Population And Its Decline

Anybody who has been paying attention has long grasped the truth: under-population, not overpopulation, is our problem. This will soon be true on a global scale, it is already true in most of the developed world. Empty Planet explains why this is undeniably so.

Unfortunately, the explanation is shrouded in confusion and ideological distortion, so the authors are never able to provide a clear message. Instead, they offer rambling, contradictory bromides combined with dumb “solutions” until the reader throws his hands up in despair, as I did. But then I got a stiff drink, finished the book, and now am ready to tell you about it.

The authors, two Canadians, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, offer an apparently complete story. Every part of the world is becoming more urbanized. Urbanization causes a drop in the fertility rate, for three reasons.

First, when off the farm, children are a cost center, rather than a profit center. Second, urbanized women choose to have fewer children. Third, urbanization means atomization of social life, such that the networks in which people were embedded, most of which exercised pressure to have children, disappear, and if replaced, are replaced by friends or co-workers who do not exercise the same pressure. “Family members encourage each other to have children, whereas non-kin don’t.”

These causes of population decline are exacerbated by two other factors not tied to urbanization—the worldwide decline of religious belief, and lower infant and child mortality, which means people don’t have children as insurance. And the end of the story is that when the fertility rate drops far enough, it is, in the modern world, permanent. It is the “fertility trap,” analogous to the well-known “Malthusian trap.”

Why do urbanized women choose to have fewer children (aside from the other two stated reasons, expense and less family pressure)? The authors cite the desire for a career; the desire for autonomy and empowerment; the desire to escape the control of men; and the desire for “crafting a personal narrative.”

All of these things the authors tie to “education,” or, in their unguarded moments and more accurately, “being socialized to have an education and a career.” That is, modernity leads to women choosing to have fewer children, often no children at all, and far fewer children than are necessary to replace the people we have now.

Why the fertility trap? It’s due to two totally separate causes. One is mechanical—if a society has fewer children, obviously there will then be fewer women to bear new children. But the other is social. When there are fewer children, “Employment patterns change, childcare and schools are reduced, and there is a shift from a family/child oriented society to an individualistic society, with children part of individual fulfilment and well-being.”

In other words, it’s not a trap, it’s a societal choice. Interestingly, according to the authors, drops in the fertility rate, and therefore the fertility trap, are not the result of legalized abortion and easy contraception, as can be seen from examples of fertility problems prior to the 1960s.

For example, the birth rate was briefly at less than replacement in much of the West prior to World War II, when contraception was much less common, and abortion very much rarer (it is a total myth that illegal abortion was widespread prior to the modern era, at least in the West).

But abortion and contraception certainly contribute to the fertility trap. That is, it is societal factors that cause the fertility rate to drop, but all else being equal, the easier it is to prevent (or kill) children, the harder it is to climb back up. In any case, the result is the same—fewer people, getting fewer.

Empty Planet then sequentially examines Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. There is a great deal of annoying repetition. Nonetheless, there is also much interesting data, all in support of the basic point—population everywhere is going to go down, soon and fast. True, the United Nations predicts that global population will top out at eleven billion around 2100, and then decline.

The authors instead think, and make a compelling case that, the United Nations overstates fertility in the twenty-first century. The authors say, and do a good job demonstrating why, population will top out at nine billion by around 2050 (it is seven billion now) and then decline. Some declines will be precipitous and startling—China, currently at 1.4 billion but deep into the fertility trap, will have 560 million people by the end of the century.

Strangely, the authors do not calculate global population estimates around, say, 2150, but eyeballing the numbers, it appears they will be around two or three billion, maybe less—and heading downward, fast.

Bricker and Ibbitson are not kind to overpopulation doomsayers. They note how completely wrong those of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the infamous Paul Ehrlich, have been proven. (Charles Mann does it better in his excellent The Wizard and the Prophet).

Bizarrely, Ehrlich is unrepentant, to a degree that suggests he is unhinged; the authors quote him as saying in 2015, without any reasoning, “My language would be even more apocalyptic today,” and analogizing children to garbage.

They don’t believe modern doomsayers are any more correct. Most just have no factual basis for their claims, which are basically just anti-human claims of a religious nature, and the authors even dare to note the obvious fact that the United Nations, a device primarily used to extract money from the successful economies of the world and give it to the unsuccessful, has a vested interest in exaggerating the problems of the backward parts of the world.

So what problems result from an aging and then declining global population? Economic stagnation is what the authors focus on. This is driven by less consumer demand, but also, less visibly but more importantly, by less dynamism.

Old people are takers, not makers. Moreover, they don’t do anything useful for driving society forward, let’s be frank. Not that the authors are frank; they skip by the dynamism problem without much comment, though at least they acknowledge it. But the reality is that for human flourishing, the dynamism of the young is everything, and far more important than consumer demand.

One just has to think of any positive accomplishment that has changed the world, in science, art, exploration, or anything else. In excess of ninety percent of such accomplishments have been made by people under thirty-five. (Actually, by men under thirty-five, for reasons which are probably mostly biological, but that is another discussion).

The simple reality is that it is the young who accomplish and the old who do not. And when you have no young people, you have no accomplishments. Our future, on the current arc, is being the Eloi; hopefully there will be no Morlocks.

Governments from Germany to Iran recognize this problem. The authors give numerous examples, all failures, of trying to resolve the problem by, in effect, begging and paying women to have children. Even here, the authors feel obliged to tell us “The idea of governments telling women they should have more babies for the sake of the nation seems to us repugnant.”

We are not told why that should be so, probably because it is obviously false, but regardless, it is clear that a modern government merely instructing or propagandizing women isn’t going to do the trick.

What is the authors’ solution, then? They don’t have one. Well, they have a short-term one, or claim to. Much of the back half of the book is taken up with endless variations on demanding that the West admit massive amounts of Third World immigrants.

The claimed reason for this is necessity—without immigration, Europe and North America will not have enough taxpayers to support the old in the style they desire. They realize the disaster that’s befallen Europe by admitting alien immigrants with nothing but their two hands. (They claim to reject the Swedish “humanitarian” model. But all their soaring language of untethered and unexplained moral duty implicitly endorses the humanitarian model).

Instead, they recommend the Canadian system to America, where only the cream of the crop, educated and with job skills, is admitted—but we must, must, must immediately admit no fewer than 3.5 million such immigrants every year.

And, of course, they fail to point out that the cream of the crop is by definition a tiny percentage of the overall amount of immigrants, so how exactly we are going to welcome only these worthwhile immigrants is not clear, especially if other countries are competing for them.

Nor do the authors point out that at best, this is a short-term solution—if every country in the world will soon have a less-than-replacement birth rate, emigration will soon enough become rare, so no amount of competition will attract enough people.

Therefore, their “solution” is no solution at all, and beyond this, Brickell and Ibbitson have nothing to offer, except muttering about how it’ll be nice to have a cleaner planet when there are no people to enjoy the clean planet.

I note that the authors do not tell us how many children they have, which seems highly relevant. If you are going to be a prophet, best inspect your own house, or acknowledge that others will find it relevant. If you dig, Bricker has one child, a daughter. Ibbitson appears to have no children. I cannot say why, of course, and it would be unfair to assume a selfish choice.

But whatever the reason, it is undeniably true that as a result they have less investment in the future than people with children. (Since you ask, I have five children. I am part of the solution, not part of the problem.) Maybe this is why finding a solution isn’t very important to them.

The book has many annoying inaccuracies that seem to be endemic among this type of popular writing, where editors appear to be permanently out to lunch.

It is not true that the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” refers to the Black Death. The authors offer a half-page so parsing the rhyme, but that’s an urban legend—the rhyme first appeared around 1800. (Even Snopes, the left-wing political hack site notorious for lying propaganda, is correct on this, probably because there is no political element).

The word “dowry” only refers to payments made to the groom’s family; similar payments made to the bride’s family are “bride price.” The G.I. Bill did not create the American interstate highway system. The term is “cleft palate,” not “cleft palette.”

India’s economic stagnation for decades after independence was not due to “protective tariffs;” it was, as everybody who is not a Marxist admits, due to socialism, exacerbated by refusal of outside capital, along with the Permit Raj. (Tariffs make perfect sense for many developing countries that rely on import substitution to grow their economies; both the Britain and the United States used them extremely successfully.)

The fifteenth-century Portuguese caravel was not based on Muslim technology. The wave of migrants into Europe that peaked (maybe) around 2016 was economic, not because of war, and not a single person in Europe believes what the authors repeatedly claim, that most of those people will return to their countries of origin soon. Or ever.

Sloppiness of this type makes the reader wonder about the other, more critical, factual claims in the book.

So that’s Empty Planet. All of it could have been said in twenty or thirty pages. On the surface it’s a pat story, though one without a happy ending. That’s not for the authors’ lack of trying to be happy. Normative judgments abound, all of them oddly in tension with the gloomy top-level attitude of the book toward the problem of under-population.

Thus, the authors assume that large populations are necessarily terrible for anyone who lives there; adjectives such as “miserable” abound for any people born in a high birth-rate country. Not for them any acknowledgement of Angus Deaton’s point in The Great Escape that people in poor countries are generally very happy.

All population control is referred to with adjectives such as “beneficent.” We are didactically instructed that “Sex education and birth control [are] good things in and of themselves.” And in what may be the single most clueless paragraph in a book chock full of them, the authors offer this:

“Small families are, in all sorts of ways, wonderful things. Parents can devote more time and resources to raising—indeed, cossetting—the child. Children are likely to be raised with the positive role models of a working father and working mother. Such families reflect a society in which women stand equally, or at least near equally, with men in the home and the workplace. Women workers also help to mitigate the labor shortages produced by smaller workforces that result from too few babies. It isn’t going too far to say that small families are synonymous with enlightened, advanced societies.”

Given that the entire point of the book is that small families are a disaster for humanity, even though they try to deflect this obvious conclusion by unpersuasive and unsupported claims such as, “Population decline isn’t a good or a bad thing,” this type of thing suggests, to be charitable, cognitive dissonance.

