The Natural Law, Impossibility Of Planned Eugenics, And The Chaos Of Transhumanism

We intend to develop here two reasons why a genetically or economically planned human society, which ignores both social inequality and intragroup competition, whether peaceful or coercive, is, in fact, intensely disadvantaged in its self-preservation, even doomed to failure. On the one hand, the projected success of a future sexuated individual in reproducing (and living long enough, and well enough, to become a mature, vigorous sexual reproducer), in the framework of a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction, can neither be measured nor be existing in the absence of decentralized sexual reproductive opportunities. And that, just as the rentability of a future allocation of capital goods can be neither measured nor even projected, in the absence of capital goods subject to the market price and to the right of private property.

To put it in another way, the calculation of the “fitness” of a future sexuated individual is not more possible to a eugenics planning body than the calculation of the economic rentability of a future allocation of capital is possible to an economic planning body. The implementation of a functional order in human society necessarily passes through the acceptance of these two cosmic laws that are the respective impossibilities of a (centrally) planned eugenics and of a (centrally) planned economy. On the other hand, there are at least two other cosmic laws whose acceptance is necessarily required for a functional social order in the human species: namely the fact that physical-mental inequality necessarily characterizes a sexually reproducing species; and the fact that decentralized intragroup competition for preeminence, survival, and reproduction is indispensable for the success of a group of vertebrates in intergroup competition for survival and preeminence.

A Word On State Eugenics

Before we get to the heart of the matter, it is useful that we proceed with some conceptual clarifications on state eugenics, which admits a positive modality (i.e., dedicated to promoting, or requiring the transmission of, traits considered positive) and a negative modality (i.e., dedicated to disadvantaging or prohibiting the transmission of traits considered negative).

The goal of state eugenics, either positive or negative, is not only to reach a population carrying exclusively the traits that it considers positive (or to come as close as possible to it); but to ensure that the members of the population in question are virtually capable of winning individually in a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction (that nevertheless corresponds to the socio-natural environment of said population), or of compromising their own individual survival and reproduction in the reproductive interest of the population (taken as a whole).

By “planner-type state eugenics” or “planning-type state eugenics,” we mean state eugenics that enjoys ownership of individual genetic capital, and which decides who has the right to reproduce and who should reproduce with whom. We will call “state eugenics of the semi-planner type” (or “state eugenics of the semi-planning type”) state eugenics that shows itself to be planning, either in the sole field of positive eugenics, or in the sole field of negative eugenics, but not in both fields. To our knowledge, whereas planner-type (rather than semi-planner type) state eugenics has been found only in fiction, semi-planner (rather than planner) state eugenics has genuinely existed: in England, America, Germany, and elsewhere. It continues to exist at least in China, where the communist administration, notably, renders the authorization for those couples deemed dysgenic to marry conditional on permanent contraception.

By “incentive-type state eugenics,” we mean state eugenics that uses incentives (fiscal, for example), but leaves mating decisions to be carried out in a decentralized mode, thus recognizing the authority of the family’s patriarch (over the mating of his offspring) or the freedom of individuals in the choice of their mating partners. To our knowledge, the actually implemented state eugenics of the semi-planner type have classically been (and, as in contemporary China, continue to be classically) state eugenics that, while showing themselves to be notably planning (and not only inciting) in the field of negative eugenics, prove to be only inciting (rather than planning) in the field of positive eugenics.

Without establishing the state as the owner of individual genetic capital, a semi-planner-type state eugenics exercises a planning confined, either to the positive field of eugenics, or to the negative field. A state eugenics of the semi-planner type allows that, as far as strictly concerns a given field of eugenics, either the positive or the negative field, decentralized decisions are taken in the allocation of individual genetic capital towards reproductive sexual unions, decisions that he will potentially undertakes to influence (via non-coercive incentives).

When it comes to following a criterion in its planning of reproductions, a planning-type eugenist state has no other possible choice than to take as the criterion of its decision to order or prohibit a certain reproductive union the reproductive success that the offspring that would result from that reproductive union under the planning eugenist state (if the latter were actually ordered by the planning eugenist state and carried out) would reach in a decentralized competition for survival and reproduction (if the offspring in question were founding itself participating in such a competition instead of finding itself under the supervision of a planning eugenist state).

For the reason that a (centralized) planning of reproductions is necessarily deprived of a criterion for centralized planning (i.e., a criterion for the centralized selection of those reproductions required, and therefore, authorized) that it can find in itself, which is therefore not borrowed from its representation of the individual planning of an organism meeting decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction and wanting the best “fitness” for its offspring, a planning eugenist state (what amounts to speaking of a genetically planning state) is necessarily incapable of taking a criterion for selecting ordered (and therefore, authorized) reproductions other than the representation of the reproductive success that the offspring of a hypothetical ordered reproductive union would achieve in the presence of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction.

By “entrepreneurial economy” or “decentralized entrepreneurial economy,” we mean an economy where the allocation of capital takes place in the context of capital goods subject to private property rights (and to free entrepreneurial competition for monetary profit) rather than in the context of the absence of property rights over capital goods or in the context of central planning by a state that owns capital goods.

By “decentralized competition for survival and reproduction,” we mean an (individual) competition for survival and reproduction in the presence of the formal possibility of everyone to take part in said competition and in the context of decentralized sexual reproductive opportunities (rather than centralized due to central planning by a state that owns the genetic capital replacing any sexual opportunity for decentralized reproduction).

Just as a planning eugenist state aspires to do as well (or aspires to do better) in terms of “fitness” as decentralized competition for survival and reproduction would, so a state planning the economy aspires to do as well (or aspires to do better) in terms of economic rentability as decentralized entrepreneurial competition would do. Because those two types of central planning are both incapable of planning action, both are doomed to failure in their respective ambitions.

The “fitness” of an individual designates his success in generating an offspring qualitative (i.e., itself happy in said reproductive success) and numerous in the context of a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction, therefore in the presence of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction (what nevertheless includes the scenario where there is only one fertile sexual partner for all individuals of the opposite sex, a scenario comparable to the “natural monopoly” in an economy). Just as the market prices of capital goods can no more exist outside a market for capital goods than the rentability of a certain allocation of capital can be calculated in the absence of market prices, decentralized sexual reproductive opportunities can no more exist outside a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction than an individual’s “fitness” can exist (and can be calculated) in the absence of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction.

Just as a state planning the economy intends to dispense with the existence of a market for capital goods in its projection or verification of the rentability of the allocated capital, a state planning eugenics intends to dispense with the existence of a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction in its projection or verification of the “fitness” of an individual, i.e., the success an individual, if he were in a context of decentralized struggle (for survival and reproduction), would reach in the begetting of a numerous and qualitative descent. Whereas the “fitness” of the individual to be born of the allocation of a certain genetic capital (towards a certain reproductive union) is irremediably prevented (and not only rendered non-measurable and non-plannable) by the absence of decentralized reproductive sexual opportunities under a state planning eugenics, the economic capital allocated by a state planning economy remains allocated profitably or not; but the rentability in question is irremediably rendered non-measurable (and, in that regard, rendered non-plannable) by the absence of market prices for capital goods.

The fact that a state planning eugenics is necessarily incapable of forming an idea of “fitness” (since the decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction are necessarily absent under a state planning eugenics) will not be without incidence on the genetic quality of the engendered population in terms of the ability to live long enough (and healthy enough) to become a mature (and vigorous) reproductive breeder. As the central planning of the allocation of genetic capital to reproductive sexual unions, because of its necessarily erratic character, will generate individuals who would be less and less able to prevail in a decentralized competition for survival and reproduction (corresponding to the socio-natural environment of the concerned population), it will engender individuals who—in the concrete context of planned eugenics—will be less and less able to become vigorous and attractive sexual reproducers or to live long enough to reach sexual maturity.

From Gnosticism To Transhumanism

In the weak sense, transhumanism covers any doctrine that promotes the “overcoming” of homo sapiens via genetic engineering and bio-robotic engineering (including the implantation of electronic devices in the human brain, what one may call “neuro-robotic engineering” or “the neuro-robotic compartment of bio-robotic engineering”). In the strong sense, transhumanism covers any doctrine that promotes the instinctual, mental emasculation of homo sapiens, and its genetic homogenization (in terms of IQ and physical aptitude), via eugenics and the aforementioned genetic and bio-robotic engineerings—and that, for the purpose of obtaining an allegedly pain-free human existence. By the project of homo sapiens’s instinctual emasculation, we mean the project (dear to transhumanists in the strong sense) of reconfiguring human instincts in such a way that the virile mind (i.e., independent and capable of criticism and dissent) and the virile instincts of territoriality, independent thought, war, selfishness, the enjoyment of luxury and of sexual pleasure, the taste for power and for competition, or the desire to distinguish oneself, are eradicated from the psyche human.

To do that, transhumanists advocate, if not planning-type state eugenics, at least eugenics and genetic and bio-robotics engineerings. A transhumanist ideal in the strong sense is not necessarily an ideal in favor of planning state eugenics or even an ideal in favor of state eugenics as such: in other words, the transhumanism in the strong sense adopting state eugenics (either of the planning type or not) is only a modality of transhumanism in the strong sense. But whether it adopts state eugenics or not, transhumanism in the strong sense is doomed to engender a dysfunctional society for the reason that such a society would collide with the cosmic order. Strong transhumanism, and even weak transhumanism, is nothing else than a revolt against the cosmic order: a revolt all the more pronounced in the case of strong transhumanism. In the following lines, we will above deal with transhumanism in the strong sense and use the term “transhumanism” in its strong sense exclusively.

The project of “overcoming” homo sapiens via both genetic and bio-robotic (including neuro-robotic) engineering necessarily succumbs to what Friedrich A. von Hayek called the “fatal conceit” of omniscience, i.e., the conceit that genetic and neuro-robotic engineering is able to understand and predict a phenomenon that, in reality, is irremediably beyond human understanding as it is made (and positioned) in the cosmic order. As for the modality of neuro-robotic engineering that consists of implanting behavior-regulating chips in the human brain, it is needless to specify that it falls within the “road to serfdom.”

To that cognitive hybris with regard to the cosmos is necessarily added a conceit of omnipotence when the “overcoming” of homo sapiens in question consists more precisely of replacing the human being as he stems from decentralized and spontaneous biological evolution with a “new man” as much emasculated in his instincts and behavior as undifferentiated genetically, socially, and physically-mentally. Here, the cosmos is definitely seen both as totally disorganized and as infinitely shapeable: a clay that is both chaotic and malleable at will.

To put it in another way, transhumanism, while denying that there is a certain order in the universe (and a harmony within which humans must find their place), affirms that homo sapiens is able to provide the universe with the order which it supposedly lacks; and, while denying that human existence has any meaning within the universe, asserts that homo sapiens is able (and has) to “overcome” himself—via eugenics and via genetic and bio-robotic engineering—and to become a being no less omnipotent (and omniscient) with regard to the cosmos than “freed” from his virile instincts and from genetic inequality. In that regard, transhumanism comes as a secularized outgrowth of Gnosticism, an outgrowth where rebellion against an evil demiurge turns into rebellion against a vain and chaotic universe; and where the “liberation” from the divine sparks that are human souls with regard to the prison of material bodies, accomplished through knowledge, magic, and the rejection of Yahweh’s commandments, turns into “liberation” (via knowledge, technology, and eugenics) both of human biological nature with regard to the instincts, aptitudes, and inequalities of homo sapiens and of the creative powers of the human with regard to the limits assigned to them by his biological condition.

It is worth specifying that Gnosticism is only a part of the larger current of Judeo-Hellenic esotericism that fermented in Alexandria before continuing notably in the Kabbalah, a current that a certain literature hostile to Judaism believes it can amalgamate in its entirety, wrongly, with the only Gnostic modality. Contrary to what some of those studying the distant esoteric roots of contemporary transhumanism claim, Gnosticism and transhumanism stand in stark contrast to the Old Testament’s (and by extension, Talmudic and Kabbalistic) conception of the human being and the role that he is in a position to play in the cosmos.

In the mindset of the Old Testament, it is true that the human is seen as commissioned by God to co-create the cosmos; but precisely, the mandate of creation that is in question here consists, not of destroying and replacing the work of God (including human nature as God designed it), but of completing and sustaining the cosmos that God has created and delivered to humans. Hence the metaphor of the Garden of Eden that expresses the role of gardener of the cosmos devolved to humans: the role of preserving and crowning divine creation. Here, the human is certainly made in the image of God, or even directly linked to God; but precisely, far from the human being divine or called to render himself divine, he finds himself only in a relationship of (virtual) resemblance to God, a resemblance that he is called to concretize through submitting nature to himself (in the understanding nevertheless of the divine wisdom inherent in the arrangement of creation) and through submitting to the commandments of God: commandments which aim to enable man to discipline his instincts and, in that regard, to accomplish what renders him virtually made in the image of God and virtually capable of co-creating and exploiting the cosmos.

That conception of the way in which humans can and must behave with regard to nature contrasts just as much with the sacralization of nature (prohibiting its lesser exploitation by humans) constitutive of certain paganisms as with the condemnation of nature (and its perception as an enemy to be eradicated) constitutive of transhumanism. It is notably perpetuated into well-understood traditional Catholicism, namely the Catholicism of the papal reform of the 11th century, and into American-Protestantism. A secularized echo of that is the notion that man, if he intends to submit to nature to the extent possible, is forced himself to submit to nature and to the knowledge of nature. That echo does not only suggest what is possibly the symbolic meaning of the biblical text; it expresses what is a completely “scientific” appreciation both of the way in which the human is inscribed in the cosmos and of the degree to which the human can render himself creator and dominator and of the conditions under which that is possible to him.

Far from order being unknown to cosmic and biological evolution (such as conjectured the “theory of evolution” in a corroborated mode), a certain order governs inter-particle relations just as much as, to quote Robert Ardrey, “the movement of stars within galaxies, galaxies in their relations with others,” “the orbits of planets about their sun, moons about their planet,” and the “transactions of animals.” Neither the random nature of genetic mutations, nor the undesigned character of evolution, change anything to the facts “that animal treaties are honored; that baboons do not commit suicide in wars of troop against troop; that kittiwakes successfully defend their cliff-hung properties and raise their young; that lions and elephants restrict their numbers so that a habitat will not be exhausted by too numerous offspring,” or, finally, “that when species can no longer meet the challenge of environment, they must quietly expire.”

It is true that there are some doctrinal defenses of transhumanism that, instead of denying the order present in the nature, fully recognize the existence of said order, and even conceive of evolution as a designed process and the cosmos as organized on purpose. But precisely, those are inconsistent theoretical devices that, instead of drawing from the existence of the natural order the necessary implication, namely that the submission to the natural order limits and conditions the liberation of the creative and exploiting powers of humans, see homo sapiens as a virtually omnipotent being who will be able (with technical progress) to substitute for the natural order and the present version of the human species a new cosmos and a “new man.”

In that regard, the expectation of the “Singularity” (i.e., the day when artificial intelligence will allegedly overtake human intelligence and will henceforth be able to self-maintain and self-improve) in certain modalities of transhumanist faith comes as a twisted and secularized millennialist pattern, the expectation of the biological homogenization of humans and of their instinctual cyborgization and reprogramming when the era of the Singularity comes superseding the expectation of communist equality and of the mental regeneration of humans in the abundance of “grace” when the millennial era preceding the “last judgment” comes.

The natural impossibility of planning in eugenics is nevertheless a disappointment for the hopes of the type of transhumanism that favors planned eugenics. The natural impossibility of genetic equality (in a sexually reproducing species) and the natural indispensability (to the functionality of a vertebrate-society) of decentralized intragroup competition for survival, reproduction, and preeminence are so many disappointments for the hopes of transhumanism generally speaking, which falls within what Ardrey, without thinking of transhumanism (to our knowledge), called the “philosophy of the impossible.” Namely that, in defiance of properly understood science, “we have pursued the mastery of nature as if we ourselves were not a portion of that nature;” as if nature were not our “partner” (rather than our “slave”) and the “laws applying to us” were not “applying to all.”

An ambiguous notion, “natural law” can designate, among other things, an allegedly objective categorical injunction (such as the injunction “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife nor his servant”); a necessary regularity in the cosmic order; a categorical injunction allegedly objective and allegedly inferred from human nature (as the principle of non-aggression allegedly is); a functional and universal human rule of law; or a functional human rule of law rendered functional by its formulation and implementation of all or part of the implications of a certain cosmic regularity for the functionality of human society.

In the present article, we will call “natural law” a certain necessary regularity of the cosmic order that, on the one hand, renders functional a certain rule of human law formulating and implementing all or part of what that factual regularity implies in order for human society to be functional; which, on the other hand, renders dysfunctional any rule of law undertaking to transgress all or part of the implications of that factual regularity for a properly functional human society.

Any functional human rule of law is functional in that it contributes, if not to the preeminence of the group, at least to its survival (in specifying that preeminence is an asset for survival). Any functional human rule of law does not derive its functionality from the fact it formulates and implements an implication of a cosmic regularity; but any human rule of law that (like the collective ownership of economic or genetic capital) undertakes to get rid of a certain implication by a certain cosmic regularity is ipso facto rendered dysfunctional.

Precisely, the necessity of the calculation (of monetary profit or of profit in terms of “fitness”) for planning action in economy or in eugenics is one of the “natural laws” (in the aforementioned sense) that jointly render dysfunctional the legal basis of decentralized entrepreneurial competition and the legal basis of decentralized organismic competition for survival and reproduction; and jointly render dysfunctional the collective ownership of capital goods and the collective ownership of genetic capital.

Just as economic planning is in rebellion against the natural law of the need for anticipated market prices in the elaboration of economic plans (what may also be called “the law of the impossibility of planning (centrally) an economy”), planning in eugenics—and, in that regard, transhumanism of the type turned towards planned eugenics—are in rebellion against the natural law of the need for anticipated sexual reproductive opportunities in the elaboration of anticipations on the “fitness” of a projected newborn (what may also be called “the law of the impossibility of planning (centrally) eugenics”). Whether or not it is of a type supporting planned eugenics, transhumanism is also in rebellion against at least two other natural laws.

Although Robert Ardrey sometimes lacked clarity as to the meaning in which he spoke of “natural law,” and although he did not tackle (to our knowledge) the theme of transhumanism, we owe him in The Social Contract the identification of those two other natural laws against which transhumanism rebels (in vain): namely “the law of inequality” in species with sexual reproduction; and “the law of equal opportunity” in vertebrate species. The law of inequality is the law that genetic inequality, and therefore physical-mental inequality, is inevitable in a sexually reproducing species. For its part, the law of equal opportunity is the law that the equal opportunity of the members of a vertebrate society to take part in the “disorder” of the decentralized intragroup competition to survive, reproduce, and occupy a high position in the “pecking order” is an indispensable instrument for sorting out and making good use of individual aptitudes for the success of a group of vertebrates to perpetuate itself.

By “decentralized intragroup competition for survival, reproduction, and preeminence,” we mean an intragroup competition (peaceful or coercive) for survival, reproduction, and preeminence that is formally open to everyone in society; and which operates in the company of unhindered social inequalities (including innate ones), in the context of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction, and in the presence of a hierarchical order formally open to social mobility and to the recomposition of elites. In view of those two natural laws that are the law of inequality and the law of equal opportunity, a human social order that hinders or ignores any social inequality (including hierarchical) will be rendered not less dysfunctional than a human social order that hinders or ignores any formal system of intragroup decentralized competition (including decentralized competition for preeminence).

A transhumanist social order, i.e., repressing just as well any genetic inequality (in addition to any social inequality) as any genetic existence of a virile instinct (in addition to any social existence of decentralized intragroup competition), will be rendered all the more dysfunctional. Besides, whether the planning of reproductions consists of planning acts of carnal mating between individuals or of planning in vitro fertilization, a transhumanist social order of the planning type (i.e., of the type in favor of planned eugenics) will be rendered dysfunctional as much by its attempt to transgress the natural laws of identity and equal opportunity as by its attempt to transgress the natural law of the impossibility of planned eugenics.

On that subject, the society depicted in Brave New World comes as a borderline case of a transhumanist society of the planning type, in which genetic inequality is accepted (albeit planned) and in which instinctual emasculation remains incomplete (albeit largely advanced), with notably the quest for sexual pleasure persisting in society. The fact remains that, precisely, genetic reproductions and inequalities are planned there (and that, without the novel portraying the nonetheless erratic character of genetic planning, which is necessarily incapable of planning); and that intellective emasculation (i.e., the suppression of any mental capacity to think in a virile, therefore independent and critical, mode) is complete there, with no human stemming from planned eugenics in the depicted society proving able to think for himself.

What dismays the transhumanist with genetic inequality (and, by extension, social inequality) and intragroup or intergroup competition (and the instincts associated with it) is fundamentally that those things create “suffering,” “wickedness,” “violence,” and “tearing” in the world. When it comes more precisely to intergroup warfare or the decentralized intragroup competition for survival, reproduction, and preeminence, another reason for dismay in the transhumanist, not less fundamental, is that the disorder associated with it is thought to be an outright aberration, a horror that should be replaced with a total order.

To the indispensability of economic and juridico-political inequalities (including those attached to birth) for a functional human society responds, however, the not less indispensable character of the disorder linked to an “equal opportunity” offered to all members of society. But “the equal opportunity” whose implementation is in question here (if one wants human society to be functional) does not reside in the equality of formal or material starting conditions, what would contravene the aforementioned principle to allow all inequalities to flourish, including those associated with birth. “The equal opportunity” that is in question here consists of a formal equal opportunity to take part in a decentralized intragroup competition for survival and reproduction, as well as for the escalation of the group’s hierarchical order and the occupation of a high position within said hierarchical order.

That struggle for preeminence takes the form of what biologist Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards described as a “struggle for conventional prices by conventional means.” A fact which (to our knowledge) was not raised more in Mises than in Ardrey or Wynne-Edwards, the entrepreneurial competition for monetary profit only makes to deploy (in the economic field) the competition for “conventional prices” (in that case, monetary profit) by “conventional means” (in that case, the allocation of economic capital) that is at work in any functional vertebrates society, the losers in entrepreneurial competition (i.e., those entrepreneurs who are most mistaken or are the latest in the allocation of capital in anticipation of changes in investment or consumption demand) seeing themselves constrained to a low or negative income (and, in that regard, a inferior social position) just as the losers in the struggle for preeminence are relegated to a lower social rung generally speaking.

Ultimately, what renders free entrepreneurship functional (in terms of the group’s success in sustaining itself and in facing the challenges met by its survival, including the challenge of preeminence) is notably that such social institution accords with the three natural laws that are the law of inequality (in the sense that entrepreneurial income inequalities germinate from genetic inequalities without paralleling them), the law of equal opportunity (in the sense that entrepreneurial freedom offers everyone an equal formal opportunity to take a chance as an entrepreneur), and the law of the impossible central planning in economy (in the sense that entrepreneurial plans are exercised in place of a central planning body, which would be precisely incapable of planning). To put it in another way, what renders entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial freedom beneficial to the group is notably the fact that they fit into harmony with the cosmic order.

The Impossibility Of Planned Eugenics: A Neo-Misesian Argument

Ludwig von Mises defended freedom (including entrepreneurial) at a time when the academic consensus was that the central planning of an economy works, as well as a semi-planning state eugenics of the sterilizing type and of the transhumanist type (although the term “transhumanism” would only be forged in the 1950s, by a Julien Huxley approving the totalitarian world prophesied and denounced by his own brother Aldous). The officials of the Communist Party of China, as well as the men of the superclass, are both counting on the renewal of such consensus. In addition to his convincing demonstration of the impossibility of economic calculation for a planning committee, Mises had some very appropriate remarks on state eugenics of the planning or semi-planning type: namely that the latter, as Mises writes in his epilogue to Socialism, “aims at placing some men, backed by the police power, in complete control of human reproduction;” and that “as every supporter of economic planning aims at the execution of his own plan only, so every advocate of eugenic planning [or semi-planning] aims at the execution of his own plan and wants himself to act as the breeder of human stock,” the criteria retained to judge the physical or psychological traits that deserve to be preserved varying from one eugenics plan to another.

It is nevertheless regrettable that Mises did not distinguish between state eugenics of the planning (or semi-planning) type and state eugenics of the inciting type, implicitly reducing any state eugenics measure to a eugenics of the planned or semi-planned type in his references to “eugenics.” It is not less regrettable that he did not point out that the variance of the criteria retained in state eugenics devices to judge the traits worthy of being transmitted was, in part, due to the own variance of the criteria for social selection of surviving individuals (as opposed to those of selection criteria for individual survivals that relate to the natural and climatic environment), which vary according to society (as the natural selection criteria of those who will survive long enough to achieve sexual maturity vary depending on the natural environment).

Also and above all, Mises did not notice (or did not come across as noticing) that his argument in favor of the impossibility of economic planning (i.e., the central planning of the allocation of economic capital to the branches of activity, within the framework of the collective ownership of said economic capital) was transposable to genetic planning (i.e., the central planning of the allocation of genetic capital to reproductive sexual unions, within the framework of the collective ownership of genetic capital ). A planning eugenic state is certainly able to get an idea of the success of a hypothetical future newborn in reaching sexual maturity and vigor in the joint framework of its social selective environment and of its natural selective environment. It remains incapable as much of giving oneself a criterion for selecting the required (and therefore, authorized) reproductions other than the “fitness” of the offspring associated with them (i.e., the degree to which the offspring associated with them would be able to engender numerous and qualitative offspring if it were placed in the context of a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction) as of getting an idea of said “fitness” in the absence of anticipated sexual opportunities of reproduction.

Under a state planning eugenics, when an individual organism was just born and would be (in all the probable life scenarios) incapable of encountering a decentralized sexual opportunity of reproduction (within the framework of a decentralized competition for survival and reproduction corresponding to the socio-natural environment of said individual organism), seized or not, it is probable that the same organism will fail (even if the planning eugenist state leaves it in peace) to reach sexual maturity or to become a vigorous, attractive sexual reproducer. A state “planning” eugenics is, in fact, necessarily incapable of planning (and, in that regard, necessarily erratic), from which it follows that it will obtain organisms whose “fitness” would be weaker and weaker—and, in that regard, a population who, in the concrete context of planned eugenics, will be less and less qualified for sexual attractiveness and vigor or less and less likely to reach sexual maturity.

One easily imagines a defender of planned eugenics retorting that a planning eugenist state may well be incapable of planning, but that all that matters is the success of said state in ensuring that all or part of its population reproduce and that the physical-mental traits that it values are thus transmitted. Yet, the fact is that the only objective criterion for establishing the biological success of an individual organism is that said organism, if it were confronted with a decentralized competition for survival and reproduction corresponding to its own socio-natural environment, would achieve individual reproductive success in at least one probable life scenario (or, in at least one probable life scenario, would contribute to the group’s reproductive success through spontaneous sacrifice). Because over time, the probability necessarily increases that the majority of the individual organisms to be derived from planned eugenics are objective biological failure (due to the fact that the calculation of the “fitness” of a future individual organism is irremediably impossible for the planner), the planning eugenist state is doomed to reach less and less success in producing individual organisms which, in the concrete context of planned eugenics, live long enough to transmit the physical-mental traits that the planning eugenist state values. At least, the ones of those valued traits that are the rarest and most sophisticated. That fatality is comparable to that of shortages and waste in a planned economy, where collective ownership of capital renders economic calculation impossible.

Although Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. von Hayek agree to consider the existence of a market for capital goods as a very useful assistant (and in the strict case of Mises: even a necessary condition) of the calculation of the rentability of decisions in the allocation of capital, their respective arguments in favor of such conclusion diverge significantly. Whereas Hayek asserts that in the absence of present market prices for capital goods, the information present on the economic conditions (i.e., demographics, technology, consumer and investor priorities, etc.) of the moment find themselves difficultly communicable to a planning committee trying to calculate the rentability of a certain allocation decision, Mises argues that in the absence of a capital market, a planning committee—regardless of the accuracy of its knowledge of present economic conditions or the accuracy of its anticipation of future economic conditions—finds itself necessarily deprived of an indispensable tool for economic calculation.

In the Misesian approach to economic calculation, those of the market prices that are properly required for economic calculation constitute future market prices (rather than present market prices); and economic calculation is based on the uncertain anticipation of said future market prices (rather than on the certainty of current market prices). But even in the case where a planning committee would enjoy complete omniscience as to present economic conditions and perfect accuracy in its anticipation of future economic conditions, he would remain incapable of calculating the rentability of an allocation decision. In the Hayekian approach to economic calculation, a planning committee would be quite able to practice economic calculation in the presence of perfect omniscience as to the current economic conditions (and that, despite the uncertainty weighing on future economic conditions).

