Josef Pieper On Prudence: The Mother Of Virtues

German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper, had very much to say about the theological and moral virtues in a number of his writings. Of interest here are chapters in his 1964 collection of previously written studies, The Four Cardinal Virtues, wherein he organizes his material according to the schema of Saint Thomas Aquinas, viz., prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, assuring his readers that this order is not arbitrary, but logical — metaphysical, even.

That the first of the cardinal virtues is prudence is no accident, for it is the “mold” and “mother” of the other cardinal virtues, without which they would not be virtues.

This neglected and much undervalued virtue — Pieper considered it so even in 1959 (!), when he wrote the study on prudence — deserves to be thrust into our spiritual spotlight for at least two reasons: (1) aside from its own excellence and its necessity as a prerequisite to the other cardinal virtues, (2) it can assist us in assessing and countering the perverse and pervasive surrealism that we confront on a daily basis. But that surrealism itself, which obscures reality and is therefore a sort of “heresy against being,” must first be seen for what it is: an obstacle to prudence that must be removed so that we may become truly virtuous.

Regarding the historical artistic movement of surrealism, the source of my analogy, I will say only a few words. First, regarding the name itself:

Its aim was, according to leader André Breton, to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”, or surreality.

Here is Wikipedia’s general description of surrealism, giving also the revolutionary aims of its ideological partisans:

“Works of Surrealism feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur. However, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost (for instance, of the “pure psychic automatism” Breton speaks of in the first Surrealist Manifesto), with the works themselves being secondary, i.e. artifacts of surrealist experimentation. Leader Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement. At the time, the movement was associated with political causes such as communism and anarchism.”

André Breton was a communist who eventually became an anarchist — an ideologue of revolution. Here is his description of the “pure psychic automatism” mentioned above:

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” — First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).

This is “thinking” bereft of Logos, art bereft of aesthetics, expression bereft of morals. Simply put, it is revolutionary irrationalism which necessarily leads to immorality. Numerous of Breton’s surrealist fellows were explicitly and monstrously anti-Catholic. I have no intention here to issue a blanket condemnation of all artists who incorporated some surrealist elements in their work (though it is mighty tempting!). It is the irrational and revolutionary character of surrealism as a movement that interests me, deliberately juxtaposing as it does the real with the non-real in order to make a “super-reality.”

The oligarchs who are bringing us the current Dystopian Fantasy PSYOP (and so much more) are anti-Logos revolutionaries, too, and they are, in the name of an Orwellian New World Order, presenting us with an ugly and deceptive juxtaposition of the real and the non-real worthy of Salvador Dalí at his strangest. Here, though, the craft of our current surrealist practitioners is neither art nor letters nor cinema, but a careful and atmospheric perception management which has its hapless consumers convinced that it is indeed reality. Say what you will about Dalí, none of his connoisseurs mistook his melting watches for real time pieces.

Before citing some illuminating excerpts from Josef Pieper, let me “cut to the chase” and present my readers with the simple thesis of this Ad Rem: Because the perception of reality as it is (or “true-to-being” as Pieper has it) is required for prudence, and because prudence is required for the other moral virtues, the embrace of pervasive surrealist narratives (e.g., among many others, “follow the [pseudo-] science,” “gender [actually, sex] is a social construct and can be changed”) renders prudence impossible. In so doing, it also renders justice, fortitude, and temperance impossible. It follows that the failure of so many of our ecclesiastical and temporal leaders to see reality as it is, to decide and judge based upon a “true-to-being” memory, explains so much of what is currently wrong with the world.

In light of this, the moral imperative for the Church and for all souls of good will is to strive to see reality as it is and to practice true prudence so that we can be genuinely just, brave, and temperate, not only in a natural mode, but, as Christians, in a supernatural mode, aided by grace and the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.

In the first chapter of The Four Cardinal Virtues, “The First of the Cardinal Virtues,” Dr. Pieper notes that contemporary ears (in 1959) will find it strange “that the virtue of prudence is the mold and ‘mother’ of all the other cardinal virtues, of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent” (p. 3). “Yet the fact is,” he insists, “that nothing less than the whole ordered structure of the Occidental Christian view of man rests upon the pre-eminence of prudence over the other virtues” (p. 3).