Not to mention that cosseting children is not a good goal, although it’s not surprising that two people with one child between them think so, and that sending more women to work outside the home when sending women to such work is part of the problem seems, um, counter-intuitive. But as we will see, this paragraph gives us a clue to what is really driving human population collapse.

Let’s try to figure out what’s really going on, because despite seeming to be so, the authors’ story is not complete. If you look at the story from another angle, not the one of received wisdom, strange unexplained lacunae appear within the text.

The fertility rate in the United States and Britain begin to drop in the early 1800s, but only at the end of the 1800s on the Continent, even though urbanization came sooner in the latter, and the United States was almost all agricultural in the early 1800s. “In France, oddly, fertility declines were already underway by the late 1700s. No one is sure why. . . .” “Fertility rates appear to have increased in France and Belgium during the Second World War, even though both countries were under German occupation or control and supplies such as food and coal were increasingly scarce.”

Some countries that are largely poor, uneducated, and not urbanized (Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay) have extremely low fertility rates, while other, very similar-seeming countries still have high rates (Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala). Uneducated Brazilian favela dwellers, normally the type of people who have lots of children, have experienced a big drop in fertility.

And on, and on, strange tidbits that jut out from the authors’ narrative, not fitting into the just-so story of urbanization followed by an inevitable and necessary choice to stop having children.

What could explain all these facts? The authors certainly don’t know. But I do. What brings together all these seeming outrider facts, and in the darkness binds them, is the inevitable human tendency toward selfish self-interest. Once this was universally recognized as vice, but it has always been recognized as a large part of what drives human beings unless we struggle against it.

The creation of virtue, through self-discipline, self-control, and, in Christian thinking, caring for others at our own expense, aiming at true freedom and the common good, was once the ideal.

Virtue helped control our baser impulses, and was the goal toward which a good and well-formed person was expected to strive and to lead others. It was, and is, the opposite of “living as one likes,” of the quest for supposed emancipation.

Having children is among the least selfish and most self-sacrificing things a woman, and to a lesser extent a man, can do; thus, when being selfish and self-centered both become exalted, we have fewer children. It is not a mystery.

How did we get here? As the result of two late-eighteenth-century developments.

The first, the fruit of the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, is wealth. I have pondered whether a rich society can ever stay a virtuous society, and population decline is merely a subset of this question.

The second, the fruit of the Enlightenment (which had nothing to do with the Scientific Revolution or the Industrial Revolution), is the exaltation of individual autonomy, of self-actualization as the goal of human existence.

The problem with urbanization and its impact on birth rates, especially in the West, is not something inherent to urbanization, but that city dwellers are more wealthy (or at least exposed to wealth) and have, in practice, fallen prey more easily to Enlightenment ideas.

Either of these anti-virtue developments can crash fertility by itself. Combined, they are lethal to human progress. For example, a rich society, such as Venice in the 1600s, can never undergo the Enlightenment, but wealth alone will lead to depopulation, as virtue fades and pursuit of self becomes exalted.

And a poor and not urbanized society, such as late 1700s France or early 1800s America, can experience an ideological erosion of virtue solely through embracing Enlightenment principles. Or, to take a more modern example, the South American countries with high rates of fertility are those that are still strongly Christian, and hew to the Christian virtues.

The authors themselves note this correlation, but gloss over the implications. Similarly, poor Brazilians are not converted to the gospel of self directly by Rousseau and Locke, or by wealth, both of which they totally lack, but indirectly by both—by obsessive watching of telenovelas, the plots of which, as the authors note, “involve smaller families, empowered women, rampant consumerism, and complicated romantic and family relationships.”

For a final set of proofs, it is obvious from Empty Planet’s own statistics, though apparently not obvious to the authors themselves, that as the material blessings of the West finally spread around the world, fertility rates drop in tandem with adoption of the West’s techniques for acquiring wealth, further exacerbated when countries adopt Enlightenment values.

And to the extent the country’s elite push back against Enlightenment values, such as in Hungary and Russia, some progress can be made in increasing birth rates. Similarly, when a country’s people experiences shared challenges, social pressure against atomized Enlightenment individual autonomy can increase greatly, resulting in more children.

Such was apparently the case in wartime Belgium and France. It is also why Jews in Israel, alone among advanced economies, have a birthrate far in excess of replacement, even if you exclude the Orthodox. They value something beyond their own immediate, short-term desires, which counterbalances the natural human tendency towards vice.

We can now explain what the authors could not. The real, core reason for population decline is that children reduce autonomy and limit the worship of self. Children reduce autonomy even more for women than men, as a biological reality, so as women are culturally indoctrinated that they must have autonomy, they choose to have fewer children. (Men also want more autonomy, of course; that is why men support legal abortion more than women).

True, women don’t really get freedom as a result; for the most part, they get the opportunity to join the rat race for more consumer goods, and as is easy to demonstrate, they are no happier as a result. Probably most are far less happy, and very often, if not nearly always, regret having not had children, or more children.

Modern societal structures make this worse. To take a bitter, if funny, example, eating dinner with a group of young couples in Brussels, who between the twelve of them have two children, the authors note, “Most of the men are students or artists, while the women work and pay the rent.”

When men won’t fulfill their proper role as breadwinner and protector, it’s no wonder that women find bearing and raising children less attractive, totally aside from their own personal desire for autonomy.

And, finally, back to consumerism, the belief among both men and women that both they and their children must have the latest and mostest consumer goods, and that if something has to give to make that possible, it should be bearing children, is yet another manifestation of the cult of self.

The problem of declining population is fatal for any progress for the human race, so, naturally, given my desire to organically remake human society to flourish, expand, and accomplish, it’s necessary to solve this problem. (Not just for me, of course—any political program must deal with the underpopulation bomb).

I don’t think this is a narrowly resolvable problem—that is, there is no technical solution that does not also involve remolding human society, or at least some human societies. Certainly certain structural measures can and should immediately be taken in any well-run society.

Economic incentives are part of it, including cash payments to mothers of children, increasing by number of children, and increasing to the extent they stay home to take care of the children. Societies where women are expected to both do all the work of raising children, but are also required to earn money, notably Japan, Korea, and Italy, have among the lowest birth rates. Cash isn’t an adequate substitute for family frameworks, but it can help at the margin. Perhaps more, if enough cash is devoted to it.

Hungary, for example, yesterday announced a massive package of such incentives, including that women who have borne and raised four or more children are permanently exempt from all income tax. There should also be an enforced absolute ban on abortion in all circumstances, as well as on no-fault divorce (and the party at fault in a divorce should face severe financial penalties).

Other structural incentives for women to bear and raise children should similarly be put into place. Those are not only cash-based—for example, the Hungarian initiative also raises the social credit, as it were, of child-bearing and child-rearing. A woman who is called “breeder” by her friends when she says she wants a second or third child is less likely to do so than one who knows she will instead be admired and envied by both friends and strangers.

But all technical structural measures are completely inadequate without genuine societal change. You have to create a feedback loop. That’s how we got here, after all—more atomization leads to more atomization. Under the right circumstances, more virtue can lead to more virtue. It seems to me that the only hope for this is a societal rework, which, not coincidentally, is precisely what I am pushing.

The problem is that my end-state doesn’t comport with inherently selfish human desires. Thus, a feedback loop is harder to create and maintain. It probably requires some external goal for a society, combined with an outward-looking optimism that cannot be artificially created or maintained, but must be a groundswell within society, beginning with a virtuous and self-sacrificing ruling class (no points for guessing if that’s what we have now).

I suspect the only way forward is to provide such as societal goal that supersedes selfishness, while permanently ending the failed Enlightenment experiment on every level, and creating a new program that, in many ways, resembles earlier Western structures.

Even so, I am not certain it is possible to create an advanced, wealthy, urban society, not dedicated to extreme personal autonomy, with a high birth rate. But let’s say it is, and we can get there, and global population continues to expand, or rebounds, to more than current projections.

Considerable increases in current human population, maybe to fifteen or twenty billion, probably would be good for humanity overall. True, large populations can be challenging, and can, in certain circumstances, result in massive problems. Some of those circumstances are physical—it would be very difficult to have 100 million people live within 50 miles of the Arctic Circle.

But most of those circumstances are culture—when you have an inferior culture, it makes it much harder to provide for everyone. The converse, though, is that if you change your culture, your opportunities expand. (Nor should we forget that England created the modern world when her population, at the time of Malthus, was nine million in a world population of a billion, so small numbers can do great things, and culture is everything).

I am a big believer in, to use Charles Mann’s words, the ability of Wizardry to provide solutions to challenges such as increasing population. If that is true, an increasing population with many young people is a dynamic population, and as long as global culture is not deficient, but rather contains much excellence, then having not an empty planet, but a filled planet, is highly desirable.

Therefore, I am not as pessimistic as Bricker and Ibbitson. But we will all be long dead before we find out who is right, so all we can do is try to lay the groundwork for our children, and their children—and to make sure all those people exist.

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

The photo shows, “The School Walk,” by Albert Anker, painted in 1872.

Restarting The Engine Of Christianity

Christian scholarship is rare in the context of current university disciplines. Strong is the myth that the basic tenets of the Christian faith belong to that “childish” phase of human history when people were credulous and superstitious, lorded over by a cruel, avaricious church that used ignorance and violence as a means of control. The go-to reference for all this imagined savage theocracy is the medieval era. This myth is deep-seated in the Western mind (thanks to the Protestant Black Legend) – and, despite many worthy efforts, it remains well-entrenched. Myths serve many purposes. This one reifies progressivism, which is the religion of modernity.

But there was also a time when unchristian scholarship was unimaginable, because the life of the mind was aligned with eternity. The abandonment of eternity by academia (the greatest tragedy) unmoored learning from its historical mission – which was to provide an eternal purpose to life by way of reason. This was once called the life of the mind. Education has now begun its Wandering in the Desert.

