and wrong comes from schools and training, college orientation meetings where students are being told about new sexual rules, the use of proper pronouns, and being addressed by their “chosen” names (Peter can choose to be called Molly, and Barbara can be called Roger). If one adds to it a number of courses, some of which are mandatory, others, if they are not, are often still stuffed with ideological content, the picture of the young American mind is terrifying. For example, “feminist philosophy” might be equivalent to a seminar on Kant, Descartes, Plato, Hume, etc. There are other courses, such as “environmental justice,” “racial justice,” “social justice” and the like. History and sociology classes are often simply about slavery, White privilege, or the discrimination of minorities. Not much is left for real education, which when compared to the one and only class students under communism had to take —that is, “Foundations of Marxism and Leninism” offered only to students at a university level—socialism looks like an educational paradise of orgiastic free-thought.
All of the above is destructive intellectually, but also morally. If, as Peterson claims, human beings need a sense of values to act, socialized norms of what is good and evil, right and wrong, can become a substitute for a real moral compass. But there is a danger in this. Today’s social morality can become tomorrow an instrument for the destruction of others. A temporary moral ersatz is unlikely to build a community of moral beings responsible for each other, due to a lack of the sense of commitment to transcendental reality into which human life is inscribed. All such an ersatz can provide is a sense of temporary belonging to a collective, which over time produces its own leaders who will always ultimately demand mind subjugation. All of that sounds like what we know from fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the communist Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and the Kims’ North Korea. We may not have a single leader, but a strong, frustrated desire to implement ideology can cause social unrest and generate the need that someone do something. This was Tocqueville’s prediction.
One may not expect great moral courage from ordinary people whose preoccupation is daily bread. But one would absolutely expect such commitment from intellectuals, academics, or generally ‘men of letters.’ They, however, have turned out to be most cowardly, and it is they who planted among ordinary people the seeds of moral destruction. They committed what Julian Benda calls the betrayal of truth in his classic work. Persecution of Jordan Peterson by his university colleagues makes Benda’s The Great Betrayal as relevant today as it was when it was published a hundred years ago. The survival of Peterson says something further. It is a testimony that dissent in a democracy is possible, but given the isolated nature of it, one is bound to wonder: Is Jordan Peterson the only man in North America who knows and has courage to say, “this is right and this is wrong?”
The achievement of unity and perfection in human action begins with a struggle for these ideals in human thought. In The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History, a collection of essays that span four decades, Dr. Klaus Vondung explores examples of this struggle in different fields of human inquiry: striving for harmonious existential unity of talents and morals, intellect and emotion; seeking to make natural sciences consonant with the humanities and thereby moving toward a more universal, “perfect” science; and establishing unity in political structures and cultivating in this unity a homogenous society. Dr. Vondung has given special devotion to National Socialism as a context wherein he revisits its perverted motivation and the consequences of this despite noble ideals.
Dr. Vondung also explores the points of contact between apocalypticism and Hermetic speculation. Despite the independence of the religious and philosophical doctrines of Hermeticism, there are parallels to be found. Apocalypticism and Hermeticism originated in antiquity and yet each represents a tradition that still holds footing today. Dr. Vondung furthermore leads the reader to see the project of salvation found in both, even as each operates with a different scope.
Klaus Vondung is Professor Emeritus in German and Cultural Studies at the University of Siegen, Germany. He has taught at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, University of Florida, Gainesville, the University of Houston, Kansai University, Suita/Osaka, and Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya. He is permanent Honorary Guest professor at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou. In addition to numerous books and articles in German, two of which have recently been translated into English, The Apocalypse in Germany, and Paths to Salvation: The National Socialist Religion. He has edited two volumes in the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.
Unity through Bildung: A German Dream Of Perfection
“Unity” is something people long for in many ways: they seek to bring their lives, their talents, emotions, beliefs, and actions into a state of existential unity; they strive for the social unification of different classes; they struggle for the political unity of a divided nation; they speculate about the unity of knowledge and faith, reason, and sensuality, matter, and spirit, essence, and existence. In all these cases, and in many more, “unity” is a symbolic equivalent for “perfection.” The state of unity is understood as perfect because it dissolves and abolishes differences, discrepancies and contradictions which are experienced as disturbing and deficient.
Despite this general frame of meaning, the symbol “unity” can stand for very different aims and imply a wide variety of contents, as I indicated in my first sentence. In what follows I want to discuss a particular meaning the symbol “unity” took on in Germany in close connection with the symbol Bildung. In order to analyze this connection, I have to first explain the German term Bildung, especially the meaning applied to it by the philosophy of idealism. On the basis of this clarification, which will also clarify the connection with the symbol “unity,” I will trace some major developments of the aspirations hidden behind these concepts. The time-span I have in view stretches from the decades around 1800 to World War I. The justification for dealing mainly with this period will become plausible in the course of my analysis. As the source for my analysis I shall use, apart from the philosophical texts in the beginning, works of literature. That there are material reasons for this choice will also be shown in due course.
Bildung is an extremely complex and particularly “German” concept which makes it impossible to translate into foreign languages. Among the English terms the dictionary lists for Bildung are formation, education, constitution, cultivation, culture, personality development, learning, knowledge, good breeding, refinement. Bildung indeed can mean all this—and it most often means all this together—but it means still more, and this leads to the core of the problem.
Originally the term Bildung meant “form” or “formation” of material phenomena including the bodily appearance of human beings. From here the term’s usage was extended to man’s “inner personality” so that one can talk about the Bildung of a person also with respect to his talents, manners, morals, intellect, character, or soul. Bildung can mean a certain stage of personality development as well as the process that leads to it. Since this process can be influenced from outside as well as spring independently from an inborn potential, Bildung comprises both planned education and independent self-realization. (This understanding took advantage of the fact that the verb bilden can be transitive—etwas bilden—as well as reflexive—sich bilden). Transferred from the individual to society and history, Bildung can become synonymous with culture and the historical development of culture.
The genesis of this wide scope of figurative meaning goes back to German mysticism of the fourteenth century. The many possibilities of using the terms bilden and Bildung—transitive/reflexive, process/result, material form/spiritual content—made them suitable for the symbolic articulation of very complex matters. And German mysticism took the lead by giving them a new and particular spiritual significance: bilden and Bildung became symbols for man’s advance toward God. The twofold possibilities of usage mentioned above were preserved: the reflexive on the one hand in order to signify God’s activity in the movement: Gott bildet sich in des Menschen Seele—God reveals himself in man’s soul; the transitive on the other hand in order to signify man’s activity: Der Mensch bildet sich Gott ein—man makes God present in his soul, he ‘forms’ God in his soul. But also preserved was the double meaning that Bildung as the advance toward God signifies the process of this movement as well as its result, i.e., the unification with God in the unio mystica. The connection between the symbols Bildung and ‘unity’ which was established here had important consequences for the further development of the concept of Bildung.
It would be most interesting and certainly very important to follow this way step by step via Martin Luther, Jakob Böhme, Pietism, Leibniz and Herder, who all helped to modify and gradually change the meaning of these symbols. In the present context I have to confine myself to marking the final breakthrough of a fundamentally new meaning which found its explicit articulation in the philosophy of idealism. Here, as before, the aim of Bildung is a state of perfection: unity. But it is no longer unity with God. In the meantime, God had been driven out of the whole of reality. What remained was the immanent “world” and a man who had fallen out of God’s hand: the “individual” who found himself confronted with this “world” as an alien reality. At the same time, and in correlation with this development, man had emancipated himself from the old social order and had become an individual also in a social respect. The unity which now is striven for as the aim of Bildung is unity with the world in its appearance as nature and society. Through the process of Bildung, i.e., through appropriation (Aneignung) of the world, the individual seeks to find himself, to realize himself in perfection.
Fichte described the existential dimensions of this process: He defined the Ego as being real only in opposition to a Non-Ego, because the Ego can experience itself only in its restriction by a Non-Ego. The restriction, however, can be felt only insofar as the Ego “impinges” upon the Non-Ego, “attacks” its resistance. Thus the Ego becomes real, i.e., realizes itself, bildet sich, in a continuous process of appropriating the Non-Ego, i.e., the world. In a way similar to Fichte, Wilhelm von Humboldt saw the Bildung of the individual as “the connecting of our Ego with the world” by which the individual gains “perfect unity.”
Hegel outlined the universal and historical dimension of the process of Bildung: “The task,” he says in the introduction to the Phänomenologie des Geistes, “of leading the individual from his ungebildete standpoint to knowledge has to be defined in its general meaning, and the general individual, the independent spirit, must be viewed in its Bildung.” The independent spirit for its part achieves knowledge by passing through “the stages of Bildung of the general spirit.” And the general spirit forms itself, bildet sich, in the course of world history by appropriating the world it is confronted with in successive dialectical steps until it is unified and reconciled with itself.
