The Necessity Of Christian Tradition

For a period of about three years in my late teens and early 20’s, I was deeply involved in a charismatic house church. It was a deeply committed group of people (some of us lived in a commune together). Our services could run for hours with very intensive Bible teaching. A feature of that time and the charismatic movement was a concern for the “latest word.” By that was meant new insights, new emphases, and a very heightened sense that we were hearing moment-by-moment what God wanted to say to His people. It was exciting. It was also exhausting. It was also spiritually problematic.

I will not describe all the problems (there’s not time). For myself, I had a growing sense of questioning and unreliability. If the Church is led by the “latest word,” then its reliability depends entirely on the personalities involved in bringing such news. A survey of the charismatic, pentecostal, and evangelical movements over the past 50 years would necessarily include the many failures of key leaders and of various dangers associated with ever-changing emphases and fashions.

My questions brought about a crisis of faith. I left that movement and floundered a bit, eventually settling into the Episcopal Church in a search for greater stability (mind you, this was the early to mid-70’s). Of course, that move was something of a jump from the “frying pan into the fire.” But my instinct was correct. Christianity is not rightly built on moment-by-moment updates, or “every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). The history of the primitive Church is a consistent movement away from such excitement and towards the solidity of a reliable hierarchy grounded in a received body of teaching. Its instinct was that the locus of change was within the heart of each believer rather than a constant flow of fluctuating information.

The early heresies had just the opposite instinct. “Gnosticism,” a label invented by modern historians, was never a single thing. Rather it is a collective term for scattered individual teachers who promised new insights, exciting, even “secret” information, which would grant its adherents a quick passage to a higher existence. There is evidence that these teachers (almost always existing outside the eucharistic structure of the Church) were already a problem within the time span of the New Testament. Modern liberal thought has sought to describe these teachers as “alternate Christianties,” largely in an effort to discredit the traditional Church. Over time, these groups fell into silence, particularly in that they were deeply driven by single personalities. They lacked the institutional reality required for generational survival.

My abandonment of charismatic Christianity and move towards received tradition led me, over time, to Orthodox Christianity. It was a renunciation of the “latest thing” in order to embrace the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.” It was a movement from charismatic excitement towards sacramental stability. When people are young, there can be an excitement that surrounds dating, moving from relationship to relationship, dreaming of possibilities and riding the wave of romantic energy. That is a far cry from the daily life of a stable marriage extending through the years, giving birth and nurture to generations of children. Christianity, in its traditional form, is like marriage, not dating.

The most institutionalized element of Orthodox Christianity can be found in its worship. We have documents describing, in some detail, the structure of worship from as early as the 2nd century. It is worth noting that the word “Orthodoxy” is perhaps best translated as “right glory [worship]” rather than right opinion or doctrine. What the Church teaches is primarily found embodied in its worship. An old Latin formula has it: Lex orandi, lex credendi. It means, “The law of praying is the law of believing.” It explains how it is that Orthodoxy’s primary word of evangelism is “Come and see.”

There are roots for this understanding that run deep into the heart of the Old Testament. Exodus 25 describes Moses’ meeting with God on Mt. Sinai for a period of 40 days. In that encounter he is shown a “pattern” of the heavenly tabernacle, and given detailed plans for the building of the tabernacle and all that it contained. He is repeatedly told to build things “according to the pattern.” This heavenly pattern was of great interest within the writings of both Jews and early Christians. The instinct within that interest was that the heavenly pattern served as a template for God’s dwelling place among us. This was the understanding that marked the Temple in Jerusalem, and became a hallmark of Orthodox Christian understanding of worship, including the building itself. This pattern is itself an example of holy tradition. It was given by God [handed down] to Moses (not simply evolved through Jewish practices). But if what Moses saw was a “heavenly” tabernacle, then his vision was also of eternal consequence and merit.

Orthodox Christian practice recognized this fundamental layer of tradition. St. Paul describes Christians as the “temple” of God (1 Cor. 3:16). St. John’s apocalyptic vision centers around the temple in the heavens. The construction of Orthodox Churches has intentional parallels with the Jewish Temple, as do certain aspects of our worship. We speak of the Divine Liturgy as “heaven on earth,” and describe ourselves as doing here what is being done there.

“Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

This hymn was added to the Liturgy in the 6th century but represents a thought and understanding that is far older. Perhaps more striking, and echoing the deepest level of Orthodox tradition can be found in this excerpt from the first homily of St. Macarius. He looks at the imagery of Ezekiel’s chariot vison, often understood as an image of the throne of God in the heavenly temple. St. Macarius applies it to the soul:

And this that the prophet saw, was true and certain. But the thing it signified, or shadowed forth beforehand, was a matter mysterious and divine, that very mystery which had been hid from ages and generations, but was made manifest at the appearing of Christ. For the mystery which he saw, was that of the human soul as she is hereafter to receive her Lord, and become herself the very throne of his glory. (H. 1.2)

His thought is of a piece with St. Paul’s description of Christians as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

There is a dynamic present in these images that carries the very essence of tradition as a way of life. Modern thought imagines human existence and even its “improvement” as a process of ever-increasing personal choice and freedom. It is a product of the imagination in which the individual becomes whatever they might choose to be. It is a model well-suited to a market-driven world. In many ways, the constant change and “latest revelations” in many forms of contemporary Christianity, echo that instinct, with theological insights and biblical themes arriving as marketed ideas. Like clothing fashions, such changing insights help establish a spirituality that has its own sense of “coolness.”

In the spirituality of Orthodox Tradition the point is to receive that which has already been given. There is nothing new to be revealed (as information), even though what has been made known is constantly revealed as life-creating truth within the soul itself. It is a life grounded in the Divine Life both in the temple of the Church (in praise and sacrament) and in the temple of the soul. It is ultimately within the soul that we perceive the face of God in Christ. It is in the soul that we perceive Him in the least of those around us and serve them as our service to God. It is in the soul that we offer the Eucharist (our giving of thanks for all things) in union with the earthly/heavenly Liturgy of Christ’s Body and Blood.

There is a stability in this way of life, grounded in the stability of heaven itself (which never changes). That same abiding reality has weathered the storms of 2,000 years even as its saints and martyrs join themselves together with the souls who currently labor and fight on earth. It is not a movement, nor a revival, nor a new thing. It is stubbornly ignorant of market forces. It is a sweet promise and gift.

He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them.


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


The featured image shows, “The Koimetesis” (The Dormition of the Virgin), ca. 1315-1321. Chora church, Constantinople.

Saint Bernard: The Three Freedoms

Over eight centuries before Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated his “Four Freedoms,” a shorter and much better list of freedoms was elucidated by the young abbot of the new monastery of Clairvaux, one Bernard by name.

In his work On Grace and Free Choice (De Gratia et libero arbitrio), Saint Bernard (1090-1153) distinguished three kinds of freedom: of nature, of grace, and of glory. The first is freedom from necessity; the second, from sin; and the third, from suffering. All three concern man’s inner life, where all true freedom resides, rather than extrinsic factors. (For a timely example of what I mean by “extrinsic factors,” we might consider freedom from external compulsion to receive an unethically sourced, unnecessary, and ineffective vaccine against an illness that 99.7% of people who contract it survive.) For us moderns, like Roosevelt, the tendency is to locate freedom outside of ourselves, but that is not what Saint Bernard had in mind. Real freedom, I repeat, is an interior reality, and all three of these freedoms are interior.

The Calvinists and Lutherans, who exaggerated the effects of the Fall, denied that man’s will is free. They would have done well to read Saint Bernard, who based his argumentation solidly on Holy Scripture. So, too, do modern schools of psychological determinism deny — or at least detract from — the freedom of the will. But Saint Bernard, writing with great philosophical certitude and liberty, shows that the will by its very nature is free.

This innate freedom of the will, in addition to our intellect, is what makes us in the image and likeness of God, and the Master of Clairvaux notes that this first freedom has nothing to do with whether we are good or bad: “Freedom from necessity belongs alike to God and to every rational creature, good or bad.” This freedom, which makes our actions “voluntary,” is contrasted with that necessity of which brute beasts are possessed in all their actions. In dogs and cats, and all the rest of non-rational animals, there are no voluntary or free acts. They act by an interior compulsion to do what they do. Without having an intellect and a will, non-rational animals live exclusively on the level of the senses and the irascible and concupisciple appetites. We, too, have those faculties, but our intellect and will tower over them and make our acts human acts and therefore voluntary and free acts. As the Cistercian Doctor puts it negatively, “What is done by necessity does not derive from the will and vice versa.”

For clarity, I should note here that there are acts that men do that are not voluntary and therefore not free. These are things we have in common with the beasts, like respiration, digestion, and the myriad other activities our bodies perform every moment to keep us alive and functioning at the level of mere sentient activity. Philosophers call such acts “actus hominis” (acts of a man) as distinguished from “actus humanus” (human acts). “Human” here means rational and volitional.

The following sentence from On Grace and Free Choice may be long and need to be read two or three times, but it is very illuminating of the truth concerning man’s will being free and the consequent moral responsibility we all shoulder by virtue of our freely chosen acts:

Only the will, then, since, by reason of its innate freedom, it can be compelled by no force or necessity to dissent from itself, or to consent in any matter in spite of itself, makes a creature righteous or unrighteous, capable and deserving of happiness or of sorrow, insofar as it shall have consented to righteousness or unrighteousness. [All excerpts here are from the Cistercian Publications edition of the work, translated by Daniel O’Donolan, OSCO.]

The truth that “sin is in the will,” is an immediate conclusion from what Saint Bernard writes here. While we might be externally influenced, threatened, cajoled, directed, encouraged, etc., in our will we always remain radically free. This is an anthropological or psychological fact that follows from our very nature as it was created by God, prescinding from the Fall. It is the basis of all merit and culpability and, therefore, of the notions of reward and punishment.

Over and above this first freedom, the innate freedom of nature, are the two other freedoms (that from sin, and that from sorrow) which are not natural endowments but supernatural gifts.

Saint Bernard explains that freedom from sin is what Saint Paul described when he wrote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). This second freedom is not innate in us, but results from grace, and stands in contrast — so the Abbot of Clairvaux notes — to that slavery to sin that the Holy Apostle describes elsewhere: “For when you were the servants of sin, you were free men to justice. [Saint Paul is ironically contrasting “slavery to sin” and “slavery to God (or justice)”. Being “free men to justice” means being “liberated” from God’s holiness or righteousness. This is a false and damning freedom.] … But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end life everlasting” (Rom. 6:20, 22).

Citing Our Lord saying, “If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36), Saint Bernard tells us:

He meant that even free choice stands in need of a liberator, but one, of course, who would set it free, not from necessity which was quite unknown to it since this pertains to the will, but rather from sin, into which it has fallen both freely and willingly, and also from the penalty of sin which it carelessly incurred and has unwillingly borne.

We ought not quickly pass over the profound thought that “even free choice stands in need of a liberator.” The words are beautiful, yes, but there is more than mere aesthetics here. Our free will, after the Fall, contracted the defect Saint Thomas calls “malice,” and needs to be saved from it, or freed. The liberator in question is, of course, that Man who knew no sin, and who always was and always remains absolutely free from sin. Citing Psalm 87:6, Saint Bernard calls Christ, “[He who] alone of all men was made free among the dead; free, that is, from sin in the midst of sinners.”

Concerning this “second freedom” — freedom from sin — the Mellifluous Doctor eloquently addresses the question of good will versus bad will in words that should encourage us:

When a person complains and says: “I wish I could have a good will, but I just can’t manage it,” this in no way argues against the freedom [from necessity, the “first freedom”] of which we have been speaking, as if the will thus suffered violence or were subject to necessity. Rather is he witnessing to the fact that he lacks that freedom which is called freedom from sin. Because, whoever wants to have a good will proves thereby that he has a will, since his desire is aimed at good only through his will. And if he finds himself unable to have a good will whereas he really wants to, then this is because he feels freedom is lacking in him, freedom namely from sin, by which it pains him that his will is oppressed, though not suppressed. Indeed it is more than likely that, since he wants to have a good will, he does, in fact, to some extent, have it. What he wants is good, and he could hardly want good otherwise than by means of good will; just as he could want evil only by a bad will. When we desire good, then our will is good; when evil, evil. In either case, there is will; and everywhere freedom; necessity yields to will. But if we are unable to do what we will, we feel that freedom itself is somehow captive to sin, or that it is unhappy, not that it is lost.

The words here rendered “oppressed, though not suppressed” are premi non perimi, and are difficult to translate, but the sense is that, though the will is in part impaired (by sin), it is not rendered powerless. Moral theologians of later ages would develop in detail the Church’s accepted moral doctrine concerning the diminishing of the freedom of the will by habitual sin, yet the notion is here in seminal form in Saint Bernard. The doctrine here explained is very consoling. If we will the good but yet sin, there is still some good in us. The remedy is grace, the major burden of Saint Bernard’s book, which is there for us if we but ask of it. For that reason and others, in the practical order, prayer is the main point of contact between God’s grace and our free will. It opens us to the remedy our will needs. Without prayer, even the sacraments will avail us but little because we lack the necessary dispositions to receive the remedies they contain.

Concerning the “third freedom,” that from suffering, or, as he also calls it, “the freedom of glory,” the Cistercian abbot is clear that it is not for this life, but the next, for “it is reserved for us in our homeland” of Heaven:

There is also a freedom from sorrow, of which the Apostle again says: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” [Rom. 8:21]. But would anyone in this mortal condition dare arrogate to himself even this kind of freedom?

He further adds that, by this third freedom,

[W]e are raised up to glory, a perfect creature in the Spirit. [And] … by it, we cast down death itself. … Finally, by the last-named, in our own more perfect submission to ourselves through victory over corruption and death — when, that is, death shall be last of all destroyed [1 Cor. 15:26] — we will pass over into the glorious freedom of the sons of God [Rom. 8:21], the freedom by which Christ will set us free, when he delivers us as a kingdom to God the Father.[Cf. 1 Cor. 15:24]”

We are living in a time when our civic freedoms seem imperiled by an emerging biometric security state, an Orwellian oligarchic kleptocracy that demands we give up our freedoms for the lying promises of safety, security, and now health. In the midst of these mendacious statist shenanigans — so obvious to those not drinking the Kool-Aid of mainstream media and Big Tech—let us more and more cherish and cling to our real freedoms which are ours by Baptism and the giving of the Holy Ghost… and which no man can take from us.


Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.


The featured image shows, “The Liberation of Saint Peter,” by Juan de Valdés Leal, painted ca. 1650.

