Why Is There Islamic Violence?

What is the connection between Islam and violence? Few ask this question, that is, among those who still have the right to speak in this institutionalized world, whether secular or religious. More often than not, this question is avoided by denying that Islamic tradition and the Koran have actually justified violence for fourteen-hundred years. Or, the question is drowned in a flood of platitudes – all those magical calls for peace in which some Muslims are invited to participate (with sincerity or not, it does not matter) – calls which change nothing.

First Consideration: The Manipulation of Islamic Violence

All this has been going on for fifty years now, as explained by an ex-Leftist who saw the light – the former journalist, Yves Mamou, who has just published, Le Grand Abandon. Les élites françaises et l’islamisme (“The Great Abandonment: French Elites and Islamism”), in which he lists the various French collaborators with Islam: “In the end, I realized that I had put together a directory of power in France. Almost all the political parties, the great bodies of the State, the justice system, the universities, the experts, the artists and the centers of culture, the media – all were on the side of the Islamists. Even the Catholic Church was alongside the Islamists.” Of course, we cannot share Mamou’s conclusion, but his book is very important.

The word, “Islamism,” in the title of the book is chosen by design. Properly speaking, there really is not an “Islamization” of Europe that we are witnessing. If that really were the case, as the Algerian blogger, Aldo Sterone, has observed, then there should be mosques in Europe representing all the trends and movements within Islam. Rather, what is happening in the West should be called, “Islamitization,” for despite ethnic or national diversity, almost all mosques are under the umbrella of the international Islamist organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is regarded as a terrorist outfit in several Muslim countries (Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, although this does not stop Saudi Arabia from funding mosques throughout the world).

All the while, the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Turkey. The elite media hides the true nature of Islamist totalitarian tyranny in present-day Turkey. Ever since the shoddy attempt to eliminate Erdogan in 2016, 55,000 people have been arrested and 140,000 sacked or suspended; 4,395 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed; 2,281 private institutions closed, including 15 universities; 19 unions suspended and nearly 2,000 people sentenced to life imprisonment. Arrests and convictions continue. Further, the Muslim Brotherhood is perfectly tolerated in the West, actively collaborating with Washington, in particular under former President Obama (and everyone already knows about the deep links of the Bush family with Bin Laden).

In contrast, there is the law signed by President Trump on December 11, 2018, which defines the crimes carried out by jihadists against Christians and Yazidis, in Iraq and in Syria, as genocide. Such a law now requires the American government to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes and authorizes governmental or private aid to the victims, including Syrians who earlier had been excluded because of the embargo of 2004 (an embargo which was the first act of war against the Republic of Syria).

What therefore emerges is a massive collaboration between globalist and Islamist elites – a collaboration which also excludes all those that oppose them. How and why?

Briefly (because this is not the decisive aspect of Islamic violence), violence is a tool for the various powers in place, Muslim or not, who have little interest in the welfare of populations, only in their subjugation or submission (which is precisely the meaning of the word, “Islam”). To put it another way, violence is very useful, especially as terrorism, through which the powers in place come to dominate civil society. It is not by accident that Western secret services, and their client states, created and now support jihadist organizations. The British MI5 brought about the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s; the CIA created the Taliban in Afghanistan, long before the invasion of that country by the Soviet Union. Then the CIA created Al-Qaeda, then the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh), then Al-Nusra, and so on.

It is not without reason that President Sissi of Egypt warned young people not to be enticed by Islamism when visiting the West: “You want to go there with your culture which you consider non-negotiable. You say, this is who we are and you must accept us as such because of human rights. No. If you visit a country as a guest, you must fully respect its laws, customs, traditions, and culture.” Al-Sissi even defended the right of any country welcoming migrants to “protect its people,” while “respecting human rights, in a framework that preserves its national interests.” President Al-Sissi was addressing young people at a forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, on December 13, 2018. He knew that the worst jihadist criminals in Syria were the young people indoctrinated in the West (with full complicity of elected politicians).

But people are now catching on and all this is starting to be known and understood, especially in France, despite the control of the media and censorship. The uniqueness of France, as a civil society that has not yet been annihilated, is something that many are waking up to, although it is already late, no thanks to the Church. In fact, has the Church in the West become so very incapable of bringing people to God – that Western people now go searching for God in Islam and other religions?

The phenomenon unfolding before us is this – civil society is confronted by the ruling elites who want to enslave it (and, in effect, destroy it). This is the true origin of the spontaneous movement of the Yellow-Vests (the gilets jaunes). But this phenomenon is not particular to France, or even to the West – it has arisen in all parts of the world, including in countries where Islam is the state religion. Such a confrontation is the reason why this civil movement has been embraced everywhere. Manipulation by the elite is certainly the initial explanation for the existence of Islamic violence, and its terroristic aspect.

But this is also not the fundamental explanation – for how is it that Islamic violence fits so well with some of the games of geostrategic domination? Why Islam? Or more precisely, why Muslims and Islamists in particular? Are they better able to be manipulated and used (they certainly are not alone in that regard)?

The Deciding Factor – The Truncated Hope Of An Ideal World

For answers to these questions, some turn to the Koran, because this book supposedly fell out of the sky. Indeed, if a book advocates violence (at least as a means to an end) and is held to be divine, one faces a huge problem, reaching down into the very bedrock of religious psychology (for what God wants must be done). This is likely the initial response. However, serious Islamologists know that the Koran has a long and complex history. Thus, it is important to understand the historical and cultural context in which this book was fabricated. If violence is advocated and also encouraged (and the Sira, or biography of Muhammad elaborates further: massacres, rapes, robberies, deception and ruses, etc.) – what is its end goal? If the objectives pursued imply the domination of the world and the elimination of everything that is not Islamic (the annihilation of the Other, as Claude Lévy-Strauss said in Tristes tropiques), what is all that for?

Possessing an innate theological sense, ordinary people understand the ultimate goal, which is to realize on earth a model of the ideal society that God supposedly wants (which has nothing to do with Plato’s political dreams). In this model, the will of God is supposedly known by the rulers, personified by the Khalifa (thanks to the Koran and the Sunnah), who must comply with divine will and convert the totality of mankind to obey it (down to the smallest details of daily life), the imposition of Shariah. This is the great Muslim Cause, the source of Islamic violence.

Below the rulers are the rest of the Muslims (men) , who must be mukallaf, that is, militants, devoted body and soul to the Cause and always obeying the Khalifa (upon pain of death). Below the men are Muslim women, who must be subject to men, otherwise the men risk being diverted from the Cause (see, Koran 64.14, a verse often overlooked). A Muslim can take a Christian or Jewish woman, but only on the condition that he control her judiciously. The children of such a union are to be Muslims.

Below the Muslim women are non-Muslims, Jews and Christians, who are provisionally tolerated. Finally, at the very bottom are the mass of other men, namely, slaves, or those who must be made invisible (those whose existence is a heavy weight upon the earth).

Curiously, there is hardly a theologian (Catholic or Protestant) who opposes this radical character of Islamic totalitarian thought, which evokes a pyramidal shape, but which is far more than that. Was it really so very difficult to find this same type of thinking in other ideological systems, by way of historical ties of kinship? At the end of his life, the theologian Henri de Lubac looked at this question in his last book entitled, La postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore (The Spiritual Posterity of Joachim de Flore). Of course, Lubac does not speak about Islam; but he does show that the idea of ​​a New Era which is to be built in order to fulfill the will of God on earth is explicit in the West at least since the twelfth century, and that it then led to genocides and modern concentration camps. We know that Joachim de Flore, a true heretic, was considered a saint in Rome by certain cardinals (who willingly saw themselves as ministers of the coming Universal Kingdom). Such a totalitarian idea obviously did not suddenly appear one day out of the blue – it already had in a long history. And it did not appear suddenly in the seventh century with Islam. Where did this fundamentally mistaken idea come from?

