Towards a Reappraisal of Colonialism: The Life Of Sir Alan Burns

In the modern Western, especially English-speaking, world in which “critical theory” (lower case!), i.e., “any philosophical approach that seeks emancipation for human beings and actively works to change society in accordance with human needs” has largely replaced empirical research in the Humanities; knowledge has been for the most part reduced to subjective opinion. Descriptive analysis has been supplanted by prescriptive dogma.

From this cesspool of learned ignorance, inter alia influenced by notions of “knowledge and power” (le savoir-pouvoir), espoused by the French intellectual chameleon Michel Foucault, modern “critical theories” (on race, gender, etc.) have become dominant. In the current caliginous academic world, driven on by publish-or-perish, hermetic peer review and the ability to churn out innumerable “scholarly” journals, this has becoming something of a thriving industry on campuses, and increasingly in everyday life. One of the hallmark publications of this was Edward Said’s famous work Orientalism (for a concise rebuttal of Said, there is the work by Buruma and Margalit). Based on this and patterned after Foucault’s post-modernism, the discipline of “post-colonialism” or “decolonial theory” emerged. One definition is that it “is a title coined to describe the intellectual work articulating a broad rejection of Western European supremacy by colonial/racial subjects.”

Simply put, this activism disguised as science ascribes all the ills of what is generally known as the “Third World” to the colonial activities of European powers. As this work is largely idea(l) driven, all manner of “evidence” can be herded to prove the previously established thesis. This, as the French public intellectual Michel Onfray has shown in in his recent book L’Art d’être français : Lettres à de jeunes philosophes (“Lettre 6—Sur l’islamo-gauchisme;” Islamo-leftism, another postcolonial discourse which reintroduces pre-revolutionary theocracy), like all such “critical theories,” works on the same scheme: essentializing [i.e. oversimplification], the liberal application of Godwin’s law, verbosity, exaggeration, denial and amalgamation—lumping together antithetical groups of victims and perpetrators, real or imagined. When one looks at the world today, especially the in the former European colonies, one cannot but be heartbroken, in many instances. The question is whether such “colonialism” lies at the root of these countries’ desperate state?

The book under review here, The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire is, to present my conclusion first, a well-researched and fact-driven antidote to the popular and populist mythography of modern theorists. The author, Professor Bruce Gilley, perhaps best known in the field of Colonial Studies for his (in)famous article, “The case for colonialism” (Third World Quarterly, 2017), is to be commended for this well-written vindication of the British Empire, what it was and what it wasn’t. This biographical tour-de-force shares the same to-the-point literary gusto as the books written by the Sir Alan Burns, Gilley’s subject. Gilley, like Burns himself, prefers intellectual honesty to going with the languid flow.

It should be note here that this book is not a whitewash of colonialism. It is a realistic portrayal of many aspects of the last six or seven decades of the British Empire, based on the career of one of its major proponents, who held numerous key positions in various parts of it. The book opens with an ironic epilogue—Sir Alan Burns at the end of his career, learning of the death of his old adversary in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Dr. Joseph B. Danquah, dying in prison as a political prisoner of Kwame Nkrumah’s regime.

Sir Alan Cuthbert Maxwell Burns, of Scottish descent, was born in Basseterre (Saint Kitts) in 1887. His family and early life on the multiracial and multiethnic Island, and his schooling in England. On p. 19 it is noted that Burns considered his limited formal education to be an advantage: “a strong character and sound common sense are far more valuable assets to a colonial official than the most brilliant academic distinctions;” university produced young colonial officials who were “full of zeal and theory” but lacking in what he considered most important “unlimited patience and a real sympathy for the people among whom the young officer will work.”

The book goes on to describe his further career, from his own writings and those of his colleagues and opponents, initially in the Caribbean and later largely in West Africa. We see here a man who took his posts seriously, having a genuine interest in the people and places he served. This can be seen in many of his publications, such as the Nigeria Handbook which first appeared in 1917 and was appreciated especially by the indigenous population (p. 60). Later, from 1924 on, as Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas, Gilley eloquently describes the realities of life, balancing local and international interests (especially rumrunning into the United States of the Prohibition Era), encouraging and when necessary, goading the local parliament to do their duty and take responsibility. Here, he also produced the first accurate map of the Bahamas. When he left in 1929, his empathy and administrative skills were praised by all.

His next posting, until 1934, was as Deputy Chief Secretary to the Government of Nigeria. Throughout the book, we see how Burns adapted to new situations, especially the tide of growing nationalist sentiments after World War I. We see what the British Empire was and wasn’t, e.g., p. 91: “It has been the policy of British colonial administrations to build up a national consciousness which would one day make it possible to give independence to a united country.” The language may seem dated, but not the will to do good. On p. 92, we read: “With all its imperfections, European government in Asia and Africa has given to the native inhabitants of the tropics greater personal liberty and economic opportunity than they have ever enjoyed before.” Among the challenges Burns faced were occasional uprisings, often to do with the challenges caused by modernity; and the protestors or rebels can, historically speaking, hardly be seen as early forms of anti-colonial resistance, as they are often depicted in modern postcolonial historiography. It is clear that the ruled also saw advantage in British rule—had there indeed been popular opposition, it would have been no match for the always short understaffed British, especially during the Great War, when only a bare skeleton administration remained—or perhaps we must suppose that mass Stockholm syndrome is a defining aspect of colonialism?

Throughout the book, the voices of the governed, the alleged victims come to word in a balanced fashion, such as Ahmadu Bello (p. 92) “The was no ill-will after the occupation. We were used to conquerors and these were different; they were polite and obviously out to help us rather than themselves;” Chinua Achebe (p. 93) “Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were scattered ones before.”

Among Burn’s activities in this period was his pioneering work History of Nigeria (1st ed. 1929) later deemed “tainted colonial historiography,” and the foundation of the Lagos Public Library in 1932. Here Gilley notes (p. 95): “Along with the drawing of maps, the creation of libraries is another colonial endeavor that has been scorned by later critics as devious and wicked. Having first imposed an alien conception on the outer geography of place, the colonialists next implanted an alien conception on the inner geography of the mind. Such libraries were intended, the critics allege, to create a pro-colonial native elite that would perpetuate European rule and train a literate work force to boost colonial profits. All those elderly lady volunteers affixing labels and dusting stacks are transformed by such works into powerful agents of imperial reach as they assist Africans to sign out copies of Baudelaire. ‘The violence of the library’ and ‘conceptual contamination’ are stock phrases. The effect of colonial libraries was to ‘dismember the dynamism and effectiveness of the oral tradition,’ one alarmed scholar complained. ‘Library colonialism remains one of the most hidden but deadly instruments of neo-colonialism’ he warned. On those quiet shelves ‘the malignant influences of Western civilization are diffused among literate Africans like invisible bubbles of air.’”

The next step is of course the burning of books, such as practiced in Canada as a “purification par la flamme,” led by a self-invented Indian, Suzy Kies. This alleged incarnation of colonial evil, Burns himself noted (p. 97): “We do not try to assimilate the colonial peoples, nor to turn them into imitation Scotsmen—or even Englishmen—but to help them develop a higher civilization of their own, soundly based on their own traditional institutions and culture.”

Thereafter, follow accounts of Burns’ next posting in British Honduras (Belize), 1934-1939, a stagnant backwater of the Empire when he arrived. His major activities here were road building, rediscovering the Mayan past which “offered a potential source of meaning and a unity for a place that had long been dismissed as nothing more than a timber settlement” (p. 107), including the founding of a national museum. Here, again, he worked to reform and make local government more effective and fairer. Upon his departure, again his achievements were hailed by even his most stern critics.

The beginning of the war found him in England, where he helped to broker the “Destroyers-for-bases deal.” From 1942 to 1947, he was back in Nigeria, installing, in 1946, a new, more democratic constitution with an African majority. Here, in 1943, transpired what would be the defining moment in Burns’ career, the ritual “Ju-Ju” murder.

The tides were however turning, Britain after the War had lost its desire for Empire, this murder case demonstrated the British government’s changing attitude. While the ruled, who had no taste for being the victims of such murderous rituals, demanded and expected justice, the rulers were hesitant; cultural relativism was coming of age, as Gilley notes (p. 179f.): “Not for the first time, Western progressives who claimed to speak on behalf of the Third World were contradicted by actual existing Third World people.” This seems to have been a turning point for Burns, who now increasingly went on record as a staunch defender of the Empire (p. 172): “The ‘tyranny’ of European rule has replaced tyrannies less bearable… In the past we have made many mistakes in our colonial administration and we will probably make many more in the future, but against our mistakes we can set a record of achievement which has not been excelled by any nation in the world, and on balance we have nothing to be ashamed of.” The historical reality is that more often than not, the British had been asked (sometimes repeatedly before they agreed) to govern by indigenous peoples. As Gilley notes (p. 172) “most colonialism was done by colonials.”

From 1947 until his retirement in 1956 Burns served as Permanent Representative of the UK on the United Nations Trusteeship Council. This is arguably the most relevant section of the book for understanding the present situation. The world mood after the Second World War was decidedly “anti-colonial.” The Trusteeship Council, originally mandated to oversee the trust territories, largely former mandates of the League of Nations, or territories taken from nations defeated at the end of World War II, to self-government or independence, but which also sought to decolonize the remaining “empires” (mainly Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium). Gilley notes (p.195): “The more important question is whether the UN adequately prepared colonies for independence. On this issue, scholars have been silent for an obvious reason: the failure of the UN to direct its attention to the post-colonial future was an inexcusable mistake, arguably a crime against humanity that the body continues to celebrate. Under the growing influence of anti-colonial voices, the UN became what one scholar called a “decolonization machine,” more concerned with ending colonialism than with the lives left behind. It was a mistake that Sir Alan Burns would try to avoid.” Here we see an excellent portrayal of how questions of good governance became overshadowed by emotive racial questions. The grandstanding professing the evils of colonialism was led by countries such as the Soviet Union, Yemen, Egypt, India or the Philippines whose democratic credentials were (and are) somewhat wanting (p. 219): “It is notorious that the most severe criticism comes from the representatives of countries where the administration is most corrupt, the treatment of minorities or the working classes is the most discriminatory, and the constitution so unstable that it is shaken by frequent revolutions.”

The mythical American “anti-colonial” attitudes and policies are also discussed, who saw in every self-proclaimed liberator another George Washington. These countries often insisted on a prescribed timetable (as was the case for the Trusteeships, which as with Somalia was an utter failure) for independence. Burns noted that in determining when a colony was ready for independence (p. 209f.): “There are not enough astrologers assigned to the UN for this task.” The question was as Gilley notes here: “What if the people of a colony did not want a timetable? Would it be undemocratic to force one upon them? Who exactly spoke for colonial peoples: coffee-house radicals in London, Soviet stooges at the UN or the elected native representatives of colonial legislatures? Part of the hypocritical incoherency of the UN policy at this time was the definition of what constituted a ‘colony.’ The criterium was the ‘salt-water fallacy,’ only colonialism overseas was considered ‘colonialism,’ expansion over land was seen as “nation-building” (p. 217f.)—ergo the Soviet Union with its Warsaw Pact Satellite states was not seen as colonial. That France and Portugal also saw their overseas empires as parts of their country did not count; the Belgians (Flemish, Germans and Walloons) noted logically that it would only be right if every UN member would be open to scrutiny for all groups ruled by a particular country (“Belgian Thesis” p. 218).

Having left the UN thoroughly fed up, Burns undertook further missions, such as in Fiji and in the Caribbean. He and his wife were back in Basseterre in 1967 when the new union of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla were formed. The latter did not like the arrangement and demanded the reinstatement of British colonial rule (p. 259), forming a republic two years later, once their request had been turned down.

The tide had however turned for good. Decolonization was pursued on an international level, its proponents as Burns noted (p. 222) were “less concerned with the welfare of the indigenous inhabitants than with the spread of ideological propaganda.” History speaks for itself. Rushed independence—due more to the fact that the now defeatist colonial powers themselves jumped ship rather than mythical freedom fighters who often metamorphosed into butchers—had “virtually guaranteed failure in many places at the costs of hundreds of thousands of lives.”

But post-independence failures, famines, wars, rigged elections, refugee crises etc. are faded out while colonial atrocities, real or imagined, are highlighted, (p. 261): “Alan [Burns] noted that more people had been killed by police firing on riotous mobs in independent India than in the entire period of the Raj—this before the worst violence of the 1970s and 1980s.” Burns noted correctly that (p. 262) it does no good to bend over backwards in avoiding any reference to these things. [Recovery] can only be retarded by a refusal to face the facts or to recognize that everything is not lovely in the garden of independence.” As for these states “until they are prepared to admit their own responsibility for much that has gone wrong, they will not be able to correct the mistakes and to achieve the status which all their friends wish them to attain.”

It is clear that neither Sir Alan Burns nor his defense of the British Empire can be deemed racist, patronizing or the like. He was a dedicated civil servant, devoted to both the Empire and the people it ruled. His goal was not a Tausendjähriges Reich or a dictatorship of the proletariat (both as the book notes, idealized by many colonial nationalists) or some other such ill-conceived utopian dream, but rather, though imperfectly achieved, to lead the ruled to self-rule of their own making, within the confines of inescapable modernity. Although many of his colleagues, as he often complained to London, were not up to his standard, others were.

In conclusion, we hope that this book will contribute to a recalibration of the debate on colonialism and the British Empire in particular. Not to nostalgia for what is no more (and probably never was). Merely to an empirical, fact-based understanding. The fate of many former colonies is indeed determined for a large part by how long and how well they were governed. This can be seen especially in the presence (or lack thereof) of true civil society (not imported neo-colonial NGOs), the building block of democracy. South American states continued and some continue to pursue Spanish colonial exploitation, Haiti’s long independence has not been especially beneficial to its population. Countries that were never colonized, such as China have no real democratic institutions. The real question is do human rights apply to all humans, are the values of the Enlightenment really Eurocentric? Are cultures fixed and static categories; that most be preserved regardless of human cost (as has been noted by Marxists scholars such as Vivek Chibber)?

Indeed, one of the problems with postcolonial theory, critical or other, is that it negates the foundations of reason, reverses cause and effect and denies Ockham’s razor. Thus, before we judge too harshly, it should be asked how European colonialism came to be and what was the situation beforehand (Europeans didn’t introduce e.g., slavery or human sacrifice), and what would have been the alternative in a modernizing world that was becoming more interconnected? Did not the British Empire with some degree of success prevent large scale pillage and exploitation (often fending off American economic exploitation)? It is however easier to judge a theorized past than to learn from our past successes and failures based on empirical evidence. Gilley noted in his 2017 article about European colonialism “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found” — words to bear in mind, especially now, when the former colonies, the so-called Third World is subject to an orchestrated hostile takeover, by imperious, iron-fisted Chinese debt colonization. Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the despotic threats made to Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea do much to put the British Empire in a proper historical perspective.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: “Britannia Rules the Waves,” by Nicholas Habbe, painted in 1876.

The Jesus Dictionary: A Conversation With Father Renaud Silly, OP

It is a great honor to present this conversation with Brother Renaud Silly, OP, historian and theologian, who speaks about the Dictionnaire Jésus (the Jesus Dictionary), the major work recently published by the École Biblique de Jérusalem and Éditions Bouquins. This Dictionary which makes available the current state of knowledge about Jesus, drawing upon all necessary scientific, theological, and philosophical areas of expertise.

The Dictionary is an impressive work (comprising some 1300 pages), but one that is also highly accessible, for it does not neglect the needs of the lay reader who is well rewarded by the depth and erudition. Father Silly oversaw the work, as the director of the entire project, and he speaks with Christophe Geffroy, the publisher of La Nef magazine, through whose courtesy this article is here translated.


Christophe Geffroy (CG): How did the idea of the Jesus Dictionary come about? What was your goal, and what was your working methodology?

Father Renaud Silly (RS): The person who had the idea was the director of Bouquins, Mr. Jean-Luc Barré [the publisher]. We had previously published Bossuet in his collection, and this inspired him to call upon us to produce the Dictionary. He gave us carte blanche, without imposing any particular angle or contributors.

Brother Renaud Silly, OP.

As for the École Biblique, the immense wealth of its recent research was just waiting to be made accessible to the general educated public. In the middle of the last decade, the success of certain books, ill-informed we believe, made us feel the need for a work that spans the entire spectrum—those who have been given the capacity to work directly on the sources (the “scholars”) have a moral duty to guarantee the dissemination of their work to those who do not possess it. Otherwise, we fall into the opposite trap of popularization and autarkic specialization. You likely will recognize in this way of thinking about the relationship to knowledge an echo of the ancient Dominican motto “contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere” (“contemplate and teach others”).

CG: This Dictionary was conceived in “a scientific spirit,” we read on the back cover. What does this mean?