Mises’ argument against the possibility of economic calculation under a central planning regime goes even further and affirms the praxeological rather than cognitive origin of the impossibility of economic calculation for a planning committee—namely that the latter, even in the presence of perfect omniscience about the present and of a perfectly correct anticipation about the future, would remain deprived of an instrument indispensable to the type of action that is economic calculation. In other words, market prices as Mises sees them, present or future, do much more than communicate a certain information: they render said information usable for economic calculation, while a planning committee is necessarily incapable of integrating into an economic calculation the information he has about the present or the forecasts he makes about the future (however perfect they are). Besides, those of market prices that are important for the economic calculation as conceived by Mises are the future market prices, the entrepreneurial task including the anticipation of the latter and the allocation of capital on the basis of said anticipation.

For our part, we are of the opinion that in the presence of perfect omniscience about the present economic conditions, the economic calculation would certainly be dispensable to a planning committee in the strict case of a static economy, where the committee’s blind “groping” would allow it in the long run to determine the correct allocation of capital; but that economic calculation, even in that scenario of a static, perfectly known economy, would still remain impossible. When it comes to planning in a dynamic economy, economic calculation is indeed indispensable for the committee—even in the case where the committee has perfect information about the present conditions and an exact anticipation of future conditions.

In the absence of a capital market, economic calculation is not less impossible in the context of a static economy (and that, regardless of the accuracy of the information in the hands of the committee) than in the context of a dynamic economy, and that, regardless of the accuracy of the committee’s knowledge of the present and the accuracy of its anticipation of the future. On the question of economic calculation under a regime of collective ownership of capital, we therefore subscribe to Mises’s argument rather than to Hayek’s one. In the presence of moving economic conditions, a task incumbent on the one who allocates a capital good is to anticipate future changes in economic conditions, changes that are irremediably uncertain. In the absence of ex ante anticipation of future market prices and of ex post verification of those expectations (via the profit experience: positive or negative), it is respectively impossible to adapt ex ante the allocation of capital to the idea that one has of future changes in economic conditions–and impossible to adapt ex post the allocation previously carried out to the actual changes encountered.

The problem for the one who allocates some capital good is not only to be able to (correctly) anticipate the future; it is also to be able to proceed with economic calculation in view of the elaborated expectations (and that, whether the calculation is correct or incorrect), the impossibility of economic calculation applying as much to a planning committee with incorrect forecasts as to a committee with correct forecasts. It is not fortuitous that the joint perception of time as cyclical—and of any technical or economic innovation as a transgression of the cosmic order—has been characteristic of some of the historical societies ignoring, if not the private ownership of capital, at least the use of money. Such “cosmological” beliefs are quite consistent with a static (or relatively frozen) economy.

Through Western Christianity, especially the Catholicism of the papal reform and American-Protestantism, individualist economic law (inherited from Rome) and the Old Testament’s conceptions of time as linear—and of the human as mandated to bring to the world as much technical and economic as cognitive progress (and, in that sense, to co-create divine creation)—played a decisive role in the cultural awareness process through which the West started encouraging and judging possible, even inevitable, economic and technical progress in a capitalist framework. Precisely, a chimaera of the USSR—in congruence with its “cosmological” beliefs of the Marxist-Leninist type, a secularized outgrowth of Christian millenarianism—was to expect to conciliate the establishment of collective ownership of capital with the perpetuation of the economic progress associated with prior capitalist economies.

Like Nazi Germany in its day, there is little doubt that Xi Jinping’s China would like to conciliate, in due time, the central planning of genetic capital with the perpetuation of the biological progress previously associated with the decentralized process of mutation and selection. The implementation of such an enterprise of eugenics planning, under the aegis of a Beijing committee, would be no less erratic than the economic planning of Mao Zedong’s time. Whether it pursues the establishment of a perfect physical-mental homogeneity or remains attached to a certain inequality in that area, whether it is concerned with engendering exclusively servile individuals or intends to engender (also or only) geniuses, therefore independent and creative minds, genetic planning, i.e., the planning of reproductive unions and births, is simply unable to anticipate with certainty the future of genetic conditions. Besides, it is rigorously impossible for its expectations, true or false, to translate into a calculation of “fitness.”

Mises, who in Human Action correctly noted that “men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation,” but that it is both “impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities” and possible to “organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking,” nevertheless refrained from investigating the reason why (central) planning in the genetic domain—in other words, state eugenics of the planning type—cannot be able to plan the genetic occurrence of geniuses. At the very least, the genetic occurrence of geniuses who are not objective failures of biological evolution, i.e., are not organisms who, if they were placed under the circumstances of a decentralized struggle (for survival and reproduction) corresponding to their socio-natural environment, would not be up (to survive and reproduce) in any probable life scenario.

The absence of a Misesian argument against the possibility for planning eugenics to plan the genetic occurrence of geniuses who would be up to the task in a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction (or would be so in at least one probable life scenario in the context of said struggle) is all the more regrettable as Mises only had to point out that the impossibility of economic calculation for the economic planner was transposable to the calculation of “fitness” for the eugenics planner.

The anticipation of a profitable market price in monetary terms is to the entrepreneurial allocation of economic capital to a branch of activity what the anticipation of a sexual opportunity reproductive (i.e., engendering offspring), decentralized (i.e., whose establishment is not a matter of central planning, but of the spontaneous interaction between individuals: whether peaceful or coercive), and eugenic (i.e., optimal in terms of the offspring’s genetic quality) is to the organismic allocation of genetic capital towards a sexual union. It is no more possible to calculate the rentability of the projected decisions in allocating the capital in the absence of anticipated market prices than it is to calculate “fitness” (i.e., the rentability in terms of the number of qualitative descendants engendered in a decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction) of a projected newborn in the absence of the anticipation of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction.

The evolution of economic conditions (in the context of a dynamic economy) is no less uncertain than the evolution of genetic conditions. Besides, a planning committee, whether it is responsible for planning the allocation of economic capital (to various branches of activity) or the allocation of genetic capital (to various reproductive unions), is doomed to wander in the dark—for lack of being able to take into account anticipated market prices in the calculation of the projected rentability of an economic capital soon allocated to a branch of industry or anticipated decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction in the calculation of the projected “fitness” of the individual who will be born hypothetically from the forthcoming allocation of a genetic capital towards a mating.

Anticipation of future costs and benefits (in terms of rentability) in a programmed allocation of economic capital based on the uncertain present anticipation of future economic data is no less impossible outside of a decentralized, peaceful competition between owners (or borrowers) of productive goods anticipating in monetary terms the expected costs and benefits than the anticipation of future costs and benefits (in terms of reproductive success in a decentralized struggle for life and reproduction) in a programmed allocation of individual genetic capital grounded on the present uncertain anticipation of future genetic data (including future mutations) outside of a decentralized competition—whether peaceful or coercive—between individual organisms anticipating the number of descendants resulting from the seizure of an anticipated sexual opportunity, whether coercive or voluntary.

In society, individual planning in the presence of a peaceful, decentralized economic competition between entrepreneurs anticipating (in a climate of uncertainty) the future monetary prices attached to capital goods subject to private property rights is no less necessary for the establishment of a superior economic scaffolding (in terms of viability and complexity) than individual planning in the presence of a decentralized biological competition (for survival and reproduction), whether peaceful or coercive, between individual organisms anticipating the uncertain future of genetic data (including future genetic mutations) is necessary for the establishment of a superior genetic scaffolding (in terms of viability and complexity).

In genetics as in economics, the decentralized order is more viable and more complex than the planned order, which is doomed to remain rudimentary (at best) by reason of the fact that the action of planning is impossible for a planning central body. What renders economic or genetic planning impossible is not the volume (and the dispersion) of information about the present genetic or economic data: in other words, it is not the fact that said information is too large and too much dispersed in order for it to be communicable to a human brain, or even to a computer, responsible for economic or genetic planning. Nor is it the uncertainty weighing on the future.

Whatever the information (about the present genetic or economic data) in the hands of the planner or of the planning committee; whatever the accuracy of the anticipation (about future genetic or economic data) on the part of the planner or of the committee, planning is irremediably incapable of a planning action (i.e., incapable of determining and handling means for planning purposes)—and that, by reason of the fact that, outside of anticipations of future profits and losses (in monetary terms or in terms of the qualitative descent linked to the seizure of a decentralized sexual opportunity), it is impossible for anyone, even a computer, to calculate “fitness” or economic rentability.

The changes to come in economic conditions are just as uncertain and unpredictable as the genetic mutations in a future newborn. Neither the planning of reproductions, nor intervention on the genome of the embryos, can allow a central planning committee to remedy such uncertainty. But, besides, in order to calculate the “fitness” of a future newborn, the committee would have to come to terms with anticipating the decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction in the future existence of said newborn, which is for it structurally impossible for the reason that central planning supersedes the possibility of such opportunities. Just as a man and a woman who have just mated cannot anticipate with certainty the genetic condition of the offspring hypothetically resulting from their carnal relationship (and that, whether their mating is unplanned or falls within the decision of a reproductions-planning committee), a biologist working on the genome of an embryo cannot anticipate with certainty the genetic mutations that his intervention will cause (and that, whether the biologist in question carries out his intervention in the context of a central planning of births or in the presence of decentralized sexual reproductive opportunities).

Besides, if the intervention or mating is carried out under a regime of central planning of reproductions (i.e., a regime of collective ownership of genetic capital), a biologist-interventionist or a duo of future parents cannot calculate the “fitness” of the future newborn on the basis of their anticipations about said newborn. What renders central planning in economy or in genetics impossible is a “praxeological” rather than cognitive problem: a central body of economic planning is no less deprived of the possibility of planning action (i.e., the action consisting of determining and using means in view of a pursued planning) than is a central body of genetic planning.

Outside of the ex ante anticipation of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction (in the future life of the future newborn) and the ex post verification of that anticipation, it is respectively impossible to have an ex ante idea of what would be the reproductive success of said newborn (in a situation of decentralized struggle for survival and reproduction) and to verify ex post the idea that one had of the “fitness” of said newborn. In that regard, it is respectively impossible to adapt ex ante the allocation of genetic capital to the forecast of the future offspring’s “fitness” and to adapt ex post the allocation of genetic capital to the actual “fitness” of said offspring.

Likewise, outside of the ex ante anticipation of the monetary profit associated with future market prices and the ex post observation of the monetary profit (positive or negative) finally encountered, it is respectively impossible to form an ex ante idea of the rentability of a certain planned allocation of economic capital and to verify ex post the idea that one had of the rentability of that allocation. In that regard, it is respectively impossible to adapt ex ante the allocation of economic capital to the expected rentability and to adapt ex post the new decisions in the allocation of capital to the actual rentability of the previous allocation.

As pointed out by Ludwig von Mises in Human Action, even in the scenario (which Mises seems to find conceivable but improbable) where an economic planner, in solving the differential equations of a general equilibrium model, would manage to “solve” without economic calculation “all problems concerning the most advantageous arrangement of all production activities,” and where “the precise image of the final goal he must aim at [would be] present to his mind,” it would nevertheless “remain essential problems which cannot be dealt with without economic calculation.”

These problems are the ones that relate to the identification and implementation of the “successive steps” through which the planned economy should pass so that “the given economic system” be transformed “in the most appropriate and expedient way” and, ultimately, replaced with “the system aimed at.” Contrary to what Vilfredo Pareto and Enrico Barone affirmed, the calculation (via the resolution of differential equations) of an optimum in the distribution and use of the factors of production cannot allow a central planning body to bypass the absence of a market for capital goods. For want of being able to count on anticipated market prices, a central planning body having a perfect knowledge of the optimum to be reached cannot more practice the calculation indispensable to the discovery and adoption of the path leading to the optimum than a mountaineer deprived of his equipment, but knowing perfectly the coveted mountain, can reach the top of said mountain.

It is not only false that in the absence of a market for capital goods, it is only difficult (rather than impossible stricto sensu) to know in their entirety the data that the differential equations of the general equilibrium must take into account. Even though knowing said data in their entirety were indeed possible for a central planning body, the Hayekian assertion that economic planning is only arduous (rather than impossible stricto sensu) would still remain refuted by the fact that, in the absence of anticipated market prices, it is quite simply impossible for the planner to channel a planned economy towards the state of optimum, regardless of the information the planner has about the optimum.

It is regrettable that Mises did not consider extending to planned eugenics his remark on the impossibility (in the absence of anticipated market prices) of optimizing a planned economy. In the absence of decentralized sexual reproductive opportunities, it is impossible for a eugenics planning body to practice the calculation (of “fitness”) indispensable to the roaming the path leading to an optimum (in terms of the group’s survival and reproduction) in the genetics of a given population.

The optimum itself, whether genetic or economic, cannot be discovered outside of the organismic or entrepreneurial experience of profit and loss (in terms of “fitness” or in monetary terms). Just like, from the preferences of the “demanding” people to the most satisfactory and economical use of the technology in force, a part of the economic data from which the differential equations of the “general equilibrium” of a given economy can be constructed—and therefore the economic optimum itself—are not discoverable outside of the entrepreneurial experience of monetary profits and losses, a part of the genetic data (i.e., a part of the data that characterize the nature and function of genes) in a given population (in that case, those genetic data which directly contribute to individual reproductive success in a decentralized competition for reproduction or to individual success in a derived form of said competition, and those which directly contribute to the reproduction of the group to the detriment of individual reproductive success) and therefore the genetic optimum itself cannot be discovered outside of the organismic experience of profits and losses in terms of “fitness” (i.e., in terms of the success in seizing decentralized and reproductive sexual opportunities that allow a large, qualitative offspring) or outside of the account of said organismic experience.

In defense of the possibility of economic planning, Oskar Lange proposed a solution to the problem of economic calculation consisting for a communist state in simulating market prices, in calculating the respective supply and demand for the latter, and in determining forward the price adjusting supply and demand. In the opinion of Ludwig von Mises, responding to Lange, his solution wrongly reduced economic calculation to the one practiced by simple managers, thus ignoring the own economic calculation on the part of entrepreneurs and speculators, which is nevertheless indispensable for the allocation of capitals.

The activities of entrepreneurs and speculators, added Mises, cannot be simulated since in the absence of individual responsibility in that area, i.e., the fact of putting their own money at stake, no one would be motivated to behave as an entrepreneur or as a speculator. While Mises’ response to Lange’s solution consisted in pointing out that his model of a communist economy, in addition to ignoring the need for entrepreneurship and speculation, would nonetheless remain unrealistic if, taking into account said necessity, he would ask disinterested and disempowered actors to “play” the entrepreneurs and investors, Hayek’s response was that Lange’s model proposed an impracticable approach due to lack of the required information.

For our part, we go further than the respective counter-arguments of Mises and Hayek. Even in the presence of perfect information about the present and perfectly correct anticipation of the future, even in the presence of disinterested and nonetheless involved actors, equilibrium prices cannot be simulated—and that, for the reason that one can no more simulate entrepreneurship or speculation than one can simulate, generally speaking, the things of life. It is simply impossible to know the preferences of the demanding people in the absence of the observation of concrete purchasing activities (and the associated profit, whether positive or negative), and therefore, to simulate the entrepreneurial experience of demonstrated preferences.

The impossibility of simulation applies as much to the decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction as it does to market prices. Surreptitiously, Lange recognized that only a capitalist economy is functional; and that for that reason, a communist economy has no choice but to simulate a capitalist in order to render itself functional. But precisely, one cannot more simulate the entrepreneurial discovery of equilibrium prices than one can simulate the organismic discovery of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction. Simulating an entrepreneurial competition in order to discover its result is not less absurd than simulating a military battle or a decentralized competition for reproduction in order to discover its result. Whether you are an entrepreneur, a general, or an organism, there is no other choice than “going to the front lines” in order to be in the picture.

Transhumanism: A Revolt Against The Crowned Cosmos

The impossibility for the external observer of a current individual organism (at the stage of childhood or embryo) or the external anticipator of a future individual organism to calculate the “fitness” of the observed or projected organism in the absence of the anticipation of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction in the future existence of said organism founds the impossibility of planning genetic evolution, said impossibility in turn founding the two “natural laws” stated by Robert Ardrey. Namely “the law of inequality” (in the strict case of species with sexual reproduction) and (in the strict case of vertebrate species) “the law of equal opportunity.”

Unbeknownst to Ardrey (who approached the grasp of this law without ever conceiving it clearly), the impossibility of planning genetic evolution is truly the first of natural laws, the one from which follows the two Robert Ardrey rightly formulated. Whereas transhumanism, in default of necessarily rebelling against the law of the impossible genetic planning, necessarily rebels against “the law of inequality” (i.e., the necessary counterpart of sexual unions, decentralized or not, that is physical-mental inequality), as well as against “the law of equal opportunity” (i.e., the instrument necessary for the exercise of individual physical and mental aptitudes in a way contributing to the collective functionality that is decentralized intragroup competition for preeminence, survival, and reproduction), genetic planning necessarily rebels not less against the law of equal opportunity than against the law of the impossibility of planning genetic evolution.

When it strictly comes to genetic planning of the transhumanist type (what amounts to speaking of transhumanism of the planning type), it is necessarily in rebellion against each of the aforementioned three laws. Planned eugenics necessarily joins transhumanism in hostility to “the law of equal opportunity;” and that, in that planned eugenics—without it being necessarily in favor of genetic equality—necessarily aspires to ensure that the social (including hierarchical) destiny of any newborn to come is pre-known and pre-decided from its conception instead of being revealed and engendered by the result of a decentralized competition for survival, reproduction, and preeminence.

Since decentralized sexual reproduction opportunities are necessarily absent in the context of collective ownership of genetic capital substituted for decentralized competition for reproduction, it is not more possible to escape the impossibility of planning genetic evolution in intending to planning for a negative “fitness” (in the reproductive interest of the group) than in intending to planning for one that is positive (if not in the group’s reproductive interest, at least in the individual’s reproductive interest); and that, just as it is not more possible to escape the impossibility of planning genetic evolution in resigning oneself to proceeding without the anticipation of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction than in resigning oneself to simulating decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction.

The decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction that an organismic allocator experiences cannot be simulated alongside a planning committee replacing decentralized competition for reproduction, no more than the profitable prices (in monetary terms) that an entrepreneurial allocator experience can be simulated alongside a planning committee replacing decentralized competition for monetary profit. Genetic planning is not less in rebellion against a natural law (in that case, the law of the impossibility of planning genetics) than is economic planning: in that case, the law of the impossibility of planning economy.

Genetic or economic planning shares with transhumanism a spirit of rebellion against the natural order, and therefore the order created by God from an Abrahamic perspective. Whoever rebels against all or part of the natural order intends to replace it (in whole or in part) with a new, allegedly better order, thus rebelling against God himself or adhering to the idea that God, if it existed, would deserve one rebels against Him. The Bible can either be taken literally or taken symbolically (as the sages of Alexandria began to do).

The mandate of divine origin assigned to humans, according to the Old Testament, to crown creation while respecting the law of divine origin can either be taken literally; either taken symbolically in the sense that the human has a capacity of creation which complements cosmic creativity, but that his own capacity of creation will turn against himself if it comes to believe to be able to transgress the natural laws of this world. Likewise, the transhumanist, communist, anarcho-capitalist, or plannist rebellion against the natural order can present literal gnosticist motives—as is the case, for example, in Karl Marx’s poem titled “Human Pride,” where the poet praises the “demonic confusion” of his own speech and promises to work for the joint fall of the world and of God, “that pygmy giant,” and for the building of a new era on “the ruins of the [elder] world” in “giving to [his] words power of action.” Just like it can present secularized gnosticist motives, in which case said rebellion will start from the idea that God, in default of existing, would deserve to be fought if he did exist.

Whether one takes into account the followers of a properly secularized modality of transhumanism or those of a modality that retains “religious” motives, the human feelings that govern adherence to the transhumanist discourse (beyond its various modalities) remain strictly the same: the rejection of the natural order, therefore the order created by God from a literal gnosticist (or semi-gnosticist) perspective; and a misguided mode of compassion for the weak and the degenerate here below, therefore the failures of evolution from a transhumanist perspective, either secularized or not. Not the compassion that aims to alleviate the fate of those who do not keep up with the decentralized struggle for life, reproduction, and preeminence (more precisely, the specific form that said struggle takes in view of their socio-natural environment); but the compassion that, abhorring selection and the struggles associated with it, represents (and intends to achieve) a society of late times where (both physical and mental) inequalities would be eliminated, where war, power, and sexual pleasure would cease to be pursued things pursued.

A dream that inspires the transhumanist program of a final era of humanity in which an emasculated, peaceful, and egalitarian way of life would be established via genetic manipulation and via cyborgization. The idea of a chaotic, cruel nature, from which man must and can emancipate himself (in rendering himself divine and in replacing nature with an order that is exclusively of his own doing), delights the transhumanist, who comes as an intramundane, technophile variant of the gnosticist in that he believes that instead of spiritually detaching himself from the allegedly chaotic nature, the human must—via genetic and bio-robotic engineering—subvert and replace the material world.

Yet, far from nature being chaotic, it is subject to an order that—however cruel and selective it is—nonetheless remains an order. An order that, despite the disorder that accompanies it, is nevertheless accomplished through said disorder notably; and as Robert Ardrey has described it, “what contemporary evolutionary thought can bring to social philosophy is [notably] the demonstrable need for structured disorder within the larger structures of [social] order” so that “without that degree of disorder tolerating and promoting to fullest development the diversity of its members, society must wither and vanish in the competitions of group selection.”

The idea that we would continue our promethean gesture of domination of nature in emancipating ourselves from said nature (and the associated selection procedures) is not less deceptive. Dominating our natural environment through technology and economy establishes us, not as deniers, but as continuators of nature, what differs substantially from the transhumanist project of escaping from the selection process (and therefore, of denying, escaping nature). In Abrahamic terms, while the first perspective extends and honors divine creation, the second is of satanic obedience.

Transhumanists are not less mystified by the idea that, in view of the contradictory nature of human instincts, a morality concerned with being based on evolution would only end up erecting mutually contradictory instincts as mutually contradictory norms; and that because of the fact our instincts contradict each other, they are simply dysfunctional and should be eliminated by genetic engineering. That opinion, which stems from yet another misunderstanding of evolution by transhumanists, is wrong as to the sense of an evolutionary morality, i.e., a morality that takes into account evolution and human instincts as they have been produced by evolution.

Homo sapiens being a species with instincts not less incomplete (in terms of ensuring the viability of social organization and, more broadly, success in group selection) and weakened (in terms of being the only influence to weigh on human behavior: instead of acquired culture or reason) than chaotic, i.e., in contradiction with each other (and that, despite a certain hierarchy operating itself instinctively, which remains too much relative), “evolutionary” morality will not consist of establishing a certain instinct as a norm: in the mode of the inference “It is natural, therefore it is good.” Said morality instead consists in identifying those behaviors, partly instinctual, partly associated with reason or acquired culture, which will render a group functional (and increase its chances of winning in group selection).

Such a functionality, while it is operated in a rigorously instinctual mode in the case of animal societies (other than human), is not assured in the case of human societies, which are jointly constrained to complete the work of nature in this area and susceptible to fail in that area. In other words, “evolutionary” morality is not about morally justifying an instinct on the grounds that it is the product of evolution; but about fulfilling the wisdom towards which the instincts of homo sapiens, “suspended,” according to Robert Ardrey’s wording, “between dicta three billion years old and a foresight nouveau riche, swinging between [instinctual] wisdoms of most ancient origin and a power of both learning and ignorance,” tend imperfectly—due to the weakened, incomplete, and chaotic character of said instincts of homo sapiens, “animal of doubtful future.”

Genetic or neuro-robotic engineering, the planning of births, physical-mental equalization, or instinctual emasculation are so many horizons coming as a technophile, intramundane variation of gnosticism and bathing in the illusion that the cosmos is simply chaotic and stochastic; and that human beings, although they are a haphazard product of the evolution that takes place in this random, disordered world, are nevertheless able to render themselves the gods of this universe through technology and knowledge, i.e., able to substitute for the allegedly vain and disorderly nature an effective and senseful order.

For those hearts misled by gnosticism or its derivatives, it is worth remembering that the cosmos is at the same time evolving and organized, random and senseful, achievable and intransgressible. We human beings, who are made, if not in the image of God, at least in the image of the cosmos, are certainly bound to pursue cosmic creativity (through knowledge, technique, art, or social change); but also to keep in mind that we neither are nor will be gods: that the human pursuit of cosmic creativity must be accomplished with respect for a certain natural order, the transgression of which necessarily results into an immanent punishment.

Crowning divine creation, but not subverting it, that is the way for us who, symbolically (if not literally), are both made in His image and made for His law. Subverting divine creation and claiming to render oneself divine in place of God, that is the ill-fated path of hearts misled by a rebellion of satanic obedience, from transhumanists to economic or genetic planers. God wanted for us neither servility towards the universe nor disobedience towards universal wisdom; but the humble crowning of divine creation, the bringing of the final touch, by the creature who remains in its place, i.e., who accepts that it is irremediably like divine instead of claiming that it can render itself divine. From Silicon Valley engineers to superclass men and to the officials of the Chinese Communist Party, transhumanists are in rebellion against the divine creation. An elected nation, America must fight against the “destructionist” forces of transhumanism as it has long fought against those of communism.

The project on the part of the most radical of transhumanists to suppress all violence and all domination of the world stage could only achieve its ends through suppressing or “reprogramming” the atoms and the stars themselves. For, as highlighted by Howard Bloom (without him, to our knowledge, addressing transhumanism from this angle), the very first hierarchical orders, far preceding the pecking orders of chicken, manifested in the assembly of atoms or galaxies. While the proton dominates the electron, of which it determines the central point of the orbit, the black hole or the gravitational center dominates and controls a galaxy. As for the sun, he is metaphorically the king in the feudal order of the solar system: the monarch before whom the planets bow, which see the moons bow before the planets. It is true that, since it seems that it is not felt or conscious (but what do we actually know of it, as it stands?), the violence of stars or atoms as such does not concern transhumanism.

But given that violence in the physical sense constitutes a fractal pattern declining at each emergent level of the universe, which sentient or conscious beings have only inherited, the fact remains that transhumanism can reach its goal only in drying up the source of that fractal pattern and reprogramming or replacing the elementary particles. If it turned out that they could not do it, it is likely that they would then opt for a return to nothingness in due form. They would come to terms with setting out to destroy the universe itself—in default of being able to prove to God that they could replace His creation with a morbid and dried up universe.

Ardrey did not believe that he was saying so well when he warned us against the “dreary” morning that, “knowing or not,” many of our contemporaries are putting in place, the one “when you and I awake and leopards are gone; when starlings in hordes no longer chatter in the plane trees gossiping about the adventures of the day to come; when the lone tomcat fails to return from his night’s excesses; when robins cease to cry out their belligerent challenges to the bushes beyond the lawn; when the skies lack larks and the shrubbery lacks sex-obsessed rabbits hopping after each other; when hawks cease their eternal, circling searching and the gullery by the rocks falls silent; when the diversity of species no longer illuminates the morning hour and the diversity of men has vanished like the last dawn-afflicted star.” Ardrey expressed himself there in metaphorical terms; but the future he envisioned is literally the future that the most radical of transhumanists want for all of us… humans, leopards, bears, bees, flowers, or dachshunds.

Conclusion

The attitude of the transhumanists towards the cosmos is that of a capricious, angry three-year-old child towards a tower a few centimeters high built with kaplas (namely blocks made of Landes pines), that the adults have constructed with the idea that the kid continues their construction through building the roof of the tower with additional kaplas. Because he will refuse to take into account gravity, the weight of the boards, the need to balance the kaplas so that they hold together, the little capricious will fail to build the roof, or even cause the collapse of a part of the tower.

Deploring the impossibility of manipulating the kaplas as he pleases, he will get angry with the boards and the tower. With a kick (for example), he will break the tower or what is left of it—unless the adults themselves take charge of destroying the tower (or what is left of it) to give a “good lesson” to the kid, the one that the cosmos has its laws and that they limit and allow the constructive and dominating powers of the human being, and that he must therefore learn (and learn to respect) the cosmic laws if he intends to render himself “as master and owner” of the boards.

Just as Mises (rightly) called “[Charles] Fourier complex” the psychological state of fleeing economic reality into an imaginary world that ignores the laws of ours in the economic field, therefore ignores the scarcity of resources, the unpleasantness of work, and the indispensability of market prices for economic calculation, one may call “Julian Huxley complex” the psychological state of fleeing biological reality into an imaginary world that ignores the laws of ours in the field of biological evolution, therefore ignores as much the genetic inequality between the members of a sexual species and the need (for a functional order) of the relative disorder of the decentralized intragroup competition for survival, reproduction, and preeminence among the members of a vertebrate species as the indispensability of decentralized sexual opportunities of reproduction for the calculation of “fitness.”

About the mental immaturity of the transhumanist, who got stuck or regressed to the mental level of the aforementioned brat, one can say what Mises wrote (rightly) about the socialists’ own neurosis. Namely that, “This being the character of the socialist dream, it is understandable that every one of the partisans of socialism expects from it precisely what has so far been denied to him. Socialist [or transhumanist] authors promise not only wealth for all, but also happiness in love for everybody, the full physical and spiritual development of each individual, the unfolding of great artistic and scientific talents in all men, etc.