This fundamental error took shape at the end of the first century AD, among ex-Judeo-Christians, who had renounced the teaching of the Apostles. The error consists in truncating the promises of Revelation – and in particular those of Jesus when He called Himself the “Son of Man” – promises which concern the establishment of the reign of God upon the earth, after the Glorious Return of Jesus, and after the “Judgment” uniquely associated with it. And not before. The difference is crucial – the conditions of life will no longer be the same after. The manifestation of the Coming or Glorious Presence will bring about a communion of the willing, which renders any pyramidal system useless (which is only fabricated for coercion).

The way in which human beings will be organized no doubt will be diverse, each according to condition and ability. Pondering all this should have been the work of theologians, had theology (Western) not been so thoroughly damaged by playing with ideas and moral precepts that precisely sought to bring about a human project, that is, seeking to establish a society or life which was reminiscent of certain aspects of the pyramidal. This is what is known as “Augustinism,” a hardened and ideologized form of Augustine’s thought (mainly at the end of his life), which was developed by the thinkers of the Middle Ages. It gradually fashioned occidental theology to its ultimate self-destructive consequences in the twentieth-century. Losing all ability to question the world (which can only happen if you do not lose sight of the Glorious Return), such theology fell into empty and nonsensical atheism, which was then polished up as “spirituality” and good intentions, and which can now no longer be concealed. You cannot amputate Revelation with impunity.

And the alibi of this amputation lies in the confusion systematically maintained of what comes “before” the Glorious Return and what comes “after.” Worse, those who refuse to think about what comes “after” the Glorious Return are the very same ones who a few years ago announced the coming of universal socialism and who have now been recycled today as the “multireligious,” which is just one aspect of multiculturalist ideology, which is supposed to bring peace on earth.

These successors of Joachim de Flore and of the totalitarianisms of the twentieth-century are the same ones who admire Islam(ism). This is only logical. If, in relation to the promises of the Glorious Coming, you replace the proposition “after” with “before,” you become the propagator (always sectarian) of any politico-religious ideology pretending to bring about these promises. Of course, the Magisterium of Rome has condemned these projects of an ideal society before the Glorious Coming, but it has done so, without the necessary explanations. If you do not explain the perversion of flipping “after” to “before,” condemnation serves no purpose whatsoever.

This flipping, moreover, obscures a given of Revelation which (and without understanding it) the Muslims have preserved (alongside the fact that they are waiting for the Coming, but materially not Glorious, of Jesus) – and that given we are speaking of is the question of the Anti-Christ. This is not a point of detail; it goes to the very heart of Revelation and gives it coherence. The question of the anti-Christ has recently been clarified by the theologian Françoise Breynaert, in her learned and impressive book, La Venue glorieuse du Christ: Véritable espérance pour le monde (The Glorious Coming of Christ: True Hope of the World).

In a word, this book speaks of salvation, not so much the narrow personal future of each person (in the individualist and Augustinian sense of “I have obtained my salvation and the world can perish”) – but in the sense where the world itself is called to participate in the glory of the children of God. This book must be widely read. And this book helps us walk away from Augustinism, which has amputated the theology of the Latin Church for many long centuries.

Rediscovering Revelation

At the end of September 2018, the Mission Congress was held in Paris, which brought together various Christian communities as well as Christian groups in France (Catholic, with an ecumenical bent). The get-together was powerful spiritually (as well as in acoustics and sound). On Saturday afternoon, there was a round-table on Islamic issues, with Samuel Pruvot, a journalist, who served as president. He was flanked by two brave Muslims who opposed Islamism (one of them was a municipal councillor), as well as a philosopher.

What the four of them said can be summarized in this way: That the French nation has great integrating power, which only needs the schools to play their role (along with all the other institutions), and soon Muslims will be proud to be French. Anyway, the four of them recognized that their hope (which might have been meaningful fifty years ago) was disconnected from reality. It would have been far better if they had not spoiled such a precious coming together of so many young people and had let these young people to listen to the Word of God speak about building the future. You cannot better illustrate the disconnect that exists in the Church between human discourse and one that takes faith into account.

And above all, if you want to dialogue with Muslims, it is imperative to understand what it is that they have in their heads and in their hearts. Certainly, the hope of the world conforming to the will of God is legitimate, provided it is placed after the Glorious Coming and Judgment Day. Indeed, it is possible to address these issues in the context of the well-known Muslim prayer, the Fatiha (Surah 1 of the Koran). And this necessary dialogue therefore must be done by understanding what lies at the heart of Islamic conviction. Such a dialogue may also address the secular minded, provided that such a mind is even open to such a dialogue. A fifty-page booklet has taken up this challenge (Canevas On the Method of Deradicalization In A Secular Setting Which Also Takes Faith Itself Into Account). It shall certainly inspire others.

For Christians, the will of God has meaning only in an outlook of faith which, on the one hand, views as the starting point the creative act of God, and on the other, the destiny of the created to ultimately enter into His Glory (except those who oppose it, for the Glory of God implies the freedom of His creatures). Therein lies the key. It is this God that Christians have to proclaim to Muslims (and to all men).

Translated from the French by Father Edouard-Marie and N. Dass.

Theologian and Islamologist, Father Edouard-Marie Gallez is the author of Le messie et son prophète (The Messiah and His Prophet), published in Paris in 2005 (and awaiting an English translation), which is an 1100 -page study that reconnects the origins of Islam to factual history by showing that the Koran and Islamic legends developed gradually over time. This study paved the way of current research into early Islam. For more information, see http://rootsofislamtruehistory.com and http://thegreatsecretofislam.com. Father Edouard-Marie also participates in research groups on early Christianity and its influence.

The photo shows, “The Bulgarian Martyresses,” by Konstantin Makovsky, painted in 1877.

Prayer As Erotic Language

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role.

For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “A Woman Praying,” by John Phillip, painted ca. 1860s.

A Long Defeat: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).

History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. The scientific concept of evolution (please do not jump on me for mentioning the subject) only suggests that there is a change in living things and that the change is driven by adaptation and the survival of those adaptations that are generally advantageous. If such a theory is granted, it says nothing about the direction of the process nor about the process as improvement or progress. That “evolve” has come to mean “change for the better” is a purely ideological assumption with no warrant in science.

But the metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought.

But Tolkien’s sentiment bears deeper examination. For not only does it reject the notion of progress, it embraces a narrative of the “long defeat.” Of course this is not a reference to steady declining standards of living, or the movement from IPhone 5 back to IPhone 4 (perish the thought!). It is rather the narrative of Scripture, first taught by the Apostles themselves, clearly reflecting a Dominical teaching:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:1-13)

 This is Tolkien’s warrant for the “long defeat.”

 And the thought is not that we wake up one day and people are suddenly boasters, proud, blasphemers, etc. Rather, “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.

 This is not a pessimistic streak within Orthodox Christianity. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That war was not “the war to end all wars.” It has rather been the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). But the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Gift of Galadriel,” by the Hildebrandt brothers, painted in 1977.

