The Democratic Dilemma: Herman Melville’s Ship of State

This excerpt comes from William Morrisey’s latest book, Herman Melville’s Ship of State, which reads the classic novel, Moby-Dick, as an allegory of America, democracy and the reciprocal obligations of the individual and the state. Thus, is America Moby-Dick? Is its power a source of chaos or order? You will have to read the Morrissey’ intriguing book in order to arrive at the answers.

William Morrisey held the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College until his retirement in 2015. A native of Rumson, New Jersey, he served as Executive Director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission before his appointment at Hillsdale College in 2000. He is the author of eight books and has been an editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy since 1979. His reviews and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Social Science and Modern Society, Law and Liberty, The New Criterion, and many other publications.

Please support the excellent work being done by our friends over at St. Augustine’s Press and buy this book. You will not be disappointed.


In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of Democracy in America, his magisterial study based on observations he had made on his nine-month visit to the United States nearly a decade earlier. Although we Americans understandably read his book as a treatise about ourselves, Tocqueville wanted less to understand America than to understand democracy. By “democracy” he meant not primarily a political regime of the kind seen in ancient Athens or in a modern-day New England township, but the condition of social equality, a society free of an aristocratic class legally entitled to rule ‘the commoners.’ In America, everyone is a commoner, and those who pretend otherwise invite ridicule. As an aristocrat himself, Tocqueville saw the decline of his class in Europe, a decline accelerated by both monarchy and republicanism in his own country. He called America “the sample democracy” in the world, the place to go to see what an egalitarian society looked like, how it thought and felt, its “habits of the mind and heart”—habits soon coming to a country near you, my fellow noblemen.

William Morrisey Herman Melville’s Ship of State

What political regimes would such societies see? Without the possibility of the rule of ‘the few,’ that left the rule of ‘the one’ or ‘the many.’ And because the long-ago replacement of small, ancient city-states with large modern nation-states precluded the direct rule of the people, rule of the many in the modern rule would mean representative government, republicanism. The regime alternatives for democratic societies in modern states were republicanism and despotism—to be seen, Tocqueville remarks, in America and Russia, respectively, “each destined to hold half the world in its hands one day.” To outline the structure of his preferred republican regime, he simply wrote an able summary of The Federalist, whose institutional structures might be adapted, although not simply carried over, by other ‘founders’ of republican regimes in other countries. But to describe democracy’s habits of heart and mind, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which egalitarian social conditions pervade the souls of those who live amidst them, this took several hundred pages.

The 1840s also saw the return to America of another voyager, Herman Melville. At the time Tocqueville was bringing out his Volume II, the young American, ten years Tocqueville’s junior, was signing up for his first whaling adventure, which began at the beginning of 1841. For nearly four years Melville experienced the democratic despotism of life at sea under several captains on a variety of ships, intermingled with sojourns on islands in the South Pacific, where a life of hedonist freedom rested uneasily on binges of cannibalism. The young sailor enjoyed the freedom without partaking of the fare; worrying that one day he might become part of a feast, he cut his island idyll short. For him, the remedy for shipboard despotism was either rebellion (he joined one mutiny) or exile (his adventures on shore occurred after he jumped his first ship).

The America he returned to in October 1944 was about to elect James K. Polk to the presidency. Along with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and former president Franklin Pierce,

Polk was part of a new intellectual and political movement which registered a generational shift in the American conception of the right basis for law and liberty. Whereas the founding generation had understood republican regime-building as an attempt to secure unalienable natural rights for “all men” under that regime, and the generation after that was divided over whether “all men” included slaves (New England said yes, the South, increasingly, said no), this third generation of Americans began to see republicanism less as security for rights as security for, and the best expression of, democracy itself, of the social egalitarianism Tocqueville had described. Might that not lead to majority tyranny, the rule of ‘the people’ in its might instead of popular sovereignty under the laws of nature and of nature’s God?

Having just voyaged on seas even broader than the American continent, seas where might is indeed taken to make right, whether in the form of a captain on a ship or of mighty Leviathan underneath that ship, Melville had seen that a diverse and egalitarian society could find its ruler not in a popular majority but in one person. With no aristocratic class to serve as mediator between the one and the many, each pole of the political world would threaten the other. Fear of the many might cause the one to rule by fear absolutized, by terror. Tocqueville never wrote on Napoleon or on the Russian czar. In Moby-Dick, Melville did.

He could do so because he had survived and learned from what might be described as the photographic negative of Tocqueville’s experience: Instead of voyaging to democratic-republican America from a Europe beset by unstable monarchies, a declining aristocracy, and constant threats of war and violent revolution, Melville had voyaged from America to societies in the condition of a state of nature—communitarian and pleasure-loving, to be sure, but with a sinister undercurrent of manslaughter, the faint smell of blood mingling with fragrance of the tropical flowers. He had voyaged on ships ruled by ‘princes’ (with the title of captain) wielding absolute power unknown to American landholders, even to the most adventurous pioneers. Returning to America, he too had an outsider’s perspective, the ability to think like what we now call a political comparativist. In Moby-Dick he shows what a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society would be under the regime of tyranny.


The featured image shows a portion of “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World,” by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, which was first exhibited in 1848. It is America’s longest painting, at 1275 feet in length.

Something About Those Ancient Greeks

The society in which we live, a liberal democracy, is the result not of events that happened all over the world – rather, it is the result of events that happened in just one country, ancient Greece. We are who we are not because of what happened in ancient China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt or India (essential as the histories of these places are to our knowledge of the world).

Despite the passage of millennia, we still live in the world invented by the ancient Greeks. And because of the influence and spread of western technology, the entire globe has now been impacted by these Greeks of long ago. There is a reason why we want all people to be free; why we think more democracy is a good thing; why we worry about the environment; why we have immense faith in our ability to come up with solutions no matter how great the problem; why we believe education to be crucial to building a good life; why we seek self-respect. And this reason is simply stated: we have inherited – not created – a particular habit of mind, a way of looking at the world.

We live within a set of values that constantly encourage us to depend on reason, to seek out moderation and distrust excess, to live a disciplined life, to demand responsibility in politics, to strive for clarity of thought and ideas, to respect everyone and everything, including nature and the environment, and most of all to cherish and promote freedom. This is our inheritance from the ancient Greeks. We need to study them in order to learn and relearn about our intellectual, esthetic and moral inheritance – so that we might meaningfully add to them so that they may continue in the vast project of building the goodness of our society. This is why we need to study the Greeks, because through them we come to study ourselves.

And what about the Romans? They were the people that allowed Greek learning to be made available to the world. The ancient Romans adopted the Greek habit of mind and through their empire, which stretched from the borders of Scotland to the borders of Iran, they passed on this inheritance to all the people that lived within these borders. Thus, in studying the Romans, we come to understand how very difficult it has been for ideas, which we may take for granted, to come down to us. Whereas the ancient Greeks created the world we live in, the ancient Romans facilitated it by giving universality to the Greek habit of mind. Thus, to study both these civilizations is to begin to fully understand our own.

Earliest History of Greece

Prehistoric human settlement in the Greek peninsula stretches back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. By the time of the Bronze Age, different types of pottery helps us to demarcate the various phases of material culture. For the sake of convenience, historians have used these various types of pottery to work out a chronology of Greek prehistory. And because Greece is not only the peninsular mainland, but also the various islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the pottery is sorted out by different regions.

Thus, the Bronze Age in the mainland is classified as Helladic (from 1550 B.C. to 1000 B.C.). On the island of Crete, the Bronze Age is labeled Minoan (from 3000 B.C. to about 1450 B.C.). And on the various islands of the Aegean, the Bronze Age is referred to as Cycladic, where it begins around 3000 B.C. and lasts until about 2000 B.C., at which time the culture of the Cyclades is absorbed into the greater Minoan civilization.

The Minoans

The earliest expression of Bronze Age civilization in Europe is found on the island of Crete, where a brilliant culture flourished from about 2700 B.C. to around 1450 B.C. It was brought to light in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated a large complex at Knossos, which he called a “palace.” But the “palace” he found was different from what we might imagine. It was a warren of maze-like adjoining rooms, where people lived and worked, and where oil, wine and grain were stored in massive clay jars, some as high as six feet. It was because of the labyrinthine nature of the palace’s layout that Evans called the civilization that he discovered, “Minoan,” after the Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, who had built a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of his wife, Pasiphae, who had fallen in love, and coupled, with a white bull.

The many wall-paintings from the palace give indication that the cult of the bull was prevalent among the ancient Cretans – the best example being the ritual or sport of “bull-leaping,” in which young men and women grasped the horns of a charging bull and leaped over its back to land behind the animal. It is difficult to say whether this was done as sport, or perhaps even as a religious dance. We cannot know since we have no contemporary written explanation for it.

Evans also found thousands of clay tablets with writing on them. The writing was in two versions of the same script. The first version he labeled Linear A, and the second he called Linear B. The only problem was that he could read neither. It would not be until 1952 when Michael Ventris finally deciphered Linear B and found the many texts in this script to be the earliest form of the Greek language. When the rules of decipherment were applied to Linear A, however, it was found to be a curious language that was not Greek, nor was it a language that could be placed in any known family group. Perhaps as further work is done on Linear A, it might disclose more of its secrets. But for now, the Minoan world is mysterious to us, because all we have are its material remains.

However, the more intriguing question that arises from the evidence we have is – how did the earliest form of the Greek language get mixed with a non-Greek language in the palace at Knossos? This question points us northwards to the mainland of Greece, and to a city known as Mycenae.

The Mycenaean Age

The speakers of the earliest form of Greek were the Mycenaeans, who were given their name from the city they inhabited, namely, Mycenae, where the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876, found a well-developed civilization, with a ruling warrior aristocracy who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops. Aside from Mycenae, the towns of Athens (a relatively unimportant place at this early time), Pylos, Tiryns, Iolkos and Orchomenus were also part of Mycenaean culture, which established itself around 1900 B.C. and endured until 1200 B.C.

Schliemann’s excavations revealed a circle of shaft-graves, in which the dead were buried standing up, and in which were found large quantities of weapons as well as gold objects, from funerary masks to goblets and jewelry. He also found evidence for the domesticated horse and the chariot – and, most important of all, there were found clay tablets with Linear B written on them, which would be deciphered as the earliest form of the Greek language. All these discoveries led to an important question – where did the Greeks come from because their language ultimately is not native to the land they came to inhabit.

If we examine the archaeological record of the time just before the Mycenaean age, we find massive destruction that lasted about a hundred years from 2200 B.C. to about 2100 B.C. And the material remains of the people that established themselves after the destruction were markedly different from those that lived in these same areas before. It is to this deep destruction that we can link the “coming of the Greeks,” a phrase much used by the historians of this era.

So, where did the Greeks come from?

The clues before us are two-fold: material and intellectual culture. The excavations at Mycenae yield several essential clues: chariot parts, horse tack, skeletal remains of horses, weapons and pottery; plus, there is also the fact that these people were speakers of early Greek, as demonstrated by the Linear B texts.

These clues points to one conclusion. The Mycenaeans came as invaders, likely from the north, and they destroyed what they found and took control and began to build their own fortified towns. And we know that they are invaders because of their language, which is a member of the Indo-European group of languages – and this tells us that these early Greeks came from elsewhere, since the origin of the Indo-European languages is in a place quite a bit distant from Greece. In the latter years of the third millennium, there were Indo-European invasions throughout Eurasia.

The origin of the Indo-Europeans is likely in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, what historians call the “Kurgan culture.” “Kurgan” refers to the grave mounds under which these early Indo-Europeans buried their dead. From this point of origin, the Indo-Europeans overran large parts of Europe and some parts of Asia. The languages they spoke were closely related and to this day comprise the largest family group in the world.

Thus, the indo-European languages consist of the ancient languages (and their descendents) of northern India (Vedic and Sanskrit) and Persia (Avestan and modern Persian), the Slavic languages, the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), the Celtic and the Italic (Latin and its descendents, such as, French and Italian), the Germanic languages (such as, German and English), and of course Greek.

This affinity between languages extends further into intellectual culture, since there is a pronounced similarity, for example, between the myths of the various Indo-European peoples. The branch of Indo-Europeans that veered into Greece called themselves Achaeans, who spoke a very early form of Greek.

The Achaeans subdued the various non-Indo-European peoples that were living in Greece and set up suzerainty over them. The outcome of this process was what we call the Mycenaean civilization, which Schliemann excavated, as noted earlier. The Mycenaeans were known for their warrior culture, in which the chariot and the horse were much valued. By 1600 B.C. they had established a thriving culture, attested by the rich finds in the shaft-graves of Mycenae.

Around 1450 B.C. these Mycenaeans struck southward and conquered Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilization. But they were not above learning civilized ways from the people they had conquered – for it was soon after they had conquered Crete that the Mycenaeans adopted the art of writing invented by the Minoans, but they had adapt it to their own language, since the alphabet was not really useful for an Indo-European language which had many consonantal clusters, whereas the alphabet of the Minoans (Linear A) was syllablic (each letter represented a consonant and a vowel together).

It is for this reason that Sir Arthur Evans found texts written in both Linear A and Linear B at Knossos, since the Mycenaeans assumed control of this palace structure after their take-over of Crete; and in time they came to use the Linear alphabet.

The Bronze Age Collapse

The rule of the Mycenaeans in Greece and in Crete was fated. It was destroyed during a catastrophic period in Eurasian history known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” during which a total of forty-seven important cities were attacked, their inhabitants either killed or enslaved, and the places burned to the ground. The swath of burned down cities is large and covers Syria, the Levant, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and Greece. From 1200 B.C. to about 1150 B.C., there were destructive raids by newer groups of Indo-European peoples, who had developed an innovative method of warfare, which gave them a greater advantage over the armies that these doomed cities could muster.

We have to keep in mind that the first Indo-European invasions, which saw the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete, were the result of the chariot and the composite bow.

The invasions which put an end to the Bronze Age were also successful because of a new type of warfare – the use of infantry armed with a long lance and a broad sword. The metal for these weapons was iron. Bronze weapons were no match for these iron lances and swords, and the chariots became useless, too, since the foot-soldiers could easily disable a charioteer with their long lances by spearing the warriors that rode inside. The Bronze Age was violently brought to an end by iron weapons.

Thus, the Iron Age begins with an enormous catastrophe – a total collapse of civilization. Once the large cities and palaces were destroyed, they were replaced by small communities of a few individuals; and these were often located not in the plains, but high in the uplands.

The Iron Age is also known as the Ancient Dark Age, because civilization, or city life, disappeared. The group of Indo-Europeans, who invaded Greece in the twelfth century B.C. and put an end to the Mycenaeans, are known as the Dorians; their name likely derives from the early Greek word, doru, which was the long wooden lance that they carried. It is from the various dialects of these new invaders that the Greek language developed.

The Ancient Dark Age

The invading people destroyed civilization and did not value living in palaces or large cities. Instead, they chose to live in smaller communities that had fewer luxuries and fineries which we usually associate with civilization. There is also evidence of depopulation since the settlements that replace the burned cities and palaces tend to be small and few. Pottery is no longer finely and elaborately decorated but has simple geometric patterns. The Dark Age lasted from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. and can be summarized as a period of petty tribalism.

However, we know a lot about this period because of two significant literary works that describe the people involved in these invasions. They are the two poems by the legendary poet Homer, namely, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, the story of the siege of Troy may be a memory of the Bronze Collapse.

It is with Homer that we enter into recorded Greek history, known as the Archaic period.

The Archaic Period

From 800 B.C. to 480 B.C., Greece underwent revolutionary changes and began to emerge from its tribal era. This period saw the growth of cities once more, which was fueled by an increase in population and the expansion of commercial trade. The idea of people being ruled by kings vanished and was replaced by a new form of government, the city-state, in which people sought not to be warrior-heroes, but good citizens. As a result, there was a focus on refining city life, which led to great achievements in architecture, sculpture, art, commercial relations and trade, politics, and intellectual and cultural life.

Because of a greater population, colonies were established outside of Greece: in Sicily, southern Italy, eastern parts of Spain, along the southern coastline of France, at Cyrenaica in North Africa, in the Hellespont, and along the Black Sea. All this was possible because of the growth of technological knowledge, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, as well as developments of a new form of government, the polis, or the city-state, which came about as a result of synoecism, or the gathering of various villages into single political entities or units.

It was because of advances in the archaic period that Greek city-states prepared themselves for the maturity and perfection that they would achieve in the fifth century B.C. And the most important of these cities was Athens, whose citizens radically and permanently changed the world around them – so much so that the ideas implemented by these men and the structures established by them are the very ones in which we still live. Civilization would never really look back, because of what was achieved in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

C.B. Forde lives, thinks, dreams in a rural setting.


The featured image shows, “Dance in ancient Greece,” by Johan Raphael Smith ca. 19th century.

Spinoza On Power

In this article I will focus exclusively on Spinoza’s theory of power (potentia) which forms a key element of his theories of natural right and imperium. For the legal theoretical importance of potentia in the areas, see the forthcoming articles NATURAL RIGHT and IMPERIUM, and for the relation to capacity (power) see the forthcoming article POTESTAS. My purpose here is to convey the deep structure of the Spinozan concept of power, rather than become too lost in the geometrico-theological terminology he deploys, or the countless interpretations by which he has been determined.

Following Spinoza, it is necessary to construct a definition. Firstly, Spinoza posits a self-caused something (substance) which is the cause of all things — this is its essence, which follows from its properties (infinity, immutability, capacity to know etc.). Spinoza calls this something ‘God’.

Secondly Spinoza now considers what this God is doing, the importance of which question is illustrated by the classical logical distinction between capacity to do and act. For example, Cato is able to walk (property and power [potestas]) and Cato walks (attribute) are clearly different things. Though this God must be able to do infinitely many things, for human purposes Spinoza can only perceive two properties enacted, namely the attributes of Thought and of Extension.

Thirdly, Spinoza notes that this God is ‘unrestrained’ save by its own necessity, and being essentially self-caused (so propelled to act, as it were), this God exercises all his properties infinitely; that is, just as Cato, when he walks, is a walking thing, so God is a thinking and extending thing. Spinoza reserves the name God for this thing when it is thinking, and Nature for when it is extending (Deus sive Natura).

Note that because God or Nature is unrestrained save by its own necessity, every attribute is enacted immediately and inexhaustibly: it is eternal. Now, this enactment is perceived as everlasting in the sense that while Cato may get tired of walking, God or Nature does not, but Spinoza wants us to conceive of this enactment as rigorously eternal i.e. not even indefinite duration may properly be ascribed to it.

Equipped with this construction of substance and its attributes, we are now in a position to conceive potentia by literally ‘plugging’ God or Nature into its attributes. What do I mean? Well, the attributes must be considered as ordering functions — if they are presented with something to function on, they will assign and distribute that something in a single and determinate manner. For example, imagine I took all the letters from this page and jumbled them up into a tiny ball. Now imagine there was a computer program which, if I fed these same letters into it, would distribute them in such a manner as to recreate this text. The attributes operate in something like this way: on their own they are empty, but if we feed God or Nature into them, God or Nature will be distributed in a single, determinate manner to constitute a completed, well-ordered world.