Only latterly did Trotsky state in one of his writings that in the socialist society “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” The socialist paradise [just like the transhumanist paradise] will be the kingdom of perfection, populated by completely happy supermen. All socialist [or transhumanist] literature is full of such nonsense.

But it is just this nonsense that wins it the most supporters. One cannot send every person suffering from a Fourier complex [or from a Julian Huxley complex] to the doctor for psychoanalytic treatment; the number of those afflicted with it is far too great. No other remedy is possible in this case than the treatment of the illness by the patient himself. Through self-knowledge he must learn to endure his lot in life without looking for a scapegoat on which he can lay all the blame, and he must endeavor to grasp the fundamental laws of social cooperation [or of biological evolution].


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


The featured image shows, “L’antigrazioso (The Anti-graceful),” by Umberto Boccioni, painted in 1912.

The Universality Inherent In Christianity

It has long been fashionable to regard Christianity as myth, no different in substance than many other ancient myths. Sometimes this is done to glibly dismiss Christ’s message; sometimes it is done in sorrow, viewing, as C. S. Lewis did before his conversion, Christianity as one of many lies, even if was “breathed through silver.” René Girard entirely rejects this idea, offering an anthropological, rather than spiritual, argument for Christianity being a true myth, and for the complete uniqueness of Christianity, as well for as its centrality to the human story. Girard’s appeal is that his framework explains the core of all human societies, and thus explains, at any moment, the present. Therefore, though he died in 2015, Girard says much about America in 2021.

Girard was a devout Roman Catholic, a Frenchman who spent much of his academic career in the United States. (He has gotten some extra attention from the fact that he taught Peter Thiel, who became a big admirer of Girard and who gave a eulogy at his funeral). Girard first published his theory of mimetic contagion in 1978, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I was going to read that book, but was encouraged to start with the more recent, and much shorter, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. So here I started, although I glanced at Things Hidden from time to time, as well as at several other books Girard wrote. This edition of I See Satan Fall contains an excellent Foreword by James G. Williams, summarizing the basics of Girard’s thought on mimetic contagion, making it a good place for a novice to start.

Girard begins by announcing his intent to explore and highlight, rather than minimize as most devout people do, the similarities and parallels between the Gospel and pagan myths, and for good measure his intention to dismantle Friedrich Nietzsche. He then outlines his theory of mimetic contagion, using as his frame the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet. . . .” “Covet” for Girard means not an untoward desire, but simply any desire for what others have. He identifies this not as God’s mere prohibition on greed, but rather, far more fundamentally, as a unique early attack on the internal cycle of violence that is the basis of all human societies.

One of Girard’s purposes has nothing to do with religion, and that is to explain how human societies began, namely in violence, a specific kind of violence with a specific kind of purpose. But as can be seen from his dissection of the Decalogue, his other purpose is to prove that Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) is unique among all human religions, able to release mankind from the prison into which the forms of violence the underpin all human societies have placed us. Christ’s death on the Cross was fully as meaningful as Christians would have it—even if Christ was not, in fact, as he claimed, the Son of God, his sacrifice upended the entire anthropological order of the world. He showed a path of redemption, both secular and divine (reflecting the hypostatic union) previously unknown to mankind.

Violence in human societies arises because we desire what our neighbor has, because our neighbor desiring it makes it desirable in our eyes. “Our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire.” That is to say, despite our own perception that our desires are internally generated, in most instances they arise by imitation; we desire what others desire, not what we independently want. (A related principle is well-known in the context of how wealthy people feel about their wealth, but Girard’s vision is far broader).

My neighbor, however, by his possession of what I desire, thwarts my desire, at the same time my desire, in a reflection of my own actions, perceived by my neighbor, intensifies my neighbor’s desire for what he already has. Girard calls this “double desire,” and the rivals are “mimetic doubles,” very similar to each other but perceiving unreal huge differences. (This insight is part of why Thiel admires Girard; it has obvious applications in many human realms, including business.) We perceive ourselves as autonomous, when in fact we are “enslaved to our mimetic models.”

This spiral of rivalry and its consequences Girard calls “scandal,” and he says this process inevitably engulfs entire societies through a process of “violent contagion,” citing Matthew 18:7, “Scandals . . . must come.” The original rivalries are often forgotten entirely as new ones arise with blinding speed, eventually converging on one society-wide scandal. This violent contagion convulses a society; it will tear itself apart in mass violence unless something is done.

That something is to identify a single innocent on whom the concentrated fury of the accumulated rivalries can be directed, through the killing of the innocent by the society acting as a whole. This killing produces a superbly cathartic effect on the society, and peace is restored, for a time, as everyone in society congratulates himself on a job well done—even though this killing is invariably, in reality, utterly unjust. (Girard focuses on a “single victim,” but elsewhere suggests that the victim can be more than one individual, and just as easily a large identifiable group).

Girard thus sees social conflict as normal, not accidental. It is inevitable in the nature of man. Not for Girard fantasies of peaceful societies of the distant past; he would not be surprised at the evisceration of such silliness by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization, and he would no doubt agree with Carl Schmitt’s thoughts on the friend-enemy distinction. But it is not any violence that is Girard’s focus, but this very specific kind of violence. At the same time, he sees mimetic desire, because it allows us to choose what we desire, as what makes us human, rather than animals driven purely by instinct, and therefore of itself intrinsically good. “Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.”

Girard then turns to the Passion of Christ, demonstrating that the behavior of the men surrounding Christ’s death, from Saint Peter to Pontius Pilate, and even the Jews who had so lately cheered Jesus, are examples of mimetic contagion, where the players are driven to give in to the rising violence even when that is not their intention, and in fact wholly contrary to their declared and actual intention. Neither Peter nor Pilate wants Christ crucified, yet they are swept up in the contagion. In this the death of Christ is entirely unexceptional, and it echoes a long list of similar episodes in the Bible, both of the persecution of various Old Testament prophets (and of the prefiguring Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah), and of, more recently in Biblical time, the death of John the Baptist.

From whence comes mimetic contagion? It comes from Satan. Now, it is never precisely clear, at least in this book, if Girard sees Satan as an individual and entity. It does, in fact, appear not; at one point, Girard refers to the Devil as “totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self” (italics in original). Yet as a devout Roman Catholic he probably did (my guess is this is addressed elsewhere, perhaps in the several books of interviews of Girard that have been published recently). Maybe this apparent confusion results from Girard’s stated intention to make his book wholly scientific, rather than theological, in focus.

Regardless, Girard heaps contempt on modern attempts to write Satan out of the Bible and Christianity; in his view, Satan is the hinge around which our temporal world turns. Satan is responsible for mimetic crisis, by showing us what we desire and then blocking our acquisition of what we desire, thereby creating scandal. Girard cites the episode in Matthew 16, where Peter “invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire,” and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are a scandal to me.” Jesus instead demands we, like him, avoid mimetic rivalry by focusing our desire on the desires of the Father.

But, in the words of Mark 3:23, Satan can cast out Satan. He initiates the cycle of mimetic violence, and also, through the catharsis that follows the killing of the scapegoat, restores order and harmony to society, a feeling of having been purified. This is the key to his being the prince of this world, for if he merely brought chaos and anarchy, he would have no power. Yet he continuously plays both sides of the game, thereby maintaining his power.

The Crucifixion is an exemplar of this process; “[w]hat makes the mimetic cycle of Jesus’s suffering unique is, not the violence, but the fact that the victim is the Son of God.” His sacrifice ended the rule of Satan—because it broke the cycle of mimetic violence that was the formation of all human societies prior to Christianity, founding an entirely new anthropology. Jesus is wholly different, because he invited his disciples to desire what he desired, however that desire was not a mimetic rivalry, but the desire to imitate the Father in all things. If accepted, this protects us from mimetic rivalries entirely, and is thus an upgrade to the Tenth Commandment.

After outlining this cycle, Girard proceeds to contrast myth and Christianity, what he calls a study in comparative religion. He does this by analyzing the hagiographical Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, a militant pagan. (Apollonius was a wonderworking guru of the first century A.D., a great favorite of shallow-thinking New Atheists, such as Matthew Ridley in his execrable The Evolution of Everything, who think that the parallels to Christ in the supposed life of Apollonius disprove the existence of Christ).

Girard discusses at length how Apollonius ended a plague in Ephesus by egging on the pagan Ephesians to stone to death a crippled beggar, overcoming their hesitation by enticing them to throw the first stone, whereupon the dead beggar was revealed to have been a demon, and the plague ended, with the intervention of the god Heracles. Girard believes this was a real episode, though certainly no demon was revealed and no god intervened, but the plague, one not of disease but scandal resulting from mimetic rivalries engulfing the city, was still by this blood sacrifice cured. Moreover, contrasting Christ’s defusing of the proposed stoning of the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Girard notes that even the process of killing itself is the result of mimetic contagion—it is difficult to get the stoning started, but once it begins, it becomes unstoppable.

From this jumping-off place Girard moves backward, to earlier myths, such as those of Oedipus and those surrounding the cult of Dionysus. Girard interprets various founding myths that involve a murder followed by the divinization of the object of the murder, often in a form of resurrection, as evidence of the universal pattern of mimetic contagion resulting in a crisis existentially tearing at the social fabric and its cure through the single victim mechanism. (His book The Scapegoat analyzes many more examples).

Through this mechanism false gods are often created, because it seems divine how the victim can bring society together, and these new gods underpin the creation of human societies. This is the “founding murder”; the story of Cain and Abel is one, as is that of Romulus and Remus. Girard takes these myths as representative of multiple cycles of mimetic violence surrounding the formation of societies and ensuring their stability. Religion forms the core of every social system; it is essential to humanity, not a parasite upon the real mechanisms of societal formation. Girard has no truck with theories of social contract, and no doubt thinks equally little of other theories of societal formation, such as Francis Fukuyama’s.

Turning back to Christianity, Girard analyzes passages from the New Testament that suggest the Gospel writers recognized, for the first time in human history, the “powers and principalities,” that is, Satan, as complicit in this process of societal formation. A key point of Girard is that Gospel passages that seem opaque or obvious are often nothing of the sort, but rather encapsulate enormous insights we typically miss. His book is filled with passages from both the Old and New Testaments that could be seen as banal but into which Girard breathes life. The passages Girard cites are often read as superstitious or magical thinking, but he rather interprets them as deeply insightful into human nature and conduct, and what is more, aware of how Jesus, true man and true god, upended this age-old human mechanism.

It is to this last point that Girard devotes the final third of his book. He directly attacks the view that the Gospels are just another myth. Anti-Christian apologists have long tried to show that the Gospels differ only in the particulars of myth; the broad themes are just the same as all other myths. In a jujitsu move, however, Girard entirely agrees with these critics—the Gospels are substantially identical in their form to other myths, because both the myths and the Gospel are part of a larger, essential truth, that of the cycle of mimetic violence. The difference of the Gospels is that that Christ completely inverts, and thereby utterly destroys, the universal pattern that existed before his sacrifice.

To demonstrate this, Girard steps back to the story of Joseph, comparing it to the story of Oedipus. There are a great many broad similarities—but the crucial difference, in which the ancient Jews prefigured Christ, is that Oedipus was guilty of the crimes for which he was punished, and Joseph innocent. In the Bible, the guilty are the accusers—that is, Satan; in the Greek myth, the righteous are the accusers. In other words, the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is unique, because it, even before Christ, attacks the standard mythic narrative. “The story of Joseph is a refusal of the religious illusions of paganism.” Similarly, the Psalms “are the first [texts] in human history to allow those who would simply become silent victims in the world of myth to voice their complaint as hysterical crowds besiege them.” And Job “not only resists totalitarian contagion but wrests the deity out of the process of persecution to envision him as the God of victims, not of persecutorsNo one and no tradition before the Bible were capable of calling into question the guilt of victims whom their communities unanimously condemned.” Judaism was the first religion to reject the mimetic contagion and the divinization of victims.

So what then of Christianity, which does indeed divinize the victim? It merely appears to follow the form of myth; but in fact is a complete inversion of myth. Girard here explicitly rejects Marcionism, the ancient heresy that the God of the Old Testament is a mere demiurge and entirely distinct from the God of the New Testament. Rather, the Old and New Testaments are not in any way in contradiction. Not only is Christ innocent, as Joseph was, but there is no violent unanimity in the community as to his death (though due to the process of mimetic contagion, unanimity is near complete at the moment of the Passion), and thus Christ’s death does not bring harmony—it brings not peace, but a sword.

The Gospel therefore reveals truths hidden since the foundation of the world, a crucial anthropological reality. “The Gospels reveal everything that human beings need to understand their moral responsibility with regard to the whole spectrum of violence in human history and to all the false religions.” In fact, Christ himself repeatedly cites passages from the Psalms revealing this reality, further showing the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. By the Cross, mankind escapes Satan, and thus the Eastern Orthodox view (largely disappeared in the West) that Christ by his sacrifice on the Cross duped Satan to his irretrievable detriment contains great insight and truth (although, Girard notes, it is perhaps less trick than simply “the inability of the prince of this world to understand the divine love”). Christ thereby subverts mimetic contagion, releases us from its hold, and redeems mankind.

Not that mankind often takes the opportunity to accept the redemption that Christ offers. Yes, Christianity has spread widely, and mimetic contagion is no longer the core of societies, or at least of Christian societies (though the entire world is influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the Cross). We still scapegoat, but we are ashamed of it, and try to hide our participation in any mimetic contagion in which we become involved. We accuse others of scapegoating in order to criticize them, in particular to stigmatize perceived discrimination.

This leads to the modern phenomenon of victimology. “Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was.” Yet we often tell ourselves that we are inadequately compassionate and we must do more. What is this? Merely another instance of mimetic contagion. “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about victims for whom they hold us responsible.” Nonetheless, Girard ascribes the modern concern with human rights “to a formerly unthinkable effort to control uncontrollable processes of mimetic snowballing.” This is the result of Christianity, of course, even though moderns frequently, in a bizarre error, scapegoat Christianity as the cause of victimization.

Finally, and crucially, Girard examines modern trends of thought that reject Christianity’s view of the victim as innocent, and attempt to reintroduce the pagan view of the victim as the justified target of mimetic violence—justified both by his supposed actual crime, and by the benefit to society that results, both cathartically and instrumentally, from his death. He ascribes to Nietzsche the rediscovery that pagan violent unanimity was an identical process to that taking place in the Passion. But Nietzsche falsely concluded from this insight that the pagan view was superior, and, famously, Christianity a “slave religion,” born of resentment, that hampers human flourishing by excessive concern for the victim, when in fact Christianity is “heroic resistance to violent contagion.” Nietzsche exalts Dionysus over Christ; this is a regression, not an advance.

Here, and really only here in the book, Girard enters choppy waters. He makes several claims that either make little sense or have been disproved. In the first category, he ascribes to the concern for victims “colonial conquests, abuses of power, the murderous wars of the twentieth century, the pillage of the planet, etc.” It is unclear how such a causal mechanism would work and he does not explain. In the second category, he denies that the West is decadent or (spiritually) aging; rather, it “seems to have extraordinary longevity, due to renewal and perpetual enhancement of its leadership and institutions.” No comment is necessary, although this book was published in 1999, so Girard’s apparent optimism is more understandable.

Regardless, Girard did foresee the logical consequence of excessive focus on victimization. “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition… The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite… We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.” Yet at the same time Nietzschean influence grows, in part because Christianity is made the common scapegoat. Those on the Right can see the Nietzschean strain rising in reaction to the Left’s advances, most notably recently in the work of Bronze Age Pervert. Girard would not be a BAP fan.

But this rising Nietzschean influence is not the real threat; those ideologies that reject the concern for victims, especially National Socialism, never got much traction. The real threat, “the most powerful anti-Christian movement… is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it,” which “presents itself as the liberator of humanity . . . in place of Christ,” but is actually a mimetic rival of Christ. This ideology has brought back Satan, because it both creates mimetic contagion by “borrow[ing] the language of victims” and offers the age-old solution to contagion, violence against the innocent who are seen to oppose social justice. In other words, the modern Left (though Girard does not use that term, or identify this tendency by name) is literally Satan, the prince of this world, the accuser of the innocent, the tempter from the beginning, Antichrist.

Yet Antichrist is not an entity but something “banal and prosaic,” by which Girard means not inefficacious at creating evil, but something existing since the foundation of the world. “The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc. . . . . Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.” This is not surprising. Christ did not imprison Satan when he defeated him; he fell like lightning, and he fell to earth, “where he will not remain inactive.”

Yes, Christ showed us how to resist Satan, but we have, more often than not, failed. The katechon, the power that holds back the Antichrist that Saint Paul mentions in Second Thessalonians (and a key focus of Carl Schmitt), only holds back Satan in part. Christianity can redeem the whole history of man, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (whose name in Greek, parakletos, means “defender of the accused”). But we must choose; for God gave us free will. And our record is not good.

Girard does not say what must be done, but it is obvious. We must break this renewed cycle of mimetic violence brought to us by modern neopagan philosophies, by our restoring the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, refusing to participate in mimetic scapegoating and rejecting concern for false victims.

This is easy enough to apply to 2021 America. To take only one example (there are many), Girard would see clearly that George Floyd was no victim; he is just a tool in a massive ongoing scheme of mimetic scapegoating by the Left/Satan. The real victims, the focus of the violent unanimity of Burn-Loot-Murder joined with a constellation of other powerful groups, are white people as a group, especially those who refuse to deny their supposed “whiteness” and join their persecutors, and most of all devout Christian white people. They are demonized by the Left as it inflates a Girardian scandal.

You only have to glance at the vocabulary of critical race theory with its core ideology of demanding the violent elimination of white people to see the truth of this. As I have been saying for some time, the result is likely to be violence when a leader arises to defend, and to focus the mimetic rivalry of, whites.

This social situation is, shall we say, extremely unfortunate, but Girard would not be surprised—white people are simply today’s Ephesian beggar, but with a lot more guns. This will not end well, but it will be their fault, not ours. Girard would ask, with Rodney King, that we all “just get along,” yet he would know that against this type of action of Satan, such a plea is unlikely to work—unless a society adopts the true vision of Christ, thereby breaking the mimetic rivalry.

I’m not hopeful that’s about to happen, because as Girard says, the Left is an ideology, a satanic one, and ideologies can only be broken by force. Maybe after that’s finished, we can try again to master the cycle.


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


The featured image shows, “The Last Judgment” by Jan Mandyn, painted ca. 1550.

Fascism And Its Historiography: Some Reflections

Through the kind courtesy of Damien Serieyx, Director of L’Artilleur-Toucan, we are so very delighted to publish this piece by Stanley G. Payne, which forms the “Introduction” to Paul Gottfried’s Fascisme. Histoire d’un concept, which is the forthcoming French translation of his Fascism: The Career of a Concept.


Well over half a century after the end of the fascist era in 1945, fascism remains in common use as a term, if not as a coherent concept. Never in history has a completely obliterated political phenomenon remained so alive in the imagination of its would-be adversaries. For more than seventy years, journalists and political commentators have searched assiduously to identify the emergence of some form of neofascism; eventually professional historians began to join in this perpetually disappointing endeavor.

The most recent major excitement was generated by the American presidential campaign of 2016 and 2020, when journalists bedeviled academic specialists, including this writer, with the repeated query “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” The results of this persistent search for a new fascism have been uniformly negative. When a new political phenomenon of some importance is identified, it turns out not to be genuinely fascist. If the novel entity does bear some sort of genuine resemblance to historical fascism, it turns out—partly for that reason—to be totally marginalized and doomed to insignificance. A splendid analysis of such exercises as applied to the case of contemporary Italy may be found in the very recent volume, Chi è fascista (2019), by Emilio Gentile, that country’s leading historian of fascism.

From its origins in 1919, fascism has been hard to understand. This is not because of its radicalism and violence, since at that time radical and violent new political phenomena were rampant in Europe, led by the nascent Soviet regime. Fascism, however, was like communism in its violence and authoritarianism, but otherwise unique in its complex combination of features, neither clearly of the left nor the right. It was the only genuinely new kind of political movement to emerge from the wreckage of World War I and had no clear predecessor. It persistently confused observers, but in its analogous German form briefly rose to world-historical prominence, unleashing the most destructive single conflict history had ever seen. Even after it concluded, as an historical phenomenon and as a concept fascism, broadly defined, continued to be difficult to grasp. For two decades after 1945, study of fascism was limited to national histories and monographic work on individual movements.

The true “fascism debate” did not develop until nearly a generation had passed, initiated by Ernst Nolte’s Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, the first major comparative study, and Eugen Weber’s brief Varieties of Fascism, both of which appeared in 1964. Both agreed that there was such a thing as a “generic fascism” (of which Nolte provided a brief philosophical definition), but also that it was an extremely pluriform phenomenon, with quite different manifestations in various countries. Nolte, particularly, concluded that it had defined an entire era, the “era of fascism,” which ended in 1945; that it had been dependent on historical forces peculiar to that period; and that historic fascism was not likely to reappear in the future. Rather than constituting a recurrent form or concept, such as democracy or socialism, it was characteristic only of one specific historical era.

The fascism debate continued into the 1990s and seemed to wane briefly, until further important work appeared after the turn of the century. The debate concerned specific fascist movements and regimes, as well as the dilemma regarding an adequate “generic” concept. The understanding and interpretation of fascism matured in the process, with increasing agreement that fascism, or its constituent movements, did indeed have a specific ideology; that it occupied its own autonomous political space (not merely as the “agent” of some other force); that it was not necessarily “anti-modern” and that it constituted a revolutionary interclass movement.

In a new anthology that he published in 1998 (International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus), Roger Griffin, one of the best of the younger scholars to emerge during this discussion, could confidently present a “new consensus,” though not everyone agreed. In the new century, the debate was renewed by others, with such notable books as Michael Mann’s Fascists (2004), the best work of political sociology in the field, Griffin’s highly original Modernism and Fascism (2007), and Constantin Iordachi’s anthology, Comparative Fascist Studies: New Perspectives (2010). With the assistance of Matthew Feldman, Griffin also published Fascism in five volumes (2004), a massive collection of key texts, studies and interpretations. The case of France has been treated anew in the outstanding set of studies edited by Michel Winock and Serge Berstein, Fascisme français: La controverse (2014).

Paul Gottfried’s new book is the best broadly interpretative study on fascism to have appeared in this century’s second decade. It undertakes a fresh analysis from the critical perspective of someone with a deep background in major aspects of modern political thought, concerned first with the perpetually vexing problem of the definition of the term. It then addresses the concept or understanding of fascism by followers of the fascist movements themselves. The use and abuse of the concept of fascism is the major focus of this study, especially the way that it has been understood and employed by self-proclaimed anti-fascists. In reality, Gottfried finds that amid contemporary political discourse and popular historical reference, most of historical fascism has disappeared from view, so that when fascism is mentioned, the term almost always refers to Nazism, always the most popular “other” in twenty-first-century discourse and entertainment. Islamic Jihadis work diligently to achieve equal status, but have not gained equivalent eminence.

In the broadest sense, of course, “fascist” is simply the most popular term of denunciation, its usage only indicating that whatever is referred to “displeases” the speaker, as Gottfried says. Hence the frequency with which journalists and commentators have applied the term to Donald Trump, though they sometimes admit they do not really know what it might actually mean. At the most common level of leftist discourse, “fascism” often merely implies “failing to keep up with social changes introduced long after the Second World War.” The trivialization is absurd, with the result that the term fascism has become what linguists call an “empty signifier” into which any kind of meaning may be injected.

Gottfried accepts the categorization of “generic fascism” only at a very high level of abstraction, but, more fundamentally, concludes that National Socialism was so different from Italian Fascism and other fascisms in its character, doctrine and historical significance that to include them all in the same taxonomic category involves a good deal of distortion. In this he agrees with Nolte, the pioneer of comparative fascist studies, and, for that matter, with German historians generally. For Nolte, National Socialism was unique both in its prime characteristics and in its radicalism and destructiveness, remaining “borderline” in its relation to generic fascism. German historians generally have tended to view it as relatively unique, and since the early achievements of Nolte have made only somewhat limited contributions to comparative fascist studies.

Nazism was of primary historical importance to Europe and the world, while fascism in general was quite secondary in significance, to the extent that, absent Nazism, there could hardly have been a “fascist era.” Gottfried prefers to employ the term to refer to most of the other movements (that rarely were regimes), though without insisting on any tight definition. He agrees with other scholars for whom fascism was strictly an epochal phenomenon, confined largely to interwar Europe, after which conditions became so drastically altered as to make impossible the development of any subsequent movement with the same characteristics, particularly in Europe. This is not to deny the occasional existence of tiny groups and cults, which have existed and will continue to exist in diverse venues.

Gottfried also concurs that fascism was a revolutionary movement but does not agree with those who judge that this quality carried it beyond the left-right spectrum. The dividing line between left and right nominally rests on the issues of egalitarianism and hierarchy, and the acceptance or rejection of the myth of progress. For Gottfried, the fascist position on these key issues reveals fascism to be a peculiar form of the right, the only sector of the right that was “revolutionary,” and here one might add revolutionary as distinct from merely being radical or extremist. There were numerous expressions of a radical right during the era of fascism, but they all sought either to preserve or revive traditional institutions, and always fell short of the revolutionary characteristics of fascism. This is a reasonably convincing conclusion, though it fails to resolve such issues altogether, since subsequently the left would strongly embrace its own forms of nationalism, elitism, hierarchy, particularity and identitarian politics. Thus, in the broader view, fascism might still be seen as a unique type of revolutionism, beyond both the left and right in their classic forms.

Yet, though fascism has been confused with the conservative or even radical right, its revolutionary thrust was so great that in its final conflagration it not merely destroyed itself but also brought nearly the entire nationalist hard-right wing of Western politics down with it. Gottfried observes accurately that since 1945 the political life of the Western world has tended almost exclusively toward the left. What passes even for “conservatism,” much less the hard right, is simply a conservative or moderate form of liberalism, even of part of social democracy, and all the efforts to revive the right as a significant and separate force have failed, political contests taking place almost exclusively between forms of moderate liberalism and a more “advanced” left.

Though he takes issue with aspects of the quasi-consensus developed in fascist studies, a significant part of Gottfried’s book is devoted to the “career” of the concept since 1945 and the role of the idea of fascism in a post-fascist world. The initial concept was defined for political purposes by the Comintern in 1923, the first non-Italian political organization to raise a categorical banner of “anti-fascism,” subsequently deliberately conflating all manner of other phenomena with fascism as a calculated propaganda device. Only after 1945 would this Comintern practice pass into more general usage in other political sectors. It should be remembered, however, that genuine anti-fascists were much more numerous than fascists, or, for that matter, even those more vaguely fascistophile, even in the heyday of the “fascist era.” It is a mistake to confuse the potency of Nazi Germany with any notion of an extremely widely diffused attraction to fascism that in fact never existed.

It was the political triumph of Hitler in Germany in 1933 that considerably increased the appeal of fascism in other countries, yet the initial enthusiasm did not last in the great majority of European polities; in general, the growth of anti-fascism was considerably greater. On the left it produced a sharp shift in Communist tactics toward the Popular Front, and elsewhere encouraged increasing imitation of the Comintern line that conflated a wide variety of political forces with fascism. In Spain, beginning in the final months of 1933, the left termed everything from the center-right and beyond simply “fascist.” By 1935, both Soviet policy and that of the Comintern had wrapped themselves in the banner of anti-fascism; this was fundamental to the Communist line from that point forward, except for the biennium of 1939 to 1941.

During those two brief years Stalin was an ally of Hitler and, in propaganda theory, exempted National Socialism from the category of fascism. From 1941 to the very end of the Soviet system, anti-fascism, almost as much as Marxism-Leninism, was the propagandistic bedrock of Sovietism. It was always useful in winning support for Sovietism among anti-fascist moderates that otherwise would probably never have been forthcoming. François Furet analyzed this phenomenon with great skill. Moreover, from 1941 to 1945 anti-fascism in the broad sense was the bedrock for the most powerful international military alliance in world history, yet anti-fascism either as a genuine force or as a propagandistic argument has received much less attention in historiography than has fascism. This is the more surprising given the prominence of anti-fascism in political doctrine and propaganda since 1945.

Gottfried’s thirty-page chapter “Fascism as the Unconquered Past” addresses the place of fascism in leftist theory and propaganda. He grounds this not in Comintern propaganda, which was always opportunist, but in the intellectually most serious leftist cluster of the 1930s, the Frankfurt School. These émigré German philosophers, psychologists and social thinkers transformed the concept of fascism from that of a political force or forces in contemporary Europe into a permanent “psychic condition” or temptation of all Western culture. This intellectual sleight of hand enormously magnified the potential or latent state of fascism even beyond the political conflation generated by Comintern propaganda. Ideologues of the Frankfurt School created their “Critical Theory” for the analysis of all Western history, culture, institutions, society and politics. It relied not on Marxist economics but on the adaptation of Freudian psychology, pushing the latter “in a visionary direction that Freud himself would have never recognized” by offering cultural analysis in the guise of social and political criticism. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer then adapted Marxism to their “negative dialectic” “by which existing social and cultural institutions were exposed to critical assault” on a continuing basis.