RS: “Scientific” means many things, from the experimental method of the hard sciences to the discussion of all contradictory propositions in the human sciences, already practiced by Saints Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. To be readable, the Dictionary could not afford either. On the other hand, it deserves the term in the sense that it is directly linked to a scientific project of the École Biblique de Jérusalem: La Bible en ses Traditions (The Bible in its Traditions), under the direction of Brother Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP.

Sacred Scripture exists in three dimensions: it has a past—the conditions of its composition, a present—the text with all its refinements, and a future—its impact on culture, morality, etc. To understand it, it is therefore necessary to combine knowledge of the environments that produced it, literary methods of analysis, and to be attentive to its reception, in particular that for which it is an authority. The Bible in its Traditions is a method of global understanding of Scripture, without exclusivity or reductionism. It is a way of letting revelation breathe in a space that is appropriate to it. Who can contest the scientific nature of such an approach?

CG: Is it compatible to be in this “scientific spirit” and therefore open to new discoveries and at the same time faithful to the faith and to the teaching of the Church whatever happens? How does the scientist who is also a man of faith react when a discovery seems to go against the teaching of the faith?

RS: In faith, certainty is God who is at once the source, the cause and the object of the knowledge that faith possesses of him. The uncertainty lies in the assent we give to him—in other words, in not wanting to believe in God, even though He is the end of our understanding (cf. Thomas Aquinas, ii-iiae q.2 a.1 resp.). If faith saves, it is because it is a voluntary act. The vices that can thwart the operation of the will are, however, manifold: laziness, negligence, superstition, pride, to name but a few.

In short, sympathy for science, hard work, the breadth of knowledge cannot substitute for the adhesion by which the soul submits to the truth of God who reveals himself freely to it. This is the formal reason for faith as a theological virtue. In short, the scholar, like all other Christians, has no other alternative for remaining on the right path than to cultivate virtue.

But we must hasten to add how liberating the supernatural act of faith is for the scholar, for it relieves him of the need to search by force for a proof of faith that the texts, even and especially the sacred ones, will never offer him. The Lutheran theory of sola scriptura obliges one to solicit the texts, to make them say what they do not say. Since fiction cannot hold for long, sola scriptura has caused dogma to fall one after the other. And in return, it is the Bible itself that has become a source of uncertainty and doubt. As Father Lagrange wrote, “It is from [the Reformation] that the study of the Bible dates, not the study of the Bible, but rather the doubt about the Bible.”

CG: You have not sought to take a new, but a renewed, look at Jesus. What do you mean by this?

RS: In 1980, a tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem was interpreted as that of Jesus. In 2002, an ossuary was presented as that of James, the “brother of the Lord,” which would have confirmed the authenticity of the 1980 tomb. In 2006, a Gnostic gospel “of Judas” appeared, according to which Jesus himself asked the traitor to hand him over. In 2012, in the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus, the master presents Mary Magdalene as his wife. All of these “discoveries” turned out to be forgeries or misinterpretations of authentic texts. The ephemeral excitement that surrounded these publications shows our imaginary and infantile relationship to reality, which makes us give in to the craving for novelty (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4).

But there is no scoop to be made about Jesus. In faith we know all we need to know about him. As far as authentic knowledge is concerned, made up of meditation, of going deeper, of the patient dwelling of the truth deposited in us—this on the other hand is always in need of renewal. The Word came to “dwell with his own” (Jn 1:5); He is therefore there, in the midst, but it is we who are absent: “you were within me, but I was outside myself, and it was in this outside that I sought you” (St. Augustine, Confessions, x, xxvii, 38).

There is always a need to renew one’s knowledge in order to free oneself from hasty patterns of thought, from the conviction—certainly false—that one has done all the work of the Gospel and has nothing to expect from it. This must be done in the school of the great texts, but also of the humble reality unearthed by archaeology and the related sciences.

A few years ago, stone jars were discovered at Cana (cf. Jn 2:6)! They are probably not those of the miracle, but it shows that this village was populated by very observant Jews, the very milieu of Jesus. Study is an asceticism, surely the greatest asceticism there is! Has the Latin Church nurtured greater ascetics than St. Jerome or St. Thomas, those hard workers? But for those who devote themselves to this effort, the Word is always new (cf. Rev 21:5).

CG: In making this Dictionary, which points were the most difficult to synthesize? And what are the most difficult topics to resolve from the point of view of faith?

RS: The Resurrection of Jesus, to which we wanted to give a place in proportion to its importance. The very fact of the Resurrection is not recounted anywhere [outside the Gospels]—because there were no outside witnesses; and the evangelists did not embroider wonderful stories when they did not know! So, we have to fall back on credible witnesses of the Risen One, since we did not see him rise. But this only shifts the problem: they are women, whose testimony has little legal value! One recalls the misogyny of a Renan who described the testimony of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning as follows: “Divine power of love! Sacred moments when the passion of a hallucinated woman offered the world a resurrected God!”

Let us add to this that the Resurrection is, by definition, impossible to describe since it tells of the passage (the “passover”) of Jesus to a new Creation which we cannot experience; that the mode of the Resurrection of Jesus does not correspond to that foreseen by the prophets of Israel—teaching rather a general and simultaneous resurrection. Yet the resurrection constitutes the intimate heart of the proclamation of Christian faith and hope (cf. 1 Cor 15:14). It is impossible to ignore it without betraying the Gospel.

We are left amazed by the simplicity of the means with which the sacred authors overcome this immense difficulty. The resurrection narratives are the least retouched of all the Gospels. They are delivered to us almost in their raw state. They ask us to let ourselves be measured by the event and the word that tells it. To accept it is to grow in faith, and thus to rise a little with Christ. The resurrection narratives form the synthesis and the summit of the Gospel’s power of conviction. They invite us to reread all the teachings of Jesus as seeds that make life sprout where there was nothing.

CG: It is common to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. What do you think of this approach? And is faith still credible in the light of current scientific knowledge?

RS: The expression you quote belongs to the genre of “thinking” (sorry to abuse this beautiful word) by slogan. It is based on the conviction that the “faith” accumulated representations of Jesus, which would have satisfied certain requirements of the religious spirit, as the Church grew outside its original environment.

The Jesus of faith therefore becomes the sum of the answers demanded by the new Christians according to their cultural situation. The divinity of Christ would be the most visible of these borrowed identities, developed in contact with Hellenistic populations familiar with divinized heroes. Hence the need to peel away, by means of criticism, the “Jesus of history” from the various accretions that mask him. Alain de Benoist’s book illustrates this method and shows its limit via the absurd. In tearing off the tunic of Nessus which would be the Jesus of faith, one realizes that the layers are so well integrated with the object studied that the object loses its skin, flesh and bones. In the end, there is nothing left. One wonders how this so-called “Jesus of history,” so insignificant, could have left such a trace.

But this distinction is wrong. The Jesus of faith is nothing other than the trace left by the Jesus of history, the sum of his impact, as it were. Jesus initiates recourse to the testimony of the prophets to speak of him (Mk 12:35-37); he sends out on mission (Mk 6:6-13); he takes care to establish an authentic transmission of his words and actions (Mk 8:18-21); he projects his disciples into a time when they will have to keep his memory in order to understand (Jn 13:7); he institutes the signs that will give body and shape to this memory, especially the Eucharist (cf. Lk 22:19). Between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, there is no unbridgeable gap.

CG: The Bible is undoubtedly the most examined work in the world, dissected from every possible angle, especially since the development of the historical-critical methods. Does the Bible emerge strengthened from these examinations and analyses; or, on the contrary, weakened in its credibility?

RS: Science can be a very violent thing. Laboratory experiments, which give rise to many ethical problems, bear witness to this. There is a certain science which, legislating on phenomena, imposes on them extrinsic grids of analysis which destroy them. One thinks of the Duke of Chevreuse inflicting a thousand tortures on dogs or cats to try to prove that their cries were caused by the shaking of small springs, in accordance with the Cartesian theory of animal-machines.

The undivided domination of the hard sciences in the Western noosphere has resulted in the increased use of intrusive criteria on the Bible. Christians who believe in supernatural revelation do not defend it by subjecting it to these same criteria. Biblical fundamentalism, so regularly condemned by the pontiffs, must appear to us for what it is: a complicity with the dissolution of the Bible by historical methods. Moreover, it is futile: by leaving the choice of weapons and terrain to the adversary, we expose ourselves to certain defeat. But to write an ancient history of Israel by following the biblical account is to provoke the derisio infidelium.

The Bible is strengthened if one analyzes it according to its own criteria, those of ancient literary genres; and if one makes the effort to understand its language, which is often disconcerting. It is thus a precious source for the historian. But the Bible is much more than that—a matrix of culture, religion, morality, philosophy and dogma. On this contemplative domain, that of the spirit, aggressive science has little hold.

CG: The literature on the Bible is so vast now that it is impossible for the educated man of today to know it all. How can you find your way around, and how can the researcher, such as you, take into account all that is published seriously on the Bible?

RS: Give preference to authors who do not simply compile the results of others’ research, but have direct access to the sources and are able to discuss them. The others do not know what they are talking about. Exclude anything that practices methodical deconstruction—its conclusions have no solidity; they fluctuate according to fashion.

CG: Many people think that the Bible is nothing but a series of myths far removed from real history and that it often relates stories that they consider far-fetched and impossible—the fall in the Garden of Eden, the flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, for example. How should the Bible be read? Are there several levels of reading? And how can one distinguish between what belongs to history, to theological teaching or indeed to myth?

RS: Neither the flood, nor the stories of the fall, or the tower of Babel can be proven “scientifically.” Those who claim otherwise are lying or mistaken. Their historicity has nothing to do with the historiographical models claimed by the evangelists, or the deuteronomistic historian (Deuteronomy), or the priestly models (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah). All of these follow very rigorous paradigms—though different from modern ones. Did the Bible in Gen 1-11 collect myths? If one understands this term as a divine revelation about the origin, inaccessible de jure to human observation, then why not. But this must be seriously corrected—because they are very different from the myths vilified by the philosophers.

CG: Our European countries of ancient Christianity, with rare exceptions, such as Poland, have evacuated the question of God, so that the number of truly convinced Christians has become a tiny minority—our contemporaries are much more ignorant of Jesus than hostile. How can we make them rediscover this Jesus who saved the world?

RS: Like Christ, I don’t believe in strategies, tactics or structures of Christianity. Nor do I believe in sociology to prophesy to us whether Christians will be many or few. All that is thinking according to the world.

But I believe that the power of conviction of the Gospel remains intact, if it is preached for what it is—the teaching of the Master who makes faith germinate in souls eager for truth, who tears his disciples away from a world for which he himself has not prayed (cf. Jn 17:9), to which no promise of eternity is attached (cf. Mk 13:31).

The disciple of Christ is the one who receives in his heart this prayer of Bossuet: “O Jesus, I come to you to make this Passover in your company. I want to pass with you from the world to your Father, whom you wanted to be mine. ‘The world is passing away’ (1 Jn 2:17) says your apostle. ‘The face of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31). But I do not want to pass with the world, I want to pass to your Father. This is the journey I have to make. I want to make it with you…. O my savior, receive your traveler. I am ready. I do not care about anything. I want to pass with you from this world to your Father” (Meditations on the Gospel, “The Last Supper”, Part I, Day 2).


Featured image: “Salvator Mundi,” by Leonardo da Vinci, painted ca. 1500.

Alain de Benoist And Jesus: Manufacturing Misunderstanding

Communism declined and metamorphosed into secularized post-Christianity: “the last Marxist-Leninist will be a Breton rector.” The contamination of the ideas of the Left among its opponents is inversely proportional to the decrease of the social base on which it is based, which their application has the effect of destroying.

After a few decades of preachiness, the Left in France had as its spokesmen the heirs of Albert de Mun and a rallying Catholicism. It is a movement classified, rightly or wrongly, on the right of the parliamentary spectrum that today assumes the thankless task of defending the law of 1905, with shaky and quavering voices that its leaders can hardly get out when they reluctantly mention the Church of Christ.

At a time when the Left is advocating the breakdown of equality through affirmative action, the determination of individuals by race according to the decolonial agenda, and orchestrating the Sovietization of knowledge with the help of a sociology that hunts down elitism under its various disguises, it seems that the old Third Republic rationalism has taken refuge in the work of Mr. Alain de Benoist (hereafter, “A.”), founder of the New Right. His latest volume, L’homme qui n’avait pas de père – le dossier Jésus (The Man Who Had No Father – The Jesus File), delivers a chemically pure synthesis, which seems to have been sublimated in the lonely conservatory where A. has slowly distilled it.

A Problem Of Methodology

It would be dishonest not to take The Jesus File seriously. Certainly, A. cannot himself discuss the ancient sources on Jesus; this is quickly spotted by transliterations of the Greek that are almost always faulty when they contain some pitfall. The book is therefore a huge compilation of secondary literature—nearly 1000 pages. But on this particular point, the breadth of its information is to be commended. The author quotes hundreds of scholars. His bibliography in English, German and French is very up-to-date; he is not simply content with the latest titles, but can trace the genealogy of an exegetical opinion back to its precursors.

Since A. does not have access to the sources, it is the use he makes of secondary literature that poses a problem. Not having proved his scientific authority in the subjects he has dealt with, he solicits that of others in order to produce a synthesis thus endowed with a borrowed credibility. This is the fundamental weakness of the book. The number of proofs provided by A. decreases as he gathers clues in huge bundles, not always consistent. Whenever he needs to come to a conclusion, he is forced to deal with the the problem of authority which is lacking in his varied panoply. Such is the way that the entire book is written.

Some examples among so many. To prove that the virginal conception of Jesus and his divine filiation developed independently in the tradition, A. quotes “Jacques Bernard, former professor at the Catholic Institute of Lille,” or “Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope Benedict XVI” (p. 611). The age of 33 lent to Jesus on the day of his death corresponds to “the perfect age of the hero who disappeared in full maturity; it is the age of Alexander the Great at his death,” and A. quotes “Michel Quesnel, professor at the Catholic Institute of Paris” (p. 503). The existence of Jesus’ uterine brothers is asserted by resorting to “John P. Meier, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of New Testament studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington; François Refoulé, who directed the École Biblique de Jérusalem from 1982 to 1984; Maurice Sachot, a former professor at the Faculty of Catholic Theology;” and thrown in also are Jacques Duquesne and Jean-Claude Barreau (p. 394).

Note: it is only for Catholics that A. sees fit to leave out their university degrees. The precaution seems superfluous for Protestants or agnostics. No doubt the practice of free examination for some, of free thought for others, protects them enough against the ever-recurring suspicion of practicing a confessional or biased exegesis. For Catholics, the only way to portray them is to display their institutional positions. Moreover, when A. quotes Catholic authors without mentioning their academic pedigree, one can expect some very salty bondieuserie, which throws ridicule on the particular author. The great René Laurentin, Father Marie-Joseph Ollivier, this or that Father of the Church, are all at the expense of this rationalist prejudice which discredits a priori their words (cf. p. 353).

An Exemplary Case: Tacitus

This borrowed science, spread out over many pages, is based on a criterion of method which “consists in deconstructing, as any truly scientific investigation does, a false image of its object.” It is this science which is asked to provide facts independent of the subjective prejudice of faith. However, we can illustrate the defective handling of this science in The Jesus File from a case in point: Tacitus’ account of Nero’s persecution.

Having quoted the Latin historian (p. 129), A. immediately starts to point out the difficulties Tacitus poses, even before asking himself what Tacitus meant. Thus, he reduces the statement to a set of isolated elements, violently torn from the scriptural body in which they were harmoniously inserted. These scattered, disjointed pieces, this panting flesh to which the statement has been reduced, no longer maintain with their environment the solid and living links that make them resist the arbitrariness of an imputed meaning. The trick is played so that the critic imposes the meaning as he pleases, drawing randomly from epigraphy, ancient sources, and his imagination. Not surprisingly, the statement thus “reconstituted” has become a tissue of contradictions. Let us judge the evidence.

Tacitus defines Christians as taking their name from “Christ who, under the principate of Tiberius, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate” [Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat]. The very first remark of A. is to point out that Pilate was not procurator (epitropos), but prefect (eparchos), as appears from a famous contemporary inscription found in Caesarea in Palestine. This anachronism is enough for the author to anticipate the end of his demonstration; namely, that the text “was interpolated in the fifteenth century (sic.), at a time when everyone thought that Pontius Pilate had been procurator” (p. 130).

By the way, it was not until the end of the Middle Ages that everyone popularly attributed to Pilate a title he did not have. Philo of Alexandria, his contemporary, and Flavius Josephus around 75 also give Pilate the title of procurator/epitropos. It is certain that Pilate bore the official title of prefect/eparchos, a magistracy that was mainly military. But it is no less certain that he also exercised a civil administration over the imperial province that Judea had become from the the year 6 AD. The two magistracies being often entrusted to the same persons, the governors of Judea officially took the title of procurators/epitropoi starting in the reign of Claudius, thus after Pilate.