This is easier to illustrate with an albeit misleading example about Extension, where if we posit the Extension function Ext(x), then Ext(Nature) distributes Nature according to a definite coordinate system, in a manner that evolves Descartes celestial fluid model shown in the diagram above. This would be nothing other than Cartesian space, which is why it is misleading — Spinoza in our view is convinced that Cartesian analytic geometry is quite incapable of grasping the subtleties of the ‘infinite series’ of things. Likewise, we can imagine a Thought function T(x), which explicates God as the infinite understanding (every idea). To underline, while we speak of plugging God or Nature into the attributes, the essence of God is such that God does his own ‘plugging’: he self-explicates.

This concept of ordered distribution is critical to understanding power, for if it is not already evident, insofar as the attributes explicate the essence of God or Nature, they distribute God’s very power with the result that that which appears as distributed (the modes) each express God or Nature’s infinite power in a certain and determinate way (hence ‘modus’). As Spinoza puts it: ‘God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of things’. Consequently, power or potentia is only correctly conceived when we appreciate that it has been distributed according to a certain and determinate order — that if I point at any ‘this’, it must have a definite degree of power — and that in fact this is the only real characteristic of power that Spinoza is asking us to be interested in. In other words, to the question ‘what is power?’ we must respond that power has been radically divested of any ‘occult qualities’ in favour of its determination by reference to its well-ordered distribution. That is, power is defined only by its relation to a whole order as a determinate difference: omnia determinatio est negatio. To put this in another way:

All instances of power distributed by the attributes identified above are intense in infinite degree – that is, all the way down – and are continuous everywhere.

I flag for the reader the possibly problematic interrelation between this distribution and the corporeal plenum which constitutes Spinozan extension which follows from the fact that in a plenum we have nowhere to assess these potentials ‘alone’. My view is that Spinoza’s conception of ‘corporeal plenum’ is rigorously other than the common sense meaning of the term (see my thesis referred to at the end).

Hegel’s criticisms of Spinoza on this very point of determinate negation are well known, but in fact Spinoza demands that we raise the complexity of our understanding multi-fold to really get at the heart of his conception. The problem with the above outline is that despite its liturgical nods to infinite power, it does not quite appreciate what Spinoza’s infinity means for the proposed structure. The tendency to distribute infinitely harks to Hegel’s spurious infinite which proceeds indefinitely, whereas, as I have shown elsewhere, Spinoza has available another conception of the infinite which is decidedly more concrete. This infinite is obtained by considering the finite case and then passing immediately to the limit, a technique Deleuze revived in his own work.1 What happens at the limit is inevitably some form of transition: the curve becomes the straight line (Cusanus), motion becomes rest (Bruno), the citizen becomes “a god amongst men” (Aristotle). So what happens when power is raised to the limit?

Correctly speaking Spinoza does not ask this about power because of its nature; rather he asks it about the ‘things’ of the type that we have been constructing: things that operate in a certain determinate manner. In other words, he asks it about machines. Spinoza is asking what happens when we raise a finite machine to the limit. What happens when we have a machine that operates at the concrete infinite? What can this ‘body’ do? We have already encountered a key aspect of the answer above, though we only applied its meaning spuriously. Such a machine would operate without restraint save in accordance with its own laws of operation. We initially applied this idea of non-restraint to conclude that the attributes distribute the operations of the machine ‘everywhere’, but even if we do assign power to every point of a notional space, however extended, can we be satisfied that every possible operation has been accounted for? Difficult as it may seem, we cannot. A distribution of power across infinitely many finite machines is just an indefinitely large aggregate of finite powers.

Furthermore, and I believe this to be Spinoza’s thought process, considered as the whole face of the universe — the aggregate of all the finite machines connected together in a plenum – all this power would have one effect and one alone: it would hold the universe together as a One, as one divine machine, but there would be no events. The machine would be like a lever in a void, held together by power, completely packed with as much potentia as it could ever need, but completely static. Even if we conceived that this lever was mobile — that it was moving at 1 ft/s downwards, say — this kinematic fact would suggest a constant motion, that is, a change which simply repeated itself to remain the same. People tend to trip up here, because they equate motion with dynamism, and read Spinoza’s theory in paricular as dynamic because machines move about indefinitely (this is their conatus, or endeavour to persist). The confusion is understandable, but leads to brutal, flattening misreadings of Spinoza, in which he is collapsed into a kind of eccentric Hobbesianism in which all are choked by the bonds of fate.

Spinoza realised there is a very real physical need for another machine to be posited which would literally upset the balance — a machine which additionally, once it had acted, must necessarily not have exhausted itself just so it can continue to force further impulsions into the finite mechanical system. It is this capacity which is provided by power taken to its limit. Thus Spinoza dynamises the universe and teaches us what dynamics is: it is not the motions of the spheres, it is not even change; it is the change of motion and so the variation of change. These variations of change he terms ‘transitions’ and they have their sources in the determinate distributions of God or Nature’s infinite that is inexhaustible power.

The infinite divine machine not only constitutes a (spuriously) infinite world of finite machines all running in a certain and determinate manner, but in addition it overlays (as it were) an order of (truly) infinite power which disrupts the settled concrescence of things. Accordingly, in addition to the appearance of actual power in the world, which Spinoza calls the ‘actual essence’ of things, we must also be attentive to a second critical category, viz. the ‘formal essence’ of things which is nothing other than the distributed power of God or Nature insofar as it constitutes potential ‘forms’ [formae] into which existing machines may coalesce and produce new effects. God or Nature not merely determines the world, but ‘over-determines’ the world into a foment of creation, though it is my view that this over-determination is perceptual and once all aspects of ‘time’ (eternity, duration, and time) are reintegrated into this model the augmented system returns to complete determination. The study of power now takes on the aspect of studying the distribution of formal essences and thus falls within the preliminary ambit of transcendental empiricism.

In addition, however, it is necessary to re-fold this notional formal overlay into the immanent structure of the world. By simply positing an additional realm of essences have we not returned to a kind of Platonism, to the transcendence which Spinoza explicitly ruled out? Our questioning consequently devolves on how this truly infinite power is integrated in the world at the same level as its finite content. In physical terms I have undertaken research attempting to piece together Spinoza’s thinking regarding this infinite Natural power which I will not repeat here, but it is his arguments and studies in the physical realm which, like all classical materialists, inform his explicit response in the field that concerned him most of all viz. ethics.

Spinoza’s insight is this: that insofar as the human is a thinking thing she is the vehicle, or better, source, of God’s infinite power in the thought world, a fact which indirectly follows from Spinoza’s reworking of the Cartesian cogito in which certain ideas transit into the substance of thought.2 Applying our knowledge, we realise that not only therefore does each human machine express finite power in its having this or that thought within the determinate chain of conscious duration, but in addition each human expresses infinite power as an inexhaustible power of thought intervening as the condition of thinking, and in particular as the condition of thinking the infinite idea Dei (the goal of all thought to which we must turn once thought).

For Kant this difference in the mind appeared as a difference between a determinate world of desires and a completely free, but empty, will that reigned over inclinations. Spinoza, on the other hand, has derived a necessary and determinate power which is nevertheless free because it is inexhaustible and can pass across the realm of formal essences in an instant (I call this an homological power). To adopt anachronistic language, the will is completely and materially determined as to its ethical content — it is this infinite will here being acted upon by other infinite wills (the acts of the virtuous) — but it freely gives that content to determinate desire and further determines this latter without negating or alienating its own power: in short, it negates negation.

It is wrong, however, to assume that a human is to be considered an atomic building block of this world. The very nature of Spinoza’s conception requires us to consider the human itself as constituted by a determinate series of machines coalescing around a formal essence, this latter itself determined by its relation to all essences. There is no foundational element: the essence does not justify some vulgar essentialism for the simple reason that it is mute form — it is the condition of meaning but has no meaning. The formal essence rather may be said to form a ‘hospitable zone’ in which an inexhaustible variety of lives may be lived, human and otherwise. In this idea we see aspects of Deleuze’s larval subjects, and Balibar’s transhuman individuality.

With this briefly outlined movement, Spinoza enters the sphere of legal theory armed with a conception of power which imputes into the overbearing ‘force’ theories of legal power of the Early Modern power an additional, subtly integrated structure of infinite power which rises up from every free-thinking individual. We will treat of these practical matters in our articles on NATURAL RIGHT and IMPERIUM.


Stephen Connelly is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Warwick.


The featured image shows, “The Rage of Achilles,” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, painted in 1757.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]


The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 2: Johann Georg Hamann, On The Idolatry Of Faith In Reason

There is a great irony in Hume’s fate in so far as the very probablism which he used against religious faith was taken up in Germany by Friedrich Jacobi and Johann Georg Hamann, not only to provide an argument for the inescapable role of faith in life, but also, especially in Hamann’s case, for mounting an argument about the value of the Christian life. So impressed was Hamann by Hume that he translated his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion into German.

The religious Hamann had no delusions about where Hume stood on matters of religion—and in this respect, Hume was on the side of the enlightened, i.e., the enemy who were substituting their metaphysically derived ideas, which is to say, their bloodless version of life, for life itself. Nevertheless, as he would confide to Herder: “Hume [over against Kant] is always my man because he at least honored the principium of faith and took it up in his system.” And to J. Lindner he picks up on Hume’s statement in the Enquiry that because the Christian religion “was at first attended with miracles… even at this day [it] cannot be believed by any reasonable person,” commenting: “Hume may have said this with a scornful or wistful attitude, nevertheless it is orthodoxy and a witness to the truth in the mouth of an enemy and persecutor of the same—all his doubts are proof of his proposition.”

The sceptical Hume, for Hamann, therefore veers into the doubtful territory of faith. Had Hume been a little less prejudiced when roaming around in that territory, he would have had to concede that in it are to be found men and women, like Hamann, every bit as capable of using their reason, and yet also sceptical of reason’s overreach, whose faith, nevertheless, leads them to live the lives they do. In this respect, W.M. Alexander (whose book Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith is, in my opinion, the best book, among some seriously good books, on Hamann) observes “Hamann’s problem” is,

the philosophy of his age and how his own thought as a Christian relates to it. How does the Christian exist (and more specifically—in his “authorship”—how does he think authentically as a Christian) in genuine contact with the world. Hamann was one of the first Christian thinkers to recognize that he lived—as did the early Church Fathers -in a non-Christian world—the Church was no longer communicating to “Jews” but to “Greeks.”

The essentially Christian character of Hamann’s thinking stands in striking contrast to what remained an essentially metaphysical position advanced by his friend Jacobi, who had become very famous in Germany with his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn. Jacobi had detected the Spinozian (deterministic) influence upon the age, and had countered that faith is an ontological given and a foundation of reason. Furthermore, it was not just, as Kant had argued, a rational element within the moral sphere of life. While an ally of Jacobi with respect to emphasising the inescapable condition of faith in the larger scheme of reason, Hamann was also critical of the latter’s metaphysical philosophizing. Thus, Hamann would pointedly say to Jacobi of his David Hume on Faith: “In the absence of your book I can say nothing further, dear Jonathan [Jacobi!], except to speak of the relation of both of the objects of your authorship to mine: ‘Idealism’ and ‘Realism’ versus Christianity and Lutheranism. Both of the former are, in my eyes, ideal; the latter real.”

While Jacobi, then, wished to ‘demonstrate’ where faith stood in the greater schema of reason and, indeed, philosophy itself, Hamann’s faith was not the result of any philosophical question, but the result of a personal crisis. As a talented young man with prospects, he had been assigned to represent a Riga merchant on diplomatic business. That had proven to be a dead end and after squandering his and the firm’s money on drinking and carousing, and trying to make ends meet as a lutenist, he entered into what was probably a sexual friendship with another young man, whom he subsequently discovered to have received money for sexual favours by a wealthy patron.

Appalled, broke, and solitary he started reading the Bible, and like so many Jews and Christians he came to the realization that it was no ordinary book—but a book that expressed the immediacy of his circumstance and experience, and God’s responsiveness to humanity’s despair and cry. The truths that the book contained, then, were inseparable from the needs and longings and willingness of the reader to respond in kind to God’s love and majesty, which he saw depicted everywhere throughout this book which was part historical chronicle, part testimony, part instruction, part description, and so much else beside. But also, and most importantly, the record of an encounter between the one true loving God and His people, which opened up the believing heart to also encounter the living God, and take up a new life based upon that encounter.

In other words, what Hamann grasped was the fact of faith, and the fact of his faith being tied in with a tradition of experiences and stories and history, and an encounter of exactly the sort that he had experienced. This is obviously a million miles away from what Jacobi was doing, let alone what Kant did when he tackled the problems of God and the soul, and came to the conclusion they were the product of reason’s own dialectical transcendence of our cognitive conditions, a transcendence which is really an illusion, in so far as the conditions only have validity as truth conditions about the things of our world when they apply to the world. This is what Kant called appearances because the things of our world must appear in space and time in order to be experienced. Kant and Hamann had for some time at least been on friendly terms, and Hamann even helped find a publisher for the Critique of Pure Reason (a work, as we see below, he thought completely wrong-headed). For his part, Kant thought Hamann was a Schwärmer, a rapid “enthusiast,” which is, to say, what the British call “a nutter.”

Generally, Hamann’s philosophical contemporaries saw the bible as either a superstitious attempt to make sense of their experiences or a mythic rendering of moral laws—a position which one can only hold until one reads the Bible. Kant read it like this and had to morally reproach Abraham. For Hamann this was missing the whole point, as was the kind of discussion around faith that had involved Jacobi, Kant, and later Hegel: Hamann did not just believe something he read, he experienced his faith completely changing his life. The book made him a different man. Thus, it was not merely a cerebral matter, but a matter of soul, and thus to treat the Bible along the usual lines of scholarly or philosophical interrogation is really to miss what is most essential about it: it would be like saying one had been swimming but one just had not gone into any water.

Note also, that while the enlightened philosophers would question the reality of the object of faith—God—they would treat God as if He were an object, or, as in Kant, once it is conceded that God is not an object like a natural object, as a “mere idea of reason.” Hamann, as with so many of the faithful, does not see God as an object (or idea of reason) at all; God is no more an idea than He is a thing. But, if we are to stay with philosophical language, God is, nevertheless, a condition of reality, not a “logical condition,” but a creator of whom we can only make sense through encounter and engagement. From Hamann’s Lutheran perspective, when we speak of or about God rather than to Him, at least if we are not disposing ourselves as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit, we are already losing sight of Him. This is also why, for Hamann, “if they are fools who in their hearts deny the existence of God, it strikes me as yet more foolish to want to prove him first.”

To repeat, Hamann has invoked God in a completely different manner from the philosophers—for the purpose of the philosophers’ inquiries, God cannot be divorced from the subjects forming their narrative (the philosophers). For philosophers, what Hamann has done by insisting on taking seriously what the book actually does as opposed to what it merely says is to open-up the floodgates that threaten reason (and philosophy) itself. This, as far as Hamann is concerned, not his problem, but their problem, and it stems from their wanting to only look so far at what is going on in our lives and in world. That is, they want to deny God to be as God: what they know is what is—the entire philosophical attempt from Descartes to Kant to lay down what constitutes experience (the laws of nature) is, from Hamann’s point of view, a confirmation of this.

Hamann overturns what he sees as the self-delusion that motivates the enlightenment project—and his thinking returns us to the pre-philosophical disposition. Ancient people did not come to their gods through their powers of reason—because reason, imagination, and world were all intertwined. Thus, too they knew that their gods existed because they were implicated in a world of mutual dependency: sacrifices are as necessary for the gods as for the gods’ responsive beneficence. One might venture that this is as true of the Jews as of every ancient people, as evident in Yahweh’s jealousy and commandment against false gods.

This kind of anthropological understanding renders the kind of clear-cut distinctions of philosophical ideation irrelevant. The kind of truth that this hermeneutical community is engaging with is the truth of their very own existence, which would have no existence apart from the very parables, commands, bonds, and common orientation that is both the content of their faith as well as its condition. Hamann’s faith is, then, indeed the kind of faith to be found in what Hume had called “common-life,” but “common life” as a whole is no longer understood in the abstract as something that can be analytically dissected into the enlightened and superstitious parts; it forms a unity, which is not to say that things people do is beyond criticism—but the pitch of the criticism is always going to come from some human place, and not some ideational “heaven” that can be found by talking and thinking a certain way.

In this respect, Hamann thinks philosophers are victims of their own superstitions. For Hamann, truths that are abstractly constructed, that have not developed within time, literally have no life. Likewise, metaphysical “truths” are at best conjectures, and typically spurious. Only what has life can be true. As Alexander rightly says: “Truth,” for Hamann, “is not primarily and most authentically an idea or text of written words but a concrete historical life.” Likewise, “truth is not an academic possession: it unfolds only in the transition of a lifetime… ‘Truths are metals which develop under the earth.’”

The notion that truth is something that is revealed over time—“by their fruits you shall know them”—requires taking our temporality and historicity seriously. This, in turn, requires conceding that we do not engage with eternal “ideas,” for such an engagement is purely beyond our ken. We and our ideas grow, and hence reveal themselves for what they are in and through and over time—our climbing high to espy the “all” is sand-castle-in-the-air stuff that brings us crashing down to earth. From this perspective, the Platonic cast of mind shares with the metaphysics of modernity a view of the cosmos in which the eternal order of mathematics takes a particular pride of place, but for all that way of thinking can achieve by way of construction and contrivance with merely material “substances,” when it comes to what we hold important in our lives, what we believe in, then, at best, it may be an ancillary, but at worst, it is an elimination of who and what we are. The elective affinity between mathematical and metaphysical thinking is an affinity that draws us away from what we sense and feel, and want.

What we find in Hamann and ultimately makes his legacy so powerful and fecund, is the combination of a resolutely anti-metaphysical disposition with a great sensitivity for the kinds of problems (if not the answers) that are genuinely philosophical. Moreover, because, for Hamann, “All of our knowing is piece-work and all human rational foundations consist either in faith in the truth and doubt of the untruth, or faith in the untruth and doubt of the truth,” we cannot simply divide the world into what conforms to faith and what conforms to reason, as if this kind of bifurcation somehow conforms to some kind of objective disjunction.

Hamann’s antipathy to bifurcation makes him an important influence upon figures such as Herder, Hegel and Schelling for whom dualism was always the source of a more fundamental philosophical problem than a genuine solution. Moreover, for Hamann: “faith is no work of reason, and therefore is subject to no attack by the same, because faith as little happens through reasons as taste and sight.”