The Moral of Jephthah

In the darkest chapter of the darkest book of the Old Testament, there is a tale about a barbarous man named Jephthah. Born as the bastard son of a harlot, Jephthah was shunned by his brethren. He and his brothers were of the Gileadite clan, under the Israelite tribe of Manasseh. 

Ostracized by his people, “Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob” in the untamed countryside. Savage and vain men rallied around Jephthah and formed a band under him.

Meanwhile, trouble brewed in the nearby lands of the heathens. The Ammonites were honouring their god, Moloch, through the sacrifice of their own children by hurling them into the fiery pit of his wicked altar. These practices were despised by the children of Israel. After all, God had sent an angel to stop Abraham from sacrificing his only son, Isaac, who later begot Jacob, the father of the Israelites. 

The day came when the Ammonites made war against the people of Israel, releasing chaos across the land. Since in those days there was no king of Israel, the Gileadites sought a שׁוֹפֵט‎‎ šōp̄ḗṭ (judge / deliverer / chief) to save them. The elders of Gilead called upon Jephthah to be their captain. 

And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, “Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father’s house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?”

And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, “Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”

 “If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your chief?” asked Jephthah.

The elders of Gilead made a vow to Jephthah before God that if he rescued the people from the heathens, then he would be made chief. Jephthah accepted. 

From out of the wilderness, Jephthah unleashed his savage bands and rallied the Israelites against the children of Ammon. Although the tides turned against the foreign foe, the Ammonites held out in the land of Aroer; where the stage for a decisive battle was set. 

On that day Jephthah vowed unto the LORD God of Israel. He promised that if God granted him victory, then upon his homecoming, he would sacrifice whatever came out from the doors of his house to God and / or as a burnt offering. 

God heard the champion and answered his prayers. And so Jephthah smote the jaws of the wicked and snatched the spoils from their teeth, bestowing the stolen lands back to the people. 

But as the chief approached the gates of his homeland in triumph, his daughter rushed out the double doors to greet her victorious father. And so, the splendid homecoming gave way to misfortune because Jephthah had vowed that he would sacrifice whatever came first from the doors of his house. 

Bound by his word to the LORD God, Jephthah sacrificed his gentle daughter unto the LORD. 

In doing so, Jephthah had become what he had sought to destroy. In his attempt to banish the practices of child sacrifice from the land, he fell prey to the very same practice. Jephthah’s story is the darkest chapter of the Book of Judges because Israel has fallen so low that even in “victory” they have found themselves in defeat. 

Are we not now in the time of Judges? Have we not forsaken Truth to do what “is right in our own eyes?” In the wasteland of popular opinion, we find Moloch’s maxim chiseled in stone, to “seek only the convenience of self-preservation in the present; all else is expendable.” As means of our own survival, we sacrifice the future of our children to the altar of our idols.

As we idolize the present above a righteous future, do not our children pay the price? And what shall we trade for their inheritance? Our inflated wealth for the yoke of debt around their necks? Our plastic conveniences for their polluted seas? The presentism of our lives in exchange for the livelihoods of their future? Is their slavery worth the cost of our freedom?

And who will be our champion–our Jephthah–against the presentism of our generation? Who will judge us? Who will deliver us from the tribes of men who sacrifice their children? 

Beware we do not sacrifice our own children in the attempt to return to the ways of our fathers; or else all will be lost. For this reason, it is the counter-reformation that we must fear most of all. When our defenders speak of “reconstruction,” we must beware the word’s inherent double entendre. On the one hand, they may mean to rebuild the traditions we once had. On the other hand, they may try to construct a new city, with our old ways left in ruins and our children forgotten by the wayside. 

The photo shows, “Jephthah’s Daughter,” by Walter Duncan.

Postmodern Understandings of Language and Power – Explanations and Refutations

Can language express truth? Can language give us a clear picture of reality?

Discussing Postmodernism has become almost prosaic given the intellectual climate of the 2010s. However, it has posed questions which directly challenge the most classical assertions of how we understand the world around us. For that alone it is worth responding to. 

Postmodernism also remains relevant because much of current thinking is rooted in Postmodern ideas. This goes beyond just academic circles: it is easy to catch Postmodern ideas in everyday discourse. Nothing is unusual about hearing someone retort in an argument “Well, that’s subjective,” or if they are more well versed and a little bolder “That’s just interpretation, there’s never really any one meaning.” 

These ideas originate from Postmodern language theory in particular. What is referred to as “Postmodernism” refers to a specific idea of language and how it functions. These ideas were shaped by numerous thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s: most popularly through French thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who took the core ideas on language and related them to concepts of power, oppression, and freedom. 

A critique of language of all things may appear benign and simply technical at first, but the challenge undermines confidence in our ability to have knowledge and the possibility of truth. Let us explore both, but first I will need to explain the Postmodern understanding of language which I have been alluding to. I do warn that in discussing “Postmodernism” that there is a risk in generalization. The term remains elusive and the various thinkers who are characterized as Postmodern are not totally unified in their views. I will stick to explaining the broadly agreed upon problems Postmodern thinkers find in language and dabble with some responses.

Postmodern theories of language challenge the belief that language provides a stable way of understanding the world. When you use language, you are partaking in the act of representing things in the world through concepts. This does not have to be simply through speech, when you are thinking or simply identifying an object you are representing the world through language. If you are for instance looking at a red apple, you will have the corresponding thought “That is a red apple,” which frames the experience and allows you to understand it. In that case, language is being used to formulate a claim which represents something out there in the world, namely that the apple is there and that it has the characteristic of “redness”. “There” is used to represent a concept of space–namely where the object is–and “red” is used to represent a concept of colour. Real things are therefore represented with concepts in language. 

Postmodern language theories argue that this sort of linear connection between language and objects in the world is fallacious and that, in fact, these kinds of representations are unstable. Instead of language being an accurate link to understanding reality, it is a product of culture and social circumstances. Therefore, representations and language are more indicative of culture rather than an objective reality. 

The argument is that all human thought is done through language and that language has an intrinsic “messiness” to it. It relies on words and signs which Postmodernists claim can have countless meanings and interpretation. Without unified meanings Postmodernists argue that it becomes impossible to have singular representations of things in the world, meaning there is a large degree of interpretation to what is deemed reality–therefore, reality is never separated from a subject. 

Language having a cultural dimension also poses a challenge. Since, in this view, meaning is framed by the culture which creates it, what language can express about reality is structured by the types of discourses and meaning which is possible with the ideas of that culture. What Postmodernists are arguing is that the ideas of a culture limit what language can say about reality.

If true, this has significant implications, because every human body of knowledge (“epistemology”) has relied on the intuition that language can at least roughly represent reality. Without that foundational assumption, it is impossible to make any claims about the world or have any form of understanding–consequently defeating the possibility of having knowledge entirely.

To the Postmodernist, classical accounts of truth–like that of Plato’s–which use language via propositional logic, or other bodies of knowledge which rely on the experiential, reason, or narrative cannot tell us anything about the world, due to their use of language. The strong Postmodernist must therefore reject science, history, and philosophy, as they attempt to rationalize the world using language.

This is synonymous with the Postmodern rejection of “totalizing” narratives, also abbreviated as meta-narratives. We will return to this, as it is linked with Postmodern views of freedom and what is dubbed the “domination of language.”

If language cannot tell us anything about reality, then how can we understand the world? 