Tacitus certainly presents an anachronistic title, but the explanation by a fifteenth-century interpolator is surely not the first to be considered. Tacitus may have voluntarily adapted the title to the one in use at the time. But it is more likely that he is quoting Christian documents. The fact is not implausible, contrary to what A. asserts (p. 132), since Tacitus was among the Quindecemviri sacris faciundis (Annals XI, 11), a priestly college responsible for the supervision of foreign cults in Rome. No magistrate of the city was in a better position than he to have access to information about the Christians. He would even have seriously failed in his duty if he had not had reliable and precise information on them. His information corresponded exactly to that which could have motivated their possession by a Roman magistrate: foreign cults were considered not according to the content of their beliefs, but according to the disturbance they could cause to public order.

It is in administrative and police terms that Tacitus depicts Christianity: his allusion to the execution of Christ is juridical, to recall the legal intervention of Pilate, the magistrate in charge of enforcing the pax romana. In Rome, Tacitus attaches such contempt to the name of Christian that it seems to be worth an indictment—“christianos” appellabat; these form a detestable superstitio—that is to say, in official language, a sect covering up for criminal acts. The way in which Tacitus links Christ and the Christians is another characteristic of the non-Christian sources, all of which point to the strong attachment of the disciples to their master.

In short, Tacitus’ text on the persecution of the Christians of Rome under Nero is perfectly coherent, in its outward approach to a phenomenon that he does not understand; or, rather analyzes according to the concerns of a Roman magistrate. This global understanding of Tacitus allows us to grasp why he speaks of the Christians tortured by Nero as an “immense multitude”: he does not proceed to a count, but allows himself a hyperbole that betrays his own fear, that of a wealthy man in front of the threatening and indistinct mass formed by the human mob populating the Suburra or the Velabro, followers of oriental divinities and practicing morals that would be abhorrent to a senator of good birth. But the fractional method of A. forbids him to understand this nuance. For him, “immense multitude” means “a great number of Christians.” Since they did not exist in Rome in 64, A. postulates an interpolation, dating from a time when they did. Believing that he has a solid argument, A. tries to squeeze all the juice of it: if Nero’s persecution had concerned a large number of Christians, one would find traces of that in the satirists, but they do not appear, etc. Always the reduction of the source to a few material elements.

This pointillist method is a forge of misunderstandings. The accumulation of secondary literature does not change anything. He who embraces too much embraces badly. The author triumphantly ends his section on Roman historians, having quoted dozens of modern authors, with a huge error: “the texts of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Suetonius that we have at our disposal tell us practically nothing about Jesus” (p. 136). This is not true. The first Latin authors approach Christianity and its founder from the outside, certainly. But they provide valuable information about certain distinctive features of the Church founded by Christ, which must be appreciated by comparing them with the mental revolution wrought by Him. In reality, A’s scientistic prejudice does not seek to understand the Jesus phenomenon, but to satisfy its definition of ideal objectivity through deconstruction.

Alain de Benoist’s Project

Once the object of study has been dissolved into an aggregate of primary elements, one would expect them to be reconstituted in a new form, as with fresh clay. A. however does not risk it. After having conscientiously atomized all the statements of the Gospels that had the misfortune to fall into his hands, he stops in the middle of this valley of dry bones that will not be resurrected. He did not even think it appropriate to write a conclusion. A sentence in the Introduction takes the place of one, in which one thought one could only read a captatio benevolentiæ calling for prudence: “What do we know today that is really certain about Jesus? The answer is simple: very little” (p. 1). The next 1000 pages will add nothing to this. Thousands of opinions and not a single truth.

Does this book, which is entirely based on the deconstruction of its subject, actually have any overall project? It seems to us that it is precisely this emptiness, this nothingness to which the investigation wants to bring the Jesus of history. The proof of this is the title of the book (“The man who had no father”); the final chapter on Jesus (“An illegitimate child” p. 771-862) which is in fact its conclusion. And, finally, the total absence of interest, which is surprising in such a large book, in the almost unique means by which Jesus exerted his impact: his word. A. will claim that his critique strikes down as inauthentic just about every statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Like the notes on Tacitus or Pliny, nothing can be drawn from them.

However, there is only one word of Jesus which A. considers authentic enough to devote an in-depth exegesis to it: the adultery of which the one who repudiated his first wife to marry another is guilty (cf. Mk 10:11-12). True to his method of placing polemical statements in the mouths of foreign authorities, the author quotes an American polygrapher, Donald Harman Akenson: “Jesus’ very strict views on divorce, as reported in the Synoptic Gospels, stand in sharp contrast to his usual teaching and could refer to a personal uneasiness related to his illegitimacy” (p. 474). The curse on pregnant women (Mk 13:14-17) is interpreted as an absolute statement of Jesus, which Mark would have watered down by attributing it only to a particular situation. The preaching of the Gospel would thus float in a “Gnostic” atmosphere (p. 469).

From then on, a certain overall coherence emerges. As an illegitimate child, Jesus would have sublimated his dubious origin by preaching an immaterial, immaculate birth, a celestial paternity and by claiming it first of all for himself. He would have refused the flesh to tear himself away from the congenital malaise in which his bastardy would have locked him. By resentment, he would have instilled in the morals the shame of the flesh and sexual repression. Paul and the Church (cf. p. 476-480) would have extended his teaching by the morbid exaltation of virginity. One understands why A. wants to disjoin the traditions on the messianic and divine filiation of Jesus, and on his virginal conception: He holds them to be so many ways, contradictory according to him, of diverting attention from Jesus’ illegitimacy. The Christian dogma, the sublime composition of the Gospels, the beginning of a tradition, are there to make us forget an inglorious truth.

Christianity is a culturally sublime phenomenon—A. is far from denying it—which eludes the nothingness of its origin in a man who had no father and whose itinerary resembles the reveries of the Foundling. This conclusion is absurd, of course. It takes literally much later Jewish polemics, towards which A.’s credulity belies his hypercriticism for once. It is based on a single misunderstood word of Jesus and on an arbitrary reconstruction of his origin. Finally, it attributes all of Jesus’ effectiveness to a guilt-ridden nihilism that is absolutely belied by the biography of Jesus, who “was never anything but ‘yes’. All the promises of God found their yes in his person” (2 Cor 1:19).

Jesus Is Deprived Of His Words

Jesus autem tacebat” (“Jesus was silent”, Mt 26, 63). The Jesus File: where Jesus observes a stubborn silence. Not a whisper is heard from the one to whom Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and known that you are the holy one of God” (Jn 6:68), and who declared, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not” (Mk 13:31). Without his words, Jesus is inaudible. In fact, all of Jesus’ effectiveness comes through his words.

The authentic tradition, the dogmas, are nothing other than the efforts made to understand what he had said. Quoting Ps 109/110, he says that the Messiah is Son of David and prior to David (cf. Mk 12:35-37). Much later, the Christology of Chalcedon defining a person in two natures results from the maturation of this statement (and of many others) made one day very consciously by Jesus on the Temple square. His pre-existence is affirmed by himself when he says “I have come to…” (cf. Mt 10:34-35; Lk 12:49; Jn 9:39; Mk 10:45, etc.).

But there is no one deafer than the one who does not want to hear. In The Jesus File, the logos of logic silences the Logos of the Prologue. The madness—in Greek alogia, literally, “absence of the Logos”—is not to have lost one’s reason; it is to have retained only one’s reason. Not a single word of Christ crosses this bleak desert, similar to “the silence of the ether, when the wooded valley silenced its foliage and not a single animal cry was heard” (8). Jesus is gagged like “the voiceless Lamb that is led to the slaughter and did not open its mouth” (Is 53:7). But “the stones will cry out” (Lk 19:40). Beginning with those of the conceptual tomb in which Adam covers his ears so as not to hear God, who says: “Where are you?”


Brother Renaud Silly is a Dominican who recently oversaw and edited Dictionnaire Jésus (the Jesus Dictionary), the major work recently published by the École Biblique de Jérusalem andÉditions Bouquins. This article comes to us through the kind courtesy of La Nef.


Featured image: “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” by Matthias Stom, painted ca. 1641-1649.

Indo-European Origins: Eurasian Steppes Or Northern Fjords?

The question of the “home of origin” (Urheimat, Homeland) of the Indo-Europeans has given rise to the most varied hypotheses and suppositions, theories that are analyzed in detail in Alain de Benoist’s book Indo-Europeans: In Search of the Homeland, without the author—nor anyone else—being able to venture a definitive solution, even though the new revelations of paleogenetics point to the “Yamna culture” of the Eurasian steppes, since anthropological and archaeological evidence insistently points to the European Nordic area. In any case, the debate about the “original homeland” of the Indo-Europeans is still open.

5,000 years ago (especially in the period 2800/2500 BC. ), in the Bronze Age, it seems that a people from the Eurasian Pontic steppes, predominantly light pigmented (skin, eyes and hair), nomadic herders and herdsmen, predatory warriors mounted on horseback and with wheeled chariots, used for both transport and combat, with unique funeral rites, innovative metallurgy and unique pottery, began to invade Europe, in successive migratory waves, imposing themselves on the peaceful hunter-gatherer-farmers. In any case, around 2000 B.C., the hardy bands of steppe nomads reached the Atlantic coasts and passed to the British Isles, after a frenetic race of invasion and conquest, devastating in their path the primitive, agricultural, peaceful, matriarchal and egalitarian European pre-civilization cultures.

Their “original habitat”: the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine, between the Black and Caspian Seas, reaching westward to eastern Hungary across the Balkans, and eastward to present-day Kazakhstan and the Altai, which would validate the hypothesis of the “kurgans” (tombs in the form of burial mounds) of Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Her greatest “legacy”: the impressive extension of the Indo-European languages, which include most of the languages spoken from Iceland and Ireland to northern India, in addition to the Indo-European peripheries in America, Australia and South Africa. This “Pontic and Steppe hypothesis” seemed to disprove the “Nordic or Germanic hypothesis” held, among others, by Gustaf Kossinna (and more recently, by Lothar Kilian and Carl-Heinz Boettcher), which fits better with the prehistoric data of mythology and anthropology, but which fell out of favor because of the perverse use of “Aryans” in Nazi Germany. Their “other legacy”: genetic inheritance.

They were the “Yamnayas,” the proto-Indo-Europeans who colonized all of Europe, Central Asia, reaching the southern Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Chinese Turkestan. The “Yamna” culture (“hole” in Russian and Ukrainian, referring to the graves where they buried their dead) are a “ghost people,” as it is known in genetics, a people that have disappeared but can be identified by the genetic, archaeological, linguistic and anthropological traces they has left in their wake. The result is that the genes of the Yamnayas are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in all present-day Europeans.

Thus, paleogenetic research led particularly by the American geneticist David Reich—carried out from 2010 and culminating in 2015—concludes that “today the peoples of western Eurasia (the immense region encompassing Europe, the Near East and much of Central Asia) show a great genetic similarity… Western Eurasia reveals itself to be homogeneous, from the Atlantic façade of Europe to the steppes of Central Asia (Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). Genetic haplogroups R1a and R1b, transmitted through the paternal line, are the most representative of present-day Europeans, with a predominance of the former in the East and the latter in the West. Precisely, these two branches are directly linked to the Yamnaya ancestors. Thus, around 2500/2000 B.C., according to the data provided by ancient DNA, the “norcaucasian” or “steppic” component was already part of the anthropological heritage of most of the inhabitants of Europe.

It should be noted that, in fact, archaeological, linguistic and mythological disciplines already indicated that the close kinship between the Indo-European languages meant that they all derive from a single original language (Ursprache), which had been spoken by a single people (Urvolk) in a very ancient homeland (Urheimat), to be spread later, in the course of a series of migrations. Thus, the spread of Indo-European languages would represent the expression of a people living in the same geographical area, in a community of culture and civilization, sharing expressions related to flora, fauna, economy and religion. Now, paleogenetics has confirmed this hypothesis.

But how could this rapid migration/expansion have occurred in a people presumably few in number? In the first place, this “rapidity” must be qualified without taking into account the context of war, since according to the researcher Wolfang Haak, the “conquest” of such an immense territory could have taken about 500 years.

Secondly, the explanatory factors of this prehistoric proto-Indo-European “great march” are diverse. The eminently warlike character of the Yamnayas, with an overwhelming superiority in the mastery of metallurgy, reflected in the use of weapons, such as the sword, the dagger, the bow and the battle axe, their extreme mobility through the use of the horse and wheeled chariots, as well as a society structured very hierarchically around a group of men who held supreme leadership of the various clans and tribal families, to which should be added, according to Kristian Kristiansen, a greater anthropological complexion, more corpulence; in short, surely due to a better diet, because compared to a diet basically reduced to cereals and vegetables typical of the Paleo-Europeans, the Yamnayas enjoyed a more caloric diet based also on meat and dairy products. The conquest/invasion was the work, above all, of young men (according to chromosomal sequences, between 5 and 15 men for each woman), of “bands” not very numerous, but very active militarily and sexually, because they had great reproductive success, surely because they enjoyed advantages in the competition for female partners, occupying the summit of symbolic, religious, political, military and social power.

In any case, although the genetic findings attribute a central weight to the Yamnayas in the spread of the Indo-European languages, which tips the balance definitely in favor of some variant of the “steppe hypothesis”, these discoveries do not yet resolve the question of the territory of origin of the Indo-European languages—acknowledges Reich—the place where these languages were spoken before the spectacular Yamnaya expansion. The debate about the “original homeland” of the Indo-Europeans, therefore, remains open.

Despite the tremendous sensation caused by the paleogenetic studies, which revealed the massive migration of the peoples of the Yamnaya steppe culture in the Early Bronze Age to northern, central and western Europe, considering this event as the basis for the spread of the Indo-European languages, other authors are beginning to express their criticism of the genetic inference and, in particular, its implications for the problem of the origins of the Indo-European languages.

According to the genetic revelations, the steppe “Yamna culture” would be associated with the Proto-Indo-European language, while the origin of the derived linguistic groups (Greek, Germanic, Italic, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, among others) would be attributed to the cultures of the “Chordate pottery” (also called “battle-axe culture,” spread in northern and northeastern Europe). The supporters of this hypothesis, however, are aware of the relative weakness of their conclusions, advancing, for example, that perhaps not all Indo-European peoples come from the Yamnaya, but only some of them. This means, in essence, that we are not dealing then with the cradle of the proto-Indo-European, but only with one of its subfamilies: in this case, the stereopic hypothesis of the origin of the Indo-Europeans would be transformed only into the origin, so to speak, of the Indo-Iranian group.

Many archaeologists doubt that the discoveries in question reflect a direct migration from the “Yamna culture” to the “Chordate culture.” The first doubt is that the Yamnaya people spoke the Proto-Indo-European language. All recognized dates for the fragmentation of the Proto-Indo-European language are between the seventh and fifth millennia BC. The Yamnaya culture is well dated by calibrated radiocarbon chronology: it begins, at the earliest, within the second third of the third millennium BC. Thus, there is a gap of about 2.5 millennia (1.6 millennia minimum).

The Russian archaeologist Leo S. Klejn highlighted a remarkable fact: the strange distribution of steppe genetic contributions to the “Corded Pottery” cultures and their descendants, revealed by Haak and others, very rich in northern Europe and increasingly weaker towards the south, particularly in Hungary, just where the western edge of the “Yamna culture” itself is located. This distribution is at odds with the suggestion that the source of the contribution to the “Corded Pottery” cultures is the southeastern “Yamna culture;” that very distribution seems rather more natural, if it is suggested that the common source (of both cultural units) is in northern Europe—and hence the common cause of genetic similarity.

The mystery of the origin of the Proto-Indo-Europeans remains an enigma, but perhaps not so indecipherable after reading this book.


Featured image: “Trizna,” by Andrey Shishkin, painted in 2019.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.

The Beginnings Of Islam: A Conversation With Hela Ouardi

We are pleased to present this interview with Hela Ouardi who has recently published the third volume of the series, Les califes maudits (The Cursed Caliphs), Meurtre à la mosquée, Murder in the Mosque). She has previously published Les Derniers Jours de Muhammad (The Last Days of Muhammad). In these works she seeks to demythologize and thereby humanize the founder of Islam. Professor Ouardi teaches French literature and civilization at the University of Tunis.

Here, she is interviewed by Annie Laurent, for La Nef, through whose kind courtesy we are bringing you this translation.


Annie Laurent (AL): Your work challenges the history of early Islam as it is generally transmitted, You teach French literature at the University of Tunis. How did you decide to dive into this work of a historian and is both iconoclastic and titanic?