The question of the relationship between faith and knowledge and/or reason, and the nature of the relationship between the two would become a key one of the age. Kant would argue that freedom was a matter of rational faith, and that the reason behind identifying the limits of knowledge was primarily to enable that faith so that our sense of moral duty would preside over what merely is by nature. Hegel saw the problem as a symptom of the divided nature of the modern self, which sought knowledge, but could not bear to reconcile itself with the conditions of its own actual achievements of freedom, seeking solace in a beyond accessible to faith, but ultimately a mere empty “should,” ever out of reach and unrealizable.

Hegel’s brilliant critique of the antithesis between faith and knowledge/reason in Faith and Knowledge and tirelessly repeated throughout his corpus makes perfect sense when directed at Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, and even Schelling (in so far as he commences with the Absolute’s being and (un-, or dark) ground). For they are indeed operating with conceptual dualisms within a system, and hence too each was seeking some ground or rationally defensible starting point for what was always a metaphysics. But it does not touch Hamann. For Hamann has no interest in providing a rational basis for faith; he has no system. Christianity is not a philosophical system, even if theologians may wish to bring rationality to it for coherence.

The unity of a life is more akin to the kind of unity a body of faith displays (with members in division) than a philosophical system which, from the outset, requires conceptual or ideational consistency. Hamann commences with the fact of his faith and then clarifies how it shapes his life, and the lives of others who live in their faith communities. This is an anthropological move that differs from the neo-Hegelian anthropology of Feuerbach and the young Marx, insofar as the neo-Hegelian appeal to community, freedom, equality is always to an ideational end that motivates the anthropological aspect of their thinking. Hamann, however, emphasises the common anthropological condition, and then compares different bodies with their different faiths (most specifically philosophers and Christians like him).

Just as Hamann’s discussion of faith and reason is distinctly un-metaphysical, his observations about reason is not itself dependent upon an adequate logic of demonstration: reasons come after the fact. As he would write to Kant: “I must almost laugh over the choice of a philosopher for the purpose of bringing about in me a change of mind. I look upon the best demonstration as a reasonable girl does a love-letter.”

While, then, Hamann’s insight about faith and common life is far closer in spirit to anthropology than philosophy, it nevertheless has implications for philosophy, implications which would “rein in” its rationalist tendencies. This is well brought out in a letter to J.G. Lindner, where Hamann would paraphrase (or slightly misquote) Hume and critically compare the enlightened faith in reason with Jewish faith in the Law, and both with Paul:

“The final fruit of all philosophy is the noting of human ignorance and weakness.” This same function, which is related to our powers of understanding and knowledge, shows us how ignorant we are just as the moral shows us how evil and shallow is our virtue. This cornerstone at the same time is a millstone which shatters to pieces all his sophistries. Our reason therefore is just that which Paul calls the Law—and the Law of the Reason is holy, just and good. But is it given to us to make us wise? Just as little as the Law was given to the Jews to justify them, but to convince us of the opposite: how unreasonable is our reason, and that our errors are to be increased by it, just as sin increased by the Law. If everywhere Paul speaks of the Law one puts “reason” (this “law” of our century and the watchword of our clever heads and scribes), Paul will speak to our contemporaries.

For Hamann, when it comes to the kind of knowledge we most need, he wrote to Jacobi: “Sense and history are the foundations and ground—be the former ever so deceptive and the latter ever so simple, I still prefer them to all castles in the air.” Our circumstance is such that what we can think is always either revealed, fragmented, or abstracted: “A reason which acknowledges itself as a daughter of the senses and the material, behold! this is our religion.”

To make thought something more real than the senses is itself to commence a train of abstraction that can all too swiftly leave our language and traditions which have been the means by which collective sense is formed. It is philosophy that, according to Hamann makes “castles in the air.” Or as he put it in another letter to Jacobi—philosophy carries on with “empty shadow-boxing with ideas and speculations against data and facts, with theoretical deceptions against historical truths, with plausible probabilities against witnesses and documents.”

Although all the most reputable Hamann scholars recognize that dismissing Hamann as an “irrationalist” is nonsense, if by that we mean that he does not think reason has any role to play in a life. Beiser puts the matter succinctly when he points out that “The stumbling block of all irrationalist interpretations of Hamann is therefore nothing less than the central thesis” of Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: that faith is neither rational nor irrational since reason cannot either prove or disprove it.

What Hamann does is something that no serious philosopher should, or even can, simply dismiss: he identifies reason’s limits as deriving from its dependency upon existence itself, community, history and language. He is not arguing that we should deny what we know or what can be known—but reason is an activity or operation taking place within our lives (a point taken up by Kierkegaard and existentialism more generally): to hypostazise it is to beguile ourselves into thinking that we really know all we would need about what is going on in life, and that we are not surrounded by genuine mysteries, which in Hamann’s case are given meaning through his faith in God and revelation.

For Hamann, one of the more persistent errors of philosophy is to treat reason as “real being,” which it is not, rather than as an activity which we undertake. As he wrote to Jacobi:

People speak of reason as if it were a real being, and the dear God as if the same were nothing but a concept. Spinoza speaks of an Object causa sui and Kant of a Subject causa sui. Until this misunderstanding is removed, it will be impossible to understand one another. When one knows what reason is, all discrepancy with revelation ceases.

Conversely while philosophers may ceaselessly dispute about what reason is, people of faith harken to their God and build their world around that harkening. To be sure once matters of faith becomes theological problems, the same problem occurs; but, if viewed with a more ancient eye, the issue of theological dispute can also turn around the matter of “which God?” is appealing to us and demanding our response—the God that creates, reveals and redeems, or a supra-human (diabolical) power that may be merely devouring us?

In this respect, Hamann’s position can be buttressed by an insight that plays a pivotal role in the work of Rosenstock-Huessy, a genuine progeny of Hamann. For Rosenstock-Huessy saw the problem of his age was not just that people did not believe in God, but they did not have any clue about the gods; only once one concedes the reality of gods—a reality that is witnessed in behaviours, for the gods are not under our command—is one in a position to understand God. For originally the gods are recognized and named, and their communal importance assigned so that they can be followed, summoned, supplicated to, and obeyed (or disobeyed). I will take up this point below.

For Hamann the discrepancy between reason and revelation ceases because revelation deals in contingencies, not metaphysics, which deals in the Absolute. The nature of the Absolute would become the centre of philosophical gravity for post-Kantian idealisms, but Hamann already recognized the problem of this philosophical move before it even takes place when he writes to Jacobi: “Being, faith, reason are merely relations which are not to be dealt with as absolutes; they are not things, but pure academic concepts, signs for the understanding, not things to be admired, but means of helping to awaken and fix our attention.”

If one thinks that the truth of life’s meaning is disclosed through reason itself, then Hamann’s position is absurd. Though it is precisely this question of what reason is and what it can really do that runs through Hamann’s critique of metaphysical thinking. While it is commonplace for philosophers to present people of faith as ignorant, or superstitious dupes as opposed, for example, to Dennett’s “brights,” Hamann’s contrast between the God of “rational salvation” and the “God of historical revelation’ is the contrast between ahistorical abstract thinking taking its cues of truth from “nature” and an historical hermeneutical community taking its orientation from a tradition and its symbols grounded in mystery, creation, miraculous contingencies, covenant, prophesy, love, hope and faith in salvation. The enlightened philosophers can only construe all this through a process of “denuding,” so that what is left is mere “nature;” or rather those features of nature, which accommodate the framing required by the experimental and mathematical conditions that render it a totality of laws.

Spinoza’s breaking down of the emotions into natural drives, which then, along with other natural circumstances, are invoked to make sense of the Bible, exemplifies the process. It is, though, the substitution of a history based upon the understanding as opposed to the history of the imagination, the substitution of what exclusively conforms to law for what is frequently parable, and the substitution of one community’s orientation—the philosophers’ community—for the communities of the Jewish and Christian peoples.

For Hamann the failure to grasp that historical nature is not mere nature, but one in which symbols, imagination, and the gamut of semiotic triggers bind and form communities is a mere prejudice of enlightenment philosophers, and illustrates a major difference between the depth of knowledge about the nature of people and life within the religious tradition that the enlightened are simply blind to because of their own prejudice. Thus, of Lessing’s Education of the Human Race, he writes in a letter to Herder:

A week ago, I took up the Education of the Human Race for the second time… Basically the old leaven of our fashionable philosophy: prejudice against Judaism [i.e. anti-historical]—ignorance of the true spirit of the Reformation [i.e. knowing only philosophical self-salvation].

Another major reason why Hamann is considered an early existentialist is because he revels in the absurd—in a manner that suggests a deep affinity with the British author Laurence Sterne—and he turns the tables on those who would take the absurdity of existence as if it were somehow capable of receiving a rational explanation. And he does this in all manner of ways, from the (seriously) playful nature of his authorship, to his position on language as a miracle, to his critique of the enlightenment as a form of idolatry. The great irony of the power of Hamann’s thought is that it plays the “fool” against reason’s majesty and might, only to expose the threadbare nature of that majesty. Philosophy engages in a substitution racket and takes unreal things as real things—and then it criticizes things we know through the very lives we live, because they do not conform to the unreal schema we have created.

Of course, Nietzsche will make this same point—but the real assessment of any comparison between Nietzsche and Hamann revolves around what one thinks of their respective faiths in the superman or Christian life, and it must be said, Nietzsche’s and Hamann’s radically different views over what the Christian life entails. Hamann would undoubtedly find in Nietzsche’s (and Heidegger’s) reading of Christianity an ahistorical fantasy. Both Nietzsche and Hamann, nevertheless, concur about Platonism being an “enemy” of life, and Hamann’s admiration for Socrates does not extend to the legacy of his greatest pupil, which he sees as an being inimical to Christianity: “Platonism is not the friend but the enemy of Christianity.”

Bearing the above in mind, then, it is true that Hamann was opposed to placing faith in the abstract “reason” of imagined “forms.” And he wrote to Jacobi that “the entire Kantian construction appears to me to rest upon the idle trust that certainty comes ex vi formae [by the power of forms].” Which is to say, he saw Kant’s entire undertaking of the transcendental delimiting of the legitimacy boundaries of our experience in the Critique of Pure Reason as completely wrong-headed.

For the mind to try and understand itself through self-reflection and the study of the “mind” is akin to someone thinking that fish are produced by a fishing rod, (the same analogy is also apposite for understanding why Hamann objects to naturalist attempts to understand language of the sort that he thought his close friend Herder had foolishly undertaken). Why the mind is more knowable than language and experience is itself, though, due to a mistaken faith. And this faith in the mind’s power to oversee itself, is, for Hamann, a blind and blinding faith that suffocates and smothers “life” with its own limited understanding and glaring light. As he would write to Herder: enlightened reason is the reason of “sadduaic freethinkers;” and their “reason is untruth, a superstition.” “Sound reason” exists in their “imagination.” Thus Alexander perceptively observes:

Hamann can sum up his authorship as an “exposure [Entkleidung] and transfiguration” of those who attempt “a violent unclothing [Entkleidung] of real objects down to naked concepts and bare intellectual entities, pure phantoms, and phenomena.”

And,

Hamann’s purpose is to challenge “the despotism of Apollo” [“God of wisdom” i.e., philosophy] which “fetters truth and freedom in demonstrative proofs, principles and conclusions” (II, 272). These things only distort truth, which is not enshrined in any consistent combination of ideas. Truth is the life which became flesh and the Spirit which “justifies and makes alive” (III, 227). God gives life to us in a unity which does not come before us dissected into intellectual abstractions. In His revelation of Himself He concentrates Himself in the unity of one human person. Not only in his thought, but in his style as well, Hamann tries to reflect this concentration and this unity. His style is its own symbolic attack on that way of thinking which “prefers the conceivability of a thing to its truth.
Truths, principles; systems I am not up to. Rather scraps, fragments, crotchets, thoughts.

I might also add here that the similarities between Hamann’s and Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics and their eschewal of “naked” truth cannot be overestimated—but Nietzsche, unlike Hamann, hails a new metaphysics of will to power because he wants philosophers to be the value creators of the future. For Hamann, the idea that one can philosophically will a culture would be just one further symptom of the derangement of enlightenment faith.

In so far as Hamann is correct to recognize that the “Greek” (i.e., philosophical) mind, with its various “ideas,” names, and way of going about its business had culturally triumphed over the “Jewish” and early Christian spirit, Hamann had no choice than to “speak Greek.” Although he mixed it up with babble and strange tongues to both engage and confuse minds dealing with clarity and distinctness in a world full of lives which rarely offers either. That is, to truly take on what he saw as becoming the dominant faith of the new age on whose cusp he lived, any criticisms which might be heard by the younger generation had to be, at least partially, philosophically shaped. Yet the purpose of his speaking philosophically was to draw philosophy into another, more hermeneutical rather than “rationalist” or metaphysical “camp.”

Moreover, it was not that he thought all philosophical thinking was useless, a point made obvious in his Socratic Memorabilia that shows his serious respect for philosophy which was genuinely inquisitive, yet sufficiently humble to accept reason’s aporias, rather than engage in elaborate rationalisation and abstraction which swiftly becomes an idol of one’s own making. To his friend Lindner he wrote:

An ancient king of Israel believed in an old witch who saw gods mount up out of the earth. Since then, our philosophers have tightly closed their eyes in order not to have to read any distractions to the detriment of nature, and have folded their hands in their laps to pamper their beautiful skin; and it has rained castles-in-the-air and philosophical systems from heaven. Whoever would work his land or build houses, dig up or conceal treasures, must dig in the womb of the earth, which is the mother of us all.

Alexander cleverly observes three major ways in which philosophy appears in Hamann:

Hamann uses the term philosophy in at least three different senses which taken together, point to Hamann’s distinctive conception of philosophy and faith.

1. Philosophy understood as against faith, or as another faith. Often “philosophy” in Hamann means “false philosophy.” Philosophy here is “idolatry.” If he thought of “Rome” and “papacy” as cryptic symbols for the new philosophical “despotism” of the Enlightenment, then perhaps he also spoke of this philosophy as anti-Christ …

2. Philosophy understood as before faith, or better, before Christ. Philosophy here is “ignorance.” This is philosophy which is not yet Christian, but is not anti-Christian or incompatible with faith. Its symbol is Socrates.

3. Philosophy understood as in Christ, or as thinking “from faith to faith.” Philosophy here is “love of the LOGOS.” Much of what he calls “philosophy” in this sense would in modern usage be called theology. An example is in his letter to the Princess Galitzin, December 1787: “Herein [in Jesus Christ] consists the Alpha and Omega of my entire philosophy. More I know not, and do not wish to know.”

What is most original is that Hamann had, at the time of the Enlightened philosophy’s greatest self-assurance, opened up the meaning of philosophy in such a way that we may legitimately inquire after the religion of a philosophy, and not blithely accept the enlightened reading of religion as the outer shell of a philosophy, which could be understood by the “natural reason” of the philosopher, and thus turned against those world and self-making aspects of religion which could be relegated to mere “superstition.” With this insight Hamann had thrown out a philosophical challenge to philosophers from Spinoza through to Hume and Voltaire et. al.

But while Hamann’s madcap style and provocations would ensure acclaim amongst philosophical and literary luminaries, such as, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel (up to a point), and Jean Paul, his erstwhile friend Kant would fail to recognize anything of genuine philosophical importance in Hamann. And he would write his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, as if he were oblivious to the significance of his former friend’s challenge, and provide one further enlightened rationalisation for religion being morals for people who could not take their medicine straight, as rational ideas, but who needed the hoopla of ritual to ingest it. But, for Hamann, it was actually morality itself as an object of reason, and (again) the philosopher’s substantiation of a thought process into a “faculty” that was genuinely phantasmic and idolatrous. As he would write to Herder after reading Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Ethics:

Instead of Pure Reason the talk here is of another phantom of the brain and idol: the Good Will. That Kant is one of our shrewdest heads, even his enemies must admit, but unfortunately this shrewdness is his own evil demon, just as is the case with Lessing; for a new scholasticism and a new papacy are represented by both of these Midas ears of our glorious age.

Just as Hamann saw philosophy in anthropological terms, his hermeneutical apologetics of Christian faith is such that it exposes any such enlightened reductions as vacuous precisely by illustrating how faith orientates, and hence how different faiths orientate differently. Thus, even if one does not share another’s faith, one at least will be able to see how faith incarnates a life and a life-world. This would be an insight that would be of decisive importance for Herder.

Of the various orientations and emphases that lay behind Hamann’s insight into where faith fits in life, one of the most elemental that has important implications in more standard philosophical theologies is his (Lutheran) overturning of the more traditional theo-philosophical account of the “nature” or character and “directionf of the relationship between humans and God. The Greek movement toward monotheism, which would be so fateful in the neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian traditions and that wing of the Christian tradition that had been deeply influenced by those traditions, had all identified the soul’s spiritual journey as a process of transcendence, an upward movement of the soul to a God who Himself is characterized by his “transcendence.”

In response to this Hamann makes the obvious point (though one that is rarely expressed within philosophically shaped theologies) about the Jewish and Christian God that “is the basis of all his [i.e., the philosopher’s] attacks” on “natural; theology” and “natural religion”, viz., that, within the biblical narratives, it is not God’s transcendence that is the all-important issue for understanding the human predicament in relationship to God, but God’s “condescension.”

When theologians and philosophers refer to God’s transcendence, a term that evolves out of the Greek philosophical mind rather than biblical tradition, and when they refer to transcendence, without focusing upon the greater mystery of condescension, for Hamann, they not only misconstrue God, but they foster an exaggerated and idolatrous faith in the power of the world. For transcendence, as Alexander sums up Hamann’s position, is “world-oriented,” but the “symbol of ‘condescension’ is God-orientated.” That is the theo-philosophical emphasis upon God’s transcendence means that He is conceived, in the first instance, in relationship to the world, which appears familiar to us. Alexander also uses the example of baroque art to brilliant effect to illustrate what Hamann’s sees as what is at stake when we focus upon the relationship between God and humans as one of transcendence, rather than “condescendence:”

A glance at the art ruling Hamann’s age instantly reveals the source of Hamann’s instinctive objection: its world is one in which reason’s confidence in its position, its powers and its cosmos are self-secure. The world is more real than God. Everything Hamann protests against is here: it is a world in which reason demonstrates its dominance over every nook and cranny of reality. Ornamentation and artistic ramification testify to its self-confidence. No area is beyond its all-shaping power. When God in His “transcendence” is represented, it is “transcendence” (as in Sebastiano Conca’s “David Dancing Before the Ark”) over an otherwise “solid” earth. There is no question here as to what reality is utterly prior—it is man’s world and the human reason which has shaped it—and no amount of “height” in the painting can improve God’s “status.” Divine infinity has disappeared and only a domesticated variety remains.

Alexander adds that commencing with the “world-orientated” theology turns “all symbols into irrational assertions, and theology has simply asseverated that we must be content with this irrationality.”