A Reflection On Mystery

Few words can be more misleading to the modern ear than the Orthodox use of the word “mystery.” It’s a fine New Testament word and is (technically) the proper name for the sacraments in Orthodoxy (though we most often say ‘sacrament’ in English). Its root meaning is that of something “hidden.” In our culture’s language, mystery is more a matter of a who-done-it or a reference to something so puzzling or beyond us that it cannot be known. It’s not unusual for the non-Orthodox to complain that when pressed really hard, the Orthodox will take refuge and say, “It’s a mystery.” So, what is the mystery in “mystery?”

There is a debate about the exact root of the word in Greek. Most agree that it has to do with silence. Indeed, one speculation is that it is onomatopoetic (a word that sounds like what it is). As such, it comes from a root which is the sound you make when your mouth is closed (“mmmm”). In St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy, directions to priests on certain prayers are that they are to be said “mystically,” meaning that the prayer should be spoken softly (sotto voce). This soft-spoken meaning also can reflect the sense of “secret.”

“Mystery” is a major term in some of St. Paul’s writings, particularly Ephesians and Colossians. There he describes the entire plan of salvation as a “mystery that has now been revealed.” He makes reference to the same thing in Romans as well (16:25). Christ Himself uses the term in Mark’s gospel, telling the disciples that it has been given to them to “know the mystery of the Kingdom of God,” while it is hidden in parables for others (4:11).

But there is more to the word than mere secret. St. Paul also speaks of the “mystery of godliness” and the “mystery of iniquity.” In those expressions the word does not describe secret information, but a hidden process at work. And this gets closer, I think, to St. Paul’s other uses as well. For him, “mystery” is not the same thing as “secret.” It is not information that is being held back. Rather, it is a reality that is not made manifest as of yet. And this is at the very heart of the Orthodox use of the word.

When St. Paul speaks of the “mystery hidden from before the ages” (1Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) he is referencing Christ’s Pascha, the “Lamb slain from the foundation.” This is not a reference to a secret plan, but to the very hidden truth of Christ Crucified and its work in creation. I’ve always appreciated C.S. Lewis’ play on this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He describes a “deep magic” which the witch does not know, and, on account of which she unwittingly brings about her own defeat. In the Corinthians passage St. Paul says:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

In the presentation of Christ crucified as mystery, we are to understand that the crucifixion itself is a manifestation in time of that which has been true from before the ages. The crucifixion is more than an event – it is a revelation of the truth of who God is. It is proper for us to say that Christianity is inherently apocalyptic – it is a revealing of that which has been hidden.

This same theme even plays out in the description of our salvation:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:2-4)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom. 8:18-19)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

Something of the same notion is found in the Old Testament as well:

Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wis. 3:5-7)

It is keenly important to understand that what is hidden is not something that does not already exist: that would be a mere secret, an idea. The mystery described and referenced within the Scriptures is a reality that existed before the creation itself. It is Christ crucified. It is the treasure of our salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:3-5)

It is this very “mystery” that forms the substance of the sacraments of the Church. In Baptism, we are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ (an eternal reality); in the Eucharist, we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the crucified Christ, slain from the foundation of the earth, and so on. The mystery of our salvation is not presented to us as something that has not yet happened. It is rather something that has not yet been revealed. Its reality is greater than the things we see at present:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

This same understanding is the basis for the various forms of allegory used in reading the Scriptures. That reading is not a literary device. Rather, it is a discernment of something that is true and real and that lies beneath the surface of the words. Those who champion the “literal-historical” reading, as though it were the only firm foundation, utterly neglect the very character of our salvation. The mystery of the crucified Christ is the content of all Scripture, and is read by those who know Him.

The Orthodox answer, “It is a mystery,” is not an effort to dodge difficult questions. It is, instead, an attempt to say what is most profoundly true. Not only is Christ the mystery which has been made known, but we ourselves are a mystery, yet to be revealed. The world around us, like the Scriptures themselves, have Christ Crucified as their truth, for Christ is the Logos, according to which and through which the logos of every created thing is made. If you do not know the mystery of creation, then you do not know creation.

It is a mystery known to the trees and rocks. They groan, waiting for it to be made manifest. Occasionally, they begin to shout, to sing and to clap their hands. The song of creation is a mystery, heard by those who have ears to hear.


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


The featured image shows, “The Visitation,” by Gerónimo Antonio de Ezquerra, painted ca. 1737.

“Systematic” Theology And Orthodoxy

I have heard it said, numerous times, that Orthodox Christianity “does not do” systematic theology. Having done my graduate studies in systematic theology, I occasionally bristle at the comment, particularly when those making it have never actually studied the subject. It is true that Orthodoxy does not do “systematic” theology, as such, but the statement can be quite misleading, implying that there’s no place for systematics in Orthodoxy and that studying it is a waste of time (and un-Orthodox). So, here is a small tutorial in the topic.

The assumption behind systematic theology is that the universe is actually a “uni-verse” – that is, it has a unity throughout. The laws of physics that apply in this corner of the universe are the same laws that apply everywhere else. This also means that if you find laws elsewhere that contradict the laws you understand to apply where you are, then you need to re-examine your understanding. You do not have the complete story on your present circumstance.

In science, if you come across a new species of tree, you can study it to see what makes it unique. However, you will also assume that, since it is a tree, it will share most of the characteristics of other trees. If it doesn’t, either it isn’t a tree, or our understanding of trees needs to be revised.

This consistency and stability across creation is what is meant by “system” in “systematic theology.” If, for example, I say that “God is good,” and then something comes along that would seem to contradict that, then something about the statement “God is good” needs to be revised. Or, perhaps, I am misunderstanding the contradiction. What is “systematic” in such an approach is a reasonable expectation that a statement made in one place will not be contradicted in another. So, when reading a “systematic theology,” consistency and cogency are important measurements.

When I was studying systematics, one of our seminars required us to read about a dozen different, so-called, systematic theologies, from across a very broad spectrum. I recall someone presenting a paper on the doctrine of God in the writings of the radical feminist Catholic, Rosemary Radford Ruether. When the student finished reading the paper, there was a dead, stunned silence in the room. Finally, a sheepish voice piped up, “Isn’t that the Force in Star Wars?” We broke out in laughter because it was precisely what she had articulated. It might make for interesting reading, but it certainly could not be called “Christian.”

Orthodox theology is not studied or written in the manner of Protestant systematics. Orthodox thought is largely what has been traditioned and is drawn from the Fathers and our liturgical life. Protestant theology is often more ideologically driven, departing from and dismissing major portions of tradition. They are simply not the same thing. But, having said that, Orthodox thought is not devoid of system. Thinking carefully about that is, I think, worthwhile.

The first eight centuries in the life of the Church were a time when doctrine and theology were being expressed and argued in a manner that has not been repeated since. I do not think it is correct to describe the process as a “development of doctrine.” However, there was a very careful development of vocabulary. And, in that vocabulary, we can see something of a “system” being articulated.

When the First Council of Nicaea met, the greater debate centered on the use of the word “homoousios” (“one essence” or “one being”). The word did not meet with instant acceptance because it had once been a term favored by the heretic Paul of Samosata who used it to teach a form of “modalism.” The debate raged through the remainder of the century with councils and counter-councils and imperial interference and endless rangling. The work of the Cappadocians (St. Basil the Great, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, St. Gregory the Theologian) succeeded in defining and refining terminology such that a consensus prevailed in the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I). It gave us the Creed in its present form. What they gave us, more importantly, was a growing consensus on vocabulary.

Slowly, as the centuries moved along, the common vocabulary of dogma found expression in the public teaching of the Church. This meant that words such as, “being,” “person,” “nature,” “energy,” “will,” etc., meant the same thing whenever they were used. Thus, when speaking of “person,” or “hypostasis,” the word came to mean the same thing whether it was referring to the persons of the Holy Trinity or human persons. All of that might seem easy now, or even obvious, but it was not so when all of those conversations began.

It is surprising for some to realize that St. Athanasius, who first introduced the term “homoousios,” might have had a slightly different understanding of the term than it came to have later in the century when it was reaffirmed at the Second Council. To see that requires a much deeper and more careful study of Patristic thought than is commonly done. The development of vocabulary, for example, is the reason why St. Cyril of Alexandria is given a pass for using the term “nature” (“physis”) in a manner that would later be described by the term “person” (“hypostasis”). The refusal to accept a developing and changing vocabulary in this instance resulted in the schism with the so-called “Monophysites,” who probably would be more accurately described as “Cyril-ites.” The “system” that was found in working out common meaning for technical terms required an agreement that clearly failed in the case of that early schism. Language matters.

All of this came to my mind recently during a social media conversation regarding atonement theory. The doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (that Jesus was punished for our sins to appease the wrath of the Father) was the topic. I have been quite critical of the theory and was being taken to task with examples of the use of “punishment” and “substitution” found, on occasion, in the writings of the Fathers. Perhaps I overstate the case when I say that I do not find it to be “Orthodox.” I will clarify.

What I find is that it is a theory expressed in terms, images, and language that seem to fall outside the vocabulary that I have generally seen to be normative in Orthodox writings (including those of the Fathers). When reading St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, it is quite common to hear the problem of sin described in terms of “being” and “non-being,” rendered as “life” and “death.” Something of the same can be seen in St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. This pattern and vocabulary can be found throughout the Cappadocians, perhaps because they seem to be particularly attentive to language and consistency.

I have found a consistent vocabulary and use of imagery in the theme of life/death, being/non-being, communion/disintegration, etc., in thinking about how it is and what it means when we sin, and how it is and what it means that we are saved. It is possible to describe and think about these things in a consistent manner, such that when we speak of Christ’s incarnation, of our bondage in sin and death, His death on the Cross and His resurrection, as well as the sacraments of Baptism into His death and resurrection, and the Eucharist as communion in His Body and Blood, and so forth, a common vocabulary and understanding unite them all. For myself, this consistency has been common to my treatment of the atonement across the board.

Though it is possible to find isolated uses of penal imagery in the early Fathers, it nowhere seems to rise to the level of a common vocabulary extending throughout their work, much less becoming the basis for how we speak about asceticism, spirituality, or, the doctrine of God. Thus, when I describe it as being “not Orthodox,” I mean that it sounds “out of tune.”

The imagery of music, of a symphony, is quite apt when thinking about the whole of theology. There are many instruments in a symphony, each with varying shades of tonality and range of pitch. First, all instruments have to be “in tune,” so that what is “A-440” for one is the same for all. Second, comes the music itself. It is written in a single key (I’m sure that somebody has written a modern symphony with instruments playing in different keys – though, if it is taken far enough, we pass from music to pure noise). If you’re playing Beethoven’s 5th (which is written in C minor), and, fifteen measures into the performance the brass sections begin to play in E flat major, the result could be quite interesting, but less pleasant, and perhaps disastrous.

This, for me, is something of the effect of hearing an Orthodox priest teaching the atonement in the key of penal substitution. I feel as though Calvinists have stormed the auditorium and taken over some section of the orchestra. It can be defended by citing some place or other where such imagery was used on occasion. But the overall result is quite jarring, often creates confusion, and risks becoming a disaster. It can be done – but should you want to?

Orthodoxy has a two-thousand year history. It’s history does not begin in the mind of a systematic theologian. As such, we cannot describe it as “systematic theology.” But, if you listen carefully to the music of theology over those many centuries, certain themes sound clearly, while others seem to appear, and, just as suddenly, disappear. Music is not engineering. For me, it makes music a better analogy for theology.

I suspect that among my failings (if it be such) is a love for a symphony in a single key (with proper modulations and relative key changes). If it is possible to write and teach theology with a consistency that allows the whole thing to be seen for its unity, then I think it produces a better result. This same tendency, I think, was present in the Cappadocians, and has recurred in other major figures such as St. Maximus. It is why they sound so much alike, in general, and while none of them sound like Calvin.

But this is music, and I well appreciate that others might see this (hear this) in a different manner.


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


The featured image shows, “Christ among the Doctors,” by Albrecht Dürer, painted in 1506.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 3: Why Herder Matters

1. Herder And Philosophical Anthropology

Like Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder has remained a peripheral figure in the history of philosophy, often (and irrespective of the mounting number of books and articles demonstrating the folly of this oversimplification) wrongly caricatured as an irrationalist, nationalist and relativist. As with Hamann he does not fit the more common arc of the history of philosophy that moves from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Leibniz to Hume and Kant, through Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

Although, due to Herder’s Spinozian organicism (and its fusion with Leibniz and Shaftesbury), and his metaphysical arguments for the centrality of attractive and repellent forces, the claim that there is a point of “indifference,” that nature is an organic whole of gradations, along with his preoccupation with the spirit of peoples, many of his ideas (though to be sure thrown-off and applied rather than systematically developed) are firmly imprinted in Schelling and Hegel.

Nevertheless, Herder’s approach is so contrary to systemic closure that his absence in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy should not be surprising: for ultimately philosophy in Herder is so closely allied with the vast expanse of human sensibility and knowledge more generally that it makes it difficult for philosophers to know exactly what to do with him. Thus, it was that Kant, Herder’s former teacher, in his first review of Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, chastised him like a schoolboy for his lack of philosophical rigour: “Our resourceful author should curb his lively genius somewhat, and that philosophy, which is more concerned with pruning luxuriant growths than with propagating them, should guide him towards the completion of his enterprise.”

For his part, when Herder was his student he had been deeply impressed by Kant, and had even read a poem of his in class lauding his teaching. But, Kant’s critical philosophy was symptomatic of the depth of division between their respective philosophies. Whether in the analytic or the continental and poststructuralist tradition, Herder has remained largely out of sight and mind. It is true that Heidegger did give a graduate seminar on Herder’s work, On the Origin of Language, in 1939 which has now been published and translated as, On the Essence of Language: Concerning Herder’s Treatise On the Origin of Language—but this treatise is not only a mere slither of Herder’s corpus, it represents a position Herder later came to see (largely due to Hamann giving him a blast) as mistaken.

If it is Kant and his successors rather than Herder that has been incorporated into the larger body of philosophy, Herder was, nevertheless not only a decisive figure in the formation of the golden age of German letters, commencing but moving far beyond Sturm und Drang, but also a major influence in nineteenth century movements outside of Germany such as Emerson’s Transcendentalism, English romanticism, the Oxford movement, the pre-Raphaelites, and figures, such as, Ruskin and Carlyle.