And what is this “ordered structure of the Occidental Christian view of man”? It is Trinitarian:

“That structure is built thus: that Being precedes Truth, and that Truth precedes the Good. Indeed, the living fire at the heart of the dictum is the central mystery of Christian theology: that the Father begets the Eternal Word, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds out of the Father and the Word.”

By contrast, the modern conception of prudence strips it of its true nobility:

“To the contemporary mind, prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it. The statement that it is prudence which makes an action good strikes us as well-nigh ridiculous. … In colloquial use, prudence always carries the connotation of timorous, small-minded self-preservation, of a rather selfish concern about oneself. Neither of these traits is compatible with nobility; both are unworthy of the noble man.”

And because of this, “A ‘prudent’ man is thought to be one who avoids the embarrassing situation of having to be brave”. Worse, “To the contemporary mind, then, the concept of the good rather excludes than includes prudence.”

Dr. Pieper even laments the degradation suffered by Catholic moral theology on the subject (yes, in 1959): “At any rate, there is no doubt about the result: modern religious teachings have little or nothing to say about the place of prudence in the life or in the hierarchy of virtues.” Later, he has much to say in opposition to the exaggerated casuistry (a “science of sin”) that coincided with the eclipse of the authentic doctrine of prudence.

The great Occidental Christian view of man stands in stark contrast with these modern defects and excesses:

Classical Christian ethics, on the contrary, maintains that man can be prudent and good only simultaneously; that prudence is part and parcel of the definition of goodness; that there is no sort of justice and fortitude which runs counter to the virtue of prudence; and that the unjust man has been imprudent before and is imprudent at the moment he is unjust. Omnis virtus moralis debet esse prudens — All virtue is necessarily prudent.

In fact,

“Prudence is the cause of the other virtues’ being virtues at all. For example, there may be a kind of instinctive governance of instinctual cravings; but only prudence transforms this instinctive governance into the ‘virtue’ of temperance. Virtue is a ‘perfected ability’ of man as a spiritual person; and justice, fortitude, and temperance, as ‘abilities’ of the whole man, achieve their perfection only when they are founded upon prudence, that is to say upon the perfected ability to make right decisions. Only by means of this perfected ability to make good choices are instinctive inclinations toward goodness exalted into the spiritual core of man’s decisions, from which truly human acts arise.”

Moral goodness is radically dependent upon prudence, for, “What is prudent and what is good are substantially one and the same; they differ only in their place in the logical succession of realization. For whatever is good must first have been prudent” (p. 7). And this radical dependence implies that there is a sort of mutual interpenetration of prudence and the other virtues: “Ethical virtue is the print and seal placed by prudence upon volition and action. Prudence works in all the virtues; and all virtue participates in prudence” (p. 8). “Thus,” Pieper continues,

“…prudence is cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical virtues; it acts in all of them, perfecting them to their true nature; all participate in it, and by virtue of this participation they are virtues.”.

“Truth” is, as Saint Hilary of Poitiers said, “declarative being.” When we men accept the truths of the natural or supernatural order, we unite our minds with the divine Mind who is Being itself. Among the truths that declare their being to us are moral imperatives, the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots,” which are not arbitrary, but are accommodated to man’s reason. (I am here reminded that the Natural Law is, to Saint Thomas, “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” [ST I-II, Q. 91, A. 2], which is itself the product of the divine Mind.) Basing himself on Saint Thomas, Pieper declares that,

“All ten commandments of God pertain to the executio prudentiae, the realization in practice of prudence. Here is a statement that has become virtually incomprehensible to people of today. And every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent.”