The connection between the aims of individual and universal unity, which in Hegel’s complicated argument is almost obscured, is established more clearly in Humboldt’s words. At first he brings the aims of individual and universal Bildung close to each other by using in both cases the symbol “the Whole” (das Ganze) for the state of unity and perfection: “The true purpose of man is the highest and most proportional Bildung of his powers to a Whole.” On the universal scale the task is “to accomplish the Ausbildung of humanity as a Whole.” Then he draws the conclusion: “I feel that I am driven to a state of unity […]. I find it absurd to call this unity God, because this would mean throwing unity out of oneself unnecessarily. . . . Unity is humanity, and humanity is nothing else than I myself.” The triple identification of “unity”, “humanity” and “I myself,” together with the refusal to accept God as the realization of unity, reveals the “drive” to unity as the aspiration to become a God of the immanent world, i.e., a perfect being, who is unified with himself in perfection insofar and because he is unified with the world he has absorbed. Clemens Menze’s summary of Humboldt’s concept—“In his Bildung man deifies himself” —grasps the core of the new meaning which Bildung has assumed in many minds by the end of the eighteenth century, although not everyone put it in such precise terms as Friedrich Schlegel: “To become God, to be a human being, sich bilden, are notions that have the very same meaning.”
There are two reasons why I now turn to an analysis of literature. The first reason is given by the sources. In Germany we have a particular species of novel which originated in the late eighteenth century, inspired by the new concept of Bildung, and which flourished throughout the nineteenth century. The concept of Bildung determined the form as well as the structure and content of these novels so strongly that a special term was coined for this literary species: Bildungsroman. Wilhelm Dilthey defined the general structure of a Bildungsroman as the story of a young man who enters life in the happy mood of dawn, who seeks friendship and love, has to struggle with the realities of life, grows to maturity after various experiences, finally finds himself and reaches fulfillment as a harmoniously developed personality. It can be mentioned in passing that Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes can be viewed as a philosophical Bildungsroman in which a “hero,” the “world spirit,”, struggles with the world he is confronted with and realizes himself (bildet sich) by appropriating it. There is, however, a considerable difference between the philosophical concept and a novel, and this difference marks the second reason for my turning to literary sources.
A novel, if it aspires to be good, cannot speculate about Bildung and unity in general terms and abstract notions (“deification through Bildung”—what does that mean in a concrete sense?). It has to represent the process and results of Bildung in a concrete person and in the course of a story. Because of that, literature reveals the existential dimensions of the concept of Bildung much better than philosophical speculation, and, what is even more important, it reveals the practical problems of the concept which a story about people and their concrete doings cannot conceal so easily. To be sure, the Bildungsroman tends toward the same aim of Bildung as in the concept’s philosophical manifestations: godlike unity and harmony of the individual with himself and the world. In Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795/96), we find the proclamation that man should be a “God of the earth” (although its meaning is not unambiguous there). But literature (again: if it is good) does not speculate but visualizes reality and represents experiences. And we have no experience of a man who became God. The dilemma between the aspiration for perfect Bildung and the opposing forces of reality which become effective in the literary presentation of the process of Bildung, led to different solutions in the various Bildungsromane. This is what makes this genre so interesting for the analysis of Bildung.
The paradigm of the German Bildungsroman, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), provides an excellent example of this dilemma. The hero of the novel, Wilhelm, develops his personality in the course of his conflicts and struggles with the world. He makes an advance toward a state of perfection, but this state is not visualized. Schiller’s judgment was correct: “He refuses to give us the direct satisfaction that we demand, and he promises a higher and higher satisfaction, but we have to postpone this into the distant future.” Considering Schiller’s own tendency toward philosophical speculation, this judgment sounds rather critical. As a matter of fact, many interpreters found a certain weakness in this lack of absolute fulfillment, if not even an element of resignation. My own opinion is different. I think Goethe was conscious of the problem the individual encounters if he tries to deify himself. He saved his novel from derailment and kept it in a delicate balance. The pivot of this balance was the renunciation of the central aspiration of the concept of Bildung, the decision, as Camus called it, “to refuse to be a god.” Ultimately Wilhelm owes his maturity not to his own activities of self-realization. “Basically,” Goethe remarked to Eckermann, “the entire novel attempts to say no more than this: that despite all his foolishness and confusion, man, guided by a hand from above, can achieve happiness in the end.” And in a discussion with Boisserée, Goethe sharply condemned the “madness and rage of attempting to reduce everything to the single individual and to be a God of one’s own right.” Instead of deifying himself, Wilhelm accepts the conditio humana, and this means: integration into a world and society which are not experienced as absolutely alien and hostile. This can be criticized as resigned and passive only if the self-deified individual is the criterion for judgment. I want to stress that integration into the world and society does not necessarily lead to passivity. For Wilhelm it means action indeed, although not in the sense of appropriation or conquest. At the end of the novel the aim of Bildung is defined as “being active in a dignified way,” “without wanting to dominate.”
In opposition to Goethe’s Bildungsroman, Novalis presented quite different a solution in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1799). He criticized in Goethe the fact that Wilhelm Meister is made to adjust himself to reality. Novalis, on his part, adhered to the ultimate aim of Bildung: “All Bildung leads to something which can only be called freedom, certainly not meant to denote a mere name, but to designate the creative principle of all being. This freedom is mastery. The master exercises free power according to his intention […].” However, Novalis could not visualize this aim in a story about the development of a realistic person in everyday life, since obviously God-like mastery cannot be achieved in ordinary reality. He transferred his story into the legendary scenery of the Middle Ages, which was supposed (the novel is fragmentary) to gradually change into a second reality of dreams and fairy tales. The aim of unity and perfection, which again implied appropriation and domination of the world, was to be achieved through the magic of poetry.
Novalis’ novel represents one of the two extreme possibilities of falling out of the delicate balance which Goethe had tried to establish between the aspiration for perfect Bildung and the opposing forces of reality: If the attempt is made to visualize the state of perfection, the connection with reality is lost. The result is, at best, a fairy-tale of paradise, or at worst, if the poetic abilities are weaker than in Novalis’ case, bloodless abstraction. The other extreme results from the experience that self-deification must fail: If this experience cannot be endured, then the world, and with it the individual, is hurled back into alienation and meaninglessness, ending in nihilistic despair. (An example for this possibility will be shown later on.) Between these extremes we find all sorts of variations and compromises. In what follows I want to interpret some of these variations as they were represented in the course of the nineteenth century. Because of the peculiar tension between Bildung and reality, above all material and social reality, it will be interesting to view the different representations of the striving after unity and perfection with special regard to a particular aspect: Goethe and Novalis had shown, each in his own way, that the question of whether or not one should try to dominate reality, and how this could be brought about, becomes a central issue of Bildung when the process and results of Bildung have to be visualized in a work of literature. This problem remained constant as long as such literary attempts were made. Therefore, it will be of special interest to investigate how different authors solved this problem under the changing circumstances of material and social reality.
The featured image shows, “Berlin, Opernhaus und Unter den Linden” (“Berlin, The Opera House and Under den Linden), by Eduard Gaertner, painted in 1845.
In this excerpt from Light of Reason, Light of Faith – Father Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai, a native of Cameroon, has written a fresh, exciting new study of the lifelong engagement of Josef Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, with the German Enlightenment and its contemporary manifestations and heirs. Contemporary European disdain for organized religion and the rise in secularism on that continent has deep roots in the German Enlightenment. To understand contemporary Europe, one must return to this crucial epoch in its history, to those who shaped the European mind of this era, and to a study of the ideas they espoused and propagated. These ideas, for good or for ill, have taken hold in other parts of the modern world, being incarnated in many minds and institutions in contemporary society and threatening to enthrone a disfigured rationality without faith or a sense of Transcendence.
Father Maurice masterfully positions Ratzinger correctly in the history of ideas, and exhibits why Ratzinger will be remembered as one of its main players. Pure rationalists and true believers are equally indebted to him.
The Aufklärung, as the German strand of the pan-European Enlightenment movement, marked a conclusively irrevocable change in the political, religious, and social life of the old continent. Europe was taken over by the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality, which translates into individual freedom, religious toleration, and the equality of citizens before the law. Europe witnessed the flowering of culture and polite society in the eighteenth century. As a philosophical system, the Aufklärung marked “the attempt to establish the authority of reason in all walks of life, whether in the state, the church, the universities, or society at large.” The Aufklärung also reflected an optimism in the belief in social progress. But this optimism regarding human potential was not blind, for even in the positivism and optimism that characterized the Aufklärung, Europe was still conscious of the potentials of debasement rooted in the human heart. As Nicholas Till points out:
“The philosophers and the Aufklärer were certainly believers in progress; but while one eye of the Enlightenment was always focused gladly on the bright future, the other eye was trained uneasily on the recent past. For the Enlightenment had been born in the shadow of the disintegration of social order which had occurred throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, following what seemed like an almost total collapse of political and religious authority. Civil war on a scale hitherto unknown had riven nations and overthrown established political powers; religious doubt had come to assail those not possessed and consumed by the new fanaticisms; status and property no longer offered security and certainty. The unrest of the mid-seventeenth century forced a fundamental reappraisal of the principles of social order, which led people to ask whether the traditional bounds could ever again be adequate.”