By starting from the familiar, as natural theology does, to the unfamiliar, we have immediately reversed what Hamann sees as the far more profound insight of revelation; for what we do in the world with biblical faith is commence with something mysterious that is disclosed through parables, stories, commands etc. Moreover, for Hamann, the whole point of the Bible is revealed through how it speaks to its faithful, and the living power it reveals to those who are prepared to build their lives and world through faith in that power. Thus, for Hamann: “Every biblical story is a prophecy which is fulfilled through all centuries and in the soul of every man” (1,315). But also, “Every book is a Bible to me and every occupation a prayer”’ And “All the miracles of the holy scriptures happen in our souls” (I, 78). In other words, Hamann sees the universe as one that is pregnant with meaning. Of course, so does the schizophrenic, but the “gamble” of faith (to draw upon Pascal) lies, for Hamann, not in the origin—for faith in something is inescapable—it lies in what that faith engenders in a life and in a community.

One of the more remarkable features of the Western world today is that while the academic mind so frequently serves the enlightened ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, it has largely accepted the importance of culture as a primordial and positive force of identity. We shall briefly return to this point in our discussion of Herder, but here I simply wish to underscore that Hamann was living at a time when Western culture was undergoing a seismic shift due to philosophy extending into the various domains of human being, which up until relatively recent times it had little, or at best, as in the church, an ancillary role to play.

He had grasped that the world of Christendom and its culture was being swallowed up into a world bathed in philosophical glare. He was not a romantic wanting to revive medieval Christendom, as say Novalis or Frederick Schlegel, or Franz von Baader would become. And he did not idolize culture itself. But what is interesting is that the kinds of arguments he is raising about peoples and their faith, arguments developed and expanded along somewhat similar lines by Herder in applying them to cultures (though I think Hamann always the more radical, consistent mind), have been accepted not only by the more anthropologically inclined and in the humanities more broadly, but in society’s ideas-brokers at large.

Yet when it comes to the West itself, the victory of the enlightened mind is intrinsic to the general historical amnesia, and often sheer hostility, to Christian symbols and history. Hamann’s importance is that he taps into the experiential dimension that makes sense of Christianity as a personal and collective act, by constantly deploying biblical examples to illumine (genuinely enlighten) everyday as well as more perennial kinds of experience.

To put this slightly differently: today we can all accept that the imagination, history, language, and faith of people matter more than the reasons we impose upon them (which is not to say that we have to accept, as Gellner and others have feared that this leaves us without any means of critical judgments about cultural practice). That is, we think culture matters. Hamann opens up the door to why and how faith matters culturally and personally.

For, while Hamann is “up front” about his Christianity and Lutheran outlook, an outlook he not only did not assume his readers shared, and which many of his readers did not share, Hamann undertakes to be a thorn in the Enlightenment, a kind of Christian Socrates against the enlightened philosophers, who, for Hamann, are the sophists of his own time. They come with their own theological dogma and faith in their reason to deliver salvation, which though is largely hidden to them because they think they serve truth, and that the world will be saved through their works. But their truth is a lifeless idol.

What has taken the place of divine infinity is now reason’s infinity: its infinite capacity is the corollary of its absoluteness—whether as a heuristic (Kant) or substance (Hegel) makes no difference to the essential point Hamann recognizes. What, though, is meant to be the philosophical display of reason’s supreme majesty, is, for Hamann, really indicative of the mayhem of the age, a mayhem in which the every-day truths of every-day life are maimed by abstractness.

The most fundamental act of intellectual maiming, for Hamann, occurs through the philosophical cleavages which purport to deliver rationally pure forms and classifications. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as the name of his short essay on Kant clarified, was symptomatic of this delusional obsession with purity. As Hamann presents the problem, the increasing ascension of philosophical purity has occurred over time at the expense of the most elemental features of human sociality: tradition, custom, belief, religion, law-making, and ultimately language itself.

The first philosophical purification consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. The second is even more transcendent and amounts to nothing less than independence from all experience and its everyday induction. After a search of two thousand years for who knows what beyond experience, reason not only suddenly despairs of the progressive course of its predecessors, but also defiantly promises impatient contemporaries’ delivery and this in a short time, promises also, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone indispensable to Catholicism and despotism. Religion will submit its sanctity to it right away, and law-giving its majesty, especially at the final close of a critical century when empiricism on both sides struck blind, makes its own nakedness daily more suspect and ridiculous.
The third, highest, and as it were empirical purism, is therefore concerned with language, the only, first, and last organon and criterion of reason, with no other credentials but tradition and usage.

Yet again, we see a Nietzschean trope—“be true to the earth”—already deployed by Hamann against the destructive incursions of metaphysics into the most elemental features of social life.

Such talk as reason’s grounding or basis alludes to its capacity for building a tower or ladder to better understand the ways of God, the term which still worked for the deists, and, with German idealism, would become equivalent to or more often subsumed under the term the Absolute, before the Absolute would, with Fichte and the neo-Hegelians, and Nietzsche, become the imposition of the human will. For Hamann this overweening ambition and self-idolization—addressed in the story of the tower of Babel—could lead to nothing but disaster.

With great prescience he would see that the disaster would be driven by morality—which was just a veneer for the self-belief that people have in being able to dictate to God’s creation—i.e., life—how it should be: In a letter to Hartknoch he speaks of “our moralistic century” and in another to Jacobi he writes of the “moralistic” enlightened free thinkers as “apostles of lies.” And to Johann Steudel, he refers to “the moralistic generation of vipers among the Pharisees.” This is but one more example of Hamann’s turning of the tables on the men who believed that their own light would save the world—for it is usually Christians who are presented (and indeed often guilty of) grim and earnest moralizing.

For Hamann, “morality, bourgeois righteousness, industrious community service and charities” fueled the problem of evil—and he countered with the simple faith that “Christ is the door.” I think the following sentence will also resonate with those who cannot stand the virtue signaling that has become so widespread and which emanates from people who want for nothing, and who live off the ill-gotten (for they themselves keep saying how ill-gotten everything in the West is) gains of their forefathers, but seek ever more adulation for being who they pretend to be: “A strict moralism appears to me more vile and stale than the most capricious ridicule and scorn. To turn the good inward, and to show the evil outwardly—to appear worse than one actually is, to be better than one appears: this I hold for one’s duty and way of life.”

While Hamann is not strictly a political philosopher, he could see that what the enlightened philosophers were spreading was a suffocating web of tyrannical moralising. Thus, Alexander writes: “The ‘philosophical century,’ a proud epithet to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, Hamann uses as a term of opprobrium. He speaks of the ‘Babylonian philosophy’ which stands under the Confusion of Babel. It is the new “despotism,” a ‘metaphysical, moralizing’ Catholicism, ‘which has its seat in the very place [Berlin] where such an outcry is raised over the papacy.’”

More important than the nausea he felt at the philosophical sycophancy directed at Frederick the Great, and Frederick’s own taste for vain-glory was his prophetic sense of the hellish future emerging from the idolatry of reason’s light. In 1762 when the following passage first appeared it may have seemed the ravings of a lunatic, but in 1794 it was nothing if not prescient:

Nature works through the senses and the passions. But those who maim these instruments, how can they feel? Are crippled sinews fit for movement?—Your lying, murderous philosophy has cleared nature out of the way, and why do you demand that we are to imitate her?—So that you can renew the pleasure by becoming murderers of the pupils of nature, too—Yes, you delicate critics of art!, you go on asking what is truth, and make for the door, because you cannot wait for an answer to this question—Your hands are always washed, whether you are about to eat bread, or whether you have just pronounced a death-sentence.

Such prophecy, for Hamann, stands in the closest relationship to what it was he saw as the real meaning of Enlightenment: a power grab by abstract moralizers who want to become the guides and guardians of their new world. In his Letter to Christian Jacob Krauss he responds to Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with its “Sapere aude!” and Kant’s claim that enlightenment is the emergence of people from their “self-incurred tutelage.”

Hamann immediately “smells a rat;” for who is it who espies those in need of emancipation, and what is their role in the process, and what benefits accrue to them in terms of office, profession, prestige and such like? I quote at length because it is such a powerful indictment of the Enlightenment, which comes armed with its own mythology, and which has been used to judge all other mythologies but its own, which it seals with the sanction of a reason that is naught but its own conjuring:

Who is the other lay-about or guide that the author has in mind but has not the heart to utter? Answer: the tiresome guardian who must be implicitly understood as the correlate of those who are immature. This is the man of death. The self-incurred guardianship and not immaturity-
Why does the chiliast deal so fastidiously with this lad Absalom? Because he reckons himself to the class of guardians and wishes thereby to attain a high reputation before immature readers. The immaturity is thus self-incurred only insofar as it surrenders to the guidance of a blind or invisible (as that Pomeranian catechism pupil bellowed at his country pastor) guardian and leader. This is the true man of death-
So wherein lies the inability or fault of the falsely accused immature one? In his own laziness and cowardice? No, it lies in the blindness of his guardian, who purports to be able to see, and for that very reason must bear the whole responsibility for the fault.
With what kind of conscience can a reasoner [Raisonneur] & speculator by the stove and in a nightcap accuse the immature one! of cowardice, when their blind guardian has a large, well-disciplined army to guarantee his infallibility and orthodoxy? How can one mock the laziness of such immature persons, when their enlightened and self-thinking guardian-as the emancipated gaper at the whole spectacle declares him to be—sees them not even as machines but as mere shadows of his grandeur, of which he need have no fear at all, since they are his ministering spirits and the only ones in whose existence he believes?
So doesn’t it all come to the same thing? Believe, march, pay, if the d[evil] is not to take you. Is it not sottise des trois parts? And which is the greatest and most difficult? An army of priests [Pfaffen] or of thugs, hench-men, and purse snatchers? According to the strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs in which on the whole nearly everything is paradoxical, believing seems harder for me than moving mountains, doing tactical exercises-and the financial exploitation of immature persons, donec reddant novissimum quadrantem [till they have paid the last penny].

In this sense, then, the understanding and use of reason is itself corrupted, and philosophers who would have reason devour way more than it can chew, and in their devouring prepare the world for a new kind of hellish tyranny, concealed under the birth lights of rational progress.

In depicting Hamann’s critique of the Enlightenment, let us take up again the earlier point about the gods and the life-worlds of pre-philosophical peoples so that we can bring into sharp relief the world of faith in reason’s ideas and faith in gods. For Hamann is not for a second claiming that we should deny what we know to be true. But (again Nietzsche makes the same point but in a more palatable way to a readership hankering to display its creative genius in world-making), he contrasts one world, which divinizes its ideas without conceding that it does this, with another, which rests on faith about a God it obeys and whose way are miraculous and hence never completely rational or comprehensible.

And he finds no compelling reason whatever—precisely because he takes experience and history as the touchstones of reasons about human matters—for rationalized principles to be taken as completely truthful of anything about us or our world. Whereas Kant had thought he had demonstrated, in defense of human dignity, that the very form of our reason is the clue to how we generate a moral content so that we are not (at least in thought) beholden to the limits of our nature and world, Hamann sees nothing but lunacy in such an aspiration.

Again, the comparison with Nietzsche is apposite: Nietzsche had stressed that behind reasons of value we would find nothing, at least nothing other than a will to power. But for him that meant he and the higher men should see nihilism as an opportune condition so that they could then create a higher culture and breed supermen who would give meaning to the earth.

Hamann would have been caught between nausea and laughter had he read Nietzsche: nausea at the sickening nature of the arrogance and all the deluded blather about great men, and heroes that was so typical of 19th century romantics fearful that the world in the making was as Nietzsche had put it, one fit for nothing more than “hopping fleas;” laughter at the kind of people who sit around and fancy in all seriousness and pomposity that they can provide the conditions for human greatness. He would, though, I think we can safely say, have loved Chesterton’s depiction of the superman as the feathered creature living in Croydon who was so sensitive that a breeze could kill him.

Hamann perhaps speaks more forcefully to us today than to his contemporaries. For we have witnessed what forces the attempt to replace gods with reasons and political actions of the sort pushed for by Nietzsche and Marx have unleashed. And we can also see that the less eschatological rights-driven attempt to replace this world with a morally absolute one, while having success in the West, is not at all embraced in cultures, where traditional values and figurative speech and imagination still are very much alive.

The only God that reason ever overthrew was the God of reason, but that God was itself a philosophical/metaphysical creation. Yet it was the case that as the faith in abstract ideas grew, as people have become more caught up in and satiated by material success, as, to use Weber’s terms, instrumental reason contributed to the disenchantment of the world, Western people have cared less for a “language” and for rituals in which the “gods” were called upon.

But the world’s mysteries do not stop because we are less conscious of them. The pre-moderns, which is to say a great number who inhabit the globe today, had accepted and still accept that the world is full of mysterious powers and thus told stories about their gods. And their gods were the living powers which “overpowered,” or “ruled” over them, and hence the powers to which they supplicated themselves.

Again, let me turn to Hamann’s greatest and most original “pupil” of the twentieth century Rosenstock-Huessy, a thinker who like Hamann challenged the security of the modern mind by his persistent recourse to ancient symbols and “names” to enable it to see with different, and more attuned eyes what was happening in the pre-modern world and to the selves it was shaping, in order to better see what moderns were oblivious to in their own destructive doing. The echoes of Hamann loudly resound in the following passage addressing the perennial and existential nature of human supplication and “divine” invocation by Rosenstock-Huessy:

Manifold are the powers which raise their voices in man. Anything may become his “god”, anything his ‘world.” Atheists, for example, may bring the “concept of God” before their tribunal in the name of their own God, matter. In other words, their God is matter, and their doubts and questions are aimed at a dead thing, the definition of theology. But this heckling of theological concepts has little to do with the name of the living God. A God is present in the materialist’s question as in any other. God is not a concept. He is always a person, and he bears a name. The name in which we are asked to ask others.
For instance, when I ask a sportsman: “How may a good sport do such and such a thing?” I invoke the power of sport. The sportsman in question shall not justify himself for my personal satisfaction. He is summoned to satisfy “Sportsmanship” and Her imperative. I am evading the disagreeable situation of somebody setting himself up as in authority, but putting the Sport on the higher level and myself remaining on the same human level with the other fellow. Yet there can be no doubt that I am relying on the existence of two levels, one of human democracy, the other of ruling powers….
The power who puts questions into our mouths and makes us answer them is our God. The power which makes the atheist fight for atheism is his God. Of course, God is not a school examiner. Man never gives his real answer in words; he gives himself…The gods whom we answer by devoting our lives to their worship and service ask for obedience, not for lip-confession. Art, science, sex, greed, socialism, speed—these gods of our age devour the lives of their worshippers completely.

That the gods preceded man, and that, historically, polytheism precedes monotheism are both indications of how the ancients sought to make sense of their worlds and their selves. Monotheism was, inter alia, a cry for the concordance of these powers to cohere and life and death to be under the dominion of a higher justice and goodness than evident in our mortal experience. This cry for concordance is partly addressed in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies, where the gods belonged to a common “household,” so that these living powers and mysterious surprising forces, for all their discord, share the same “dwelling.” The polytheistic residues are evident, as Rosenstock-Huessy also observes, in the plural Elohim expressing, for the Jews, “the divine powers of creation.”

The modern rebuilding of everything from scratch, the mind’s year zero of Descartes et. al. is at once a reversal of how life has been experienced, and figuratively represented by pre-philosophical people, as well as an occlusion of our fragility and dependency. The initial anti-historical bent of Descartes was quickly replaced by a combination of models and axiomatic philosophical mythical history, so conspicuous, in the social contract theorists, that were indicative of the new myth-making of those relying upon their “natural reason,” and who would interpret history as not only a repository of myth, but as a template for their own projections which were meant to grasp what was really happening in order better to fix it with their philosophies. That is, they preferred their stories to those who had made the past, and reconfigured them in such a way that the earlier stories would fit the templates and models of those who “understood” more and came later, and whose energies were devoted to making a new kind of future.

But if we rely upon our understanding to provide “meaning” of the past we are inevitably drawn back into the mythic. That generation upon generation of historians will revise previous findings of the past as they get closer to the “truth” is invariably the result of the new quest and questioning being posed to the “facts” of the past. But the new quest with its own certitudes—such as the certitude of knowing what is involved in the creation of a less oppressive or more just society (in spite of philosophers ceaselessly disputing the principles and assessments as much as historians dispute the roles and “weights” of different causes and meanings of events)—is itself but the identification and valorisation of ideas of orientation and value that reflect faith in the new god.

Historical knowledge ostensibly provides a firm foundation alongside reason, but its mythic dimension is the inevitable result of us not simply deriving meaning from events, much less interpreting an event as just a collection of itemised or catalogued facts, but us drawing upon events to support the meaning of the world we inhabit. Thus, Hamann surmises against Viscount Bolingbroke: “Perhaps the whole of history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and like nature a sealed book, a cloaked witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plough with some other ox than our reason.” And, “The field of history has always seemed to me to be like that wide field that was full of bones, and behold, they were very dry. Only a prophet can prophesy of these bones that veins and flesh will grow on them and skin cover them.”

The reference here to prophecy stands in the closest relationship to another invaluable insight of Hamann, viz., that as we are ever poised between past and future, and as future is making us as much as past is forming us, we are as much implicated in the quality of our prophetic capacities as in our observational ones. Neither our prophetic nor observational capacities are substances. But they are all part of a more general sensorium which informs our understanding, even though we understand very little of how we understand, let alone prophesy, or mediate between past and future.

Our knowledge is indeed in part, and our prophesying in part; united, however, it is a triple cord that is not quickly broken. If one falls, the other will lift up his fellow; if the two lie together, then they have heat. What would all knowledge of the present be without a divine remembrance of the past, and without an even more fortunate intimation of the future, as Socrates owed to his daemon? What would the spirit of observation be without the spirit of prophecy and its guiding threads of the past and future? It rains its gifts on the rebellious also, that the Lord might nonetheless be and dwell among them incognito without their knowledge and will.

And,

Despite the authority of the intellectual universe into presence and absence, I do not pretend that these predicates are anything more than subjective conditions by which no actual duplication of the objects themselves is substantiated, but rather merely a relationship of the diverse views and sides of one and the same thing to the measure of the inward man which corresponds to them, to his negative, variable, finite power which is incapable of any omnipresence because this is the exclusive property of a positive immeasurability.

Likewise, the spirits of observation and of prophecy are expressions of a single positive power which cannot be divorced by their nature but only in thoughts and for the use of thoughts; they in fact mutually presuppose themselves, refer to each other, and have effects in common. Hence when I compared the present with an indivisible point, the duplication of its power and its close connection with the past, as effect, and with the future, as cause, are not at all cancelled.