In all this aridity, it is refreshing to find a spring of Christian scholarship yet living, in the form of a learned and profound book. This is Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary and the Art of Prayer. The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. Given that this book is deeply Christian and rigorously scholarly, its reception will be problematic. Some may find in it a heuristic for recouping the feminine in the medieval past, in the person of the Virgin Mary. Others will quibble about this or that source material, or even the exclusion or inclusion of this or that scholar. And, the sad Protestant-Roman Catholic divide will continue to use Mary to mark out difference. Indeed, the Virgin is unimaginable for Protestants once Christmas is over; while for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, Christianity itself is unimaginable without her. If truth is the goal of scholarship, then scholarship had better first know what truth actually is. Any sort of materialistic construct is incapable of truth, because all it can do is demonstrate cause and effect (fact). This is only the first step, because the fullness of truth also needs purpose. The question, “Why?” needs an answer. Once facts find their purpose, truth is at last obtained.

Fulton Brown offers truth, by successfully tearing away the façade of causes (i.e., feminism) that now distorts so much of education and offering instead eternity. Thus, her book is highly contentious and highly important, and consequently, it will be ignored, dismissed, criticized, found wanting, and even declared to be not scholarly at all. Regardless, the life of the mind runs deeper than the shallow advocacies of professional educators. This is why the majority of academic writing is worthy only for obscure journals that nobody reads. In contrast, Fulton Brown’s book is careful, meticulous, profound, deeply learned – and accessible – and it must be read by all those interested in the history of big ideas.

The book is best described as a meticulously woven tapestry of medieval faith, spiritual discipline, history and natural theology, whereby medieval Christians sought completion (or harmony, as Plato and even Aristotle understood it) – which was the instantiation of divine grace in creation. To cultivate the mind meant leading the soul to salvation.

Fulton Brown demonstrates this process adroitly. Her premise is unique and intriguing – that the Virgin Mary was the dynamic of early and medieval Christianity, in whom meaning itself was determined: “…Mary was the mirror of the Divinity; she was the model of mystical illumination and the vision of God, the Queen of the Angels and the Mother God, as like to her Son as it is possible for a creature to be, enthroned beside him in heaven and absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine.”

Thus, Mary was not some incidental figure thrown in beside the manger and then at the foot of the cross – but that she was the very “logic” of Christianity – for how is the Word (Logos) to be made flesh, if not through the womb? And, therefore, unlike any other human being, Mary also must fulfill the law and the prophets, like her Son. As Rachel Brown brilliantly demonstrates, this summation is not some medieval fantasy, dreamt up by monks, who needed to come up with a “Christianish” figure to replace the supposed “wide-spread cult” of the “Mother Goddess” (this academic fantasy, an invention of Marija Gimbutas, has finally been debunked). Instead, devotion to Mary is as old as Christianity itself – and, like Jesus, Mary’s presence in the Old Testament was widely known, acknowledged and understood, that is, until the Reformation brought on historical amnesia (the blinkers of sola scriptura).

To show the antiquity of Marian devotion, Fulton Brown uses Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology that has uncovered continuity from Judaism to early Christian piety. This, of course, follows Christ’s direction on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 25-27). Therefore, the Virgin is the Ark of the Covenant, the Tree of Life, Zion, the Burning Bush, Jacob’s Ladder, the Temple and the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Wisdom, the Object of the Song of Songs, the Chalice, the True Bread of Heaven, the Rod of Jesse, the Gate of Ezekiel, the Lily of the Valley, and so forth. In short, all those descriptions whereby God allows human access to Himself. It was Albertus Magnus who carefully traced the many references to Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in his classic work, the Biblia Mariana.

But how do we know that this is not some invention of Albertus Magnus, or some other monk? How do we know that devotion to Mary has always been at the heart of early Christianity? Very simply, because the first church at Jerusalem venerated the Virgin (per Dom Thierry Maertens, who has studied this subject extensively). This veneration is present in the two credal confessions – that of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD, and then that of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, in which Mary was recognized as the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” or the “Mother of God.” As Rachel Brown observes: “She was the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing him with flesh as he passed through the veil, magnifying his glory as he came forth from the womb. Mary was the one who, harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Thus, medieval Christianity was neither a perversion nor a corruption of some “pure,” first-century Christianity (as the Reformers always imagined, without any historical evidence). It is also often assumed that Saint Paul’s epistles say nothing about Mary. But even this is not true, since the epistles do not deny the virgin birth of Jesus; and Paul does write that deeply Marian passage in Galatians 4:4-6, in which the entire mystery of God becoming man is summarized, a process in which Mary is essential.

In effect, the medieval veneration of Mary had an ancient precedent in Marian devotion in Jerusalem. There is no early Church, nor early Christianity, without Mary – because Mary was the “Mother of the Word,” as Fulton Brown aptly observes. Whether medieval men and women were aware of this antiquity is immaterial. For example, the core vocabulary of the English language goes back to the Bronze Age (and perhaps even earlier); and English-speakers are largely ignorant of this antiquity. But such unfamiliarity takes nothing away from the actual history of the English language.

For those who might imagine that medieval Christianity has nothing to do with the first-century Church, an appeal to basic logic would be necessary. First, the faith itself depends upon events which are all based in the first-century. Second, the epistles of Saint Paul go back to within a few decades of Jesus Himself, and they contain various pre-Pauline creeds and hymns that come from within a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, for those trying to prove disjunction as “normal” in history would need to disprove the first-century context in all of the New Testament – which was the very same Scripture that the faithful read in the Middle Ages. Therefore, how could medieval Christians not help being part of first-century confessional reality? Again, it matters not at all whether they knew their faith to be first-century (and earlier).

But to be fair, when the medieval mind imagined the world of Christ, it did so through the lens of Romanitas (Romanity, Romanness). Therefore, it is wrong to think that medieval awareness was unhistorical, or even a-historical. The remarkable thing about Christianity is its unbroken continuity with its origins in the first century. This sets it apart from all other religions (including even Judaism). The medieval world understood this very clearly.

One piece of evidence of this understanding is the use of exempla (historical anecdotes), which divide time into three distinct categories – diachronic time, retrospective time and eternal time. Historical past, including the era of Jesus, was diachronic. Of course, the tradition of using exempla is Classical (ancient) in origin, which medieval philosophy knew. As well, we should not forget the fact that the calendar evidenced how long ago Jesus lived, since it was (and is still) based on His birthday. This means that the medieval world did know that Jesus lived in the first-century, and they did know that the New Testament came from that time period, with the Old Testament being earlier. This means, then, that the medieval world knew that Christianity possessed historical continuity.

The Virgin, therefore, was always crucial to the life of the Church, because she fulfilled the great hope of humanity by bringing the Savior into the world – she is the starting point of mankind’s salvation. Devotion to her is not a denial of Christ (an either/or proposition is simply a confused epistemology) – but it is an affirmation of God’s salvific plan in Jesus. How? By making the mystery of the Incarnation into a Mother-and-Child relationship. When God is born as the Baby Jesus, He must also take on Mary’s flesh. And in doing so, her flesh, her humanity, merges with the Divine, which is Jesus’ dual nature (God and man). What better example of salvation can there? God made flesh so that humanity can become God-like.

Thus, to assume, as all Protestants do, that Mary just became a regular housewife once Jesus got born and had other children by Joseph, is to misconstrue, and then cast doubt on, the Incarnation – which must be a unique event, a “process” brought about by a unique human being (Mary). Otherwise, Jesus is just a man, the physical son of Joseph, because Mary’s womb was not special and was not meant for only one purpose (giving birth to God as man). When Mary is touched by God in such an intimate way, can she just simply go back to “normal” when what she has done is not “normal?” It can even be said that the denial of Mary brings in the eventual death of theology (which is the condition of present-day Christianity, which now seeks to exist beyond theology). Without Mary, the only thing left is a fatigued reliance on allegory, which is a polite way of saying, “superstition.”

But Fulton Brown’s book is not only about the Virgin in the Middle Ages; it is also a significant study of a discipline long-forgotten in the modern world – that of prayer. Indeed, prayer is an intensely human expression, being found in all of human history. But what sets apart Christian prayer? Two things. First, it is “paying attention to God;” it is an “engine…for lifting the mind to God.” Second, as Tertullian reminds us, prayer is sacrifice. For the medieval Christian, prayer was intense meditation and sacrificial offering, affected through intense discipline.

This discipline consisted of reading, memorizing, and repeating set prayers, or litanies, and Fulton Brown focuses on one such litany, the Hours of the Virgin (the Little Office of the Virgin Mary). The term, “litany” derives from the Greek litaneia, which means “prayer,” or “supplication” and involves a schedule of biblical passages, hymns and set prayers to be recited throughout the day. Constant attention, constant sacrifice to God, such were the ideal objects of medieval piety. The discipline came in two forms. First, the daily recitation itself of the various passages, hymns, prayers and petitions; second, the memorization of large portions of the Bible, such as, all the Psalms. Thus, a life of the mind forever attached to God, and each hour of the day and parts of the night spent in His service. This rigor has long vanished from daily life – not that every medieval individual undertook this rigor either – but it was the ideal and everyone pursued it to the best of his ability. This ideal has now vanished.

In an effort to bring back this rigor, this discipline, Fulton Brown guides the reader along in practicing a medieval litany. The very idea of spending hours at prayer is now foreign, given the fact that for most Christians an hour every Sunday seems sufficient. And the object of medieval prayer? Mary, who was the “engine” that lifted the mind and the soul to God: “A creature herself, Mary reflected the virtues and beauty of all God’s creatures; and yet, she had carried within her womb ‘he whom the world could not contain.’ This was the mystery evoked at every recitation of the angel’s words: ‘Dominus tecum’ (the Lord is with thee)’… She it was whom God filled with himself.” In effect, Mary was the engine that made Christianity work, for without her, the Incarnation is denied.

It must be said that Fulton Brown uses a vast array of source material in her study. Such marshaling of material is indeed rare today in academia (given the plague of specialization) and deserves praise. She provides her two subjects (Mary and prayer) a thorough context in medieval theology, philosophy, literature, art, music, and history, by way of some 265 original sources, which range from Adamus Scotus to Guibert de Nogent to José Ximénez de Samaniego. All of these sources bolster the thesis of the book – the centrality of Mary to early and medieval Christianity.