Within Germany, there was hardly any contemporary cultural figure Herder did not engage with personally—Lessing, Klopstock, Winckelmann, Jacobi, Lavater, Mendelssohn, von Haller, Schiller, Abbt, Nicolai, Lenz, Wieland, Merck, Gleim—a “who’s who” of German letters of the time. He was Goethe’s greatest educator. And after Goethe had broken with him—due to Herder’s intolerable rudeness toward him—Jean Paul would make himself his “student.”

Likewise, there is no subject that did not interest him. In every way, he defied conforming to a type. He was an inspiring pastor, rather than a university professor; an inspirer of poets, translator and literary critic, rather than a poet (he wrote many poems, but they are not what make him important); a philosopher generally unacceptable to other philosophers; the author of a philosophical anthropological history, rather than a historian as such; a Christian and a Spinozist (and hence too a major figure, along with Goethe, in the Romantic rendering of Spinoza); a disciple of Hamann who, nevertheless, does not share Hamann’s hostility to metaphysics; a lover not only of Hebrews and Winckelmann’s Greece, but of all human cultural achievement. Few had read so widely and deeply about the various “spirits” of the ages and across the globe, or indeed, as his Adrastea illustrates, European political history and genres of expression of the eighteenth century.

I should also mention that there has always been a current of interest in Herder in the English speaking world, beginning in 1800 with what remains the only complete translation of Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit by T. Churchill (translated as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man).

By far the most comprehensive and detailed examination of Herder’s life and thought in English is Robert Clark Jr’s extremely thorough Herder: His Life and Thought. It is also the case that work on Herder is now more intense than ever, and with such landmark studies as the recent edited collections by Hans Adler and Wulf Koepke, Companion to the Works of Johann Gottfried Herder, and, Anik Waldow and Nigel De Souzas’s Herder: Philosophy and Anthropology (also an edited collection); as well as a number of quality works by F. M. Barnard, Michael Forster, John Zammito, Sonia Sikka, Vicki Spencer and others, Herder’s intellectual importance no longer need be a forgotten secret.

Yet the fact remains that Herder is still something of a minor philosophical figure in a time when the appetite for German eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophy has never been greater. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this state of affairs than the fact that while there is now a reasonable selection of his works available in English, such major works as his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity (with the exception of some letters), his two large and important critiques of Kant: Understanding and Experience: A Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason, and Kalligone, his critique of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, as well as his encyclopedic Adrastea have not been translated. Though there is a reasonable amount of German secondary literature on Herder’s writings on Kant, his critique of Kant remains largely ignored in the English-speaking world, and most of the German material tends to side with Kant. More’s the pity, for Herder rightly saw that the Kantian legacy is one in which people who do not know or feel enough (aesthetics) are all ready to pass judgment as if they were reason incarnate.

If, we are looking for the key to what holds Herder’s work together, there is much merit in Nigel DeSouza’s claim that “Herder’s thought as a whole is best seen through the lens of the term ‘anthropology:’ all his writings on literature, the arts, history, language, religion and education have at their center the aim of understanding human beings.” Herder himself writes that: “Philosophy is drawn back to Anthropology.” Nevinson’s observation, which defines Herder via negation, is no less astute: “Herder was neither a priest, nor a poet, nor a philosopher.”

Herder’s genius is the genius of intellectual openness, and insatiable interest. He has the same spirit of endless humane curiosity that makes Herodotus the world’s first historian and anthropologist—though Herder took inspiration from almost everyone and everything he read, even if he could be a savage polemicist. Indeed, when it came to philosophical inspiration for his ideas, he was an enormous sponge soaking up—and refashioning for his own purposes—all manner of contradictory intellectual influences, which he combined into a philosophy which was uniquely his. Thus, along with Hamann, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Shaftesbury, he incorporates the pre-critical Kant, Rousseau, Bacon, Vico, Montesquieu, Thomas Abbt, Locke, Newton, Baumgarten, Plato, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

Ultimately it is the integration of philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, religion, natural science and the recognition of humanity as culturally constituted, and culture itself as temporal (cultures are born, live and die) as well as spatial habitats that makes Herder our contemporary. Paradoxically, in spite of falling far behind Kant or Hegel in terms of direct philosophical influence, he is more our contemporary than either of them. For while their genius is indisputable, each come to grief through the limits of making what they know dominate their respective systems.

While Kant has the advantage over Hegel of making systemicity a heuristic rather than Absolute, in the overall scheme this matters little—for Kant’s philosophical inquiry is based upon the fabrications that have already been philosophically prepared for it, i.e. the transcendental conditions, and accompanying cognitive sources Kant believes he has been the first to successfully isolate within the greater orb of reason, while Herder consistently held that the mind and soul cannot be divorced from the gamut of physiological forces which provide its great “sea of inflowing sensuality which stirs the soul, which supplies it with material.” Hence contra the lineage that links Descartes with Kant: “One will never get deeply to the bottom of these forces if one merely treats them superficially as ideas that dwell in the soul, or, worse still, separates them from one another as walled compartments and considers them individually in independence.”

The Newtonian base-line of the first Critique, when taken in conjunction with the account Kant provides, and the orientation required to build up our concepts so that they match our intuitions, serves for what is ultimately a very narrow funnel for a more enlightened understanding of the world, and the kind of knowledge we have of it. The epistemological foundation, and underlying ontology, of theoretical knowledge is theoretical physics, hence the touchstone of human knowledge is supplied by the disposition of the inquirer, whose own participation in reality, is also “theoretically” limited to that of observer and crafter of models for testing and confirming the laws of nature.

Of course, this is then subordinated to the moral aspirations and ideas of the rationally moral “free” subject. The Critique of Judgment belatedly comes to rescue the subject from the isolation of moral freedom, by conceding that the sensory side of the subject may be awakened to what is beautiful and sublime, and be permitted to deploy a heuristic for the purposes of identifying ends within natural processes, and a moral purpose within history. Hamann, Herder, Schelling, Hegel all react to Kant’s compartmentalizations and the transcendental “funnels” of the self’s mental activities as simultaneously failing to provide anything more than a mental spectre of the unity we experience in action, as well as the vast body of knowledge—including the scientific knowledge of nature that falls outside Newtonianism or biology—that refuses to be funneled into Kant’s compartments.

Hegel is closer to both Hamann and Herder in simultaneously valorising the underlying unity we provide for our imaginings, knowledge and experiences whilst rejecting the fissures Kant requires to ensure claims be allocated to the compartments philosophy has created. Nevertheless, whereas Hegel’s Absolute requires perfect knowledge at every movement of its dialectical development (even if, to save him from himself, Hegelians avoid this or purport, in spite of all Hegel’s claims to the contrary, that this is not the case), Herder’s philosophy is developmental and dialogical, provisional rather than complete, an aspiration for further conversableness.

Schelling’s anti-Hegelian combination of the contingency of being, and the irruptiveness of freedom is closer to Herder, but, unlike Herder, his philosophical labour is so tightly aligned with his metaphysical conundrums and explorations that one is interminably drawn back into the cosmic inwards of his system. That is, whether Schelling is exploring nature, the arts, mythology or revelation, the demonstration of his system with its key principles shapes the directions and developments of his corpus.

Again, Herder is not sufficiently beholden to philosophy for such a conceit: although there are recurrent philosophical decisions and metaphysical ideas that drive his work—such as organic relationships, providence, force, sensation, physiology, language—he assembles philosophical positions to enhance the “understanding” of the material under observation so that the different groupings best be compared and learnt from. The primary purpose is always to make our inquiries contribute to a better understanding of the world and the cultures and peoples who constitute it.

Far from being inconsistent with his opposition to system-building, this is all part of a programmatic undertaking for philosophy, rather than the marshalling of evidence to confirm the principles of exploration as such. That Hamann could respect and intellectually support Herder in spite of sharing none of his metaphysical speculations is indicative of the intellectual openness of his philosophical deployments. (Hamann commented that Herder’s God, Some Conversations was a “Schuhu, a great horned owl that had better creep away and hide itself in the dark.”
While Nietzsche emphasises that truth is grounded in perspectivism, Herder can be seen as something (but only something) of a kindred spirit in opposition to abstractions that simply ride over the social, historical and cultural (“spirited”) habitats which supply people with their understanding and ideas about life and what has value.

But Herder wants to take to the open seas to “gather” as many perspectives as humanly possible. Nietzsche also uses the metaphor of open seas—but outside of his beloved Greeks, and the rather slim pickings he takes from European history and elsewhere, as in his appeal to the Book of Manu, Nietzsche’s dreams of supermen and higher men, alongside his divide between master and slave morality leaves him little need to leave his (and Zarathustra’s) mountains.

Nietzsche, in spite of his opposition to Platonisms of all sorts represents the terrible tendency of idea-ism—which, connects him with Marx, and the 68 generation, viz., intellectual self-satisfaction with the very little knowledge one actually has, and complete self-assurance that this knowledge of the world and people suffices for dictating a future that the people of the world need to make a better world. For his part, Herder could never know enough. The ambition and the urge, confirmed by the sheer depth and breadth of the subject matters of his corpus, is expressed with youthful exuberance in his Travel Diary of 1769 where he writes of the thrill of travelling (in mind as well as body), whilst contrasting the world and all its inexhaustible richness with the situation of the everyday life of the scholar.

On land one is chained to a fixed spot, and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation. Often the point is the student’s chair in a musty study, a place at a monotonous boarding-house table, a pulpit, a lectern. And the situation is often a small town, where one is an idol of an audience of three, to whom alone one pays attention, and a monotony of occupation in which one is jostled alike by conventionality and presumption. How petty and restricted do life, honor, esteem, desire, fears, hate, aversion, love, friendship, delight in learning, professional duties and inclination become in such circumstances; how narrow and cramped the whole spirit in the end!

The Diary itself is a great sea of ambition and enthusiasm, a life-long project requiring him to know all he can, to answer the countless questions he raises about—pretty-well everything. At one point he exclaims:

What a work on the human species! The human spirit! The culture of the earth! Of all spaces! times! Peoples (Völker)! forces! mixtures! forms! Asiatic religion! And chronology and policing (Polizei) and philosophy! Egyptian art and Philosophy and policing! Phoenician arithmetic and languages and luxury! Everything Greek! Everything Roman! Nordic religion, law, customs, war. Honour! Papal time, monks, learning, North-Nordic-Asiatic crusaders, pilgrims, knights! Christian heathen awakening of learning! France! English, Dutch, German form! -Chinese, Japanese politics! Natural science of a new world! American customs etc.—Great theme: the human race will not pass until it is all done! Until the genius of luminosity is traversed! Universal history of the world!

A no less ambitious account appears in the same work:

Let my first prospect be the study of the human soul, in itself and in its manifestations on this earth; its strains and stresses, its hopes and satisfactions, its influence on a man’s character and on his conception of duties; in short let me discover the springs of human happiness. Everything else is to be set aside whilst I am engaged in gathering materials for this task and in learning to know, arouse, control and use every motive force in the human heart, from fear and wonder to quiet meditation and gentle day dreaming. For this purpose, I will collect data from the history of all ages: each shall yield to me the pictures of its own customs. Usages, virtues and vices, and its own conception of happiness; and I will trace them all down to the present and so learn to use them rightly. In every age—though each in a different way—the human race has happiness as its objective; we in our own times are misled if, like Rousseau, we extol ages which no longer exist and never did exist, if we make ourselves miserable by painting romantic pictures of these ages to the disparagement of our own instead of finding enjoyment in the present.

The critical reference to Rousseau, the warning against extolling ages “which no longer exist and never did exist,” and the dangers of idealizing other peoples and ages for the purpose of criticising one’s own nation and age is indicative of Herder’s desire for a well-informed understanding of what humanity has actually achieved in its diverse ways of world-making, in the context of its material, physical, social, and historical conditions. Herder realized that he was laying out a research project rather than providing anything like a final reckoning. Thus, in the Preface to what (among many contenders) is probably his magnum opus, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man he writes:

He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!

In the penultimate paragraph of the Preface, he will even refer to the book as his “infantile attempt.” To be sure, his hope that such a building might be completed “before the end of the chiliad, if not in the present century” reflects a providential view where our participations might somehow form a whole to be completed, thus underestimating the importance of the ever-changing temporalities intrinsic to the dialectical relationship between who is exploring and what is being explored. But ultimately, it is Herder’s opening of the vista of ideas, and his provision of an opening for doing philosophy, rather than the prospect of any closure that makes him so important. Although he displays little interest in the technological side of Bacons’ programme), he esteems Bacon for his emphasis upon the empirical study of the natural world around him.

Thus, the opening chapters of Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, commencing with the chapter “Our Earth is a Star among Stars,” are intended to supply the most up to date relevant scientific details of what we know about the natural conditions which give rise to life, and its organic forms, on earth before he focuses more upon “man” and his powers and habitat. Like Vico, Herder’s project requires listening to peoples of the past, to learn from them how they have gone about their “business.” And like Hamann he appreciates the centrality of language, and tradition. But it also requires a conversation between traditions in the context of them becoming contemporaries in a new world.

Further, Herder is driven both by a desire to understand as well as educate so that we may better appreciate the vastness of human experience, especially human achievements across ages, peoples and “nations” and cultures. In this respect he is dedicated to the project of moral and political advancement for the purpose of creating more peaceful conditions, and a richer deployment of the powers of the human spirit. But he is ever cautious of the dangers of adopting the higher moral ground for instructing those whose material and spiritual habitats have thrown up very different circumstances, problems, as well spiritual resources for dealing with their situations. Different habitats have required, and frequently still require very different responses from those appropriate for our “life-world.” The danger with abstraction, in part at least, lies in the failure to adequately appreciate the different constituent conditions which need to be understood if we are to understand what we are talking about, or what is a requisite of any “talking with.”

While empirical material is of the essence, Herder does see philosophy as an important means for improving our judgment in order to have a better (a clearer and more distinct) comprehension of what we are dealing with. Philosophy’s role is largely to assist in the organising of the material. Thus, in the Fourth Grove of his Critical Forests, he says:

The essence of philosophy is to entice forth, so to speak, ideas that lie within us, to illuminate into distinctness the truths that we knew only obscurely, to develop proofs that we did not grasp clearly in all their intermediary steps. All this requires judgments and inferences, judgments that start from the comparison of two ideas and are developed through a series of inferences until the relation of these ideas to each other becomes evident. Herein lies the essence and formative power of all philosophy: that through it I can see manifestly, certainly truths I did not see before at all, or at least not as clearly, not as distinctly; that through it I can form judgments of taste with a certainty and distinguish beauties in a light in which they had not appeared to me before; that through it I can view the origin, form, and consequences of the essence of good and evil in a manner that I simply had not glimpsed before. Such is the plastic power of philosophy.