The enlightened philosophers had indeed put themselves in the role of prophets through their intimation that knowledge in accordance with the philosophical strictures they placed upon it would yield a more benign future. But knowledge is a vast, indeed boundless field, when it comes to trying to identify precisely what will come of what we do. The enlightened philosophers were only as good as the lights by which they operated, and those lights were (to rephrase Pascal) as much of the heart as of the head, the question that Hamann keeps throwing at these philosophers and their philosophers is simply: how much do you really know about the human heart and the human circumstance? Is it really better than the vast compendium of observation across ages, types of people and circumstances, the concatenation of contingencies gathered within the Bible?

Of course, this earlier “knowledge” is not method-dependent, and hence “unenlightened,” but are Spinoza and Descartes, Rousseau and Kant et. al. really more insightful about who and what we are than the biblical authors, or artists such as Homer or Shakespeare? Some do concede they are. But there is no compelling grounds to concede this. Further those who use philosophy to prove the superiority of the philosophical approach to value and existential meaning are only compelling to those who already share their faith in philosophy’s power.

As we saw with the founding of the new metaphysics, it initially takes off by studying nature and reason as such, before moving into ethics, politics, aesthetics etc. But Hume had raised the issue whether the science itself really needed the metaphysics (even though he still drew upon it). For his part Hamann, like Pascal, had the good sense to know that the study of natural science (a subject which he seems to have taken little interest in) was completely irrelevant to the kinds of claims he was making.

On the other hand, he made the critical observation of the Cartesian and post-Cartesian view of nature that is at once the kind of pre-philosophical observation any person sensitive to “nature” could make, and also central to the phenomenological critique of reductive naturalism and its metaphysics. The following collection of citations from Hamann all bring out different features of this insight, and give a sense of how important it is to Hamann:

Only a “bloody-lying philosophy” pretends this is all to nature, and thereby sets nature aside
Nature is an equation of an unknown quantity, like a Hebrew letter without vowel-points. It is a book, a letter, a “fable.” It takes more than physics to exegete her).
The great and small Masoretes of philosophy have poured over the text of nature like a flood. Must not all her beauties and riches be reduced to water?
Is nature a matter of “single, natural points to which everything reduces itself? Does everything consist of mathematical lines?”
Nature groans under such tyranny and longs for the day when it will be free of man’s fallen condition.

Just as Plato had moved from the study of the cobbler to reasoning about how we should live, and the nature of the entire cosmos, the new philosophical idea-ism had quickly moved from the study of “nature” and “mind” to all else beside. But such a move requires ignoring the very different (to use Wittgenstein’s formulation) “rules” of different “language games.”

And it is precisely when we take stock of the unavoidable fact that reasoning, whilst not denying ‘blazes’ of insight, or the mute thereness of all manner of contingencies, nor, even, the importance of silence in reflection, is operating in a world made by and smothered in the calls and behests, the promises and decisions, the education within a “problematic” and field of learning with its historical development, and concatenation of support structures, professional opportunities, that is to say in the vast formative, triggering, incubating and commanding powers of language enmeshed in assigned roles and circumstances, the understanding of which circulates socially.

As Hamann would write: “If I were only as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would need to do no more than repeat one phrase three times: reason is language, Λόγος; this marrowbone I gnaw and will gnaw myself to death over it.”

Hamann’s conviction that reason cannot be divorced from language, and that human life is so bound up with language that one cannot “transcend” it to make any sense of actual lives, and “life-worlds” stands in striking contrast to the idea that the mind “uses” language as a tool is an elementary, albeit widely held belief that is found in philosophy. Whether Hamann followed all the conceptual twists and turns of the first Critique and how they related to Aristotle, Leibniz, and Newton is impossible to gauge from his pithy critique of Kant and comments expressed in letters, but he certainly recognized immediately that Kant had treated reason as if language were not intrinsic to reason or even the world. Commencing with a paraphrase of Kant’s question, he observes:

How is the faculty of thought possible? the faculty to think right and left, before and without, with and beyond experience?—then no deduction is needed to demonstrate the genealogical priority of language, and its heraldry, over the seven holy functions of logical propositions and inferences. Not only is the entire faculty of thought founded on language, according to the unrecognized prophecies and slandered miracles of the very commendable Samuel Heinicke, but language is also the centerpoint of reason’s misunderstanding with itself, partly because of the frequent coincidence of the greatest and the smallest concept, its vacuity and its plenitude in ideal propositions, partly because of the infinite [advantage] of rhetorical over inferential figures, and much more of the same.
Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found; they are the true, aesthetic elements of all human knowledge and reason.

That Kant had privileged mathematical physics over the vast expanse of the world “experience,” thereby creating a hiatus between “morality” and “experience,” each with their own transcendental foundations adding support to metaphysical principles, whilst also making the faculty of (aesthetic and teleological) judgment a mediator between two worlds, is completely in keeping with the Cartesian break with experience as historical. Thus, conceptualisation of experiences in Kant, governed by the understanding in conjunction with its intuited representations, draws upon a mental disposition to reality, which has nothing to do with the actual social processes involved in the demarcation of different spaces of investigation, role reciprocation, and the great amalgam of activities and other dispositions (mental as well as physical and social) where tradition and language reinforce each other. But it is precisely these kinds of convergences that Hamann notices. Thus, in his Essay on an Academic Question, (published under the pseudonym Aristobulus) Hamann writes:

The lineaments of a people’s language will therefore correspond with the orientation of its mode of thinking, which is revealed through the nature, form, laws, and customs of its speech as well as through its external culture and through a spectacle of public actions.

It is through speech that we take notice, that we form not just groups, but communities beholden to publicly declared commitments and associations, thereby leaving the eternal present of mutability or more elemental languages of mere animality, and move between past and future, as generations may “feed off” the discoveries and legacies, as well as errors of the past. “Speak that I may see you!—This wish was fulfilled by creation, which is a speech to creatures through creatures; for day unto day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge.”

But, for Hamann, speech does not thereby elevate us to the all-seeing position of a Zeus, or deist’s philosophical God, which the philosopher would love to reach, and which may free us from error. On the contrary,

To speak is to translate—from an angelic language into a human language, that is, to translate thoughts into words—things into names—images into signs, which can be poetic or curiological, historic or symbolic or hieroglyphic—and philosophical or characteristic. This kind of translation (that is, speech) resembles more than anything else the wrong side of a tapestry:
And shews the Stuff, but not the Workman’s skill, or it can be compared with an eclipse of the sun, which can be looked at in a vessel of water.

Or, as Paul put it, we experience the world as through a glass darkly. And while our senses do indeed convey information to us, it is our galvanization of collective and collaborated experiences that enables us to make sense of our senses. Thinking that reason somehow provides the all-knowing vantage point, makes no sense at all to Hamann, because reason can only work with the materials at its disposal, and apart from sensation it is primarily language. Thus, he writes to Jacobi:

With me it is not so much the question: What is reason? but rather: what is language! And I take this to be the basis of all paralogisms and antinomies which it is customary to lay at the doorstep of the former [the reason]. Thus, it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for things themselves. In words and concepts no existence is possible which applies simply to things and matters of fact.

Language is simultaneously the storehouse, retriever of all past knowledge and past experience, as well as what activates so many of our moods and aspirations for the future—it speaks from and of the inner as well as the outer. We did not make language any more than we made our hands or feet or heads. Yet, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, we are making and remaking it all the time, just as it is making and remaking us. It is the source of our reason as much as the source of the abuse of reason, and much else. But it is also miraculously bestowed, rather than willed, and it grows and activates far beyond any limits of intention. It is alive with spirit. The divine word and the Holy Spirit are, for Hamann, both intrinsic to the faith that is deeply experiential and antithetical to a more abstract way of thinking based-on separating our participation in life from life as objectified.

Hamann had seen and amply demonstrated that the seam of biblical speech fitted the very condition that anything real has: potency. And the reality of something is its truth. Plato had conceded that even as he attempted to bifurcate reality into the higher and lower, the idea and that which participates within it. As did Aristotle, who distanced himself from this dualism of Plato, as he tried to conjoin the aspects of what made the real in such a way that it would remain within the province of philosophy. This required designating what was substance and what mere accident so that we could compare and inquire into substances.

But both Plato and Aristotle elevate the mind and definition in tandem with the idea and substance. The proof, though, of a process resides neither in our understanding nor defining—again that is what Hamann knew and appealed to. Of course, there are philosophers in moral philosophy who follow some variant of Kant’s dualism in which the truth of a principle is in its rational grounding—the world and all in it hence must be shrunken in order to conform to an overarching morally rational principle. Which only serves to show exactly what Hamann knew—that a madman is not to be divorced from the contingency he loves by the demonstration of his madness. He or she must be won over by loving another contingency.

Hamann plays the madman because he thinks we are all a little mad, and the maddest are those who believe in their own purity and rational certainty; they have found the perfect means of convincing themselves that the unreal is real. Contingency, though, including the contingency of our feelings, memories, “prejudices,” schooling, allegiances etc. are enmeshed in our convictions and willingness to change our minds.

Hamann grasped that the way the world is spoken of becomes the way the world is: this speaking is through commands and decisions, oaths and affirmations, loyalties and obligation, the creation of masters and protectors and commanders. When the heart goes bad, it may still, indeed, in some cases only then open itself enough to be saved, which is a Jewish and Christian idea; but to believe that the heart might be able to escape sin, that it will not mess-up, is a philosopher’s moral fantasy, that rests upon principles and ideas being substitutes for who we really are, what we do and what we believe, and what tempts us and what saves us.

The Enlightenment with all its hope has been one current in the formation of a modern world that for many is experienced as a hopeless, loveless, isolating, selfish enterprise. Just as language is the clue to our world making, to how we beckon and call, describe, and evoke, draw others into social projects whether to hold a meeting, build a bridge, follow a career, go to war, make a law, buy a product and engage in any number of actions, the poor use of language is also responsible for all manner of errors and seductions. It is not that we think without language, but the language we think with may not be its best usage.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment elevated the mind, but generally either ignored or objectified language as in the study of linguistics. This is because it puts demands upon the world to be represented in sufficient clarity and distinctness that we know what things really are, as opposed to what we merely think and say they are. Mystery dissolves under the glare of enlightenment. And the danger of the idea of enlightenment itself was that it tore us out of the traditional gatherings and collective experiences and the sediments of that gathering in language and promised redemption through abstraction.

To be sure, the radical nature of the search for light had taken on such momentum because of the scale of carnage of the religious wars and Thirty Years War, as well as the new pathways of life that accompanied the Reformation, and the new modalities of social power which required political articulation. While, then, the Enlightenment was itself a reaction to, and symptom of a tradition in crisis, the fact was that Hamann could also see a catastrophe of enormous magnitude incubating in the solution, which is why he sought to temper the philosophical abstractions that were carving out a new future with the more figurative traditional spiritual stock and forces of Christian culture.

Hamann’s friend and admirer Herder would attempt to bring those “forces” of culture back into philosophy. In this respect he more than Hamann continues in the vein of Vico.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows, “The Cult of Reason being celebrated at the Notre Dame, Paris,” anonymous engraving, 1793.

Woke Moralism: #DisruptTexts And The Abrogation of Literature

Introduction

In the spring of 1966, before the violence of the Cultural Revolution washed over China, the CCP initiated a campaign against the “Four Olds.” This project aimed to eradicate Chinese culture in order to protect Chinese culture. “Sweep Away All Monsters And Demons,” enjoined the Party’s print organ. What followed was a violent “cancel culture.” As then, so now.

In 2018 the #DisruptTexts group was founded by Lorena German. Much like Black Lives Matters and AltRight, #DistruptTexts marshalled decades of critique into a single legal entity. Why the advocates of these edgy ideas are so intent on handing over their work to the Bar Association system is beyond me, but much as we speak of the AltRight and BLM, when I speak of #DisruptTexts I will be referring to the movement in general and not the fictional entity. So sue me.

This essay argues two points concerning the approach of #DisruptTexts. Insofar as this movement is principally a pedagogical effort, my first points concern the way we in the general public understand literature. The approach of #DisruptTexts is inappropriate because (1) American society is too unstable at present to dismantle narratives as we have too little to work with as is, and (2) their powerful observation of social dynamics, even the conscious inclusion of Critical Race Theory, is being taught to students who do not have the intellectual matrix to responsibly digest these ideas. As we consider #DisruptTexts in the context of the mass education crisis, and while I will address theoretical errors which exist in their approach, we need to realize how our own individual and social sloppiness exacerbates these woke errors. There is plenty of blame to go around, and #DisruptTexts is but one factor of several.

Concerning my second point, #DisruptTexts is problematic (how’s that for a Leftist word!) because of its inability to contribute towards the construction of a social order. There is on the Left too much breaking down, not enough building up. The racial genie has bewitched the partisans of #DisruptTexts and there is no end to the deconstruction road. And not to put too sharp a point on it, for people who are hip to what is called “race,” they should respect the white culture of America as much as the Indian culture of the Subcontinent, or anywhere else.

Orientation & House Rules

From the start I ought to say that #DisruptTexts is not especially alarming to me. It is one of a conga line of educational fads which regularly burn through my vocational field. In fact, as it lacks coordinated state patronage it is a few clicks less pressing than No Child Left Behind or Common Core, recent foci of educational wariness. It is always important to remember the frequency of these sorts of fads before emotionally reacting to them.

As I wrote in my late series on We The People, I assert that there is no day to day racism in America. It is an insult to both the dead generations of Americans who suffered actual racism, as well as those of our day who suffer like discrimination across the world. The tribulations of the Tutsi, the Uighurs, and the Rohingya are a damn sight more serious than the pettyfogging gripes of American academics. #DistruptTexts, Black Lives Matter, et al. represent one of a number of divide and conquer tactics which the American ruling class excels in implementing. Keeping the ethnic groups annoyed with each other distracts from the track-trace-database system Mr. Schwab and his eponyms are building; it distracts from the endless Pentagon wars and the thousand-front looting of the American working class.

What racism there is exists in institutions which are in an adversarial relationship to the population they rule over, and their crimes literally have nothing to do with subject Americans. #DisruptTexts is right in saying there is profound and systemic racism in social institutions, most outstandingly via subsidiary state corporations like their military branches, police departments, and prisons. However, the U.S. Federal and state governments, and the business/legal system of which the state is a product, have officially existed in a state of war against the American people since the 37th Congress (March 1860). Charges of racism in those arenas have nothing whatsoever to do with flesh and blood Americans. Deconstructing all the books in all the canons of the world will not do one thing to affect the guilty entities. I wish these racial critics well as they make the governments and their hirelings confront their racial errors. However, insofar as the American government is foreign to the population it claims rulership over, I as an uninvolved party wish to be left alone by #DisruptTexts.

The Concept

#DisruptTexts aims to reconsider the ways literature is taught and experienced in American schools. Where this immediately draws popular attention, as it eventually will from us, is in the specific choices of books assigned in class. However, their reconsideration only begins by challenging the canon. To focus primarily on their book selections is to miss the deeper point. Most educational critique does this, it gets caught up on the superficial externals with little grasp of the principles at play.

Now when we speak of “the canon” we mean the group of texts more or less taught throughout the country. Its advocates are aware, in ways most men are not, of “literature” being larger study than a simply a litany of stories. #DisruptTexts’ proponents are sensitive to dynamics such as intertextuality, discourse, and identities of all sorts, and their relationship to literature. In this they are to be praised.

The Canon

#DisruptTexts is not altogether without praise. In the interest of graciousness, and towards an honest understanding of their approach, I should want to continue my analysis on this note. For one, #DisruptTexts’ proponents are aware of both “the canon” and what was once called the “Great Conversation.” By the canon they mean those go-to books which form the core of American lit classes country-wide.

From sea to shining sea I’d bet Americans mucking about in their 20s through their 40s are more or less familiar with The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993), S.E. Hinton’s Outsiders (1967), Their Eyes Were Watching God written by Zora Neale Hurston (1937), and Streetcar Named Desire from the pen of Tennessee Williams (1947). This is the canon. It can change, it inevitably does change. Usually this happens during that unicorn of a department shakeup when old timers have been pensioned off and newer energetic teachers haven’t burned out and moved onto other avocations. In other words, the literary canon does change, but it does so only slowly, locally, and insofar as even the spunkiest of teachers can only take so much before other saner work beckons, the canon changes only temporarily before the old go-tos are back.

The Great Conversation

The “Great Conversation” is more abstract than the canon. It is the concept that authors are in a sense in a dialogue with each other over the centuries. That specific label comes from Robert Hutchins’ and Mortimer Adler’s essays of the same name which used to lead off the University of Chicago’s Great Books series. Ah, talk about changed reading habits! Just two or three generations back encyclopedia salesmen were a thing. Encyclopedia men fought with colleagues hawking The Story of Civilization and the Great Books of the Western World. More remarkable still, everyone had work. As a testament to our present contempt of knowledge, as of this article’s composition the entire 54-volume Great Books series is retailing on eBay for about $20 (and that’s $20 in devalued 2021 fiat dollars, mind you).

The Great Conversation is a thrilling concept. Just think, Plato and Bede and Renan and 10,000 other greats were all part of the same work. And mirabile dictu, that work was not a dead thing. No matter how mundane the world might see one, the Great Conversation held the promise of a millenia-long discourse anybody can plug into as soon as they can open the nearest book or pick up the closest pen. To familiarize yourself with the Great Conversation, if Adler doesn’t float your boat you might read Dean Swift’s delightful Battle of the Books tale for a humorous treatment of the same idea.

The Great Conversation is also a powerful concept. I’ll never forget when I came across the idea as a young teacher. It doubtless enriches one’s appreciation of literature as a discipline. It is a simple idea, a powerful one, and a democratic one. Like moveable type, phonetic alphabets, or chord notation, simplifications of existing technologies which greatly increased common access, the popularization of the slim and trim Great Conversation can do much to move the general public toward a consciousness that literature is more than a collection of subjectively good or bad entertainment, more than mental popcorn. Though they do not use the specific term, #DistruptTexts is right to popularize the idea of the Great Conversation.

Narrative

It is to the credit of the Left that as a general rule that they’ve a sharper sense of sociological dynamics than your regular John Q normie or—heaven forbid—your local conservative. During the preliminary stages of the 2020 Biden coup, during that hot summer of racial rent-a-mob riots, I’ll never forget the anchors of one conservative U.S. outfit. Throwing their papers on the desk they begged, “Please, we just want to live regular lives.” Clueless. They were seemingly unaware of the purpose of direct action.

Likewise, five solid years into the Left’s weaponization of gender dysphoria and most of your “black pilled” sorts, people who have “seen through the matrix” and flatter themselves in knowing all the backroom deals and agendas, don’t seem to have grasped that the academic Left has made a simple but adamatine distinction between gender and sex. Much less do they know how to respond to such a thesis. Ah musha, if it were raining soup your conservatives would be out and about with folks. But b’times Leftists lay off Twitter and they do read books. When they do, they learn things and they observe, and this wouldn’t serve any of us badly. One area of observation which undergirds #DistruptTexts is the idea of narrative.