Fundamental to this critique was the danger of “fascism,” for which they invented a particular typology, creating an arbitrary “F scale” to measure something that they termed “The Authoritarian Personality” (TAP). This purported to assess the extent to which literally anyone might be prone to “fascism,” claiming to identify dangerous proclivities lurking almost everywhere. According to the Frankfurt theorists, these could be overcome only by doing away with advanced capitalism, so long as that could be achieved simultaneously with complete sexual liberation. Their theory contended that fascism was based not merely on capitalism but on sexual repression (a concept that would have astounded Mussolini). As quasi- or pseudo-Freudians, they generally ignored the basic Freudian injunction “that the repression and redirection of primal urges was necessary for human civilization.” It was characteristic of the Frankfurt theorists that the TAP critique was especially aimed not at fascist or post-fascist societies but “at an American society that was believed to be suffering from a democracy deficit.” Immediately after achieving the total destruction of European fascism, American society and culture were held to be generating their own “fascism.” Such notions have been broadly expressed and elaborated in the discourse and politics of the left throughout the Western world during the past half century, directed not merely against American society and culture, but also against those of democratic Western Europe.

Nowhere has radical anti-fascism held sway so fully as in Germany, briefly the homeland of the most radical fascism. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” created by critical theories of anti-fascism has de-legitimized invocation of German patriotism and has dominated cultural and political life in the Federal Republic of Germany, while in the German Democratic Republic anti-fascism came to enjoy an even more predominant place. After the public discrediting of Stalinism in 1956, anti-fascism tended increasingly to take the place of Marxism-Leninism in legitimating the regime’s ideology and practice.

Thus, the existence of fascism was not at all necessary in order to generate the most intense anti-fascism. It could be artificially but dramatically recreated as an ever-present danger that lurked perpetually. Rather than being directed against fascism, anti-fascism was a concept and a propaganda banner that in some ways became more useful and intense in its application the farther that any given society moved away from fascism, an ultimate symbol for the left long after the traditional social classes, classic Marxism or fascism itself had disappeared. In Europe a prime example may be found in Spain, where the left declared itself more “antifranquista” in 2016, after living memory of franquismo had virtually disappeared, than in 1980 or 1985, when franquismo had been a recent reality. Emilio Gentile has examined the same phenomena in Italy.

More broadly, the specious scientism of these theorists provided the background for what ultimately developed into the very broad leftist “pathologizing of dissent” in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Under this rubric, the first really dangerous neofascism was discovered in the United States in the 1950s. From that point, this standard hermeneutics of suspicion has gone on to find neofascists under every bed, even though every single case has turned out to be a false alarm. Stigmatization seems indispensable to political polemics, and no other form is so intrinsically appealing as “fascist.” No other adjective, not even “Stalinist,” has acquired such totally pejorative connotations, while the very vagueness of the term, together with its uniquely sinister phonetic qualities, stimulates protean usage.

Gottfried’s book is thus unique in the way that it addresses both sides of the fascist phenomenon—history and historical meaning on the one hand, and the long history of pejorative polemics on the other. No other book in the recent scholarly literature treats these problems so comprehensively. It elucidates both a major historical problem and a major feature of contemporary debate, and is the most useful book on fascism to have been published during the last decade.


The featured image shows, “The Hands of the Italian People,” by Giacomo Balla, painted in 1925.

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!”

The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History

The achievement of unity and perfection in human action begins with a struggle for these ideals in human thought. In The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History, a collection of essays that span four decades, Dr. Klaus Vondung explores examples of this struggle in different fields of human inquiry: striving for harmonious existential unity of talents and morals, intellect and emotion; seeking to make natural sciences consonant with the humanities and thereby moving toward a more universal, “perfect” science; and establishing unity in political structures and cultivating in this unity a homogenous society. Dr. Vondung has given special devotion to National Socialism as a context wherein he revisits its perverted motivation and the consequences of this despite noble ideals.

Dr. Vondung also explores the points of contact between apocalypticism and Hermetic speculation. Despite the independence of the religious and philosophical doctrines of Hermeticism, there are parallels to be found. Apocalypticism and Hermeticism originated in antiquity and yet each represents a tradition that still holds footing today. Dr. Vondung furthermore leads the reader to see the project of salvation found in both, even as each operates with a different scope.

Klaus Vondung is Professor Emeritus in German and Cultural Studies at the University of Siegen, Germany. He has taught at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, University of Florida, Gainesville, the University of Houston, Kansai University, Suita/Osaka, and Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya. He is permanent Honorary Guest professor at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou. In addition to numerous books and articles in German, two of which have recently been translated into English, The Apocalypse in Germany, and Paths to Salvation: The National Socialist Religion. He has edited two volumes in the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.

The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History is now available from St. Augustine’s Press.


Unity through Bildung: A German Dream Of Perfection

“Unity” is something people long for in many ways: they seek to bring their lives, their talents, emotions, beliefs, and actions into a state of existential unity; they strive for the social unification of different classes; they struggle for the political unity of a divided nation; they speculate about the unity of knowledge and faith, reason, and sensuality, matter, and spirit, essence, and existence. In all these cases, and in many more, “unity” is a symbolic equivalent for “perfection.” The state of unity is understood as perfect because it dissolves and abolishes differences, discrepancies and contradictions which are experienced as disturbing and deficient.

Despite this general frame of meaning, the symbol “unity” can stand for very different aims and imply a wide variety of contents, as I indicated in my first sentence. In what follows I want to discuss a particular meaning the symbol “unity” took on in Germany in close connection with the symbol Bildung. In order to analyze this connection, I have to first explain the German term Bildung, especially the meaning applied to it by the philosophy of idealism. On the basis of this clarification, which will also clarify the connection with the symbol “unity,” I will trace some major developments of the aspirations hidden behind these concepts. The time-span I have in view stretches from the decades around 1800 to World War I. The justification for dealing mainly with this period will become plausible in the course of my analysis. As the source for my analysis I shall use, apart from the philosophical texts in the beginning, works of literature. That there are material reasons for this choice will also be shown in due course.

I.

Bildung is an extremely complex and particularly “German” concept which makes it impossible to translate into foreign languages. Among the English terms the dictionary lists for Bildung are formation, education, constitution, cultivation, culture, personality development, learning, knowledge, good breeding, refinement. Bildung indeed can mean all this—and it most often means all this together—but it means still more, and this leads to the core of the problem.

Originally the term Bildung meant “form” or “formation” of material phenomena including the bodily appearance of human beings. From here the term’s usage was extended to man’s “inner personality” so that one can talk about the Bildung of a person also with respect to his talents, manners, morals, intellect, character, or soul. Bildung can mean a certain stage of personality development as well as the process that leads to it. Since this process can be influenced from outside as well as spring independently from an inborn potential, Bildung comprises both planned education and independent self-realization. (This understanding took advantage of the fact that the verb bilden can be transitive—etwas bilden—as well as reflexive—sich bilden). Transferred from the individual to society and history, Bildung can become synonymous with culture and the historical development of culture.

The genesis of this wide scope of figurative meaning goes back to German mysticism of the fourteenth century. The many possibilities of using the terms bilden and Bildung—transitive/reflexive, process/result, material form/spiritual content—made them suitable for the symbolic articulation of very complex matters. And German mysticism took the lead by giving them a new and particular spiritual significance: bilden and Bildung became symbols for man’s advance toward God. The twofold possibilities of usage mentioned above were preserved: the reflexive on the one hand in order to signify God’s activity in the movement: Gott bildet sich in des Menschen Seele—God reveals himself in man’s soul; the transitive on the other hand in order to signify man’s activity: Der Mensch bildet sich Gott ein—man makes God present in his soul, he ‘forms’ God in his soul. But also preserved was the double meaning that Bildung as the advance toward God signifies the process of this movement as well as its result, i.e., the unification with God in the unio mystica. The connection between the symbols Bildung and ‘unity’ which was established here had important consequences for the further development of the concept of Bildung.

It would be most interesting and certainly very important to follow this way step by step via Martin Luther, Jakob Böhme, Pietism, Leibniz and Herder, who all helped to modify and gradually change the meaning of these symbols. In the present context I have to confine myself to marking the final breakthrough of a fundamentally new meaning which found its explicit articulation in the philosophy of idealism. Here, as before, the aim of Bildung is a state of perfection: unity. But it is no longer unity with God. In the meantime, God had been driven out of the whole of reality. What remained was the immanent “world” and a man who had fallen out of God’s hand: the “individual” who found himself confronted with this “world” as an alien reality. At the same time, and in correlation with this development, man had emancipated himself from the old social order and had become an individual also in a social respect. The unity which now is striven for as the aim of Bildung is unity with the world in its appearance as nature and society. Through the process of Bildung, i.e., through appropriation (Aneignung) of the world, the individual seeks to find himself, to realize himself in perfection.

Fichte described the existential dimensions of this process: He defined the Ego as being real only in opposition to a Non-Ego, because the Ego can experience itself only in its restriction by a Non-Ego. The restriction, however, can be felt only insofar as the Ego “impinges” upon the Non-Ego, “attacks” its resistance. Thus the Ego becomes real, i.e., realizes itself, bildet sich, in a continuous process of appropriating the Non-Ego, i.e., the world. In a way similar to Fichte, Wilhelm von Humboldt saw the Bildung of the individual as “the connecting of our Ego with the world” by which the individual gains “perfect unity.”

Hegel outlined the universal and historical dimension of the process of Bildung: “The task,” he says in the introduction to the Phänomenologie des Geistes, “of leading the individual from his ungebildete standpoint to knowledge has to be defined in its general meaning, and the general individual, the independent spirit, must be viewed in its Bildung.” The independent spirit for its part achieves knowledge by passing through “the stages of Bildung of the general spirit.” And the general spirit forms itself, bildet sich, in the course of world history by appropriating the world it is confronted with in successive dialectical steps until it is unified and reconciled with itself.

The connection between the aims of individual and universal unity, which in Hegel’s complicated argument is almost obscured, is established more clearly in Humboldt’s words. At first he brings the aims of individual and universal Bildung close to each other by using in both cases the symbol “the Whole” (das Ganze) for the state of unity and perfection: “The true purpose of man is the highest and most proportional Bildung of his powers to a Whole.” On the universal scale the task is “to accomplish the Ausbildung of humanity as a Whole.” Then he draws the conclusion: “I feel that I am driven to a state of unity […]. I find it absurd to call this unity God, because this would mean throwing unity out of oneself unnecessarily. . . . Unity is humanity, and humanity is nothing else than I myself.” The triple identification of “unity”, “humanity” and “I myself,” together with the refusal to accept God as the realization of unity, reveals the “drive” to unity as the aspiration to become a God of the immanent world, i.e., a perfect being, who is unified with himself in perfection insofar and because he is unified with the world he has absorbed. Clemens Menze’s summary of Humboldt’s concept—“In his Bildung man deifies himself” —grasps the core of the new meaning which Bildung has assumed in many minds by the end of the eighteenth century, although not everyone put it in such precise terms as Friedrich Schlegel: “To become God, to be a human being, sich bilden, are notions that have the very same meaning.”

II.

There are two reasons why I now turn to an analysis of literature. The first reason is given by the sources. In Germany we have a particular species of novel which originated in the late eighteenth century, inspired by the new concept of Bildung, and which flourished throughout the nineteenth century. The concept of Bildung determined the form as well as the structure and content of these novels so strongly that a special term was coined for this literary species: Bildungsroman. Wilhelm Dilthey defined the general structure of a Bildungsroman as the story of a young man who enters life in the happy mood of dawn, who seeks friendship and love, has to struggle with the realities of life, grows to maturity after various experiences, finally finds himself and reaches fulfillment as a harmoniously developed personality. It can be mentioned in passing that Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes can be viewed as a philosophical Bildungsroman in which a “hero,” the “world spirit,”, struggles with the world he is confronted with and realizes himself (bildet sich) by appropriating it. There is, however, a considerable difference between the philosophical concept and a novel, and this difference marks the second reason for my turning to literary sources.

A novel, if it aspires to be good, cannot speculate about Bildung and unity in general terms and abstract notions (“deification through Bildung”—what does that mean in a concrete sense?). It has to represent the process and results of Bildung in a concrete person and in the course of a story. Because of that, literature reveals the existential dimensions of the concept of Bildung much better than philosophical speculation, and, what is even more important, it reveals the practical problems of the concept which a story about people and their concrete doings cannot conceal so easily. To be sure, the Bildungsroman tends toward the same aim of Bildung as in the concept’s philosophical manifestations: godlike unity and harmony of the individual with himself and the world. In Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795/96), we find the proclamation that man should be a “God of the earth” (although its meaning is not unambiguous there). But literature (again: if it is good) does not speculate but visualizes reality and represents experiences. And we have no experience of a man who became God. The dilemma between the aspiration for perfect Bildung and the opposing forces of reality which become effective in the literary presentation of the process of Bildung, led to different solutions in the various Bildungsromane. This is what makes this genre so interesting for the analysis of Bildung.

The paradigm of the German Bildungsroman, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), provides an excellent example of this dilemma. The hero of the novel, Wilhelm, develops his personality in the course of his conflicts and struggles with the world. He makes an advance toward a state of perfection, but this state is not visualized. Schiller’s judgment was correct: “He refuses to give us the direct satisfaction that we demand, and he promises a higher and higher satisfaction, but we have to postpone this into the distant future.” Considering Schiller’s own tendency toward philosophical speculation, this judgment sounds rather critical. As a matter of fact, many interpreters found a certain weakness in this lack of absolute fulfillment, if not even an element of resignation. My own opinion is different. I think Goethe was conscious of the problem the individual encounters if he tries to deify himself. He saved his novel from derailment and kept it in a delicate balance. The pivot of this balance was the renunciation of the central aspiration of the concept of Bildung, the decision, as Camus called it, “to refuse to be a god.” Ultimately Wilhelm owes his maturity not to his own activities of self-realization. “Basically,” Goethe remarked to Eckermann, “the entire novel attempts to say no more than this: that despite all his foolishness and confusion, man, guided by a hand from above, can achieve happiness in the end.” And in a discussion with Boisserée, Goethe sharply condemned the “madness and rage of attempting to reduce everything to the single individual and to be a God of one’s own right.” Instead of deifying himself, Wilhelm accepts the conditio humana, and this means: integration into a world and society which are not experienced as absolutely alien and hostile. This can be criticized as resigned and passive only if the self-deified individual is the criterion for judgment. I want to stress that integration into the world and society does not necessarily lead to passivity. For Wilhelm it means action indeed, although not in the sense of appropriation or conquest. At the end of the novel the aim of Bildung is defined as “being active in a dignified way,” “without wanting to dominate.”

In opposition to Goethe’s Bildungsroman, Novalis presented quite different a solution in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1799). He criticized in Goethe the fact that Wilhelm Meister is made to adjust himself to reality. Novalis, on his part, adhered to the ultimate aim of Bildung: “All Bildung leads to something which can only be called freedom, certainly not meant to denote a mere name, but to designate the creative principle of all being. This freedom is mastery. The master exercises free power according to his intention […].” However, Novalis could not visualize this aim in a story about the development of a realistic person in everyday life, since obviously God-like mastery cannot be achieved in ordinary reality. He transferred his story into the legendary scenery of the Middle Ages, which was supposed (the novel is fragmentary) to gradually change into a second reality of dreams and fairy tales. The aim of unity and perfection, which again implied appropriation and domination of the world, was to be achieved through the magic of poetry.

Novalis’ novel represents one of the two extreme possibilities of falling out of the delicate balance which Goethe had tried to establish between the aspiration for perfect Bildung and the opposing forces of reality: If the attempt is made to visualize the state of perfection, the connection with reality is lost. The result is, at best, a fairy-tale of paradise, or at worst, if the poetic abilities are weaker than in Novalis’ case, bloodless abstraction. The other extreme results from the experience that self-deification must fail: If this experience cannot be endured, then the world, and with it the individual, is hurled back into alienation and meaninglessness, ending in nihilistic despair. (An example for this possibility will be shown later on.) Between these extremes we find all sorts of variations and compromises. In what follows I want to interpret some of these variations as they were represented in the course of the nineteenth century. Because of the peculiar tension between Bildung and reality, above all material and social reality, it will be interesting to view the different representations of the striving after unity and perfection with special regard to a particular aspect: Goethe and Novalis had shown, each in his own way, that the question of whether or not one should try to dominate reality, and how this could be brought about, becomes a central issue of Bildung when the process and results of Bildung have to be visualized in a work of literature. This problem remained constant as long as such literary attempts were made. Therefore, it will be of special interest to investigate how different authors solved this problem under the changing circumstances of material and social reality.

The featured image shows, “Berlin, Opernhaus und Unter den Linden” (“Berlin, The Opera House and Under den Linden), by Eduard Gaertner, painted in 1845.

Mathematics And Morality

Nothing could be more distinctive of the age in which we live than the overpowering prominence of mathematics. All through the Catholic centuries, arithmetic and geometry constituted all the mathematics that an educated Christian was asked to learn. Even these two subjects were treated from a more contemplative point of view, which made them far more harmonious with other liberal studies. Arithmetic consisted in the study of the properties of numbers; geometry in the study of shapes and figures. When not overdone, and when counterbalanced by the proper correctives from the other types of knowledge, geometry and arithmetic, as they used to be taught, cultivated a few desirable virtues of the mind like clarity and precision, and sharpened the mind for the perception of harmony, rhythm, and pattern in the study of nature and of Holy Scripture. But even then, many saints and sages warned against the excessive preoccupation with such studies, and especially against the seductive clarity of mathematics; for it is not enough for the mind to be accurate and clear; we are bound to ask “accurate and clear about what?” Since in mathematics accuracy and clarity are achieved at the price of the reality and the goodness of the object, it is a danger of the mathematical mind to continue to sacrifice reality and goodness for the sake of clarity in every other field in which man must seek and find the truth.

But in our time, education is overwhelmed by mathematics and on more than one score. For, while a contemplative interest in the properties of shapes and numbers is almost completely extinct, an illiberal and utterly inhuman form of mathematics dominates the years of learning of our boys and girls, almost completely from the very first year of the primary school to the very last year of college. In place of arithmetic and geometry, whose relation to reality is definite and understandable, there is now an indefinite confusion of branches which go by the name of mathematics, the nature of whose objects nobody understands! Such topics as topology, non-Eudidean geometry, Boolean algebra, transfinite numbers, projective geometry; not to speak of other more recognizable subjects like algebra, trigonometry, integral calculus, vector analysis and the theory of equations. These new subjects are not only more confusing but much more difficult to acquire, and therefore much less likely to leave the mind at leisure for other liberal studies. But the predominance of mathematics today is not restricted to those courses which go by its name, because mathematics, in some form or other, in matter or in method, has crept into every other corner of the curriculum. According to the modern positivistic conception, mathematics and not wisdom is considered as the prototype of science. In subjects ranging from physics to education, covering every field of human learning, there is an evident tendency to assimilate all knowledge to mathematical knowledge and to resolve all realities into mathematical formulas. This trend reaches its apex in the development of symbolic logic, in which guise mathematics invades even the field of philosophy, to distort all the basic conceptions of the mind, and to deflect all the activities of thought from attaining their fulfillment in true wisdom which consists in knowledge about God, by keeping them whirling endlessly around the nihilistic circle of sheer mathematical emptiness.

Now in an attempt to determine the influence of mathematics on the mind of a Christian, it would be folly to ignore the fact that after twenty centuries of Christian living, it is impossible to name one single patron saint for mathematics. There are Catholics indeed who occupied themselves considerably with mathematics and as far as we know kept the faith; but I know of no mathematician whose faith burned so brilliantly as to earn him a place among the stars of sanctity. Nor is this a mere coincidence, for any one of us can look into his own mind to find that there is no other kind of human knowledge or human experience which offers less in terms of value for the Christian message than mathematics. Almost all that one needs in the way of mathematics in order to learn all of Holy Scripture and all the Doctors of the Church, does not exceed the ability to count up to a thousand and to distinguish between a vertical and a horizontal line. Whatever it is you talk about in mathematics, it is never anything you can carry over to your meditations, or employ in your prayers; it gives you no courage in your moments of despair, and no consolation in your loneliness.

In the field of philosophy, mathematics has always been fertile grounds for sophistry. There is hardly any other intellectual interest which has contributed more to confuse men about fundamental truths regarding God, man, and the universe, than mathematics. Just to mention the names of Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Whitehead and Russell, would suffice to convince one even slightly acquainted with the history of thought about the great number of minds that were deceived by the mirage of mathematics, and misled to accept fraudulent substitutes for the saving truth. I believe that an unprejudiced consideration of the nature of mathematics and of the nature of its objects would reveal clearly that all these charges leveled against the mathematical mind are rooted in the very nature and essence of things.

But what kind of a science is mathematics? Is it a practical science which envisages the achievement of a good, or a speculative science which envisages the attainment of truth? A practical science, like medicine or ethics, would be eliminated by the elimination of the corresponding good. For example, if men were indifferent to health and its opposite there would be no criterion for distinguishing between a right prescription and a wrong one, and consequently, medicine would cease to be a science. In a similar way, if men per absurdum were suddenly to become neutral to the attainment of happiness or its opposite, that would be the end of ethics. But what good, if ceasing, would determine the end of mathematics? None whatever, for the simple reason that mathematics prescinds from all good and all value. Mathematics talks the language of a speculative science. It utters propositions which must be either true or false. Now a proposition is true or false depending on whether it is or is not in conformity with reality. Just as a practical science envisages a good to be achieved, which good functions as the criterion for right and wrong precepts in that science, so a speculative science considers some part or aspect of reality, which stands as the measure of truth and falsehood in that science. If there were no stars there would be no astronomy; and theology would be sheer nonsense if God did not exist. But what part of reality would destroy mathematics by being eliminated? What does the mathematician talk about? Is the object of mathematics a creature or a creator? Is it a substance or an accident? Is it something actual or merely potential? Is it changing or changeless? Temporal or eternal? Material or spiritual? Tangible or intangible? If one were to compose an inventory of all the subsisting realities of the whole universe, including God, the angels, men, animals, plants and minerals, would the objects of mathematics be on this list?

Am I asking too many questions? Well, here are a few answers whose reasons will either be supplied later, or be left to the reader to discover for himself. Mathematics is a speculative science whose value can only be in the practical order. It has no speculative value, because it does not convey any essential knowledge about any subsisting reality. It is not contemplative knowledge and therefore not essentially good for man, because it occupies the intellect with objects which the will cannot love. It is knowledge which does not proceed from understanding nor does it resolve in wisdom. It does not proceed from understanding, because the mathematical expression of any reality, never conveys any understanding of it. It may however convey the means for the control of that reality. You are not one inch closer to the penetration of the mystery of light and color when you know the number of Angstroms in each of the colors of the spectrum; nor about the nature, cause, or purpose of gravity when you resolve its laws into mathematical formulas. And it does not resolve in wisdom, because neither is mathematics concerned with the First Cause, nor does it lead to the First Cause. The manner by which mathematics deals with its objects abstracts completely from any dependence upon God, and as a matter of fact, attributes to these objects a species of eternity and turns them into quasi divinities completely independent in themselves. This explains the autonomous nature of mathematics, according to which, left to itself, it never leads to anything non-mathematical. A mathematician might be led to think about God by an accidental non-mathematical reason, but never from the very needs of mathematics.

As for the object of mathematics, it is not a physical entity but a mental entity; it is not real but ideal. There is nowhere in the world, outside of the mind of a mathematician, a point without dimensions, a line without width or thickness, or a square root of minus one. But these fictions of the mind are founded on reality, and their foundation consists of the accident of quantity and its properties and relations. Arithmetic is founded on discontinuous quantities or multitudes; geometry on continuous quantities or magnitudes; while algebra is founded on abstract quantity considered generically, prescinding from whether it is number or magnitude and therefore potentially capable both of an arithmetical as well as of a geometrical interpretation. Other mathematical objects, more distantly removed from this real foundation of mathematics, are rooted in these simpler elements and in the relations which hold among them. Having experienced the three dimensions of bodies in space and having represented these three dimensions by the three variables of an algebraical equation, nothing prevents the mind from creating the fiction of a space corresponding to an algebraical equation of four variables – hence four-dimensional space.

But what do we know about this accident of quantity, on which is founded, proximately or remotely every object of mathematics? We learn from philosophy that quantity is an accident of material substances, and that in contrast with the accident of quality, quantity manifests the material and not the formal aspect of these substances. Therefore the real foundation of mathematics is found in the material aspect of material things. Further, an accident when conceived as an accident always brings you back to its substance; but in mathematics the accident of quantity is conceived as if it were a substance. Further, a material substance concretely considered, has a nature through which this substance moves to the attainment of an end, but the mathematician considers quantity as a substantialized material accident devoid of any principle of change and abstracted from any movement to attain an end. The concrete material substance manifests itself through its sensible qualities by means of which it is known, but the object of mathematics, without being a spiritual substance like an angel, prescinds from all sensible qualities and can be known only by the intellect and not by the senses. Hence we have the apparent paradox that while the only foundation for the mathematical object is the material aspect of material things, still mathematics represents its object such as matter could neither be nor be known. For matter is nothing but a principle of change, while mathematics prescinds from change; and matter can only be known through the senses while mathematics prescinds from sensibility.

The object of mathematics is therefore an accident parading as a substance, a material reality pretending to be immaterial, an ideal entity which poses for something real. At the basis of all these antinomies is the fact that mathematics arises only when an intellectual mind, directs the light of its spiritual intelligence, not for the purpose of contemplating being, but for the purpose of controlling potency. The mathematical object is the shadow that matter casts on spirit. For when spirit knows spirit, there is not even the foundation for mathematics; when material cognition (sensation) knows material things, the objects of mathematics cannot arise; even when a spiritual being knows matter contemplatively it understands a material substance through its form and its qualities. It is only when a spiritual being concerns itself with matter and for the purpose of sheer control that mathematics finally finds its grounds.

But how about the truth in mathematics? If the objects of mathematics are mental entities (entia rationis) what is it that determines the truth or falsehood of a mathematical proposition? What reality stands as the measure to the judgment of the mind? In the classical branches, arithmetic and geometry, the foundation in reality was close enough to preclude any statements that are not justified by the real properties of multitudes and magnitudes. But as mathematics branches out and develops into newer mathematics, and higher mathematics, and purer mathematics, that control becomes less and less until finally the mind remains its own measure. Consistency and not conformity becomes the touchstone of validity.

Apart from mathematics, there used to be three other distinct types of knowledge: physical, logical, and ethical. All three led ultimately to God – the physical sciences under the aspect of Ultimate Cause; the logical sciences by way of the Prime Truth; and the ethical sciences by way of the Supreme Good. But in mathematics, the mind reigns supreme, lord of all it surveys. The mind finds in itself a sufficient cause for the kind of being the mathematical entity enjoys. It is the only ultimate measure for the truth of its judgments. It prescinds completely from the aspect of goodness. Of all the intellectual pursuits, mathematics alone does not lead to God.

It is like the web of a spider, it proceeds from the very substance of the spider and ends up being its own jail. It gets more involved and more intricate the more it is extended, and finally, when the web is intricate enough, the new threads do not have to measure up to any real independent distances of walls or furniture, for when the new-thrown thread fails to meet a point of support, it sticks on another thread of the same fabric.

From the spider of mathematics, may God deliver us.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.

The featured image shows a “Portrait of Luca Pacioli,” attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari, painted before 1516.

Progress In Christianism

American fans of Monty Python will be familiar with the opening lines of William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (and I apologize to my British readers for such an introduction). The poem was set to music in 1916 and became deeply popular in post-war Britain. The Labour Party adopted it as a theme for the election of 1946. It recalls the legend of Christ’s visit to England as a child (taken there by St. Joseph of Arimathea). Blake spins it out into a vision of the heaven to be built in the modern world:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

King George V is said to have preferred it as a national anthem over “God Save the King.” It is, indeed, used as an anthem in a number of contemporary settings.

It has to be heard and understood in the context of its times. It was first published in 1808. Blake, interestingly, was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of the many darker elements of the industrial revolution that was, as yet, in its early days.That struggle is something of a theme that has continued through to our present day.

Though we often welcome the innovation and conveniences brought by industrialization and technological advances, we also lament the frequent tragedies found in their wake. The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.

In Blake’s time, industrialization was new and often had the effect of displacing traditional workers. As a child, he lived near the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark, the first major factory in London. The factory could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week and drove many traditional millers out of business. When the factory burned down in 1791, the independent millers rejoiced. Some have suggested Albion Flour as the origin of Blake’s reference to “Dark Satanic Mills.”