Pieper goes so far as to say that “the whole doctrine of prudence” is summed up in this “fundamental principle of Thomas Aquinas,” namely, “that ‘reason perfected in the cognition of truth’ shall inwardly shape and imprint [man’s] volition and action.” He hastens to add that the “reason” which is “perfected in the cognition of truth” is not exclusively unaided natural human reason, still less the unchristian pseudo-reason of the so-called Enlightenment, but a “regard for and openness to reality,” and an “acceptance of reality” — “both natural and supernatural reality.”

Therefore, truth, which we know to be the conformity of the mind to reality — to what is — is a necessary precondition for prudence and consequently for all virtue: “Certainly prudence is the standard of volition and action [that is, of willing and doing]; but the standard of prudence, on the other hand, is the ipsa res, the ‘thing itself,’ the objective reality of being.”

The passages from The Four Cardinal Virtues that I have cited so far all come from the book’s first chapter. I have not even gotten to Chapter Two, “Knowledge of Reality and the Realization of the Good.”

But this will not be our last adventure in prudence with Dr. Pieper as our guide. Already, though, we have enough material to support our thesis and show that the atmospheric and revolutionary “false narratives” which make for what I have here called a “perverse and pervasive surrealism” are all contraceptive of prudence and therefore of true virtue. Anything arising from such a defective grasp of reality is doomed to be more-or-less imprudent and therefore not virtuous in the true sense of any of the moral virtues.

Is it any wonder that things in Church and State are such as they are?


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.


The featured image shows “Prudence,” by Piero del Pollaiolo, ca. 1469-1472.

What A Piece Of Work Is A Man: Dostoevsky And Humanity

Your meeting with a book that became one of the most important books in life remains forever in your memory. And the writer who created that book becomes close to you, like family. Of course, this is not immediately understood, but only after the years go by. You return again and again in your memory to that day and hour when that cherished meeting took place. This happened with me when, as a student of the Urals University, I left the reading room all shaken after reading the novel, The Idiot. It seemed to me that my hair was standing on end, that my soul was as if struck, and it shook from the blow.

And so, from that same university winter, from age nineteen and for the rest of my life, the characters of Prince Myshkin, Nastasia Philippovna, Parfen Rogozhin, and others in that immortal novel entered into the very center of my heart. And later, throughout the course of my life did this novel and Dostoevsky’s fate call back to me, often determining turns in that course—at times even sharp turns.

This is what I want to tell you about today. Especially since we are in the “Year of Dostoevsky.”

Dostoevsky As A Herald Of Christ

After the second year of university, we students of the journalism school were sent for internships to the regional newspaper. I ended up in the town of Bogdanovich in Sverdlovsk province, at the newspaper called, “Flag of Victory”. I was supposed to write about the harvest, and how things stood with dairy yields. And after my ridiculous forays into the fields and dairy farms, my searches for people who were supposed to tell about the business (I could have gotten all this information over the telephone but I was “studying life”), barely alive because I either hitchhiked or used my own two feet, I flopped down on the dormitory bed to have at least a tiny rest. Then I rose early to write my reportage on the zealous work in the fields and farms.

And so, in the morning as I walked past the movie theater to the office, I saw an announcement for the film, “The Idiot”. I was stunned. All that day I only thought about getting to the theater as soon as possible to watch that film.

I watched it. And that same evening I set about writing my first review. I really regret that I didn’t save it. The editor stripped down my “creative torments” to mere notes. His conclusion was that it was “too long”. The newspaper was of a small format—culture and sports, weather, and all the rest that allowed it to pay for itself left but a small spot on the fourth column. Into that spot did they squeeze my ecstatic notes on the film. I’m sure that it must have looked crazy in that newspaper.

It was 1958; after all, the “thaw” had begun, and our dreams were swirling around something as yet unrecognized but definitely significant, and human—something pertaining not to the number of hectares of harvested wheat and rye, but to the life of the human soul.

I recall those notes because when I returned to Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), I had something to talk with my brother about. At the time, Anatoly was studying in the acting studio at the drama theater. Of course he had read The Idiot, and we watched the film together, then discussed it vigorously. In the theater, the excellent theatrical production of The Insulted and Humiliated was on, with Boris Feodorovich Iyin, a “people’s artist of the USSR”, brilliantly playing the role of Prince Valkovsky. And the young hero, the writer Vanya, was played by our favorite actor Constantine Petrovich Maximov, Anatoly’s teacher. He knew about my brother’s passion (besides Dostoevsky, we were voraciously reading the poetry of the “Silver Age” and had even organized an “Evening of forgotten poets”).