Narratives are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. They link the amalgam of experiences we as individuals and communities encounter into a manageable story. Without narratives we’re left with a nearly infinite blob of facts with no rhyme or reason to them. As John Gaddis writes in The Landscape of History, narrative makers are like map makers. For a map to be intelligible, just like the discipline of literature, those involved must include some things and they must leave out (most) others. If they didn’t the map would be 20 square miles, and literature would collapse into endless and random stories. Narratives are necessary. They are similar to worldviews, a concept which received widespread dissemination a decade or so ago, but they have more of communal quality to them because they explain who we are as a people.

Narratives are profoundly human. It is man’s fondness for narrative which will forever place the simple but story-filled Bible higher than the eloquent but pedantic Quran in the hearts of men. And in the grand sweep of things the lack of narrative thus will happily banish the tiring politio-religio-techo tracts of the modern West from the minds (to say nothing of the hearts) of later generations. The advocates of #DistruptTexts grasp the power of narrative, and they shudder at the profundity of it. We all must.

Critique, The First

With the duties of graciousness seen to, we turn to our critiques of #DistruptTexts. As we come to grips with the movement we must first appraise the state of the public. In this I do not mean the reading public, for such a thing does not exist. There are men, and they read; sometimes they read books; sometimes many people read many books. However we cannot speak of a reading public (or more magisterially, the reading public) in the manner people of a century ago did. Time moves apace. As it does the literacy of c.1750-1950 will be seen as the peculiarity it was. The public is alliterate at present. It can read but chooses not to. The Great Conversation is less and less a lived experience for Americans.

Because the Great Conversation is a fading memory, because it is a reality less men are participating in, it is taking its effect on society. The decline of religiosity can be pegged to the inability of Western men to envision abstract concepts, this is an ability which is kept in good form by reading. Religiosity in illiterate societies can be explained because, while illiteracy is more common, those skins often enjoy something deracinated Westerners do not, a cultural matrix which encourages the abstractions of faith. It seems that religion can carry on alright with either a strong reading population or a strong lived culture, ideally religion would do best with both, but if neither are available faith is doomed. The absolute thrall which the mainstream media is able to hold the country in, a spell which explains both Coronavirus saga and Mr. Biden’s outrageous yet effortless installation, are nearer examples of what readingless brains will tolerate.

When a movement such as #DisruptText comes along, a movement predicated on the reading habits of a century ago, it encounters men who read menus and cell phones and BuzzFeed. Powerful ideas are proposed to men whose sloth has not prepared them for serious ideas. It is like giving retarded people rocket launchers. Nothing but damage will result.

As a mighty tyranny comes into focus, it is ill advised to spread #DisruptTexts’ critique of literature. Until there is a substantive culture to work with, a substantive reading culture, a culture which will be strong enough to shove back the statists and technocrats, a culture which is powerful enough to keep its boot on the throat of commerce and legalism and the humorless crew now in the ascent, there is no sense in deconstructing anything. We must knit together the wisps of society into serviceable culture once again. The is not the time for #DisruptTexts. Until common agency, identity, and community are built into a bulwark against The Agenda, spreading #DisruptTexts’ ideas are a liability. There will be no books, woke or otherwise, down on Bill Gates’ plantation.

Critique, The Second

Continuing with our look at the people #DisruptTexts means to influence, I assert that their approach is inappropriate given the dynamics of modern pedagogy. As each year goes by the incompetence of our educational system comes more to the fore. By “educational system” I do not mean the bureaucratic structures of education, which is usually the meaning of that term when used. I mean the DNA of industrial learning, the structure of knowledge dissemination, the assumptions and daily rhythm of the classroom.

School is overburdened as is. There are too many demands, too many specializations, too much going on but yet the same amount of hours in the day. Like Madison Avenue’s ideal teenagehood, things like the after school job, the driver’s ed classes, SAT classes, social life, sports, band, modern education finds itself doing too much too often, and none of it well. Six or seven specialities are proposed to be taught, and all the Federal testing, and all the State Of testing, and all the mental health practices, and anti-bullying efforts, and, and, and… Busyness is the predominant fault of modern education.

Into this activity, into this clamor for hours and minutes, #DistruptTexts wishes to introduce an academic sophistication which cannot possibly be digested properly. In this, like with my above point, this is not the fault of the advocates of #DisruptTexts. It is the failure of American society and of our ridiculously overburdened school system. As stated above, there are actual strong points to #DisruptTexts, particularly their ideas of literature being in dialogue and their point about the canon being stale and largely being perpetuated because of laziness. However, at present #DisruptTexts is not realistic given the sorry state of pedagogy.

Let us embrace the seriousness which #DisruptTexts promises to bring to literature education, let us embrace the opportunity to change our pedagogical format to include, if not the specific sociological outlook they propose, at least their more substantive appreciation of letters. However, until this is systematically done—and this will not be done because the masters of this society do not want an erudite population of any political affiliation—#DisruptTexts will produce whining from all sides but little of academic substance.

Critique, The Third

Until now I have kept my analysis of #DisruptTexts confined to the larger milieu they mean to operate in. This is sensible insofar as a good many problems of education have more to do with the sorry intellectual condition we tolerate in our own individual lives, in our “real world” non-school society, than they have to do with plots to manipulate society. Plots there be, but all the Rockefellers and Nixons and NEAs don’t explain why I didn’t read a book last month. Charity begins at home, and so does criticism. But there are problems proper to #DisruptTexts, and to these we turn.

Ethnic Exaggeration

“White” is as clumsy an ethnic designation as “black,” and I pray that people stop using the labels which the merciless rulers of this society propose. There are no “white” people mentioned in Genesis’ Table of Nations, and it’s a great oversight that the same people who tear Darwinism to shreds are the same people who cleave so fondly to Charles’ ethnic designations. But for brevity’s sake #DisruptTexts is plainly anti-white.

There is nothing wrong with being of European stock, and #DisruptTexts’ assertion to the contrary is an error. I want little Arab children to be steeped in Arab culture, I want little African children to be steeped in African culture, and it frankly annoys me to see what is considered American culture holding the allegiance of non-American peoples the world over. However there is nothing wrong with American culture being taught to Americans, and there is nothing wrong in acknowledging that that culture is largely associated with people men call “white.” There are robust ethnic literatures which the American school canon, however musty and dated, already factors in. Indeed, so-called minorities may have a statistically larger place on the canon than their numbers warrant. The constant deconstruction of #DistruptTexts ignores the voice of whites in this country.

It has always been in the favor of reading that the activity puts the user’s life and circumstances in perspective. Broadcast media of various sorts does not have this quality; things are at once too dated and too fast. For example, a film on television invites the viewer to bog down in superficial details from the time of its production, and the tale will doubtless soon be interrupted by a commercial. This does not happen with literature. There are temporal aspects to the expression, of course. Les Miserables cannot be divorced from the 19th Century Republicanism which so inspired Hugo any more than the Bible can be split off from the time and culture of the ancient Hebrew.

The role of history on a specific text’s composition is as delicious a study as any, it’s analogous to historiography’s relationship to history, and it provides one of the great “Easter egg” surprises devoted readers may stumble upon. Nevertheless, literature of any lasting quality, and no small amount which has slipped the mind of the latest generation, transcends time.

#DisruptTexts will sever this multi-generational boon of art. Recent authors, indeed authors who for the most part may still be living on this earth, will crowd out the pens of past generations. Seen in the grand scope of things the dearest concerns of any given generation appear to those removed from that time and place as trifles.

Herein lies more than an irony of #DisruptTexts, but also a hole in its approach. In seeking to include the greatest number of voices (provided they’re “woke” and located on a relatively narrow bandwidth of the political spectrum) #DisruptTexts excludes the voice of the most ignored, maligned, and agentically-deprived group on the planet, the dead. Though they comprise a supermajority of humanity, the dead will receive no representation from the woke ones.

White man, black man, yellow man, Left, Right, and Center, we need to realize that authentic American culture has been sabotaged by this country’s ruling class. The advocates of #DistruptTexts ought to be on guard against their ideas being used to further this policy. Go read some books from the 1880s and ‘90s, listen to music from that time. You will see there was as true as true can be distinct American culture coming into focus at that time.

Evolution may be bunk in the biological order but in the cultural realm one culture certainly can morph into something its very own. That was absolutely happening by the late-19th Century. And just as true as true can be, this new specie was purposefully disassembled into the deracinated consumer which has gobbled up the last century of North American existence. Regardless of its intention, #DisruptTexts will contribute to this trend. Until the larger strata of culture can be improved and matured #DisruptTexts will be a danger.


John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.


The featured image shows a Chinese communist poster from ca. 1966, which says, “Destroy the Four Olds [old ideas, old customs, old habits, old culture].” The banner reads, “Disruption is justified!”

Neo-Positivist Realism: A Discussion With Emil O.W. Kirkegaard

Grégoire Canlorbe continues his intriguing interviews with people who are forging new ways of understanding the world. This time around, he is in conversation with Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who is a Danish intelligence researcher and freelance data scientist. Learn more at his website. Before you ask—there is no connection with existentialist philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. However, Emil Kirkegaard’s great-grandfather, Harald Rudyard Engman, was a Danish dissident, anti-Nazi artist, who was exiled to Sweden during Word War II. The featured image is a work by Harald Engman. We are so very delighted to have Mr. Kirkegaard join us.


Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Your name is notably associated with the study of stereotype accuracy—especially those stereotypes underlying immigration policy preferences in Danes. How would you sum up your research in this field?

Emil O.W. Kirkegaard (EOWK): It all began some years ago, around the time of my father’s 50th birthday (in 2014). I was visiting Sweden, because his girlfriend is Swedish, and my father decided to rent a house in Skåne, occupied East Denmark, for the birthday party.

Emil O.W. Kirkegaard.

Some years prior I had read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and recalled that he made some reference to the accuracy of demographic stereotypes. Checking out the supporting references, I found the same names repeated many times: Lee Jussim and Clark McCauley (all the cited works are in an edited book, Lee et al., 1995). I Googled the names of the authors and found a copy of a book chapter with the great title, The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes. It contained a neat summary of the evidence, as it was at the time (Jussim et al., 2009).

I realized there was an entire scientific literature on this topic, one that wasn’t as stupid as my general impression of social psychology. Recall this was in the middle of the early years of the replication crisis, with priming results falling left and right. After that, I checked out the library (that is, Library Genesis, the Russian pirate library), and found that Lee Jussim had written a book in 2012, Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and I immediately started reading it (Jussim, 2012). While reading this book, I immediately saw the connection to Bayesianism, which I was familiar with because I had long been reading the blogs from people in the Silicon Valley rationalism movement (focused on LessWrong in those days; now mostly reduced to the Scott Alexander-verse).

Say that you’re judging some person for some trait, say being anti-social. The prior belief is the initial guess about some individual based on whatever demographics one can immediately glance at, whether this is sex, age, country of origin, race, name, clothing and so on.

As such, the question of stereotypes is easy to attack scientifically: simply ask subjects to estimate the group means of various groups, and see how well these line up with reality. In fact, a decent sized, but haphazard, set of studies had been done like this, and they pretty much invariably turned up strong evidence of accuracy (the exception being when the data assumed to represent reality was questionable (see, Heine et al., 2008).

At the same time, I had just started studying immigrant outcomes in Europe, and had in my possession a big dataset from Denmark, where we had crime rates, mean incomes, rates of use of social welfare, educational attainment, and unemployment for some 70 immigrant groups in Denmark, as grouped by country of origin (or of their mothers (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).

In other words, I had the perfect criterion data to study stereotype accuracy in Denmark, and I knew that similar data existed for other European countries, so there was a way to expand afterwards (Kirkegaard, 2014b; 2015). I then found a way to buy survey data fairly inexpensively. We first conducted a pilot study and found quite large accuracy, despite recruiting unrepresentative people online (such as from my Facebook!).

I then managed to raise some funding from friendly sources, and our first big study was published in Open Psych journals in 2016 (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016a; 2016c). I tried to do things right, from the start: large sample size (about 500), pre-registered analyses, and open science practices (open access, data, code, and reviewing).

As mentioned above, I was familiar with the replication crisis issues in social psychology and did not want to contribute to such poor practices. I also knew that my results would get attacked by leftists, and thus had to be extra strong to withstand scrutiny (Gottfredson, 2007; Kirkegaard, 2020). However, our results were crystal clear—the main aggregate stereotype correlated r = .70 with real differences—and the results were closely in line numerically with the findings that Lee Jussim had summarized.

The idea of linking this data to the immigration preferences was good, and obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t mine. Noah Carl was the first to combine the two ideas in his 2016 paper, also in Open Psych (Carl, 2016). After reading his paper, I knew the next step forward was to measure all three variables in a single study: real group differences (insofar as government data can tell), stereotypes (estimates of those differences), and finally policy preferences for the same groups.

When looking at immigrant groups, it was obvious that popular opposition to immigrants was closely in line with the actual immigrant groups with high rates of social problems, whether crime or welfare dependencies (so in practice, against Muslim groups). I teamed up with Noah for a study like this, and we wanted to get it out somewhere “mainstream.”

So, we tried a bunch of social psychology journals; with not much luck. One editor, Karolina Hansen, at a Polish university, told us we needed to explicitly state, multiple times, that Muslims were not causing their own misfortunates, whereas our study was agnostic on this topic. I guess I should not be so surprised since, despite being in Poland, she has a Danish last name, so was probably infected by the Woke memeplex.

Unfortunately, it was around that time that troubles began for Noah Carl, and he had to divert time to defending himself against the communist campaign and its friends in the media (Carl, 2019). It didn’t end well; and he was fired. We managed to finally publish this work in 2020 (Kirkegaard et al., 2020).

To return to the question, I would say that my work in this field has just begun, and I expect to publish a bunch more studies on immigrants, stereotypes and their links to intelligence. We are currently finishing up a big study in the Netherlands, with similar results. The last part is important, because from an intelligence research perspective, having accurate stereotypes is simply a manifestation of the general factor of intelligence, already strongly correlated with general knowledge.

So, one should see pervasive correlations between stereotype accuracy and intelligence. And, in fact, that is the case. Some left-wing psychologists and their media cheerleaders hilariously tried to brand this as a negative aspect of intelligence (Khazan, 2017; Lick et al., 2018; Sputnik News Staff, 2017).

GC: A well-known investigation of yours deals with the dataset of OKCupid’s users. You especially focus on the association of cognitive ability with self-reported criminal behavior—and with religiousness. Could you tell us more about it?

EOWK: Back in 2010, or thereabouts, I discovered the OKCupid dating site, and used it myself. The dating site really was very special, as no other dating site collected so much interesting data on their users. Most dating sites attempted only crude social matching, or even dumber things like astrological signs. However, OKCupid was started by a mathematician, and he had a better idea, despite having no background in psychology.

As a big fan of open science, I was wondering how to get a copy of the data for my own curiosity. I teamed up with a programmer to do a scraping (automatic download) of the website, and we managed to download data from nearly 70,000 users. Mind you, a lot of these profiles are essentially empty and not useful. But still, the dataset is amazing, and one can typically use about 10-30k users in a study, depending on which variables are desired and which subgroups.

Again, in the spirit of open science, we wanted to share this data with the world, so we sent our paper to review at Open Psych (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b). I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but some mainstream social psychologists started retweeting my tweet to the data (e.g., Brian Nosek of OSF), and eventually the SJWs joined in (Oliver Keyes was a notable nutty blogger who wrote some rambling blogpost on this, since apparently deleted), or maybe the other way around.

In any case, it ended up being a global media event of sorts, where we got featured in various big outlets: Wired, Forbes, Vox, Vice, even Fortune magazine. A guy I went to school with, in 2006, called me and wanted some input for an article he was writing for the Danish state media. The data on the website was really already public, and just required a free user (some of it). It’s just that when this data sits in 70,000 profiles, it is not as useful for analysis as when it is in a spreadsheet-type format. The task of scraping could be done by a chimpanzee, and involves visiting random profiles and copypasting the data into a big spreadsheet. In fact, the website itself wrote in its user agreement that users should consider the data public (“You should appreciate that all information submitted on the Website might potentially be publicly accessible. Important and private information should be protected by you”).

In the end, OSF deleted the copy of the dataset on their service, following a copyright complaint from OKCupid’s owners. Someone reported me to the Danish data protection agency, and they sent me some questions in a threatening manner, which I didn’t answer; and then after a few months, they gave up the case. The media never reported on this dropping of the case. So, in the eyes of the media and the public, it appears I was accused and presumed guilty of some crime; when, in fact, a case was not even filed against me in court.

Aside from all, the dataset is really quite something. This is because the questions on the site were mostly made by users themselves; and because of this, some of them asked about things that psychologists would not dare to ask about. They are also a lot more diverse in topics than what interests psychologists. We have published some studies looking at intelligence estimation based on some 14 questions with high g-loadings; and intelligence scores from these do in fact relate to religiousness, crime (self-reported, not optimal), political interest and so on, in the usual ways (Kirkegaard, 2018; Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b; Kirkegaard & Lasker, 2020).

This is doubly interesting because the data was filled out by users knowing well that other users would be reading their answers; thus suggesting that social desirability bias should be large here. Evidently, it is not large enough to remove the usual associations. Later on, the website got bought out by Big Dating, that also owns Tinder and others, and the website is now a low quality clone of Tinder; a shell of its former glory. Sad! The most interesting remnant of the website, aside from this (unfortunately) partial copy of the site’s database (and others that exist), is that the founder wrote a book on some analyses he did (Rudder, 2015). It’s really a commercialization, and not a very good at that, of the old OKTrends blog. Fortunately, internet polymath Gwern has archived the blog, so people can, and should, read the unredacted analyses.

GC: Your university background is linguistics. Do you believe race differences may be manifested in language? What are your thoughts about Umberto Eco’s remark that “the language of Europe is translation”?

EOWK: I did a bachelor degree in linguistics, starting in 2010. Before that I studied philosophy for two years, but I was disillusioned with that department and the field, and did not finish the degree. I was always good with language in school, and since I was already interested in the philosophy of language, branching out to linguistics was not a big step.

Honestly, though, studying linguistics had a big advantage: there were no class attendance requirements, so I could avoid going to classes (these are a waste of time). This freed up a huge chunk of time, and allowed me to sleep during the day and work at the night, whenever this was practical (I have non-24 disorder). Passing exams was really mostly a matter of writing three essays (10-15 pages in length) every 6 months, one for each class that one took that semester. Each class was usually based on some book or some papers, which you read. All in all, writing a paper takes perhaps two days, editing included, and reading the required material takes maybe another three days; so we’re looking at about fifteen days of work every 6 months.