Hela Ouardi (HO): There are two important points in your question. The first one concerns “questioning.” I think I am doing exactly the opposite insofar as I am trying to restore the true history of the beginnings of Islam and to highlight the mythical and mystifying character of the version “generally transmitted” as you say. At the beginning of my investigation, I asked myself this double question: where is this authentic version? Who is in charge of transmitting it? The answer to both questions is: nowhere and nobody. All that the Muslim knows about the genesis of his religion are bits of legendary and incoherent stories. So, I believe that my investigation is based on two major tasks that have nothing to do with any subversive attitude: to bring order to this history and to make it intelligible. The narrative approach in my books allows me to achieve this double objective.

Hela Ouardi © Albin Michel.

As for the relationship with my academic specialty, that speaks for itself. My literary training, far from making me a stranger to the work of historical investigation on the Muslim Tradition, has prepared me very well for it. The corpus of this tradition is a literary corpus par excellence (and we have only this to inform us about the beginnings of Islam—there is no archaeological trace dating from the period of the Prophet and even of his first successors). The historian of Islam is thus condemned to analyze a literary tradition. And here I must admit that I am a bit “like a fish in water” because my great familiarity with the analysis of texts puts me in a very good predisposition in this regard. The only notable change in relation to my previous research (French literature and civilization) is that of the language. However, as I am bilingual, the study of texts in Arabic and their rendition in French do not pose any particular problems for me.

AL: Your investigations refer to a multitude of Islamic sources, both Sunni and Shiite. How were you able to access them when many of them seem to be untransmitted, as if one wanted to make them suspect, so as not to interfere with the hagiographic approach to history?

HO: As I told you, there is no “official version” of Islamic history. On the other hand, I do not entirely agree with the idea of suspicion that you evoke: Muslims venerate the sources of Tradition without reading them and without knowing them; and all my work consists in revealing the contents of these books, to make them accessible by breaking a little the glass cage in which they have been imprisoned over the centuries.

AL: You point out that no text written by Muhammad or dictated by him to his secretaries has been preserved, even though, contrary to legend, he was not illiterate. Can you enlighten us on this point?

HO: Muhammad’s alleged illiteracy is a theological ruse to support the dogma of the Qur’anic miracle. In order to show that the Qur’an is a divine work and not a human work, the idea was conveyed that an illiterate man was not capable of producing such a scholarly and well-written book. In my books, I provide irrefutable evidence from the Muslim tradition that destroys the legend of the illiteracy of the Prophet of Islam. This legend has moreover imposed itself thanks to the semantic vagueness that surrounds the Arabic adjective “ummî” with which Muhammad is often tagged. This word designates at the same time the illiterate, the follower of a religion without a Book (at the beginning, Mohammed’s detractors refused to recognize his prophecy because he did not bring a sacred book). Finally, the word “ummî” can also designate a man from Mecca who was nicknamed “Umm al-qurâ” (this nickname appears in the Koran). So, you see, the vagueness surrounding Muhammad’s illiteracy is the pure product of lexical polysemy!

AL: The “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” This is the name reserved for the first successors of Mohammed, who are presented as models to be imitated even though they were particularly violent. Do you think you can convince your Muslim readers of the validity of the label “cursed Caliphs” that you attribute to them?

HO: I don’t want to convince anyone. I make Montaigne’s famous phrase my own: “I do not teach, I report.” So, I report facts that are not at all of my own invention or even the fruit of my interpretation. Thus, the label “cursed caliphs” does not reflect a personal position on these historical figures. It emphasizes a very specific event (on which Sunnis and Shiites are curiously agreed): the first two caliphs were cursed by Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, because they disinherited her; abused her so much that she died of grief (or of something else less natural!) only a few weeks after her father. This is a fact reported in great detail in all the sources, and I defy anyone to contradict me on this point.

AL: Your series stops at Omar, the second Caliph (634-644). Will you continue your research on the following ones?

HO: That is planned, of course; but the next two (Uthman and Ali) will not be included in the cycle of the “Cursed Caliphs;” they will be the subject of separate monographs.

AL: Don’t you fear being accused of disbelief or suspected of discrediting Islam as a religion at a time when it is presenting itself under worrying aspects from which Muslims also suffer?

HO: And you, when you get on the road, don’t you fear to have an accident? I don’t think about virtual threats because if I did, I wouldn’t do anything. Besides, whoever accuses me of being a disbeliever and of undermining Islam is in fact only accusing the “venerable” authors of the Muslim tradition, because I am only reporting what they say.

AL: In recent years, a growing number of Muslim intellectuals have called for a reform of Islamic thought. Do some of them join you in your enterprise of historical deconstruction? In other words, can Islam reconcile itself with history without risking annihilation?

HO: I prefer to speak of “historical reconstruction” because the mythification and the ideological instrumentation of the past have literally annihilated the history of Islam and have made of this religion a mummy, a timeless and anachronistic object. I regard my work as a restoration-reconstruction. I want to give life to this fossilized memory, by giving back to the founding characters of Islam their human dimension which would show them closer to us. So, Islam, by reconciling itself with history, does not risk annihilation; on the contrary: it will revive.

AL: Many emphasize the need to put an end to the dogma of the “uncreated” Koran, which blocks the contextualization of the most inappropriate passages for today’s world (the status of women, the legitimization of violence, etc.), while others stress the absence of a recognized authority that could assume such a responsibility. In what form do you see this resurrection?

HO: The resurrection will not take place at all on a dogmatic level, but by working on representations, such as, for example, humanizing the character of the Prophet and his Companions in films, serials, and documentaries that portray them so that they cease to be disembodied ghosts. And there, I think that the aesthetic appropriation of the history of Islam by artists, creators, playwrights, etc., could cause a lasting influence on the minds. The Renaissance in Europe was accompanied by atrocious religious conflicts. However, this period continues to shine on universal history, precisely because it was the bearer of a decisive aesthetic project. Islam awaits the aesthetic revolution that will revive it from within.


Featured image: The Angel of Bounty and the Arrival at the Second Heaven by Muhammad. Timurid Herat, ca. 1465.

Spain In The Americas: A Conversation With Marcelo Gullo Omodeo

This wide-ranging conversation with Marcelo Gullo Omodeo, the Argentine academic, analyst and consultant in international relations, is a great pleasure and honor to bring to our readers. His most book, Madre Patria (Motherland), effectively analyses the devastating impact that the Black Legend has had on the great achievements of Spain in the Americas, a period now disparagingly known as “colonialism.” He discusses his book with Javier R. Portella, the publisher of the journal El Manifesto.


Javier R. Portella (JRP): “Motherland,” “Motherland”…. What memories the beautiful title of your wonderful book brings back. Memories of childhood, of school… Memories of youth… No, not of youth. Even then, the word was beginning to disappear from our heritage. Little by little, the very idea of homeland was wrapped in the rancid dust of contempt. Eventually motherland and fatherland disappeared from the map. No one in Spain today would utter these two words. And in that Hispanic America which, in order not to call it so, is called—or worse, we call it that—”Latin,” “motherland” it still uttered. Is Spain still thought of as the Motherland? I have heard the expression in Argentina and somewhere else, it is true. But I am afraid that…

Marcelo Gullo Omodeo (MGO): There was lots of talk about it, my dear Javier, and then there was even more talk. The homeland is always the “being” where “being” develops its existence. Our being is America; but our being was given to us by Spain. That Spain that had been for centuries—and is again today—a “being” that is in danger, always threatened by extinction—first against the subjugating Muslim imperialism and then against the Balkanizing Anglo-Saxon imperialism.

Numerous men of letters, such as the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó, the Argentines Manuel Ugarte and Manuel Gálvez, the Mexican José Vasconcelos, the Peruvian Enrique Santos Chocano, numerous politicians, such as the Uruguayan Luis Alberto de Herrera, the Peruvians Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre and Luis Alberto Sánchez, the Colombian Eliecer Gaitan, the Argentines Roque Saenz Peña, Hipolito Yrigoyen, Juan Domingo Peron, the legendary Evita, but above all the vast majority of the Argentine and Latin American people, mainly its humblest sectors, felt Spain as our Motherland. I still remember Luzmila Méndez Ramírez, a humble and knowledgeable woman of Indian race whose mother-tongue was Quechua, born deep in the Peruvian highlands, who struggled all her life, being always a domestic servant, telling me, one October 12, while watching on television the demonstrations of the young people of Lima repudiating Spain: “Don Marcelo, they are wrong, Spain is our Motherland.”

Marcelo Gullo Omodeo.

Allow me to quote one of Eva Perón’s most moving speeches about Spain and the conquest of America:

“The epic of the discovery and conquest is, fundamentally, a popular epic. We are, then, not only legitimate children of the discoverers and conquerors, but direct heirs of their deeds and of the flame of eternity that they carried over the seas. October 12 is, for the same reason, a celebration of Hispanic culture, which touches Spain as well as its daughters in America. Let us fight as the men of Cortés, Mendoza, Balboa and Pizarro knew how to fight. This is my tribute to Columbus Day, the day of the people who gave us our being and bequeathed us their spirituality. May they be blessed!”

These words of Evita say it all.

In 1927, in the tango La gloria del águila, an emotional Carlos Gardel calls Spain “Madre Patria querida de mi amor” (Dear Motherland of my love). That was the feeling of the majority of the Argentine and Latin American population, before the “Black Legend” poison (through the cultural propaganda made by the “globalist left,” whose most important political expression today in Argentina is Kirchnerism) penetrated the spirit of the youth.

JRP: I am going to ask you something a little difficult perhaps, since there are many and substantial things in your book. I would like to ask you to summarize for me, concisely, the core, the essence of your defense of Spain and your plea against the Black Legend.

MGO: Spain’s defense can be summarized in a single sentence: Spain did not conquer America, Spain liberated America. In reality there was no conquest, but rather the liberation of America—as the Mexican Vasconcelos affirms—from “all that rank yerba of the soul which is the cannibalism of the Caribs, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the stultifying despotism of the Incas.”

In my work, Madre Patria (Motherland), making an objective analysis of history, I demonstrate in a simple but scientific way that Hernán Cortés did not conquer Mexico. It was the opposite of the story elaborated by the Black Legends because the political action of Cortes was oriented to help hundreds of nations to organize themselves, under his military and political leadership, most definitely, to stop being oppressed by the most bloodthirsty totalitarian state of all times.

The main dilemma was, for the nations dominated by the Aztecs, one of life or death. To continue under Aztec dependence would have meant, for the Tlaxcaltecs and Totonacs, for example, to continue being—literally—devoured by the Aztecs. Liberation meant ceasing to be the main food of the Aztecs. That said, the other contradictions were evidently secondary.

In addition, it is materially impossible to think that, with only three hundred men, four old arquebuses and some horses, Hernán Cortés could defeat Moctezuma’s army of three hundred thousand fierce, disciplined and brave soldiers. It would have been impossible, even if the three hundred Spaniards had had automatic rifles like those used today by the Spanish army. Thousands of Indians from the oppressed nations fought, together with Cortés, against the Aztecs. That is why the Mexican José Vasconcelos affirms that “the conquest was made by the natives.”

As I prove in my book Madre Patria (Motherland), Aztec imperialism was the most atrocious in the history of mankind: thousands and thousands of people from the subjugated peoples were sacrificed every day; a domination that demanded tribute—but tribute in blood. In what we now call Mexico, there was an oppressor nation and hundreds of oppressed nations, from which the Aztecs not only took away raw materials—as all imperialisms have done throughout history—but they also took away their children, their brothers, to sacrifice them in their temples and then distribute the dismembered bodies of the victims in their butcher shops as if they were pork chops or chicken legs—so that these dismembered human beings served as substantial food for the Aztec population.

The scientific evidence we have today leaves no room for doubt in this regard. Such was the quantity of human sacrifices made by the Aztecs of the people enslaved by them that, with the skulls, they built the walls of their buildings and temples. The main food of the Aztec nobility and priestly caste was human flesh of the oppressed peoples. The nobility reserved the thighs for themselves, and the entrails were left to the general public. This says it all—and that, precisely, is what the pseudo-thinkers and professors of the “globalist Left” hide, financed, until recently, by Baring or the Rockefellers, and, today, by Soros and company. If Hernán Cortés was successful, it was because he told those subjugated peoples that this was going to end: “…with us this will never happen again.”

In reality, for the inhabitants of what we now call Mexico, the conquest meant that 80 percent of the population was liberated from the most macabre and monstrous imperialism that the history of mankind has ever known. And something similar to what happened in Mexico happened in Peru and Colombia.

If Spain has to apologize for having defeated the anthropophagous Aztec imperialism and the stultifying imperialism of the Incas, both the United States and Russia would have to apologize for having defeated the genocidal Nazi imperialism. Of course, the battles for Tenochtitlan and Cuzco were bloody, but as bloody, by the way, as the landing in Normandy or the battle for Berlin that put an end to Nazi totalitarianism.

JRP: There are many questions that surprise and catch the reader’s attention in your book. For example, it is the first time—I don’t think I’m wrong—that someone has made the connection between the denigrations that are launched against Spain by the Black Legend and by the Catalan secessionists. What can you tell us about it?

MGO: When during the so-called Transition most Spanish politicians of the Left and Right assumed, by commission or omission, the Black Legend as something true, they gave rise to Catalan separatists, taking refuge in the Black Legend (now accepted by the Spanish Right who wanted to get democratic credentials) saying: “just as Spain conquered and plundered America, so it conquered and plundered Catalonia. Spain is a historical devouring monster of peoples.” Then, based on that false premise, they began to indoctrinate children in schools to hate Spain and its common language. And it worked, because if the children were told that just as Spain had gone to America to steal and rape women, it had penetrated Catalonia to carry out the same misdeeds. It was logical to expect that when those children became adults they would say, we want the independence of Catalonia because we do not want to be part dominated by the “vampire” of peoples that is Spain. This axial fact—the indoctrination of children in the Black Legend—plunges Spain, almost inexorably, into territorial fragmentation.

Out of political sympathy, “Catalan separatism” promotes today, in Latin America, with the money of all Spanish taxpayers, and counting on the sympathy of the international imperialism of money, the “fragmenting indigenist fundamentalism.” The Catalan separatists, impregnated with hatred for Spain, would love, for example, that in the Ecuadorian jungle all traces of Spanish were lost; that in Peru, in the region of Cuzco, the use of Spanish was abandoned and only Quechua was spoken; that in Puno the exclusive use of Aymara was imposed and Spanish was forgotten; that in the south of Chile and in the Argentine Patagonia, the Mapuche language was imposed with blood and fire and Spanish speakers were persecuted. Catalan separatist nationalism and balkanizing fundamentalist indigenism are twin brothers, since both share the same eagerness to erase everything Spanish; thus serving the interests of those who want to deconstruct Spain and fragment the Spanish-American republics.

Peoples who do not know where they come from do not know where they have to go; or rather, where they are being led by those who have falsified their history—towards the edge of the abyss; that is, towards their historical suicide.

JRP: And since we were talking about the Catalan secession, another novel element of Madre Patria is what you reveal about South American independence. One is astonished when one learns that the Indians, during the matricidal wars against the Motherland… What happened then to the Indians, “the original peoples?” They were supposed to fight against Spain as fiercely as the Creoles, weren’t they?

MGO: The history written by the Black-Legendarians has always hidden the fact that the native peoples in Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Chile were against independence. They have hidden it because that fact, historically irrefutable, as I show in Madre Patria, makes the whole Black Legend of the Spanish conquest of America fall like a house of cards. Francisco de Miranda—who commanded an army formed by the sons of Spaniards who had enriched themselves through smuggling—was defeated by the Jirahara Indians whose language was Chibcha; and Simón Bolívar could only crush the Guajira Indians, the Pashto Indians and the mass of blacks and mulattoes who fought against him to their last breath; and he could only crush them with the help of the thousand British soldiers, veterans of the European war, sent to his aid by His Gracious British Majesty. In the mountains of Peru, the Indians opposed independence and fought, led by the cacique Antonio Huachaca, in a struggle that incredibly lasted until 1839. In Chile, the Mapuche people in their totality, commanded by the chiefs Nekulman, Mariwán, Mangín Weno and Ñgidol Toki Kilipán, remained loyal to Spain until Spain was defeated, on the dawn of January 14, 1832, at the battle of the lagoons of Epulafquenen, by the “very white” Chilean general Don Manuel Bulnes.

There is no doubt, as the Marxist historian Juan José Hernández Arregui dared to affirm, that “the emancipation from Spain was not desired at the time by the American peoples.” That is why, when General Don José de San Martín landed in Peru and realized, at that moment, that independence was not wanted by the indigenous masses and that they had all fallen into a British trap, he desperately sought an agreement to put an end to the fratricidal war, through the creation of a constitutional Empire with its capital in Madrid. Unfortunately, Spain was then ruled by one of the most inept kings in its history, who opposed any kind of negotiation that would put an end to what was in reality a civil war, to what was literally a painful family war.