That is why he confirmed in the role of Andrei Rublev the totally unknown provincial actor, Anatoly Solonytsin, against the opinion of the entire artistic council.

But why does Prince Myshkin touch us so deeply, even stun us with his character, his fate? Why does Feodor Dostoevsky’s hero so stir us, despite the eccentricity of his actions? One critic has aptly compared Dostoevsky’s prose with “congealed lava”. Yes, he writes in such a way that his words as if erupt from the crater of a volcano, flow rapidly down the slope, wiping out everything on their path, and then congeal before our eyes, in our souls. The “golden pens” of the Russian literati, such as Turgenev and Bunin, even accused Feodor Mikhailovich of chaotic and sloppy writing.

Yes, Dostoevsky’s prose really was “unpolished”, as the author himself has said. But that is what makes it so remarkable and unique—its force and impetus. His characters are taken into “borderline” situations, when the “major” issues of life, as the author put it, are in the balance—into man’s existence in general.

Can a person in such moments of life talk without “choking on his own words”, in separate phrases? Moreover his heroes get entangled, and the entanglement comes from the fact that Dostoevsky is not afraid to show man’s “duplicity”, digging down at times to the most hidden depths of the soul. That is why his heroes say one thing but mean something entirely different, twist their way out of it and lie, while Prince Myshkin’s openness and childlike ingenuousness exposes them.

Just as do the exceedingly bold and “reckless” acts of Nastasya Filippovna.

Recall how she throws the bundle of 100,000 rubles Rogozhin brought into burning fireplace. One researcher of Dostoevsky’s works figured out that 100,000 rubles in Dostoevsky’s time would equal over a million USD today.

In the 1960s, out of romanticism I left for Kaliningrad to get a job on the whaling ship, the “Yuri Dolgoruki”. Because I was considered “unreliable” and therefore not someone who could be let out of the country, they didn’t take me out to sea. But I wrote my first stories about sailors “ashore”, and published my first book, with which I was accepted into the Soviet Writers’ Union. This took place at a meeting of young authors of the Northwest in Leningrad. There I saw the famous stage presentation of “The Idiot” with Innokenty Smoktunovsky in the main role.

I am not the only one who was stunned by the show. All who saw how Smoktunovsky played his role understood that a miracle was happening before their eyes. His Myshkin was naïve like a child, open, defenseless—and at the same time protected by the truth of Christ the Savior. It could even be that the actor did not understand that he was embodying on the stage a blessed one, whom everyone around him took for an idiot. Nor did the theater understand this. Years later, just before his death, on a lengthy television program the actor related that he roused the entire theater against himself because he continued to shape the role differently from how everyone—from the chief director down—was telling him to do it. He did it according to his heart’s urgings. The show’s premier was scheduled for December 31. It was four hours long. G. Tovstonogov was prepared for a failure, and that is why the premier was scheduled for New Year’s Eve.

For the first time in many years, the theater was half empty. But on January 1, news spread throughout Leningrad that in the Great Drama Theater a miracle had taken place. Then it became simply impossible to get a ticket. Because on that stage, for the first time in nearly century of godless rule, people saw authenticity of feeling, not human but divine truth, which shown in the actor’s eyes, in his inimitable intonation as he pronounced words about faith, love, and God. And the souls of all present in the theater opened up, empathized, wept, and laughed together with him.