At the very time that industrialization was bringing prosperity to some, it created new forms of poverty among the “unskilled” (or “wrongly skilled”) poor. We live with the same thing today. The abandoned factories of the Rust Belt, where poverty and drug-addiction have replaced a once thriving industrial world, point to how intractable this aspect of modernity has become. Two-hundred years after Blake, our Dark Satanic Mills are generally off-shore. Their Jerusalem, our Satanic Mills.

The tremendous success of industrialization (for some) also created a deep, abiding confidence in the power of science and the careful application of human planning. As problems increased, so, too, did various plans and efforts to manage them. There grew up, as well, a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology. The Christian faith believes in the coming Kingdom of God. Already, various reformers and off-shoots of the Puritans had imagined themselves to be creating an earthly paradise. Their utopian visions became powerful engines of change and revolution. As the heads rolled in Paris, the crowds imagined them to be harbingers of a new world. They were – but not paradise.

A name deeply associated with the Christian adoption of this progressive thought is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). An American Baptist who taught and pastored in New York, he put forward works that would become foundational for the notion of the “social gospel.”

The 19th century had seen something of a collapse in classical Christian doctrine in many of the mainline churches of Protestantism. The historical underpinnings of those doctrines had faced increasing skepticism.

Rauschenbusch was not immune to this. He dismissed the notion of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin, seeing in it, rather, an example of suffering love, whose power was to be found in its ability to encourage people to act in the same way.

He described six sins which Jesus “bore” on the Cross:

“Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered.”

These “powers of evil” were embodied in social institutions. The work of the Kingdom of God consisted in resisting these institutions and reforming society.

Liberal Christianity adopted Rauschenbusch’s vision in a wide variety of ways. That his vision was largely political should be noted. Interestingly, he saw the Church as a problematic institution and preferred to speak, instead, of the “Kingdom of God,” by which he meant the political project opposed to the six sins.

It is, of course, an interesting approach to the faith and has been a well-spring for many of the Christian social movements of the past century. It is also a jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity (such as Orthodoxy). It is also the form of Christianity favored by the cultural elite of our time. It needs none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching. Indeed, it would be possible to practice such a Christianity believing Jesus to be merely human.

Another aspect of the modern social gospel (endemic, I think, to its so-called “demythologized” approach to the Scriptures) is its adherence to Utilitarianism as a moral principle. That principle is a results-oriented philosophy, described best as a moral model in which all efforts are managed towards a desired end. It presumes the control of outcomes.

None of this needs a God, nor a Savior. As such, it is ideally suited to a secularized Christianity. In large part, it provides a Christian slogan for otherwise secular ends. In Rauschenbusch’s time, the place of the institutional Church was strong, almost unassailable. Over time, the secularization of the Church, married to his vision of the gospel, has resulted in the death of the very institutions that gave it birth.

The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom,” made popular by Rauschenbusch, is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty – from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.

However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:

“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Hebrew 2:14-15.

This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.

We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.

Consider the story of the Patriarch Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, where he meets other prisoners and interprets dreams, thus coming to the attention of the Pharoah, whose dream he interprets and offers wise counsel, whereby he is made Regent over Egypt, saving his family from famine.

What people in their right mind would ever consider such a plan as a means to reach the goal of saving themselves from a famine they had no idea was coming? No one. Indeed, event after event in the story appear to be nothing but ongoing tragedies. Joseph himself would later say of these things: “You [my brothers] meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.”

That is the inscrutable nature of providence – as illustrated repeatedly in the Scriptures. The mystery of God’s providence, the working of the Kingdom of God in our midst, is inscrutable: “He has exalted the humble and meek and the rich He has sent away empty.”

In these latter days, the masters of machines and money have imagined themselves to be “building the Kingdom” (Blake’s Jerusalem) with plans, intentions, goals, and utopias. [Such language was the bread and butter of public speech in my time among the Episcopalians]. The plans generally seemed to involve the rich helping the humble and meek so they would no longer need to be humble and meek. With every success they became even greater strangers to God. Their Churches stand empty, their children having forgotten God and looked towards other dreams.

It is the nature of the humble and meek to be clueless about the management of worldly affairs. They are generally excluded from management decisions. It is instructive in this regard to consider the nature of Christ’s commandments: they tend to be small and direct. Give. Love. Forgive. Take no thought for tomorrow. Endure insults.

As is true in the story of Joseph, the work of providence is largely seen only in retrospect. Its daily work in our lives will, more often than not, find us unjustly imprisoned by the lies of a wicked employer, or nailed to a Cross while being mocked. St. Paul describes the providence of God:

For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (I Corinthians 4:9–13).

If we are to speak of “building up the Kingdom of God,” let it be restricted to that work within us of “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” And then, speak with humility. Again, St. Paul says this about such things:

“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (I Corinthians 4:4–5).

Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.

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

The image shows, “Maschinenmensch (Der Unternehmer), Machine-Man (The Entrepreneur),” by Elisabeth Voigt, painted in 1948.

Russia, Europe: Past and Present – A Conversation With Andrzej Nowak

This month, we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian and a public intellectual. He is a professor at the Institute of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and is the head of the Comparative Imperial Studies Section at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Professor Nowak has lectured as a visiting professor at Columbia University, Harvard University, Rice University, the University of Virginia, University of Cambridge, and University College, London. He is also a recipient of the Order of the White Eagle – Poland’s highest order.

He is the author of over 30 books, among them a multivolume history of Poland, Między nieładem a niewolą. Krótka historia myśli politycznej (Between Disorder and Captivity. A Short History of Political Ideas), Metamorfozy Imperium Rosyjskiego: 1721-1921 (Metamorphoses of Russian Empire), and History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, Russia and Eastern Europe.

He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Thirty years ago, when we met, you were a scholar of Russia. You had published several books on the topic. They drew the attention of Andrzej Walicki and Richard Pipes, two well-known experts on Russian history. Now you are writing about the history of Poland. Thus far you have written four out of ten intended volumes. Could you briefly describe your intellectual trajectory? What made you leave Russian history?

Andrzej Nowak (AN): Indeed, my research interests began with an analysis of the concept of the multiplicity of civilizations by Nikolay Danilevsky, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, an ideologue of Russian Pan-Slavism. That was forty years ago.

In recent years, however, I have returned to the history of Russian imperial thought. In 2018, I published an extensive volume of studies on the manifestations of this thought in Russian culture, from the time of Peter the Great to the formation of the group of so-called Eurasianists during the First World War. I am still interested in Russian topics. Not only because it is fascinating in itself, but also because of its numerous connections with the history of Poland to the present day. For Russia, over the centuries, Poland has been the first obstacle on the way to Europe, leading to its subordination.

Marx expressed it succinctly in 1863, when he wrote that “the rebuilding of Poland meant the annihilation of (imperial) Russia, the cancellation of the Russian candidate for world rule” (“Wiederherstellung Polens ist die Vernichtung Rußlands, (die) Rußlands Absetzung von seiner Kandidatur zur Weltherrschaft”). The issue of neighboring Russia and its geopolitical significance has been my concern for a long time; and it is precisely the historical Russian-Polish relations and the comparison of two political cultures that have developed so differently in the two countries.

When it comes to the multi-volume history of Poland, for me it is an attempt to reread the specificity of Polish political culture, its rootedness in the European republican tradition (this issue has been discovered in recent years by such outstanding scholars as Quentin Skinner and Martin van Gelderen).

Queen Maria Clementina Sobieska, wife of James III, painted by Antonio David, c. 1722-3. Private collection, reprinted with permission.

But has anyone pointed out that the term “Polish citizen” – civis Polonis – appears for the first time in a document from the mid-12th century? I found out about it while writing the first volume of my synthesis. Now that I am on volume five, which covers the 17th century, I wonder about the crisis of the republican system, as well as the geopolitical conditions of its duration (wars with Russia, Protestant Sweden, and Islamic Turkey).

Such issues give me a lot of intellectual pleasure – and also because they allow me to look at the present day, for example, of the European Union, from the point of view of the longest lasting union in the history of Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1385-1795). Why did this union end up being partitioned by its imperial neighbors? How did they use the mechanisms of republican freedom (veto, applied in the Polish parliamentary system until 1791)? These are not just historical issues. In each case, like a shadow, being a neighbor to Russia brings back the problem of the empire.

ZJ: Russia is fascinating. One reason is Russian literature: Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekov, Gogol, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No nation, I dare say, can claim to have so many outstanding writers. Yet Dostoevsky stands out among them. He is not just a great writer but a great thinker; one of the most insightful critics of Modernity.

If you want to understand the cultural malaise of the West in the 20th century, you turn to Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset and Dostoevsky. “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” lays out all the fundamental problems of political and social organization. It is a real tour de force of political theory, which, matches only Plato’s considerations in The Republic. Chapters 7 and 8 of Notes from Underground, on the other hand, is an unsurpassed analysis of the dangers of the nascent scientific mentality, the danger of which was described in the 1950s by Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society. Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, turned Notes into his Brave New World (1932) – which describes a soft totalitarianism, the world which we seem to be building.

On the one hand, Dostoevsky is a great prophet, who saw the future of the West, a future where the scientific mentality dominated everything and discredited the Past (tradition, religion, hierarchy, custom, history); and, on the other hand, Dostoevsky is the Russian sui generis. He is suspicious of the West, Western ideas, Western Christianity, and, let me add, who passionately dislikes the Poles for Poland’s Western orientation and Catholicism.

Czeslaw Milosz saw Dostoevsky as someone from a backward country, who realized the danger that Western ideas posed, which were flooding Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Dostoevsky’s literary output is a short history of modern Europe. Do you agree with Milosz? And what is your attitude toward Dostoevsky?

AN: The term “backward country” of course implies that there are “progressive” countries which are the yardstick for the rest of the world. Such an attitude was adopted by Dostoevsky himself, fascinated by the ideas of Saint-Simon and Fourier, which he got to know in the circle of the young intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. The death sentence he was given for participating in this circle, and then exile, certainly came as a shock.

When, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, the so-called “progressive countries” – Great Britain, France and Sardinia, saw a liberal “thaw” in domestic politics, so that Dostoevsky was no longer enthusiastic about following “progress.” He quickly saw that liberalism and the so-called the utopian socialism, which fascinated him earlier, had a common source. And it is a poisoned source – the belief that man can build a paradise on earth on his own, and that the West is close to this paradise; and countries such as Russia should intensely imitate the West, so that one day they may find themselves at least in the vestibule of this paradise.

Imitation of the West will end in the revolution of nihilism, the foretelling of which Dostoevsky already noticed in Russia. He described them in the form of two generations in Demons: the older generation – “rotten” liberals and the younger generation – radical revolutionists.

The same observations were made earlier by poets of the Polish Romantic emigration: Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasiński. The latter, in the drama “the Undivine Comedy” of 1833, presented exactly the vision of total revolution as a rebellion against God, as Dostoevsky had done 40 years later. The difference is that for Krasiński, the criticism of the revolution and of the preceding evolution of Western civilization is an “internal” criticism – he mourns this crisis because it is his civilization. He would like to save it, like Joseph de Maistre; he would like the Polish nobility to support the collapsing dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with their sabers.

Maria Clementina Sobieska. Private collection, reprinted with permission.

Polish Romantic thinkers imagined that Poland could play the role of the last defender of the European classical and Christian moral tradition against the forces of decay.

On the other hand, Dostoevsky, along with a large part of the Russian intellectual elite, took a different perspective: the crisis arises from the very essence of the West, from the rebellion of the West (that is, Catholicism) against the only true faith that has been preserved by the Orthodox Church. This is the perspective of the criticism of the West that continues in Russian thought right up to Solzhenitsyn and contemporary ideologues of Putin’s era. There are also great Russian writers who refer to this tradition today, especially Zachar Prilepin, a contemporary Dostoevsky.

ZJ: However, one can raise the following argument: Poland, as a country, disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795. Polish nobility turned Poland into “a country for sale,” because they invented a political system that made the Polish state (and the regal power) weak. Its downfall was predicted by King Sobieski.

The idea that the Polish nobles can “support the collapsing dome” is – pardon me – a piece of rhetoric, which inscribes itself well within the context of the post-French Revolution world, but it misses the point. How could de Maistre think that one could entrust the fate of Christianity, Catholicism to the people who could not even manage the political affairs of their own country? If one looks for defense of Catholicism or Christianity, a better place than de Maistre, in my opinion, is Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity and Constant essays on religion.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski in coronation robes, by Marcello Bacciarelli (1764).

AN: Sorry for the misunderstanding. The vision of the Polish nobility supporting the collapsing dome of St. Peter was written by Zygmunt Krasiński, a Polish Romantic conservative. Yes, he was inspired by de Maistre’s political philosophy, but this was a vision of Krasiński, not of a Savoyard reactionary.

De Maistre saw, for a time, in tsarist Russia the hope of saving the European tradition, until he realized how much revolutionary fuel was in Russia itself. Krasiński’s vision assumed that the Polish nobility most consistently represented the traditions of Roman republicanism, combined with Latin Christianity. As a conservative, however, he considered original sin as the cause of the contamination of all worldly endeavors and projects. That is why he saw in the attitude of defending the traditions of European Christianity a heroic but futile act. Poland’s act is to defend a struggling Christian Europe desperately to the end, just as it fought desperately for the independence of the lost (also through its own fault) Poland. But she will win this fight alone. Only Providence can win this fight. We have a duty to fight; we have no guarantee of victory.

It seems to me that this attitude is absent both in Chateaubriand and in Constant. Their “bland,” more melancholic and cultural view of Christianity presents it as a beautiful adventure of the European past, which may be saved as a kind of museum monument in the modern world. Krasiński, on the other hand, sees the issue of Catholic Europe as a fundamental existential, dramatic choice – against “this world” created by the triumph of liberalism and capitalism.

This is a completely different kind of romanticism than the ethos found in Chateaubriand. I think more realistic – at least from today’s perspective. This does not mean, however, that I believe that “Polish nobility” or Poland simply had some unique opportunities to save tradition.

Poland itself is part of the European community of fate. People who consider themselves in some sense heirs of Krasiński, but also of John Paul II and Saint Faustina (a Polish nun who initiated the world cult of God’s Mercy), must look for those Germans who feel spiritual communion with Pope Ratzinger, those Italians who understand one’s identity in the spirit of the Catholic tradition; Spaniards who still know who Miguel de Unamuno was; the French who understand the choice of Pascal and Antoine de Saint-Exupery; The English who have in their spiritual heritage Thomas More, Cardinal John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Chesterton. We are all in one boat and we will drown together, or we will keep on going together. We will reach the shore as Providence decides. We have a duty to row, in spite of those who want to sink our boat now.

ZJ: But the fate of a nation, unless we understand it in Oedipian sense, is not sealed. Fate of countries lies either in having a strong culture which gives a people a specific national identity – different from others – or strong political institutions capable of sustaining that culture.

Poland is a unique example. After more than eight centuries, it disappeared from the map of Europe at the very end of 18th century. What happened was more a result of the malfunctioning of political institutions than a lack of national identity, which, let us recall, was forged in the historical process since 966 AD, when Poland became a Christian country. Poland had elected kings and a republican system of government, which led to political weakness.

If you look at the American debate (the so-called The Federalist Papers) how such a new political system should work, the Founding Fathers (Madison and Hamilton) thought of the legislative process as an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests that take place in a society at large. Representatives of the states are supposed to represent the general attitude of the people they represent; they do not have a mandate to act or vote in a predetermined way. They are not delegates!

The Polish republican experiment was exactly the opposite. It was based on, first, the unanimity principle and, second, the “imperative mandate.” What the result of it was that the Polish Diet was prevented from being a deliberative assembly, like the English House of Commons around the same period.

As Willmoore Kendall, the translator of Rousseau’s The Government of Poland wrote, “Because of the former [liberum veto], it was improbable that any decision could be taken; because of the latter [the imperative mandate], minds were already made up, so why deliberate?”

Such a system left virtually no room for strong central government – the elected king – to govern effectively. The king was stripped of the power to govern, whereas the nobility could claim to enjoy “Golden Liberty.” But this liberty could be had only at the expense of the weak State and submission of the vast part of the population.

The American Founding Fathers, on the other hand, worked on the assumption that the people are free to participate, and the role of the government is to mitigate the conflicts. To prevent anarchy, or impotence of the government, the State – the federal government – had to have considerable power. Polish liberum veto, which made it possible for one person to veto the majority decision, was the opposite of the majority principle.

Can you very briefly explain how such a system came about? Were there any serious political thinkers – like Grotius, Hobbes, Locke – behind it? Or was it something that was spontaneously generated during the historical process?

AN: The system was modeled on a Roman one that lasted only a little longer. And it was not Grotius, Hobbes, or Locke who supported the creation of this system, but much more “serious thinkers” – Aristotle and Cicero first of all.

The founders of Polish republicanism modeled themselves on their works above all. They believed, somewhat anachronistically, that in the sixteenth or seventeenth century their republicanism could exist between Moscow – the “third Rome”- the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Protestant military monarchy of the Swedes, the Commonwealth, i.e. the republic – as in Cicero or Aristotle (monarchia mixta), with the Polish nobility as equals, the Seym (the parliament) as a concilium plebis, the senate as the senate, and the king as an elected consul or princeps.

This is how Jan Zamoyski, influential co-founder of this system, imagined an extremely influential co-founder of this system. Zamoyski authored the Latin treatise on the Roman Senate, and was at the same time chancellor and hetman of the Republic of Poland at the end of the 16th century. He was the author of the concept of the free election of a king, in which every noble had an equal voting right. Thus, theoretically, it had the right to vote, active and passive(!), with several hundred thousand citizens of the Republic of Poland (in practice, the election of the king came from 10 to 40 thousand).

The right of veto was to secure the union with Lithuania. Lithuania was smaller than the Polish part of the union; it could always vote in the Sejm. Thanks to the right of veto, the Lithuanians could feel safer as a political minority. For the first time, a single veto, i.e., the vote of one deputy, broke the deliberations of the Seym only in 1652, that is, after a very long earlier period of efficient functioning of the Seym. The election instruction of the sejmik (imperative mandate), which elected a deputy to the Seym, was to guarantee the voting power of the local government.

There is no place here to analyze this system in detail, which was much more complex and effective (for at least 200 years) than the caricatures that Bodin or Montesquieu created on the basis of their ignorance and arrogance, or the ideological enemies of republican freedom, such as, Hobbes or Locke.

Let me refer you to the already available serious studies of this system, which can be found in English with Marc van Gelderen, Quentin Skinner, Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz, Edward Opaliński or Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves, as well as the latest monograph by Richard Butterwick, published by Yale UP. (Light and Flame), which perfectly analyzes what you are asking about: the crisis of the Rzeczpospolita/Res Publica system in the 18th century and its repair in the legislation of the Great Seym in 1788-1792.

ZJ: I want to return to Russia, and explore a bit more the Dostoevsky question. As we said, he was Russian, Orthodox Christian, skeptical of science, which he thought was dangerous for man’s understanding of himself as a man endowed with free will, and thus responsible for his actions. As Dostoevsky observes in Notes, the belief that man’s behavior can be “tabulated and calculated” spells out the end of mankind.

Dostoyevsky understood that scientific thinking was bound to see man as a machine, whose life will be organized by the scientific state. This is the premise of Huxley’s “brave new world,” and, let me stress it, our world. We are daily bombarded by phrases such as “A new study shows…” “New research demonstrates…” Such phrases take away from us the power of making decisions about our individual lives.

Would you agree that for historical reasons, which brought Russia closer to Europe, early 19th century Russia became a focal point of Western civilization, where the problems of the modern West shone with much brighter intensity than in Western Europe. Nowhere – not in London, Paris, Berlin or even Warsaw – writers or philosophers reacted so intensely, as did Dostoevsky, at the thought of where the West was heading.

AN: But all that fascination with Russia, the “depth” of the Russian soul, which 20th century Western European writers discovered in Dostoevsky, can also be found in the great literature of Romantic Europe: in Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński, but also in Shelley, Keats, and even earlier at Byron. The terrifying pattern of a “brave new world” can be found in the practical idea of the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.

To illustrate the relationship between the vision of horror, which Western thought was able to perfectly design, and the implementation of this vision, which was possible (for some time) only outside the West, e.g., in the authoritarian system of Russia, let me recall the history of the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham had a brother, Samuel. Together they created a project of perfect supervision of imperfect humanity. They named it the Panopticon. They created it in Krzyczew (today on the eastern border of Belarus), which was occupied by Catherine II during the first partition of Poland.

Samuel Bentham found employment, like many world reform enthusiasts, in imperial Russia. Krzyczew and several thousand surrounding square versts taken from Lithuanian owners was given by the empress to her favorite Prince Grigory Potemkin. It was for him that the English engineer invented a new factory in the fall of 1786: a building with such a system of corridors and mirrors to be able to observe all its employees from one place. It was not about disciplining simple peasants in the area, but about supervising overseers brought in from England. To have control over every movement of those who are to act as “intelligence,” “professionals,” “elite.” This is the starting idea of the Panopticon.

Jeremy Bentham, who visited his brother in Krzyczew in 1787, was fascinated. He took up his idea and turned it into a project of an ideal prison, under the same name. He was ready to develop other applications of the same idea – apart from prisons and factories, also for hospitals and schools. See and supervise everyone without interruption. The prison inspector, playing this role, could, according to a utilitarian concept, combine business with pleasure: invite guests to his gallery, from which one could admire what the supervised do at any one time. Big Brother watches, controls and provides entertainment.

A union of perfect supervision, with the ideal of social transparency was to make life happy and safe (I recommend the movie The Circle from 2017, which shows perfectly how it works – and therefore destroyed by “right” criticism). Minimum pain, maximum pleasure. In England, the idea of the Bentham brothers was not realized – at least during their lifetime. In Russia, the younger brother did not manage to bring complete the factory: Potemkin sold Krzyczew in 1787 and set out to prepare the way for Catherine II’s triumphal journey from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.

Samuel Bentham busied himself with the construction of Potemkin villages along the route. He returned to the idea of the Panopticon in 1806, when commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, he built such a school in St. Petersburg. A perfect prison according to the model of the Bentham brothers, including the US and Cuba, was only constructed with the use of electronic surveillance bracelets in Amsterdam, the capital of post-modern utility and pleasure (drugs plus euthanasia), in 2006.

ZJ: Dostoevsky’s suspicion of the West appears to be a distinguishing feature of the Russian mentality. But suspicion can translate itself into a political posture that one country assumes vis-à-vis other countries or civilizations. Suspicion can also produce a mentality which has a sense of its own of mission. Russia, like America, believes that it has a historical mission. Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who visited Russia, even prophesized that that the fate of the 20th century would be decided by Russia and America.

Let me quote here the 15th century letter by Philotheus of Pskov, which he wrote to the Grand Duke Basil III of Moscow: “The Church of Old Rome fell because of its heresy; the gates of the Second Rome, Constantinople, have been hewn down by the axes of the infidel Turks; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the New Rome, shines brighter than the Sun in the whole Universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the Third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.”

If you take the message of the letter to be an expression of a mind-set, there is Putin’s rule today, in that he sees nothing wrong with 74 years of Communist rule in Russia; he pours tears over the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster of the 20th century. Russia’s aggressive posturing under Putin appears to be more than lack of civility, or even cynicism of a former KGB agent. Russia in Putin’s mind continues to be a country with a historical mission.

Arnold Toynbee, who used this letter in a chapter on Russia in his Civilization on Trial (1948), wrote: “In thus assuming the Byzantine heritage deliberately and self-consciously, the Russians were taking over, among other things, the traditional Byzantine attitude towards the West; and this has had a profound effect on Russia’s own attitude towards the West, not only before the Revolution of 1917 but after it.”

Ultimately, it would appear that today’s world expresses the ideas that go back to the sources of our civilizations: Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity, Eastern and Western Roman Empires, two different sets of political culture, political institutions. We find the echo of it in Dostoevsky too, in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in his criticism of Caesaro-papism, don’t we?

AN: Russia is born with a sense of a threat to its civilizational identity; it defends itself against the specter of political and spiritual colonization. This is how the fundamental idea of Russia is formed: Moscow – the Third Rome. Ruthenia linked its identity with Byzantium, with the Orthodox center of civilization. In 988, at the time of Vladimir the Great’s choice of state religion for Kievan Rus, this Byzantine center seemed to be an unchallenged alternative to “Latin” identity. In the 15th century, this center collapsed.

Orthodox civilization was then the basis of identity of only one sovereign political center: Moscow. Triumphant “Latin” pressed on it from the West, and Islam from the South. If Moscow dies, all civilization will die. Civilizational violence threatens the Orthodox world primarily from the West, from the “Latin” side. Byzantium itself succumbed to the West’s temptation just before the fall, accepting the ecclesiastical union in Florence (Moscow rejects this temptation). However, at stake in this game is not only defense against civilizational violence. The fate of the world is at stake, since it is about defending not so much one civilization as such, but the only true religion and its place in the world. Philotheus, the monk of the Pskov monastery of Eleazar, writes about it, puts this thought into words and presents it as an ideal-mission addressed to the power of the Moscow principality.

Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk, by Ilya Repin, panted ca. 1880-1883.

Laid out for the first time in a message to Grand Duke Vasilii III (around 1514-1521) and elaborated in letters in the years following, the idea of Moscow – Rome III – became the best known and most frequently updated concept of Russia’s special mission from the 19th to the 21st century. Thanks to this, Philotheus can be considered the first intellectual in the history of Russia. He is not an official writing for the state.

He is, in a sense, a man from the margins (Pskov had only just joined Moscow in 1510), passionately experiencing public affairs, the affairs of his spiritual and political community and seeking to rescue it in the face of a new great “civilizational” challenge. He seeks this rescue in the sphere of ideas and suggests it to the authorities. He does not appear as an unconditional servant of this authority, but shows its immense responsibility to protect the great idea it reveals.

Philotheus also shows examples of the betrayal of this idea by the state power – in Rome I and in Rome II (Byzantium) – and the punishment of the inevitable fall that the government’s betrayal of the ideal entails. Philotheus teaches authority: “let him know… let him remember….” He sets the condition: “If you will arrange your empire well – you will be a son of light and an inhabitant of upper Jerusalem, and, as I wrote above, so now I say: beware and note that all Christian empires have joined in yours, that two Romes have fallen and the third is standing. There will be no fourth. Contrary to the widespread interpretation of this text, it seems that it is not an unequivocal expression of faith that Moscow will always remain Rome III, that it will certainly bear the burden of this responsibility. Moscow is also threatened with the “Sodom sin,” an internal apostasy warned against by the voice of a 16th-century “intellectual.”

The Soul of the Russian People, by Mikhail Nesterov, painted in 1916.

Philotheus only states that Moscow has no one to replace it, in its great mission to save the truth and the world. If it collapses – Rome will certainly not exist; there will be no more truth and justice in the world. That is why Moscow must not be allowed to fall! This is the pathos of the mission assigned by Philotheus to the Orthodox empire, and thus the pathos of his own, “first intelligence” of the mission.

Combined with Moscow’s heritage of Rome – empire, strength, and Jerusalem – is the heritage of the spirit. And against the world in which “lies in evil.” In practice, to the ”Latin” and Western world, which in the 16th century, after an internal split connected with the Reformation, and which entered the phase of great colonial expansion and became an obvious source of the problem of modernization and, at the same time, Moscow gives models and techniques for solving it. Russia needs to strengthen its empire to save its spiritual identity from the threat from the West, and thus maintain the ability to salvage/save/liberate the whole world. This is how the thought of Philoteus is read by some in intellectual circles and is not without influence on contemporary public opinion in Russia.

ZJ: Hostility, mutual suspicion between the Russians and the Poles is well known. The Polish see Russians as aggressors, the country that dismembered Poland in the 18th century, that erased the Dutchy of Warsaw in the 19th century. The Poles fought the Russians in the 1919-1920 war, after Poland regained statehood in 1918, after 123 years. Finally, it was Soviet Russia which imposed communist rule on Poland after WWII. This is only a handful of historical events that shape the attitude of the Poles toward Russia. Putin’s hostile attitude toward Poland today can be seen as the continuation of “the old story.”

However, looking at Polish-Russian relationships in a long historical perspective, one can see a different picture. If one takes into account the Polish conquest of most of White Russia and the Ukraine – in the 17th century Polish forces came close to Moscow, but were driven out. Russia can see itself not as aggressor but as a victim of Western aggression, of Western or Latin Christianity against the true Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox Church. If you add to it Napoleon’s Russian adventure, then the German invasion, the feeling of victimhood gets more augmented. One could say, Russia’s imperial posture was never motivated by the desire to dominate others but was a defensive posture, a posture that Russia had to assume to save herself and her Orthodox faith. Can such an argument on behalf of Russia be made?

AN: Yes, Russia has for centuries justified its expansion with the need to obtain a “security buffer” that would protect it against aggressive neighbors from the East and West. When Moscow began its expansion in the 15th century, it occupied a territory the size of the state of Utah. She “felt” threatened by her neighbors, such as the Tver principality or the republic of Novgorod – she absorbed these neighbors.