In Denmark, the state pays students a stipend to study, about US $800, and there is low-cost, subsidized student housing available too. So, this income is livable; and one can even invest some of it in Bitcoin on the side (Moon Inc.). The rest of the time, I used unwisely to play too much on the computer. But still a large proportion of the time I used to self-study psychology, genetics, statistics and programming. When I was doing the master’s (candidate) in linguistics, in 2015, I was already good enough that a high-profile professor wrote to recruit me for his startup in genetics. That ended my career in academia, not that I was keenly interested in pursuing a linguistics PhD.

So, with my unusual linguistics background aside, what about race and language? It’s hard to say because linguists are, generally speaking, non-quantitative people, and don’t look at these things, except in bland ways. There are some findings on how the physical shape of humans differ by race, and this affects the sounds they produce. Africans have notably larger lips and a broader nose (for cooling), and this results in slight differences in the sounds they make. I don’t think this is very important, however.

More interesting in the big picture are associations between culture and language (an extreme version is called linguistic relativity); and of course, some cultures are vastly more complex than others. Some languages are really quite simple, lacking words for most scientific concepts, some for even basic mathematics, like counting. I am not aware of any formal study of ethnic group IQs and their language features. Economists conduct these kinds of studies, trying to spot relationships between psychological traits and languages, and how this should be reflected in economic outcomes. Best thing they have come up with is that languages that allow dropping of pronouns are higher in some good stuff (Feldmann, 2019; He et al., 2020; Mavisakalyan & Weber, 2018).

There is a big dataset of language features called The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), which is used to study this stuff (the field is called linguistic typology). It has data for some 2700 languages last time I looked, and these are given geographical coordinates, countries, and so on. One could match this to ethnic IQs and national IQs, failing that, and maybe something useful would come out of this. Honestly, I have not looked, because I don’t think anything interesting will come out of it. I did take an initial look at the data from a quantitative perspective in a preprint never published (not even submitted anywhere, (Kirkegaard, 2021); I posted it as a formal preprint for the purpose of this interview).

The national data is rather small for languages, because of the extensive family relationships between them. So, the effective sample size is less than the number of countries. Biologists are familiar with this problem, and have standard phylogenetic regression methods to handle it, and linguists also (they do it in a worse way), but economists less so. I think it is better to proceed here with ordinary national IQs work, and expanding to the genetics of these, á la what Davide Piffer has been doing since 2013 (Piffer, 2013; 2015, 2019, 2020a, 2020b), and what we did in our big 2016 paper looking at the genetic ancestry of countries and their subdivisions (Fuerst & Kirkegaard, 2016). I am not familiar with Umberto Eco, so I have no comment on that quote.

GC: As an avowed proponent of eugenics, do you share the belief in COVID-19 pandemic’s purifying role? What is your assessment of the reservations on negative eugenics that Charles Darwin—while acknowledging the attenuation of natural selection in Victorian England—expressed in The Descent of Man? Namely that “the surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

EOWK: COVID-19 almost only kills old people who are no longer reproducing, so it has no eugenic or dysgenic effect. If one wanted to be really cynical, one could say that by killing off a bunch of unproductive people, it is easing the state’s welfare budgets, though causing large initial costs in healthcare.

I agree with Darwin. There is an uneasiness with realizing the problem of dysgenics and doing anything about it. Galton himself commented on this in his autobiography (1908): “Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he also has the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.” So, how can we do things more mercifully? Many have thought about this problem (Glad, 2004).

I submit that we don’t need to do too much. Some countries have already managed to reduce the intelligence-fertility relationship to quite a weak negative or null association through existing social policies and cultural changes (Kolk & Barclay, 2019; Meisenberg, 2008; Reeve et al., 2018).

Aside from that, we have the tools at hand to reverse the problem: embryo selection and genome editing. With the latter, we can edit embryos to remove some known errors, insofar as these are known (typically well-known genetic disorders). The former technology has been here for years, but needs to be augmented with a modern genomics approach, and to get rid of the communist ethos that prevents this from happening (Anomaly, 2018; 2020; Anomaly & Jones, 2020).

Interestingly, survey evidence shows that large fractions of the world population, with notable differences between countries, are already in favor of such technology, and this fraction is increasing over time, just as it did when the original IVF technology emerged (Pew Research Center, 2020; Zigerell, 2019). On the technology side, we need to figure out how to produce a lot of egg cells (sperm are plenty!), and combine these with the best sperm cells if possible (sperm selection), nurture the resulting embryos, and pick the best combination of genes among the sibling embryos according to the best genetic prediction models.

This approach was outlined in Gattaca back in 1997, so this is hardly new. We just need to get serious about it. Galton suggested the same more than 100 years ago (“I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilised nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets”).

If we let the power of capitalism achieve this, we can all have healthier, smarter, prettier, more creative children, and work towards improving our Kardashev score. Considering the current way Western elite thought is moving, there is probably not so much hope for this. Richard Lynn made similar forecasts in his 2001 book, Eugenics: A Reassessment.

GC: A nation’s collective intelligence partly lies in its average IQ. It also lies in its ability to network the various individual IQs within it in an efficient way, i.e., in a way allowing the nation to solve challenges and to prevail in intergroup competition. Efficient networking within a national brain notably includes intragroup competition for innovation—and the shifting of resources towards sound innovators, i.e., individuals bringing a way of thinking which is different, novel, but also more efficient than the previous admitted thought patterns. Do you sense a correlation between average IQ and efficient networking? Historically, which nation performed best in terms of intragroup cognitive collaboration?

EOWK: It’s a tough question because competing nations throughout history have not generally been so easy to compare, since they differ in population size, and change their borders and thus populations over time as well (e.g., modern Austria vs. Austria-Hungary vs. Greater Germany). The ultimate test of inter-group competition is warfare, and so one can look at which countries are very good at this, or have good standing militaries (Karlin, 2020). One can go beyond looking at who won a lot of wars.

One can look at efficiency specifically, and for World War II, there are some numbers here on the combat efficiency of soldiers from the warring states. Though these were calculated by the US army after the war, it probably won’t surprise many to learn that Nazi Germany’s soldiers were the most efficient in per capita terms. Specifically, the research computed the worth of a solider, setting the Nazi German one to 1.00, yields values of 1.10 Americans, 1.45 British, and >4 Slavic (Polish or Russian) (Kretaner, 2020; Turchin, 2007). Details of the calculations are hard to find, and I have been unable to find numbers for World War I or any other wars.

But I admit to not being a military historian and not having spent more than a few hours looking. Peter Turchin talks a lot about this collective efficiency. He uses the term, Asabiya for this, from the great Islamic golden age thinker, Ibn Khaldun. We can make some guesses though. Group efficiency is higher when people have a feeling of belonging.

Most academic research finds negative effects of ethnic/race diversity on social trust (Dinesen et al., 2020), and given the iniquitousness of ethnic voting in democracies, and the endless anti-European hatred from the European left, it’s hard to disagree with a diagnosis of an overall negative effect of ethnic diversity on collective effectiveness.

We currently live in a time of extreme political polarization (mostly Europeans versus other Europeans in the same countries), mostly caused I think by the radicalization of the global media by communist Woke theories from academia. Zach Goldberg is doing great work on this topic (Goldberg, 2019a; 2019b).

China, on the other hand, is going strong in terms of collective efficiency, insofar as their human capital allows (corruption is endemic outside WEIRD populations; (Henrich, 2020)). All this aside, collective efficiency is positively affected by national average intelligence, and this shows up in any kind of analysis one does. Intelligence is at the individual level related to trust, honesty, competence at any job, patience and so on. So, it is not surprising that countries with smarter people outcompete others by large margins (Kirkegaard & Karlin, 2020).

GC: You dedicate yourself to exploring the relationship of personal names to factors like social status, intelligence, age, and country of origin. What are your conclusions at it stands? Do you subscribe to the Jewish belief that someone’s name predicts his destiny?

EOWK: I’ve never heard of this Jewish belief, but it is certainly true that names have associations with outcomes in life. You see when most social scientists discover such patterns, they immediately think it results from some kind of discrimination (the so-called second sociologist fallacy: any group difference is caused by discrimination by the above average groups). They devise experiments to show that people preferentially hire people with higher status names, and so on (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Oreopoulos, 2011). Yes, I am sure one can find some evidence of this stuff. It goes back to the stereotype discussion initially. People act in a crudely Bayesian manner; they use whatever information about an individual they can find. Sometimes researchers give people only names, and so of course people will use such information until they can get better information. This is both rational and not a big mystery.

My entry into this topic was, again, due to nice data presenting itself, but in a less useful format. A Danish newspaper bought government statistics about first names of people living in Denmark, specifically about their average incomes, crime rates, and so on. This data were then published on a website, sort of. There was a search function and one could look up any name to see the stats for that name; but no way to download all the data.

Together with a friend, we figured out how to get the entire dataset behind this website. We then carried out a bunch of analyses of this. We confirmed the usual “S factor” pattern. Maybe we should call this Thorndike’s Rule, as he wrote in 1920: “a still broader fact or principle—namely, that in human nature good traits go together. To him that hath a superior intellect is given also on the average a superior character; the quick boy is also in the long run more accurate; the able boy is also more industrious. There is no principle of compensation whereby a weak intellect is offset by a strong will, a poor memory by good judgment, or a lack of ambition by an attractive personality. Every pair of such supposed compensating qualities that have been investigated has been found really to show correspondence.” (Quoted from Gwern’s page on correlations).

Anyway, in our data, names with higher mean incomes were also, on average, less crime prone, and worked better jobs and so on (Kirkegaard & Tranberg, 2015). So, for every name, one can score it on this composite measure of social status, or “general socioeconomic factor,” as I called it in 2014 (Kirkegaard, 2014a), in a study of countries. I got the idea from reading Richard Lynn and Gregory Clark’s books in short succession (Clark, 2014; Lynn & Vanhanen, 2012). Clark talks about how everyone is born with a latent, genetic score for this generalized social status; and the various social status indicators in life are an imperfect indicator of this (and the other part being mostly luck).

However, if one relies on last name data, one can actually see that the heritability of the latent general social status is about 75%. This finding replicates across many datasets from different countries, even in Maoist China. It’s really quite astonishing. I realized then, that the same thing can be said for countries and subpopulations inside countries, such as immigrant groups (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).

In our follow-up study, we were also able to show that average intelligence measured in the Danish army correlated quite well with this general social status of names (Kirkegaard, 2019). Personally, I don’t think having a funny name does much to harm one’s career; and it’s a quite simple matter to change it these days, if one really thinks so.

The fact of the matter is rather than funny parents give their kids funny names, and low status parents their kids low status names, and so on. This results in first names being differentiated by genetic propensity for social status, despite not being a family. One can even see dysgenics this way in our Danish data, as higher social status names had fewer “kids;” a kind of pseudo-fertility measure; and so these reduce their share of the population over time. Elite families dying out is a familiar finding for many historians.

GC: It is sometimes asked whether our ontological concepts (causality, identity, quantity, and so on) are intended in the human mind to relate to objective properties of the observed things. Or, on the contrary, only serve as molds, allowing the human mind to clarify, organize the empirical data; but having nothing to do with the content of reality. It is also asked whether the human mind is able to draw its concepts from an immaterial dimension reached through suprasensible perceptions. Or, on the contrary, is condemned to rely on itself—and on sensible experience. What is your take on such issues?

EOWK: That philosophy is a waste of time. For those few who still want to wade into this territory, I highly recommend Alan Sokal’s writings on ontological realism, quantum mechanics and postmodernism (Sokal, 2008; Sokal & Bricmont, 1999).

In my opinion, the best philosophy is written by working scientists or philosophers with a very close relationship to science (and I don’t mean doing some pop-neuroscience). For those wanting to put a label on me, I like to refer to myself as a neo-positivist scientific realist. This is essentially the view that evolution favors organisms that have some level of accuracy of their perception of the real world, which come equipped with a bunch of mostly adaptive cognitive biases (“tinted glasses”), and that through rigorous application of the scientific process, we can better see reality as it really is.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that social science is close to this scientific ideal, being staffed by the wrong people, with the wrong incentives. Social science would do better if we fired everybody who works there, and hired some random physicists to figure things out. This is essentially what Dominic Cummings did in order to win the 2016 Brexit vote, his blog has a bunch of stuff on this.

GC: Going back to linguistics, you may have heard of the proposition “Est vir qui adest.” Namely the anagram for Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Quid est veritas?” What does such connection inspire to you? Which one of Jesus or Pilatus is the chad—and which one the virgin?

EOWK: I generally don’t read fiction, so I am not overly familiar with the Bible stories. Considering that Jesus supposedly died as a childless Virgin (if we disregard the Mary possibility), and Wikipedia tells me that Pilate apparently had a wife, and we don’t know anything about any potential children. So, it boils down to the interesting question of whether Jesus was as holy as he claims to be (i.e., the Gospels claim him to be!), considering the base rate of fertility rates among cult leaders. On the balance of probabilities, I am going with Chad Jesus and the groupies theory, and may God forgive my atheist sins!

GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add something?

EOWK: These were some very far reaching questions. You certainly have a talent for interviewing. Maybe you can get a job at Playboy!


The featured image shows, “Nyboder with figures, evening,” by Harald Rudyard Engman, painted in 1931.

Watch Your Language!

We are in an intellectual war with the leftists, liberals, progressives, socialists, fascists and other enemies of a civilized order. In this battle, language is important. Those of us who favor private property rights, economic liberty, limited government, have given in, linguistically, on all too many battlegrounds.

Why do we have to call them progressives? They are, more accurately, regressives. Their ideal is the economics of Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and the old USSR. What is progressive about that?

Why must we use the appellation “Ms.”, which is in effect, if not by intention, although it may be that too, an attempt to undermine the institution of marriage? How so? Well, Mrs. should be an honorific, at least in a society that values this arrangement. Ms. blurs the distinction between the married and unmarried.

The counterargument is that what is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander too. If we are to distinguish women by marital status, so, too, ought we to do so for men. It might sound antiquated, but, in former decades precisely this was practiced: “mister” was for married men, “master” for bachelors. Of course, the latter word is now fraught with danger, given the rampant political correctness of the regressives. For them, “master” harkens back to the days of the “curious institution” as does pretty much everything else they dislike under the sun. Presumably, unless we fight to retain what is still left of the English language, the Masters degree will soon end. No longer will there be chess masters and grandmasters.

Then, there is the issue that their own linguistic choices of but a few years ago have now become forbidden. Broken field runners in football have nothing on these people. For example Kyle Cornell a 26 year old radio host was fired from his job for characterizing Kamala Harris as a colored person, rather than a person of color. His subsequent apologies garnered him nothing.

Colored person? Person of color? To the uninitiated, apart from the word order, it sounds just about the same. It is difficult in the extreme to see why the former is despicable, while the latter is acceptable. This is even more baffling, given that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is still in operation, and no one, not even the most fervent cultural Marxist, would characterize that organization as racist.

The word “Negro” was a perfectly acceptable appellation several decades ago. But woe betide any white person from using it nowadays. Racism, here we come. However, what are we to make of the United Negro College Fund Inc? Could they be racist? Heaven forfend. James Baldwin famously stated that “urban renewal means Negro removal.” Should we now cancel him?
Then, there is the “N” word, which I dare not spell out, even though rap “musicians” seemingly employ it every third sentence. Sometimes, this word is even employed in the very title of a rap group: NWA.

The regressives (less pejoratively, leftists, which is equally accurate) are moving us back toward, socialism, toward fascism, toward feudalism. There, privilege, political pull, are the order of the day. Privilege does not mean wealthy. It means being given an unfair advantage, as for example when teachers unions ride roughshod over private, charter and home schooling; hotels attack AirBnB; taxi companies undermine Lyft and Uber; beauticians make it all but impossible for hair braiders to operate. It is only laissez faire capitalism that is truly progressive. It allows for new ways of satisfying customers, not stultifying entrepreneurs with new ideas.

Affirmative action should be called negative action, insofar as its hurts its supposed beneficiaries. Even some black people are loath to visit African-American doctors. They don’t know if they passed all their exams under their own steam, or were “affirmatively” licensed. When college students are placed in the same class with those with 400 points higher on their SAT scores, the results are not positive. Ask Amy Wax about that. These “beneficiaries” do so badly in competition with their fellow students that requirements are not relaxed; they are pretty much jettisoned entirely.

The English Department of Rutgers University has gone so far as to practically embrace Ebonics. It is now widely bruited about that 2+2=4 is based on white supremacism, as is the advice to work hard, be aware of the future and promote intact families. Linguistics are not solely responsible for this de-civilization, but they play a part.

Further, not all poor countries are “developing.” Some are. Some are stagnant. Others are retrogressing. Why not call them all “underdeveloped.” And “rent seeking” must go. Those crony capitalists are not seeking rent, like landlords, car rental agencies. They are seeking booty.

This besmirching of language must stop. Equity is not equality. It is fairness, not egalitarianism. Social justice is unjust. War is not peace. Freedom is not slavery. Ignorance is not strength. One more pet peeve: why are “blue states” leftish, and “red states” rightish? Surely, we should reverse this on the ground that our friends the regressives are much closer to communist red than are conservatives and libertarians.

Why is all this worth mentioning? No, I take that back; why is it of the utmost importance that we resist the left’s continual attempt to alter linguistics?

For one thing, language mirrors thought. If certain words, expressions, are verboten, then it is more difficult, maybe impossible in the extreme, to think in certain ways. If we all use “Ms.” then it is far more challenging and demanding to extol the virtues of intact families. If we all characterize these socialists as “progressives” their nostrums become easier to swallow. Those advocates are progressive! How bad can their vision be?

For another, there are only two ways to fight for our freedom; physically and verbally. All men of good will (not people of good will; “men” includes both male and female) vastly prefer the latter. But in accepting the linguistics of those on the left, we debate them in effect with one hand tied behind our backs. Let them for a change utilize our way of speaking.
Easier said than done, of course.

Those of us who refuse to use “Ms,” who do not honor them by calling them “progressives,” who see nothing wrong with the name of the NAACP will face stiff opposition. We will be labeled racists, sexists, fascists, etc. But if we all do it… In unity there is strength. We should hang together, or we will hang separately. Oh, wait, I don’t think it is politically correct for a white person to mention that word. Mea culpa. A thousand pardons.

I don’t say we will win the hearts and minds of the populace if we stick to our guns (so to speak! So to speak!) and try to regain the language. I only say that if we do not, we will continue to be fighting with one hand behind our backs.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard.

The image shows, “Bill of Rights,” by Howard Chandler Christy, painted in 1942.

The Unique Basque Country

We are so pleased to offer our readers the very first English translation of the “Prologue,” by the great scholar of modern Spain, Professor Stanley Payne, to the new book, Vascos y navarros: Mitos, historia y realidades identitarias (Basques and Navarrese: Myths, History and Realities of Identity), by the renowned historian Dr. Arnaud Imatz whose work we have had the great privilege to present in the Postil.

In another place I have observed that all history is individual and singular, and that of all the lands of the West none has a more singular history than Spain. Within Spain, there is no other region as unique as the Basque Country, not even the Catalonia of the fet diferencial.