Closely related to this role for philosophy is a view of ideas that is very close to Leibniz’s emphasis upon perception being a continuum in which clearer ideas are rooted in more obscure ideas and perceptions which are, nevertheless, in spite of their obscurity formative of the mind. In the Fifth Collection of his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity, number 61, what he writes of Leibniz well applies to himself: “There is nothing I admire more in this great, impartial soul, who his whole life joyfully adopted everything which served any part of science.” For all of his deep debt to Leibniz, though, which includes him not depriving sensation of intellection at its elemental levels, and his appreciation of Leibniz’s ability to always look for the best in a position, there is none of Leibniz’s logicism. Likewise, he refrains from accepting the idea that monads are completely self-contained and windowless.

But, as in Leibniz, the sharpness of distinction between reason and feeling is blurred for Herder. For a feeling has its reasons. This does not mean that Herder makes feeling everything, but it is allied with the importance he ascribes to aesthetics in intellectual development, and also it is indicative of an important difference between him and Kant on the matter of representations. Kant’s critical philosophy works in close conjunction with the problem of the fit between a “model” of the sort that is required for investigations in physics and brings together mathematics and the isolation of variables. From Herder’s perspective such a belated process of intellection cannot be taken as providing a clue to the ground of experience. Thus, in the same work, Herder writes:

The whole ground of our soul consists of obscure ideas, the most vivid and most numerous ideas, the throng from which the soul prepares its more refined ones; these obscure ideas are the most powerful mainsprings of our life, make the greatest contribution to our happiness and unhappiness. If we imagine the integral parts of the human soul in physical terms, it possesses, if I may be permitted to express myself in this way, a greater mass of powers specific to a sensuous being than to a pure spirit: the soul has therefore been endowed with a human body; it is a human being. As a human being it has developed, in accordance with its mass of internal powers and within the bounds of its existence, a number of organs with which to perceive surrounding objects and, as it were, to intromit (sic) them for its own enjoyment. Even the number of these organs and the vast wealth of impressions flowing into them demonstrate, as it were, how great the mass of the sensuous is within the human soul.

Philosophy, then serves, primarily as a means of sifting and clarifying for better comparison the material contingencies and hence also values that accompany the different experiences that form different persons and peoples. Different regions, and this is true for different ages, are enmeshed in different sensoria:

The sensibility of human nature is not exactly identical in every region of the earth. A different tissue into which the strings of sensation are woven; a different world of objects and sounds that initially rouse one dormant string or another by setting it in motion; different powers that tune one string or another to a different pitch, thereby setting its tone forever, so to speak—in short, there is a quite different arrangement of our faculty of perception, and yet it still lies in the hands of Nature.

The temptation of philosophy is to take short-cuts by laying down principles or finding general concepts—against which Herder says, “I cannot lay down rules; my aim is to present a history of individual experiences”—into which to pour what Kant calls a “manifold.” But, for Herder, by this very act philosophy ceases to be an assistant in the great labour of better understanding. Thus, he urges:

Let the man, who is proud of his reason, contemplate the theatre of his fellow beings throughout the wide world, or listen to their many-toned dissonant history the way of man resembles a labyrinth, abounding on all sides with divergent passages, while but few footsteps lead to the innermost chamber.

Concomitantly, just as Vico had criticized the tendency for philosophers to read history as if early peoples were opaquely expressing the ideas of later-day philosophers, Herder requires of philosophers that they go beyond their own systems and principles in order to recover what they have yet to learn. Although Herder played an important role in reviving Spinoza on account of his provision of an organic and dynamic view of life’s intrinsic unity, he also criticises the fact Spinoza has “only a metaphysical sense of the poetry of the Prophets; and in the whole composition of his works, he is a solitary thinker, to whom the graces of the social world and an ingratiating manner are entirely unknown.”

The problem of Spinoza and enlightened philosophers, including Kant, who undertake to identify and lay down general ethical or moral ideas in detail is their mistaken belief that the more abstract and general ideas are sufficient for providing guidance to the living. Thus, the philosopher is in danger of becoming a “know-all” about the good, true and the beautiful, instead of a contributor to a deeper fathoming of what they actually entail. And, as we have said repeatedly, what they entail must not be closed off by a decision that delimits them from the outset. Their content can only be discovered by the undertaking a “journey” of the human spirits and the multitude of achievements of those spirits.

2. The Importance Of Herder’s Metacritique Of Kant

Herder’s two critiques of Kant are his two most detailed cases pitting the idea of philosophy as a “journey” in opposition to the kind of philosophy that is “fixed and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation.”

Since the deafening silence that greeted the publication of the Metacritique (there was support from others on the philosophical margins such as Wieland, Gleim, and Knebel), and Goethe’s expression that he wished Herder had never published his Metacritique (Clark even makes the ridiculous suggestion, given its length and elaborate details, that he probably did not even read it), there has been no shortage of commentators lining up to “tut-tut” over Herder’s critiques of Kant, including, a Herder scholar of great merit, Michael Foster, who calls them, “an angry and irresponsible attack on Kant.” Such a dismissal does no justice to the character, nature, depth, or significance of Herder’s criticisms of Kant. Even more silly is the claim, made when it first appeared, that the two volume Metacritique merely plagiarises Hamann’s Metacritique (a work, though delivering a surgical strike, runs to less than twenty pages).

Herder wrestles seriously and at length with both the first and third Critiques, and he does so because he detects that Kantianism has been as influential as it has been damaging to philosophy, and not only to philosophy, but to the culture, particularly the younger generation. In the Preface to the Metacritique he writes:

The critical philosophy has played its role for twelve years, and we see its fruits. Which father (they all ask themselves) wishes that his son would become an autonomous critical type, a metaphysicus of nature and virtue, a dialectical or even a revolution rabble rouser, in accordance with a critical blow? Now look around and read. Which recent book, which science is not more or less covered with the stains of this sort, and how many noble talents (we hope, only for a while) destroyed?….
A person who would deform a nation’s language through artifice (verkünstelt), (how cleverly it is done) has corrupted and spoiled the tool of its reason; a great many young people have had their noblest organ mutilated, and the understanding itself, whose field can never close out speculative inquiry, misled. Could we have a greater duty and gift, than the free heartfelt use of our understanding?

The same concerns are also a primary motivation for writing the Kalligone where he speaks of how he has seen “so many, many youth corrupted by the Critique,” and he criticizes “the ignorant, arrogant, and insolent,” who take on academic positions, while they “should still be learning.” They pontificate upon what they neither have “the concepts,” nor “knowledge,” to understand. “The time will come,” he warns, “when the nation itself is ashamed of every ignorant, indecent, random criticism of a shame inflicted on her.”

If the Kalligone is often polemical, that is largely because Herder had spent a lifetime thinking about art and its social and historical significance, and hence the work is replete with examples from different genres, while Kant’s aesthetics proceeds with little attention to actual aesthetic works. What Herder finds particularly galling is that Kant treats human creativity as if it were of far less consequence than the philosophical dictates concerning aesthetic value and meaning. Indeed, Herder is repulsed by Kant laying down an aesthetic without thinking he needs to explore the vast array of aesthetic creations which have played such an important part in the cultural formations of peoples.

Further, whereas Herder attempts to think how all kinds of knowledge are gathered and connected through the physiological apertures of our being, and the capacities of expression available to us, and thus how aesthetics is an essential part of what defines us as human, Kant’s third Critique was an “after-thought,” predicated upon the belated recognition of a gap in the critical system.

Thus, in the first Critique there was not a hint that art was even on Kant’s “radar” as important for answering what he referred to as “all the interests of my reason, speculative as practical,” which he says, “combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? What may I hope?” Kant continues by “flattering” himself that he has “exhausted all the possible answers” to the first question, “which is merely speculative.” It was only belatedly that Kant realized that there needed to be some bridge between freedom (practical reason) and necessity (“experience”), which sent him back into the cognitive sources and kinds of judgments—in this case, aesthetic and teleological judgments—which provide clues to claims about beauty, sublimity, self-regulatory systems (biology), and a sense of historical moral improvement.

A core component of Herder’s critique of Kant, in both the Kalligone and Metacritique, is his frustration at Kant’s philosophy failing to adequately incorporate the developmental and conditional—specifically social, historical and cultural—of science, morals and aesthetics because of the apparatus it sets to work with.

In the Metacritique, Herder also does not accept, for a moment, the very restricted view of the sciences that comes from the net Kant weaves with Euclid, Aristotle and Newton. Although Kant “experts” tend to spend their labours nuancing the intricacies of Kant’s moves and choices, the most egregious error of the first Critique emerges from the very thing that makes it such a water-tight accomplishment; the alignment of what Kant sees as the three foundational sciences of space and time (Euclid, and the foundations of mathematics in the number line), of rational thought (Aristotle), and of the physical world (Newton).

But no matter how great a philosophical attempt one may think the critical philosophy was, it was an all-or-nothing philosophy. For if these foundational sciences are just further steps along the way to a greater understanding, how can they then serve as foundations robust enough to provide the clues to the elements of cognition for the framing of nature’s law-governed structure?

Developments in spatial/geometric understanding, logic itself, and eventually even within physics were the developments that were far more destructive to the critical philosophy than any of the idealist critiques that were made by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For while the post-Kantian idealist philosophers, whether fairly or not, could all be accused of metaphysical regression, once the bulwarks of the transcendental philosophy were shown to be less than implacable, the very basis of the problem as well as the clues to the solution had also collapsed.

Now, while Herder does not put the case as bluntly as I have just done, this needs to be born in mind when assessing Herder’s Metacritique, which is, as we shall see below, very much driven by a much more developmental understanding of knowledge so that he finds the very idea of “pure reason” to be a mistaken enterprise, and the mistakes of that enterprise lie at the very foundations of Kant’s problem and ricochet through the answers it provides, which in turn generate in Kant further problems and answers.

Just as in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein breaks open the kind of logical atomism which he once “perfected” by tackling the most basic assumptions which allow it to take off, Herder’s Metacritique refuses to concede the adequacy of the nomenclature for a philosophical enterprise as all-encompassing as Kant proposes his to be. That challenge stands in the closest relationship to his emphasis upon what he sees—and what Hamann also sees—as a false dualism between thought and language, a dualism which is ensconced by Kant’s dividing representations (Vorstellungen) into intuitions and concepts, with intuitions being mute, as they await to be “understood” by means of our concepts. By his invocation of Vorstellungnen as the primary genus which then requires further subdivision, Kant has already mentalized, and thereby invoked a kind of understanding of experience that simply confirms the dualism that he commences with.

By contrast, Herder finds it meaningless to talk in this way about experience as such—what does it mean, he asks, to “intuit” “a tone, a smell, taste, feeling?” Instead of the term Anschauung (which Kant deploys in a manner that draws upon an incipient dualist metaphysics), Herder argues that we would do better to use the more accurate, and less metaphysically and “mentalized” weighted term, Inne-werden (“an awareness” of something). Mentalization without regard to how language dictates our organizations is for Herder an error—one he believes (with more than a little generosity) neither Leibniz, nor Locke committed, both of whom he cites on language.

For Herder, when we are talking of ideas, we are always referring to names of things, names come from the fact that objects are intrinsically meaningful because of the capacity of people to recognize common generalities within differences. In his Ideas of a Philosophy of Mankind, he makes the point in such a way that we can see immediately how his argument also differs so fundamentally from Kant’s asocial atomistic approach and the metaphysical quandaries that are generated out of the approach. Likewise, we see how Herder has pitched the nature of knowledge in such a way that it bypasses the kind of metaphysics that Kant grapples with:

No language expresses things, but names: accordingly, no human reason perceives things, but only marks of them, which it depicts by words. This is an humiliating observation, which gives the whole history of our intellect (sic) narrow limits, and a very insubstantial form. All our science of metaphysics is properly metaphysics, that is an abstracted systematic index of names following observations of experience. As a method, and an index, it may be very useful, and must guide our artificial understanding to a certain degree in all other sciences: but considered in itself, and according to the nature of things, it affords not a single perfect and essential idea, not a single intrinsic truth. All our science reckons with abstracted, individual, extrinsic characters, which reach not the interior of the existence of any one thing, as we have no organ to perceive or express it. We know not, and can never learn to know, any power in its essence: for even that, which animates us, and thinks in us, we feel and enjoy it is true, but we do not know. Thus, we understand no connexion between cause and effect, because we can see into the interior neither of what acts, nor of what is produced, and have absolutely no idea of the entity of a thing. Thus, our poor reason is nothing more than a figuring arithmetician, as its name in many languages implies.

As we can see, then, for Herder, to commence with metaphysics, as if it were the condition of the sciences, rather than a concatenation of ideas and names that has emerged in conjunction with experience and with the sciences, is to proceed in a fundamentally wrong-headed manner. A point which, for Herder, is confirmed by the fact that knowledge is built out of historical experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s fundamental disagreement with the way questions of the soul in Kant are transported beyond any social, historical or anthropological content onto the plane of pure reason.

In Kant, we recall, the ideas of God, and the soul are the products of a transcendental dialectic, reason taking categories, whose sole legitimate function is for the understanding of experience, and treating them as substances. That is, Kant’s treatment of God and the soul is a purely rational one, which is why his transcendental critique is ipso facto a critique of rationalist metaphysics. Nevertheless, for all its elaborateness, Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics is simply a reformulation of the enlightenment critique of the feverish imagination, except now it is reason that has literally taken leave of its senses—or more precisely taken the understanding’s categories out of their legitimate deployment.

Herder, although open enough to seek common ground with deism—as he does in his defense of Spinoza in God, Some Conversations—ultimately does not see God as a rational answer to a rational problem, but as an anthropologically invoked power, a power which is part of a community’s sense of itself and its world. If we want to understand God or the soul in the sense that Herder does, we need to understand the meanings that people have ascribed over time and in their respective locations to these names. God and soul are not metaphysical objects—at least in the sense Kant uses the term—but words that circulate in a community’s doings.

From Herder’s perspective, then, we can understand why different peoples have different gods, and we can then track how the different communal commitments to the powers they serve help form a collective history and identity (a culture) over time; with Kant all we can say is that people have been deluded by a transcendental dialectic, and their different delusions (cultures) count for little in the greater scheme of achieving knowledge and freedom.