Here is what Prince Myshkin says when Parfen Rogozhin asks him whether or not he believes in God:

“An hour ago, as I was returning to the hotel, I ran into peasant woman with her infant. The woman was still young, and the babe would have been about six weeks old. The child smiled at her, as she observed, for the first time since she was born. I looked, and the woman very, very piously, suddenly crossed herself. “What’s that, young lass?” I said (for I asked her about everything then). Well, she said it’s maternal joy for seeing her infant smile at her for the first time; for God has the same joy when He sees from heaven how a sinner starts praying to him with his whole heart for the first time. That is what the woman said to me in almost those exact words; and such a profound, such a subtle and truly religious thought, a thought in which the whole essence of Christianity is expressed in a moment; that is, the whole understanding of God as our own father… It’s a most important thought about Christ! A simple peasant woman!.. Listen, Parfen, you asked me just now and here is my answer: The essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit into any sort of discussion, any actions or crimes, any kind of atheism. Something is amiss there, and it will be that way for eternity. There is something on which atheism will forever slip up and miss the point. But the main thing is that you’ll most probably and clearly notice this “something” in the Russian heart—and that is my conclusion!”

When the show was over, for two or three minutes there was a sepulchral silence. Then the auditorium exploded in applause, shouts, and in such a pervading stormy ecstasy that’s hard to describe. This went on for twenty to thirty minutes. I was told that there were times when it lasted even longer. As the years passed, critics both in Russia and abroad (the presentation played also in London) understood that an event had taken place that was so huge, on a scale so significant that it’s hard to express in words. Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky stood before the people—alive, authentic, the man who is rightfully called a Russian genius.

The role of Prince Myshkin, I think, was the one for which actor Innokenty Mikhailovich Smoktunovsky was born. He played about a hundred roles in the movies. He acted in many good, even excellent theater productions. But none of them reached the heights of Prince Myshkin. The actor did not act, but lived on the stage the life, I repeat, of a man of God. He was also like that in real life—strange, and unfathomable for many. And in his best roles in both theater and film are heard those familiar intonations of Prince Myshkin—pauses, expressions of the eyes, gestures—of a man who is not of this world.

The [communist] party leadership also felt this, and that is why the performance was never videotaped. Only small snippets were saved for programs. Thank God, it was at least preserved on vinyl record disks, and a three-volume album was made available.

I still have my old “music center”, and favorite records. From time to time I listen to the recording of that amazing show, which during atheistic times told of a man who sacrificed his own life for the sake of his love of God and people.

What did Feodor Dostoevsky write about in his immortal novel?

To Guess At The Mystery

In a letter to his brother Mikhail, the seventeen-year-old Dostoevsky wrote:

“Man is a mystery. It must be unraveled, and even if you’ve spent you whole life unraveling it, you can’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am occupied with this mystery, for I want to be a man.”

That is how the young Feodor determined the purposed of his life even before he’d written his first short story, Poor Folk, which Belinsky read and then exclaimed ecstatically, “A new Gogol has appeared!”

Feodor Mikhailovich felt with his heart his purpose in life. It is important to determine this purpose, or it would be better to say, calling, which is the meaning of your life. It is important not to betray it, but to walk what is often a thorny path, but a path that calls to you to follow the call of your soul. I don’t in any way want to compare the scope of the great writer’s gifts with those directors and actors who had the fortitude to play and produce the author’s works in theater and film. But the yearning to express in their creative work the hidden mystery that is embedded in his great novels, remains the cherished dream of many. This would include such film producers as Andrei Arsenievich Tarkovsky. After his films, “Ivan’s Childhood” and “Andrei Rublev”, which brought him international fame, he wrote an expansive proposal for the screening of “The Idiot.” An anniversary date was approaching—in 1981 it was proposed to have a grand celebration of the one hundred years since Dostoevsky’s death, and 160 years since his birth. Tarkovsky had the idea of filming a television series. In his diaries he wrote, “Solonitsyn would be ideal for the role of Dostoevsky.” In his proposal he determined that the author of the novel, i.e., Dostoevsky, should play the role of the narrator. This actor, Anatoly, was entrusted with the role of Lebedev—that very liar who swears his love for the “excellent prince” but at the same time writes an “exposé” about him. Myshkin was to be played by Alexander Kaidanovsky, and Nastasia Filipovna by Margarita Terekhova. My brother and I were transported when talked about the work ahead. Anatoly was even ready to have plastic surgery in order to look more like his favorite author.