More importantly still, Fulton Brown provides a systematic experience of what Christian faith was really like in the Middle Ages. Thus, reading this book is to undertake an intense training, not only in medieval piety – but in the earliest aspect of Christianity, which was rooted in devotion to Mary: “…the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing with flesh as he passed though the veil, magnifying his glory as he came froth from the womb. Mary was the one harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Mary and the Art of Prayer is a book that must be on the shelf of every thoughtful Christian who wishes to understand the quality and the nature of his faith – and it must be read by those who wish to understand the importance and urgency of prayer – for piety without good works (prayer) is selfishness.

Fulton Brown concludes her book with an analysis of Maria de Jésus de Agreda’s (or, Sor Maria) Mystica ciudad de Dios (The Mystical City of God), which is a life of the Virgin that was published in 1670. In it, Sor Maria offers this insight: “…for into the heart and mind of our Princess [the Virgin] was emptied and exhausted the ocean of the Divinity, which the sins and the evil dispositions of the creatures has confined, repressed and circumscribed.”

Such “dispositions” are with us still – so much so that the Church today only wants to be “relevant,” because it can no longer make people holy, let alone make them Christian. The Church has abandoned its flock, which now wanders about unshepherded, seeking God in so many false pastures. Perhaps, therefore, Fulton Brown’s book has appeared at the right time, for the world is in sore need of the discipline of prayer, so that it can restart the Engine of Christianity, without which humanity is lost. This Restart will first mean the reestablishment of fidelity to the truth of Christian. Fulton Brown has offered a blueprint. Have we eyes to see?

The photo shows, “Speculum iustitiae” (The Mirror of Justice) by Giovanni Gasparro. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 2007, as a pupil of the painter Giuseppe Modica, with a thesis in art history on the Roman stay of Van Dyck. His first solo exhibition took place in Paris is in 2009, and in 2011, the Archdiocese of L’Aquila commissioned him to do nineteen works of art between altar and altarpiece for the thirteenth century Basilica of San Giuseppe Artigiano, damaged by the earthquake of 2009, which constitute the largest painting cycle of sacred art made in recent years. In 2013 he won the Bioethics Art Competition of UNESCO’s Bioethics and Human Rights Chair with Casti Connubii, a work inspired by Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical. He exhibited at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and at the National Gallery of Cosenza in comparison with Mattia Preti, the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna, the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Alinari Museum of Florence, the Napoleonic Museum of Rome, and the Grand Palais of Paris, among many other venues.

Eumeswil, Or Whither Human Excellence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditionalism, Or More Insanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Schmitt: The Man And His Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stasiland: Or Why Communism Is Beyond Reproach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Requiem” by Werner Tübke, painted in 1965. 

The Populist Revolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: 12 Rules For Life

A friend of mine has been pushing me to look into Jordan Peterson for the past six months.  I thought, since my friend is conservative, that Peterson offered right-wing politics, and it is true that he has recently been in the news for his thoughts on certain charged topics.

However, Peterson does not, in fact, offer politics, which is refreshing in these days of rage.  Rather, 12 Rules For Life is a self-help book constructed like a Russian matryoshka doll, a nested construct.  It talks, and works, on multiple levels, some of which may have political implications, but if so, they are incidental to what the book offers to each human person, both the broken and the whole.

The nested, complex nature of this book really should be no surprise, because Peterson’s life’s work is the study of the infinitely layered human mind, and his one earlier book, Maps of Meaning, was an exhaustive analysis of intricate human myths, their roots in our moral beliefs, and their implications for today.

In Peterson’s view, all moral traditions are, at their root, exemplifications and explications of the opposition of order and chaos, as well as a way of creating shared beliefs, which are immensely valuable to any human society.

The basic point in his Rules is that every individual can avoid the extremes of menacing chaos and tyrannical order by following the Way, the line between order and chaos, “through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.” This is to “live properly,” and if we can do this, we can “collectively flourish.” Thus, his 12 Rules are guides to this end.

As I says, this is not a political book, but politics is downstream of this book—that is, if you buy into what Peterson is offering, it probably changes some of your political views.  Peterson’s basic principle is the imperative need to recognize that reality exists, and given that so much of politics today is built around a wholesale denial of reality, Peterson’s statements often seem political.

In fact, they are political, even if that is not Peterson’s intent, or at least not his major intent.  This is especially true of his view of men and women, which permeates the book.

But let’s treat the book as it is, rather than treating it as some form of archetype, for it is, if nothing else, highly original, and it is therefore hard to summarize.  Peterson, both an academic and a practicing clinical psychologist, has spent a lifetime talking extensively to many people, most of them troubled, and he thinks very deeply about every word he says (as is clearly evident if you watch interviews with him available online).

That doesn’t mean he’s didactic—his writing tone is conversational and packed with anecdotes, carefully chosen to illustrate or add impact to the points he makes.  But it does mean that nearly every sentence is crowded with meaning.

Rule 1 is “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.”  This is the backbone of all the rules, really, for in its Peterson explains that we are how we are.  We are not malleable beyond a certain point. His illustration is lobsters, who were already incredibly ancient at the dawn of the dinosaurs, yet who have much in common with humans—so much so that anti-depressants perk defeated lobsters up.  Lobsters have a dominance hierarchy.

And, critically, male and female lobsters are radically different—they act differently, yes, but more broadly, male and female lobster teleology, their purpose, is different, and that is reflected in how each behaves.  For lobsters, and all other creatures, “The dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years.  It’s permanent.  It’s real.  It is [rather than capitalism, or patriarchy, or some other ephemeral manifestation] a near-eternal aspect of the environment. . . . Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.”

Males, lobster or not, who fall in the dominance hierarchy have bad lives that get worse, often in a self-reinforcing loop; and they rise in the dominance hierarchy by fighting and winning, which means they get the best food, the best mental and physical health, the best shelter, and the best females.

Similarly, females who rise (who fight only in their maternal stage, but compete otherwise) in the dominance hierarchy have the best mental health, and better physical circumstances by virtue of attracting high-quality suitors, that is, those high in the dominance hierarchy, whom they identify and pursue; those who fall; the reverse.  Whether we like to admit it or not, humans are essentially the same as lobsters. They always have been, and they always will be.

Unlike lobsters, though, humans can self-diagnose that they are at the bottom of the hierarchy, or heading there in a downward spiral, and they can take action to improve their situation.  (Peterson’s book is about taking action, most of all.)  Falling in a human dominance hierarchy basically means you are being bullied, and though some can’t fight back, almost always, it’s that people won’t fight back.

While fighting back can be as simple as changing your view of life, “to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open,” and “accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood,” ultimately “[t]here is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character.”

Given that I have always believed that violence, or at least its threat, is the solution to most problems of human oppression, this certainly resonates with me, though reconciling that with turning the other cheek is difficult, and not something Peterson has much use for, despite obvious deep sympathy with Christianity.

Through standing up for oneself, straight with your shoulders back, using force as necessary (and the willingness to use force likely means it will not be necessary), leads the path to human flourishing, for all.

In Rule 2, “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping,” Peterson addresses why people sabotage themselves.  He first delves deeply into human mythos, closely analyzing the first chapters of Genesis in particular, though also offering nods to other traditions, such as the Vedic.

This is in service of a deeper exploration of the eternal opposition of order and chaos.  Order is masculine; when good, it is the structure of society, the ice on which we skate; when bad, it is tyranny and stultification. Chaos is feminine; when good, it is the origin of all things and the maker of all things new, the substance from which all things are made; when bad, it is the dangerous unknown, the chthonic underworld, and the dark water under the ice.

Calling these categories of reality masculine and feminine is not arbitrary; in fact, it comports with what may be the ultimate fundamental fact of human existence, the division into two very different sexes, male and female, “natural categories, deeply embedded in our perceptual, emotional and motivational structures.”

(You now begin to see why the transgender ideologues are not thrilled with Peterson.)  As with Adam and Eve and their self-sabotage, we sabotage ourselves, not viewing ourselves as worthy of respect, since we are capable of stupidity and evil.  “And with this realization we have well-nigh full legitimization of the idea, very unpopular in modern intellectual circles, of Original Sin.”  But we can choose to embody the Image of God, instead.  “Back is the way forward—as T. S. Eliot insisted [in Little Gidding]—but back as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake beings.”

For Christians, though, this poses a perceived difficulty.  Yes, as Peterson notes, Christianity reduced evil and barbarism in the areas it conquered.  But it encouraged excessive self-sacrifice through erroneous thinking.  “Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically—how to walk with God despite the tragedy of conscious self-knowledge—and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service of others.”

We have to care for others as we care for ourselves; only in that way can both of us flourish.  Peterson explores this line of thought at considerable length; it is impossible to shorten his words and retain the meaning, but it is both fully compatible with Christian belief and an antidote to a certain line of Christian excessive self-abnegation (a failing I found in Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, though I hesitate to criticize a book of such renown).

Rule 3 advises us to choose and to see our friends clearly.  You must not only see the best in people. You can show them to what they should aspire, but you cannot lift them up unless they wish to be so lifted.

“Not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise.”  “But Christ himself, you might object, befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes.  How dare I cast aspersions on the motives of those who are trying to help?  But Christ was the archetypal perfect man.  And you’re you.  How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t instead bring them—or  you—further down?”  Again, nearly every word is perfect:  “Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what inexplicable. . . . . Things fall apart, of their own accord, but the sins of men speed their degeneration. And then comes the flood.”

Rule 4 returns to an internal focus, advising us to “Compare Yourself To Who You Were Yesterday, Not To Who Someone Else Is Today.”  Just because you can always find an area where someone, or everyone, is better, does not mean that area is or should be relevant to you.

A myriad of games are possible in each person’s life; choose your game, choose your starting point, and improve yourself, incrementally and gradually.  In fact, you should reward yourself for doing so, as silly as that sounds.

And if you resent someone else, you need to realize it is either stupid immaturity, in which case you should stop it, or it is a legitimate complaint, in which case you must address it, or it will only get worse and cause more problems.

Next, on Rule 5, “Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them,” Peterson switches gears, from the world of adults to the world of children as it intersects with adults.