Given this atmosphere of socio-political and economic uncertainties, the Aufklärung as a pan-European movement sought to offer new interpretations of human nature, of society and of the moral life, in an otherwise uncertain Europe. One can therefore read two sides regarding the Aufklärung coin: on the one hand, the awareness that the medieval social order which saw a harmony between throne and altar was no longer sustainable became a position held by large sectors of the intelligentsia class. On the other hand, there was an eagerness or optimism to forge a new basis for the social order that had to emerge from the ruins of the collapsed medieval order. Thus, both pessimism and optimism characterized the emergence of the Aufklärung spirit across Europe.
Added to this sense of social change as a contributory factor to the development of the Aufklärung was the rise of capitalism in early modern Europe. In the medieval period, Till writes:
Most people had been borne into a predetermined social position that defined them throughout their life, and placed them within a network of hierarchies and institutions understood to be part of the divine, unchanging order: a person was inseparable from his or her role in society; he or she was a peasant, an artisan, a knight, and not an individual who happened to have this or that occupation; and the medieval person’s role carried with it a number of pre-ordained obligations such as those of kinship or feudal duty. Binding this multiplicity of institutions and hierarchies together was the authority and power of the Church…. The stability of medieval society was undermined from within by the dynamics of economic growth—the opening-up of markets, the widening circulation of commodities, the accumulation of wealth by a new class that derived its power from money rather than status. This in turn forced into being another class without status obligations, which sold its labor in exchange for a wage. Thus, the demands of economic activity gave rise to some of the basic ideals of the Enlightenment itself: individual freedom, legal equality, religious toleration.
One can therefore make the case that the Aufklärung was a rejection of socio-economic determinism. People were eager to move upward in the social strata of society. People felt hard work had to be rewarded and the sense of a privileged economic class eschewed. And with free markets came newfound wealth for the masses, and with wealth came the desire for power, in this case, political power, which inevitably meant the discarding of monarchical and royal power, in what one might consider a clash of irreconcilable wills. The emerging socio-political order that came into being with material prosperity was articulated via the language of equality, and sustained by the spirit of freedom, liberty, and fraternity amongst the emerging business class.
Underlying all of Europe in terms of characterizing the Aufklärung was what Ernst Cassirer described as the libido sciendi, that is, the lust for knowledge, which, as Cassirer claims, “theological dogmatism had outlawed and branded as intellectual pride.” The eighteenth century saw the search for knowledge as a prerogative of the soul, and the Aufklärer largely felt that it was his duty to defend this right of every person to knowledge, without any censors. A proof of this was the emergence of the Encyclopedia, championed by the French thinker Diderot, which Diderot saw not only as a source of a body of knowledge, but more importantly as a tool meant to change the way people thought about all of reality. And this is quite understandable, for it would have been meaningless to champion the usage of reason without allowing for an unbridled access to all knowledge, especially in the broad sense of reason that the concept took in the mind of the Aufklärer.
Notwithstanding these pan-European orientations, the Aufklärung had its own peculiar German character that distinguished it from its French and English counterparts, some of which we can identify to be the following.
The Aufklärung’s Alertness To Christianity As A Religious-Cultural Phenomenon
Firstly, unlike the French Enlightenment, the Aufklärung cannot be assessed as specifically an anti-religious or anti-Christian movement:
The Church was much more than its institutions and doctrines, and it was impossible for reformers to conceive of their culture as divorced from its religious context. There persisted the belief in the possibility of a harmony between the civil and religious authority—the concordia sacerdotii et imperii—in which the sum was greater than its parts. This is evident, first of all, in the reformer’s interest in ecclesiastical and religious history.
Thus, the Aufklärung showed a keen interest in the religious dimension of the German society, albeit with a critical and reformist orientation.
In this sense, “the theologians of the Aufklärung were concerned to reformulate Christian doctrines upon the basis of premises more justifiable upon rational grounds, either by reducing them, reinterpreting them, or eliminating them.” In other words, the Aufklärung, particularly in its initial stages of the eighteenth century, was not representative of an adversarial and confrontational relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology, Church and State, even if it tended to subordinate faith to reason, theology to philosophy, and called for a healthy autonomy in the intertwining relationship between Church and State. Alister McGrath explains that the reason for such a benevolent attitude toward faith and hence toward the Church was owed to the conviction that “God is the ontological principle or being which determines what exists, and the structure of existence.” Aufklärung thinkers therefore saw reason, faith, and the institutional Church through a harmonious lens, albeit maintaining that revelation, faith, and the practices of faith as put forth by the Church had to be judged on the basis of reason, which occupies the first place in the grand scheme of things.
The bottom line at this point, in terms of the relationship between Christianity and the Aufklärung, on the part of the latter is that “truth is not something which can be regarded as mediated to man from outside (for example, on the basis of a recognized authority), but something which arises within man on account of its conformity with his rationality.” McGrath thus concludes based on this subsequent parting of ways between faith and reason, that, even with Kant, Hegel, and perhaps Heidegger, “it will therefore be evident that there was an inherent tendency within the Aufklärung to regard the concept of supernatural revelation with suspicion.” How so? I think because of the sense of the historical vis-à-vis revelation that eventually emerges with the Aufklärung. And at the center of this dialectics between history and revelation stands the question of the historical verifiability of religious truth claims.
The Aufklärung And The Sense Of The Historical-Religious Experience
In effect, as the spirit of the Aufklärung further developed the disconnecting of reason from faith it raised the question of whether the concept of divine revelation was historically defensible, especially under the claims of autonomous rationality. In this light, and as McGrath points out, Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) applied the Aufklärung insights to the nature of truth and history, with very astonishing results for the claims of Christian faith. In effect, the Aufklärer called into question the historicity and accuracy of the life of Christ as presented in the Scriptures. They argued for the insufficiency of the events recorded in Scripture, particularly the New Testament, even if they were eyewitness accounts. As McGrath points out, “The origins of the ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’ may be seen in the Aufklärung conviction that the gospels contained material concerning Jesus which was unacceptable (because it was immoral, or supernatural) and which thus required correction in the light of modern thought.” The real Jesus was clearly different from the Jesus of the gospels. As McGrath maintains, the Aufklärer “attempted to evolve methods of internal and external criticism by which an historical re-evaluation of dogma might proceed, leading ultimately to the exclusion of doctrines which were considered to be irrational or morally indefensible.” An example of such a doctrine will be the divinity of Christ, which was often reinterpreted in purely moral terms. And even when other truths of revelation such as the Incarnation of Logos in Christ were accepted, they were represented as a recognition of the fact that spiritual truths can take palpable and historical forms. Thus, one must note the distinction between the concept acceptable to the Aufklärer, and the content that was subjected to a radical historical criticism. A good example of this is Kant’s treatment of the Gestalt of Jesus in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in which the supernatural claims of Christianity were rationalized and reduced to categories of rationality.
Albert Schweitzer offers a trenchant analysis of the salient points in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Given that this reading of the figure of Jesus and the Church marks the monumental shift of the assumptions and presuppositions of hitherto unquestionable orthodox Christological dogmas, and granted that these positions are largely engaged by Ratzinger albeit with the intent of rebuttals, we can state the salient points here as captured and enunciated by Reimarus. With Reimarus, we find a rational presentation of Jesus as a Jewish prophet within the Jewish messianic history of expectation of the breaking forth of the kingdom of God, in the life of Israel. From the extant fragments or writings of Reimarus, Schweitzer points out that for Reimarus’ historical reading, the starting point was the content of the preaching of Jesus, which is markedly different from the teachings or preaching of the apostles. Jesus preaching might be synthesized in this proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This “kingdom of God” must be understood in a completely Jewish sense, given that neither John nor Jesus himself bothered to explain it in their preaching. The assumption is that their audience knew what it meant. Jesus is therefore an eschatological preacher of the kingdom of God. Owing to this “kingdom” character of Jesus’ preaching, the assumption was that under the leadership of Jesus, the promised Messiah was about to be brought in—messianism understood here in the political sense.
Albert Schweitzer offers a trenchant analysis of the salient points in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Given that this reading of the figure of Jesus and the Church marks the monumental shift of the assumptions and presuppositions of hitherto unquestionable orthodox Christological dogmas, and granted that these positions are largely engaged by Ratzinger albeit with the intent of rebuttals, we can state the salient points here as captured and enunciated by Reimarus. With Reimarus, we find a rational presentation of Jesus as a Jewish prophet within the Jewish messianic history of expectation of the breaking forth of the kingdom of God, in the life of Israel. From the extant fragments or writings of Reimarus, Schweitzer points out that for Reimarus’ historical reading, the starting point was the content of the preaching of Jesus, which is markedly different from the teachings or preaching of the apostles. Jesus preaching might be synthesized in this proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This “kingdom of God” must be understood in a completely Jewish sense, given that neither John nor Jesus himself bothered to explain it in their preaching. The assumption is that their audience knew what it meant. Jesus is therefore an eschatological preacher of the kingdom of God. Owing to this “kingdom” character of Jesus’ preaching, the assumption was that under the leadership of Jesus, the promised Messiah was about to be brought in—messianism understood here in the political sense.