All of the above is closely related to another feature that Herder’s Metacritique shares with Hamann, viz., opposition to the compartmentalisation of the pure forms and functions of reason by reason. In this respect he sees the critical philosophy as resting on a phantasmic starting point. Kant has made himself both party and judge, law and witness in reason’s “trial.” But for Herder, we are not capable of overseeing what we are within; we use our “reason” to identify and demonstrate what our reason does, which is also why it is wrongheaded to identify “transcendental elements” divorced from reason’s ongoing discoveries. And those discoveries cannot be separated from the names that have accrued over time to identify experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s emphasis upon the capacity of the soul to “recognize” unity in its diversity.

By claiming that the cognitive elements are pure, i.e. transcendental, means they are neither physiological, nor psychological. But the fact that the very names of the components which Kant draws upon are also often psychological and physiological, lends support to Herder’s refusal to accept what he ultimately sees as an attempt to surpass the reason—which Herder tabulates late in the Metacritique—of the wisdom of life, culture, and the supra-cultural in a wisdom of life that is “transcendental hot air.” For Herder the truer formulation for any “Critique” of reason would be: “the [physiology of human knowledge,” something he sees Bacon as already having made a major contribution to.

Given these broader metacritical points, it is perfectly understandable why Herder takes issue with the key terms that gets the Critique off the ground, viz., the “a priori,” and “pure.” Thus, he writes:

In order to avoid misunderstandings, we want to leave aside completely the words a priori, and pure, i.e., pure concepts, calling general concepts general, necessary [concepts] necessary, without bringing into play the strange convoluted concept of a priority preceding all experience, because generality and necessity cannot be ascribed to any knowledge, if it is not necessary and general in its nature.

And as with Hegel later, Herder is just as unwilling to concede the very starting point of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. For Kant, an analytic judgment logically contains the predicate in the subject—while a synthetic judgment is formed by adding knowledge that goes beyond mere logical unfolding.

As readers of Kant know, the example he gives of an analytic judgment is that bodies are extended substances. As readers of Leibniz know that is what Descartes thought, but Descartes got it wrong. I just raise this so the reader may see that while some analytic judgments may be straightforwardly analytic in Kant’s sense—e.g., a bachelor is unmarried—the distinction is very unhelpful when we are speaking about subjects where knowledge is involved. And this was Herder’s point where he notes that:

The determination, that the predicate contains in the concept of the subject and is part of the same, which would have to be brought out analytically through division, is far too narrowly conceived: because in naming the subject not everything, which lays in it or belongs to it is revealed immediately; judgments are made, if we do not want to eternally rattle-off one and the same A+A, or wish to dissolve 4 into 2 + 2, which expand our knowledge, i.e. that say something in the predicate that is not instantly apparent in the subject.

Kant’s theory of mathematics depends upon mathematical judgments not being analytic, but synthetic (they cannot be empirical because numbers and geometry are not contingent entities, but he argues they are not merely logical either; rather, they are constructed by the mind; more specifically the faculty of “inner intuition”). This is laid out in the earliest section of the Critique of Pure Reason, “The Transcendental Aesthetic,” and it was an essential element in his grand design of laying down once and for all the foundations of a metaphysics that he thought could lay claim to be complete and implacable. It was also intended as the coup de grâce against Leibniz’s Platonism—Leibniz is the real bête noir of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the entire strategy of the Critique is to discredit what he saw as Leibniz’s rationalism.

But Kant’s theory of mathematics, and the argument that mathematical judgments are synthetic, has frequently met with bewilderment, and is one major reason Kant’s theory of mathematics has found no strong philosophical support (the other problem is that the “architecture” of Kant’s solution does not help once we get beyond the number-line and operate with irrational numbers, and take note especially of non-Euclidean geometries).

Herder’s response to Kant’s primary claim about mathematics, which is the key to providing Kant’s “solution” to the problem of how the apodictic knowledge and axiomatic system of mathematics is applicable to phenomena, i.e., physical structure and laws of the natural world is this: “Thousands and ten thousand mathematical judgments are analytic; the ‘synthetic method’ cannot help but proceed analytically in mathematics until they reach an identical concept.” Likewise, he also takes issue with the primary reason that Kant has for arguing that mathematical (which includes geometrical) judgments are synthetic, i.e. (and as I have just said) because mathematics involves construction. Herder responds that “there are definitely cases in mathematics, where I recognize the truth of apodictic sentences, although I cannot construct them identically; and opposite cases, which are nevertheless apodictically certain, but the construction seems to contradict the concept.”

More generally, whereas Kant’s Critique proceeds by way of piling dualisms upon dualisms, dualisms, which Herder says involve “artificial hair-splitting” which extends to “syllables and spelling, such as deist and theist, transcendent and transcendental and so many other spider-webs.” Herder emphasises how our ideas are dependent upon integration, and that integration reaches from the most elemental of physiological processes to the greater social and cultural processes in which we are incorporated.

Thus, whereas Kant had argued that Hume had opened up the way for him by positing the problem of causation as an illustration of a synthetic a priori judgment, Herder argues that the sentence “what happens must have a cause” is an identical sentence: “because in the occurrence we postulate the cause of becoming.” Likewise, for Herder, if we deploy concepts such as force, effect, countereffect we are committed to conceptual associations, which are intrinsic to their very meaning. Thus, when we say “the effect and countereffect is the same” we are simply using the ideas in a manner that makes them meaningful.

Of course, this is another example of Leibniz’ enormous influence upon Herder. But whereas Kant had insisted upon the synthetic a priori safeguarding us from metaphysics spawning a rationalist substitution for experience, Herder is not at all convinced that this is the case. The question remains one of integrating material, and for Herder the “integration” is done “all the way along the line:” this is what reasoning does: it associates by bringing parts together in so far as they conform to some underlying “identity.” The strict division between purely rational or “pure experience” requires that our abstraction denies the integral unity that is involved in perception.

Our knowledge is initially dependent on an infinitude of micro-cognitive sensory processes, so that “every sense has its sphere; every object its meaning.” It is true that once we “model” experiences to espy sharper differentiations, our testing of natural phenomena can be enhanced. But to take a late stage in a process of understanding, as if that requires completely refabricating the development of the process is, for Herder, only to create an entirely new fleet of problems that are not only unnecessary, but catch us in the kind of spider webs of reason which, in spite of its intention, occlude our lived experience of ourselves as social and historical creatures.

Herder’s refusal to accept the a priori/a posteriori disjuncture is also evident in his critique of Kant’s discussion of space in the transcendental aesthetic. While Kant acknowledges that mathematics begins through practice (he speaks in the first Critique of mathematics having “long remained, especially among the Egyptians, in its groping stage”) he stresses that it only really became a science once someone brought out “what was necessarily implied in the concepts that he had himself formed a priori, and had put into the figures in the construction by which he presented it to himself.”

That there is a tipping point in which practical know-how is transformed into a “science” is not to be disputed, and that the development is irrelevant once a foundation has evolved (leaving aside here the development of foundations themselves) is also not a problem, especially for those doing the science. But the issue dividing Kant and Herder is whether the science is really explicable in Kantian terms, and whether his explanation actually adds anything at all to the science, which of course it doesn’t and wasn’t actually designed to do; Kant’s “theoretical reason i.e., understanding of phenomena” only has a purpose in so far as there is also its other—“practical or moral reason.”

To reformulate this somewhat: Kant is a Euclidean and Newtonian, but neither Euclid nor Newton are Kantian. Kant is not tackling the problems that lead to a metaphysics of experience in order to advance either mathematics or physics (and ironically as those disciplines advanced, Kant’s philosophy looked ever more arcane and unhelpful), but to circumscribe the bounds of the metaphysics of experience—that is, in order to create a rational faith in our moral freedom.

But here we just need to say that there is nothing philosophically wrong-headed in Herder pitting the importance of our lived-experience within spaces and times (in a move that anticipates phenomenology) against Kant’s transcendental aesthetic. For Herder’ counter argument to Kant is undertaken to demonstrate that Kant’s philosophical terminology is dubious, and that becomes even more apparent when one tries to address other questions about the nature of knowledge that Kant had not considered.

The accusation, then, that Herder fails to understand Kant’s problem I find completely unconvincing; he is considering (unsurprisingly given his own philosophical holism) where the bits and pieces of the system that Kant builds with his answers lead. Stated otherwise, it is not the case that Herder fails to understand that Kant’s view of space and time is developed around the primacy Kant allots to kinematics—this strikes me as so obvious to anyone who reads the first Critique with any care, that it is not really plausible that Herder missed this. Rather, Herder refuses to sever a theory of knowledge from our own being in the world, and he refuses to accept an ontology that does not register with the kind of being we are as well as the way our existence develops.

Thus Herder’s “discussion of the word space” commences with the fact that “we are with others”—space is originally a location, a “where” of our existence—it thus has to do with places. Space, he says, is a “concept of experience caused by the sensation or impression that I am neither the All (das All), nor everywhere, that I occupy only one place in the universe.” But our experience is such that “we encounter some occurrence which makes space for itself with its powers.” We learn that there are limits that surround what we encounter but that may be overcome.

Movement, change, velocity, location are all part of the experience, as are our being action and suffering: “Our language,” Herder reminds his readers, “is full of expressions of space in every being, act and suffering.” Herder’s approach to time is similar, starting with our noticing natural changes and dividing them—they are grounded in “practical purposes.” He continues that “time has nevertheless become a discursive, i.e. general concept of measurement of all transformations.” And time is intrinsic to ordering our concepts in a series, just as space for our situating things.

On the surface this may seem to confirm Kant’s view of time and space as a priori forms of experience, but whereas Kant is focusing solely on time and space as kinematic “backdrops” for an experience that applies more to projectiles than to people if we conceive them as more than mere mechanical composites, Herder is interested in space and time as lived, and how, in the living, times and spaces are discursively developed. And this extends to the sciences as well as the most basic aspects of human orientation and participation. That is, living in space and time will indeed be essential to developing such a science as physics (not that it is inevitable, for all knowledge is contingent), but it is not confined to that.

In so far as we are ever something of a mystery to ourselves, and that our knowledge of ourselves is revealed through our doings over time, any epistemology or ontology we invoke has to be open enough to the variety of vistas that we may consider and engage with as well as the variety of actions that we engage in. The “knot” of human physiology and aesthesis (which is closely connected to how nature operates within and through us), language, and historical being, for Herder, cannot be severed by an appeal to ideas which are taken to be formal conditions (calling them transcendental does not help one iota).

To be sure, one might well find fault with the metaphysical arguments Herder deploys against Kant. Nevertheless, Herder’s own metaphysical arguments are predicated upon them being able to link up with the fundamentals of experience grounded in physiological (aesthetic) impressions, and linguistic and historical contextualizations. Were this not the case, Newtonianism would not need to have been the result of a vast array of social and historical contingencies (predecessors, pedagogical spaces, literacy, mathematical knowledge etc.) that prepared Newton himself for the experimental and mathematical approach to nature he excelled in. (And Herder is neither ignorant of, nor positioning himself against Newton’s work—as far as it goes).

That Kant can narrow his focus in such a way that he sloughs off developmental matters into the domain of irrelevance suggests that the human mind, in spite of all Kant’s safeguards and deference to the phenomenal world we are implicated in, really is, for Kant, “God-like” (in the Greek rather than biblical sense). This is, in spite of Kant thinking that by arguing against the idea of “intellectual intuition” he has emphasised the finitude of human intellect. But what Kant gives with one hand, he takes away with the other; for he has dispensed with all manner of finitudes to prioritise the philosophical disposition itself above the contingencies which are fundamental to its precondition, but which fall outside the problem he has cordoned off.

Were the problem as Kant depicts it, why would we need to be “schooled” in its nature? Why would the sciences need to evolve—and I do not mean (as Kant emphasizes) the specific laws observed, but the sciences which study the laws? Hegel tackles this problem by tracking reason’s dialectical development and the emergent spheres of conceptual schema taking definitive ideational shape. But while Hegel is resolutely anti-dualist, the logicism of his philosophy enmeshes History in a philosophical logic and thereby creates an irreconcilable difference between his approach and that of Herder’s. Thus, for all his differences with Kant, Hegel’s philosophy, as with Fichte and Schelling, takes off from Kant’s problematic in which reason is substantialised, rather than, as in Herder, an operational development of our historical and language-dependent nature.

In sum, Herder is absolutely right to challenge Kant on the very ground where the problematic is laid down and the cognitive sources and elements are identified, for the mind not only cannot be purely extracted, but its nature is revealed by its doings. Isolating a particular “doing,” and then making that particular doing the basis for all our other knowledge is precisely what Herder contests. To be sure, Herder is willing to concede that there might be fundamentals akin to categories that we might identify as more elementary for understanding how we process information, and he provides a number of different tables throughout the Metacritique, commencing with his initial categories of understanding: “1) Being; 2) Existence; 3) Duration; and 4) Force.” Further, as force is construed “through number and measure,” and as our understanding also draws upon “contiguity, sequence and emergence,” for Herder, space and time are indeed the “mediums” in which force operates.

We will not reproduce how Herder develops the conceptual associations that he builds up throughout the Metacritique, we will just underscore, and repeat, the point that Herder recognizes that the sciences work in close association with “how” we go about knowing—principles and “laws” are closely connected, but knowledge is essentially developmental. And, for Herder, it is inconceivable that one can meaningfully do this without considering the labours of the species over time, and in the context of its habitat. That Kant is too indifferent to the importance of this habitat is stressed by Herder near the conclusion of the Metacritique where he criticizes Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties for how narrowly Kant construes philosophy, all the better to make the case for his own critical philosophy being the great arbitrator.

The ploy is, for Herder, a symptom of the narrowness of Kant’s vision of philosophy and the sciences, and is closely associated with a strong institutional dependency on Kant’s part. For Herder, Kant’s philosophical cleavages, with their respective foundations, is really just supplying the conditions for institutional specialization—which would then be carried out along Kantian lines. It is thus also the privileging of the academic “guilds” as much as Kant’s philosophy. For his part, Herder opposes the guilds, and ultimately anything which would close off knowledge for a more “holistic,” yet developmental, and hence pedagogically dynamic curricula. Likewise, he also emphasizes the importance of outsiders (a class to which he belongs):

Erasmus and Grotius were not faculty theologians, and took upon themselves the freedom, to clean up much in Theology. The monk Roger Bacon, and his name’s sake Francis Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Tschirnhaus, and how many others, who expanded the sciences not with words but with concepts, were lovers of the sciences, although no Faculty-trustees. As the faculties slept or became barbarised, a free society of lovers, the academy of Florence, arose, others followed, for whom we have to thank for the greatest developments in the sciences.