He strongly objects to certain psychological tendencies in child-rearing, especially the protection of children from dangers at the expense of making them fully functioning and competent human beings (a problem mainly with male children and their mothers, he says).

Children must be socialized; they are not inherently good (or inherently bad, for that matter).  Individual problems do not call for social restructuring, which is mostly stupid.  “Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous.”

Socialization means limitations; limitations facilitate creative achievement, not crimp it.  Along the way, Peterson discusses tangential topics, such as that hierarchies are rarely, if ever, arbitrary.  He recognizes, of course, that each child is very different (as I know, having five myself), but certain basic approaches (including “discipline and punish,” I assume a joke at Foucault’s expense) are the most likely to lead to success, for all of child, parents, and society.

In Rule 6, Peterson returns to adult self-help, “Set Your Own House In Perfect Order Before You Criticize The World.”  He evaluates here, as he does in more than one place in this book, the nihilism of the smarter Columbine killer, Eric Harris.

This is of course topical, with the present focus on school shootings.  True, they have not actually increased in recent decades, but they have increased from forty or fifty years ago, when children carrying guns to school was unexceptional, and the reason is almost certainly some form of this nihilism.

Peterson is violently opposed to the idea that humans are some kind of plague, as Harris maintained, and he identifies this sort of thinking, common among certain elites today, who adhere to the self-definition of Goethe’s Mephistopheles as “the spirit who negates,” as among the worst in the modern world.  (Peterson would prefer Normal Borlaug to William Vogt, in Charles Mann’s excellent, The Wizard and the Prophet.) Yes, life is very hard, and suffering, great suffering, is nearly inevitable for everyone.

But transformation, not vengeance, is the answer.  Abel, not Cain. Rather than blaming everyone else for what is wrong, stop today what you know to be wrong, and start doing what you know to be right. Thereby, you help yourself, and you strike a blow for Being, for the Way, and against nihilism.

Peterson continues the focus on suffering in Rule 7, “Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient).”  Here, he dives into Egyptian mythology, as well as several passages from the New Testament.  He returns to, and expands on, his earlier thoughts about the impact of Christianity and the resulting new problems, noting that, “In consequence [of Christianity], the metaphysical conception of the implicit transcendent worth of each and every soul established itself against impossible odds as the fundamental presumption of Western law and society.  That was not the case in the world of the past, and is not the case yet in most places in the world of the present.”

(I’ve been saying this for years, but it’s nice to find someone prominent who agrees with me!)  But in addition to the tendency toward self-abnegation, long a potential problem for flourishing in this life, Christianity’s decline has left a void.

Here Peterson talks of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Milton, Solzhenitsyn, and much more, including his own personal moral development, and returns again to suffering and nihilism, which are bad, but which at least point out, when addressed directly, that there is something good that opposes them.

Expedience is lying and not facing up to your sins and the reality of things.  Meaning is the balance between chaos and order, and it leads to good.  “Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.”  And by much the same token, but more personal and humanized, Rule 8:  “Tell The Truth—Or At Least, Don’t Lie.”  Deceit leads to evil, which leads to, and is embodied, suffering.

Rule 9 tells us to “Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t.”  Here a plea for, in essence, humility, along with some fascinating ideas about how to conduct disagreements with one’s spouse, and related thoughts on memory and wisdom.  Rule 10 says “Be Precise In Your Speech.”

As I say, Peterson embodies this rule.  I like to say (which probably says something about me), in the context of political arguments, that I am a professional killer.  I have nothing on Peterson, though.  You can see the wheels turning when he is asked a question, and what comes out is precise and irrefutable, each word weighted with meaning and exquisitely interlocked, intertwining and supporting, with every other.

(He never seems to say “um,” that’s for certain.)  Lack of precision leads to chaos; lack of precision may be a failure of vocabulary, but it is more often a failure to communicate at all, to identify and address problems between two people before they grow to enormous, malevolent proportions.  But, “If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus.  If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague.  The destination remains unproclaimed.  The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.”

Next to last, in Rule 11, Peterson returns to children, “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.”  Danger, especially for men, is part of growth.  And young men are the element of society at greatest risk today—this is not a major theme of this book, but it is a major theme of Peterson’s public thought.

They are protected from developing properly, they are deliberately socialized like and as girls, yet they are blamed for the world’s ills, and as a result, some turn to nihilism, and fascism, encouraged by certain other men who, in essence, Peterson calls evil.

Here, Peterson returns emphatically to his proclamation of the deep and abiding differences between men and women.  “[Some] insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct.  It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in.”  For example, in the “emancipated” Scandinavian countries, girls choose traditionally feminine pursuits and behaviors at extremely high rates.

And in the United States, it is just a lie that there are few women law firm partners due to discrimination; the reason is, purely, women’s choice.  (I know this from personal experience, although you are forbidden to say it at a law firm—you would be fired instantly, yet another of many distortions of reality today, and a form of coerced lying and mass collective self-delusion).

The dominance hierarchy is only one example of this, but it is enormously important, like it or not, for young men, and making it so they can’t win in any aspect of it is catastrophic for men—and for women, who have a reduced selection of competent partners to meet their different, but complementary, needs.

The movie Frozen is “deeply propagandistic,” an embodied falsehood, not because a woman necessarily needs a man to rescue her, though she probably does to some extent, as does a man need a woman to make him whole, but because it pretends that masculine traits are of no consequence to human flourishing.

The “oppression of the patriarchy” is a pack of lies.  “The so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery.”

The miserable result of denying this is what we see today.  “We do not teach our children that the world is flat.  Neither should we teach them unsupported ideologically-predicated theories about the nature of men and women—or the nature of hierarchy.”

He even boldly directly attacks transgender ideology.  “Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored.”

The answer is simple.  Rather than feeding or believing all these lies, men and women should each do, and be, what they are.  “A woman should look after her children—although that is not all she should do.  And a man should look after a woman and children—although that is not all he should do.

But a woman should not look after a man, because she must look after children, and a man should not be a child.  This means he must not be dependent.”  In this is found what men should do, not in a turn to nihilism or fascism, and equally not in a turn to emasculation and feminization to avert stupid accusations of “toxic masculinity.”

Finally, in Rule 12, “Pet A Cat When You Encounter One On The Street,” Peterson turns most personal, describing the trials and suffering of his daughter from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  It is moving stuff, and Peterson returns again to his theme of the inevitability of suffering.

But being open to cats, and myriad other joys, means you can “get a reminder that for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.”

Peterson ends with a series of fascinating brief questions and answers, along with short explanations of the answers, posed from himself to himself, on everything from “What shall I do with my life?” (Answer: “Aim for Paradise, and concentrate on today”), to “What shall I do with a torn nation?”

(Answer: “Stitch it back together with careful words of truth”), to “What shall I do with my infant’s death?” (Answer: “Hold my other loved ones and heal their pain”).  These are meant to, in a type of stream of consciousness, embody some of the basic principles underlying the rules in the book.

Really, though, they are more; they are nearly an entire philosophy of life, which is probably why this book is so popular.  If you are broken, there is much in it for you.  But Peterson’s point is that everyone is broken, sometimes more, sometimes less—so there is something in this book for everyone.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, Chaos, by George Frederic Watts, painted ca. 1875.

God Is Not Nice!

As I so often complain, the quality of modern discourse is atrocious.  Probably this is due to everyone being told for decades that his opinion always matters, along with a belief that democracy means all opinions are equally valid regardless of reasoning, capped off by modern avenues of communication that allow easy, free broadcasting of stupidity, when in the past dumb people had very limited ability to force the rest of us listen.

Worthless discourse exists across the political spectrum, of course, although that the Left dominates  popular media means the average person probably has to suffer more from being bathed in drivel from that side of the spectrum.

A subset of this general problem is that religious discourse is of equally low level, though rather (in most cases) being vicious irrationality, it is vacuous irrationality.  It is this vacuous irrationality, at its core the idea that God is “nice,” that Roman Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner is here to dismantle, in this brief and accessible book.

Lehner’s point is that the usual modern American view of God, that he is “nice” in the same way as an avuncular grandfather, is a pernicious innovation.  God is not here to make us feel good, nor is he here to dispense treats if we ask in the correct way.  Rather, he has created us to make us, Lehner says, “partakers of the divine nature.”

In short chapters, Lehner outlines certain characteristics of what Christians believe that divine nature to be:  one of thunder, terror, surrender, intimacy, consolation, incarnation, rebirth, and adventure.  The author, a professor at Marquette, begins by talking about what his students usually believe about God—namely, they have uninformed, sentimentalist, egocentric thoughts about God, when they have any concrete thoughts at all.

Most of all, they deny, implicitly or explicitly, both that there are truths to be had, that those truths exclude contradictory falsehoods, and that those truths are difficult, especially in the demands they necessarily make of us. Lehner then briefly covers older (though better thought-out) tendencies similar in content, such as, Pelagianism and deism, all as background to explaining the real Christian view of God.

Each subsequent chapter is short and to the point, and written to a general audience, not to theologians. When Lehner says God is a God of thunder, he means that the simpering emotivism that characterizes most discussion about God not only fails to capture, but is antithetical to, God’s real nature.

Such emotivism is also used to undermine religious discourse, with facile phrases about “forgiveness and love” being used as the sole rationale for the claim that God does not require anything substantive of us, and also for the necessarily related defensive claim that anyone who says otherwise hates both forgiveness and love, each more than the other.

But, “As a theologian, I ask why God is love and what forgiveness entails and whether it can be bestowed on someone who does not ask for forgiveness. I look for reasons, not opinions.”  We are to search for objective moral standards, not, as is the usual pattern today, to claim that they do not exist, because love.  (As the atrocious slogan goes that is used to justify whatever dubious activity wants justification today, “Love is love is love is love”).

If we fail to appreciate that God demands certain things from us, we end up with the usual modern situation, where “The God of Abraham, Isaac, has become the god of Walmart,” a pleasant greeter saying hello and helping you to find what you want, not what he wants.