Put differently, Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. His was an ardent desire to bring about the eschatological reality of the kingdom of God, and this is the spectrum through which one has to read the events in Jerusalem that culminated with his death. Jesus wanted to forcefully bring about the messianic prophecy of Zechariah in Jerusalem. The cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a glaring pointer to Jesus’ realization and acknowledgment that God had not aided him as he had hoped. The cry shows that Jesus had not intended to die, but to politically liberate the Jews from Roman oppression. With Jesus’ death, all the sensual hopes of messianism on his part and on the part of his disciples came to an unexpected end. In order to earn a living—given that they had abandoned their trades when they accepted to follow Jesus—the disciples took on the second strand of Jewish messianism in a supernatural sense. They offered a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ death, hence, the necessity of the Resurrection motif. Armed with this spiritual messianism explainable thanks to the Resurrection, the Parousia became the next logical step.
In this sense, the second coming of Jesus offered the disciples the content which they could preach to a gullible first-century Palestinian audience. The Parousia was therefore a creation of the early Church to explain away the failure of Jesus to bring about the kingdom of God, a failure of Jesus the eschatological prophet. The Parousia was a product meant to sustain hope, rather than a teaching of Jesus. Owing this, Christianity is therefore built on a false premise. Christianity is a fraud because it is a creation by Jesus’ disciples for the sole purpose of ensuring their usefulness, after the mistaken and failed project of their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. To put it more precisely, “inasmuch as the non-fulfilment of its eschatology is not admitted, our Christianity rests upon a fraud.” In sum, Jesus is a failed prophet whose understanding of Jewish messianism landed him into a premature and unexpected death, over and against his wishes and expectations.
This is certainly not the place to evaluate these claims and positions advanced by Reimarus, as spelled out by Schweitzer. But it suffices to say that while one must certainly acknowledge, to Reimarus’ credit, a strong sense for the historical and a keen attention to exegesis, it must be stated, as Schweitzer does, that overall, Reimarus saw eschatology from a wrong perspective, namely, the political. Reimarus can only read Jesus as the son of David, nothing more. And not only that, Reimarus’ assumption that the eschatology was earthly and political is not only restrictive, but in pursuing this narrow reading of eschatology, Reimarus largely ignored the account of other New Testament texts such as the Gospel of John. And such a reductionist reading of Jesus does injustice both to any historical reading of the figure of Jesus and the Christological confession erected on such a history.
On this basis, therefore, McGrath points out, the Aufklärung poses three Christological challenges: Firstly, the traditional two natures of Christ were called into question, following the naturalistic and rationalistic logic of the Aufklärung. Modern reason could jettison this “relic” of the early Church without much controversy. Secondly, if following the logic of the Aufklärung, Christ’s significance had to be conceived in purely naturalistic terms, how would the Church represent the unicity of Christ? The Aufklärung generally presented Christ as a moralist, a teacher of the good life whose superiority over other moral teachers is based upon the supremely moral character of Christ’s teachings. As McGrath points out, “there seemed to be no way in which his uniqueness could be established without resorting to a discredited supernaturalism.” Such a view during the Aufklärung of Christ as an ethics teacher would naturally be a concern to someone of a spiritual and intellectual temperament like Joseph Ratzinger. Thirdly, another Christological challenge of the Aufklärungvis-à-vis the Christian faith has to do with the certainty of our knowledge of Christ. How can we be sure about the Christ of the gospels when, following the dialectics of history, one cannot ascertain with objective certainty that what we read in the Scriptures is true?
The Aufklärung And The Duel Between Divine And Human Rational Supremacy
McGrath maintains that “the ultimate foundation of the theology of the Aufklärung may be regarded as the doctrine that the natural faculty of human reason is qualitatively similar to (although quantitatively weaker than) the divine reason.” The world of the Aufklärung is in essence a rational cosmos in which the human being works out his or her own moral perfection by conforming the self to the moral structures of the cosmos. Moral activity is therefore the highest destiny of the human being, and reason is the only practical guide to this destiny. This rationality of the Aufklärung is best summarized in these three propositions: firstly, all reality is rational; secondly, the human being has the necessary epistemological capabilities to unearth the rational Ordnung of reality; and thirdly, the human being is adept at acting upon this cognition of reality in order to achieve his or her rational destiny by acting morally. In this light, the human being is capable of attaining morality without any external assistance, and revelation and the authority of God was perceived to be such an extrinsic assistance. In other words, unaided reason was capable of bringing about a just and moral society. In this world-view, religious faith as a source and sustainer of morality was no longer essential, for one could be moral or ethical without being religious.
Such a view of the Aufklärung naturally runs contrary to the Christian orthodoxy that, over the years of observation, reflection, and pondering the actions of the human being vis-à-vis the moral law, had come to discern in revelation the woundedness of human nature in the doctrine of original sin. While not rejecting the value of human rationality in discerning and arriving at moral truths, Christianity recognized as well the place of God’s revelation in the moral landscape. The orthodox position, following Augustine, has been that on account of original sin, the human intellect is blinded and the will is weakened, so much so that the human being cannot function as an autonomous moral agent. As fallen creatures, therefore, God’s moral law in historical revelation purifies and strengthens reason’s natural reflections and discernments. In the eyes of the Aufklärung, this doctrine of original sin certainly posed a conceptual obstacle to moral perfection and even smacked of Manichean dualism. The doctrine clearly had become obsolete and warranted abandonment. Therefore, in order to counteract doctrines like original sin, the science of the development of dogma emerged from the Aufklärung movement. In this sense, it was not sufficient to simply believe what the Church teaches as doctrine. A critical understanding of the formulation and historical evolution of a given doctrine was as essential as the doctrine itself.
The featured image shows, “Garnisonkirche und Breite Brücke mit Blick auf das Stadtschloss” (“Garrison Church and Wide Bridge, with View to the City Palace”), Potsdam, by Carl Hasenpflug, painted in 1827.
Dr. James Patrick has spent his life teaching, and in this book he seeks to tell on a larger scale the story of the Christian mind as it developed according to what he refers to as the “adventure” of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Christian mind moved from faithful intuition to writing and composing original ideas of concrete truths, and this in turn led to inspired foundations upon which a new kind of world became possible. Patrick does not wish the reader to think the Christian mind has ever intended to create utopia on earth or to proselytize, rather that the dynamic Christian intellect indicates a human heart made new and from this newness still spring horizons of hope and culture.
The Christian mind is, says Patrick, not only inspired and moved by the restless Paraclete, but revolves around the event of Jesus Christ. Christian history is therefore best understood not simply as chronology of events but as the vision of “the new heart in time,” one that strives to be like that of the one who sent the Spirit into history.
“Matthew: The Making Of The New Heart”
Matthew was the Gospel. When early Christian writers turned to a source of Jesus’ words and deeds it was to Matthew, or what became Matthew, that they turned. And within Matthew, their pattern of quotation suggests, they turned first to chapters five through seven, containing the Beatitudes and the dominical transformation of the law from the propositions of the Mosaic law as these were understood by the observant Jew to an interior, life-forming participation of the heart in the will of the Father. Jesus sat down, opened his mouth, and taught them. Thus began the Sermon on the Mount. Luke knows something of this text (6:20–49), but neither Mark nor John contains obvious parallels. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5–6 as he transforms the Mosaic law held a hope for the regeneration of the human heart greater than the virtuous life Aristotle had taught in his Ethics and Cicero in his On Duties.
The opening verses, the eight Beatitudes, are at the center of the moral vocabulary of Christian mankind, although on any showing they are challenging at first sight. They are not prescriptive but descriptive, proposing no course of action but promising beatitude or blessedness to those possessing the right state of soul or, as in the seventh and eighth, able to bear persecution. In this way they are truly kerygma or preaching, a proclamation describing the blessedness that accompanies those on the Christian way. The Greek makarios is sometimes translated “happy,” but “blessed” is better, for happiness is a subjective state of contentment or well-being, while blessedness is the state of being fulfilled by God at his will and in his presence. Blessedness is not a virtue, not a natural virtue that the best efforts of man can achieve at least episodically, or even a supernatural virtue given silently at baptism, but a gift following upon that supernatural infusion of grace, life lived in the Christian way, the steady result of day by day, charity-inspired cooperation with the Holy Spirit. They are echoed in what Paul knows as the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22).
In this Matthean text Jesus does not tell the disciples how to seek blessedness; he does not, as elsewhere, urge repentance. The Beatitudes are gifts, and they are proleptic, looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom. Blessedness will come at Pentecost, when hearts will burn within and the question will be “Brethren, what shall we do?” Jesus is waiting: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). But now, on the threshold of the last day, is the time to prepare the disciples for the new life that is coming, to give them words that they will remember when Jesus’ first great promise, “I will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Counselor,” is fulfilled.