JRP: And, to conclude, a question to reflect with you on something that emerges from your book: What is it, dear Marcelo, in the soul of Spaniards—on both sides of the Atlantic—that makes us so absurdly, so stubbornly masochistic? What is it that makes us detest to such an extent the greatest thing we have ever done in our history?

Because, of course, it is clear that the Black Legend is an extraordinary operation of “political marketing” (you nailed it with this formulation) that has been set in motion by our enemies. But none of that would have worked—at any rate, not in such a colossal way—without our kind and solicitous collaboration. Starting with the deceptions propagated by a Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and ending with the consent, active or silent, of so many of our thinkers and writers. Only now, with the publishing boom of María Elvira Roca Barea and with what, hopefully, will also be the publishing boom of Marcelo Gullo Omodeo (which, by the way, I see has been a best-seller on Amazon for three months now) is something like an awareness of the truth and the greatness of what we are, because of having been what we were, and are finally beginning to grasp. And this, despite the stones thrown by our enemies… and those that we ourselves throw on our own roof.

But why this mania for self-blame and self-attack, in a way that—as you yourself point out—no other people would ever have allowed themselves to be belittled, degraded and attacked?

MGO: It is a question, my dear Javier, that breaks my soul because I have no answer. It is an enigma of history.


Featured image: “Marriage of Martin de Loyola to Princess Dona Beatriz and Don Juan Borja to Lorenza,” Cusco School, 1718. [This interview comes through the courtesy of El Manifesto].

Class And Man

We are extremely pleased to present a new translation of this very pertinent essay by Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the well-know Russian philosopher. It was published on January 8, 1918, in the journal, Народо Πравительство (The People’s Government).


I

The struggle of classes fills the history of mankind. It is not an invention of the 19th and 20th centuries, although in these centuries it took new and aggravated forms. This struggle was also going on in the ancient world and even back then showed varied manifestations. Much instructive reading on this subject can be found in Pöhlmann’s book, История античного коммунизма и социализма (Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und SozialismusThe History of Ancient Communism and Socialism). Some pages in it are reminiscent of the chronicle of our own times.

The social revolt of the masses has always, and everywhere, been the same in its psychological context. Too much is repeated in social life, and it is difficult to come up with entirely new combinations and permutations in this area. There have been many class-communist movements in the past, and they have often taken on religious overtones. Such communist movements were particularly characteristic of the Reformation era. The spontaneous communism of the lower classes of society is one of the very oldest tendencies that occasionally rises up and tries to overturn the individualistic and hierarchical tendencies. Communism is as old as the world; it was at the cradle of human civilization.

Many times in history, the grassroots have risen up and tried to sweep away all the hierarchical and qualitative differences in society and establish a mechanical equality and intermingling. This leveling equation and simplification of society has always been at odds with progressive historical tasks and the state of culture. Periodically in history there have been tides of chaotic darkness that have sought to overturn the social cosmos and its law of development. Such movements have, time and again, been utterly reactionary and have backfired on people. Socialist Lassalle did not consider the peasant wars of the Reformation era as progressive; he considered them reactionary; that is, contrary to the main historical objectives of the time. And in the element of the Russian revolution the same old, reactionary forces are at work: the ancient chaos that lay beneath the thin layers of Russian civilization is stirring within it.

The class struggle, this original sin of human societies, deepened and changed its character in the nineteenth century. In this advanced age, human society has become very materialized, has lost its spiritual center, and man’s bestial self-interest, under a civilized guise, has reached extreme tension and expression. The moral character of the bourgeois-capitalist age makes the struggle of the classes for their interests more shameless than in former ages. And this is not because of the fact of industrial development, which in itself is a good thing, but to the spiritual condition of European society. The spiritual poison in this society has gone from the top down, from the ruling classes to the oppressed classes.

The materialist socialism of Marx and others, which concentrated in itself all the poison of bourgeois godlessness, was not limited to a more acute knowledge of the fact of the class struggle—it sanctified this fact and finally subordinated man to class. The means of struggle finally overshadowed the higher purposes of life. Materialist socialism, enslaved by the economism of capitalist societies, denies man and human nature; it recognizes only class-man, only class-collectives. A very special sense of life is born—one perceives only the masses and completely ceases to perceive the individual man. Class is quantity. But the individual is quality. Class struggle, elevated to an “idea,” has shut out the qualitative image of man.

In our harsh times, which are tearing away all veils, old-fashioned idealism, which turns its back on the ugly fact of class struggle, on class antagonisms and class stratifications that distort the nature of man, is impossible and naively ridiculous. Class antagonisms and class distortions of the human image play an enormous, though not honorable, role in social life. But our moral judgments and our ideas about the spiritual image of man should not depend on this natural fact.

Human nature may be distorted by man’s class status; the shell of man may be defined by class self-interest and class limitations—but the spiritual core of man, the individual human image, is never determined by class, nor does it depend on social environment. And he who denies this, denies man: he commits spiritual manslaughter. It is ungodly and immoral to see the collective substance of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat instead of man with his good and bad qualities. This is how the idea of class kills the idea of man. This murder is theorized in Marxism. In the realm of the Russian revolution, it is committed practically on a scale never before seen in history. The “bourgeois” man and the “socialist” man cease to be human beings for each other, brothers in the One Father of the human race. In this revolutionary element there can be no liberation of man; for man is denied in his original essence. Class liberation, as it were, binds and enslaves man.

II

Ever since the world became Christian and was baptized, it has recognized in its religious consciousness that men are brothers, that we have one Father in heaven. In the Christian world, the master and the slave, in their social shells, cannot recognize each other as wolves; they can in their sin, but they cannot in their faith. In their lucid moments, in their spiritual depths, they recognized each other as brothers in Christ. The Christian world remained a sinful world. It fell, betrayed its God, did evil. In it, people hated one another, and instead of the law of love they executed the law of hatred. But the sin of hatred, malice, and violence was recognized by all Christians as a sin, not as a virtue, not as a way to a higher life. Faith in man as the image and likeness of God remained the faith of Christendom. Man was bad, but his faith was good; the spiritual foundation laid by Christ and His Church was good. But there was a severe crisis in Christian humanity.

The soul of the people and the soul of the nations became sick. Faith became bad; they stopped believing in man as the image and likeness of God, because they stopped believing in God. The very spiritual foundations of life have changed. Socialism is not to blame for this spiritual fall; it happened earlier. Socialism has only slavishly embraced this unbelief in man and in God; and it brings it to an end and gives it universal expression. Disbelief in man has led to the deification of man. The struggle of classes is no longer a socio-economic fact; it has become a spiritual fact; it has spread to the totality of human nature and human life. There is not a corner of the human soul, of human experience and of human creativity to which the struggle of classes has not invaded with its exorbitant pretensions.

The theory of economic materialism prefaced, and corresponded to, a new human reality: an economism that spilled over into the whole field of human life. On such ground, the single law of the good was lost in human society. The “bourgeois good” and the “socialist good” want nothing in common with one another, and there is no higher, unified good above them. And so, there is no longer a direct relation of man to man; there is only a relation of class to class. Revolutionary socialism, as it has now revealed itself in Russia, finally kills the possibility of human brotherhood in principle, in the new faith itself, in the idea. According to this new faith, there is no longer a man, but only a bearer and exponent of an impersonal class substance.

Not only are the “proletarian” and the “bourgeois” not brothers for each other but wolves. The proletarian and the proletarian are not brothers but “comrades,” comrades in interest, in misfortune, in the community of material desires. In the socialist faith, the comrade replaced the brother of the Christian faith. Brothers were united to one another as children of the One Father, by love, by community of spirit. Comrades are united to one another by a community of interests, by hatred of the “bourgeoisie,” by the same material basis of life. The comrade in the comrade honors the class, not the individual. Such comradeship kills fundamentally the brotherhood of men, not only the supreme unity of Christian humanity, but also the average unity of civilized humanity.

The French Revolution abused the slogan “liberty, equality and fraternity.” But it did not and did not try to realize fraternity. The socialist revolution imagines that it can and must realize fraternity. But it can only realize fraternity, which brings unprecedented division to mankind. Equality is not brotherhood. Fraternity is possible only in Christ, only for Christian humanity—it is the revelation of the religion of love. The idea of brotherhood is stolen from Christianity and is impossible outside of it. The pathos of equality is the pathos of envy, not love.

Movements born of an equalizing passion breathe revenge—they do not want to sacrifice, but to take away. Brotherhood is organic; equality is mechanical. In fraternity all human personality is affirmed, but in the equality of “comrades” all personality disappears in quantitative mass. In the brother the individual triumphs. In the comrade the class triumphs. The comrade substitutes for the man. Brother is a religious category. Citizen is a political, state-legal category. Comrade is a pseudo-religious category. “Citizen” and “brother” have justification. “Comrade” has no justification. Through the idea of comrade, the class kills man. Man to man is not a “comrade;” man to man can only be a citizen or a brother—a citizen in the state, in secular communion, or a brother in the church, in religious communion. Citizenship is connected with right; brotherhood is connected with love. A comrade denies right and denies love; he recognizes only common or opposing interests. In this rapprochement or disunion of interests, man perishes. Man needs either a civil attitude toward him, a recognition of his rights, or a fraternal attitude toward him, an attitude of unbounded love.

III

Russian people need to go through the school of citizenship. In this school they should develop respect for the individual and his rights, and they should realize the dignity of the human being as a creature living in society and the state. Every person and every nation must pass through this stage; it cannot be skipped over. When rebellious slaves claim that the civil state is unnecessary and insufficient for them, that they can go immediately to a higher state, they usually fall into an animal state.

The school of brotherhood develops a love of man for man, a consciousness of spiritual fellowship. It is a religious plan that should not be confused with a political plan. It is absurd and ungodly to transfer the wonders of religious life to political and social life, making the relative absolute. Forced brotherhood is impossible. Brotherhood is the fruit of unconditional love. Brotherly love is the color of spiritual life. Everyone is obliged to be a citizen. Everyone can demand respect for his rights, recognition as a human being, even if there is no love.

Socialist comradeship, in its idea, is a compulsion to virtue, a compulsion to fellowship greater than that which one voluntarily desires. “Comrade” is an unacceptable confusion of “citizen” and “brother,” a confusion of state and church society, a substitution of one plan for the other, not this and not that. During these months in Russia, the word “comrade” has acquired a ridiculous and almost shameful meaning. It is associated with the extermination of citizenship and the final denial of the brotherhood of love.

Class in the person of the “comrade” has not only revolted against class, class has revolted against man. The human being is forgotten in the rage of class hatred. But man is a genuine, enduring reality. Man inherits eternity, not class. All class is a temporary, transient phenomenon; it never was and never will be. Man is concrete. Class, on the other hand, is an abstraction. This abstraction unites similar social interests and similar social psyches. But these abstract associations can never form an authentic reality, a real value. The “proletariat” of the socialists is an abstract “idea,” not reality. Only heterogeneous groups of workers, often differing both in their interests and in their mental dispositions, exist in reality. The workers themselves are forced to submit to the abstract idea of the proletariat. And to this bloodless abstraction, human sacrifices are offered as an idol.

Nor does class possess the reality that a nation, a state possesses. Class is a very relative entity; it can occupy only the most subordinate position. All “class” refers to the rinds of life, not to the core. The attempt to base the destiny of society on the idea of class, and the fact of class, is a demonic attempt; it seeks to destroy man, nation, state, church, all authentic realities. The class to which supremacy is attributed degrades all values and distorts all evaluations of life. The working class, believing that it is the only chosen class, leaves no place of life; demolishes and cripples everything. There will be no free citizenship in Russia as long as Russians live under the rule of the demonic idea of class. And the same dark class idea will destroy the remnants of brotherhood in the Russian people, as a people of Christianity.

Hypnosis of the class idea distorts socialism itself and gives it a destructive and suicidal character. If socialism is possible and admissible, it must be based on man, not class. A crusade must be preached against class absolutism. In the backwards Russian people, obsessed with a false idea, deceived and raped—a human being, a human image and human dignity must be awakened.

The arrogance and impudence of class is not the dignity of man; it is in them that man perishes. Not only does man not awaken in the masses of workers and peasants, but he is finally forgotten and drowns in the element of dark instincts. Bolshevik collectivism is the consequence of Russia’s failure to discover the human element, the human personality and the human image. Proletarian class communism on Russian soil is an experience of pre-human, primordial communism. The revolution unleashed this communist darkness, but did nothing to develop free citizenship in the mass of the people. A new and better life will begin in Russia when the luminous spirit of man overcomes the dark demon of class.


Featured image: “Hungry times in Petrograd,” by Ivan Alekseevich Vladimirov, painted in 1919.

On The dignity Of Man: The Idea Of The Good And Knowledge Of Essences. Part III.

Ayn Rand And Willard V.O. Quine On Analyticity

At that stage, I will develop my understanding of the issue of knowing whether definitions are true or wrong independently of reality (i.e., true or wrong in an apodictic mode); then on the issue of knowing whether material existence can be deduced from ideational essence. In this regard, I will compare and evaluate Ayn Rand’s and Willard V.O. Quine’s respective criticisms against the notion of analyticity (i.e., the notion of truth independent of reality by the sole operation of the logical laws admitted in some system of formal logic). Then I shall return to my assessment of Plato’s approach to the Idea of Good. Just as a statement allegedly true in an apodictic mode is a statement allegedly true in a mode independent of reality; a statement allegedly true in an analytic mode is a certain variety of an allegedly apodictic statement: namely a statement that the laws of formal logic are sufficient to make it true and to make it apodictically true.

In Viennese empiricism, two kinds of purported analytical truth are recognized: on the one hand, tautologies, i.e., statements which, in the eyes of a certain system of formal logic, are true by the sole operation of the accepted logical laws in the system in question. On the other hand, statements that are allegedly reducible—independently of reality—to a tautology via the play of the synonymy between two terms or between a term and a sequence of terms. Whereas the former are allegedly analytical by the sole reason of their tautological character, the latter are allegedly analytical by the sole reason of their alleged reducibility independent of reality to an analytical truth of the tautological type.

Faced with the notion of the existence of these two varieties of analytical truth, at least two questions arise: on the one hand, would a statement that, via the play of synonyms, would be effectively reducible (independently or not of reality) to a tautology have a meaning equivalent to the one of a tautology? On the other hand, are the laws of any mode of formal logic actually sufficient to make a tautology analytically true—and is the play of synonyms effectively sufficient to make a statement reducible (independently of reality) to a tautology? Whoever investigates the relation of definitions to reality cannot refrain from seeking the answer to those two questions: the former because, if a definition were indeed of a meaning equivalent to the one of a certain tautological statement, then a definition would be of no interest with regard to what the tautology in question already says; the latter because, if a definition were effectively reducible independently of reality to a tautological analytical truth (via the play of the synonyms recognized in the language), then reality would be of no interest in judging the truth of a definition.

A fault in the Randian critique against the notion of apodicticity (which it amalgamates with the notion of analyticity) is that said critique distorts the theses and arguments in favor of said existence to the point where it attacks ghosts. Here I will leave aside the tasks of listing and dissecting the many scarecrows of Ayn Rand on that subject. Another fault in the Randian critique against the idea of apodicticity is that it lacks a clear distinction between the generic entity and the singular entity; but the inclusion of a clearer (or completely clear) distinction on that subject does not require the Randian argument against the idea of apodicticity to be significantly overhauled.

The argument in question (especially developed in Leonard Peikoff’s article “The Analytic-Synthetic Distinction”) is, in essence, the following. A concept encompasses all the characteristics of its object and not only those that have to be included in its (true) definition; a concept and its true definition are therefore not true synonyms (any more than terms considered to be synonymous in a certain language are really synonymous—although neither Rand nor Peikoff, to my knowledge, say so openly). Accordingly, a statement associating a concept with a true definition is neither reducible to a tautology via the play of synonyms nor endowed with a meaning equivalent to a tautology. Yet the definitions are true or false depending on whether they are in agreement with the entities exhibited in the sensible experience—and in agreement with the logical laws objectively deduced from the ontological laws objectively exhibited in the sensible experience.

According to Rand, all human knowledge (including that of the ontological laws underlying the valid logical laws) is an account of sensible experience articulated according to logical laws deduced from ontological laws themselves known through sensible experience. A definition in agreement with the concerned entity is a definition that subsumes those characteristics of the entity that are best able to distinguish the entity in question in view of what is currently known about it through the sensible experience. Because a definition that correctly subsumes those characteristics (from sensible experience) is therefore in (perfect) agreement with reality, it cannot be refuted by progress in knowledge; it can certainly be complemented, not be refuted. Conclusion: there is no truth independent of facts; but any definition that correctly subsumes the characteristics best capable of distinguishing the object in view of the present state of knowledge about the universe is true—and true in an objectively undoubtable mode.