The answer is that social construction is the prime shaper of reality. This means that, in a Postmodern paradigm, it is impossible to separate reality from the experience of a subject rooted in social-cultural circumstances. Instead, reality is something which is interpreted and must be represented, so it cannot possibly be understood objectively. The world is therefore quite literally constructed out of how it is represented by a culture throughlanguage. Language and culture are seen to shape our notion of reality to such a degree that it is impossible to understand reality outside of them. 

This is why history is deemed an impossible pursuit in a Postmodern context. The argument is that the cultures and, therefore, the languages of the past and present are so different that they become alien to each other. The modern historian is detached from the framework with which people of the past understood the world–i.e.: their meanings and language. Because of this, it becomes impossible for a modern historian to truly understand the past. 

Ideas such as truth, value, and justice are also seen as meanings which are constructed through language and projected onto reality. In a Postmodern context, this means that these ideas must be seen as derived from human beings–not the world nor nature. 

What this all alludes to is the fact that subjectivity becomes important if language, ideas, and knowledge are not rooted in reality, but instead construct it. Subjects and the culture which frames their thinking create particular discourses, which in turn contextualizes how people understand reality. Reality, when paired with the belief that people are always determined by their culture, becomes rather atomistic, since there are series of interpretations of what reality is, but no singular, true “objective” reality.

Taking this position entails that cultures and subjects are insular from the world or that their representations are not shaped by things in the world which they are referring to. This seems rather unintuitive because when people use language they do seem to be referencing things in the world around them. 

This account of language also does not take into account that some concepts are much more stable than others, and that such concepts limit the possibility of mixed meanings and interpretation. For example, if you take the concept of “tree” to signify tall wooded objects, that meaning is relatively stable across the languages of different cultures and time periods. You could take the French word for tree “arbre” and the old English world for tree “Treo” and they would signify the same concept–a tall wooded object. Though, it should be acknowledged that interpretive differences can arise if the trees have different symbolic or metaphorical meanings across the different cultures.

Accordingly, another important concept of Postmodern thought comes from the Discourse theory of the Poststructuralists. Discourse theory states that the signs and symbols which language uses to represent the world fundamentally alters the psyche of people using language. This shapes their very ability to perceive the world around them. Postmodern discussions of politics tend to revolve around this idea of language. 

Power, therefore, becomes closely linked with language in Postmodern thought as a consequence of language’s ability to shape psyche. Thinkers like Foucault focus especially on power because they view language as a subtle, insidious form of power. It is seen as something which dominates people not through coercion or force of arms, but by shaping how they are even allowed to understand the world. In the view of Foucault and many Postmodern thinkers, power is not necessarily held by the rich elite or politician, but instead those that shape the discourses and ideas which everyone–from the rich elite, to the politician, to the layman–use to understand the world. Because of this, strong Postmodernists have a certain skepticism of bodies of knowledge like history, science, and religion or what they call “metanarratives,” since they are viewed as means of dominating our conceptions of the world.

Foucault in his discussion of power talks about how language is selective. Here he takes inspiration from French poet Raymond Roussel who expresses the idea that language does not designate a word for every concept for which designation is possible. This implies that there is a poverty to language since it cannot express all that can be expressed. This is a recurring objection in philosophy preceding the Postmodernists; Ludwig Wittgenstein famously makes a similar critique of language amongst others. 

Where the Postmodern critique differs (though much of it is inspired by Wittgenstein) is the implication brought about when this idea is tied to power. Foucault posits that because language only selects certain parts of reality, it only provides a partial glimpse of reality. Those selections, to Foucault in particular, are tools of domination and power: reality is shaped in accordance with what those who have power want to be believed. Language is therefore restrictive in how it shapes reality and the fact that it only allows certain discourses, in accordance with those in power. 

Before I delve into a criticism, I would once more like to clarify that “those who have power” in this view is not discussing shadowy bureaucrats or a secret cabal of world leaders planning every event throughout world history. Instead, it is framed as those who have traditionally shaped ideas and discourses in Western thought. Foucault is referencing everything from the classics, the enlightenment thinkers, and science when he talks about “power.” 

That being said, questions should certainly be raised when Foucault argues that these thinkers have exercised a sort of domination over people and their discourse. It underestimates the capacity for people to challenge these frameworks of thought, and assumes a certain tyrannical agenda amongst these thinkers to shape reality. 

Freedom then becomes a prime goal for Postmodern philosophy.  Understanding how to achieve it is a contentious point for Postmodern thought. Derrida’s understanding may be the most popular, which is that representation and language are inescapable–therefore making the achievement of freedom impossible. Most Postmodern thought stems from this initial position of Derrida’s, so the question then becomes: “If one cannot be free from the domination of language, how does one best find freedom?” The end is that each individual must find a relative truth for themselves; that is the best one can do to prevent themselves from being dominated through language and oppressive discourses.

There is a problem with this Postmodern emphasis on Freedom, that makes it impossible to function within a Postmodern framework. To make this point more poignant, I will use a Postmodern argument to refute it. 

Let us start with Derrida’s idea of dichotomies. Derrida argues language in the West is flawed because it is limited to various dichotomies: Good vs Evil, Presence vs Absence, Male vs Female, Speech vs Writing. Discourse tends to privilege one part of the dichotomy over the other: Good rather than Evil, Presence rather than Absence, Male rather than Female, and Speech over Writing. The argument is that the choice of what to privilege has no basis in objectivity or goodness, and that in reality neither choice within these dichotomies is inherently better than the other. 

In a Postmodern framework, this has to be the case because if language does not refer to anything than truth does not exist. This introduces the problem that all discourses must become equal, meaning that you must believe that all ideas are equally privileged or equally worthless–a truly daunting proposition. The majority of Postmodernists choose to believe in the former: that all meanings, even within dichotomies should be treated as equal. 

Then the question becomes how can the Postmodernist value Freedom over Oppression? How do they discern that Freedom is indeed privileged to oppression? Why are Postmodern thinkers also quick to value the individual over the collective? Even while disparaging the ideas of the Enlightenment and the West, Postmodern thought seems rather happy to take some of it as baseline assumption. 

If the Postmodernist seeks to answer these questions, they will fall guilty to using value judgments rooted in language or needing to accept metanarrative.

The photo shows, ” Triel sur Seine, le pont du chemin de fer,” by Robert Antoine Pinchon, painted in 1904.

Theodore Adorno On Barbarism

Theodore Adorno’s use of the term “barbarism” has probably been most often referred to in the context of his much-cited dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” While, nowadays, the term is usually and fortunately presented within the broader context of his works, his intended meaning was frequently misunderstood particularly after Adorno had articulated it for the first time.

For clarity, the aforementioned dictum was not a verdict intended to silence poets or artists. It was rearticulated a few times by Adorno—specifically in response to Celan’s poetry—who calls for arts and culture to respond from within and in the face of an inescapable aporetic condition. Namely, to write poetry after Auschwitz means to write from within a differend—a radical chasm between the signifier and the signified that one neither ought nor could overcome via writing or aesthetic means in general. Yet, poetry (and also art and thinking, per se) as a form of active engagement with sociopolitical realities, has to respond to the ungraspable (i.e., the Holocaust); it cannot simply avoid doing so. It permanently has to speak whilst knowing that it will never reach the addressee; that it must fail in speaking.