The Basque Country is especially individual for several reasons – its native language, its specific institutions (individualized by provinces even within the region) and its history. However, it also participates in the same general social structure and common culture of Spain; and its anthropological basis is, despite everything, and if we follow the conclusions of Julio Caro Baroja, probably more similar than the ultra-nationalists want to admit.

Arnaud Imatz is a French writer and intellectual who has devoted a long time to the history and problems of Spain, although he is not as well known within the country as he deserves. His important works published in Spain have dealt with Francoism and other significant issues, from Al-Ándalus to current problems. As a Basque-French with a long background on both sides of the Pyrenees, it is only natural that he has devoted a lot of attention to Basque history.

A dominant aspect of current Spanish culture is the misrepresentation of history, both within and without the country. And the part of Spain whose history that has been the most misrepresented is the Basque Country proper. All nationalism, without the slightest exception, mythologizes the history of the nation; but the myths of Basque history are even more outlandish than those of some other nations or regions.

That is why Arnaud Imatz has prepared this book on Basques and Navarrese, which constitutes a profile or tracing of the most important events, personalities and factors in Basque history, with the goal of presenting the facts and realities of this story.

In addition – which is equally important – it offers a much more complete perspective, because it includes the history of the French Basque Country and Navarre. Given the oppressive self-absorption of historiography in Spain, this fuller perspective is usually lacking, however indispensable it may be. For this reason, such a historical profile by Imatz constitutes a unique work, indispensable to understand the basic historical structure of “both” Basque Countries, and also how Navarra is related to this history, while also following its own history.

I would like to illustrate the complexity of this story with a personal anecdote, which has to do with the very origin of my own interest in the Basque Country, and which refers to the personality of the original Basque Lehendakari, José Antonio de Aguirre, who has been, as Imatz says, both the most famous and the most popular of all those who have occupied that position. Unlike the other Republican leaders in exile, Aguirre spent most of World War II in the United States, a circumstance that no doubt had to do with the perpetual search at that time for an international sponsor.

During the war, I had presented a short cycle of lectures at my university, Columbia (USA), and my thesis supervisor, who had known him, provided me with a personal letter of introduction, because in 1958, I had thought to start my first research trip to Spain, with a brief stay in Paris to meet the main republican exiles, some of whom helped me generously.

Aguirre received me immediately and with great cordiality at his office at the “Délégation d’Euzkadi” on rue Singer de la Rive Droite in Paris. The President had a great gift for being with people, and was easygoing and open in his dealings, with a lot of human warmth. Furthermore, he had the time to chat for an hour with an unknown 24-year-old North American PhD candidate, in part because nationalism was at a low point in those years.

I visited him again in June 1959, after my research in Spain, and he received me in the same cordial manner. With his great personal geniality, Aguirre spoke extensively on the history of nationalism and the Basque Country and was very open to questions. In other venues, he was undoubtedly a lot more controversial; but on a personal level he was not controversial at all.

As an example of his frankness, I will mention the fact that it was Aguirre who first explained to me that in 1936, opinion in the Basque Country was divided into three, with a third in favor of nationalism, another in favor of Spanish Catholic rights and the last, a third, supporting the Spanish left, which was true. Or, as Imatz says, the Spanish civil war was also a civil war between Basques. Aside from the historical issues, I will always remember the Basque President with the greatest affection for his generosity and kindness.

He also introduced me to other personalities, especially the great Basque bibliographer Jon Bilbao, who would soon be a good friend and colleague for life. Jon, who had been born in Puerto Rico, was an American citizen but had been a young gudaris officer in the war. He later earned a Ph.D. at Columbia, where his professors, somewhat baffled by the uniqueness of the Basque language in which Jon wanted to specialize, placed his research project in none other than the Ural-Altaic languages section, another example of the perplexity raised by the language (as Imatz will explain).

Years later, Jon became the librarian, and special, advisor at the Basque Studies Program at the University of Nevada, the first in North America with that specialty. Then, during the brief period of my research on the Basque Country (1971-1973), it was Jon who insisted that I expand my limited monograph on nationalism under the Second Republic, requested by the Rivista Storica Italiana, into a short book on the entire first phase of nationalism. In those last years of the Franco regime, it was the first professional study on a subject that later, in the democratic era, would become an extensive industry.

For these and other reasons, it is a real pleasure to write this foreword to the work of Arnaud Imatz, which because of its unusually broad perspective and its objectivity constitutes a unique book, short but absolutely basic. His text is sober, exact, very concise, objective and demystifying, but without controversial tones. It is especially useful at this time for any reader interested in knowing the fundamental data of the history of the Basque provinces and Navarra – without myths.

The image shows, “The Little Village Girl with Red Carnation,” by Adolfo Guiard, painted in 1903.

Translated from the Spanish by N. Dass.

History Is Not Manichean: A Conversation With Arnaud Imatz

This month we are so very pleased to publish the English version of an interview with Dr. Arnaud Imatz, the renowned French historian, who has published over a dozen books and numerous articles in both European and American journals and magazines. Dr. Imatz has contributed several times to the Postil. Here, Dr. Imtaz is in conversation with La Tribuna del Pais Vasco in regards to his new book, Vascos y Navarros (Basques and Navarrese).

La Tribuna (LT): How did the idea of writing the book, Vascos y Navarros, come about?

Arnaud Imatz (AI): I started by writing a chronological article in French and was surprised to see it published in a tourist guide in which they did not even mention my name. As a result, I decided to considerably revise and expand that article. More than anything, it is a small tribute to my ancestors. They were Basques, Navarrese and Béarnais. They were fishermen, bakers, vintners, public works contractors, military men, carpenters, tobacco growers, booksellers, restaurant owners and hoteliers, located for the most part in Hendaye.

I was born in Bayonne, but after a few months of life I was already going with my mother to the beach at Hendaye, La Pointe, right by Fuenterrabía. A beautiful place, now gone, having been replaced by the beautiful but conventional marina, the marina of Sokoburu. With my wife, my son and my two daughters, I first in Paris and then for twenty years in Madrid. I have unforgettable memories of Madrid and close friends (even a true “spiritual son”). But I spent most of my time – more than forty years – in the Basque Country, an exceptional place in the world.

Of course, my Galician, Breton, Andalusian or Corsican friends may disagree. This is normal. My children and grandchildren, who live further north, and my wife, born in the Ile-de-France (although of partly Biscayan descent), sometimes make fun of my excessive attachment to the land. But what difference does it make! I also had my doubts and reacted with skepticism when in the distant 1980s a Basque friend, a professor of Law, who had been a member of the tribunal that examined my doctoral thesis, answered my questions: “How about La Reunion? La Martinique?” etc.: “Well, well, but you know that when you see Biriatu ….” He didn’t even bother to finish his sentence. Now I know he was right.

LT: So your family has deep roots in the Basque Country?

AI: Yes, indeed. My surname, Imatz or Imaz, meaning “wicker,” “of wicker,” “pasture,” or “reed,” is found, above all, in the Basque Autonomous Community, but it is also present, although less frequently, in Navarre and the French Basque Country. On my mother’s side of the family, there are a good number of Basque surnames. Most were born and lived in Hendaye. Some moved away, went to work in different cities in France or Spain (Madrid, Palencia or Andalusia), even in America. But sooner or later almost all of them returned to their native town in the French Basque Country.

My maternal grandfather was Basque, Carlist and of course Catholic. He kept a beret his whole life which was given to his family by Don Carlos. He worked in hotels in Guayaquil and London and later in the María Cristina de San Sebastián, when it opened in 1912. During the First World War, he was a gunner in the Battle of Verdun. Once demobilized, he returned to Hendaye to take over his parents’ hotel. He spoke Basque and French, but also Spanish, like most of the members of my family at that time; and by the way, they were very closely connected with Spain and the Spanish.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, my great-grandfather had a brother, who was parish priest in Biriatu. He was dedicated to his priesthood, but he also liked to play pelota. Yes! And always wearing his cassock. He became very involved in the defense and safeguarding of the Basque language and culture. Such were the famous French-Basque priests of yesteryear.

My great-aunt used to play the piano and she taught me, among other things, the Oriamendi and the Hymn of San Marcial. From her house, located on the banks of the Bidasoa, she could see the Alarde de Irún and at night hear, although very rarely, the whispers of the smugglers. My great-aunt and great-grandmother (a strong widow who had been the director of the Hendaye Casino in the 1920s) told me many memories of our border family.

LT: Can you tell us about some of these memories?

AI: Some anecdotes. A few months before he died, my Carlist grandfather, naturally in favor of the national side, negotiated with Commander Julián Troncoso, a friend of his, for the exchange of a friend from the Republican side, Pepita Arrocena. As a result of the attempted Socialist Revolution, in 1934, Pepita had crossed the border with her driver and with the socialist leader, Indalecio Prieto, hidden in the trunk of her car.

Also, French friends of my grandfather participated in the unsuccessful assault on the Republican submarine C2, which was anchored in the port of Brest. I must say that during the Civil War, many foreign correspondents used to stay at my grandparents’ hotel.

At the end of the war, my grandmother, now a widow, was close friends with the wife of Marshal Pétain, French ambassador to Spain. But two years later, being in the so-called “forbidden” area, in the middle of the Nazi occupation, and despite her friendship with Annie Pétain, the “Marshal,” my grandmother sympathized with the Gaullists and participated in anti-German Resistance. She was in contact with the ORA (Organization de Résistance de l’Armée) of the Basque Country, along with her friend, Dr. Alberto Anguera Angles, from Irune, who was in charge of routing messages of those escaping from France.

The other branch of my family, the paternal one, was Béarnaise, from Pau and Orthez. My paternal grandfather was a Catholic Republican, a non-commissioned officer who was one of the most decorated soldiers of the First World War. Handicapped by the war, he settled in Hendaye in 1919, with his wife and four children as a tobacconist and bookseller. His son, my father, was born in Hendaye six months later.

My father was a great athlete, who was four times French pelota champion in the 1930s and 1940s, with the long bat (pala larga) and in the plaza libre (court). My paternal family was then divided between the stalwarts of Marshal Pétain (my grandfather), and the supporters of Charles de Gaulle (his four sons, among whom were my father and my godfather). The oldest of my grandfather’s sons was seriously injured at Dunkirk.

All these family memories made me understand very early that history is not Manichean, that it is always made of light and dark, that there are no absolute good and bad, that there are no so-called historical or democratic justices as peddled by the traffickers of hatred and resentment, who are miserable political puppets who live to play with fire.

LT: In your opinion, do more things unite or separate Basques and the Navarrese?

AI: To answer in detail it would be necessary to refer to the long history of the medieval Basque counties, the kingdom of Navarre, Spain, the Hispanic Empire and the French nation-state. These are topics that I address, albeit briefly, in the historical summary given in my book. I would of course be unable to summarize all these substantial issues in a few words. I concede that personally, despite my nationality, and due to my Spanish-French culture, I sympathize much more with the Hispanic Catholic Empire of Charles V and Philip II than with the Gallican-Catholic French nation-state of Richelieu, Louis XIII, Louis XIV and the Revolutionaries of 1789 and 1792. We already know that the “reason of state” of these French politicians was greatly influenced by Machiavelli and indirectly by the writings and attitude of the Protestants. That said, five, ten or fifteen centuries of common history cannot just be erased, manipulated, or misrepresented.

Now, if in your question you refer essentially to our own time, I will tell you that, paradoxically, there are more and more things that unite the Basques and Navarrese and less that separate them. But, beware! This does not mean that I fall into those independence or separatist dreams. What I think is happening is that both these peoples are losing their specificities and are gradually uniting – but unfortunately into nothingness, in the great meat-grinder of globalism.

Let me explain. At this point, we are all victims of globalization, consumerism, commercialism, demographic decline, multicultural individualism, the decline of religion and the Church and Christianity – all these many plagues that have shown themselves, in the long run, to be much more corrosive and deadly for both the Basques and the Navarrese (and also in general for all the peoples of Europe) than the “forty years of Franco’s dictatorship,” or the “Bourbon centralism of the 19th century,” or “French Jacobin centralism.”

It is true, thank God, that our lands (which have sometimes been marked by savage violence unworthy of human beings) have not endured the horrors of Nazism, or worse still (because of the sheer number of deaths) the monstrosities of Marxist-communist totalitarianism. In this, the radical nationalists are completely blind and are totally wrong as to who the enemy is. Torn apart by the hodgepodge of Marxist internationalism and what Americans call “cultural Marxism,” the radical, Abertzale left has become the perfect ally of hypercapitalism or globalist turbocapitalism. The two, globalists and nationalist-separatists, are tearing apart the best of the Navarrese and Basque values, the deepest roots of both peoples. In the background are two grips of the same vise.

LT: In your opinion, what does Euskara mean for the reality of Basques and Navarrese?

AI: It is an important factor, but not enough to define the entirety of Basque identity and reality. Just as important are ethnicity, demographics, culture, and history. There are Euskaldunak Basques, because they speak the Basque language. There are Euskotarrak Basques because they are ethnically defined as Basques, even though they express themselves in French or Spanish. And there are Basques who are Basque citizens because they reside in the Basque Country and love the Basque Country. In the Autonomous Community of Navarra, which is founded on a long and brilliant history of its own, it is another story: there are Basques who feel Basque and many Navarrese who are not and do not feel Basque.

What the Basque Government does to defend the Basque language seems to me to be quite successful, despite all the cartoonish and meaningless actions that have been taken against the Castilian language or – better said – Spanish, which is one of the two or three most widely spoken languages in the world. We already know that language is not enough. In addition to this, it should not be hidden, the results of the policies in favor of the Basque language are rather negligent. The reality is that there is no nation or country possible without a historical legacy, combined with consent and a will to exist on the part of the people. Nicolas Berdiaev and other famous European authors such as Ortega y Gasset spoke of unity or community of historical destiny. Well, without the harmonious combination of the historical-cultural foundation and the voluntarist or consensual factor, without these two factors, there can be no nation. And that is why there is no longer a true Spanish nation today, as there are no true nationalities or small nations within Spain today.

The same can be said of the rest of Western Europe, whose power is in clear decline, if we compare it to the current great powers. In France, it is very significant that a professional politician like Manuel Valls, who always believes he has an ace up his sleeve, has recently admitted that “French society is gangrenous, fractured by Islamism.” For this very reason, the Catalan authorities and Catalanists, who emphatically declare or hypocritically imply that they prefer North African immigration that does not speak Spanish, considering it more prone to learning Catalan, than a Catholic and Spanish-speaking Spanish-American immigration, are ignorant and incoherent. With them the days of fet Catala are numbered. At least, and for the moment, the immigrationist nonsense of the Catalanists does not seem to prevail so strongly among the radical Basque nationalist militants.

LT: How would you define the Navarrese feeling of identity?

AI: I think I have already answered in part. For me, Navarrismo is in the past; its hallmarks were Catholicism and traditionalism. It was the same as the Requetés, the red berets that my maternal grandfather admired so much and that today only exist in homeopathic doses. I would say the same about the figure of the noble, catholic, deep-rooted, hard-working and honest Basque of yesteryear.

It seems that the “elites,” the Basque and Navarrese oligarchy or political caste have chosen, I do not know if definitively or not, the path of harmonization and alignment with the values and presuppositions of globalism or alter-globalism (which does not matter), or of the so-called progressive transnationalism. They pretend to believe that the Basque and the Navarrese are defined only administratively or legally from a document or an identity card. It seems that they are eager to populate the future Basque and Navarrese territories with the homo economicus, asexual, stateless and phantasmagoric, so criticized in the past by the Basque-Spanish Unamuno, and by the most important figures of Basque nationalism.

If to this we add the ravages of the terrible demographic crisis, undoubtedly the worst in all of Spain and possibly in all of Western Europe, the prospects are not very encouraging. And, all the while, young Basques listen to Anglo-Saxon music, play “Basque rock,” eat hamburgers, consume drugs (young Abertzales more than anyone else), demand the opening of borders, immigration without limits, aggressive secularism, gender theory, transhumanism, hatred of the state and the history of the Spanish nation, and all the bullshit imported from American campuses. I could just say in French or English: “Grand bien leur fasse /Best of luck to them.” But I have the intimate and terrible conviction that if there is not a quick reaction against them, they will bring us a bleak, raw and bloody future in which our descendants will suffer.

LT: What do you think of Stanley Payne’s statement in the Prologue to your book, pointing out that “The Basque Country is the most unique region in Spain?” What are your feelings towards the Basque Country and towards Navarre?

AI: Stanley Payne belongs to that tradition of Anglo-Saxon historians who almost never lose their cool, or they say things with a certain degree of caution and balanced composure. He is a researcher and historian; but he is also a man and not a robot. That is why he opines, judges and interprets, although always with a certain sobriety and consideration. In the Prologue, he refers to the uniqueness of the Basque language, institutions and history (ignoring ethnicity). Now, he is American. I am not. And if I say that I agree with him when he says that “the Basque Country is the most unique region in Spain” many will say that this is due to my personal preference. Precisely as a result of that Prologue by Payne, a friend of mine, not without a sense of humor, wrote me: “This is very good, although I think that Galicians are more particular than Basques.”

In the book Vascos y Navarros I have tried to be as rigorous, honest and disinterested as possible. I have always thought that true objectivity does not lie so much in a hostile withdrawal, as in a kind of well-intentioned will that is capable of understanding and explaining the ideas of others without giving up one’s own reasons. That said, let me say and repeat here that, despite recent evolutions or regressions and the shortcomings of the pseudo or self-proclaimed Basque-Navarrese political “elites,” the Basque Country and Navarre are my favorite lands.

LT: How do you see the recent history of the Basque Country and Spain from the point-of-view of the French Basque Country?

AI: Partisanship, ignorance or disinterest, not only of the majority of the French but also of the majority of French politicians and journalists, for the history and politics of the Basque Country and Navarre, and more generally for Spain in its entirety – is abysmal, unfathomable. The trend is slightly different in the French Basque Country due to the proximity of the border and the presence of a weak but not insignificant Basque nationalist electorate, representing 10% to 12% of the general electorate. Generally, many feel Basque, but as in the rest of France, most are disinterested in the history and politics of the peninsula, unless a momentous event occurs. As for the small Basque nationalist minority in the north, they tirelessly recycle Hispanophobic clichés, although they sometimes fear being swallowed up by their powerful brothers to the south.

In my case, I have not surrendered. With the help of a handful of young and veteran French historians and courageous editorials, I continue and will continue to explain, denounce and refute black legends, misconceptions, censored data, instrumentalized facts and Hispanophobic nonsense, spread by the ignorant, the wicked and, unfortunately, by a good part of the Basque, Navarrese and Spanish political caste.

The image shows, “Landscape Of The Basque Country,” by Charles Lacoste, painted in 1925.

The Spanish version of this appeared in La Tribuna del Pais Vasco. Translation by N. Dass.