The Randian answer to the two questions mentioned above is therefore the following. On the one hand, there is no true synonymy because the meaning of a concept is its object taken from the angle of all of its properties. A statement that would be reducible to a tautology via the play of synonyms is absurd; but the meaning of a statement associating a concept with its true definition is actually irreducible to the meaning of a tautology. On the other hand, tautologies are not analytical (nor apodictic) but remain objectively certain when constructed from logical laws objectively grasped in sensible experience; just as definitions and those statements which are limited to associating terms deemed synonymous (for example, “no single person is engaged”) are not analytical (nor apodictic), but remain objectively certain when faithfully descriptive of the sensible experience.

The Randian criticism arrives to a partially true conclusion; but its argument is wrong on two levels, at least. On the one hand, a concept encompasses only those characteristics of its object that have to be included in the definition; but it does not only encompass them, it identifies them as constitutive of its object. Accordingly, a statement reducible to a tautology does have a meaning that is not equivalent to that of a tautology; but not for the reasons given by Ayn Rand.

On the other hand, a definition admittedly subsumes the characteristics that it considers best able to distinguish the correspondent concept’s object in view of what one currently knows or believes to know about the universe; but, in addition to the fact that it precisely amounts to subsuming those characteristics which seem to be constitutive, it does not render true nor objectively certain a hypothetical definition correctly subsuming the characteristics in question. To complement a definition always amounts to refuting it, just as to relativize it always amounts to refuting it.

For example, replacing a definition of the swan as “a large web-footed bird, with white plumage, long flexible neck” with a new definition of the latter as “a large web-footed bird, with white or black plumage, long flexible neck” amounts to relativizing the first definition; but to substitute for a definition of the swan as “a large web-footed bird, with white or black plumage,” a definition of the latter such as, this time, “a large web-footed bird, with white or black plumage, with a long flexible neck” amounts to complementing the first definition. In both cases, the second definition comes to refute the first.

Finally, I think the following answer is the correct one to the two questions mentioned above. On the one hand, if certain statements were effectively reducible to a tautology via synonymy, that reducibility would be no more independent of reality than it would make the statements in question equivalent in their sense to a tautology. A statement reducible to a tautology via synonymy is not impossible stricto sensu (as Rand wrongly asserts); but neither its reducibility nor its truth would be independent of reality. On the other hand, a tautological statement can neither be analytical nor true independently of the facts (since the logical laws themselves cannot be valid independently of the facts); just as no statement can be reduced to a tautology independently of the facts.

A mistake by Rand is to represent to herself that synonymy does not exist between a concept and its true definition (because a concept allegedly means its object taken from the angle of all its properties—and not only from the angle of all those properties that are to be related in its definition if true). But the fact is that such synonymy does exist (because the meaning of a concept is strictly confused with its object taken from the angle of its constitutive properties, those which are to be related in a true definition). As we will see more closely a few lines later, another mistake on her part is to represent to herself that sensible experience allows us to objectively grasp ontological laws that objectively establish valid logical laws; and that there are indeed statements that are true by the operation of those laws alone, but that those statements, though objectively certain, are not apodictic.

Quine’s criticism against the analytic-synthetic distinction, which is (quite in a convoluted, fuliginous mode typical of the so-called analytical philosophers) presented in his article, “Two dogmas of empiricism,” is carried out at two levels. Quine, who amalgamates the notions of analyticity (i.e., truth by the sole operation of logical laws independently of reality) and apodicticity (i.e., truth independent of reality), does not deal with the first above-evoked question but only the second one. On the one hand, Quine addresses the case of those statements that are claimed to be—independently of reality—reducible via a synonymy relation to a tautology (i.e., a statement that some system of formal logic holds to be true by the sole operation of the admitted logical laws in the system in question); and which are claimed to be thus inheriting the purported analytical character of the tautology in question.

Quine rightly points out that the notion that some statements are, independently of reality, reducible to tautological analytical statements via synonymy relations actually supposes the notion that synonymous terms are synonymous independently of reality—and that the notion that synonymous terms are synonymous independently of reality actually supposes the notion of a truth independent of reality. Hence a logical circle when it comes to elucidating, characterizing, the way a statement allegedly reducible to a tautological analytical statement would be indeed reducible to a tautological analytical statement. (Quine then rightly shows that any other conceivable way of alleging some statement to be reducible to a tautology results into a logical circle as well).

On the other hand, Quine addresses the case itself of tautologies and logical laws. He points out that the logical laws one resorts to at some point in the pursuit of knowledge are actually interdependent (and totally interdependent) with the whole of the ongoing scientific theories—and that the former are completely and only dependent on the latter and the latter, in turn, completely (but not only) dependent on the former. The logical laws are accordingly susceptible to be themselves revised when a new scientific theory with a better empirical corroboration comes to replace a former one. Hence the tautologies are neither analytical (i.e., true by the sole operation of the logical laws) nor objectively certain; but instead faced with the tribunal of experience themselves and objectively uncertain. Just like that criticism on Quine’s part is actually exaggerated on the issue of logical laws and tautologies, it unfortunately stops along the way on the issue of synonymies.

To be completely dependent (qualitatively speaking) on something is one thing; to be only dependent (either completely or partly) on it is another thing. The fact for some house under construction of being completely dependent on those specific bricks specifically available in some building-supply store is one thing; the fact for the house in question of being dependent (or partly dependent) on nothing else than those bricks—for instance, cement—is another thing. When two things are interdependent only to some extent, the dependence is either partial on both sides or complete only in one side; when they are dependent only of each other, the dependence is exclusive on both sides.

It is true that, if a statement were actually reducible to a tautology via the play of synonyms independently of reality, its analyticity couldn’t but be supposed by its reducibility; but Quine does not identify what is the reason for such impossibility. Namely that, when two terms (or a term and a sequence of terms) are in some language claimed to be synonymous with each other, the latter are actually synonymous depending on whether reality confirms (instead of refuting) what the considered language claims to be their synonymy.

As for the issue of tautologies (i.e., the issue of those statements that the logical laws one follows claim to be true by the sole operation of those laws), Quine’s claim that the logical laws (i.e., the rules one follows in the construction of reasonings in order to reason in a coherent mode) as they stand at some point are (completely) interdependent with the whole of the ongoing scientific theories—and dependent only on them (though not reciprocally)—is actually exaggerated.

Instead, the logical laws one makes use of at some point are obtained strictly as much through one’s empirical impression or empirical conjecturing as, besides, through one’s hypothetical suprasensible impression, through one’s hypothetical conjecturing from one’s hypothetical suprasensible impression, and through one’s hypothetical conjecturing from other hypothetical conjectures (whether they are borrowed—and whether they are scientific claims) from sensible experience, other hypothetical conjectures (whether they are borrowed—and whether they are also empirically conjectured) from suprasensible impression, and other hypothetical conjectures (whether they are borrowed—and whether they are also empirically conjectured) from sensible impression—and are therefore dependent to some extent (and only to some extent) on the ongoing scientific theories, but not only dependent on the ongoing scientific theories. While the latter are obtained strictly as much through one’s conjectures from one’s logical laws, as through one’s hypothetical sensible impression as through one’s hypothetical suprasensible impression, as through one’s conjectures from sensible experience as through one’s hypothetical conjectures from (hypothetical) sensible impression, as through one’s hypothetical conjectures from (hypothetical) suprasensible impression, as through one’s hypothetical conjectures from hypothetical other conjectures from (hypothetical) sensible experience, hypothetical other ones from some logical laws, hypothetical other ones from (hypothetical) suprasensible impression, and hypothetical other ones from (hypothetical) sensible impression (whether those hypothetical other conjectures are one’s conjectures or borrowed to someone else)—and are therefore dependent (in a complete mode) on one’s logical laws, but not only dependent on one’s logical laws. Hence the logical laws are interdependent to some extent (and only to some extent) with the scientific theories—and notably (but not only) dependent on them, and reciprocally.

Other problems with “Quine’s epistemological holism” should be addressed, which I’ll leave aside here. Regarding the question of whether a logical law can be objectively certain, O.W. Quine is right against Ayn Rand that no logical law can be objectively certain. The Randian ontology (which Quine, to my knowledge, does not address) is notably flawed in that it believes the traditionally admitted logical laws in formal logic (namely the laws of identity, non-contradiction, excluded-middle, etc.) to be deduced from ontological laws objectively grasped through sensible experience.

The fact is that sensible experience allows us to notice that those entities inhabiting our fragment of the universe are characterized with identity (i.e., the fact of being what they are—and only what they are—at some point in some respect), non-contradiction (i.e., the fact of not being both what they are and what they are not at some point in some respect), excluded-middle (i.e., the fact of being either something or something else, but not both, at some point in some respect), etc.; but allows us to notice neither that those characteristics are (either intrinsically or extrinsically) necessary in that moment of the universe nor that they are (either intrinsically or extrinsically) necessary in any moment of the universe nor that they are necessary in any entity inhabiting the universe at any moment of the universe.

Though the human mind can conjecture (from sensible experience) or have the impression (from sensible experience) that those characteristics are present in all entities at any moment and intrinsically necessary (in a strong mode), or come to the belief that they are present in all entities at any moment and intrinsically necessary (in a strong mode) following suprasensible experience (which is, at best, approximative), it cannot grasp those alleged omnipresence in time and space and intrinsic necessity through sensible experience. Just as both Quine and Rand are right that no logical law one makes use of at some point can be true independently of reality, both unfortunately miss the fact that is suprasensible experience (in some humans) and the fact that a logical law used, trusted, at some point in someone’s mind (whether it is one universally admitted in the community of scientists and scholars at the considered moment) is sometimes the fruit, notably, of suprasensible experience (or notably its fruit to some extent).

Another flaw in Randian ontology is that it conceives of the claim that the world is eternal (i.e., endowed with no temporal beginning and with no temporal ending) and intrinsically necessary as a claim merely describing an objective component of sensible experience. Yet sensible intelligence allows us to notice that there is existence around us, but not that “existence exists” in an eternal, intrinsically necessary mode; such claim is really a conjecture from sensible experience or an account of a sensible impression, not a description of all or part of sensible experience. Sensible experience does not even allow us to notice whether those entities around us are existent outside of the sensible experience we have of them, i.e., are existent as external rather than simulated entities.

Just like a concept correspondent with reality is one whose object with its constitutive properties such as posited in the concept’s attached definition exists in reality (whether one speaks of the material realm of reality), a concept not-correspondent with reality is one whose object with its constitutive properties such as posited in the concept’s attached definition lacks in reality (whether one speaks of the material realm of reality). (Since a concept’s meaning, i.e., its object taken from the angle of its constitutive properties, is socially held as synonymous with the concept’s socially attached definition, saying that a concept’s object is correctly or incorrectly posited, defined, in the concept in question is a convenient way of saying that it is correctly or incorrectly posited, defined, in the concept’s socially attached definition).

In contradiction with its own claim that no statement can be true or wrong independently of reality, the Randian ontology surreptitiously conceives of some kind of statement as being one wrong (and proven wrong) independently of reality. What the Randian ontology calls a “stolen concept” is a concept that, in some statement, finds itself used in such a way that the statement in question finds itself both asserting the validity of that concept (i.e., its correspondence with reality) and denying the validity (i.e., the correspondence with reality) of another concept on which “it logically and genetically depends.” According to the Randian ontology, the self-contradiction present in any statement stealing a concept B from a concept A is not only independent of reality; it proves (despite itself) the validity of the concept A (i.e., the correspondence of the concept A with reality).

Further, according to the Randian ontology, the Proudhonian statement that “property is theft,” as well as, for instance, the statement that “the laws of logic are arbitrary,” are such cases of a statement stealing a concept B from a concept A. While the allegedly self-contradictory character of the statement that “property is theft” allegedly proves the legitimate, not-stolen character of peacefully acquired private property, the allegedly self-contradictory character of the statement that “the laws of logic are arbitrary” allegedly proves the existence of objectively certain laws in logic. A fact worth recalling as a prelude to identifying the flaws of the Randian ontology on the issue of the “stolen concept” is that most concepts are endowed with a general meaning and sub-meanings, i.e., modalities of the general meaning, such as the general meaning itself taken in isolation. (The several sub-meanings contained in a same concept are not to be confused with the several concepts a same word subsumes).

Thus the concept of color includes a sub-meaning for which the correspondent definition in language is a “visual characteristic distinct from the size, the thickness, the transparency, and the shape”—as well as a sub-meaning for which the socially correspondent definition is a “visual characteristic associated with a wavelength.” (Since a meaning or sub-meaning is socially deemed to be synonymous with the socially attached definition, saying that the concept of color includes the sub-meaning, for instance, of a “visual characteristic distinct from the size, the thickness, the transparency, and the shape” is a convenient way of saying that the definition socially attached to one of its sub-meanings is as put above).

The statement that “the red is not a color” is one that the Randian ontology would qualify as a theft of concept. Said ontology would have us believe that, in “the red is not a color,” the concept of color is a necessary condition for the concept of red; and that the statement in question is thus rendered self-contradictory and that the contradiction in question proves the existence of “color” in the world.

The statement that “the white and the black are not colors” is also one that the Randian ontology would qualify as a theft of concept. It would have us believe that, in such statement, the concepts of white and black are “stolen;” and that their allegedly stolen character proves the correspondence of the concept of color with reality. Yet the statement that “the red is not a color” is admittedly self-contradictory (in that the concept of color—regardless of which sub-meaning for the concept of color is retained in the statement in question—serves as a necessary condition for the concept of red); but that self-contradictory character does not prove the concept of color to be correspondent with reality.

A statement saying two things that contradict each other does not prove the existence of one or other of those things—including when it comes to a statement both denying the correspondence (with reality) of a concept A and claiming the correspondence (with reality) of a concept B for which the concept A serves as a necessary condition. The self-contradictory character of such statement proves no more the correspondence of the concept A than it proves the correspondence of the concept B.

As for the statement that “the white and the black are not colors,” instead of such statement being necessarily self-contradictory, it is actually self-contradictory when taking the concept of color in the general meaning of “a visual characteristic distinct from the size, the thickness, the transparency, and the shape;” but not when taking that concept in the more precise meaning of a visual characteristic that—besides being distinct from the size, the thickness, the transparency, and the shape—finds itself associated with a wavelength. In such statement, the concepts of white and black find themselves “stolen” when it comes to the concept of color taken in the above-evoked general meaning, not when it comes to the above-evoked more precise meaning. Even when the concept of color finds itself taken in the above-evoked general meaning, the statement that “the white and the black are not colors” does not prove the concept of color to be correspondent with reality.

The Randian claim that a statement stealing a concept B from a concept A proves (despite itself) the correspondence of the concept A—and that those statements that are “property is theft” or “the laws of logic are arbitrary” accordingly prove the respective correspondence of the concepts of (legitimate) property and of (objectively certain) logic laws—is flawed at two levels. On the one hand, it misses the fact that a statement stealing a concept B from a concept A does not prove the concept A to be correspondent with reality; on the other hand, it misses the fact that a same statement can be both a statement stealing a concept B from a concept A when A or B is taken in a certain sub-meaning—and a statement making use of the concept B coherently with the concept A when A or B is taken in another sub-meaning. Thus if, in the statement “property is theft,” one takes the concept of property in the sub-meaning of “private property,” and the concept of theft in the sub-meaning of “the private property of what is given to everyone without any distinction,” then the use made of the concept of theft is actually coherent with the concept of property.

The statement “property is theft” is indeed to be taken then in the sense that “private property is the private property of what is given to everyone without any distinction, what allows to speak of private property as a theft of what is everyone’s property.” Likewise, if one, in the statement “the laws of logic are arbitrary,” takes the concept of laws of logic in the sub-meaning of “the laws one expects oneself and others to follow in the construction of reasonings,” and the concept of arbitrary in the sub-meaning of “the fact of not being objectively corroborated or, at least, of not being objectively certain,” then the use made of the concept of arbitrary is actually coherent with the concept of laws of logic. The statement “the laws of logic are arbitrary” is indeed to be taken then in the sense that “the laws one expects oneself and others to follow in the construction of reasonings are, if not deprived of an objectively corroborated character, at least deprived of an objectively certain character, what allows to speak of them as arbitrary.”

The Idea Of The Good And The Jump From Ideational Essence To Material Existence

In its investigation of the relationship of concepts (whether they are “stolen” or coherently used) to reality, the Randian ontology systemically misses the fact that concepts are corroborated rather than confirmed by reality; and the fact that definitions when updated are not left intact on that occasion but instead dismissed then rectified—whether the update consists of extending or relativizing them.

If we were to discover an animal that, without being a bird, would be endowed with a beak, then the definition associated with the (generic) concept of beak would be rectified from such discovery (rather than updated in a paradoxical mode leaving intact the definition). The concept in question would define, henceforth, its object no more as “a horny, teeth-less mouth only found in birds;” but instead as “a horny, teeth-less mouth like the one, for instance, of a bird.”