While much controversy prevailed over the dictum as a whole, little attention has been devoted to the term “barbarism” implied therein. However, understanding the concept in the broader dimensions underpinning Adorno’s (and partly, Horkheimer’s) usage of it is crucial for fully grasping the dictum. Most importantly, the miscellaneousness of “barbarism” touches upon a myriad of issues characteristic of Adorno’s overall theoretical venture. Namely, the term reoccurs in the context of his critiques of technical rationality, of mass culture, and of progress. In short, in his radical critique of the Enlightenment as adhering to an exclusionary form of instrumental reason. “Barbarism,” while never explicitly defined by Adorno, can thus be considered to, at the very least, implicitly address the complexity of his critical philosophy as a whole. The term appears not only in “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft,” where it was articulated in relation to the aforementioned dictum, but also in most of his major works, Negative Dialectics, Minima Moralia, The Dialectic of Enlightenment and, in what many consider to be his (posthumous) magnum opus, Aesthetic Theory.

I contend that there are four diverging yet intertwined dimensions that underpin Adorno’s usage of the term, all of which primarily reflect his radical and permanently present call to face infinite ethico-political responsibility in the face of an irreversible past. This call concerns not only the arts or culture alone, but also involves science and politics — the society as a whole conceived of as a center that relentlessly excludes peripheries. In essence, it concerns our very own engagement with socio-political realities.

I

The first and probably most obvious dimension is related to the Holocaust as the utmost expression of barbarism. Connected to this dimension is a fundamental aporetic condition, that is, we live on in spite of Auschwitz, which, as the “ultimate end”, would logically prohibit any sort of living on in its aftermath. A certain barbarism is thus, per se, implied in our very being in an era post-Auschwitz. Any single word is a confirmation that life can go on after; any articulation of a concept or term relentlessly affirms what would have to be radically negated, but what can no longer be negated as the negation is no longer available to us. The past cannot be reversed. To put it bluntly, a consequence of this is that the whole (i.e., being) itself is barbaric; this implies that “nothing less than all things are barbaric” – another facet of the dictum “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In one very general sense, it is barbaric simply because anything one could think of is barbaric; thinking itself is barbaric as it is a mode of continuous existence. Thus everything is barbaric: to write, to breath, to live—specifically, to live-on.

II

The second sense refers to the fact that culture itself—and with it, philosophy—was incapable of preventing Auschwitz from happening. Moreover, not only has culture not prevented it, it, at times, even proactively contributed to Nazism and thereby became complicit in a much more radical sense. (This assertion seems most obvious in Adorno’s resolute and lifelong rejection of Heidegger’s fundamental-ontological “Jargon”, which applied not only to Heidegger’s own writings but, foremost, to different strands of Heideggerianism.)

Culture and philosophy, being dimensions of living-on after the failure of the Enlightenment, are also, in this sense, ultimately barbaric. Adorno writes:

Auschwitz irrefutably demonstrated the failure of culture. That it could happen in the midst of all the traditions of philosophy, art and the enlightening sciences, says more than merely that these, the Spirit, was not capable of seizing and changing human beings. […] Whoever pleads for the preservation of a radically culpable and shabby culture turns into its accomplice, while those who renounce culture altogether immediately promote the barbarism, which culture reveals itself to be.

***

As I mentioned earlier, in spite of frequently alluding to a barbaric whole (in both a general sense and in relation to culture as a specific mode of living-on) Adorno is not attempting to silence culture, arts or philosophy. What he termed a “New Categorical Imperative” attests much to this. The articulation of this imperative in his Negative Dialectics can best be seen as his own response to the more general barbaric condition expanded upon in (I) and (II). Imposed upon “unfree mankind” by Hitler, this imperative demands that individuals “arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.” Initially striking is Adorno’s assumption—much expanded upon with Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment—that men are “unfree”, meaning that they are far from having successfully released themselves from self-incurred tutelage. Auschwitz had finally proven that the alleged linear process of “civilization” had not suspended barbarism—far from it. Its relentless and irrational suppression has not served to overcome it; rather its ignorance reinforced its return in the form of utmost excess with the result of turning an envisioned universally enlightened end-state into a radical disaster eliminating any possible allusion to universality as such.

Consequently, Horkheimer and Adorno attest that we can no longer hope for salvation in simply appealing to alleged universal reason (the Kantian Vernunft). No means exist in which men could ever be freed (not to mention a means in which they could free themselves) from the general, intrinsically barbaric condition in the first general sense mentioned. However, rather than reclaiming a hopelessly lost universality, our responsibility in light of the new categorical imperative is first and foremost to confront ourselves with our own irreparable failure.

In spite of this, it is crucial to acknowledge that Adorno hints at potential unbarbaric modes of responses to the fundamentally barbaric general condition mentioned, and it is these that we ought to concentrate on as well as respond to; the New Categorical Imperative which so emphatically calls not solely on our thoughts but also, and particularly, on our actions that goes along with the demand to “restore an unbarbaric condition.” Thus, in spite of the whole being barbaric, the “sole adequate praxis after Auschwitz is to put all energies toward working our way out of barbarism.” Practically, this must, of course, remain utopian in light of the whole being inevitably barbaric; however, there is a sense in which we could at least work toward a threshold pointing toward this impossible utopian restoration. Adorno envisions a condition for which there is no locus, which is why it is utopian in the very literal sense of the term’s origin. There is merely a nonplace, a u-topos for it. In this sense, it guides our actions and thoughts via calling on our responsibility from within an aporetic condition.

Our responsibility—in spite of the whole being barbaric—is then, finally, to decode those peculiar barbaric impetuses that prevail within what Adorno and Horkheimer refer to as “new barbarism.” These occur in the context of cultural-political modes of being that are more specific than the general “barbaric condition” in which we adhere (in the sense that we have decided to live on after the ultimate end). Adorno’s implicit call to respond to specific barbaric impetuses that still constitute the sociopolitical has consequences regarding our modes of reasoning on the one hand (a thought that dominates much of his Negative Dialectics and his Einführung in die Dialektik) and the ways in which we relate and respond to processes of reification on the other (most explicitly articulated in The Dialectic of Enlightenment and in his writings and commentaries on the culture industry).

III

Adorno’s mode of thinking could potentially respond to this new imperative as permanently aware of a radical chasm between the object and the concept (Begriff in Hegel’s sense). In other words, a synthesis between both is no longer attainable. Adorno calls emphatically for a mode of thinking that avoids a position that deems itself superior to what it attempts to grasp. This thought is surprisingly close to Derrida (even though it implies a different epistemological movement): The object always escapes the concept that tries to subsume it. Consequently, to reason in a manner which diverges from barbarism—Adorno actually terms this “the unbarbaric side of philosophy”—is conditioned upon a “tacit awareness of the element of irresponsibility, of blitheness springing from the volatility of thought, which forever escapes what it judges.”

Adorno contends reasoning always risks becoming totalitarian. It always involves the judging, naming and conceptualizing of some other. Any concept, too, risks losing peculiar heterogeneities and potential ambiguities that adhere to the object. By way of example, the term “society” (or, Gesellschaft in German) attempts to subsume an extremely ambivalent and ever-changing actuality into an allegedly coherent concept. In other words, there is always a considerable and unavoidable amount of violence exerted in the processual course of conceptualization (Begriffsbildung), which cannot but abstract from and thereby reduce the objects it perceives. (In the Einführung in die Dialektik, a series of lectures held at the University of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1958, Adorno frequently uses the expression “does violence to the Object” [“dem Gegenstand Gewalt antun”]).