It’s not just demands, though—God is actually a God of terror, not in the sense of panicked fear, but of awe, “trembling and enchanting.”  Here, Lehner takes on the task of reconciling the Old and New Testaments, a challenge early taken up by Christian theologians, responding to attacks by pagans centered on the apparent contradictions in the description of God’s nature between the two Testaments.

He outlines (it can’t be more than that in a short chapter) the standard response, that apparently un-Christian actions and directives of God in the Old Testament are to be understood allegorically.  To his credit, he leads with one of the most difficult passages, Psalm 137, verse 9, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  In that verse, “thy” refers to the Edomites (Lehner says it refers to the Amalekites, but that is wrong).

As Lehner says, “the [Church] Fathers interpreted such passages as metaphorical and thus made them consistent with their belief system.  The babes were not innocent humans but an image of the evil offspring we produce—our sins—and the stone against which they should be smashed was the ‘rock’ whom the master builders had rejected, Jesus Christ.”

In the Enlightenment, such allegorical readings were rejected as irrational and unsupportable, leading Christians to increasingly wholly reject the strict and demanding moral requirements of the Old Testament as embarrassing (and to reject the miracles of the New Testament, including the Resurrection, as well).

Lehner thinks we should restore those allegorical readings (which have never actually been abandoned), and understand that the writers of the Old Testament tried to communicate the “awe-inspiring experience of the divine” with the “nearest analogy they had at hand—the ‘irrational,’ unpredictable, unreasonable, odd behavior of fellow humans!”

Next Lehner covers the utter surrender God demands; he liberates us because he loves us, but that implies nothing less than a total commitment in response.  What this should do for us is make us understand that sin is not a stain we can simply brush off, but a rupture with God, that needs substantive repair.

And God’s liberation of us also implies a total commitment to loving our neighbor, a “thou,” not the general category of neighbors (as is common in these days of virtue signaling and substitution of political activity for concrete actions toward concrete people).

Love does not mean absolving yourself or others of guilt, though—quite the opposite.  Finally, Lehner covers the intimacy, the self-exposure, being open to God requires; the question of the consolations offered in this life by God; incarnation and rebirth (in which he treats original sin, freedom and redemption); and the adventurous, enchanting nature of God, who offers us an adventure as well.

As far as the consolation of God; Lehner touches on theodicy, but he does not touch on the most common “Nice God” response to that problem, which is to recite in a talismanic fashion, “I believe everything happens for a reason,” by which is meant that God has a hidden purpose behind the most hideous events, which will be revealed to us in the fullness of time.

I have been blessed with, so far, no immediate tragedy in my life, so perhaps this is easy for me to say, but as David Bentley Hart has pointed out, what God promises us is not the unveiling of such a grand synthesis, but the wiping away of tears, and the remaking of all things:  “Behold, I make all things new.”

Lehner does point out that part of Christian theology is the ultimate revelation of the downstream effects of our sins, but that is, if you think about it, the opposite of showing how those sins were part of God’s plan.

Related to theodicy is Lehner’s criticism of the modern tendency to see health as the highest good.  This is also a product of the Enlightenment—I am currently reading Paul Rahe’s New Modes and Orders in Early Modern Political Thought, which exhaustively catalogues the philosophical turn to human comfort as the highest good during the Enlightenment (something Rahe appears to endorses, as a Straussian, but I will discuss that in my review of that book, not this one).

Of course, those who worship a (factually inaccurate) picture of the Enlightenment, like Steven Pinker, also agree that this change to the effective worship of health is an improvement, which it is—if, and only if, God is merely, or at all, nice.

I want good health for myself and my family, and for everyone, as much as the next person.  I am greatly blessed in that regard, but I will not always be, and Lehner informs us it is not the highest good.  In fact, we should not be heard to complain when God fails to deliver us perfect health, or even good health.

In an interview about this book, Lehner tellingly cites, from Luke 17, the story of the ten lepers that Jesus healed, only one of whom returned to thank him.  It’s that view of God that Lehner realizes is a timeless temptation, because it’s easy.  You might call that version of Christ “turnkey Jesus.”

God Is Not Nice is only a gateway to thinking about this problem; the book touches on many of the most tangled and troubled theological issues of Christianity, which it cannot possibly cover in detail, and therefore I think its main value is in exposing to the interested reader the basic concepts of Christianity that are alien to the beliefs of most Christians today.

They won’t know all the details after reading this book, but at least they’ll have good reason to question the unexamined beliefs they hold, and to explore further.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows. “Noah On The Eve of the Deluge, painted by John Linnell in 1848.

The Enlightenment Misunderstood, Again

As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book.

On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions.

His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting.  On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.

I like Pinker for his clarity of mind.  And since I have been reading a steady diet of books whose central claim is that the Enlightenment was a mistake, and moreover I am personally enamored of Reaction, the idea of creating a new thing by reference to the old, it is only fair that I consider the opposite ideas presented as well as possible.

Moreover, this book claims to answer exactly a current question of mine—is the material marvel that is the modern world the child of the Enlightenment?  I was not disappointed; this book is just what the doctor ordered, at least to clarify my own thoughts, though probably not with the result Pinker intended.

He wants to prove the Enlightenment is responsible for everything that is good in the modern world, and every good thing that will be in the future, but he ends up, for the most part, refuting himself on all his key claims.  Still, the ride is interesting enough and that alone makes his book worth reading.

On the second page of his book, Pinker enunciates the core of his argument, by referring to “the Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.”

The next sentence, by implication, defines the Enlightenment further as “the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress.”  The following paragraph says the Enlightenment is “also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classical liberalism.”

All this creates a somewhat confused definition, but once you read the whole book, it’s evident that to Pinker, the middle sentence is the key—the Enlightenment consists in the primacy to human societies of “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” His book revolves around these four concepts, and we will return to each of these concepts in turn.

Pinker divides his book into three parts.  The first, shortest, part expands on what Pinker means by “the Enlightenment.”  Here, Pinker begins by turning to the driver of all the progress that he details at great length later in the book, namely, the Scientific Revolution.  “The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century.”

Given that the term “Age of Reason” is only used in one other place in this book, at the very end in a similar context, while the terms “Enlightenment” and “Scientific Revolution” are used continuously, it seems fair to conclude that Pinker believes that the Scientific Revolution (actually beginning in the 1500s, and possibly earlier, not “in the 17th century”) was the necessary first step that combined with the Enlightenment to produce the benefits of the modern world.

Pinker reinforces this conclusion by summarizing the modern understanding of scientific progress to include entropy, evolution, and information.  Grasping these three underlying drivers of scientific progress, Pinker tells us, allows a more complete approach to scientific understanding, and thus of the Enlightenment.

All this is true.  The problem with this definition of the Enlightenment, though, is that it is all about the Scientific Revolution, from its inception to today, and when you look closely at it, has nothing to do with the Enlightenment.

The Scientific Revolution led to technology, which ultimately (with some other drivers that are endlessly debated) led to the Industrial Revolution, which created nearly all the progress Pinker spends the second part of his book documenting.  But this eliding of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution is the fatal error of Pinker’s entire book—every chapter, and practically every page, is shot through with it.

Pinker claims for the Enlightenment, a system of political and philosophical principles with a nearly exclusive focus on increasing liberty, the advantages of created by the Scientific Revolution, a pre-Enlightenment happening whose success, and whose single-handed creation of the modern world, had essentially nothing to do with the Enlightenment.

Pinker does this because he wishes to advocate for Enlightenment principles (in particular, emancipation and atheism), but justify those principles almost wholly by reference to the achievements of the Scientific Revolution.  This is a neat parlor trick, but intellectually dishonest.

I cannot tell whether Pinker realizes the dishonesty, or merely has wandered so far into the weeds he cannot think clearly.  In either case, the effect is to make some parts of the book fascinating, and others risible.

There are many, many claimed reasons for why the Industrial Revolution occurred, and why it only occurred in the West.  But no serious historian claims that it was the Enlightenment that caused the Industrial Revolution, which is no doubt why Pinker glosses over the supposed linkage and offers no citations tying the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution (or, for that matter, to the Scientific Revolution).

For a man dedicated to carefully parsing the evidence and linking causal chains through reasoning, this is a glaring omission.  Fortunately for the reader, though, these first philosophical musings, or ramblings, only take up the first thirty-five pages of the book.

The next 300 are an endless, and endlessly fascinating, series of statistical analyses about various forms of (mostly material) progress.  In the final sixty pages, the last third of the book, Pinker returns to philosophy, attempting to synthesize the progress he has demonstrated with his other claimed keystones of the modern world, reason, science, and humanism.

Pinker’s basic point about progress is a broadening of his claims about peace in The Better Angels of Our Nature—that those who think the world is getting worse are wrong, not (mostly) from malice, but from various forms of psychological bias, such as the “Optimism Gap” (people see their own lives as better than other people’s); “Availability Bias” (we make decisions based on data easily available to us, which is often weighted toward the negative); and “Negativity Bias” (it’s easier to imagine how things could be dramatically worse than how they could be dramatically better).

To prove this, Pinker offers fourteen separate chapters, each covering a totally different area of progress, demonstrating that since the Scientific Revolution human conditions have gotten better.

Pinker starts with Life—he shows how life expectancy, both at birth and at later periods of life, has dramatically increased over time—or, rather, since the Industrial Revolution in the West, and since the early twentieth century in much of the rest of the world.  Next is Health, to much the same effect.

In both chapters, Pinker relies heavily on Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, a fascinating book.  But Pinker’s philosophical confusion shows up every time he makes other than statistical claims—for example, he tells us that “Deaton notes that even the idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment—knowledge can make us better off—may come as a revelation” to some (i.e., the non-Western) parts of the world.  There are two problems with this.

First, that is not the “idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment,” it is in an idea that, in the West, far pre-dated the Enlightenment, as I discuss further below.  More to the immediate point, that’s not what Deaton says (since I have a copy of his book, I checked).

What Deaton actually says is that people in poor countries are often satisfied with their health, not knowing it can be better.  He saying nothing about the Enlightenment, or knowledge in general.  Unfortunately, such appeals to authority are common in Pinker’s book (surprising, since appeal to authority has been identified as a basic logical fallacy for millennia), and when the authority is mis-cited, it makes matters worse.