On that occasion, the concept of beak would evolve with its definition and, accordingly, the sequence of terms “a horny, teeth-less mouth only found in birds” would be no more claimed in the language to be synonymous with the term “beak.” Yet the Randian ontology would have us believe that, in the statement “I saw a kind of animal which looked like a bear except it was endowed with a beak like a bird,” the concept of beak is “stolen” from the concept of bird. The fact is that, in such statement, the concept of beak is implicitly updated in such a way that the use made of said concept in said statement is one coherent with the concept of bird (rather than one stealing the concept of beak from the concept of bird). Holding such statement does not prove that a beak is indeed a horny, teeth-less mouth that is notably (but not only) constitutive of a bird, which is also constitutive of a certain genre of animal that (except it is endowed with a beak like a bird) looks like a bear.

Yet the human knowledge of an individual material entity’s material essence (i.e., the sum of an individual entity’s constitutive properties over the course of its existence—whether those are generic or unique, and whether those are intrinsically necessary or extrinsically contingent or extrinsically necessary) only occurs through conjecturing from the sensible datum (or from sensible impression)—and through suprasensible intuition. It cannot occur through mere sensible intuition as the latter, while allowing us to touch, see, etc., some individual entities, gives us empirical access neither to the material essences of those empirically accessed individual entities—nor to their ideational essences.

While the material essence of an individual material entity is the sum of all the entity’s constitutive properties over the course of its existence, the ideational essence of an individual material entity, which finds itself inscribed in an ideational model, is the sum of all the entity’s properties over the course of its existence (including those properties that are accessory rather than constitutive). Humans could deduce the material essences from empirical intuition if—and only if—empirical intuition of the universe’s whole infinite content and whole past, present, and future history were possible to humans; but such mode of empirical intuition is impossible to them.

What they are left with if they are to grasp the material essences is the following two options. On the one hand, conjecturing what are those material essences from our sensible intuition of a certain portion of the universe—namely that portion of the universe that is empirically offered to us at a certain point of its history. (Induction is part—and only part—of such conjecturing process). On the other hand, grasping suprasensibly the ideational essences of the individual material entities—more precisely, the modeled constitutive properties inscribed within those ideational essences contained in ideational models. Both processes are doomed to be endless ones which can only obtain results that are, at best, approximative. Just like suprasensible experience can only grasp a deformed, mutilated echo of the ideational realm taken as a whole or of an ideational entity within it, sensible experience can only grasp a singular entity as it stands at some point, not its material essence nor the universe taken as a whole at some point nor the universe taken as whole in its whole past, present, and future history.

As for the (material) existence of some entity at some point of the universe, it is no more a product of the fact that the correspondent ideational essence includes the property of existing than it can be deduced from the fact that the concept for the singular material entity in question includes (if correctly constructed) the property of existing. The existence itself of God, whom I perhaps should clarify is not to be confused with what, following Plato’s wording, can be called “the Idea of Good,” cannot be deduced from the fact that the concept of God (if correctly constructed) includes the impossibility for God not to exist in an eternal mode.

In essence, Plato correctly referred to the Idea of Good as being itself not an ideational model for some hypothetical singular entity—but instead the ideational entity allowing for several ideational models to exist, to be what they are, and to be an object of knowledge. It should be added that the Idea of Good is, more precisely, a sorting, actualizing pulse that, while encompassing (and expressing itself through) the whole realm of the ideational models (both generic and singular), chooses in an atemporal, virtual mode which of the hypothetical material singular entities are to be concretized at some point in the material, temporal realm.

Also, it should be added that the universe taken as a whole—and perhaps each parallel universe taken as a whole—are a material, temporal incarnation of the Idea of Good (which thus serves as an ideational model for the universe taken as whole—and perhaps for other universes parallel to ours); and that the Idea of Good nonetheless remains completely external to the universe while incarnating itself into the universe. The same applies to those ideational models for possible singular material entities which are concretized—namely that they incarnate themselves into the correspondent material singular entities while remaining completely external to them and completely virtual.

While our universe is temporal and endowed with a temporal beginning from the nothingness, the Idea of Good whose incarnation it is is both atemporal (i.e., subject to a time in which past, present, and future are simultaneous) and eternal (i.e., subject to a time with no beginning and no end); but neither the Idea of Good nor the universe nor any material singular entity can have its existence deduced from its concept. The existence of a hypothetical material entity (within the universe) modeled in some correctly posited, defined, concept could be deduced from the inclusion of the property of existing in the concept in question if—and only if—the property of existing inscribed in an ideational essence were implied by all or part of the non-existential properties inscribed in an ideational essence. Just like the same applies to the universe, the same applies to the Idea of Good and to God himself: namely, that the (ideational) existence of the Idea of Good could be deduced from the fact its (correctly defined) concept includes its existence (in an eternal, intrinsically necessary mode with an eternal, intrinsically necessary permanence) if—and only if—its property of existing were implied by all or part of its non-existential properties; but an existential property has something to do with all or part of the non-existential properties neither in the Idea of Good nor in God nor in any hypothetical singular material entity modeled in an Idea nor in any material singular entity present at some point within our universe.

Our universe is not only made of the presence of those material singular entities inhabiting it at different stages of its history; it is also made of the absence of those material singular entities which, in an other scenario for the universe, would have been perhaps present but that, in the actual universe, are lacking at any stage of its history. Any (purely) fictional entity in our universe is an entity whose absence is a component for our universe; but not any absent entity is a fictional entity, i.e., an entity present in the fictional realm imagined in our universe. Whether an absent entity is fictional, its absence is an ingredient of our universe; whether it is fictional, its absence cannot be deduced from the fact its concept (if correctly posited, defined) includes its property not of (materially) existing.

Each ideational model in the virtual, atemporal plane includes a set of existential properties, i.e., a set of properties about whether the concerned modeled entity is modeled as an existing entity (and about the modeled mode of existence in the general sense for the concerned modeled entity—if the latter happens to be modeled as an existing entity); but the fact for a certain ideational model of including the property that the concerned modeled entity is endowed with existence does not render said entity an actually existing entity in our universe. Reciprocally, the fact for a certain ideational model, of including the property that the concerned modeled entity is deprived of existence, does not render said entity an actually inexistent entity in our universe. Just like, in an existent singular material entity, the property of existing is not implied by all or part of the non-existential properties, the presence of the property of existing in a modeled hypothetical entity is not implied by all or part of the included non-existential properties.

The fact that the presence of the property of existing in some ideational essence has nothing to do with what are the non-existential properties present within the ideational essence in question serves as a necessary, sufficient condition for the fact that the fact for an existent singular material entity of being has nothing to do with the fact for said entity of being what it is (in addition to its existential properties).

The only way for material existence of being deduced from the presence of the property of existing within the ideational essence would be that the property of existing included in the ideational essence is implied by all or part of the included non-existential properties; but none of the existential properties included in the ideational essence has something to do with the non-existential properties included in the ideational essence. If the fact for the ideational model of some hypothetical singular entity of including the modeled property of existing were a product of all or part of the non-existential properties modeled in the ideational model in question, then the hypothetical singular entity in question would be rendered materially existent by the sole presence of the property of existing within its ideational essence, then its material existence could be deduced from the sole fact its ideational essence includes the property of existing.

Conversely, if the fact for the ideational model of some hypothetical singular entity of including the modeled property of existing has nothing to do with all or part of the modeled non-existential properties inscribed in the ideational model in question, then the hypothetical singular entity in question is not rendered existent by the sole presence of the property of existing within its ideational essence, then its existence cannot be deduced from the sole fact its ideational essence includes the property of existing. The sorting, actualizing pulse that is the Idea of Good is instead what renders actually existent some modeled hypothetical singular entity endowed with the property of existing; just like it is what renders actually inexistent some modeled hypothetical singular entity endowed with the property of not existing—and some modeled hypothetical singular entity nonetheless endowed with the property of existing.

When selecting which immaterial, atemporal Ideas are concretized in our material, temporal universe, it is quite conceivable that the Idea of Good does not only get incarnated into our universe, but also into other universes parallel to ours. Thus it is quite conceivable that, in some universe parallel to ours, there can be found some singular entities that instead belong to fiction in ours and some fictional characters that are instead real in ours: for instance, there may be some parallel universe in which Tong Po and Attila are real, but Mohamed Qissi and Abdel Qissi fictional characters…

Conclusion—And The Idea Of The World’s Contingency

The “dignity of man” lies in his intermediate position between a beast (but one with chaotic instincts) and a being-like-divine (but who is only like-divine rather than divine strictly speaking). Whether when it comes to combatting bad magic in the name of good magic, or bad technique in the name of good technique, “the former is the most deceptive practice,” but “the latter is the deepest and the holiest philosophy.” “The former is sterile and vain,” but “the latter firm, trustworthy and unshakeable.” God does not only expect the human to hunt the material essences, the knowledge of which in humans can be approximative, but can never be achieved; he also expects the humans to co-create the universe alongside God himself, what is an endless task which asks to be carried out through knowledge, technique, and magic—and in complete submission to the laws that God established in its work and faces Himself.

The universe is neither meaningless nor God-forsaken; but the cosmic march proceeding under an ideational sun whose materialized light it is proceeds through mistakes which man as the bearer of a torch imitating the sun is expected to repair in complete humility to the sun. The question of whether the universe is contingent is, precisely, to be asked, on the one hand, from the angle of meaning: is the universe meaningful—rather than gratuitous, vain? On the other hand, it must be asked from the angle of factuality: is the universe’s existence intrinsically necessary, i.e., self-sufficient and inescapable? Yet the universe—in that it is God’s incarnation—is driven by God’s persistent, fallible attempt to engender increasingly higher order and complexity within the universe, an attempt that is carried out in turn for what is the tendency towards entropy in the universe’s isolated systems. Thus the universe is endowed with meaning—the meaning that is purposeful creation of order and complexity, in which the human is invited to take part. Also, the universe’s existence is endowed with a temporal beginning—and therefore devoid of that mode of intrinsic necessity that is the one consisting of existing in an uncreated, inescapable mode.

If the universe had created itself from nothingness without its existence being inescapable, then its existence would be neither intrinsically nor extrinsically necessary; instead it would be extrinsically contingent. If the universe had created itself from nothingness without its existence being escapable, then the universe’s existence would be intrinsically necessary (rather than extrinsically necessary, intrinsically contingent, or extrinsically contingent); but the involved mode here of an intrinsically necessary existence would be the one consisting of existing in a self-created (rather than uncreated), inescapable (rather than avoidable) mode. If the universe was a product by God, then the universe would be extrinsically necessary (rather than intrinsically necessary or extrinsically contingent); whether it was created by God as permanent in an intrinsically necessary mode—or instead as provisory in an intrinsically necessary mode or even as permanent in an extrinsically necessary mode.

For my part, I claim the universe was created by God—but created neither as an emergent property of God nor as a product of God, but instead as an incarnation of God. Though God’s self-incarnation is a relational intrinsically necessary property co-eternal with God, the universe’s existence is not eternal—but instead endowed with a temporal beginning. Though the relational, innate property that is God’s self-incarnation finds itself occurring in a strong intrinsically necessary mode, the universe’s existence is both intrinsically contingent (and therefore extrinsically necessary)—and permanent in an extrinsically necessary mode—with regard to God; and extrinsically contingent—and permanent in an intrinsically necessary mode—with regard to the nothingness chronologically prior to the universe’s chronological start.


Grégoire Canlorbe is an independent scholar, based in Paris. Besides conducting a series of academic interviews with social scientists, physicists, and cultural figures, he has authored a number of metapolitical and philosophical articles. He also worked on a (currently finalized) conversation book with the philosopher, Howard Bloom. See his website:  gregoirecanlorbe.com.


Featured image: “Earthbound,” by Evelyn De Morgan, painted 1897.

On The Theology Of The Icon

Olivier Clément (1921-2009) was a French Orthodox theologian who actively engaged with modernity. This essay, which reviews a book about icons, was published in the journal Contacts in 1960. Contacts was founded by Clément in 1949. We are pleased to present the first English translation.


The Theology of the Icon (1960), by Leonid Uspensky, is a book that will be a milestone. On a hot topic and essential, because art becomes for many of our contemporaries a quest for the absolute, and because Christian art therefore directly questions our ability to confess and live our faith. Here is one of the first efforts at synthesis that is not primarily aesthetic, or philosophical, but fundamentally theological, in the full sense of the word that implies and requires contemplation. Moreover, it is the work not of a theorist but of one of the best iconographers of our time, who in collaboration with Fr. Gregory Croug, has just painted important frescoes, in the middle of Paris, in the new Cathédrale des Trois-Saints-Docteurs, Paris [5 rue Pétel, Paris (l5th arrondissement). I would simply like to take this work as a starting point to identify some fundamental themes in the theology of the icon.

The author reminds us first of all that the veneration of the holy images, the icons of Christ, the Virgin, the angels and the saints, is a dogma of the Christian faith, a dogma formulated by the 7th Ecumenical Council. The icon is therefore not a decorative element, nor even a simple illustration of Scripture. It is an integral part of the liturgy, it constitutes “a means of knowing God and uniting with him.” We know that the celebration of a feast requires that one exhibit in the middle of the nave the (transportable) icon that reveals, with the immediate evidence of vision, the meaning of the event that is being commemorated.

More widely, the whole church, with its architecture and its frescoes (or mosaics), represents in space what the liturgical unfolding represents in time: the reflection of the divine glory, the anticipation of the Messianic Realm. The liturgical word and the liturgical image form an indissociable whole—this medium of resonance, this “pneumatosphere” one could say, by which the Tradition makes present and alive the Good News. Thus, the icon corresponds to the Scripture not as an illustration, but in the same way that the liturgical texts correspond to it: “these texts do not limit themselves to reproducing the Scripture as such; they are as it were woven from it; by alternating and confronting its parts, they reveal its meaning, they indicate to us the means of living the evangelical preaching. The icon, by representing various moments of sacred history, visibly transmits their meaning and their vital significance. Thus, through the liturgy and through the icon, the Scripture lives in the Church and in each of its members” (pp. l64-l65).

The veneration of icons is thus an essential aspect of the liturgical experience, that is, of the contemplation of the Kingdom through the actions of the King. Although “veiled” and through faith, this contemplation is nevertheless lived by the whole being of man; it has the immediate character of sensation; it is a “sensation of divine things” realized by the total man. The Orthodox conception of the liturgy appears thus inseparable from the great certainties of the oriental asceticism on the transfiguration of the body begun here below, on the perception of the Taboric light by the spiritualized bodily senses; that is to say, not “dematerialized” but penetrated and metamorphosed by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy, in fact, sanctifying all the faculties of man, initiates the transfiguration of his senses, makes them capable of glimpsing the invisible through the visible, the Kingdom through the mystery.

The icon, stresses Leonid Ouspensky, sanctifies sight, and readily transforms it into a sense of vision: for God did not only make himself heard, he made himself seen; the glory of the Trinity was revealed through the flesh of the Son of Man. When we think of the importance of the sense of sight in modern man, how much he is torn apart, possessed, eroticized by the eyes, how much the flow of images of the big city makes him discontinuous, makes him a “man of nothingness,” one understands the importance of the icon, because the icon, systematically freed from any sensuality (unlike so many works, though admirable, of Western religious art), has for its goal to exorcise, to pacify, to illuminate our sight, to make us “fast with the eyes” according to the expression of Saint Dorotheus (quoted p. 2l0).

In our civilization of possession by the image, a Protestant friend wrote to me, the icon has become an emergency of the cure of souls. It was during the iconoclastic crisis, in the 8th and 9th centuries, that the Church had to clarify the meaning of the icon, and Leonid Ouspensky’s book is nourished by the doctrinal and conciliar texts of that time. Μonsieur Ouspensky devotes a brief chapter to iconoclasm, but it has the merit of going straight to what was essential for the antagonists: their religious motivations. Indeed, iconoclasm seems to be explained in depth by a violent surge of Semitic transcendentalism, by Jewish and Muslim influences that increased, in the Orthodox tradition, the sense of divine incognoscibility to the detriment of the sense of “Philanthropy” and of the Incarnation. “The argument of the iconoclasts about the impossibility of representing Christ was a pathetic attachment to the ineffable” (p. 152).

But iconoclasm was also a reaction against a sometimes-idolatrous cult of images, against the contamination of this cult by the magical οr theurgic notion (in the neo-Platonic sense of the word) which wanted the image to be more or less consubstantial with its model. Thus, the icon was confused with the Eucharist, and certain priests mixed with the holy gifts the pieces of particularly venerated icons. Thus were opposed in the Church the two great nοn-Christian conceptions of the divine that only the dogma of Chalcedon could reconcile: on the one hand, the God of a static Old Testament who would not be “evangelical preparation;” a personal God but enclosed in his transcendent Monad, a God whom οne cannot represent because οne cannot participate in His holiness. On the other hand, the divine as sacred nature; or, rather, as the sacredness of nature, the omnipresence of which all forms participate.