Then she “felt” threatened by subsequent neighbors. In the West, it was Lithuania, which was joined in the 14th century by many small principalities of Kievan Rus (today’s Ukraine and Belarus), emerging from the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde. Moscow then announced the ideology of “collecting Ruthenian lands” (which had never belonged to Moscow before).

Poland did not make any conquest of the lands of Belarus or Ukraine, but entered into a dynastic union with Lithuania in 1385 – and on this basis (the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jagiełło with the Queen of Poland, Jadwiga), a state union was established, which for four hundred years united Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including the lands of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.

During these four hundred years, Moscow had been waging a series of wars in which it had finally taken all these territories, except for a small scrap of former Russia which was occupied by Austria as a result of the partitions of Poland.

On the Kulikovo Field, by Pavel Ryzhenko, painted in 2005.

At the same time, in the East, Moscow “felt” threatened by the remnants of the Mongolian Golden Horde, the Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberian khanates – and conquered them militarily in half a century (1550-1600).

Then, of course, it was “threatened” again by successive neighbors, small khanates, in Central Asia – it took them all by the mid-19th century. It also reached China at the end of the 17th century. And she felt “threatened” by China. However, it has not managed to permanently remove this threat, that is, to conquer China.

In the South, Russia “felt,” from the 16th century, “threatened” by Turkey and Persia, so it began to conquer their possessions, including Transcaucasia – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as the Crimean Khanate on the Black Sea. It has not yet conquered Turkey itself (although that was the goal of Russian policy from the end of the 18th century). But she still “feels” threatened by Turkey. After the partition of Poland, under Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, Russia became a neighbor of Prussia. Of course, she “felt” threatened by the power of Germany united by Prussia in the times of Bismarck.

If we adopt such a logic of a threat that justifies defensive conquests only. Then let us note that from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, Russia conquered on average about 60,000 square kilometers each year, combined territories of Maryland and Massachusetts. Each year, Russia was enlarging its territory in this way for over 300 years!

Stalin, in the name of this logic, persuaded Roosevelt to agree in Tehran and Yalta to give Russia (the Soviet Union) a “security buffer” covering all of Eastern and Central Europe, including Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and including half of Berlin and Vienna. Of course, he still could not “feel” safe. Russia’s security can only mean to bring the whole of Eurasia under its control, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

You can accept this reasoning only if you see in it an analogy to the American “Manifest Destiny.” But it is worth asking the opinion of the inhabitants of all the countries that first Moscow, then imperial Russia, and finally the Soviet Union, conquered in the name of Russia’s “sense of security” and the right to “self-defense.”

ZJ: Let us talk about 1989, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Eastern European countries rushed to join the EU. Russia, on the other hand, is where it always was. For the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, the citizens of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia (former Soviet “republics”) – the motivation was not just economic but cultural above all. One could hear the language of “returning to Europe” after decades of the culturally foreign rule. What prevented Russia from getting closer to Europe after the collapse of Communism?

AN: We need to remember, Russia has formed its political and cultural identity as an Orthodox empire, in contrast, often, against Latin, that is, Catholic Europe. Under Mongol rule for two and a half centuries, it was, as it were, forcibly opened to Asia. Since the 15th century, Moscow, pursuing a policy of “collecting Ruthenian lands,” entered into intense diplomatic and trade relations with European powers: the Habsburg Empire, and the England of Elizabeth, in order to geopolitically surround its immediate neighbors.

However, Russia did not participate in the spiritual life of Europe, in the crucial period of the Renaissance. Only from the Baroque, actually from the end of the 17th century, does Russia interact with the intellectual currents animating European culture. At that time, however, Russia had already made a great march in the opposite direction to the former Asian steppe empires – from the Western end of the Great Steppe, over the Black Sea, it reached the Pacific; in the 17th century it began to border China, Korea, followed by Japan.

Such a geopolitically enlarged Russia could no longer enter Europe, “fit” in it. The intellectual challenge, often fascinatingly analyzed by Russian writers and ideologues, is not “Russia in Europe,” but “Russia and Europe.” Space – prostor – history and religion make up a deeply rooted political culture in Russia. Together they create a “mental map” on which the memory of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Pushkin’s poems or Dostoevsky’s novels is not “evidence” of Russia’s Europeanness, but a reason for imperial pride, along with the equally grateful memory of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin.

ZJ: Let me go back one more time to 1989. One thing one notices is that the 1989 European dream in Eastern European countries is gone, and to some, the dream became a nightmare. Brexit is the prime example of that. The British sentiment can be said to be this – we did not sign up for that. We did not think our sovereignty would be limited to such an extent. This is what one hears in Budapest and Warsaw.

Recently, I asked a Polish politician – what do you think of a Polish Brexit? To my surprise, he said: “Nothing would make me happier.” Let me stress – this is not a view prevalent among Poles, most of them like where they are. But there is a considerable segment of Polish society which considers it as a serious intellectual option. The reason is the sovereignty of the Polish or Hungarian state, which EU crushes – the sovereignty that Poland was deprived of, first by partition and then the Soviet rule. It should not surprise anyone why Poles (but also others) are sensitive about a bunch of Euro-bureaucrats deciding their fate. You cannot be yourself – English, Polish, French, Italian – you must be a “European,” which means being a total abstraction.

A few months ago, I saw a headline in a major Polish newspaper: “EU must defend its citizens in Poland.” The article concerned so called minorities. According to the liberal Polish newspaper, they are EU citizens and therefore, Polish laws are violations of their rights as EU citizens. One wants to repeat after Bentham, it is nonsense on stilts, yet it is the de facto European reality. Was the post-communist dream false, or did the West change in the last 30 years?

AN: Both. The expectations of the intellectual opposition in Poland towards the West were certainly exaggerated. The image of the “free world” depicted in our imagination in contrast to the gray and openly oppressive world of the “Communist camp” was idealized.

At the same time, however, it must be remembered that the West in 1989 was still the West, politically represented by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and above all – John Paul II was in Rome. Back then in Europe they referred to the so-called founding fathers of the European Union, to their Christian-democratic roots: Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman.

Marxism, after the obvious failure of this ideology in the countries under its authority, seemed finished, at least from our perspective. In 2020, you can see how Marxist inspiration fills the longest shelves with philosophy and politics in bookstores in Paris and London. As it dominates universities in Western Europe and our part of Europe, described in a postcolonial way as “new” (“new” democracies, “new” Europe, etc.), it actually follows these trends in a way that perfectly confirms the mechanisms described by some theorists of postcolonial studies.

However, part of the “intellectual layer,” and many so-called ordinary people, in countries with a strong historical and cultural identity of their own, such as Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, still keep the memory of the real experience of enslavement by the Communist logocracy, from which today comes the political correctness that dominates in the West and is imposed on us. That is why this new enslavement, this time coming from the West, is met with some resistance here.

However, fears of the real neo-imperialism of Putin’s Russia do not allow countries, such as Poland or Lithuania, to suddenly cut off from the European community, even in its present, disastrous shape. We can try to change Europe, stop this fatal process from within. This is what worries the Brussels, Parisian and Berlin political and intellectual elites. They ascribe to themselves the role of teacher and therapist for a “backward,” “sick” part of Europe (here the most frequently mentioned are Hungary and Poland).

In fact, I see in this attitude also a deep fear that the attitude of the elites currently ruling in Poland and Hungary, in matters of culture, customs, understanding of the European tradition – may turn out to be attractive to many Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards – who do not necessarily want to run after the “bright future” promised by European progress officials. Many European people are looking to defend their common sense against ideological madness. Some people recall that Europe has always been rich because of its diversity and not of top-down centralization, and not by exchanging arguments about the good life, development models, and not by imposing “just the right approach.”

ZJ: What you have said makes me think of a famous sentence from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859): “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting the end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.”

Unlike democracy, despotism or autocracy, with which we associate the Orient and Russia, is not a political system or a theory of government. Rather, it is mode of governing a people. As a specialist on Russia, can you say that Mill’s words apply well to the state of Russian society at that time? In other words, is autocracy a system of government – the only force that could guarantee social and political order?

AN: I would disagree. Aleksander Wat, a Polish futurist poet who passed through nearly 20 prisons of Stalinist Russia during World War II, once gave a very good definition of the Soviet system – the absolute concentration of absolute power on an absolutely large area. An alternative to despotism (i.e., centralism) may be federalism – the development of regional self-government in a territorially large state.

Let me remind you that until the beginning of the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian state was larger in terms of territory than Moscow and until the partitions (in 1772) it was the second largest state on the European continent. And it was on such a large area that a system of decentralized authority was created, based on local self-government (district councils), which functioned well from at least the 15th to the 17th century.

As is known in the United States, this system continues. In Moscow, they also showed possibilities of developing a system of representation of the society several times: at the beginning of the 17th century, in the form of the so-called “earthly councils.” The movement of local, that is, earthly self-government, became strong again at the end of the 19th century – this is the self-government in which people like Chekhov and the heroes of his plays could find their place.

The defenders of despotism as the only recipe for the problems of the great state refer to one argument above all: if we do not have a tsar and we do not listen to him – then we will lose the empire. Putin successfully appealed to this argument after the last great experience of the crisis of the empire, which also coincided with the revival of Russian self-government – in 1991.

Ultimately, the dilemma faced by the supporters of this power for Russians (and not only for them) is – either size (grandezza as Machiavelli would say), or freedom – a liberta. You want greatness, give up your (republican, self-governing) freedom. At the same time, a new tone appears in this argumentation – state despotism (meaning the lack of civil self-government) can be reconciled with liberalism – economic and the right to privacy.

In the Russian philosophical tradition of Slavicism, there is such a contrast – the state is a heavy-duty power – and society willingly gives its burden to the people of power, and itself enjoys non-political freedom. And this is probably not only the Russian tradition, but the constantly reviving temptation to organize political life without citizens. There is only the state (and its guardians) – and on the other end – individual consumers.

ZJ: Could one say the same thing about China, and the Chinese leaders’ rhetoric that we have been hearing for about 20 years – that what China fears the most is anarchy. Ergo, the Chinese Communist Party is the sole guardian of social order; and since anarchy is worse than anything, despotism or autocracy is a legitimate way of governing the population. Some 15 years ago, Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Spectator, where he accepted this view about anarchy in China, which makes me think that Chinese rhetoric works. Today Johnson is Prime minister, and what he thinks can translate into his country’s foreign policy.

AN: China has just adopted the model I outlined at the end of the answer to the previous question. Does this mean that it is the only model that suits the Chinese? After an intense indoctrination lasting for generations, one can get this impression. The Chinese from Hong Kong have a different opinion, however.

Please allow me to express my opinion on Prime Minister Johnson’s view and on Mill’s remark earlier cited. Well, I see them as a reflection of the imperial-colonial tradition, especially strong in the English (later also American) elites. Outside of Great Britain, and maybe even outside the club, which brings together the elite from Eton and Oxbridge, there are actually no gentlemen. There are barbarians all around – at least to the East of Germany are surely the habitats of barbaria. The barbarians living there can be cannibals, if that suits them, we – gentlemen from the club – will not hinder trading with them.

The most cynical example of this attitude I found in the liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, who in 1920, when he initiated political negotiations with Lenin, said that he did not care about the political principles of these barbarians, let them even have the Mikado – it is their business, as long as they kill other barbarians (this is what Lloyd George meant about the Armia Czerowna – the Red Army – which at that moment was storming Warsaw). And let them get together as they please – this is their freedom. And this is our liberalism that we will not impose our political standards on them. We must reach an agreement with them, if they are so strong that without them it is impossible to establish a global order. This is a specific combination of liberalism (à la Lloyd George) and imperial Realpolitik.

In America, this is the approach of many – formerly Henry Kissinger, now John Mearsheimer. For me, this is a very short-sighted doctrine of appeasement – the false hope that aggressive despotism will feed on victims only from the circle of “barbarians.” Eventually, however, comes the moment when the “barbarians” start eating the gentlemen. Such is the logic of despotic empires. It is perfectly summarized by the saying of Bezborodko, Chancellor of Catherine II – what does not grow, rots. The despotic empire must continue to expand – otherwise it risks imploding. And they know this very well not only in Russia, but also in China. It is good that this has also been remembered in London and Chicago.

ZJ: Now that the Democrat Biden has become president of the United States, we will have a different foreign policy. If you were on the team of Russia advisers to the president, what would you say should be the US policy vis-à-vis Russia?

AN: President Biden will have other advisers. I can only express some concerns based on the historical experience with the presidents of the United States, who over the past three decades came from the Democratic Party and represented a left-liberal ideology. They were, let me remind you, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.

The former started with dreams of a “reset” with Russia. Fortunately, Russia was so weak during this period that it could not take advantage of this policy. The disaster happened under Obama, who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria on his hands. His complete irresponsibility led to an escalation of the civil war and to the re-installing of Putin’s Russia as a key player in the Middle East.

Obama also made a significant gesture to Putin – he resigned from the project adopted by the previous administration (Bush Jr.) to install the so-called anti-missile shield in Poland. President Obama announced his decision to withdraw from this project, which was indeed very irritating to Putin and which strengthened the sense of security for Poland and the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe, on September 17, 2009. It was exactly the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

Putin may have felt invited to a new expansion – and he tried it in Ukraine. At that time, however, President Obama was probably instructed by people who knew the rules of world security better than him – and there was a certain reaction to the aggression in Crimea, and then in the Donbas.

What am I afraid of? That under the slogan of the fight for a “brave new world,” led again by liberal America, the US president will not recognize that it is not good stigmatizing smaller countries that do not accept this ideology and handing them over to Russia as “pariahs of the democratic order.” It does not have to be democratic or liberal, but it is very important to this vision of “restoring order” that it be fulfilled by restoring its former zone of domination (Ukraine? Maybe Poland? Maybe most of Central and Eastern Europe?).

In short, I am afraid of combining the slogans of the ideological “crusade” (actually, anti-crusade) inside the so-called Western community, understood as a community of LGBTQ+ rights and unlimited abortion – with a practical policy of the so-called realism in relations with non-Western empires such as Russia. The costs of such a policy would be paid primarily by the countries of the inter-imperial border, such as Poland, Lithuania, or – on the border with China – Korea and Taiwan.

ZJ: Given what you said about Russia and China, it seems to me to be only proper to invoke here two Frenchmen. In the 1830, they embarked on long trips in two different directions – Alexis de Tocqueville went to America; Marquis de Custine went to Russia.

Not much was known about the two countries. Before Tocqueville published his book, there were, I believe, only three or four books about America. Tocqueville’s and his young companion Beaumont’s books were the first ones to offer an exhaustive view of both the country and, above all, American democracy.

De Custine, on the other hand, was looking for an alternative to democracy. For Custine, in the words of Robin Buss, the English translator and editor of his Letters, “democracy meant mob rule and the dictatorship of public opinion, through rabble-rousing speeches and the press.” Encouraged by his friend Balzac and the Polish Count Ignacy Gurowski, he set out for Russia.

The fruit of his visit is Russia (1839), or The Letters from Russia.
By today’s standards, Tocqueville’s book is an international bestseller, and everyone who wants to understand democracy must read it. Given its success in the 20th century, the popularity of Tocqueville’s work is not surprising. However, the 21st century is different.

The rise of China with its autocratic style of government should be of concern to everyone. Russian democracy is a democracy in name only; for all intents and purposes it is a mild form of old autocracy. The difference between it and China is that the Chinese rulers do not hide their contempt for democracy, Xi Jing Ping openly says that the system is a failure. Both leaders share two things – the respective countries’ tradition of autocratic rule (strengthened in the 20th century by the experience of Communism) and the belief that only autocratic rule is capable of preventing a country from sliding into anarchy.

Would you agree that given democracy’s current performance in America and Europe, there is every reason to read de Custine’s account.

AN: People knew quite a lot about Russia in France before de Custine. Let us recall, for example, that the French Grand Army visited Russia in 1812, and two years later France was “returned” by the Russian army (Normandy was a Russian occupation zone for two years). A lot of arguments have already been gathered, both on the side of Russophobia and Russophilia.

The first French treaty stigmatizing the Russian political system as oriental despotism was published in 1771. It was written by Abbé Chappe d’Auteroche who visited Siberia (voluntarily), and Catherine II herself replied to him with a two-volume refutation of his arguments (I write about it at length in my recent book, entitled, Metamorphoses of the Russian Empire 1721-1921). This work, published immediately in French under the title Antidote and translated into English, was not only the defense of Russia’s right to the name of a European power, but also the justification of the autocracy.

As I argue in this book, in such a huge country as Russia, another form of power would lead to disintegration. The Russian system is not despotic, but a noble, enlightened absolutism, motivated by concern for the greatness of the state and the welfare of its subjects. So much for Catherine the Great. And it is so today, until the time of Putin’s apologists.

These arguments excellently convinced the French elite (and not only them). After all, Montesquieu said the same – this is why we should refer to de Custine’s work, because it helps us understand that the nature of the Russian despotic system is not autocracy itself, but above all lies, systematic, omnipresent, gradually disturbing cognitive abilities. The lie of the subjects against the authorities, the lie of the authorities against the subjects, and the systematic lie of the power of the Empire against its foreign partners.

No partner is actually a partner; each one is treated as an enemy to be deceived and manipulated. The KGB school, from which most of Russia’s current political elite hails, has raised this ability to lie to an incomparably higher degree than was possible in the days of Nicholas I and de Custine.

The contradiction of the various “narratives” that this Russian rule presents about itself is staggering. For the right wing, Putin is to be the “eschaton” of the Christian order, the last defender of the Cross against neo-paganism and Islam. For the Left (the propaganda of the Russia Today television station is addressed to this audience) – the last tough opponent of hated America, to some extent heir to Lenin’s Russia. For Western businessmen – a model of a good business partner. And so on. Whoever reads de Custine will understand the genesis of these narratives.

ZJ: Russia is not the only country that created national myths, such as the Third Rome. Other nations have this tendency too: Rule Britannia, the City on the Hill, the Third Reich, and many, many others.

The Poles – very much like the French – are obsessed with national history. They created a myth which is not about ruling the world but saving the Western World from barbarian onslaught. It is the myth of the antemurale chirstianitatis, the Bulwark of Christianity. The origin of it is not Polish. As far as I know, it was coined in 15th century, during the papacy of Pius II. It was Skadenberg, an Albanian Nobleman, who coined the term, which meant that Albania (and Croatia) was Italy’s Christian bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. Poles adopted it; it functions in Poland, but in Poland it means more than the fight against the Muslims or infidels at the battle of Vienna on September 11 (!) 1683, where the Poles defeated the Turks.
It is understood as antemurale against the East, Orient, the oriental despotism. It includes Russia as a barbarian force as well. Given the Christian (Orthodox) nature of Russia, is this historical vision justified; and using it against Eastern Orthodoxy, are we not in danger of creating a false historical imagination?

AN: I do not know if Poles are “obsessed” with national history. I have a different impression when I look at the youth which is protesting today in the streets of Polish cities with the most vulgar words, to emphasize their hatred for the Catholic Church, Christian tradition and the historical identity of Poland.

Let me make a comment on this issue. It is difficult, for example, for Belgium to be “obsessed” with its history, since it was created as a completely artificial state entity less than 200 years ago. It is difficult for Germany to express “obsession with history,” that is pride in its tradition, for obvious reasons. Simply put, nations have different histories, of different lengths, and different intensity as to how this history is experienced by social groups of different sizes. No one matches China in this respect. When you compare Poles with Jews, the Jews will undoubtedly turn out to be a nation much more “obsessed with their history.”

And now about the “bulwark of Christianity.” Again – a complete misunderstanding. The idea of a bulwark appears in Polish history in 1241 – during the great Mongol invasion. After the conquest of Ruthenia (Kievan Rus’ or Ruthenia!!! – not Russia), the Mongols moved to Hungary and Poland. On April 9, 1241, the prince of Poland, Henry the Pious blocked the way of the Mongols near Legnica. He led about 7000 – 8000 Polish and German knights, including 36 Templars. The prince was killed, the battle was lost, but the Mongols, having suffered heavy losses (similar to the parallel battle fought in Hungary), turned back.

The mood in Latin Europe at that time was truly apocalyptic. The fear of the Mongols as invaders from a completely different, completely alien world, as if of an invasion of the Martians, paralyzed the will of defense in many, but fired the imagination of no fewer people in the Latin West. Part of the Jewish communities scattered around the cities of the Reich were very excited about the news of the mysterious approaching Mongols. The Jews waited for liberation in the year of 5000 (1240/1241), which was exactly at this time on their calendar. There were also those who expected such liberation to come from the hands of the Mongols. In fact, some even saw in Genghis Khan the Messiah, the son of David.

After the defeat in Legnica, the echoes quickly reached even out to Frankfurt am Main, where the local Jews in May opposed with unprecedented audacity the baptism of one of their fellow believers who had freely chosen Christianity. It ended on May 24 with a terrible pogrom, which brought upon the Jews the fear of the Frankfurters and rumors of favoring the wild invaders from the East by the followers of Moses. The threatened rulers, including the Hungarian king Béla IV, the Czech king Wenceslaus I, Prince Frederick of Austria, and the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen himself, in letters, called for defense against the Mongols.

This was the context in which in Poland, Henryk the Pious, Legnica appeared, the heroic but lost fight on the Eastern fringes of the empire and Latin Europe. And this was the beginning of not only a myth, but a practical experience, the last (thus far) military act which, in Poland, is considered as having stopped the invasion of Central Europe by the Bolshevik Red Army in the summer of 1920, in the Battle of Warsaw. Legnica 1241 was most often mentioned in the journalism of the time. Will new experiences be added to this in the 21st century? I do not know, but I do not rule it out.

ZJ: Allow me to finish this conversation with a question which has been on my mind for many years. At the beginning of the 1990s, Poles coined the word “lustracja” (from the word “lustro,” mirror) which means “mirroring.” It is a made-up term that describes the process of making former communists, State apparatchiks, secret agents and collaborators accountable for their participation in building socialism.
In the post-communist societies people who did not support socialism, who suffered, who were persecuted or prevented from social advancement felt it necessary to expose those who upheld the system, who held power at the expense of the people who refused to participate in the Great Lie.

It was a form of showing the former commies and collaborators that their participation in the system was simply a matter of human indecency.

Unlike Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia have never undergone such a process – no moral or legal punishment for the former communists and collaborators. The old communists and collaborators, KGB agents, like Putin, became the lords of the New Russia. No such thing would be imaginable in Soviet satellite countries.

In your expert opinion, first, how significant has been the lack of “lustration” for the moral health of Russia, and, second, did the Russians realize what Communism did to Russia?

AN: The importance of this issue was best described by James Billington, an outstanding scholar of Russian thought and culture, in his book Russia in Search of Itself. Let me quote a key excerpt from the summary of this book: “There are essentially four ways that a nation can move beyond the fact of massive complicity in unprecedented evil. 1. Remove the problem from public consciousness. 2. Transfer the burden of evil to others. 3 . Evade the problem of evil in society by creating a noble personal philosophy for an elite. 4. Overcome evil by accepting the redemptive power of innocent suffering.”

This book was published in 2004. In 2020, it can be said that the official policy of remembrance in Putin’s Russia is a combination of the first two attitudes. The attitude most consistent with the Christian, Orthodox tradition, listed as the fourth in this list, has been marginalized.

As early as 2004, Billington was able to accurately pinpoint the cause of this state of affairs: “What is missing for this fact to open up broader redemptive possibilities for the Russian people is accountability, or even searching self-scrutiny, on the part of the Church itself.”

I am sorry to note that the lack of full accountability in a part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Poland, for the cooperative spying of a small minority of priests with the communist police system in 1945-1989, also brings poisoned fruit into my country, Poland.

ZJ: Do you see any similarities between this and participating in all kinds of PC projects today – which is all morally questionable? Many people in the West, especially in academia, sold themselves to the Devil for the same reason that communists of old did. They are willing to justify today’s injustice in the name of future benefits. I am afraid, they, like the former commies will wake up from their dream of the better world, where all are equal and happy – very disappointed.

AN: Conformism, the lack of civil courage, is the most important, established and widespread feature of academia, at least in the humanities and social sciences. The ideology of “emancipation,” which today is the main instrument of the degradation of these areas, works – in my opinion – on a slightly different principle than you presented in your question.

In fact, under the lofty slogans of redressing past wrongs (towards women, animals, sexual minorities, and countries once colonized), professors of sociology, English studies, philosophy, political science, history and similar fields (displaced by new, more politically correct combinations) are ruthlessly fighting for their particular, current interests – for survival in a ruthless struggle. Survival of the fittest – this is the reality of this essentially amoral struggle, in which the stakes are a professorship, appearing on television, or the role of a social media star – and the alternative is the loss of a job, or experience of attacks by the media and environmental campaigns.

Adapt to the ideology currently imposed by the big media and their disposers – this is the method of survival. This is how the cultural revolution unfolds, more and more like the one that swept through China under Mao Zedong. Anyone who does not want the media and groups of students manipulated by it – to put on a “hat of shame” (as was done in China) – must join in stigmatizing colleagues who are still defending themselves against such degradation.

There is no labor camp waiting for them yet, but it is becoming more and more real to hand over those who still have the courage to think “incorrectly” to therapy, into the hands of therapists who will, anyway, remove “wrong” thoughts, concepts, and memories from their defiant heads. .

Probably no one has described the attitudes of intellectuals subjected to terror and the temptation to justify their cowardice better than the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in his book, The Captive Mind. It is a book written in 1951 about the Polish intelligentsia conquered by the Stalinist diamat (dialectical materialism). This is also a book about the situation today at American and European universities. It is worth reading again.”

ZJ: Thank you, Dr. Nowak for this enlightening conversation.

The image shows, “Introduction of Christianity in Poland,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1889.

Part III – The Schism: “We The People,” The American Crisis, And The Great Reset

This is Part III of a series of three: Part I and Part II.


Introduction

In our final treatment of “We The People,” who they are and are not, and the fissures among them, we confront a problem that not only has grown over the last five years, but one whose gravity has markedly increased since this analysis began two months ago.

The problem I speak of is the rift between the American People. This schism explains both the Coronavirus reaction and the fallout of the November vote. It must be understood in the context of a much larger shift happening in Western history.

Developments

The situation is critical. As this essay goes to press the 50 American states are more or less in the static condition of early April. The novelty of an unexpected world vacation has worn off, so has the fun of library Zoom presentations; “the show must go on” mood of classes thrown online en masse has been replaced with wearisome guessing as to when schools will go into their next two or three week shutdown. What remains, indeed what increases, is the anxiety and anger of watching one’s personal and communal stability torn down by barristers, computer programmers, and John Rockefeller’s sort of doctors.

On top of this testiness we have seen the Democratic Party (DNC) steal the November vote. Hundreds of thousands of digitally tallied Biden votes appearing in the middle of the night is a big pill to swallow, it’s almost as big a pill as several hundred thousand more votes dropping minutes later onto digital tallies; paper shredding trucks showing up at polling sites in broad daylight were bold, almost as bold as boarding up the windows when election monitors showed up.

The dead were not only remembered on the altars of America this November, but thanks to DNC employees, their memory was kept alive in the polling booth as well. Mitch McConnell had the tar beat out of him days before the election lest he be persuaded to fuss over the coming con, and Emily Murphy of the General services Administration reported “thousands” of threats she received to prematurely open up Federal funds for Biden’s transition team.

This bold, brazen, even comically obvious swindle ought not matter to a literate public. As we’ve learned in this series, after all, the vote of early November is advisory. The Electoral College and the Electoral College alone chooses the President; in no way, shape, or form does the November opinion survey of America’s 14th Amendment citizens bind December’s bloodline Electors to a decision. The meeting of the College is neither an archaic boilerplate in the American system nor a “ratification” of a state’s popular vote. The decision of the College is sovereign.

The late voting stunt, however, becomes serious in light of popular perception. Always in a working relationship, the DNC organization has confederated with broadcast media to assert Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, once and present members of the Bar Association respectively, to be President and Vice President of these United States. The fawning of the Washington press corp and the coverage of nightly news shows is plain evidence of this relationship. Fox’s John Roberts took biased reporting into gaslighting territory this past October 1 by asking Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany a question on racism immediately after receiving a comprehensive answer to the same question he asked moments before.

Time will tell what’s to become of the Trump Administration. The members of the Electoral College do not meet until December 14, after the publication of this essay. Like the British People of the Crown Corporation whom their granddaddies replaced, the present American People are content to let the pop media spin whatever story it wants to. They keep their cards close to their chests. CNN can twitter and smirk as it pleases, Joe Biden can jog on all the stages he wants, and Barrister Harris can dance to Beyonce all night long, come mid-December the Electors alone matter.