(The reader’s suspicion is further exacerbated by Pinker’s frequent habit of not offering page cites, just footnotes to books as a whole, though he does give a page cite to Deaton’s book.)

Anyway, Pinker next turns to food (Sustenance), where he again talks about the Scientific Revolution (including its modern continuation in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution) feeding the world, and then tries to claim that it was an accomplishment of the Enlightenment, and failure to feed people as shown by Stalin’s terror famines was because (supposed) Enlightenment values weren’t honored. That’s a stretch.

Next is wealth, where Pinker focuses on GDP per capita, showing the takeoff since the Industrial Revolution in the West and more recently in some Asian countries, and the reductions in extreme poverty in other countries that have not experienced the same kind of takeoff.

Following is Inequality, which Pinker acutely and subtly analyzes (channeling Thomas Sowell in some cases—you can tell that Pinker is, in many areas, broad-minded by the several times he cites Sowell for different propositions, since Sowell is anathema to doctrinaire leftists).

Then Environment, noting that other than global warming, the environment is doing just fine and shows every sign of doing better in the future, on every metric.

In particular, he notes how resource apocalypses, from Peak Oil to supposed shortages of rare earth elements, are invariably falsified, by technology in general and by hard work enabling us to produce better things with less material.  He also covers Peace, updating his earlier book Better Angels, and Safety, noting the declines in homicides and accidents.  He quickly dismisses Terrorism as a tempest in a teapot.

It’s not just material progress that Pinker covers, although that’s the focus.  It’s also moral progress—we are, among other things, nicer to people.  Less torture, fewer executions, more value assigned to human life and happiness.

True enough, but a necessary leg of Pinker’s entire argument is that there was no significant moral progress prior to the Enlightenment, since prior progress would disprove the causation he claims.  But prior progress in the West was very great, as anyone with any grasp of history knows.

Christianity immediately obviated many of the worst moral behaviors of the Ancient World (variants of which are still common in non-Christian cultures), from infanticide to the Roman practice of starving children to death in sight of a banquet, to distill their organs into love potions that would enhance desire.

Christianity further led to the rule of law and was instrumental in the creation of the institutions that made possible the Scientific Revolution.  All these moves forward, as Pinker documents while glossing over their cause, led to further moral gains.  To hide his embarrassment at these pre-Enlightenment advances, Pinker chants, over and over again, the same trite phrases about “endless religious wars” and repeats boring anecdotes about witchcraft and bearbaiting.

After these convincing chapters (convincing for their substance, at least), Pinker covers some softer topics, somewhat less successfully.  Generally, the less harder-edged and susceptible to statistical analysis the topic, the worse Pinker does in showing that actual progress is being made.

In fairness, though, it is true these softer topics, to the extent one agrees they constitute actual progress comparable to that covered in the earlier chapters, are more tied to actual Enlightenment ideas.

First up is Democracy, which he claims is increasing, but Pinker helps himself over the finish line by defining democracy as basically any good government, one which “threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.”

That, along with other definitional broadening from Karl Popper and John Mueller, means that democracy is redefined as any government with the rule of law and some responsiveness to public opinion.  But in any case, there’s more democracy, however defined, and that’s Progress.

Next is Equal Rights, where Pinker goes full Left, trumpeting all emancipation as good for what ails a society, and all failure to emancipate as evil incarnate (although he seems confused, since what is evil, anyway, to someone who denies the reality of moral abstractions other than utilitarian ones)?

He does try to give a scientific gloss to his philosophical attachment to emancipation, ascribing it to more wealth means more people seek self-actualization, and want the same for others.  This he then extrapolates to a claim that liberal values are spreading everywhere, with a lot of graphs (though we’re never told what “liberal values” are being measured, but by implication they overlap with “emancipative values”).

Then Knowledge (we know more, and we’re getting smarter); Quality of Life (we work less and both the necessities and luxuries of life are cheaper); and Happiness (we are happier, largely because we’re richer, though Deaton covers this much better and more subtly).

Along with Daniel T. Rodgers, Pinker huffily rejects Robert Putnam and others who point to the atomization of American lives as a problem, with the flip response that “Users of the Internet and social media have more contact with friends” and they “remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendships as in the decade of Gerald Ford and Happy Days.”

But this is obtuse.  Putnam’s claim wasn’t that people didn’t have friends anymore, it was that the intermediary institutions that were the entire basis of the success of any successful, and in particular, the successful American, society had been completely destroyed, resulting in the cascading baleful effects that Tocqueville and Robert Nisbet had earlier identified and feared.

Pinker totally fails to make this connection, or more likely deliberately obfuscates it (which is probably why he refers to fears of social atomization as a “hysterical misconception”—that’s protesting too much).  Not to mention that Putnam would have told him, too, that the problem was well under way by the time of Gerald Ford, so the 1970s are probably not the best comparison decade to today.

Finally, Pinker points out that Existential Threats, from Y2K to bioterror, are grossly exaggerated.  Sure, we can’t know the future, but on balance, we’re not all likely to wink out of existence next week, or next millennium.

Of the supposed threat from artificial intelligence, he says “the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle.”  Ha ha.  He’s also heinously sexist.  “There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors.  Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women.”

I like all this, and agree with much of it (although I could do without the constant references to Mama Cass and the Beatles, reminding me Pinker is stuck, in many ways, in the 1960s—and he is writing primarily for aging Boomers, staring down both barrels of their mortality, wondering if their lives of self-indulgence were really as pointless as they now seem).

I am mostly a techno-optimist myself.  However, Pinker’s greatest technical error, as opposed to failure of vision, is to believe (like Joseph Tainter) that if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist.  I’m a quantitative guy, personally—I have an MBA with finance and accounting concentrations from the Booth School of Business, and my wife correctly says I view the world as Neo does in the last scenes of The Matrix—as cascading columns of numbers underlying the perceived, but merely surface, reality of things.  Certainly, non-quantifiable views of human flourishing are subject to errors of perception, which is probably why Pinker repeatedly excoriates the Romantics.

But Pinker is too quick to reject that humans seek transcendence, and all the new flavors of Doritos and life extension in the world isn’t going to change that.  “Man shall not live by bread alone.”  Pinker is fond of quoting Jesus, always with a sneer, but he does not offer us that truth, because it scares him, since it cannot be quantified.

But the unquantifiable aspects of progress are a topic too long to get into in this review.  Pinker wraps up Progress by talking about its future. He does this by making totally unsupported claims about the origin of Progress.  “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81.”  “The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

Therefore, it’s going to continue, don’t you know?  No logic is offered, just repetition of the mantra of “knowledge” and trying to tie the Enlightenment to the Scientific Revolution by repeatedly mentioning them in the same breath.  It’s not convincing; in fact, it comes across as desperate.

Embedded within all this proof of progress (for proof is what it is—we can quibble, or call it incomplete, but only a fool would say that material progress since the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution has not been immense), is the truth, difficult for some to accept, that all this progress was caused purely by, and until recently only affected, the West.

It is the Western world that has gotten better—and finally, after 400 years, some of those benefits have been adopted by others.  That’s it. This is not a global phenomenon in cause, and it may not be a global phenomenon in effect, if the inferior cultures of the world, for whatever reason, refuse to accept the gifts offered by the Western Scientific Revolution.

Pinker doesn’t make this point, either, though I can see why—it’s inflammatory and distracts from his argument.  (He does admit that his first love, the Enlightenment, was a wholly Western phenomenon, a topic he shuffles away from quickly, mumbling about how ideas have no home, which may be true, but they do have a birthplace.)

There are two topics related to Progress that Pinker avoids like the plague, mentioning them only in passing and in lists of other, related topics.  Those are slavery and abortion.  Why he avoids them is obvious, if you give it a little thought.  Slavery he avoids because all progress toward eradicating it was based on religious belief; the Enlightenment had nothing to do with it.

Slavery had been increasingly frowned upon by the Church, to the point of disappearing in Europe long before the High Middle Ages.  It made a comeback outside Europe with the conquest of the Americas, with intense debate about its morality applied to Africans and Indians within a Christian framework, and it was solely Christian believers in England and America who ultimately pushed for the ending of, and ended, slavery.

Pinker’s beloved Enlightenment had nothing to do with it, and in fact most of his precious Enlightenment thinkers, like Jefferson, were fine with slavery.  This is not convenient to the thesis that religion is poison and the Enlightenment made us all free, so it is glossed over.  For similar reasons, Pinker avoids abortion.  If violence is decreasing, and infanticide is a horror equivalent to public torture-executions, why is abortion OK?  Pinker never explains, and in fact he once lists abortion in a list of bad things in which the United States leads, including homicide and incarceration.

The reader suspects that Pinker is either unable to overcome his own internal cognitive dissonance, or is afraid of no longer being invited to the right parties if he suggests that abortion should be treated as a moral bad.  (In fairness, he did address this in Better Angels, where he admitted that abortion logically is indistinguishable from infanticide.)

Another topic that Pinker studiously avoids is China.  Yes, he mentions China in various sections on Progress.  But since China embodies the very opposite of Enlightenment political thought, in particular “emancipatory values,” its progress is hard to square with Pinker’s thesis that the Enlightenment is solely responsible for all progress.

It is easy to square, though, with China adopting Western science and rejecting Western political values.   Which is exactly what has happened, which suggests those political values are not, in fact, important for, or even related to, progress.  Again, though, the reader is offered no thoughts in this direction.

Pinker only sees two possible threats to ever more progress.  The first is economic stagnation, which he dismisses the possibility of with, in essence, “not going to happen because I say so.”  Not for Pinker grappling with Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth and its claims that productivity is likely to stay low (which he does mention), or Peter Thiel’s lament, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Mostly he doesn’t grapple with those arguments because he’s falling all over himself to get to the real threat to progress:  Donald Trump.  Pinker offers an insane list of caricatures and falsehoods about Trump and, more generally, all Republicans, for good measure throwing in pro-Brexit Britons. Did you know that Trump opposes all of Life, Health, Wealth, the Environment, Safety, Peace, Democracy, and more?  That is, Trump is opposed to Progress, and wants to strangle it, then throw its body into a fire and dance naked around it.