This is the life prophesied by Jeremiah: Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with house of Israel and the House of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt. [. . .] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor, and each his brother, saying “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me from the least to the greatest (Jer. 31:31–34). And Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (11:19). When Peter stood up at Pentecost he declared the descent of the Spirit to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18, Joel 2:28–32). In that Day they all will possess the Prophetic Spirit. But the new way must possess the mind as well as the heart; the gift will be fulfilled in those who have been taught: “Go, baptize, teach.”
The best of the Greeks and Romans had known that the good all men seek is not some possession extrinsic to the self but a state of soul. Aristotle’s Ethics, with a spirit echoed in Justin’s day by the stoic Epictetus, begins by asking what it is that all men seek for its own sake, not as an instrument leading to something greater such as wealth or wisdom, which we may desire because they promise happiness. Rather, happiness itself, eudaimonia, is what all men desire for its own sake. But quickly Aristotle turns to the observation that happiness is not possible without goodness.
So the Philosopher does not, as Epicurus would later, propose happiness as the complement of pleasure, but as the best state of the soul in the righteous man. And this, famously, is to be achieved not through the appropriation of theoria, not through the exercise of intellect, but through the practice of the moral virtues—justice, temperance, prudence, and courage—and that not in a world-pleasing way, but as a good man might practice them. The means was the natural capacity of the self-commanding man to become virtuous. Aristotle’s Ethics is the high summary of the best of Hellenism’s moral proposals. Yet it neither elevated the eye of the soul above the realm of nature, which Aristotle would have considered impossible, nor purified the will.
When after Pentecost Christians looked at the world around them, they saw the ravages of the flaw that would be called original sin, ignorance and that deformation of the will called concupiscence, which five centuries of the best of Greek and Roman moral advice had not been able to repair. Against this was set the moral proposals and the moral power of Jesus. Christ came not only with good advice but with the ability to change hearts. And first came the revolutionary ideas found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the prophetic descriptions of the Christian life called the Beatitudes or blessedness, a reward attached to each, and then the transformation of the law from divinely given rule to the very form of the redeemed heart.
Given the classical expectation regarding happiness and virtue, Aristotle’s eudaimonia or good-spiritedness as the result of natural virtue, Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes disappoint; many would find them puzzling, some would find them impossible, for the heart of natural man does not reach out to embrace poverty of spirit and mourning, to say nothing of persecution. Yet the Beatitudes are signposts along the royal road that leads citizens of a fallen world to the vision of God, to sonship, and to citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, a description of the realm of Our Father that stands contrasted with the kingdom of the earth.
Humility, sorrow for one’s sins, gentleness, desire for God, mercifulness, purity of heart, peacemaking, acceptance of persecution for Jesus’ sake; Jesus is describing God-given dispositions of the heart that may or may not always be evident to the world in actions. Indeed to the degree that any Beatitude excites public notice, it is in danger of betraying its divine purpose; humility and piety displayed already have their reward (Matt. 6:1). Later, in the series of dominical sayings beginning with “You have heard it said but I tell you,” there will be specific teaching that tells the blessed heart how to live in the world (Matt. 5:21–7:29).
The Beatitudes have been the subject of commentary by great teachers, but generations lacking scholarly insight have also understood his words as they walked in the way. Jesus, who knew what was in mankind (John 2:25), begins with the counsel that one who would be blessed will be humble, which means seeing oneself as one really is: a creature, clay in the Potter’s hands, helpless in the one thing that matters most despite possessing many impressive competencies, reliance upon which as justifying before God is always deceptive (Isa. 29:16, Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21). “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” God is forever ordering the moral universe by putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble (Luke 1:52).
Jesus reminds his followers to seek the lowest place, assuring them that the order of this world is not the order of the kingdom of heaven; there many of the first shall be last and the last first (Mark 9:35). He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:10). “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts [. . .] and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:31– 32). God’s opposition to the proud is a lesson humankind must repeatedly learn, rooted in the very nature of God, in whose sight a lie cannot stand, and who while summary of power and majesty, expresses his life in Trinitarian self-giving, the divine Son humbling himself for our sakes, “who being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). To fail of humility and to cultivate pride is to fail to see things as they are; a broken and contrite heart God does not despise (Ps. 51:17).
This was the great lesson given Job, a good man, whom God never accuses of sins, but a man “wise in his own conceits” (37:24), clinging in the most subtle and unrealistic way to his own rightness before God, redeemed only when, having had his ignorance and littleness demonstrated by the Almighty most dramatically (38–41), he falls silent before the gift of the vision of God: “Now my eye sees Thee” (42:5). So, the Beatitudes open by declaring blessed one who is ptōxoi in spirit, a word for which the least dramatic definition is “poor in spirit,” but connoting a deeper range of meanings that include “crushed, beggarly, mean or low.”
The reference is clearly not to lack of this world’s goods, but to that abandonment of self which opens upon the faith of the elect. There was a reason for Saul’s having changed his name from that of the great king to Paul, which resonated with the Greek word for mean, of no account. The central psychological mystery of the religion Jesus taught is the necessity for that reordering of the soul that sees one’s self in the order of reality as of no account in the light of God’s glory, as deserving his wrath in the light of his justice.
The self-deception called pride is the natural defense of every man from this truth. Enjoying justly some human esteem, avoiding public shame, capable of good deeds—God never accused Job of moral failure— mankind will find it easy to ignore that fact that our decency is fragile, our self-interest perfect, our thirst for something other than the righteousness of God ever-present. There is a sweetness in reality, always hard for the sin-encased soul to see, and perhaps especially hard to see in an age when self-esteem is considered a cardinal virtue. But it is the locating of one’s self rightly in God’s just order that is a sign of blessedness, and this awareness of who we are is the basis of every other Beatitude and the ground of every gratitude. The poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The interior greatness of every human action on earth is rooted in the acknowledged littleness of every man before the glory and majesty of God. This humility, this poverty of spirit, has as its companion the reality of sorrow for sin and sinfulness (5:5). “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” Christians are never encouraged to ruminate on past failures; we are ever to be putting behind us the past with its failure and looking to the future, “forgetting what lies behind, pressing forward and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:14).
But for the burden of our actual sins, forgiven but perhaps still bearing the debt of undischarged penance, our weakness and instability in the face of temptation, not despair but holy sorrow is the medicine for the soul. The great spiritual writers seem inhumane when they counsel against light-mindedness and denounce hilarity as being inappropriate to the pilgrim, but life is in the end no laughing matter. To have holy sorrow is to begin to hate that to which we have been attracted. This is the happy sorrow that is blessed. God, we are promised, will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4), but to enjoy that supernatural friendship there first must be tears of sorrow.
The word translated meek (praus) in the third Beatitude is equally well, or better, translated “gentle.” Jesus will say, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 29:11). And again Jesus quotes Isaiah: “Your king comes to you, gentle, seated upon an ass, and upon the foal of an ass” (Matt. 21:5, Is. 62:11). It is these, the meek, the gentle, who, contrary to the claims of power, will inherit the earth when it is God’s earth again. The adjective used in Matthew 5 occurs only four times in the New Testament, but as the abstract noun “gentleness” Paul includes it among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.
To be gentle is to refrain from using power rightly possessed to achieve a purpose that, while it may be just, reads out the moral requirement of the second commandment, love your neighbor as you love yourself, by imposing one’s own just will without mercy. Jesus assures his followers that it is not the grasping and aggressive but the gentle who will inherit the earth. The divine ground of Christian gentleness is the Lord’s willingness to show us just so much of himself as we can bear, to enwrap his power in his humility. He did not cling to his divine nature in a way that prevented his display of that divine gentleness that is the unvarying companion of his majestic justice. The images of Jesus with the woman at the well, calling little children to himself, not condemning Peter and the twelve when they cannot watch for one hour, and washing his disciples’ feet, have always engaged the Christian heart.
Gentleness is the choice of reserve rather than rashness; in its most common form it is the gentleness of politeness, standing aside for another, not claiming the highest place, that will find fruit in the gentled civilization founded upon the Beatitudes. What inheriting the earth means is surely that these will inherit the new creation when Christ returns, but it may also means that even now the gentle will know the good life of the soul as it belongs to this present age.
The fourth Beatitude describes the blessed soul as one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Jesus is not speaking of the desire to be righteous as the Pharisees on a certain day might have understood righteousness, but of the desire to be in communion with God, to be right-hearted in relation to the creator and redeemer, which disposition has itself a justifying power. This is the desire, itself a gift of grace, that shapes life in Christ.
Whether the words belong to the playwright Robert Bolt or to a contemporary account, we are told that when Saint Thomas More mounted the scaffold he tipped the executioner with the words, “Do your work quickly for you send me to God,” to which the cleric standing by replied, “Are you so certain Sir Thomas?” More replied, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to come to him.” Those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied. This blessed hunger, this holy restlessness, made ever memorable by Augustine’s words, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” is the gift to every person who will listen, for we will in the end achieve what we have desired.
If our wills are formed to the neglect of God who is reality, the end may be darkness and waste. But for those who can grasp just one of the rays of glory that God has scattered across the world, who can long for something other than themselves, there is the promise of satisfaction, of the fullness of which the world offers a thousand intimations.