“How are you going to play other roles if you undergo such surgery?” Tarkovsky asked him.

“Why would I need any other roles, if I’ve played Dostoevsky?” my brother answered.

The surgery never happened, because Tarkovsky’s proposal was rejected. But Anatoly would yet experience the happiness of embodying the great writer’s image on screen—albeit in a film of a completely different scale.

The film was called, “26 Days in the Life of Dostoevky”.

I’ll tell you in a little more detail why in that memorable time an amazing “coincidence”, as it would seem at first glance, took place.

Anatoly was forty-five years old—just like his hero when in 1866 he dictated the novel, The Gambler (to a stenographer). Like his hero, after a family catastrophe Anatoly had proposed to a girl who was half his age. Like his hero, Anatoly’s love was requited—and she transformed the entire rest of his life.

And hadn’t Anatoly also worked under similar circumstances?

“Well, the novel will have to be rushed by post-horses”, Feodor Mikhailovich said to Anna Grigorievna [his stenographer and future wife].

And the film was also shot as if by “post-horse”. Anatoly was under pressure to make a down payment on a cooperative apartment, and he was in debt up to his ears.

When I arrived in Moscow and met with my brother, I read the scenario and told him about all this.

He smiled, “Do you think they know about this? They hired me as a serious and reliable professional, and that’s all.”

But in fact they didn’t just “hire” him so simply. N. T. Sizov, director of Mosfilm at the time, summoned Anatoly and asked him to help the group of “26 Days in the Life of Dostoevsky”. “People’s Artist of the USSR” Oleg Borisov, who was playing the leading role, had just left the group. Half of the film had already been shot, but the creative formats of the director and the actor, different from the very beginning, had now irreversibly diverged. My brother could not bring himself to refuse the requests of the general director, who had shown both attention and care towards the actor, and of the producer, who had produced Anatoly’s favorite films from childhood on. Anatoly knew that the picture would be filmed under tough deadlines—a plan is a plan, and cinema is also a production line. But as an actor, Anatoly always needed time to “rev up”, time to take on his role. Anatoly was also dissatisfied with much of the screenplay. But after all, we’re talking about Dostoevsky!

“I don’t have enough time… You see, I’m living in a hotel across the street from Mosfilm. We’re punching two shifts in a row… It’s an endless race… You know, the only thing that seems not so bad to me so far … One scene… Where he’s with students, where Anna has taken him. He talks about hard labor in prison, and argues with the youths… And then he has an epileptic fit… Only don’t tell anyone this, understand? (He always began with these words whenever he wanted to tell me something important.) Do you understand, they started applauding. The entire group… That’s not acceptable in filmmaking, it’s sort of against the rules of decency. But they applauded, and Zarkhi didn’t criticize anyone for it. Then another double, and again applause. It’s stupid of course. The guys explained that they couldn’t help it. Well, there you are, I’m boasting… But even without the applause I feel that the scene was successful.”

But that very episode was cut from the film—it supposedly “didn’t reflect the writer’s character.”

Our bureaucrats “of art”, as if they had a mine detector in their hands, always find the very best scenes or pages in books, which they simply must “delete as extraneous”. And this applies not only to the past—even today these “mine detectors” are still in their hands for some reason.

Nevertheless, the film was successful not only in our own country but also on the international level. It represented our film industry at the thirty-first International Film Festival in Western Berlin. Here is what the papers wrote:

“Outstanding in the film was the role by Anatoly Solonitsyn. In conjunction with the sincere ingenuousness of Evgenia Simonova, it all together gives us a glimpse into the creative mystery of those literary works of genius, and into the character of a great man who inspired the whole world’s admiration… (Die Welt).

There is no point in comparing the performances of actors in films and plays in which they played the same roles. Different times determine differently both the position of the producers and, correspondingly, the role of the actors. But there are “breakthroughs”, when the performer of the leading role refuses to conform himself to the will of circumstances, producers, or even collective opinion, and does not waiver from the path leading to understanding a man’s mystery.