The thinking and reasoning subject that loses awareness of this fundamental epistemological aporia becomes inevitably hegemonic, dogmatic and, therefore, totalitarian in the sense of promulgating a mode of reasoning that subscribes to two extremely problematic modes of irresponsible abstractionism: (A) a positivistic, scientific, quantifying mode of thinking, as well as (B) a bureaucratic, disengaged, unworldly way of being and acting. To the contrary, an unbarbaric mode of thinking refrains from deductions; it does not seek security in fundamental “firsts” or absolutes in the sense of a prima philosophia.

One passage articulated in his Einführung in die Dialektik sums this up nicely: The relation between the universal and the particular, Adorno asserts here, is something “over which the thinking being properly has no power” (“worüber der Denkende eigentlich keine Macht hat,” and to pertain to this powerlessness toward the object is—strikingly—a “criterion of truth.” Any consolidating synthesis reconciling that over which I am in truth powerless would thus by necessity imply a considerable amount of force. To put it in Adorno’s terms, a synthesis would be “applied” to the object by the “arbitrariness of ordering thought” (“von der Willkür des ordnenden Denkens […] aufgeprägt”).

To avoid this quasi-hegemonic stance implied in “ordering thought”, Adorno subscribes to a very idiosyncratic perspectivism—one that is always attentive and capable of responding to the unexpected, whilst remaining aware of the need for concepts—even if Adorno, at points, seems to be calling for an almost rhizomatic mode of thought. While Adorno frequently alludes to “labyrinthine paths” and even speaks of “subtarranean corridors” and “inter-related models,” he still, strikingly, adheres to the picture of paths. What he hints at could thus probably best be imagined as akin to Paul Klee’s illustrated quasi-labyrinth in Haupt- und Nebenwege (1929), where a major path is still graspable which allows for a myriad of minor paths ending in uncertain horizons. This arguably separates Adorno from Deleuze’s rhizome. Adorno does not go so far as to call for thinking without concepts; for him, there is no such thing as an image- or concept-less thought, and neither should there be one in spite of the radical chasm between object and subject. In essence, what Adorno hints at in the very last consequence is a thinking that applies the critical force of reason onto itself as a reflection on an Enlightenment tradition that has lost its own consciousness, having thereby become, to a certain extent, alienated from itself.

IV

The last dimension within which a “new barbarism” becomes most clearly evident is in the context of Adorno’s rejection of the new rise of capitalism’s massive culture industry that he closely witnessed in the late 1930s and 40s during his exile in the US. During this period, barbarism reoccurred in the hegemonic modes of fabrication of goods, of massification of cultural objects. The ever-expanding market as a constantly growing field that so quickly entered the sociopolitical could only reveal an implicit complicity with barbarism in that it was entrenched in an ideology related to a system trying to control a mass. It promoted a form of culture that prioritized sameness over critique and thoughtless enjoyment over an urgently needed, committed confrontation with actualities.

None of what Adorno saw emerging in capitalist culture was, to his account, in any way responsive to the ultimate peak of barbarism itself (i.e., the Holocaust as the ultimately destructive Ereignis), and, in this way, was non-responsive to his newly formulated imperative. He saw too little (if any) theoretical and practical preoccupation with culture’s own complicity in light of Auschwitz, specifically after WWII. To the contrary, capitalism’s relentless production of sameness (what Adorno frequently termed the “Always-the-same”) inevitably contributed to total homogeneity which excluded otherness and, with it, non-identicality. The Culture Industry again formed a mass in spite of its emphatic propagations of liberty on the grounds of an alleged emancipation of the general, as discussed above.

Far removed, however, Adorno was aware that it, in truth, solely engaged in infinite production cycles at the expense of actual potentialities for emancipation and thereby reinforced the whole’s overall irrationality—and thus its falsity—in its blind reliance on technological reason. According to Adorno, implied again was the assumption that rationality was superior to its other and alleged “cultivation” superior to alleged barbaric primitiveness. On the grounds of this assumption, capitalist mass culture could only continue to suppress yet not overcome its inherent barbaric impulse (in Freudian terms, it continued to produce its destructive discontents). The truth for Adorno was that it could, therefore, only concentrate the force of potentiality to destruction. Here, it is worth quoting at length one of Adorno’s remarks taken from Minima Moralia:

If the nineteenth-century connoisseur only stayed for one act of an opera, partly for the barbaric reason that he would allow no spectacle to shorten his dinner, barbarism has now reached a point, the possibility of escape to a dinner being cut off, where it cannot stuff itself full enough of culture. Every program must be sat through to the end, every best-seller read, every film seen in its first flush in the top Odeon. The abundance of commodities indiscriminately consumed is becoming calamitous. It makes it impossible to find one’s way, and just as in a gigantic department store one looks out for a guide, the population wedged between wares await their leader.

However, also in the context of capitalism’s barbarism—a theme so dominant in Adorno’s writings—one can find margins expressing a glimmer of hope for potential escape routes. Adorno, at points, calls for what he terms “barbaric asceticism…towards progress in technical means” and “mass culture.” This glaring statement is vital regarding the contemporary cultural-political situation. How such “asceticism” might appear is hardly envisionable nowadays, which makes Adorno’s writings and a thorough reflection on his concept of barbarism with a focus on its sociopolitical connotations all the more pressing.

The following remarks by Robert Hullot-Kentor are of striking significance in this respect: “More than a half century after the publication of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, we know ourselves the addressee of Adorno’s work in a way that we could hardly have realized a decade ago. For the interregnum of the post-war years is over. We are experiencing a return of the great fear, as if it never ended—and perhaps it never did. We are, without a doubt, the occupants of the most catastrophic moment in the whole of human history, in all of natural history, and we cannot get our wits about ourselves. What is being decided right now for all surviving generations including our own, is the exact sum total of the irreversible remainder, the unalterable “How it might have been.”

Anna-​Verena Notthoff is at Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, Frankfurt, Germany.

The photo shows, “To Oskar Panizza,” or “The Funeral,” by George Grosz, painted 1917-1918.

Good And Evil

We live in a world of mental habits. Whatever we formulate, create and conceptualize, we do so according to intellectual conventions that we live by and through which we give meaning to the physical reality around us – and within us. If we stop to examine how we think, the habits, or perhaps attitudes become readily discernible.

For example, we perceive nature as being governed by laws, and through science we seek to define these laws. We recognize the body as a living machine, which requires the right kind of fuel, the proper method of operation, to keep it from breaking down.

And we have come full circle and now see the earth as a living organism that must not be used for our own benefit, but cared for, nurtured: Humanity is now slowly becoming the warden of the earth, the caretaker, the gardener – slowly we are breaking from the earlier master-slave relationship, where humankind’s sole purpose was to exploit and use, and dump what was useless in the form of garbage.

In a slow fashion, humanity is losing its hubris, its pride of ownership of nature. Rather, we now see that it is nature that owns us.

All of these formulations (and they are that, since, for example, the earth or the universe hardly cares what we think) are states of mind, mental attitudes that allow us to create the kind of world we want to live in.

Here, it is important to distinguish between the earth and the world: The earth is our physical planet, over which we have little control, and the world is what we have made of the plant (countries, markets, business, wealth, and poverty).

Thus, we humans are creatures of habit. We cling to concepts and mental habits that define us as nations, tribes, clans, or individuals. How many wars have been fought purely for the sake of identity? Take away our tribalism, our virulent embrace of difference, and we suddenly become merely human beings – no better, no worse than the next man or woman. Identity too is a mental habit.

Aristotle defined human beings as political animals, and certainly whenever we veer into dealing with the world, we do so by way of a political response (war, trade, services, movement of people).