Pinker does everything but Photoshop a picture of Trump with a red suit, a tail, horns, and a pitchfork and fold it into the center of his book. This section goes on in this vein at great length, but in the entire book, every few pages, Pinker snarls and foams at the mouth about Trump, attacking him irrelevantly while discussing unrelated topics.  I suppose, like the mad dog he resembles here, Pinker can’t help it, since he very evidently suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome, which relates to the older Leftist Derangement Syndrome in the same way that Ebola does the common cold.

But it’s at this point that Pinker’s book starts to go off the rails.  Not the stuff about Trump—that’s just boring, and par for the course in these days of #Resistance (though it is certain to make the book date badly, whatever the future holds—authors do themselves no favors by ranting about the politics of the moment in books not about the politics of the moment).

And Pinker generally appears to have none but the most simplistic grasp of politics—not for him any references to any political thinker, from Spartans to Athenians to Machiavelli.  No, it’s his final three chapters, on Reason, Science, and Humanism, that cause Pinker to implode.

This is where Pinker exalts what he claims are the principles of the Enlightenment, without making any attempt to actually show they were the basis of the Enlightenment, re-defining them to avoid the inconvenient truth that reason and science pre-dated the Enlightenment, and Humanism has nothing to do with progress.

As far as reason, Pinker first rambles about various cognitive biases that limit reasoning.  Then he notes that conservatives and liberals are equally subject to these biases.  Having established his impartiality, he throws it in the trash, attacking only conservatives viciously and at length (Jonathan Haidt would be appalled).

He starts by claiming “the first modern conservative, Edmund Burke, suggested that humans were too flawed to think up schemes for improving their condition and were better off sticking with traditions and institutions that kept from the abyss,” which falsely suggests (without quite saying it) that Burke, and by extension all conservatives, are opposed to all reason and therefore all progress (and miscasts Burke, of course).  After various sonorous paragraphs about predictive bias and the like, Pinker returns to “the major enemy of reason in the public sphere today—which is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization.”

It’s a little bit of a problem that all academia has been politicized by the Left, but the real problem is “a Republican Party that has become synonymous with the extreme right,” which “has undermined the institutions of democracy.”  Only Republicans gerrymander.  Only Republicans “encourage unregulated donations from moneyed interests.”

Only Republicans politicize the Supreme Court.  Only Republicans “shut down the government when their maximum demands aren’t met” (this book went to press before the Democrats did just that three weeks ago to get amnesty for illegal aliens).

But help is on the way!  It’s in the form of “fact checking,” by PolitiFact and Snopes, neutral helpers who can help the virtuous, neutral, public-minded media show the masses the Truth.  Yawn.  Pinker really beclowns himself here; he would have done himself a service by deliberately selecting some non-#Resistance editors, for his book, so he could have avoided demonstrating so effectively the cognitive biases he is only too eager to point out in others.

But the even bigger problem is that reason is not a feature of the Enlightenment. Pinker really, honestly, seems to think reason was invented in 1750.  This is laughable.  Reasoning about first principles, about reason itself, has always characterized the West.

The idea that people were irrational until the Enlightenment is totally bizarre (and for good measure Pinker seems to think anyone living before 1600 was somewhere between credulous and stupid).  An obsessive pursuit of reason in the most refined forms possible has always been the hallmark of the West, starting with the Ancient Greeks, through the Neoplatonists (many Christian); and into its rediscovery in the court of Charlemagne, where Alcuin and Theodulf began the process of re-introducing rigid patterns of reason into the philosophical toolkit of the West.

This pattern continued through the Middle Ages, Early, Middle and High. (Only dolts believe in the “Dark Ages” anymore, and to be fair, Pinker never mentions such a thing—but then, he mentions nothing at all substantive about any era prior to A.D. 1600.)  The Western search for reason (which had no analogue anywhere else on Earth) led directly to the Scientific Revolution, in which the Church played a critical funding and organizational role.

Then that led into the Industrial Revolution.  Where was the Enlightenment in this process?  Nowhere. The Enlightenment was about political reasoning, which is interesting in its own right, and has to do with progress to the extent political change is progress, but not beyond, and most people would rate being able to eat and live as much more important progress than any form of political advancement.

Pinker next (briefly) covers Science, by which he explicitly doesn’t mean to repeat what he said earlier about progress being based on science, but to focus on hostility to science. By this he means that anyone who sees any value to any philosophical system that is not purely based on hard science is a fool.

Most attacked is Leon Kass (who is attacked throughout the book, not just here), but most of the chapter serves for Pinker to channel the British intellectual C. P. Snow (who, along with a physicist named David Deutsch, of whom I have never heard, is cited scores of times in this book).

While Pinker meanders on about the need not to separate science and the humanities, what he is really getting at is that religion must be exterminated.  “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.”

Why this should be, precisely, is never explained, any more than Pinker ever explains anywhere in this book what one’s “moral worldview” should be, other than utilitarianism, while simultaneously telling us that it is an absolute certainty that “the fate of the black rhinoceros [is] a significant moral concern” and that a bedrock moral principle is that “life is sacred.”  Anyway, mercifully, this chapter ends quickly.

So Pinker’s chapter on Reason isn’t great, nor is his one on Science.  But they are written with a golden quill by an angel, compared to his chapter on Humanism, by which he means Atheism.  Here, Pinker’s unhinged bigotry is let fly.  Still, he starts slow, saying “The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism.”  So it may be, even if he cribbed that list from Martha Nussbaum (whom he repeatedly praises for making up these types of lists).

So far, fair enough, if simplistic enough.  Then he flips that into a claim that “there is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.”  Why this logically follows is anyone’s guess, given that maximizing human flourishing is hardly incompatible with religion, or at least with Christianity.

In fact, most of the human flourishing Pinker documents in his book is the result of, at least in part and often nearly wholly, of Christianity, a direct result of how it created the ethos of the West, whether Pinker wants to admit it or not.

The reader weeps in this chapter.  Howler follows howler.  Throughout the book, it’s clear that Pinker has no grasp of history, and what history he knows, is wrong, but it shows up the most here.  The Golden Rule was “rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions.”

Of course, Pinker names none, since no religion other than Christianity has ever made the Golden Rule a central or even important principle, and many, like Islam, affirmatively reject it.  (Pinker, to nobody’s surprise, is careful to always respectfully add “the Prophet” before “Mohammed,” while he constantly ridicules and makes sarcastic comments about Jesus, whom he most definitely never refers to as “the Lord Jesus Christ”).

He claims that the Nazis were Christian, among other things not seeming to grasp what “German Christians” were, and more broadly which is a claim that is intellectually and morally equivalent to Holocaust denial.

For this claim, his cited sources are “Hellier 2011,” which if you slog through the Bibliography, is not a book but some random astrophysicist’s personal blog, and a website called EvilBible.com, whose only stated mission, in the first line of the site, is that it is “designed to spread the vicious truth about the Bible.”  (I am not making this up.)  Pinker claims that “starting with the Enlightenment, the West initiated a process (still ongoing) of separating the church from the state [and] carving out a space for secular civil society.”

He glibly rejects all arguments about the “fine tuning” of the universe (which, to be fair, say nothing about the actual characteristics of God) with a faith-based appeal to an unproved and probably unprovable concept, the multiverse, compounding his error with the logical fallacy that because some things amazed us in the past yet were true, things that seem amazing now, like the multiverse, are more likely to be true.

All this gives us a view into the mind of someone who, like a man selling magnets when mesmerism was a thing, desperately flogs his wares twice as hard as the customers drift away, shrieking that if they know what’s good for them, they’ll come back.  The reader really doesn’t believe Pinker when he claims that religion is withering away, because it certainly seems to exercise him out of all proportion to something that is not a threat.

Finally, we can distill the entire problem with this part of the book down to one sentence not directly about religion.  It occurs when Pinker discusses consciousness; he naturally rejects any possibility of mind-body duality and spatters the reader with conclusory statements about the solely materialistic origins of consciousness.

Having offered no evidence (but, as he likes to do, having praised third-rate philosophers like Daniel Dennett at great length), he says “Nothing that we know about consciousness is inconsistent with the understanding that it depends entirely on neural activity.”  Let’s unpack that.  Pinker suggests we have an “understanding”—but he offers no evidence of that at all, including any possible actual mechanism.

He conditions that with a “not inconsistent,” which is another way of saying “I don’t know.”  A more accurate rephrasing would be “We know of no way in which consciousness, which we don’t understand in any meaningful way, could depend for its existence on neural activity, though we may discover one in the future.”  But the sentence he offers sounds like a windup to a successful argument, when in reality it’s just a magician’s trick to distract the reader from the hollowness of Pinker’s rantings.

I suppose the basic problem with this book, other than not proving much, if anything, about the responsibility of the Enlightenment for the modern world, is that Pinker wants to offer readers, and the world, the meaning of life, and he can’t, because he’s a straitjacketed materialist.  He puts at the very beginning of his book an episode of which he is extremely proud—when he answered a student’s philosophical question, “Why should I live?”

Pinker’s answer was that life allowed the student to flourish—to “make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction,” and to engage in sympathy, able to “enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.”  But she also has “the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself,” which will lead to human progress.  Fine words, but they don’t answer the question, whatever Pinker thinks.

They are circular; they offer things which might be good, or might not, depending on how one views things.  But they don’t respond to the actual query, which is really one about whether there is a transcendent purpose to life.  Pinker thinks he hit the platform with a sledgehammer and rang the bell, when really, he missed and hit his foot.

I can only recommend reading this book for one reason—to load up on ammunition if you are a techno-optimist and need support in arguments with doomsayers, Romantics or those who claim all material progress necessarily violates the teleology of Man.  And if you’re stranded on a desert island, it’s reasonably interesting reading material, in the abstract.  Other than that, this book is a failure.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Le Dernier banquet des Girondins,” by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, painted in 1860.