As mentioned above, behind Kant’s transcendental critique of “experience,” and Herder’s Metacritique, there is another set of questions and answers that sharply divides the two. From the outset of the critical philosophy, Kant had claimed that by identifying the source and scope of (judgments or knowledge of) experience by recourse to their “cognitive source” and “elements” and “rules,” he had hoped to secure what he sees as most important about human beings and rationality—moral freedom understood as the categorical imperative—from the mechanistic “reductions,” which would make any appeals to virtue and dignity irrelevant. Thus, it is that Kant locates freedom and dignity in pure reason itself, rather than any experience.

For his part, Herder is as little attracted to Kant’s view of freedom as he is to Kant’s ideas of reason and aesthetics, and the two metaphysical pillars (of nature and right) that the transcendental philosophy grounds and (in the third Critique) “bridges.” Herder remarks on Kant’s formulation of the moral law well bring out what he thinks of Kant’s view of freedom: “The general will of the legislator is just as incompetent-presumptuous as it is powerless: because the general, in this case the will, only becomes actual in deed through the particular and most particular… And what if persons, means and ends collide? Thus, the most vain egotism, which submits to the great purpose of the “judgment of all,” under the name of ‘self-esteem, self-respect,’ pervades everything and furtively engages in an eternal war between ‘self-purposes and self-legislators.’”

Although Kant is not mentioned by name in Herder’s work, Of Religion, Doctrines and Customs, Herder makes the decisively anti-Kantian observation that the egoistic usurpation of moral law-making, in its “empty legislative form” finds:

…neither power, salvation, spirit, nor life… Nothing tires more than commanding; even the pride that one has in being able to command soon becomes tiresome; and how? and would not a pure “un-will” to obey step into the position of the pure will to command? Mighty autonomist, your monarchy ends. Instead, anarchy, an impotent-wild word stand-off, would take over: “Compel yourself!”—”I cannot.” “You can, because you should.”—”I do not want to, because I cannot,” etc.

Herder can see no point in taking the essential social dilemma of moral choice and making it akin to a private matter to be subject to a formal law, as if the labour of socialization and instinctual cultivation were largely unimportant. We are, emphasizes Herder, mimetic creatures, and that mimesis extends even to how we use our limbs. We do not instruct ourselves out of nothing, but are socially saturated, as we are exposed to “an ocean of ideas, habits and actions” which we absorb and then use as though they were our property. “Spirit receives from spirits.” While “our entire lives are led by drives,” Kant’s moral thought treats drives as impediments to the purity of our reason and pure will, thereby relying upon a drive of his own fabrication—it is but “the personification of pride in its deepest powerlessness.”

Against such abstract egoic and formalistic ethics, Herder anticipates Nietzsche (albeit devoid of the latter’s pagan call for a revival of master morality, and the cruelty such a revival would require). For Herder, Kant’s grounding of morality in the form of reason is one more example of what he sees as the narrowness of a philosophy which fails to adequately embrace the idea that it is only through learning about the vastly different goods, truth and beautiful creations of the species that we can better form our world. The fact that the philosopher deals in ideas does not give him or her any special purchase on what we can know, or even what is worth knowing:

Really, ideas yield nothing but ideas, greater clarity, correctness, and order in thinking—but that is all one can count on with certainty. As for how everything will mix within the soul; or what will be encountered and what will have to be changed; how powerful and enduring this change will be; or, finally, how it might combine and clash with the myriad incidents and contingencies of human life, let alone of an age or of an entire people, of all Europe, of all the universe (as our humility imagines)—you gods, what an altogether different world of questions!

It is the different world of questions that ultimately require, for Herder, a turning not only from the known into the unknown, but from the living to the living. We have to put ourselves aside, and not just look for what catches our own light. At the same time, Herder sees difference and connection, and it is the appreciation of both that he sees as essential for human growth:

As the philosopher is much in the dark respecting the origin of human history, and singularities occur in its remotest periods, which will not accord with this system or with that, men have fallen on the desperate mode of cutting the knot, and have not only considered the Earth as the ruins of a former habitation, but have supposed the human species to be a remnant of the former inhabitants of this planet, who escaped perhaps in caves or mountains, from the revolution of its Last day. Thus, its reason, arts, and traditions, are treasures saved from the wrecks of the primitive World; whence on the one hand, they appear from the beginning with a splendour derived from the experience of thousands of years; and on the other, never can be clearly traced, while the remnant of the human species has served like an isthmus, at once to unite and to confound the cultivation of two worlds. If this opinion were true, there could be no such thing as a pure philosophy of the history of man; for the human species itself, and all its arts, would be nothing more than the recrement arising from the destruction of a former world.

3. “Humanity:” Encountering, Culture, And Dialogue

While Herder eschews any philosophy “according to which the whole human species possesses one mind; and that indeed of a very low order, distributed to individuals only piecemeal” (which is again indicative of a major difference between Herder and Hegel—and indicative of the difference between emphasising reason in language or reason as mind or spirit), he sees that while we can only understand humanity via the history of its traditions, we need to investigate what it was that those tradition and the organic powers of the species enabled and hence what made them sustainable for any length of time.

Such an understanding necessarily has a philosophical dimension, and thus he writes: “The philosophy of history, therefore, which follows the chain of tradition, is, to speak properly, the true history of mankind, without which all the outward occurrences of this World are but clouds, or revolting deformities.” Note that this openness which requires of us that we take history seriously avoids the seminal pitfall of historicism, whose founder he is sometimes said to be, viz., the task for a philosopher of humankind is not to become so locked in the history of the world of a people that it is an exercise in monadic identification.

Rather, the point is to search for the “Glorious names, that shine in the history of cultivation as genii of the human species, as brilliant stars in the night of time!” If the past leaves us with nothing but dead facts we have to ask what we are doing with it. Rather a philosophical study of history is undertaken to appreciate a living connection between times and regions—for once we enter a past world, we may be changed for the better by the experience of feeling, seeing, and knowing more about humanity and its powers.

In so far as the very enterprise is one which requires inquiring into times and habitats, there is the danger that one is so ensconced in one’s own tradition and experiences that one is incapable of really seeing the other. Thus, Herder insists, in letter 116 of the Tenth Collection of his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity: “The original form, the prototype of humanity hence lies not in a single nation of a single region of the earth; it is the abstracted concept from all exemplars of human nature in both hemispheres.” Concomitantly he stipulates: “Let one be unbiased like the genius of humanity itself; let one have no pet tribe, no favorite people on the earth…let none put into the hands of any people on earth on grounds of ‘innate superiority’ the sceptre over other peoples—much less the sword and enslave the whip.” He adds a couple of pages later: “Least of all, therefore, can our European culture be the measure of universal human goodness and human value; it is no yardstick or a false one. European culture is an abstracted concept, a name. Where does it exist entirely? With which people? In which times?”

To be sure there is a certain pedagogical and moral idealism in the project, but the idealism requires that we learn from each other, rather than push people into the prefabricated idea requiring common conformity to values and expectations which are laid down by those whose philosophical lights make them the leaders of humanity. Thus, he emphasizes again:

There must gradually awaken a common feeling so that every nation feels itself into the position of every other one. People will hate the impudent transgressor of foreign rights, the destroyer of foreign welfare, the brazen abuser of foreign ethics and opinions, the boastful imposer of his own advantages on peoples who do not want them.

If we compare this with Rousseau, who would force people to be free, with Kant, whose moral republicanism sloughs off anthropological, historical and social experience, with Nietzsche, who divides the world into masters and slaves and calls for philosophers of the future to create the conditions for the coming of the superman, with Marx, who would extinguish all classes save the proletariat, with the anti-domination philosophers, whose focus on domination largely bypasses non-Western brutalities, and who see nothing but an unjust world in need of their moral leadership, we can readily see how Herder’s position is essentially a prototype of dialogical encountering between diverse hermeneutical communities.

The point is to learn from each other. The idea that is sometimes expressed by people who know a little bit about Herder is that he can be adequately classified as a relativist. Bu this can only be held if one not only fails to take seriously what Herder is trying to do and how he goes about it. His great work, Adrastea, is “devoted to truth and justice.” And the statement made almost immediately after the “Dedication” of the Adrastea is as succinct an account of how Herder considers the truth as any he provides:

The ray of light refracts itself in a thousand colours and swathes itself differently to each object. But all colors belong to one light, the truth. In many melodic courses, the sound changes up and down; and yet only one harmony is possible on a gamut of world events and the relationship between things. What now fails, dissolves itself into another age.

Although Franz Rosenzweig shows no signs of any in-depth reading of Herder, his proclamation to Rosenstock-Huessy that the dialogical method he favoured involved shoving “the whole of history between myself and the problem, and so think with the heads of all the participants in the discussion” is essentially a restatement of Herder’s understanding of truth.

The importance of the many-sided character of truth and the dialogical dimension is also well brought out by Herder’s treatment of the importance of error in Letters for the Advancement of Humanity:

Free investigation of truth from all sides is the only antidote to delusion and error of whatever nature they may be. Let the deluded defends his delusions, and defend his opinion against those who think differently; that’s their business. Even if neither were to be improved, for the unprejudiced person a new reason, a new insight into truth, would surely emanate from every disputed error.

Herder is not, then, arguing that there are no truths, but as in one’s dealings with the deluded person, just having the truth does not suffice. It is our engagements with each other that matter—for every errancy can be important for gaining greater insights about each other, and our world, every encounter an opportunity for generating new forms or deeds of conviviality, love and solidarity (or their opposite), and hence for helping create a more “truthful” and valuable world.

The historical context of Herder’s work is one in which different “peoples” have become increasingly conscious of each other’s presence. How, then, do we deal with this? That is a serious and real, and not just “ideal” question. Having ideas about better and worse ways to be in the world, having principles that facilitate action is not the same as the idea-ism of paradigmatical imposition of a sovereign principle that is indifferent to what is occluded by the principle.

This is also why, as we mentioned earlier, Herder is happy to accept the traditional philosophical appeals to the good, true, and beautiful, provided that their content is open to the creative explorations of the human species. To be sure, he extends this way of thinking into the political and does side with republican politics. At the same time, he is conscious that this ideal itself can be phantasmic and even disastrous. Thus, he writes, in the same Letter, of the potential danger of pursuing “the best form of the state, indeed of all states:”

This phantom is uncommonly deceptive in virtue of the fact that it obviously introduces into history a nobler yardstick of merit than the one that those arbitrary reasons of state contained—indeed even blinds with the names of “freedom,” “enlightenment,” “highest happiness of the peoples.” Would God that it never deceived! The happiness of one single people cannot be imposed onto, talked onto, loaded onto the other and every other. The roses for the wreath of freedom must be picked by a people’s own hands and grow up happily out of its own needs, out of its own desire and love. The so-called best form of government, which has unfortunately not yet been discovered, certainly does not suit all peoples, at once, in the same way; with the yoke of badly imported freedom from abroad a foreign people would be incommoded in the worst possible way. Hence a history that calculates everything in the case of every land with a view to this utopian plan in accordance with unproved first principles is the most dazzling deceptive history.

And, in keeping with this, he emphasises:

All excessive subtle taxonomies of human beings according to principles from which we are supposed to act exclusively are quite foreign to the spirit of history. It knows that in human nature the principles of sensuality, of imagination, of selfishness, of honor, of sympathy with others, of godliness, of the moral sense, of faith, etc. do not dwell in separated compartments, but that in a living organization that gets stimulated from several sides many of them, often all, cooperate in a living manner. It allows each of them its value, its rank, its place, its time of development—convinced that all of them, even unconsciously, are operating towards a single purpose, the great principle of humaneness [Menschlichkeit]. Hence it lets all of them bloom in their time right where they are: sensuality and the arts of the imagination, intellect and sympathy, honor, moral sense and holy worship.

In sum, then, Herder’s desire for cultures and communities learning what each has been able to create, and hence to cultivate over time is predicated on the fact that the world is “a world,” albeit a world constituted by different habitats, sentiments, ideas etc. The faith he has is that this world can be one in which peace ultimately reigns. And he requires that we all explore and bring to the human banquet what is the best of our creations—it also requires identifying each other’s delusions and pathologies.

Herder is not so starry eyed about other people and cultures that he does not criticize them. But he is also very critical of his own culture. Only through our inquiries into our respective histories and behaviours can we all learn from each other. We will all inevitably be enmeshed in our prejudices and have our myopia—Herder himself is not completely free from this, but who is? We have to be able to put aside “one-sided,” “fixed” and “rigid” ideas—(and one of the great virtues of poetry for Herder is that it helps us overcome separation and one-sidedness).

In this sense, there is indeed a biblical, messianic component to Herder’s thinking. He was a Christian thinker, but a Christian who was frequently critical of how Christians have acted. Although, an exploration of Herder’s Christianity would be a huge topic in itself, it is not exaggerating to say that the central tenet of the Christian faith, for Herder, is the advancement of humanity itself.

Thus, in the second Collection of the Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, he writes that “The religion of Christ, which he himself taught and practised, was humanity itself. Nothing but that… Christ knew no more noble name for himself, than that he named himself the Son of Man, a man.” And in Adrastea, he asks: “Does Christianity teach anything other than pure humanity?” But this is not the Godless humanity of Voltaire, or the Enlightened who think they know what humanity is without it having to be revealed through its deeds and dreams. This idea of a humanity bonding through its conversableness also stands in the closest relationship to his view of providence. Thus too, in Adrastea, he writes:

Now you know… what my religion of all religions is. It’s an Adrastea, but in a much higher equation than the Greeks ever gave it. She was first a jealous, then a warning or punitive goddess; her highest maxim was, “Not beyond measure!” The nemesis of Christianity postulates balance and retribution in everything, in the moral as well as in the physical world, the least and the greatest, as the law of nature, but the determination of human beings elevates them in the overcoming of evil through good, with the charitable persistence of magnanimity. Humanity finally makes it the tipping of the scale, as a compensation of Providence, as it were, the decisive voice of the judge of the world, the judge, who always comes and is there, who receives and recompenses everything.

Herder’s contribution to philosophy is ultimately a “programmatic” contribution, a contribution which requires that philosophy develops in keeping with all the available knowledge it can draw upon. The development, itself, though is for the greater purpose of advancing our common humanity.

But this can only be done if we do not take humanity as an abstraction, but as the plethora of powers that have accrued over time and across the spaces. Those powers are themselves tested and judged in the course of the times. Thus too, Herder states that revolution “is as necessary to our species, as the waves to the dream, that it become not a stagnant pool. The genius of humanity blooms in continually renovated youth, and is regenerated as it proceeds, in nations, generations, and families.”