This hunger for God leads through the trials of life to our sharing in the great banquet that every Eucharist foreshadows. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” The Christian call to mercy is founded in God’s own mercy to us. That mercy, rooted in his justice, began in his will never to abandon his rebellious creation but rather to heal it through long ages. In the fullness of time his plan was perfected in the merciful gift of his Son who brought regenerating life with water and the spirit, giving those he called the white robe of justification at baptism (Tim. 1:4–7, Rev. 7:9).
At the sixteenth-century Council of Trent when, Luther’s advocacy of justification by faith alone having raised the issue, the question arose as to whether, having been made righteous once and perfectly through the gift of baptism, the wayfarer at life’s end, having marred the robe of baptismal purity, required and would be offered a second justification by the merits of Christ’s passion, the conciliar conclusion was in the negative. Christians are assured that, while called to be perfect, “If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8–10).
For our post-baptismal sinfulness the Church offers the repentant the mercy of true forgiveness, sealed by the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19, John 20:19–23). And for the still imperfect heart, marked with holy sorrow and freed of any note of rebellion, there is the merciful fire of purgatory, a state imagined differently in different ages but one whose end is certain: the fruition of life in the vision of God. This is the ultimate mercy promised by the fifth Beatitude: the merciful will obtain mercy. This greatest mercy, this perfecting love, rooted in God’s own mercy, is the hope of Christians, shining down the days of every life and inspiring the gentling of the world by those who have been shown mercy. The apostle James writes, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13).
Since Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the necessary purification of the elect by fire, it has ever been the teaching of the Church that those faithful in whom love exists but which has not found full fruition will by the mercy of Christ be perfected in holiness after death (1 Cor. 3:10–15). But pure in heart we all then will be. This mercy is then the ever present background for the making of the pure heart which has as its purpose and reward the renewal of that conversation which sin interrupted in the garden. This is the mercy of the love that will not let us go until we are fit for the innumerable company of angels, the spirits of just men made perfect, and God who is the judge of all (Heb. 12:22). “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The creation of the clean heart is ever the master-work of the apostolic mission, a work which while it begins with the proclamation of the Gospel is effective in the sacraments, with the elect, God’s chosen, being perfected by the means to holiness Jesus purchased with his death, when the Holy Spirit came with his regenerating gift of baptism and with forgiveness and communion that light the Christian way.
The heart sees; it has an eye which, sin-clouded, cannot behold its maker. Purity of heart is a way, a praxis, that requires more than emptying the soul of evil like the demon-cleansed house in Matthew 12:43–45 that soon was to be filled with demons more vicious than the first. Purity of heart requires that the house of the soul be filled with the light of grace by the Holy Spirit; the human heart cannot be purified of sin without being filled by God, and then, the eye of the soul wiped clean, we will see. Peacemakers, says the seventh Beatitude, are the sons of God, whose will is that peace of the kingdom that Augustine calls the order of tranquility.
The rhetoric of the world has as its underlying purpose incitement to strife, to emulation, to aggression, to self-pity, grievance, and ultimately to perpetual warfare. God’s sons, his children, bring peace into the world by bearing rather than striking, by walking the extra mile when one has already walked as far as justice requires, by giving more than is just. The presence of evil in the world is never mitigated until it is borne. Those who enjoy the blessings of the first seven Beatitudes will be rewarded with citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and inevitably will be persecuted by that mystery of evil called the world.
For the first three centuries, and even now, faithfulness might mean death. But presently in the West that persecution will not often be with rack and rope; it cannot be resisted with any violence, only with patience and finally suffering, but it will nonetheless be real. Christians living through modernity know what it is, if not to be reviled publicly, to be held in gentle contempt and on a certain day to be thought an enemy of all that is best by one’s neighbor. Less obvious is the persecution inherent in the world that while it assaults the senses allures with the enchantment of technology’s transcendence over nature, offering comforts that often seem to render restraint and discipline pointless.
This new war with the world does not threaten with the executioner’s fire and lions, but with the subtle luring of the soul into self-willed pusillanimity. Bearing the cross and denying oneself in a culture whose ignorance of the true dimensions of life makes such actions meaningless, may seem harder to bear than the inquisitor’s fire. Yet living a life that bears witness when one can never know the world is listening makes Christians part of that great company who, beginning with the prophets whom Israel despised and persecuted, have been a light in this world, and who have ever been rewarded with the presence of God.
Jesus’ description of the gift of blessedness to the soul is followed by the images of salt and light that establish the character of Christian witness in the world. Christ’s followers are the salt of the world, and in that sense a gift to it, but if the salt has lost its savor, “What is there left to give taste to it?” It is Christian witness that lifts up the world in hope. This witness is a light that is not to be put under a barrel but lifted high, set on a lampstand so that the Christian way can shine brightly before men who see its good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
Having described the blessedness that belongs to the kingdom, its consequences for believers, persecution, and the necessity of their witness in the world, Jesus turns to the question raised persistently by the charge of the Pharisees that he and his disciples have no regard for the Law of Moses. His disciples pluck grain from the fields on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1); he eats with sinners, and without ritual purification (Matt. 15:1). So, Jesus will assure the Pharisees of every age: “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to destroy the law but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” until the holy ones who are the citizens of the kingdom are called and fulfilled.
And then the warning and the promise to teachers: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so shall be called least in the kingdom, but who obeys them and teaches them shall be called great” (Matt. 5:13). And the new standard: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, those whose whole work is fulfilling the propositions of the law while leaving the heart in shadow, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And how is this to be achieved? By entering perfectly into the love of the Lord through the door to that interior castle, the will. Hardly a new idea: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.”
But what Jesus does not reveal in this place is the fact that this new law will require a new heart which can only be formed by his Pentecostal gift his death will bring. Six times the phrase “You have heard it said” is repeated, to be followed by “But I tell you.” What has been said by men of old is the Law of Moses. What Jesus teaches those listening is the new law of the heart that places moral weight not in good deeds, although these will follow, but in the renewed will. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, the working of the world upon us is to be borne; what makes the man is that expression of the heart that forms our words and actions (Matt. 15:11).
The renewal Christ commands surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees for it will make men and women of a flawed and fallen world citizens fit for eternal life in the kingdom of the new heart. The first contrast between what has been said and the new law teaches that the death and destruction that characterize life and history begin with contempt, anger, and insult, which can only be amended by the willingness to ask forgiveness, perhaps even when just grounds for anger are present. Be reconciled to your brother before you offer your sacrifice. Litigiousness and contentiousness unlamented lead to prison from which you will not escape until justice has been fully served (5:25–26). It is not enough to refrain from adultery; one must reject from the heart the desire for the pleasurable possession of one not yours but another’s, for the settled desire is as good as the deed done (27).
There is then the new law of language: abjure hyperbolic claims that presume a power you do not have. Jerusalem is not yours but is the city of the great king; you cannot make one hair of your head white or black (5:33–36). And do not take refuge in ambiguity; let your pledged word be sealed with a yes or no (37). This means that in the kingdom of the new heart the duty of the rhetor and the author, of every man as he speaks and writes, is to be ever obedient to the reality of the thing, whether it be an object or an idea or an emotion. And as for revenge, give it up, putting it away with the willingness to bear something, to do more than the importunate or the would-be oppressor asks. And this turns upon the extension of the second great commandment to include not only the neighbor, but the neighbor who wishes you harm (5:43–48). “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” had been at the heart of justice as the Old Covenant commended it. It was a principle of Greek morality that revenge was the justifying motive of morality, but among Jesus’ followers, something is to be borne.
Of the six contrasts through which Jesus teaches, the most shocking to his hearers was surely the abrogating of divorce, which had been allowed, as Jesus would tell his disciple in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but which now was to be done away with in obedience to God’s will as expressed in the primordial unity of man and woman in the Garden; “It was not so in the beginning” (19:8). This renewed vision of marriage would be developed by Saint Paul with the analogy of the relation of husband and wife to the indissoluble union between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:25). But in the context of Matthew 5, Jesus only teaches that, assuming the divine justice of the Edenic disposition to be true, putting a wife away inevitably sends her into another household and to another husband, if not into the street, and by doing so makes both her and the head of the household into which she may have been taken adulterers. Jesus’ teaching on divorce would be put forward fully in chapter 19:3–12, where divorce would be seen as a violation of God’s will that “the two shall become one” (5).
The disciples answered for fallen mankind: “If it is this way between a man and woman, better not marry.” This might have been said of the entire body of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If it is this way; forego revenge, love your enemies, abjure contempt and insult, walk the second mile, achieve purity of heart, who can bear it? But the divine teaching of Matthew 5 does not consist of moral maxims addressed to the world but to citizens of the kingdom of the new hearts that Pentecost will bring. These six recastings of the law in Matthew 5 offer the clear outlines of the new way of life that marks the kingdom. They are redolent of the nobility of the faith and presuppose the humility the giver of the new law displayed on the night he was betrayed (John 13:1–17).
Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside was the foundation, laying down the principles of the way that would blossom from his words after his sacrifice made the new heart a possibility and a reality through the gift of the indwelling Advocate and Comforter at Pentecost. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; the Counselor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Spirit comes with power to confirm memory and to lead into all truth, to comfort, to convict, and to convert, and to give the peace the world cannot give, and finally, our work done, to bring us to himself.
The Holy Spirit redefines the meaning of life and of history. Sin is now not simply a violation of the law but failure to believe Christ’s words and to accept the gifts that make for holiness. Righteousness is rightness of the heart formed by faith and by participation in Christ through his sacramental gifts so as to become a new creature. Mankind is made for the holiness that pleases God, enabling the sons of Adam at last to enter the conversation that was forestalled when our first parents chose the serpent’s way.
The entire Pentecostal faith, with its promise of forgiveness and the reward of communion introduced the waiting world to the great adventure that gave every man the possibility of becoming a new creature. Thus it would be that when Christians began to write they would turn to this text, to Matthew 5 and 6, to discover the foundations of the kingdom of the new heart. Other Matthean texts would be cited by writers of the post-apostolic age, the apocalypse of chapters twenty-four and twenty-five would find a permanent place in Christian faith, and the Gospel parables have never ceased to form Christian conscience and imagination: the wicked servant who, having been mercifully forgiven his debt, grasps his fellow servant by the throat demanding payment of the small debt owed him (18:20–35); the householder who gave those who had labored little as much as those who had labored long because it was his to be gracious as he chose (20:1–16); the king who gave a wedding feast to which many refused to come, and one who did was cast out as not being properly attired (22:1–14); and the parable of the talents.
These would always engage and teach, but it was the words of Chapters 5 and 6 that rippled out from a mountainside in Galilee to make a new world. The teaching of the new way issued in a new piety, with prayer, almsgiving, and sacrifice; things not to be done in order to be seen by men or to earn their approval, but privately and without calculation (6:1–15). Jesus’ followers do not need to storm heaven with many words, for they do not like the prophets of Baal need to arouse God with their shouts. Christian prayer is made in the knowledge that Our Father in heaven knows what we and every other creature needs this day, for the new heart beats within its living relationship to the ever-providential God who made it.
The first petition of the great prayer recognizes with praise that God’s name, that is his being, is holy, asking that his will, reigning gloriously in heaven, may soon be perfected in the Church and in the world. The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” have been variously understood because the word for “daily” may be understood to mean “supersubstantial” rather than daily in the ordinary sense, so that the prayer for daily bread refers as well to Eucharistic bread.
There follows the petition that our debts or transgressions may be forgiven as we forgive others, a reference to both the fifth Beatitude above and to 6:14–15 below. “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you.” Always considered the first Gospel, Matthew, with the Beatitudes and Jesus’ perfecting of the law, “You have heard it said of old, but I tell you,” laid the foundation for the life of the new heart that his sacrifice would bring to the world, accomplishing in the elect the perfect virtue that the philosophers and Pharisees had foreseen but which the fallen could never accomplish apart from the cross of Christ and the regenerating Pentecostal gift he bought.
When Jesus sat down on a hillside in Galilee to teach, his words made a new world.
The image shows, “Sermon on the Mount,” by Ivan Makarov, painted in 1889.
Dr. Maspero is a priest, theologian and physicist who embarks on a study of the Trinity – the Christian triune God – and in a single narrative pieces together the classical metaphysics, revealed truths and Patristic apologetic theology that directed the development of Trinitarian dogma.A highlight of this work is Dr. Maspero’s reliance on Mary, Theotokos, in his presentation of Trinitarian theology, the person who first opened herself to this manner of thinking. We encourage our readers to read this important book.
“The Trinitarian Conception Of Man And The World”
The Trinity And The World
Thus far, we have seen how the revelation of the Trinity has challenged man’s thought, which through faith has been opened up toward a unity that is not solitude, but communion – a unity that is a trinity, not in a paradoxical sense, but as the foundation and source of all other unity. Classical philosophy could not comprehend it and therefore assumed a model of unity taken empirically from nature. Christian doctrine had to replace this model with that of the unity of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the question of the one and the triune, the relationship between God and the world is at stake. Theology has had to learn how not to reduce the Trinity to the categories of thought derived from natural observation, and instead to modify its own conceptual instruments so as to take account of the unimaginable Truth encountered in Christ. When this was accomplished, it became possible to go back and reread the world, beginning with its constitutive relationship with the Trinity itself.
To do this, however, it is necessary to think about being in an analogical sense because the world is not the Trinity. What is true for God does not necessarily apply to man. That is why, as has been seen repeatedly, to speak about the Triune God we must eliminate any linguistic references to movement, time or ontological distinction. In fact, the heresies indicate critical moments of this process, moments that served as stimuli for further investigation and favored a purification of theological thought.
Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite, a mysterious author of the fifth or sixth century, described the process of this development as three-fold. The first phase is constituted by the affirmation of some perfection of God or by the application to Him of a certain concept like procession or generation. This phase must be followed immediately by a second phase, which is a negation insofar as that reality is not present in God with the limits found in nature. This culminates in a final phase that acknowledges the eminence of God, in which He is recognized as the source of all partial realizations of that reality, though it is perfectly possessed by God and lies beyond any human conception. For example, if we affirm that God is great, we must simultaneously deny that He is ‘great’ in the material sense of the word, so as to then conclude that He is great inasmuch as He is the eternal source of every greatness. So, in a seemingly paradoxical way, we can also say that God is small because being small can be understood as perfection––here we might think of the possibility of nearness or being inside, something that smallness implies even at the material level. God is the source of every perfection so that one can purify smallness in such a way as to recognize God as its origin. That is why the divine attributes coincide with one another just as the rays of the sun converge and are unified in their source. God is, then, both small and great, and yet remains without contradiction.
The task of theology, therefore, consists in the development of thought that does not explain or reduce the Mystery but causes it to emerge in a formulation that is increasingly less inadequate. This happens when one is able to show a certain aspect of God as the source of perfections found in nature, and of those perfections recognized by philosophy and the other human sciences. That is why the essence of theology demands harmony with the other disciplines.
The work of the theologian must simultaneously maintain the presence of two extremes: a) The being of God belongs to a different ontological sphere from that of the world, a sphere that we can know only in part through what God has willed to reveal about Himself, but which we do not possess and experience directly; b) Creation reflects the perfections of its Creator, and man reflects this perfection to the utmost because he is created in the image and likeness of the Trinity itself.
Therefore, we must be very cautious when we attribute to God realities that have a specific realization on the natural level. For example, if being a father at the created level is impossible without the presence of a wife and mother, this does not mean that in God there must be a bride. At the same time, we must also bear in mind that the transition from God to the world cannot be equivocal, for what we have come to know in God through revelation is inevitably reflected as perfection in creation. A further example may clarify this: It is said that God does not have relations, rather is three eternal relations. We humans, on the other hand, have relations but we do not identify ourselves with our relations. Yet, for a human person, perfection should be found in his or her relations precisely because God is the source of every perfection. Hence, the father of a family will become himself much more fully by giving himself completely to his children, and therefore growing in his identification with his relation of fatherhood rather than through the achievement of extraordinary professional success if this distances him from his relations. Work is good when it serves fundamental relations but is negative when it distances one from them, regardless of any economic prosperity.
Persons And Relation
This vision is linked to the personal dimension which is the key to the formulation of the unity and trinity of God. One of the peaks of Trinitarian reflection has been the work done to achieve an adequate definition of the word “person” that can be applied analogically to both man and God.
We can see how in antiquity this concept was linked to multiplicity and imperfection, and so could not be applied to God. The early Fathers, such as Justin, were still affected by this difficulty when they stated that the Son is a person because He manifests Himself and enters into relation with man and creation whereas the Father cannot be a person.
Boethius (†525) offers the initial definition: Individual substance of a rational nature (De duabus naturis, 3). The fundamental element of his definition of person is substance which takes account of individuality. Here, he reflects the original identification of ousia and hypostasis, with an apparent equivalence of the latter to substance. Later, theological reflection understood that it was necessary to distinguish hypostasis from ousia in God. At the human level, however, there is evidently still equivalence, for every human person is a distinct substance with respect to other human persons. In Boethius’ definition, if distinction is bound to substantiality, then the dimension of communion is brought back to the rational nature in that it is precisely the reason and the word that allow for the possibility of entering into relation.
In the twelfth century, Richard of St. Victor (†1173) exposed the limits of the Boethian definition. Though correct when applied to man, it breaks down when applied to God who is three Persons but not three substances. This is why Richard formulated a new definition: incommunicable existence proper to the divine nature (De Trinitate, IV, 22). So as to overcome the problem of Boethius’ definition, he replaces substance with existence, referring this term, according to its etymology (ex–sistentia), to the being from (ex) another. Thus, the existence of the Father would consist of his not being from anyone, that of the Son would consist of being from the Father, and that of the Holy Spirit of being from the two first divine Persons. In this way, the noun used––existence––makes direct reference to communion and relation whereas the adjective incommunicable guarantees the distinction. This definition was a clear step forward, but it also had an obvious limit. It could be applied only to God because the existence of human persons is not like that of God in Whom each Person is exclusively distinct by His relation of origin in the other Persons of the Trinity, yet still identified with the single substance. The additional specification unique to the divine nature was necessary to avoid every possible misunderstanding. The definition, then, cannot be applied to man but only to the Trinity.