Perception

We return to the topic of public perception, however. Much hinges on this point. The Trump Administration must vindicate its claims of fraud in the courts. If it fails to do this but wins the College they will not only be dogged by charges stealing the Presidency, but worse things will be in the offing. If the College, the bloodline People, elect Donald Trump but if he does not absolutely and finally expose and prosecute the Democrat’s fraud in court – mind you, this is a route which is possible and lawful, and for all the trouble it saves, deliciously tempting – then the DNC and broadcast media will instigate a violent reaction.

There is no doubt this will happen. They have spent the better part of a year hinting at this very thing. And this will not be violence of the mass shooting and racial protest sort, limited and controlled events with intelligence fingerprints all over them, events that are turned on and off at will. No, the DNC will split the state’s armed hirelings, the People’s police and military forces.

If the past four years tell us anything, indeed if Rudy Giuliani’s ongoing defense is an indication, the Trump Administration will flop in this necessary task. They will continue to let opportunities slip through their fingers (e.g., Bobulinksi at the final debate), they will continue to embrace the wrong people (e.g., Mike Pompeo) and alienate the right ones (e.g., Sidney Powell), they will continue trying the same media “hack” of 2016 (e.g., call the press out as liars, appeal to the public directly via social media). This last point was genius at the time, but its sun has set.

Like the scheming court eunuchs in whose footsteps they tread, mainstream media have well provided against another like 2016. Their strategy now is to smile, declare Biden the winner, and keep smiling and declaring him such no matter what. Adonijah, eat your heart out (1 Kgs. 1). Because Trump’s men will flop on the point about the vote, it will mean bloodletting, if the election is successful for them.

Civil strife is a narrative which has been seeded in the media for some time. Last December, for example, The Atlantic dedicated an entire issue to, “How to stop a civil war.” I dare say no one was thinking of civil war. It was predictive programming. So too was the spate of present and retired military men who came out against Trump during the height of the rioting this past spring. Similar programming was seen in Gavin Newsome’s calling California a “nation-state,” as was his Auntie Nancy [Pelosi] and her words on the 25th Amendment, her having spoken to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and her having “arrows in my quiver.”

Russian Dolls

We can go on in secula seculorum about what might happen, but between last month’s piece and this update, let us move on to the meat of the matter; let us move on to our final and most incisive probe into the split amongst the People. In brief, now that we know the People are the bloodline descendants of the Founding Fathers, and now that we know these united States exist under their sole control and for their sole benefit, and now that we have palpitated a fissure amongst them which helps explain the accentuated tensions of the last five years, let us conclude our examination reprising our historical analysis.

We will place the present political situation within the COVID saga, seeing how the Coronavirus reaction itself is merely a piece of the Technocrats’ “Great Reset.” To do this we will start at the end, the so-called Great Reset.

The Great Reset

In the June 2020 publication COVID-19: The Great Reset stockjobber Thierry Mallet and jetsetting gombeen man Klaus Schwab laid out how Technocrats mean to mold an effeminate Liberal West towards their end. In the book they lay out a world which is so altered by Coronavirus that some have taken to calling ours an epoch “BC” (before COVID) and “AC” (after COVID).

Though it lacked any spiritual or cultural insights, their critique of the moribund West contains some gems, some sensible points which readers of this site will likely agree with. Those with a touch for the delicacy of culture, for example, can only agree with their statement spoken in an economic context, “This new culture of immediacy, obsessed with speed, is apparent in all aspects of our lives, from ‘just-in-time’ supply chains to ‘high-frequency’ trading, from speed dating to fast food. It is so pervasive that some pundits call this new phenomenon the ‘dictatorship of urgency.’”

The Great Reset is an umbrella term for a number of reordered social relationships. The index of COVID-19: The Great Reset speaks of changes in the spheres of social contract, global government, pollution, time, and mental health. Their “stakeholder capitalism” seems to be a reworking of Adam Smith of the computer age. Always do they use the word “reset”; their vision of life is that of a coder.

What matters for our discussion are not the specifics of their plan, nor do we concern ourselves with the morality of continuing to scare people with a dubiously virulent disease. We will not waste our time on couldas, shouldas, and oughtas; we only care about what is. And what is at this moment is the fact that Messrs. Mallet and Schwab and their sort are in a position to implement their planned society. As they write in The Great Reset, “The broader point is this, the possibilities for change and the resulting new order are now unlimited and only bound by our imagination.”

One of the aspects of the Liberal nation-state was the concept of the “public space,” a means by which every interest in society could be taken to account. The public space was supposed to provide a safety mechanism against the very schemes openly published in COVID-1 . If everyone in society ceded some of their freedom to the state, the philosophes argued, the public space would in a sense have more aggregate power than any single interest in society, or even any combination of interests.

This has been undermined to meaninglessness. Things like the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, where occulted realities like corporate “personhood” became widely known, were a preview of coming attractions. The fearsome Trans-Pacific Partnership was barely beaten back in 2017. It showed just how dilapidated the Liberal state had become prior to COVID, how evenly matched the power of business has become. And while it seems petty, the fact the companies like Twitter can censor the President itself shows the ability of companies to overpower states. When it comes to the People’s states and the Technocrats businesses, the People are backing up.

The Davos boys are assisted, of course, by a rank further down on the Technocrat totem pole. This station is filled by the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerburg. These are lesser actors; their folksy first names tip their hats to their smarminess.

Did we learn nothing of con artistry from “Fannie Mae” and “Fredie Mac?” Their motivations are more pecuniary than Schwab and Mallet, less inclined towards Victor Hugo-like reveries about the future. Second fiddle to the Davos clique, they represent the lower approaches of a business sector which now rivals the nation-state in terms of the resources it is able to muster.

Corona In Context

Working our way backwards, having sketched the Great Reset, we place the Coronavirus disruptions in context. The virility of the disease has greatly waned; our worst fears from March have come to naught. What deaths come from COVID as soon arise from inappropriate treatments such as ventilators as the pathogen itself. Indeed, one of the satisfactions of 2020 is watching the modern military apparatus fail so fully. With Isaiah (cf. 14:16) we laugh at those monsters who develop diseases in places like Wuhan, “Are these the men that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms?” The masters of war are not so masterful after all.

Nevertheless, the powers that be behind the Agenda, of which in truth the “Great Reset” is only one slickly marketed part of many, unexpectedly found COVID to be the perfect multitool for nigh on every plan of theirs. Cashless society, check; travel restrictions, check; education reduced to the naked collection of data, check; further fracturing of society (e.g., young vs. old, masked vs. faced), check; evisceration of small business, growth of conglomerates, check; vaccines, vaccines, vaccines, check and check.

The powers that be may have discovered COVID to be a perfect tool, but certain of them predicted, even planned, the reaction of this so-called pandemic. Those inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Mallet and Schwab’s assertion that Coronavirus is a “white swan” event, a happening which is certain, measurable, and ultimately blamed on human error, will temper their generosity in remembering the collaboration of the World Economic Forum with the Gates Foundation in staging the Event 201 workshop in October of 2019.

Rats’ Scramble

The Liberal nation-state is dead. It died long ago. In my own America, the national government established in 1787, what most men rightly or wrongly hold to be the fulfillment of the struggle concluded in 1781, itself ceased to exist in December of 1860. What was erected at the time of our Secession Crisis, and what has masqueraded as that united States government until this writing is merely an ad hoc corporation called the UNITED STATES (n.b., remember from Part I, legal capitalization has a meaning).

Throughout the 20th and 21st Century the reality of this shift from law to administration has come increasingly to the fore. Take five minutes on beleaguered Emily Murphy’s GSA website and you will clearly see the commercial nature of the UNITED STATES organization.

One of the reasons the Biden’s bogus vote is not especially upsetting is because the DNC’s crime, when placed in the context of the post-1860 UNITED STATES lie, seems almost inevitable. Things had to end up here. Of course, a presidential vote would eventually be stolen in broad daylight. What’s built on lies will end in lies.

Putting the American situation within the context of the Coronavirus fallout, and Corona within that of the rising order, we see that a minority – perhaps a third – of the bloodline People have thrown in their lot with the Technocrats. I guess this rough percentage based on the significant through not irresistible power which this clique has been able to leverage in the pop media and in coordinated events like the November swindle.

Unless Liberals get their act together these feckless People, these one-third of defectors from their ranks, cannot be faulted for jumping ship. They are only doing what the People of Rome and the People of the Enlightenment did in their turns. The deciding factor behind the Senator’s and the Equites’ occasional realignment, and the deciding factor forging the shopkeepers, barristers, and bankers who became the various Peoples of the Liberal nation-states into a political caste, was self-interest. (As an aside, the rise of the Medieval Christian order, a shift which occurred between those of Rome and the Enlightenment, did not come about by such machinations).

Why should the present turncoat People be pilloried for making the same decision as the Equites in the 1st Century BC and the middle class in the 18th Century AD? The Roman Patricians did not take their system seriously, they would not have developed their “bread and circus,” “client-patron” system if they did. If the Senators did not take themselves seriously why should the shut-out Equites have done so? Early Modern churchmen and nobles did not take their order seriously, there would not have been religious wars and an upstart banking power if they did.

If the First and Second Estates of the Early Modern period did not regard their system why should shut-out shopkeepers prove any more loyal? Hear me well. I’d not be wanting to wake up to Gretchen Witmar and her crazy eyes any time soon, and I’ll not be jogging with Joe Biden on any stages, and I don’t trust Attorney Andrew Cuomo or Attorney Gavin Newson or Attorney Lori Lightfoot any farther than I can throw them. Howsoever, is it any wonder these lightweights prove disloyal to a Liberal order which does not take itself seriously?

Perhaps it is nostalgia which blinds us. In some ways the Liberal order is a beautiful vision. In some ways it improved over the Early Modern order. It was more receptive to social, economic, and philosophical changes which were in motion since the Late Medieval period, these were changes which the old order refused to acknowledge even into the 19th Century. But in the face of a Technocracy which nakedly does not believe in freedom of speech, human rationality, nor the autonomy of men, the inheritors of the Liberal order, the bloodline Posterity of the Founding Fathers, themselves barely believe these things.

COVID is buckling a half-hearted Liberal system. Like Pope’s drowsy troops at Chancellorsville, the rulers of Enlightenment states have been caught unawares; flanked by insurgent Technocracy throbbing with money, ideology, and vision, a good lot of the lukewarm People have decided for the Technocracy. Have you not detected lukewarmness in your civil servants? Mentioned above is the admiralty system, a statutory structure which masquerades as law. This would never have been tolerated over the last century if men who believed in the Enlightenment were in charge.

o this list of shame, we add the Liberal concept of a published law code. The point of this was to make law accessible to the common man. This too has turned absurd. Every legal word has been redefined; nobody can make sense of what lawyers say. Woe to fool who assumes his definitions are the definitions of barristers.

Beyond the words themselves, law codes, which were supposed to be brief tracts the builder or weaver or farmer could consult at need, have turned into mammoth publications of hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of pages. Are there not commonly found men in the Liberal nation-states called accountants whose entire avocation in life is to digest tax codes? An infamous example of codes-run-wild concerns the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Running to nearly 1,000 pages, Nancy Pelosi was giving good advice when she infamously said the Senate needed to, “Pass the bill to find out what’s in it.”

Lastly, the Liberal’s shocking and effective levee en masse burst onto the scene in the summer of 1793. What has this become of their armies 200 years later. As the likes of Blackwater, and the fee schedules of their regular armies attest, the forces of the Enlightenment have degenerated into bands of hirelings as craven as any Medieval stereotype.

The Choice

Between the two, between a decomposing Liberal order and the rising Technocracy, head and shoulders the Liberal system is preferable. At least it nominally provides for dissent and organization. Whilst 1776 is about 1776 years off from the Solution to our crisis, it provides a damn sight more to build with than Silicon Valley’s nightmare.

A revivification of the better aspects of Liberalism – free speech, an informed and self-employed citizenry, the abolition of admiralty administration and the exaltation of actual law – these are powerful dynamics to strive for. A man can be proud to leave such a legacy to his son. And if the Continental Congress runs a harsh and hypocritical government, it is not as cruel as what Davos has cooked up.

If you think Thomas Hobbes is a bad overseer, take a look at Bill Gates. In the interest of realism, in light of the desperation of the moment, at least for the moment we must use what’s left of the Liberal order to build from. It is pointless to speak about libertarianism, or Islam, or monarchy as systems to build. It is the eleventh hour and we must use what we already have, and that is the Enlightenment.

A significant minority of the bloodline People, both in America and across the world, are realigning with the rising Technocrats. This shift is behind America’s political chaos, it is behind the Coronavirus overreactions, and it is behind the popularization of the Great Reset.

At this hour, everything hangs on one question: has the Technocrats’ Agenda, an Agenda whose skids were greased by a century of Liberal compromise and cant, incorporated an irresistible number of people into itself? Have the last decades of Enlightenment compromise positioned so many men into jobs, and bank accounts, and social security numbers, and registrations that serious mass organization against the Great Reset is impossible?

We may jabber in protest about credit scores, contact tracing, and digital persons, but the fleshpots of Egypt are yummy, and their beds are soft. As a new Technocratic People asserts themselves on the ashes of the old Liberal People, with enough recruits to the former from the latter to make a type of apostolic succession plausible, time will tell if discontent over the vote, over COVID, over the Great Reset will manifest itself. One way or another a new chapter begins for We The People.


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 image shows, “Tribute to the American Working People,” by Honoré Sharrer, painted in 1956-1951.

Art And The Beauty Of The World: A Conversation With Mark Stocker

It is indeed a high privilege to present this interview with Dr. Mark Stocker, the voraciously productive art historian. Readers of the Postil will know Dr. Stocker from the varied ramblings and amusements that he has been offering in these pages. Therefore, it is great delight to have him speak of his real work, his true métier, which is art. He is being interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski whom our readers also know well. Dr Stocker is the author of over 230 publications, including 10 books and edited books. His latest one, When Britain Went Decimal: the Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021. His extensive research interests include Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Mark did his History of Art degree many years ago at King’s College, Cambridge, but firmly denies being either a spy or even a King’s leftie.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): I would like to begin this conversation by reading to you an incident from Leszek Kolakowski’s “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” (published in his My Correct Views on Everything, 2005).

“In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment – no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost – he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative ‘thaw,’ and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters – Matisse, Cézanne, Braque, and others.’ And, he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha.’”

To someone who lives in the West – unless you happen to be a student of Communism or Russia – what Kolakowski says may sound surreal. But what is going on in the US – the destruction of monuments, removal of paintings and sculptures, suspension of purchases of European art by American museums, purchases of minority art, changing names of buildings and streets – is all too familiar and brings to mind the feeling of déja vu. What is your reaction to Kolakowski’s story; and do you see parallels between it and what is going on today?

Mark Stocker (MS): My reaction is to laugh in order not to cry. The 1950 response is chillingly reminiscent of the notorious Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition – this is of course one of many resemblances between different forms of totalitarianism. Not for the first time, I feel compelled to ask “What’s the difference?” The convenient change of party line by 1957 is a step in the right direction in at least having such art on display, but the same man is suffering from convenient memory loss.

Before I go on to answer your question, I would like nonetheless to put in a plea for not suppressing the “official art” of that time. In this period, art school training in Eastern European countries continued on precisely the traditional lines, valuing technique and crafting, that you and I both admire. I remember being quite moved by a collection presented to a New Zealand art gallery by the Soviet Institute of Cultural Affairs over 50 years ago. No, I am not a “useful idiot.” I believe that however admirable or repellent the regime, art has a life of its own and should not be lazily written off in a determinist way.

To answer your question, I think there is still a way to go before we reach the parlous and risible state of affairs in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. But we must be vigilant and vigorous in terms of arguing for a genuine diversity in what the public sees.

Maurice Askew, Landscape with a circle of ancient standing stones. (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu).

ZJ: Indeed, Kolakowski’s story may seem laughable. But to me, a former denizen of the “socialist paradise,” where I spent the first 25 years of my life, it is not. This is what “socialist realism” was like. In 2020, in the countries of liberal-democracies, we seem to be “back to the future,” in that what is shown in museums must reflect “approved” and “correct” ideology. Indeed, in a umber of museums in the US (and Europe), the purchase of Western art has been suspended; some museums are selling objects from their collections in order to buy more minority art.

Until relatively recently, museum and art-gallery collections were for the human gaze, for observing. This was the understood purpose of such institutions. This is not so today. Art galleries and museums are now at the forefront of the ideological battle. Several months ago, I wrote a piece “The Power of Beauty and the New Museum Barbarians.” In it I made a point which you also made in an official letter to an art institution – that the function of museums is not “raising social consciousness” but to guard artistic heritage. Do you see what some curators are now doing as a betrayal of their mission?

MS: Any “betrayal” probably happened 20 to 40 years ago. We’re too far down that trajectory to apply this term – younger curators in many cases simply don’t know any better. The prime aim of curators and art historians should be to focus on beauty, aesthetics, style, patronage and iconography. Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.

I am very conservative about selling from collections – I wouldn’t want to leave my own art treasures to any state institution, if there was a real danger they would be deaccessioned. If, however, it’s a duplicate print and not in good condition, then it would be silly for the museum in question to be rigid about this. But hocking off anything that’s unfashionable is unforgivable. Why, why, why did the Met see fit to do this with Frank Salisbury’s superb portrait of The Sen Sisters which the artist generously presented to the Museum? He paid a terrible price for being unapologetically academic and a near contemporary of Picasso. An intelligent museum should have both artists represented.

Frank O. Salisbury, The Sen Sisters, ca., 1928

ZJ: That’s the point – unfashionable! Would you apply this term to the Elgin Marbles, Rubens, Watteau, Rembrandt, Veronese, and a host of other greats? The situation in which we found ourselves in the 20th century is singular, I would say. Fashion became a criterion; so that art now is no longer valued for its intrinsic quality, its beauty, but some subjective feeling about “justice.” Of course, there is also the commercial aspect, in that a certain artist is worth investing in, as his work may go up in value. Thus artistic value cannot so easily be separated from profit.

MS: One of the problems that Modernism created was to open a kind of Pandora’s box. Subjectivity and relativism became all the thing, provided you heeded the elite critic’s or curator’s choice, in many ways a contradiction of that. Older, shared criteria of beauty and the concept of art as skill were thrown out the window.

An old friend of mine, now sadly dead, though a big fan of Modernism, said that in architecture, the classical language and Beaux-Arts training guaranteed a base level of consistency and decency, whereas Modernism rejected this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing modernism – I very much admire Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, for example, and some of Picasso himself – but we sacrificed a great deal for it and people, even art professionals, are too ignorant to realise this.

ZJ: Do you see this problem as something that creates the danger of confounding artistic quality with the buyer’s inability to separate artistic beauty from monetary value in the art market?

MS: Modernism certainly made it much harder to judge.

ZJ: One can also say that this inability opens the gates for artistic charlatans who prefer to shock the audience with images, rather than enchant them with quiet spiritual elevation?

MS: Understated beauty has certainly been a victim of 20th century clamorousness. How many people today can judge the nuances of watercolour washes, as we can see in the work of my good friend Maurice Askew (who died recently aged 98); or, indeed, the deft inking and biting of an etcher’s plate, as in D.Y. Cameron’s sublime Winchester Cathedral?

D.Y. Cameron, Winchester Cathedral, 1925.

I don’t totally believe in rejecting the “shock” factor, so long as it is underpinned by skill. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a good case in point; an unforgettable, unavoidable work. But, as Bacon himself found, it was a damn hard act to follow, and his subsequent attempts to shock, certainly after the mid-1950s, just don’t do it for me. Bacon up to the 1960s cannot be fairly described as a charlatan – but I think he came perilously close to being one later in life, using the same painterly tricks and making people who should know better say “Wow!”

What he did become, as many an artist before and after Modernism, was formulaic. The charlatan charge is one that’s easy to level but is in danger of closing the arguments. Certainly the “de-skilling” of art that Modernism encouraged increased the charlatanry component. Damien Hirst – not a skilled painter at all but a brilliant project manager. Josef Beuys – arguably more of a charlatan than a shaman. Marcel Duchamp – he skirted very close to it and stole from others (a time-honoured practice); but he was, I have to concede for all the damage he did, bloody clever.

ZJ: I can’t really abide Duchamp, but let’s move the discussion back to when, earlier, you said, “Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.” Here is my problem: who decides? The curators? Many of them have recently succumbed to social pressure and peddle ideology, sanctioned by state authority – as used to be the case under communism?

Secondly, I’m all for being directed by someone, advised by Dr. Stocker, when I decide what to buy; but social consciousness is a group phenomenon. This raises another question: what are we trying to achieve by raising consciousness? Aesthetic appreciation? Not really. It is a call to social action, an attempt to change society. If so, curators are revolutionaries.

This is not the same as teaching a book. When I say, “Read the Bible, I think you will find it interesting,” my intent is not to make readers into believers. I am leaving the judgment to the reader. It is a process of appreciation.

Richard Sharp, the author of The Engraved Record of the Jacobite Movement, once gave me some excellent advice: “The best way to learn how to distinguish good quality prints from average ones is to look at them; after some time, you will train your eye and you will be able to discern good from average prints.”

MS: Sharp is right. You see what you know, as Gombrich says. As for social consciousness, it can be a dangerous trap and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the prime concerns of curatorship. It’s a cop-out, but I would leave it at the curator’s discretion as to how much or little a part it should play. But I would be worried if I had a curator colleague who let it loom too large.

There are aspects of social consciousness which I think could and should be raised and which I find interesting – when for example an artist is outstanding but is the victim of changed fashion or economic decline. The collapse of the printmaking market following the Wall Street Crash is tragic to behold and it would be callous to disregard it in any history, even if the intrinsic qualities of the prints are ultimately more relevant to “pure” art history. Geniuses like F.L. Griggs were ruined. In turn, without becoming a socialist, you can admire someone like William Morris whose conscience was stirred by ugliness, pollution and grinding poverty. His close friend Edward Burne-Jones, though less overtly politicised, wanted to bring beauty into ordinary people’s lives – and his excellent exhibition at Tate Britain a couple of years ago was a powerful vindication of that ideal.

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, 1873-1875.

ZJ: One term that is part of the liberal toolbox is “cultural appropriation.” It largely means that the artists has gobbled the best of minority culture and falsely presented it as his own. Recently, Elvis Presley was accused of cultural appropriation (he supposedly “stole” themes and music); Olga Tokarczuk, Polish Nobel Prize Laurate, was accused of cultural appropriation because she wears dreadlocks. In the past it was called fashion, a borrowing. Today it is called “cultural appropriation.”

No culture is entirely self-sufficient; we borrow elements of thought, visual representations from different places, and, by transforming them according to our own perception, create something new, something original. Picasso comes to mind, as does van Gogh, who had a considerable collection of Japanese prints, which inspired him. There is a difference between “appropriation” and “inspiration;” but today inspiration is called “appropriation,” a term frequently and easily interchanged with “theft.”

MS: It is a boring and unhelpful word and concept, and is used all too often by pompous and politically correct academics to close the argument. I would like to remind such people that Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Appropriation wasn’t always seen as a crime. The respected New Zealand Māori artist Selwyn Muru was asked many years ago who he thought the great Māori artists were. “Well, there’s Picasso!” he replied. As for musical appropriation, do Jamaican reggae lovers despise Led Zeppelin for their magnificently appropriated ‘D’yer Ma’ker’? (Get it?). I very much doubt it. They’d see it, surely, as a testament, a tribute, to their culture – attacking it would be a sign of vulnerability.

ZJ: I want to give you two examples: Rembrandt and Stefano della Bella (both 17th-century artists). Apparently, both were fascinated by the 17th-century Polish Sarmatian dresses. Rembrandt even painted his own self-portrait as Polish Nobleman; his student van Vliet made a print, after Rembrandt, of a Pole. Stefano della Bella did several engravings of Poles.

Rembrandt, Jan van Vliet, Stefano della Bella, Polish Noblemen

Is this “cultural appropriation?” In Britain, we see a similar fascination with other countries. In the 19th century, Orientalism was widespread. Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind.

MS: As I say, it isn’t a helpful concept. Weren’t the classicists “appropriating” the ancient Greeks? Did the Greeks complain? Get real.

Edward Said has a lot to answer for on that front. He essentialised Orientalism, and though he was a far cleverer and better-read person than me, his effect on countless admirers was to have ultimately trivialised it. Politically correct academics have continued to repeat his litany over the decades, blahblahblah. Full marks therefore to Robert Irwin for intelligently taking him on!

There is much, much more that of course could be said on this front. Sometimes ignorant appropriation can cause understandable offense. I was asked at one stage by Royal Doulton, if in all innocence they could use a Gottfried Lindauer portrait of a Māori chief as a character jug. I told them that this offended on almost every front – the head is tapu (taboo) in traditional Māori culture, and eating and drinking is governed by strict protocols – putting milk in the head jug – OMG – no! They heeded me, thank goodness. But this was an extreme case. Let me give a couple of more New Zealand examples – most people should get my drift.

The white New Zealand artist Gordon Walters received a lot of ill-informed, and I would say pretty offensive criticism in his brilliant use of the fern frond motif that you see in traditional Māori architectural decoration, such as roof beams. But this is by definition “low” ornament and you can’t very well claim he is appropriating your intellectual property.

So, inevitably the question of appropriation must be applied on a case by case basis. Oh – it can work in reverse – the Arawa people made the carving of Queen Victoria, that was presented to them, uniquely theirs – by erecting her on a traditionally carved post and protecting her with an elaborate canopy – Queen Victoria became Kuini Wikitoria – get it?! She was even told about it in the last few weeks of her life, and was genuinely moved by the loyalty of her subjects.

Bust of Queen Victoria, Ohinemutu, Rotorua, ca., 1908 (National Library of New Zealand).

ZJ: As you say, the concept is not helpful in explaining the quality of art. But those who use it are not interested in art. They are in the business of fighting Western culture. By saying “appropriation,” they say there is nothing original in Western culture, and that the West is not a civilization that created great wonders, or liberated mankind from poverty and injustice – something the present day “reformers” claim to champion.
Many years ago, Mary Lefkovitz wrote Not Out of Africa – a detailed analysis of the baselessness of the claim that the Greeks had “stolen” their philosophy from Africa – for which she was attacked on all fronts.

What underlies this reasoning is: if we cannot take down all the monuments, remove all paintings from the museums, let’s denigrate them, let’s show the Westerners – the Whites – those who defend Western tradition – that there is nothing special, unique or original in it. On the contrary, it is imperialistic, genocidal, unoriginal, and so on.

MS: Although you’re doing a bit of a reductio ad absurdum, I can’t deny a lot of what you say. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is all too prevalent. Perhaps it was my luck as an academic that the majority of my colleagues were considerably more intellectually subtle – and in the best sense liberal – than your bleak picture suggests. The better academics put Lefkowitz on their reading lists; and to be fair, Bernal’s Black Athena was rapidly shot down.

ZJ: When you were a student at Cambridge, some 40 years ago, would you ever have thought or suspected that art and art criticism would be gone in the future, and that what you, and others, who had decided to study art, would be under attack?

MS: Perhaps I’m fortunate but my (almost) 30 years teaching at the academy were remarkable for not being attacked. Only once, many years ago, when I did a seminar defending (yet still criticizing) Camille Paglia, which was almost riotously well-received by most students and several staff present but not by a few angry left-wingers, was I reprimanded by my head of school. Call me cowardly, but out of self-preservation and a wish to advance my career, I took a deep breath, put the culture wars aside and settled down into writing a succession of entries for the Grove Dictionary of Art – on the patronage and artistic interests of Louis XV, Louix XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis-Philippe respectively. Perhaps this was a subtle form of subversion! So rather than buckle under any criticism, I’ve simply done my own thing, publishing a very large amount of what I hope is useful, factual research, often on no grants whatsoever, and enjoyed doing so in the process.

ZJ: I often wonder what Sir Kenneth Clark would say? What would his fabulous BBC program turned into a book – Civilization – look like in 2020?

MS: Well, they recently attempted to do a “Civilisation revisited” called Civilisations, with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It was well received, but got some criticism for focusing too much on class and oppression, and not enough on the core aspects of art that I identified above. Relativism replaced discerning aesthetic judgement and as for Clark’s beautiful language – creating art when talking about it, well, something surely was lost here. A few years ago, I published a blog-post whose sub-text was “Come back Kenneth Clark, all is forgiven!” My admirable Pacific colleague Sean said he enjoyed it and learnt from it – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Kenneth Clark in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, 1969.

ZJ: Over the last several years, we have witnessed another phenomenon: tearing down and removing monuments. The first was done by hooligan demonstrators, the second by city officials, who often, as happened in Baltimore, removed monuments during the night, when the public was asleep. Many monuments were not just representations of someone others disapprove of, but pieces of art. Do you see any hope for saving public monuments?