Herder’s deference to errancy and providence also places his thought at odds with that most modern kind of idea-ism which, for all its other differences, is as common to Kant and Robespierre, as to Marx and the anti-domination thinkers, as it is to even more garden variety ethics: the ethico-political idea-ism which emphasizes volition and principles. There is, of course, much that Herder does not really explore, but it does provide a kind of orientation and spirit that opens up the philosophical enterprise to a more expansive vista and quest so that it can be attentive to its own paradigmatical and sovereign entrapment.


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


The featured image shows a portrait of Johann Gottfried von Herder, by Gerhard von Kügelgen, painted in 1809.

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.

Christianity and Immigration: Christianity Versus The Religion Of Humanity

A sort of shortcut, or short-circuit, has pervaded public opinion for many years, especially the Christian opinion, between the “Christian message” and “welcoming migrants.” As if welcoming migrants summed up the demands and urgency of today’s Christian message. As if “being a Christian today” found its touchstone in the welcome, if not unconditional, at least as broad as possible, of migrants. I would like to question the merits of this perspective.

I will first make a few very quick comments on migration. The dominant opinion, that which governs the rulers, maintains that it is fundamentally, if not exclusively, a moral problem, that the reception of migrants is a categorical imperative, perhaps tempered by the limited possibilities of the “host” countries. According to this view, we know what is good work, or a good deed; and the debate can legitimately only be about the appreciation of the circumstances. Yet this emphatically moral perspective rests on a political assumption that is rarely questioned, namely that migration is the major phenomenon of the times, the most significant phenomenon, and against which all others should be considered. This is the argument behind the Marrakesh Pact.

Moral Evidence Or Political Postulate?

However, migrants constitute a small percentage of the world’s population, which continues to live mainly in constituted states. Whatever the specific needs and wishes of migrants, no substantial reason has yet been given to subordinate them in principle to the needs and wishes of non-migrant populations, who are not necessarily less needy. By urging states to do everything in their power to facilitate migratory movements, we immediately deprive political bodies of this essential part of their legitimacy, which consists in freely determining the conditions of access to their territory and to their citizenship. Even urging them to monitor how their citizens talk about migration arrogates the right to regulate public conversation in every country in the world. Thus, in the name of a moral evidence, which is only an arbitrary political postulate, we weaken the legitimacy and therefore the stability of the constituted states, in particular of those which are most sensitive to this argument, namely, the democratic countries, which now host a large number of migrants, and who are by far the most active when it comes to bringing them assistance.

Our democracies provide a life of peace, freedom and even conviviality, which remains enviable for large populations, whose social condition, education, religion, opinions and lifestyles are extremely varied. This associative capacity, the fruit of great efforts over a long history, is not unlimited. No one knows how far a body politic can accept growing heterogeneity without breaking up. It is not only a question of “preserving” oneself, of defending what is one’s own, however legitimate this concern may be—it is a question of preserving and, if possible, improving the conditions of “the good life,” primarily from a common education.

Primacy Of Citizenship

Migrants themselves are no exception to this primacy of citizenship. They were active citizens of the country they left. They most often retain the rights of citizenship or nationality. They received a more or less complete education there, a human formation; in short, a form of life. It is therefore a very superficial view to look at migration exclusively from a humanitarian perspective, and migrants simply as “alike.” Undoubtedly, migrants are our fellow human beings and we are required, if they are in danger, to come to their aid according to our means. But they are also citizens who have been instilled with social or religious rules, which can sometimes be directly contrary to our principles of justice. The duty to help here and now the migrant who is in danger in no way includes a duty to facilitate his migration, let alone that of making him a fellow citizen. All this depends on very varied considerations and ultimately on a judgment that is not moral but political; or rather an ethical judgment in the old sense of the term, that is to say a prudential judgment in which the common good of the community of citizens is the main, although not exclusive, criterion.

What “Christian Message?”

I come to the second point. What exactly do we mean, or what do we mean seriously, when we speak of the “Christian message?” The answer is all the more difficult because over the course of a long history, the Christian proposal has found very diverse expressions, depending on the evolutions of the Church—of those of the world and of the interactions of the Church and the world. In particular, it appears that the modalities of the Christian proposal are very different depending on whether the Church is in a position of command or of authority, as she was during much of European history; or in a position of marginality or subordination, as she is today. I’ll proceed from there.

We constantly meet with traces, remnants or signs of the once central and commanding position of the Church. But, if we look at things as they are, it appears that the Church is increasingly rejected and lies at the margins of European society, including French society. The ecclesial institution, and Catholics in general, have long become accustomed to this diminished condition; but at the cost of increasing difficulty in carrying out the Christian proposal. How can the breadth and gravity of her appeal to humanity be heard without departing from the modesty to which her present situation obliges her? This proposal is addressed to all men, it concerns the whole of man, and the mission of Christians is to carry this call.

However, if the Church, through her liturgy and her sacraments, continues to fulfill this mission in the direction of her active members, she no longer really knows in what terms to formulate it in the public space. Indeed, the sovereign state has gradually imposed its point of view on all participants in common life, including the Church. From the point of view of the state, the Christian faith is one opinion among others, the freedom of which it guarantees, but which does not deserve any special consideration, as it hastens to let her know as soon as she intervenes in the public space. However, even though the Church today does not demand any special consideration, she cannot renounce her raison d’être. How to address humanity, and first of all the members of the civic body, when an increasingly rigorous interpretation of secularism leads the state to exercise increasingly precarious surveillance over any public expression that can be linked to religion?

It is therefore a great temptation in the Church to seek the ear of the public and to preserve its audience, by linking the proclamation, which is specific to her, to the prevailing opinion today, by confusing the Christian proclamation with this “religion of humanity,” which envelops Europe and the Americas, reducing charity to that “sentiment of similarity,” in which Tocqueville already saw the deepest and most powerful psychic spring of modern democracy. It’s a temptation, because like all temptations, it’s an ease, and it’s a lie. Indeed, the religion of humanity proclaims a human family, virtually united and healed. It invites us to perceive, under the still virulent separations, a humanity in which the similarity of men under their differences would be immediately visible and perceptible. One understands the attraction of a prospect that promises the unification of humanity through the contagion of pleasant feeling. We must also point out the cost. Once rooted, this point of view implies a relaxation of all our ambitions; a renunciation in principle of all our common actions, since there can be no ambition or common action without an effort to distinguish oneself from those who do not share this ambition, or have no part in this common action. A humanity which claims to unite by the contagion of the feeling of the similar, is a humanity which has given up acting, since, as soon as we act, as Rousseau explains, we must “take into account the differences that we find in the continual use we have to make of each other.”

The Religion Of Humanity

In the eyes of the Christian, in particular, the religion of humanity is superficial because it does not understand the depth of what separates men and where their enmity is rooted: how to imagine that men will find the healing of their divisions in that feeling of sympathy which, reduced to itself, has little strength and constancy? Moreover, it is because the human capacity for sympathy is naturally limited that compassion is prolonged, spreads and is distorted in political projects, which introduce new divisions by seeking new enemies. How can we fail to see the political and ideological passion behind the project of a world “without borders,” which presents itself as the necessary conclusion of the awareness of human similarity?

The humanitarian proposal is difficult to refuse because it postulates that it is enough for everyone to be aware of the evidence of human resemblance to enter into justice. The Christian proposal is difficult to accept because it affirms that all human beings are prisoners of an injustice from which they cannot escape by their own strength, and that in order to come out of it they must accept the mediation of Christ both man and God, mediation of which the Church in turn is the mediator. It is indeed a lot of mediation— when the religion of humanity offers the immediate feeling of human likeness; but it opens up an incomparably more instructive and demanding path of improvement, since its end is God himself, of whom every human being is the image.

It would be unfair to underestimate the virtues and the happy effects of humanitarian compassion. In fact, the gestures of charity are in part the same as those of compassion. But in the face of the fabulous powers bestowed on compassion, in the face of precisely this religion of compassion which has established its authority among us, it is important to underline its limits. Christians would lose the sense and intention of their faith if they could no longer distinguish between compassion and charity.

Fascination With The “Migrant”

Thus, after sketching a political perspective on migration, I have just emphasized the specificity of the Christian message. The two approaches, by various paths, aim to deliver us from a vertigo that sweeps away many of us, Christians or not. From a giddiness to a fascination, the fascination of the “migrant,” a figure which sums up humanity because he is the loss of the human as Marx said more or less of the proletarian, a Christ-like figure who tends to substitute for Christ as the object of the intention if not of the faith of Christians. However, the attraction, the bewitchment by the figure of the migrant in one part of public opinion inevitably finds its counterpart in another part of public opinion; in the form of a more or less vehement rejection of migrants, so that the reception or refusal of migrants tends to constitute in our countries the most powerful motive for political and moral divisions. I have tried to suggest that migration does not force us to change the character of our political system, or the meaning and standards of the Christian religion. Yet, if migration does not fundamentally change the political condition of men, it exerts pressure on our countries which, in fact, deeply affects both our political system and, if I may say so, our religious regime. This pressure is both the cause and the effect of the surprisingly rapid progress of this “religion of humanity” which is profoundly transforming the conditions of our common life.

This new political religion has delegitimized our representative republic by imposing the idea that there is something radically unjust in a community of citizens who govern themselves, because in doing so they separate themselves from the rest of men, and at the same time exclude all those who are not part of it. As democratic as it wants to be, our community of citizens is considered radically unfair since the rights it grants to its members are not granted to all the men who ask for or claim them. The only fair rule is that which applies to men in general. It is according to the same logic that the religion of humanity has tended to delegitimize the Christian religion which, a community sharing objects of faith, criteria of judgment and a form of life which are specific to it, separates itself from the rest of humanity. In fact, any community of action or education, in short just about all that humanity has been able to produce, is delegitimized by the religion of humanity which only wants to see similar people, where men have created great different things.

The difficulty, one is tempted to say, the perversity of our situation, is concentrated in the relationship between migration and the religion of humanity. This commands us to open up to migrants, without asking for anything in return—and certainly not to open up to our form of life. Yet are we not “the others” for them? In truth, there is no question here of equality or human resemblance. The meeting to which we are invited is that of a presumed innocent and a presumed culprit; it is ordered by a moral inequality of principle. It is that the religion of mankind was not produced by united mankind, but by old Christendom tired of itself, or in revolt against itself. Humanitarianism is not only a weakening of Christianity. Rather, there is, at the root of the religion of humanity, which has taken possession of Europe, an enmity and resentment, specifically directed against the Christian religion. This state of affairs concerns non-Christians as well as Christians if not in the same way; since, while Christianity seems to be withdrawing from European life, another religion has taken hold of consciences to deprive Europeans of any right to govern themselves and to preserve a form of life of their own. While Europe persists in erasing the last traces of Christendom, nothing can stop it from disappearing into a humanity without form or vocation.


Pierre Manent is a political philosopher at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron, and Boston College. His many books are widely translated into English, including, Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation State, and Modern Liberty and its Discontents.

This article appears courtesy of La Nef. Translated from the French by N. Dass.


The featured image shows, “De bruiloft te Kana (Marriage at Cana),” by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, painted 1530-1532.

The Necessity Of Virtue

In this long, dark winter in the first year of the illegitimate reign of Joseph the Senile, we are confronted simultaneously with an acute culture war, a destructive cancel culture, and a degree of foolish political “wokism” unlike anything in modern history.

Politics is done by edict, troops surround the Capitol, and the dissenters are dismissed and deplatformed in what neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse referred to as “repressive tolerance.”

At the core of this pretend politics is a strict and absolute adherence to the “correctness” of the new slogans, untruths, and blatant virtue-signaling the Democrats use to advertise their own moral positioning for the purpose of self-promotion and domination.

Yet recall the major virtues of the Western tradition—the pagan virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity) so unlike the Left’s current fake smoke signals.

Nothing could be more different from virtue than virtue-signaling.

Remember as well, four plus three equals the Seven Virtues, a combination most thoroughly analyzed by St. Thomas Aquinas [largely in Questiones disputatae de veritate, Summa contra gentiles, Quæstiones Disputatæ: de veritate, and Quæstiones Disputatæ: de malo; et de virtutibus.]: the four virtues of the polis and the three virtues of the monastery.

It is not absurd to connect the four pagan virtues with Socrates and the three theological virtues with Jesus—the two great models upon which, until recently, we based our tradition of moral excellence. Socrates epitomized the philosophy of Athens and Jesus the theology of Jerusalem.

Charismatic figures, both men were masters who left no written teachings and founded no schools but who simply set an example.

In the efforts of their disciples and the passionate narratives inspired by their deaths, we see the beginnings of the inward vocabulary which, until recently at least, was the encoded recognition of our entire moral, philosophical, and theological idiom.

Discipleship of these two great and historic examples became a bulwark, fundamental to the entirety of Western morality.

All that is being swept away, as if it never existed. Gone . . .

The classicist George Steiner offers us in his many books—most notably, Lessons of the Masters—a sustained reflection on the infinitely complex and subtle interplay of power, trust, and passions in the most profound sorts of pedagogy.

Steiner considers a diverse array of traditions and disciples, returning throughout to three underlying themes—the master’s power to exploit his student’s dependence and vulnerability, the complementary threat of subversion and betrayal of the mentor by his pupil; and, the reciprocal exchange of trust and love, and of learning and instruction, between teacher and disciple.

Can we relearn what has been lost or forgotten? Can we possibly rediscover true virtue in a period of dangerous tumult and pure hatred? Are we adrift in a sea of moral relativism or worse, complete nihilism?

Virtue and the moral life must be founded on something. They are always grounded. They are not relative or subjective, as we have come to think of most preferences in the last two centuries.

For thousands of years and in many different religious and philosophical traditions, some concept of transcendence has been the fulcrum for the development of virtues that in these past eras sustained human flourishing.

Can it be so again? Or are we being deprogrammed to exclude any notion of dialogue, logic, and reason? Have we entered a new totalitarian era, a great “reset” as the Davosians refer to it, where only one line of thinking is acceptable?

If you visit the great cathedrals in Europe (perhaps frowned upon these days), you would be convinced of a higher purpose as you stared at the arches leaping into the heavens and took in the liturgies and artwork of faith. I have been to many of these places and in almost all have seen some profound visual depiction of virtue.

It is decidedly not part of the ruling Biden ideology or the CNN mindset.