Orthodoxy overcame these two οpposed temptations by affirming the Christological foundation of the image and its strictly personal (and nοn-substantial) value.

It showed first of all that the image par excellence is Christ himself. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself through the Word; therefore, no one could have represented him without blasphemy. But the prohibition of Exodus (20:4) and Deuteronomy (5:12-19) constitutes a prefiguration “in depth” of the Incarnation—it sets aside the idol to make room for the face of God made man. For the unrepresentable Word became representable flesh: “when the Invisible One,” writes St. John Damascene, “having clothed himself in flesh, appeared visible, then represents the likeness of Him who showed himself…” (P.G. 94,1239). Christ is not only the Word of God but his Image. The Incarnation founds the icon and the icon proves the Incarnation.

For the Orthodox Church, the first and fundamental icon is therefore the face of Christ. As Leonid Ouspensky suggests, Christ is par excellence the image made by man—this is the deep meaning of the tradition taken up by the liturgy, according to which the Lord printed on a cloth his Holy Face. Ouspensky interprets in a literal way the liturgical texts telling of Christ’s sending to the king of Edessa a letter and the veil (mandilion) on which he imprinted his face. Would it not be better, since the letter to Agbar is obviously a forgery, to identify the symbolic meaning of this episode, as the Church has been able, for example, to authenticate the testimony, but not the historicity, of the Areopagitic writings?

Let us say then that the historical memory of the face of Jesus was preciously kept by the Church, first of all in the Holy Land and in the Semitic countries which surround it. It is a fact that all the icons of Christ give the impression of a fundamental resemblance. Not a photographic resemblance, but the presence of the same person, and of a divine Person who reveals himself to each one in a unique way (some Greek Fathers, starting from the evangelical accounts of the apparitions of the Risen One, have underlined this plurality, in the unity, of the aspects of the glorious Christ). The resemblance here is inseparable from an encounter, from a communion: there is only one Holy Face, whose historical memory the Church has preserved (renewed from generation to generation by the vision of the great spiritualists), and as many Holy Faces as there are iconographers (or even as many moments in the mystical life of an iconographer). The human face of God is inexhaustible, and keeps for us, as Denys underlined, an apophatic character: face of faces and face of the Inaccessible…

Ouspensky emphasizes, with a large number of beautiful reproductions, that the image has existed since the earliest times of Christianity, and that the art of the catacombs, which is an art of the sign, sometimes offers, alongside pure symbols and allegorical representations, an undeniable concern for personal likeness. However, sanctity is then designated by a conventional language rather than symbolized by the artistic expression itself: it was in the third and especially in the fourth century that this incorporation of content into form, characteristic of properly iconographic art, began.

ΙΙ would be fascinating, for a history of meanings, to study to what extent this evolution of Christian art coincided with the transformation of Hellenistic art into the “art of the eternal,” in the sense that Malraux gives to this expression, and to what extent it differed from it; for the “art of the eternal” impersonalizes while the icon personalizes… If therefore the image that belongs to the very nature of Christianity, and if the icon par excellence is that of Christ, Image of the Father, this one, inaccessible abyss, cannot be directly represented: He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus (John 14.9). The 7th Ecumenical Council and the Great Council of Moscow of 1666-1667 formally forbade the representation of God the Father. As for the Holy Spirit, He showed himself as a dove and tongues of fire; only in this way is He be painted. Couldn’t we also say that the presence of the Holy Spirit is symbolized by the very light of every icon? Let us recall, although Ouspensky does not mention it, probably reserving this theme for the second volume of his work, that the “rhythm” of the Trinity, its diversity as one, is expressed by the Philoxenia (hospitality) of Abraham receiving the three angels, these Three of whom Rublev knew how to paint, with colors that seem like a mother-of-pearl of eternity; the mysterious movement of love that identifies them without confusing them…

If the Old Testament prohibition was lifted by and for Christ, it was also lifted for his Mother, and for his friends, for the members of his Body, for all those who, in the Holy Spirit, participate in his deified flesh.

However, in order to cut-short the accusations and confusions of the iconoclasts, as well as the abuses of certain Orthodox, the Church has vigorously emphasized that the icon is not consubstantial with its prototype: the icon of Christ does not duplicate the Eucharist; it inaugurates the vision face to face. By representing the deified humanity of its prototype (which implies a transfigured but resembling “portrait” element), it is a person, not a substance that the icon brings forth. In an eschatological perspective, it suggests the true face of man; his face of eternity; this secret face that God contemplates in us and that our vocation consists in realizing.

If it is possible for human art to suggest the sanctified flesh of Christ and his people, it is because the very material used by the iconographer has been secretly sanctified by the Incarnation. The art of the icons uses and, in a certain way, manifests this sanctification of the material. “I do not adore matter,” wrote St. John Damascene, “but I adore the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake… and who, through matter, made my salvation” (P.G. 94, 1245).

Obviously, however, the representation of the light that transfigures a face can only be symbolic. But it is the irreducible originality of Christian art that the symbol is placed at the service of the human face and serves to express the fullness of personal existence.

The Hindu or Tibetan mandala, to take a theme made fashionable by depth psychology, is the geometrical symbol of a resorption in the center. What one might call an Orthodox mandala—for example a square nave surmounted by a dome- has for its center the Pantocrator, and unites us to a personal presence…

This is why Ouspensky cannot be praised enough for having highlighted the iconographic decisions of the Quinisext Council (692) which ordered to replace the symbols of the first Christian art—especially the Lamb—by the direct representation of what they prefigured: the human face transfigured by the divine energy, and first of all the face of Christ. The Quinisext Council triumphantly put an end to the prehistory of Christian art, a prehistory that revealed the Christ-like meaning of all the sacred symbols of humanity, “figures and shadows… sketches given in view of the Church.” The true symbolism of Christian art now appears as the way of representing the human person in the perspective of the Kingdom. This is why, as Ouspensky shows, the symbolism of the icon is based on the experience of Orthodox mysticism, as a personal “appropriation” of the glorious Body (appropriation by participated grace, that is to say, by de-appropriation of all egocentrism). The immense eyes, of a softness without brilliance, the reduced ears, as if interiorized, the fine and pure lips, the wisdom of the dilated forehead, everything indicates a being pacified, illuminated by grace. Let us mention in this connection a text by Palamas, recently translated by Jean Meyendorff. Ouspensky does not quote it, but he could without difficulty add it to his file of ascetic quotations: it is necessary, therefore, to offer to God the passionate part of the soul, living and acting, so that it may be a living sacrifice; the Apostle said this even of our bodies: I exhort you, he says in fact, by the mercy of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God (Rom. 12:Ι). How can our living body be offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God? When our eyes are gentle, as it is written, “He who is gentle will be forgiven” (Prov. 12:13); when they attract and transmit to us mercy from above; when our ears are attentive to the divine teachings, not only to hear them, but, as David says, “to remember the commandments of God in order to fulfill them” (Ps 102 (103), 18); when our tongue, our hands and our feet are at the service of the divine will (Triads Louvain 1959, p. 364). Ιt is a sacrifice of God (p. 364).

It would be particularly important to compare this iconographic expression of the transfiguration of the senses with the lakshanas of Buddhist art, which also designate through a distortion of the sense organs, the state of “deliverance.” An analysis of the similarities and differences would be very significant. Let us confine ourselves to a few suggestions: in the icon, the symbol is at the service of the face. It expresses the accomplishment of the human face through encounter and communion. It suggests an interiority where transcendence is given without ceasing to be inaccessible. In Buddhist art, the face is identified with the symbol; it abolishes itself as a human face by becoming a symbol of an interiority where there is neither self nor the Other but an unspeakable nothing. In both cases, the face is surrounded by a nimbus: but the Christian face is in the light like iron in the fire; the Buddhist face becomes spherical, dilates, identifies itself with the luminous sphere that the nimbus symbolizes. In the icon, the treatment of the senses suggests their transfiguration by grace. The lakshanas, on the other hand, symbolize powers of clairvoyance and clear hearing through the excessive enlargement of the sense organs, the ears for example. Finally, the Christian face looks on and welcomes, while the Buddhist non face, with closed eyes, meditates.

This Christian concern for welcome, for communion, explains why the saints, on the icons, are almost always represented from the front: open to the one who looks at them, they draw him into prayer, because they are themselves praying; and the icon shows this. Light and peace penetrate and order their attitudes, their clothes, the atmosphere that surrounds them. Around them animals, plants, rocks are stylized according to their paradisiacal essence. The architectures become a surrealist game, an evangelical challenge to the heavy seriousness of this world, to the false security of the architectures of the earth…

The word abstraction never emerges from the pen of Ouspensky; but one cannot help but think of it when he speaks of symbolism οr stylization. There is in the icon an abstraction which leads to a higher figuration, an abstraction which is dead to this world and which allows the inter-vision of the world to come. The icon abstracts according to the Logos creator and re-creator of the universe and not according to the individual, fallen, ultimately destructive logos… The abstraction of the icon is the cross of our carnal look. Its realism is Taboric and eschatological: it announces and already manifests the only definitive reality—that of the Kingdom.

The light of the icon symbolizes the divine light, and the theology of the icon appears inseparable from the distinction in God of essence and energies: it is the divine energy, the uncreated light that the icon suggests to us. In an icon, the light does not come from a precise focus, because the celestial Jerusalem, says the Apocalypse, “does not need the sun and the moon, it is the glory of God that illuminates it” (Rev. 21:23). It is everywhere, in everything, without casting a shadow: it shows us that in the Kingdom God himself becomes light for us. In fact, notes Ouspensky, it is the very background of the icon that iconographers call “light.”

The author has remarkable lines on the “reverse” or “inverted” perspective: in most icons, the lines do not converge towards a “vanishing point,” sign of the fallen space that separates and imprisons; they dilate in the light “from glory to glory.” Could we not speak here of iconographic epectasis, epectasis designating precisely, in St. Gregory of Nyssa, this infinite dilation in the light of the Kingdom? Οne understands that the exercise of such art constitutes a charismatic ministry. The Orthodox Church venerates “holy iconographers” whom Ouspensky brings closer to the “apostolic men” of whom Saint Symeon the New Theologian remains the main spokesman. The “apostolic man” is the one who receives the personal graces promised by Christ to the apostles: not only does he heal souls and bodies and discern spirits, but, like St. Paul, he hears ineffable words; like St. John he has the mission to tell what he has seen (Revelation, as we know, means Revelation). In the same way the “holy iconographer” really glimpses the Kingdom and paints what he has glimpsed. Every iconographer who paints “according to tradition” participates in this exceptional contemplation, both through the liturgical experience and through the communion of saints. This is why the icon painter does not paint in a subjective, individual psychological way, but according to tradition and vision. Painting is for him inseparable from faith, from life in the Church, from a personal ascetic effort.

The Fathers insisted a lot on the pedagogical value of the icon. In fact, as Ouspensky shows all the history of the dogma is registered in the iconography. However, the value of the icon is not only pedagogical, it is mysterious. The divine grace rests in the icon. It is there the essential point, the most mysterious also of its theology: the “resemblance” to the prototype and its “name” make the objective holiness of the image. The icon,” writes St. John Damascene, “is sanctified by the name of God and by the name of the friends of God, that is to say, the saints, and that is why it receives the grace of the divine Spirit” (P.G. 94,1300). Ouspensky limits himself to posing this essential affirmation; he does not seek—at least not yet—the foundations of it. Ιt is necessary to recall here, to take up a suggestion of Μonsieur Evdokimov, the whole biblical conception of the Name as a personal presence, a conception which is also implied in the Hesychast invocation of the Name of Jesus (let us think of the power of this Name in the Book of Acts). The icon names by form and by color; it is a represented name: this is why it makes present to us a prototype whose holiness is communion; that is to say, offered presence, interceding… Like the name, the icon is the means of an encounter that makes us participate in the holiness of the One we meet; that is to say, in the end, in the holiness of the “Only Holy One”.

Ouspensky also offers us an important chapter on the “symbolism of the church.” An entire church must be an icon of the Kingdom. According to the ancient Apostolic Institutions, it must be oriented (for the East symbolizes the eternal daybreak and the Christian, says St. Basil, must always, wherever he prays, turn towards the East); it must evoke a ship (for it is, on the waters of death, the ark of the Resurrection); it must have three doors to suggest the Trinity, the principle of all its life. The altar is located in the eastern apse, slightly elevated—symbol of the Holy Mountain, the Upper Room—and called par excellence, the “sanctuary.” The altar represents Christ himself (Dionysius the Areopagite), the “heart” of Christ whose body the church represents (Nicholas Cabasilas). Ιt is perhaps regrettable, in this connection, that Ouspensky did not use, in order to study the symbolism of the sanctuary, Cabasilas’ “Life in Christ,” and the corresponding studies of Madame Lot-Borodin… The altar is the heart of the whole building; it loves it and sanctifies it. The “sanctuary” that surrounds it, reserved for the clergy, is sometimes compared to the “holy of holies” of the Tabernacle and the Temple of the Old Covenant. It is the “heaven of heavens” (Saint Symeon of Thessalonica), “the place where Christ, King of all things, is enthroned with the apostles” (Saint Germain of Constantinople), as is, in his image, the bishop with his “presbyterium.”

An eschatological vessel, the “nave”, often surmounted by a dome, represents the new creation, the universe reunited in Christ with its creator, just as the nave is united to the sanctuary: “The sanctuary,” writes Saint Maximus the Confessor, “illuminates and directs the nave, and the latter thus becomes its visible expression. Such a relationship restores the normal order of the universe, overthrown by the fall of man; it therefore restores what was in Paradise and will be in the Kingdom of God” (P.G. 91-872). Οne might ask if the union of the dome and the square does not repeat, in a vertical mode, this descent of heaven to earth, this theandric mystery of the Church…

Ouspensky does not pose the problem of the iconostasis, no doubt reserving to return to it in the second, as yet unpublished, part of his work. We know that the sanctuary was separated from the nave, until the end of the Middle Ages only by a very low chancel, a kind of balustrade in the middle of which stood, preceding the altar, the triumphal arch, a true door of life before which the faithful receive communion (these are today our “royal doors”). But, from the 15th and 16th centuries, as Orthodoxy, in a secularized world, closed in on its sense of mystery, the chancel was replaced by a high partition covered with icons: the iconostasis. The paintings of the iconostasis represent the total Church, one through time as well as through spiritual spaces. The angels, the apostles, the martyrs, the Fathers and all the saints are arranged on either side of a central composition that surmounts the Royal Doors, the Deesis (intercession) representing the Virgin and the Baptist interceding on either side of Christ in majesty.

Frescoes and mosaics normally cover almost the entire interior of the church. If Ouspensky does not speak of the iconostasis, he lists the main themes of this wall decoration. One is struck by their theological depth which gives an organic character to the overall symbolism of the building. In the apse of the sanctuary, it is the whole mystery of the Eucharist, “sacrament of the sacraments”: below, the communion of the apostles which evokes the memorial; on the vault, the Pentecost, evoking the divine response to the epiclesis; between the two, the Virgin in prayer, figure of the Church (her arms are raised like those of the priest), pointing to Christ, our High Priest, himself a sacrifice and a sacrificer… The decoration of the nave recapitulates the theandric unity of the Church: in the center of the dome, the Pantocrator, source of the heaven of glory that descends to envelop all, bless all and transfigure all. He is surrounded by the prophets and apostles. At the four corners of the square bearing the dome, the four evangelists. On the columns, the column-men: martyrs, holy bishops, “apostolic men.” On the walls, the great moments of the Gospel.

Orthodox iconography has experienced a late but profound decadence, in Russia from the seventeenth century, in Greece in the nineteenth. Ouspensky vituperates, with a purifying violence, the jumble of mediocre images which too often clutter the Orthodox churches and most of which constitute, under the label of icons “of Italian taste,” distressing by-products of what is most questionable in the religious art of the modern West. (About this art, one could notice, not without malice, that Ouspensky has chosen as a counterpart to the icons he reproduces, the blandest productions of Italian and Spanish “mannerism.” It is perhaps a good pedagogy to bring out the specificity of Orthodox sacred art. It is certainly not a valid approach to evaluate from an Orthodox point of view Western art, sacred οr “profaned”—an urgent evaluation which has yet to be done).

The fact remains that it is not a question of taste but of faith. This is why we must thank Leonid Ouspensky for having so vigorously specified the theological and liturgical foundations of the Orthodox icon. This article would like to be nothing else than a testimony of gratitude and above all an invitation to the reader: whoever loves icons not as an aesthete but as a man of prayer, must read this book, which is a great book.


Featured image: “Theotokos Deesis,” Mount Athos, 14th century.