However, to paraphrase Plato (Aristotle’s teacher), we can also define human beings as moral animals. We are addicted to morality – so much so that all of our non-political actions are governed by morality.

Indeed, we cannot define nature as inherently moral, since it consistently shows us signs of aggressive survival. Nature functions on a model of reciprocity: A perpetual, perhaps eternal, chain of interdependence.

Morality on the other hand does not require reciprocity, for it operates on the ideal of perfection: An unending desire to participate in beneficence. And to justify this moral habit, we imbue it with great religious overtones and label it as “divine law.” Thus, our world is governed by two types of law – political and moral.

We can define the political as the behavior between nation states. And the moral we can construe as the behavior between one human being and another. In short, how we treat each other, as individuals, is the realm of morality, and how one country treats another is the ambit of the political.

For our discussion, we now need to abandon the political and focus entirely on morality. Leaving aside the question of whether morality is biological (“in our very bones”), or our own creation, we now must proceed to examine what it is that allows morality to exist. In other words, how does it acquire identity? What is moral?

Whenever we seek to define morality, we fall into a peculiar habit of thought. We begin to think along dualistic lines, or polarities, if you will; we begin to think by way of opposites.

Thus, we place one opposite against another, and arrive at concepts such as the sacred and the profane, innocence and guilt, purity and impurity, honesty and dishonesty, order and chaos, meaning and meaninglessness, reality and illusion, reality and illusion, light and dark, truth and falsehood.

As we can readily see, these dualities conform to a pattern of positive and negative (another duality), and they are stacked in such a way that we are forced to make a moral choice – we “naturally” choose concepts that are positive. Why?

Given our mental habit, we have come to believe that such opposites are in conflict with each other, and we are duty-bound morally to take sides in this conflict. By choosing the positive, we are making a moral choice. And this choice has a very long history in human consciousness, and it is this history that we will go on to explore.

We make a choice because we understand that these polarities cannot exist peacefully, side-by-side; they are not coefficient or coeval; they are embodiment of extremes, and one extreme cannot bleed into another. So much of our moral rebellion stems from precisely this denial of coexistence. We seek to assert that opposites do bleed together, and magnetically, opposites attract. Moral rebellion is based on not choosing sides, on insisting that one category is just as valid as its opposite, and there is no conflict between the two.

However, the positive-negative model pervades even this rebellion. How? By suggesting that the extreme can be pacified, that the two opposites can take on the characteristics of the other – by dragging the positive into the negative, or the negative into the positive. Despite the rebellion, we are still thinking within the confines of duality. It is a habit very hard to break. Try as we might.

The photo shows, “Landscape with a Rainbow,” By Joseph Wright of Derby, painted 1794.

Traditionalism, Or More Insanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynicism As Anti-Philosophy

Cynicism is not the same as cynicism. Cynicism with a capital ‘C’ refers to the truth-affirming provocations of the ancient Cynics and the specific mode of being of which they are an early representation; while cynicism with a small ‘c’ is, in its ‘postmodern’ form, ideological apathy towards truth and its ramifications for politics and culture. Some prefer to write Cynicism as Kynicism to further emphasize the difference. For now, I shall stay with writing a capital ‘C’ to refer to the concept in question.

What I am about to list as central to Cynicism is the product of a creative interpretation of doxographic and other material that I consider potentially useful for critical theoretical reflections on law, politics and society. Other writers will include different propositions and will have different emphases.

With that in mind, I will briefly cover Cynic elements in respect of style, theory, politics, and self-identity, which I translate to the following headings: parrhesia and embodied truth, antiphilosophy, antinomianism, and cosmopolitical subjectivity.

Parrhesia and Embodied Truth

The most celebrated relation of the Cynics to truth is parrhesia. As Foucault succinctly put it, when a speaker engages in parrhesia, he ‘uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.’

The early reference point is Diogenes the Cynic (circa 3rd–4th BC). Diogenes fully embraced the appellation Cynic (Kyon=Dog, whence also kynicism), introducing himself as such to Alexander the Great. When Alexander asked what he had done to deserve such a name, he replied, ‘I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.’

He saw himself as the kind of dog that all like to praise, but with whom no one dared go hunting.

He poured scorn on his contemporaries: he called the school of Euclides bilious, Plato’s lectures a waste of time, and the demagogues the mob’s lackeys.

When he saw someone being led away by temple officials for stealing a bowl, he quipped: ‘The great thieves are leading away the little thief.’

On hearing Plato’s definition of Man as a featherless biped, Diogenes presented a plucked fowl with the words ‘Here is Plato’s man.’

And when Alexander wished to honour him by granting any favour, Diogenes asked him to ‘[s]tand out of my light.’

Not surprisingly, he considered parrhesia ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’.

While parrhesia is not exclusive to Cynicism, it is worth noting that Cynic style is typified by the use of wit and humour. So again, for example, on his habit of continually masturbating in public, Diogenes quipped ‘I only wish I could be rid of hunger by rubbing my belly.’

Branham argues that the form of this humour acts as a ‘rhetorical syllogism,’ which invites the audience to discern the joke’s tacit premises and to infer a subversive truth from it, namely, that 1) natural desires are best satisfied in the easiest and cheapest way possible (euteleia); 2) one natural desire is the same as any other; 3) therefore cultural norms violate the ‘natural right’ to masturbate there and then in public.

Humour has the capacity to engage both intellect and an immediate, ticklish sensuousness. It has a material quality in drawing upon a rhetorical force beyond pure reason and also in the way it elicits an affect — a knowing smile, a cringe, a burst of laughter.

This brings us to another of the Cynic’s relations to truth, that of ‘bearing witness to the truth by and in one’s body, dress, mode of comportment, way of acting, reacting, and conducting oneself.’ This has traditionally included askesis where the worth of a frugal life — a dog’s life — is demonstrated by the strength and flourishing of the body. This is arguably different from the reactionary denial of the ascetic in popular consciousness.

In sum, Cynic truth is expressed, on the one hand, through witty, humorous, polemical and subversive rhetoric; and on the other hand through the Cynic’s authentic life, one lived in accordance with and as a didactic demonstration of truth. Cynic rhetoric reaches out to the mind and bodily senses while making of his own body a rhetorical device.

Antiphilosophy

With the Cynic emphasis on wit and performance instead of abstract theory, laughter rather than convention, free-spiritedness and risky provocations instead of the disciplinary structures of paradigmatic thought, there is a tendency to view Cynicism as a form of anti-intellectualism, despite a clear — albeit critical — interest in the intellectual pursuits of Platonic metaphysics.

Indeed, the Cynic enthusiasm for truth would, it seems, align them with the immense tradition of western philosophy, even if, as Hegel claimed, they had no traditional philosophy worthy of note. But if not philosophy, then what? I suggest we think Cynicism as an early form of antiphilosophy.

If one way to frame philosophy is in terms of its critical concern for truth and its articulation in theory, antiphilosophy, writes Badiou, deposes the category of truth, unravels the ‘pretensions of philosophy to constitute itself as theory,’ looks behind the fallacious mask of discursive appearances, and appeals against the philosophical act towards a radically new ‘supraphilosophical’ act.

Antiphilosophy is less a critique of truth than a therapeutics of truth. It is the cure for the self-satisfied belief of western philosophy in its ability to capture the meta-position of metaphysics, in being able to express universal truth without gaps, lacks, distances, contingencies, insufficiencies and/or a relation to particularities.