Instead, these depictions typically follow an iconographic program inspired by the once prevailing scholastic thought, with reliefs representing the human activities related to the virtues of necessitas (civil life, supreme sciences, intellectual speculation); the mythical inventions of the arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture); liberal arts, grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, and arithmetic, medicine, geometry, and astronomy; the divine virtues (faith, hope, and charity); and the cardinal virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage).

Today all these are getting wiped away—forgotten or worse, castigated to the waste bin of history and cursed as racist or fascistic.

We urgently need to reestablish a discussion of all these modes of thought and modern virtues to recover what has been lost and to shine a light that could actually illumine our future. “Truth dies in darkness,” as the aphorism goes.

Tradition emphasized character over rules or consequences as the key element or driver of ethical thinking. In the West, virtue ethics was the prevailing approach to ethical thinking in the ancient and medieval periods. The tradition suffered a complete eclipse during the early modern period as Aristotelianism fell out of favor.

Virtue ethics returned to some prominence in philosophical thought during the mid-20th century, and is one of three dominant approaches to normative ethics,

the other two being deontology (the study of obligation and duty) and consequentialism (the theory that moral thinking is entirely about the costs and benefits of our actions).

Although concern for virtue appears in several different philosophical traditions, from the Chinese Confucian to other Eastern examples, in the West the roots of the tradition lie in the works of Plato and Aristotle. The tradition’s key concepts derive from ancient Greek philosophy.

These concepts include arête (excellence), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing, sometimes translated as happiness). Can we revive them?

The term itself, “virtue ethics,” is actually of fairly recent vintage. It has come to be something of an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different theories. Initially, virtue ethics was characterized as a movement focusing on the central role of character imbued by virtue (which means “moral excellence” in Latin) in moral philosophy.

In the darkest hours, sometimes the human will can bend back to its best frame of reference—to that which has carried it down the centuries and sustained all human flourishing. This is such a time and more than ever we need a pause and a turn, a complete about-face, so as to rediscover and practice the original and best virtues.


Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, scholar-diplomat-strategist, is CEO of the thought leadership firm The Roosevelt Group. He is the author of 18 books, including The Plot to Destroy Trump and appears regularly in the media, as a keynote speaker, and on television around the world.


The featured image shows, “The Seven Virtues,” by Francesco Pesellino and his workshop, painted ca. 1450.

The Nature Of Good And Evil

In a world in which the action of choosing is exalted above all else, it is not surprising to hear that “evil is necessary in order to have the good.” I have seen this conversation, cast in a number of ways. It is stock-in-trade for some quasi-religious systems. I have seen it in spades in Jungian and Depth Psychology circles. No doubt, some bring this set of ideas along with them into the Orthodox faith. It is, however, a profound error.

Before looking at the nature of good and evil, it is worth seeing the problem involved when choice is inserted into the conversation. What happens in that approach is that we are no longer speaking about the nature of good and evil, indeed, both are relativized in importance. Everything quickly revolves back to the nature of choosing, and makes the actions of our will the center of the good. Thus, there is no true good or evil, only good choices and evil choices. It is a narcissistic ontology – a system of thought in which we ourselves become the center of attention.

This is where, for me, some very fundamental matters of Orthodox thought are helpful. The “Good” is a term that ultimately applies to God. God is good and the source of all goodness. Indeed, goodness has a place in the “philosophical trinity.” That trinity is truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the three properties of being. God alone has true being. Everything that exists does so because God gives it being. Creation thus has relative being. The purpose (telos) of all created things is to move from relative being towards greater likeness and union with God in the truth of His being. In theological terms, we speak of this as “eternal life.”

It is in the context of these understandings that the Fathers speak of evil. Evil is not a “thing,” nor something that has any existence or being at all. To think about evil, it is necessary to understand that all of creation (ourselves included) is in motion (kenesis). Everything moves and changes (in terms of being). The proper movement for all things is towards its end in God (its telos). This is a movement towards greater truth, beauty, and goodness. Evil, on the other hand, is a movement away from proper being, a movement away from truth, beauty, and goodness. However, it is crucial to note that this is a movement, and not a thing.

Our movement towards God (which is what is described as doing good or being good) does not in any way require a movement away from God. Indeed, it would be absurd to suggest that non-being is required in order for being to exist.

In systems such as Depth Psychology, “wholeness” is often used to describe the proper goal of life. Its notion of wholeness is a reconciliation of good and evil. Carl Jung, in his language of mythic archetypes, dubbed this figure, “Abraxas.” It puts me in mind of a Star Trek episode (original series). Captain Kirk suffers from an accident in the transporter system where his “good” side has been separated from his “evil” side. The two caricatures (we cannot call them characters) fight it out for control of the Enterprise with rather predictable results. The goal of the episode is to put him back together. The subtext of the program is that we cannot function without our evil selves, even if they must be tempered. This is a far cry from Orthodox theosis.

It is entirely understandable that people cast about for answers in the problem of good and evil. We wonder, “Does evil serve a purpose?” The mistakes we have made, or even the terrible tragedies and catastrophes across our history would seem somehow more acceptable if we could see them playing a role in some later, greater good. Our faith does not reconcile evil with good. Rather, it tells us that good overcomes evil and moves towards its end in a manner that, while not abolishing evil from the story of things, makes the story to be what evil sought to prevent.

The story of Joseph in Egypt is a primary example. His brothers’ evil action in selling him as a slave to the Egyptians is “undone” or “overcome” after a fashion. He says to them, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” Of course, the Cross is the greatest of such examples. The powers of this world meant it for one thing, but the Lord meant it for His own great goodness – the redemption of all things.

As we tend to center our world (and ourselves) in the question of our choices, we are constantly tempted to justify those we feel were wrong. By the same token, we bring an anxiety about the choices that are yet to come. The power of goodness is not within our choice. We do not create the good – it is given to us. The impossible reality that surrounds our choices is seen when we examine the limits of our existence. We cannot see the consequences of our actions (beyond the most immediate circumstances) nor can we control the myriad of other events that will interact with any choice we might make. We are simply insufficient of ourselves to create good through our choices.

This does not negate the place that choice has in our lives. However, like everything about a contingent being, it is relativized. God alone is the source of the good, and whatever participation our lives have in goodness is His gift to us. We cannot weigh or consider the good in a manner apart from God. There is no such thing as a “secular” good.

The course of our existence is a movement. That movement is impelled towards the good through our desire for God (sometimes manifest simply as a longing for beauty, truth, and goodness). We make choices within the course of that movement, but only God can direct and make of our choices the good He intends. What we know of our choices are limited, often complex, and filled with uncertainty. It is God, to whom we commend ourselves, one another, and all our lives, who gathers our choices into His own goodness, truth, and beauty, making of them what we could never do of our own selves.

In none of this, however, is evil necessary. It has no being. It is only misdirection. It is a parasite. The Scriptures say this: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5–7)

The communion we have with one another is rooted in our communion in Christ. He is the Good, and it is our participation (communion) in Him that is our good as well. It is this communion that “cleanses” all of our choices – the relative good and the relative evil – and sets them on the path of union with God.

Learning to live as contingent creatures, someone whose existence is always only relative, is best described and encompassed as the life of thanksgiving. The Scriptures say that, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In this, we give thanks, and commend the whole of our life to Him.


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 featured image shows, “St Michael Vanquishing the Devil,” by PBonifazio Veronese, painted circa 1530.

Youth Subculture In Russia: A Historian’s View

Life, especially in the West, is gradually moving towards the fact that the diverse minorities, taken together, will become a solid and constantly growing majority. But Russia is no exception here. Perhaps this will be the ultimate embodiment of democracy.

In this regard, I recall an advertising slogan from the Moscow metro with a reference to Aristotle: “The city is the unity of the dissimilar.” However, questions immediately arise: where is the measure of this dissimilarity? Or is it immeasurable? And, perhaps, the most important question – is such dissimilarity an end in itself? Is it possible here to recall the “blossoming complexity” of Konstantin Leontiev and rejoice? How blooming is it? Aroma is not yet a sign of a blooming state.

Subculture is not a hobby club or a circle of young pioneers. The fundamental difference is that the values of a subculture are basic for its adherent, more important than all those that are shared by the rest of the surrounding world. A subculture can form naturally – on ethnic, geographic or traditional, religious grounds. However, this is not always the case: a subculture can arise artificially – by way of certain age, carnal, intellectual or “spiritual” interests. These, in fact, have nothing to do with subcultures of the first type; their nature is different, and they arise by the free will and choice of the person himself. This is how sects, gay communities, “hangouts,” and youth subcultures arise. And a person does not come here for an hour – you need to connect your life with the subculture, live by its interests and rules, soak yourself in its spirit. You will have to look at the outside world and at yourself through the eyes of the subculture.

The subculture does not seek to expand its ranks too actively, despite the oft-proclaimed formal slogans to the contrary. It is always characterized by the idea of its own exclusivity, sometimes elitism.

Youth subcultures for Russia are a recent phenomenon. In traditional society, they were none, because there was no “youth” in our understanding. A child – a boy or a girl – immediately grew into an adult with all his duties and behaviors. Usually this was associated with marriage, the time for which in Russia, as in other traditional societies, came with puberty. A woman a little over 30 years old was often already a grandmother and nursed her grandchildren, and her husband (or father-in-law) was in charge of a large family, consisting of several generations of relatives. A 15-year-old boy was getting ready for military service – this is how childhood ended.

Such a society, with its values of conservatism, was extremely mobile – each of its members played an important social role. Moreover, there was no need for some deliberately invented “state ideology” or “national idea” – a sense of responsibility was instilled from the cradle, and it almost always guaranteed against unpatriotic or selfish behavior. “Take care of honor from a young age,” an old Russian proverb said.

Released in 1762 from compulsory service, the nobles, quickly imbued with a sense of their own exclusiveness, nevertheless, did not form subcultures. The estate system generally excluded subcultures: it was built on the subordination of all groups of the population. In Russia, this was also coupled with a pronounced state paternalism.

In addition, the subculture is a predominantly urban phenomenon, while Russia as a whole remained an agrarian society. The farmers were quite divided among themselves. The urban noble society was too much tied to state interests. The public opinion of the nobility was based on ideas embedded in an all-Russian metric – the fate of the country, according to their own ideas, was in their hands and was directly decided by the “first nobleman” – the autocrat.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the young nobility adopted English dandyism, but this can hardly be called a subculture; there were only a few young dandies in the capitals. Pyotr Chaadayev, who became the embodiment of this phenomenon, was an exceptional and unique person. The hero of Pushkin’s novel, Eugene Onegin, is only “dressed like a dandy in London.” There was only the imitation of the Western model.

The disintegration of traditional social relations always gives rise to informal associations. They often have an age-related feature. In Russia, perhaps, the student community could be called the first “youth subculture.” Its final guise took place in the second half of the 19th century. It was not a clearly defined class; the authorities were not able to regulate its life by law; the values of the students were informal.

For these students, it was necessary to be different from everything around – which was deemed “gray and dull.” And the acquired scientific knowledge suggested that the way out lay in a new social reality, in the kingdom of total justice. Radical ideological features were combined with external differences. A real student even in that uniformed era was noticeable by external signs – an emphasized and deliberately provocative neglect of appearance. The student’s uniform, introduced in the 1880s, did not change the attitude of the student: the top buttons were not buttoned, the cap was always worn on one side, and an unkempt lock of hair emerged from under it. Real adherents of the student subculture turned into “eternal students,” their age ceased to matter.

The common people did not like “scubents” and treated them with suspicion. The student “going to the people” ended in complete failure. For example, in 1878, a no less famous and very revealing event took place, typical of that time: students of the Moscow University were beaten by meat merchants for revolutionary propaganda. A rumor spread that the young “gentlemen” had decided to call on the people to restore serfdom – and the butchers would not stand for it. It did not even occur to these butchers that agitation against the monarchy, which liberated the peasants, could have any other grounds, and that the “white collars” could oppose the wealthy strata of society.

Subculture always runs the risk of being misunderstood from the outside. The student subculture disintegrated at the beginning of the 20th century, as its values became widely spread in society. Against this background, the student lost his brightness and originality. And as the dream of social justice began to be actively realized, there were only few of the dreamers who did not drown in the bloody floods accompanying this embodiment.

The basis of any subculture is always utopia – the idea of the possibilities of a certain group of people to unite and jointly turn the world around. It can be a world revolution and a world commune, a technocratic future, or the victory of the national team in the world championship. The question is only in the scale of consciousness; and, as is obvious, that can be expanded in various ways. This is an extremely important task for subcultures.

Students of the 19th century read the latest books, prepared notes and discussed them in meetings, with the aim of immediately introducing the ideas they had read into their daily life. Propaganda or bomb – all a matter of taste and available skills. A century later, it became customary to compose acute social poems or philosophical parables and put them to music. In-between this noble occupation was the taking of certain drugs to stimulate creativity. Sometimes these drugs turned out to be too strong. What was the end result? Charm always ends in disappointment. It is good if, having entered a dead end, a person has the opportunity to get out of it. But what if there is no more time left?

As the horizons become smaller, the goals of subcultures also become smaller. Relaxation gradually becomes the main reference point. But it is dangerous for consciousness to exist in a state of “eternal relaxation” – this leads to its submission and destruction. If you don’t make an effort on yourself, there will always be someone else to do it for you; and he will make the choice for you. Maybe this is not bad? Over time, when a person ceases to be aware of himself, he will express just such a question. And this means that he has already lost himself and everyone who needs his help – along with the opportunity to receive it, such as, the country and its citizen.

And you can spend years or, if you are particularly lucky, decades in self-indulgence – exquisite and not very, “kind and naïve” or aggressive and misanthropic, highly ideal or “pop.” The world will not turn upside down because of all this – only the person himself will turn upside down. His personality will gradually wear out, burn out. An illusory unity with like-minded people will collapse. Others will lose interest; loneliness will be the result. Worst of all, it will acquire a universal character. Who should I call? “My soul, my soul, arise, why do you slumber?…

Adolescence protracted to old age cannot evoke any other feeling than regret for the missed opportunities of the person himself and his neighbors. It is difficult now to judge what the future holds for Russia. Predictions in this matter are a completely ungrateful thing. One thing is clear – with the dictates of subcultures, there will be no such future at all.

Fedor Gaida is Associate Professor in the Faculty of History, Lomonosov Moscow State University. His research interests include, the political history of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century; Russian liberalism; power and society in a revolutionary era; Church and Revolution.

The Russian version of this article appeared in Provoslavie.

The featured image shows, “Student Nihilist,” by Ilya Repin, painted in 1883.