Ultimately, it is Thomas Aquinas who offers a definition that can be applied to both the creature and the Creator. He modifies Boethius’ definition in the following way: The person is the subsistent of a rational nature (ST I, 29, a. 3, ad 3). Substance is replaced by the present participle of the verb to subsist, a verb that means ‘to have one’s own being in oneself’. This is why the definition is appropriate to the divine Persons, who are identified with the one substance that is Being itself, and therefore have no accidents. In this way, Thomas expresses what Boethius intended, though without using the term substance, which cannot be said of God in the plural. Furthermore, the use of the verb in its present participle refers directly to the subject of an action that in God is eternal. Obviously, when we speak about man, the dimension of eternity is not present, even though the definition applies to him perfectly.
Thus, Aquinas’ theology succeeded in finding a formulation that is extended analogically to different levels of being, thus displaying the continuity between God and His image. Clearly, the divine Persons have subsistence in a perfect way to the extent of being identified with their relation of origin. Therefore, with respect to the Trinity, Aquinas’ definition can be combined with another, which applies only to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The divine Person, is, in fact, relation inasmuch as it is subsistent (ST I, 29, a. 4, ad 3). If on the level of creation relation is an accident, in God it obviously is not, and is instead identified with the fullness of Being. This step forward is possible because relation is a pure reference to another reality that does not of itself modify the substance. So the Father is Fatherhood and in Him there is nothing else: The first Person does not give merely something to the other two, but gives Himself and is identified with the divine substance precisely in being the eternal source of this gift of Himself, of the gift of His divinity. So, too, is the Son none other than Sonship. Therefore, He is the divine substance received as a gift from the Father and given back to Him. And in this total giving back the gift of Himself the second Person is the image of the first. Lastly, the Holy Spirit is pure Spiration, that is, divine substance in being the eternal Gift that the Father and Son exchange between themselves.
Within man, the relationship between substance and relation is different than what it is with God. Whereas in the Trinity the Person refers directly to the relation and only indirectly to the substance, for us person points to substance in the first place and then, only indirectly, to relation. This is due to the imperfection of man who is called to become divinized by the Holy Spirit that he might grow in the image and likeness of God. This is something that anyone might experience by contemplating the saints, who were gradually identified with their relation to God and who gave their lives in love. This is demonstrated through the same bond of ultimate love that a person shows by giving his life for his friends, as Christ indicated in his farewell discourse during the Last Supper as the meaning of his life and the Paschal Mystery (John 15:13). This is not something merely moral. Instead, it is a journey towards full identity with the incarnate Son who came into the world to draw man into the Most Blessed Trinity and so bestow upon him eternal life. Man does not lose himself in giving himself, opening himself and allowing himself to enter into relation with the other, even if this means allowing himself to be wounded to stay true to that relation. For Being, the source of every being and every life, is relation.
Fatherhood And Sonship
The fundamental importance of the relational dimension was also grasped by the phenomenological research of the last century, and in unexpected areas of inquiry. For example, in an explicitly non-Christian context, psychoanalysis traces psychological pathologies back to an origin in wounds at the level of a person’s fundamental relations. In order to understand man, one must begin from the fact of his being son.
It is essential, therefore, to know the Father and the Son and contemplate them more fully. The Trinity is not an abstract reality, a complex theological doctrine far removed from us. Rather, it is the source of our very being as well as our deepest aspirations. We are from the Trinity and for the Trinity. The bosom of the Father is our home and the ultimate source of our identity, for from Him stems all fatherhood in heaven and on earth (Eph 3:14–15).
In fact, the Father is the divine Person who is the origin and source of everything. The Son and the Spirit have their origin from Him in eternity, and that is why creation, which is the work of the whole Trinity, also has its ultimate origin in the plan of the Father. He is Origin without origin. According to the Athanasian creed, He was neither made by anyone, nor created, nor generated. Inasmuch as He is the source of fullness, the first Person is the true foundation of divine unity. One could say that calling God one because He is triune is tantamount to saying that God is one because He is Father. In fact, being Father implies the existence of a Son and the being bound to Him by Love. It is here that one sees the ontological newness represented by the personal and relational dimension, known to us only through revelation.
The fatherhood of the first Person is absolute in the sense that He is infinitely Father. That is why he is fully involved in the generation of the Son. He never existed without the Son. He did not become a Father, He is Father, pure and eternal relation to the Son and His Love. Moreover, he is so fully Father that he alone generates an Only Begotten Son who, in turn, is perfectly identified with His very same divinity, with the divine substance.
The Son is fully Son: In Him there exists only the eternal receiving of Himself from the Father and the eternal orientation toward the Father. The second Person is pure being from and being for the Father, according to a beautiful expression of J. Ratzinger (Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004, pp. 186–189). The Son is always perfectly and continually generated in eternity, without this implying imperfection or movement from potency to act but only fullness and depth of relation with the Father. The very use of the passive to indicate being generated is due to the limitations of our language, for in itself the Son’s being generated is active and not passive. In God, to receive is not something “to which one is subjected”, but the welcoming of a gift, a welcoming that constitutes the Giving as such. The language of gift helps because even among humans accepting a present is an active process. The same can be said for call and answer. Thus, the Father is Father because He generates the Son, but is also the Father because the Son accepts the Gift and, in a way that we are unable to express adequately, it is precisely the Son who makes the first Person Father. Hence, their relationship is an eternal gift of self, which, on the part of the Father, possesses the characteristics of origin and source while, on the part of the Son, it is an eternal giving back of the Gift.
Hence, the Son is also called the image of the Father (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3). Just as the Father gives of Himself, so also the Son is His image precisely in the giving-back of Himself to the Father. He does not keep the Gift but gives of His own self to the Father in return. Though He is Life, He does live alone. Rather, He places Himself back in the hands of the source of Life.
This is also expressed in the name the Word, which is attributed to the second Person. Yet this name adds the reference to the purely spiritual dimension of the generation. This procession is analogous to the cognitive act of man because man too when he knows something has within himself, in his interior, an image of the known object. When man knows himself, the image that he forms of himself is intimate to the man himself and in an imperfect way is that man. Obviously, in God, the thought He has of Himself in knowing Himself is not only a concept. This thought is God Himself because here the act of knowing is utterly perfect. The Son is, then, the Thought of the Father. Clearly, this is only an analogy inasmuch as in man the concept that he forms is accidental and linked to the need to know, whereas in the Trinity it is the fruit of a perfect act of pure cognitive fertility.
Insistence on the Gift of Self is essential in understanding the significance of the new reality that has been revealed. There is no longer any sense in the image of God standing on high and determining all things by necessity. In that case, the identity of all that has its origin from Him would be an imposition and hence a mark of inferiority. Thus, in Christian reflection, it proved difficult initially to express the perfect divinity of the second divine Person. The Father and the Son are indeed God, the one and the same God, in eternal and reciprocal self-giving. The Father is not Father alone but rather in relation to the Son, and the Son is Himself in relation to the Father. Their identities are relational.
At this point, one can glimpse a reflection of the development of man and of his becoming aware of himself as son. When a child is small, he normally perceives only the perfection of his own parents, a perfection that is his first notion of the image of God. This happens because the world of the young is limited to the security of the home and family. However, he develops little by little and enters into relation with the external world. At the same time, he recognizes both his own limitations and the limitations of his parents, from whom his own limitations often derive. In this phase, one’s own identity is often perceived as an imposition and generally receives adolescent rejection, accompanied by the need to appear different. In a certain sense, the fundamental relationship with parents is understood in a dialectical sense, because a person does not manage to accept his own limitations. The simple fact of the matter is that when a person enters the world he does not choose his father or his mother. In this sense, the relation is not totally free. However, with the onset of the adolescent crisis, combined with external confrontation, the child can gradually discover, beyond the limitations, the positive side of his family baggage, of his heritage, and can actually freely choose his own parents in accepting their limitations. This kind of forgiveness of one’s father makes relation free and reciprocal; and from this gift, which is the essence of forgiveness, is also born the true identity of the son who, in accepting the limitations of his father, also accepts his own limitations and recognizes himself as a gift. The son is thus ready to become a father, that is, ready to give back to another the gift that he has received. And the same is true for a daughter.
Clearly, there are neither limits nor temporal sequence in the Trinity, but the relation of Father and Son is an eternal and reciprocal Gift of Self that is reflected in the image and likeness of the creature. For this reason, man becomes all the more easily son– –that is, he overcomes the crisis of adolescent identity––the more he realizes that his father truly gives of himself, that he accepts his limitations and loves the world, despite the difficulties.
The image shows, “Holy Trinity With The Virgin And The Saints,” by Corrado Giaquinto, painted in 1755.