MS:  Actually, I see some hope from the British Tories (though I often disagree with them elsewhere) in the very latest news. They are planning legislation to take decisions away from councils and make statuary subject to the minister’s edict. So long as the government is sound here, that will make it very much harder to molest public monuments, and cathedral and church monuments in turn. I’ve recently come across a specific instance of this in regard to a taxpayer-funded academic research project on the Napoleonic tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral. The proposal read positively scarily: “Unlike the early- to mid-20thC monuments to Confederate soldiers, the St Paul’s Pantheon is unlikely to be removed in the long term.” You bet it won’t be, now that I alerted the Church Monuments Society and the London Times – I (indirectly) received a hurried reassurance to this effect just days ago. But the very fact that the project hinted otherwise, and got government funding, shows there is no cause for complacency on this front.

ZJ: What about selling them?

MS: I like your idea of selling monuments but I don’t think there would be a big market for them. With a couple of sculpture-nut friends, we’re currently trying to find a home for a HUGE relief of very fine quality, celebrating Africa but carved by a white British sculptor in the early 1960s and nobody wants to know – it’s all too “sensitive,” you see; well, my response is to say “Bah!” It’s a history lesson in stone, and fascinating for it. Somebody who should have known better described the sculpture as “patronizing.” If you could travel back in time and tell the artist this, he wouldn’t be offended so much as baffled and bewildered. The past is a foreign country – and imposing presentism on it in this way is quite simply bad history (and bad art history).

Gilbert Ledward, Africa in Travail: Africa Awakening (Bronze).

Art And The Public

ZJ: Recent events – destruction of monuments, changes in the museums’ policies – raise the very serious problem of “art ownership,” not ownership in the ordinary sense, where I own an antique-piece or a house. The question is – who is entitled to a work of someone who has been gone for centuries and whose work was created in a very different world-view. Do we – today – have the singular claim of deciding what the “proper” subject of art must be – or indeed what the artist should have thought and what he should represented in his art?

But today, if someone happens to disapprove of something, we destroy it or remove it.

MS: There’s a big risk of not wanting to look at the monument in its own terms, to neglect the history surrounding it and say our history must dominate – in other words presentism. If it’s a statue in a public place, it belongs to the people but is being held in trust/custody for them, and we disrespect this at our peril.

ZJ: In the early 1980s, the Greek government wanted Lord Elgin’s Parthenon marbles back, claiming they are part of Greek national heritage. This claim is not as strong as it appears to be. Modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece. That cultural continuity had been broken many times, especially during the Ottoman rule. Secondly, the Greek heritage, because of the unique place of ancient Greece as cradle of Western civilization, is as much English and European as it is Greek. Finally, the place that deserves guardianship of ancient relics is that which can preserve best them. 

MS: They still do. I could write 5000 words on this and I have. The arguments for and against are quite closely balanced. To me, bleeding heart liberal if you like, the unfair thing about them was that it was not a “level playing field” when Elgin brilliantly and opportunistically exploited the wording of the Ottoman Empire’s permit to remove them – a matter of 20 years or so before the Greek War of Independence. The Greeks had no say about them. Short term, they had everything to be grateful for in Elgin “rescuing” them from what could well have been fatal destruction. But for 150+ years they have been saying “We want them back, please!”

The question of modern Greece not being the same place is one of the strengths of NOT returning them; this must be conceded. But having them in the locality of where the whole great world of Western art – and democracy – started is an emotional one that many people find compelling. A good comparison would be if Paris or Munich owned Boadicea’s chariot!

Parthenon Marbles, Three Goddesses, East Pediment

ZJ: A critic can argue, however, that the best place for it is the original site. But, once again, one can counter-argue that the original site is not necessarily the safest. The prime example is the Roman city of Palmyra, vandalized and partly destroyed by ISIS a few years ago. By contrast, the Pergamon Altar was preserved because it was removed and beautifully preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

MS: Or was till the anti-Satanist nutcases recently struck. In regard to the Parthenon marbles, Enoch Powell said clean up the Athens pollution and then put them back in situ. I got what he meant even if practicality (and emotions) meant that his typical intellectual logic was shouted down.

ZJ: True, the Elgin Marbles, the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate were taken away; yet, were it not for the passion of those who carried out this “theft,” they might well be entirely destroyed now – their “theft” in turn preserved them. This also tells us that the heritage of civilization belongs to those who can secure its welfare the best.

MS: At the time, the 1810s, I think even the Greeks would have conceded that. What they argue is that they are now a liberal democracy, part of the European Union, which Britain was till so recently, that they have the means, facilities and expertise to house these treasures in a beautiful, accessible way, just metres from where it all began. My feeling is that the return of the Parthenon marbles is about 60% justified – quite narrow.

Where I am totally opposed to the restitution of art objects is when you cannot trust the government that wants them back. Some years ago, there was a genuine, albeit politically incorrect worry that the consequences of returning Benin bronzes to the government of their country of origin would be Lamborghinis and wives’ shopping sprees in Harrods and Aspreys! Any “returning” institution needs to be given a pretty copper-bottomed guarantee that their treasures will be beautifully housed, displayed and loved. If not, they should stay put.

ZJ: My second question is a variant of the previous one. Ever since the French, American and Russian Revolutions, we have to deal with a new concept that implicates art in a way it was created for, in that art is the property of the people. Hence all kinds of claim can be made. It is a people who are true owners, not individuals. The proper place for art is museums; and private collections, even if they legally belong to private citizens, cannot be taken out of the country, sold in other countries, because, the claim goes, it is part of “national heritage.” How strong is such a claim in your opinion?

MS: This is a long and complex one to answer. Obviously if you believe in liberal democracy, you believe in the rule of law and the sanctity of the ownership of property (statue-topplers take note). The last, however, needs to be balanced with caring for the national heritage.

In the absence of protective legislation or the purchase of masterpieces by the government and private donors to keep them in their country of origin or long-term custodianship, the consequences can be disastrous. The New Zealand Māori in the first instance and our culture in the second suffered from the despoiling of ghastly, latter-day grave robbers.

Even when the repatriation is legal, the consequences can be near tragic – Japan exported so many of its glorious colour woodblock prints, the country was effectively despoiled of them and any uninformed international tourists who went there to see them were disappointed.

Modern Art And Architecture

ZJ: I would like to move to modern or 20th-century art. It is the period which is very often criticized. As far as painting is concerned, this era is often appreciated by art critics more than the public. Ordinary people find modern art difficult to understand (especially abstract painting), lacking in immediate aesthetic appeal, sometimes even appalling. Similar criticism can be applied to architecture.

In its simple form, criticism of art and architecture can, in my view, be reduced to three claims: it is “ugly,” i.e., lacking in aesthetic dimension, like in “this building is ugly.”

Second, it is ugly because it has no relationship to tradition, surroundings, regional and national features (this is true of much of modern architecture). Such art and architecture follows abstract geometrical patterns rather than traditions; thus, the ornaments which beautify buildings are absent.

Thirdly, it is ugly or not appealing because the purpose of a painting or a sculpture is not to convey a sense of beauty but to embody a social message, which turns art into a vehicle of ideology. Of course, there can be an overlap, something can be both ugly, rootless and ideological; and so because it is rootless it is often ugly.

Which of these three assertions would you consider to be the greatest problem for modern art? I realize that not all three apply to the same degree to architecture, sculpture and painting.

MS: That’s a big question. I do think your approach to modernism is too broad-brushed. I genuinely think that a lot of it is a lot less elitist than when it first appeared. Look at the crowds of people looking at Rothko. My old house in Christchurch was a charming slightly Lego-like postmodern affair that showed an obvious awareness of Mondrian.

Let me say this about Modernist architecture: when built on a strict budget, housing or officing (new word) the masses, it can be little short of ghastly. That great old architectural reactionary Sir Reginald Blomfield was unfortunately spot on when he called early Modernist buildings packing-cases. However, when it is built on a big budget, sometimes – depending on the sensibility of the architect – Modernism can look genuinely impressive. There’s been a tendency towards a kind of neo-modernism since the end of the century which focusses on lightness, whiteness and airiness – and people really like it.

ZJ: Let me invoke Nikolaus Pevsner, author of several important books on art and architecture. According to him, England’s “contribution to Western art has been stronger in the practical art of building than in the more esoteric arts of painting and sculpture.” And, Pevsner also said, “English political strength” turned out “detrimental to art:” “…The democratic rule by committee and majority. Building today more than ever before is decided by committees. Committees can never be hoped to be the best judges in matters aesthetics. To demand or merely to license a bold building requires a bold man.”

MS: How prophetic – and we’ve had 65 years of committees ever since! He’s proved to be somewhat wrong about English sculpture (Henry Moore anyone? Barbara Hepworth? The excellent Elisabeth Frink?) and I think he still had some way to go in ever warming to Victorian painting, though he did so splendidly to architecture.

ZJ: These words, as you noticed, were written in 1955, and we are as far away from solving the problem as we were then. I just spoke with an architect, who, to my rather dreadful remark – which I made jokingly – as to what we should do with architects who litter our cities with buildings which are admired only by fellow-architects, said: it is the investor who is responsible; we do what investor wants. I find such an answer to be nothing other than a cop-out, an easy excuse that covers architects’ lack of talent; or worse, it’s a total disregard for “the public,” traditional surroundings, or national culture.

MS: As I said earlier, one of the tragedies of the 20th century was when capitalists realized that cheap Modernist architecture was the way to go! So, your friend does have a point. But architects also have themselves to blame – they are arrogant and self-referential. Look at architects like Morris Lapidus, who was brave enough to design for the people – despised by his profession, and in old age he destroyed his drawings and models – tragic.

Morris Lapidus, Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami, 1952.

ZJ: We have three choices, it seems: the committees, the public, or the bold man, who always realizes his own vision, not necessarily shared by the rest (as Pevsner suggested). Personally, I would go for the second, but would add that the committees offer us – the public – a range of, say, ten designs, submitted by architects, and have them displayed in a big public place, and let the people cast a vote. After all, it is the public and future generations who will live with it, not the architect, not the coterie of members of the committee. Which option do you think is the best?

MS: They all have their pros and cons. Going against my liberal instincts, I have a soft spot for the bold man – provided his taste doesn’t totally offend me. The people aren’t always right – they are often very conservative in turn. Sometimes they have to catch up with an artist and realize his or her validity. Henry Moore is a good example, even if a lot of his later corporate work, loved by committees, is boring.

But sometimes time cannot heal an “in your face” ugly work of art – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc is a prime example, as is “Brutalist” architecture of the 1950s and 1960s – a fair bit of that probably remains in Poland in cheap public housing. My friend Amanda was very upset when I published a letter saying a whole lot of Brutalist flats weren’t worth keeping in Wellington, utterly lacking in the “period charm” of their Art Deco predecessors of 20-30 years earlier!

ZJ: Only yesterday I had a conversation with an architect who used the language of “experimentation” in art, saying that a piece of architecture “was an interesting idea.” My response was that there is no question that Centre Pompidou is “interesting” as an idea; it never occurred to anyone before to show the inside of a building. But it is ugly.

Here I would like to suggest a topic for reflection. The two towers of the World Trade Center in New York were, for decades, seen by the public as a symbol of New York itself, the New World. When the towers collapsed on September 11, the question became – should we rebuild them? But no one entertained this for long. Rebuilding certain architectural objects is not new; it says something about national spirit, attachment to history, tradition. An example is the old city of Warsaw, razed to the ground during WWII. It was rebuilt as exact copy of the city from before 1939.

Most recently we have the example of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was a heart-breaking sight to see it in flames. There was no question that it will be rebuilt as it was, perhaps with small details which will be modern.

The two objects – the Twin Towers and the Notre Dame – are good examples of where the problem lies: -beauty of a building, as opposed to “an interesting idea.” I doubt whether the same French public would ever entertain the idea of rebuilding the Centre Pompidou if anything were to happen to it.

MS: What you’re saying is that there is something humanist that is enshrined in old buildings, that the public love and which we badly miss when they are gone. I can’t argue with that even if some old buildings were or are no great shakes. There are open and shut cases of ugly buildings – often, but not exclusively, Modernist – which nobody mourns if they go. And I don’t think merely being there for 40 years or more can redeem them.

The “Brutalist” flats in Wellington I mentioned earlier, known as the “Gordon Wilson flats” after their architect, had a certain “to-hell-with-you” quality when they were erected, and they haven’t mellowed – they were ugly then and ugly now, which you can’t say for a lot of Victorian architecture. Frankly, I wouldn’t grieve to see them go. Any decision has to be on a case-by-case, empirical basis. Personally, I don’t agree with you about the Beaubourg – when I first saw it, and I was definitely a bit of a fogey – I was impressed by its quirky, funky qualities, and it was obvious that in the piazza in front of it, buskers, jugglers, tourists and Parisians, took to it like a duck to water.

Gordon Wilson Flats, Wellington, 1959.

ZJ: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi. They are giants of 20th-century architecture. The first two were giants of the new 20th-century style; the other two are modern too, but they are steeped in tradition; their knowledge of history of architecture is undeniable. Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona is not a medieval cathedral, but only someone unfamiliar with history – Gothic architecture – could confuse it with something else. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, his use of stained glass, wood, triangular roofs, bricks, in short, traditional material, make us feel “at home.” None of this is part of van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s vision. It is pure geometry of new material, which makes us feel alienated from the environment and history. Such “creativity” is responsible for much of the problem with modern art.

What is your take on it?

MS: A lot of Le Corbusier’s theories were cranky and it grieves me that he had so much influence on generations of architecture students – to be terribly provocative I tell them they should have looked at Corb’s contemporary, Ernest Trobridge, architect of startling “ye olde” suburban houses in Greater London, instead. Le Corbusier’s architecture is, dare I say, hit and miss – the much-lauded Unité d’Habitation was a flop; I haven’ been to Ronchamp but I’m pretty certain I would admire it. Mies van der Rohe had a genuine sensibility towards proportions and materials – his actual buildings are rather great – the problem is that lacking that sensibility, lacking that big budget, being a second-rate Corb or Mies – is a recipe for aesthetic, social and political disaster.

Ernest Trobridge, House at Chaldon, Surrey, 1920.

ZJ: Let me approach the idea of conservatism in art. It is a category external to art. If it makes sense to talk about conservatism in art, it concerns national attitude, national characteristics rather than artistic qualities. Pevsner wrote an interesting book, The Englishness of English Art, in which he pointed to certain creative stubbornness, so to speak, of the English.

Christopher Wren, for example, had to redo the plan for St. Paul’s cathedral, because the clergy refused to accept such “un-English a shape.” Wren also suggested that completing Westminster Abbey in Gothic style was appropriate because “to deviate from the old Form, would be to run into disagreeable Mixture, which no Person of good Taste could relish.” (A point that is relevant in rebuilding the Notre Dame in Paris). Pevsner’s book abounds in examples of this kind. What we deal with is “Englishness,” if I may say so, or English conservative attitude in general.

This was all a long time ago; things changed! In the 1990s Prince Charles left the confines of his regal realm and made a name for himself by his criticism of English architecture. He even wrote a book, A Vision of Britain. Another critic of English architecture is Sir Roger Scruton – one of its most vocal critics, in fact. Can you explain this criticism?

MS: The architectural consequences of Prince Charles is an interesting topic and would really repay research – a book in itself. There are not a few examples of how late 20th- and early 21st-century architecture ‘kept in keeping’ with pre-existing structures – a really good example of this is Downing College, Cambridge, which is pretty awesome and which Scruton doubtless admired. And the model village of Poundbury where pundits’ opinions are divided but whose residents appear to love it.

Prince Charles himself influenced the admirable addition to the National Gallery – his critique of the original plans is where it all started. So, this kind of architecture happens – not as often as I would like because, I’m afraid, of the mania for change, cost effectiveness and architects’ egos – not least their over reverence for 20th-century heroes. Where a less admirable form of traditionalism continues to thrive is in the mania for period features in British domestic housing, especially neo-Georgian.

I generalize, but a lot of it is awful, tacky and pretentious. Cambourne, outside Cambridge, falls into this trap. It’s bad, but I laugh at it and don’t feel appalled by it – I can see it worming its way into my affections if I lived there myself. Indeed, I have a feeling that maybe in 50 years’ time, if it lasts that long, it will have accrued a period charm, as the much-mocked mock-Tudor with its painted “beams” and gables of the inter-war years has done.

ZJ: George Orwell, in his essay, “England Your England,” attempted to come to terms with Englishness, the English national character. The essay covers a lot of ground, but one thing that struck me was his claim that the English have no aesthetic taste; and, second, that England does not have great art, great painters. If one compares England with Italy, that is certainly true; but if we take Orwell’s claim at face value, every nation would lose to the Italians. Do you agree with Orwell?

MS: It’s a complicated question but he’s being unfair. The pioneering modernist critic Roger Fry said something on the lines of “the fact that our school may be a second division one does not prevent it from being intensely interesting.” But the ginormous elephant in the room when you make this generalization is the phenomenal, the beautiful, the remarkable English and to a lesser extent Scottish country house – and its garden. British art historians should be shouting from the rooftops about how its landscape architects made the paintings of Claude Lorrain (some of the most gorgeous in art history) three-dimensional reality. It worked better in the cooler, damper British climate than it would have ever done in Claude’s Roman Campagna.

And another major point: a lot of British painting from about 1750 is remarkable and too many critics remain obtusely patronizing about it. I love artists like Burne-Jones (as you’ve gathered), Leighton, and much admire Watts. And in the 20th century, we have Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – and those godawful YBAs, yet who have a huge place in the world of contemporary art. I don’t think it’s profitable comparing Britain to France or Italy – and I think it’s stupid, as the Courtauld Institute did for far too long – to ignore what’s on your doorstep and only bother to look at France and Italy. Many people are snobs like that about cookery – oh they LOVE Italian food. Well, all I can say is that dining out in Rome in 2003, despite using the normally reliable Lonely Planet, was a terrible disappointment and the best Italian meal I had was in Los Angeles, but I digress.

ZJ: You mentioned English art around 1750. The painter of this period that comes to mind is Hogarth. Nikolaus Pevsner, praises Hogarth, who in his The Analysis of Beauty (published in 1753) speaks of “the line of Beauty.” Or, in Pevsner’s words, “a shallow, elegant, undulating double curve. Now the fondness for these double curves is actually, although Hogarth did not know that, a profound English tradition… one that runs from the style of 1300 to Blake and beyond. But it is also an international principle of the Late Baroque and Rococo, and it will be found without any effort in individual figures and whole compositions of Watteau in France, of Tiepolo in Venice, of Ignaz Günter… Hogarth’s Baroque modelling and brushwork and international quality created something in England that had not before existed within English possibilities, in the case of serpentine or zigzag compositions and attitudes, an English quality in Hogarth and an international quality of Hogarth’s age worked hand in hand.”

MS: Firstly, let me say how I deeply admire Pevsner. Initially a card-carrying Modernist on his arrival from Nazi persecution (and the poor man’s biography reveals how seriously – almost like Chamberlain – he underestimated their true evil), he got increasingly hooked on his country of adoption and his attitude to Victorian art and, particularly architecture, intelligently mellowed. I am dubious, however, about this “line” of generalization.

As Pevsner himself realizes, it wasn’t peculiar or particular to the English. And there are strongly linear artists who don’t necessarily go to town with the undulating double curve – Flaxman and Gill for example. If you’re looking for English characteristics, I’d say that the bleak, almost drab palette that is so long dominant in landscape painting – Pre-Raphaelites aside – would be an important one – it explains why watercolour is so strong and we see it in Spencer, Freud and the wonderful L.S. Lowry.

All this relates to Britain’s long, bleak autumns to springs and is almost hard-wired in the English – Scottish even more (look at Joan Eardley). The art historian John Onians – author of Neuroarthistory and a good friend – would certainly agree. By the way, note how many artists I mention are modern ones – I am not some fogey who believed that all was good in art predates 1837 or 1914.

Eric Gill, Self-Portrait, 1927.

ZJ: Point taken! Sometimes I worry about you being a little too trendy! Seriously, there are other names, Richard Wilson, a great Welsh/English painter, who even wrote about the superiority of English art, and, of course, Turner. I may be mistaken, but it is unlikely that an art historian writing the history of modern painting can bypass these three painters. Perhaps Fry’s criticism in his Reflections on British Painting, from which, I believe, the sentence you quoted comes from, does not do justice to English art?

MS: No. I’m quite a big admirer of Fry, for all my misgivings about Modernism. I can even understand his reaction against bourgeois Victorian conservatism and complacency, though art history has shown his denunciation of Alma-Tadema to be terribly wrong – Alma-Tad was a far better artist than almost all of Fry’s Bloomsbury cronies, as the late Quentin Bell, son of crony-in-chief Clive Bell, generously conceded to me. Fry was certainly beating the Modernist drum, which he understandably felt was all the more necessary in the context of British artistic conservatism. In the process, he gravely underrated Edwardian art, some of which looks superb over a century on, and overrated his Bloomsbury “luvvies.” But critics can, do and even should make mistakes. Fry’s liberalism in the best sense was shown in his admission that British art was “intensely interesting.” Roger, Roger!

William Strang, Bank Holiday, 1912.

Artists And Art Historians

ZJ: Much of how we look at art is influenced by art criticism – that is, what we read. Many ingenious insights, which we could not come up with, do come from reading books by experts. I want to throw at you a few random names of art historians: Nikolaus Pevsner, Richard Wollheim, Sir Banister Fletcher whose History of Architecture, even today, has no rival, Sir Kenneth Clark, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich. I skipped many names of outstanding people who made contributions to more narrow fields, or who wrote about individual artists or epochs. How do you like my list? Would you like to add a few names?

MS: They are the greats, though I always found Wollheim unintelligible and overrated – and he was more of a philosopher of art than an art historian. The art historians I would add are H.W. Janson (a Russian German in origin), Robert Rosenblum (the two authored a magisterial history of 19th-century art in the mid-1980s). Then there’s Hugh Honour – a great writer and scholar; and from a slightly younger generation, I have affection and respect for Frances Spalding who is still alive and kicking. Fiona McCarthy, with her biographies of Morris, Burne-Jones and Eric Gill, is damn good too! She died very recently.

An outstanding populist who never got the national honour he deserved is Edward Lucie-Smith. Though he was a critic more than he was an art historian, Robert Hughes was one of my heroes too – though personally a nasty piece of work. One of the most interesting and original art historians is John Onians, author of Neuroarthistory, who looks at the impact of the mind, childhood and environment on art history in pellucid prose and with convincing reasoning. John would love what I say about Claude Lorrain and country house gardens; he was also the genius behind the World Atlas of Art. By the way, Neuroarthistory was generally panned by the academic left, so it must be good!

ZJ: Let me return to Sir Kenneth Clark, whose biography by James Stourton, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilization, appeared in 2016, and which makes Sir Kenneth a real 20th-century art history hero.

Neil McGregor, formerly the director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, said about Clark: “[he] was the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century… Nobody can talk about pictures on the radio or on the television without knowing that Clark did it first and Clark did it better.”

Would you agree that “to come after Clark” is an unenviable situation for today’s art historians? Not being an art historian, each time I read him, I envy him – this man spent his entire life moving through a world that looked more like an enchanted garden, so different from the lives of ordinary people who live in a world of aesthetic poverty which then prevents them from escaping their social and economic realities.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. Clark is a wonderful man – that comes over in my blog. He was my hero when I was a teenager. He was also a war hero, bringing piano music free to all visitors to the National Gallery when all the paintings had to be removed for safekeeping. He inspired me – and I bet a fair few other people aged 60+ who won’t admit it – to become an art historian. “What do you want to be?” I was asked at my Cambridge interview. “Another Kenneth Clark!” was my modest reply. I didn’t quite make it but I certainly tried. I did so in the wide range of themes I have researched and published – one of the aims was to flummox and irritate other academics who remained stuck in the same groove.

Back to Clark – anyone who could write with authority on Rembrandt, Leonardo, the landscape, the nude and don’t let’s overlook the Gothic Revival, his first, underrated book, has got to be a good thing. The other thing that I admire in him is his beautiful and accessible writing. In everything I write, I ask, “Would Kenneth Clark approve of this?” I hope so: we ignore him at our peril, and the Stourton biography along with the Tate exhibition are both timely reminders of this.

ZJ: John Ruskin said that beauty was everyone’s birthright. This brings me to the question that should make people like you, art historians, very concerned. Art education is probably the most neglected discipline in popular education, in every country. For years I made the reading of a few pages from Clark’s The Nude part of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course, where I sent my students to a museum to write a very specific paper connected with what we had read.

This assignment was probably the most fruitful educational tool I possessed. Student reactions were comparable only to the reaction they had when we read Plato, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky.

You write a regular blog, something that has very limited readership. I sent your piece on Dürer to several of my former students. The reaction to it was probably more than you would expect. Given how people, particularly younger people, react to art, why is art history so marginalized in Western education? Can anything be done about this lack? Getting students on a mandatory trip to a local museum so that they can awaken to art?

MS: It’s a big problem. I wish my blogs had a bigger readership but unfortunately my attempts to publish them on a wider front were not supported by my former museum – partly issues of copyright unfortunately complicated matters. The paradox is that never have more people been going to museums, before 2020, and wanting to see the latest exhibitions; but never in the past 30 years have fewer people formally enrolled to study art at university – and it was even proposed to discontinue the British History of Art A-level. I have several answers to this: the punitive fee regime at university, with careers advisers and family members saying “What’s the relevance of art history?” And the corresponding incentive to study STEM subjects.

And here’s another answer: art history is an overwhelmingly female subject in terms of its students. This is for two or three reasons: firstly, I think men are usually slower in responding to aesthetic matters than women; and secondly, at the risk of being controversial, art historians are ultimately the “servants” of art (or should be); women, in their traditionally supporting roles, adapt to this more easily than hunting, gathering, stomping, blundering men. With the ever-greater gender equalities of the past 30-40 years, which I generally welcome, women have become more masculinized in the choice of what they study. Art history has been the unfortunate victim of this.

ZJ: In the last 30 years or so, leftist art critics – mainly academics – turned art into an ideological instrument. Enough to glance at The New York Times art section, which peddles ideology under the mask of art. By contrast, the WSJ’s art section is still traditional; informative; and reading it one gets the impression that not much has changed since the 1970s or the 1980s. After reading pieces on art in the WSJ, it makes you want to visit a museum.

A long time ago, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion wrote an important book which he titled, The Rape of the Masters. Kimball, who is not a scholar but an editor, a very able art critic and a true art lover, did a great service to the American public by pointing out what is wrong with what passes for art criticism today.

Let me quote what he said in an interview: “For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss – it is something you see in literary studies, too – is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler’s proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else – and, they might add, something worse than it seems.” Do you agree with Kimball?

MS: In a word, yes. Too many of the new academic art historians are a bit, let’s say, messed up in the head. They want to politicise bloody everything. Too many of them are scared of just looking. I wish there were more Kimballs in the university but their younger versions probably, sadly, realise that after their BA, certainly their MA, it is not the place for them.

Talking of the painting of girls, the funniest instance of this – oh how I wish I had kept it – was a po-faced feminist discussion of “agency” in Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting, The Chess Game, which referred to the three main participants as “women.” Sorry, but apart from the wary looking maid, all three, even the eldest (certainly at the time) are girls!

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game, 1555.

And while I’m at it, Sofonisba’s painting is somewhat provincial, even somewhat inept – she was 20 when she painted it and she made her heads look a bit like puddings – perhaps in a Ruskinian way I love the painting for its very awkwardness. I’m slightly digressing, but the feminist response was a classic case of somebody who reads too much and doesn’t look nearly enough.

As for art criticism, perhaps I’m a bit of an exception but I’ve written probably 100 reviews, including a fair few in the Burlington Magazine – there’s still scope for the art historian to be a critic though there is a strange lack of competition which enabled me to go to the top, so to speak, here.

Always, always, I try to summarise what the exhibition is about, what its aims are, how well it succeeds, and of course I try to appraise the quality of the works too and their impact on me. Sometimes I’m converted by an exhibition – I found myself admiring the British 20th-century painter William Coldstream.

More rarely I’m repelled, as with the Australian painter Rupert Bunny who deserved to be shot! At times I am necessarily political – as when I reviewed 20th-century Jewish art and more recently Pre-Raphaelite women – but it’s essential to keep a sense of balance and not neglect these other, core aspects. I hope to keep up this criticism for a fair while yet – pandemics permitting – as there’s so much great – and indeed “intensely interesting” art out there in the world – to experience and share.

Although he could be maddeningly contradictory, John Ruskin powerfully and beautifully stated how the primary aim of the artist should be art and nature, not changing the world: “Does a man die at your feet – your business is not to help him but to note the colour of his lips.”

ZJ: John Ruskin, I love you! Thank you, Dr. Stocker, for this delightful conversation!

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude, Index Augustino-Cartésien, Agamemnon’s Tomb: Polish Oresteia (with Catherine O’Neil), How To Read Descartes’ Meditations. He also is the editor of Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything, The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, John Stuart Mill: On Democracy, Freedom and Government & Other Selected Writings. His new book, Homo Americanus: Rise of Democratic Totalitarianism in America, will be published in 2021.

The image shows,”Ruins in Rome – Colosseum, Italy,” by Joachim von Sandrart. Print from 1676.