Badiou claims that for antiphilosophers like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and perhaps Lacan, what is important is the ‘distance without measure’ (for example, between individual and subject, god and man, infinite and finite), which cannot be proved within a conceptual framework.

For Nietzsche, in particular, his testimony and self-evidence is expressed not only in what he says about philosophy but also — in his Dionysian abolishing of the world as truth — what he does to it.

It is not surprising to learn that Nietzsche also writes that: ‘the higher man must prick up his ears at every Cynicism — whether coarse or refined — and congratulate himself whenever a buffoon without shame or scientific satyr speaks out in his presence.’ Eschewing grand theory and the pretensions of metaphysics, Cynic antiphilosophy combines rhetoric with humour, logic with wit, speech with performance, and truth with embodiment.

Antinomianism

Zeno, an initial follower of Diogenes, is credited by Kropotkin as being the ‘best exponent of anarchist philosophy in Ancient Greece.’ In Kropotkin’s words, Zeno ‘repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual.’

While one should be wary of claiming Cynicism as one’s own, there is no doubt that Cynicism, in its parrhesiastic embodiment of truth, tends towards subversiveness.

We can perhaps view this subversiveness more generally as analogous to Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology, where the perpetual movement of the Cynic nomad (the universe as home, see cosmopolitical subjectivity below) collides inevitably with the state apparatus. Cynicism speaks truth to power and lives truth against convention.

For Diogenes, law and the city were considered civilized, where ‘civilized’ was most likely intended as a pejorative term. His view of social norms and civilized law amounts to an early radical antinomianism that preempts certain modern strains of critical legal theory; not only in terms of the idea of contingency, but also in terms of grounding antinomianism in something ‘other.’

However, while the ‘other’ for critical legal theorists is commonly understood in poststructuralist terms as an unknowable beyond, the Cynic other was simply nature and the authority that nature lends as a protoypical form of natural right.

This suggests there may be a constant thread in the intellectual history of subversion, one that resists always in the name of something other, some foundational or even post-foundational other, an other — whether justice, god, nature, etc. — whose complexities and paradoxes the Cynics, in their aversion to grand theory, never tied themselves up in.

Cosmopolitical Subjectivity

On being asked where he came from, Diogenes is said to have replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs].’ Today, theories of world citizenship or cosmopolitanism are based on an idea of human unity from which moral and political commitments are drawn, typically involving the development of stronger global institutions, governance, human rights, and the rule of law.

Despite its metaphysical determination, human unity acts as powerful trope to critique parochialism and state sovereignty. Yet it is precisely because of its metaphysical determination, that its deployment in thinking ‘human’ subjectivity can also be problematic.

Given the Cynic tendency towards anti-philosophy and antinomianism, Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism was not a question of human unity and he certainly did not mean the institutional structure of the city made global. If anything, his cosmopolitanism can be minimally understood as a ‘commonwealth … as wide as the universe’ conceived in dialectical opposition to the bounded city.

It was therefore, again minimally, a way to subvert normal citizenship and the laws and mores of contingent social spaces in the name of an ‘other’ cosmopolitical subjectivity. This is not to say that when we infer the detail of what such a commonwealth might look like (property, wives, and sons held in common, as Diogenes and his epigones are reputed to have said), that this would be without its own problems.

Assessment and Conclusion

Throughout history, the insolence and shamelessness of Cynicism has tended to be ignored or derided by the mainstream. Yet those same qualities, stemming as they do from a profound sense of alterity and courage to speak out, has also spawned modern admirers, from Kropotkin to Nietzsche to Foucault.

This in itself indicates that, for those interested in radical critique — whether of law, politics, society, or culture more generally — Cynicism has something to offer. But before specifying what, it would be appropriate to mention its major sticking point or aporia.

Recall that the strength of the Cynic bite is drawn from a reliance on the authority of nature. To hold this line, the Cynic must make a decision on the nature of nature (what is the normative content of nature?) without which no lesson can be drawn.

However, such decisions are always subject to the limits of the discourses within which they are articulated. Of necessity, the Cynic’s view of nature is, like anyone else’s, a partial or incomplete view. This is a problem that plagues not just Cynicism, but natural law thinking in general. What Diogenes considers ‘natural,’ others, especially of a different time and place, do not. I have already hinted at the potential for differences of opinion on the content of a ‘universal commonwealth’ predicated upon our ‘cosmic nature.’

But to give a different example: on seeing a young man behaving in a way he considered effeminate, Diogenes is said to have rebuked him: ‘Are you not ashamed … that your own intention about yourself should be worse than nature’s: for nature made you a man, but you are forcing yourself to play the woman.’ We can only speculate what a modern Diogenes would have said when made aware of sex and gender distinctions.

Having duly recognized this significant limitation, what can Cynicism offer us today? I think it is important, firstly, not to monumentalize the Cynics, that is, to dogmatically assert their credentials as the original subversives. It is also important, given the stated problematics, not to simply imitate them, but to draw upon and reinterpret for our time the rich resource of possibility that they represent.

Foucault, in particular, already started to do this in his analysis of their parrhesia. But this is just the beginning. For the critical scholar, Cynicism can provoke myriad questions: Given the limits in thinking a norm-bearing nature, what are the possibilities of thinking a natural law whose particularized content has been evacuated – a kind of denaturalized natural law?

How could this link to a concept of truth or anti-philosophy or would it be more appropriate to think in terms of a philosophical non-philosophy (see e.g. François Laruelle)? What are the possibilities, limits, effects, and risks of using humour to go beyond critical satire and to directly intervene into political consciousness? Is there any value in pursuing Cynical askesis or some updated version of it today? How can we further think a Cynic cosmopolitanism that emphasizes dialectical opposition? And so on … .

Gilbert Leung, PhD, writes on law, critical theory and philosophy. He is the Director of Counterpress.

The photo shows, “Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man,” attributed to Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, painted in the second-half of the 18th-century.

Courage, Comrades! A New World Is About To Be Born!

The following remarks were published eight years ago, when the trend, now common, of universities forsaking the teaching of languages, first began to be evident. These remarks have only gained in urgency as the Humanities continue to vanish from university curricula.

To choose between eliminating French or Philosophy . . . what a fabulous choice! Should one rather take out the liver or the lung? The stomach or the heart? The eyes or ears?

We need to invent teaching that is, on the one hand, strictly monolingual – for isn’t it true that everything can be translated into English? – and strictly lacking in all forms of questioning (for example concerning what is implied by “translation” in general and from one language to another in particular). A single language unencumbered by the static [parasites] of reflection would be a great subject for university study, smooth, harmonious, easily submitting to the controls of acquisition.

We should propose eliminating both of them, French and Philosophy.

And everything existing in proximity to them, like Latin or psychoanalysis, Italian, Spanish or literary theory, Russian or History. Perhaps it would be wise to introduce in their place, as requirements, certain computer languages (like Java), as well as commercial Chinese and technological Hindi, at least until such languages are able to be completely transcribed into English. Unless the inverse were to happen first.

In any case, let’s teach what is displayed on our advertising billboards and on the stock exchange monitors. That and nothing else!

Courage, comrades, a new world is about to be born!

Jean-Luc Nancy is a renowned philosopher, who teaches at the University of Strasbourg. (With thanks to Critical Legal Thinking.

The photo show a Soviet-era space poster, “The Hymn to the Soviet Land – Our Triumph in Space,” published ca. 1950s.