So it was with Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who wouldn’t heed the “vulgar” advice of famous actors and a no less famous director, as he expressed it in the foregoing story I’ve told you concerning the play, “The Idiot”. He walked a torturous path to the hidden mystery of the man whom Dostoevsky named, Prince Myshkin.

So also was it with Anatoly Solonitsyn, who against all circumstances, both mundane and creative, was able by force of his God-given talent to break through to the secret of that author, who lived and created to the glory of God.


Alexei Solonitsyn is a prominent Russian actor and film script-writer. This article appears courtesy of Pravoslavie.


The featured image shows a portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, by Ilya Glazunov; painted in 1968.

Curing The Real Disease

It was in the years following the Civil War, America was hard on the path to “becoming great.” The industrial revolution had moved into full swing, railroads criss-crossed the country, immigration was gaining speed, and wealth was accumulating at a rate never seen before. We were slowly moving from our original agrarian economy towards life as an industrial nation. The middle-class was growing, education was increasing, and the life of management was the aspiration of many. We were also getting sick in new ways.

In 1868, the first article on the term neurasthenia was published. Though the word had been around some thirty years, it was making its debut as a more wide-spread diagnosis. The symptoms associated with it were: fatigue, anxiety, headache, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, neuralgia, and depressed mood. If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because it never went away. We simply call it by different names now. And, speaking of names, William James (Varieties of Religious Experience), called it “Americanitis.”

This “disease” was blamed on a variety of causes. Many of them had to do with the modern lifestyle and more generalized circumstances of our existence. America, in the late 1800’s was already “losing its religion.” There was some vague sense that the religious ideas of earlier times (America’s earlier times) were inadequate. There were many new denominations (results of the various revivals of the 19th century). There were also a large wave of cult-like movements (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, etc.). Pentecostalism had much of its birth during this same period. Of little note to some was the rise of Anglo-Catholicism in this period, a movement within mainline Anglican thought that looked back to times prior to the Reformation for its inspiration. A number of leading figures in things like the Arts and Crafts Movement came from this religious background. They were looking for an older spiritual model (and an economic model) to treat the disease that modernity had unleashed.

It has to be acknowledged, I think, that many of us today are inheritors of the same interior sense that “something is wrong.” Early in the 20th century, writers such as GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc offered crititicisms of “modernity” drawn from a traditional, Catholic worldview. Serious thinkers have continued that same narrative (not all of them Christian) ever since. And so we have Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Jung, 1933), Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1946), and other such major works, decade by decade, fumbling towards a way of speaking about the emptiness of modern life. The modern liberation movements, as well as the youth movements of the 60’s should be read in this same light even though their critiques, in time, were themselves to become symptomatic of modernity.

A tragic attempt to address the malaise of modern neurasthenia was a sense that American men were growing too soft and unmanly towards the end of the 19th century. There were conversations that spoke of the need for a “good war” and of a “great cause” to regenerate what had become lacking. Such sentiments certainly played a large role in the Spanish-American War, the unabashed launch of America’s soft colonialism. The themes of that time have been replayed in every subsequent conflict. Whether we have been “making the world safe for democracy” or simply uninstalling various hostile regimes, variations of the same explanations and marketing have accompanied our efforts. Such explanations were plausible in World War II, but have rung increasingly hollow ever since.

Having largely lost our religion(s), modernity has seen fit to create new ones. If we wonder what constitutes a modern religion (or efforts to create one) we need look no further than our public liturgies. Various months of the year are now designated as holy seasons set-aside to honor various oppressed groups or causes. It is an effort to liturgize the nation as the bringer and guardian of justice in the world, an effort that seeks to renew our sense of mission and to portray our nation as something that we believe in. It must be noted that as a nation, we have not been content to be one among many. We have found it necessary to “believe” in our country. It is a symptom of religious bankruptcy. As often as not, major sports events (Super Bowls) are pressed into duty as bearers of significance and meaning. The pious liturgies that surround them have become pathetic as they try ever-harder to say things that simply are not true or do not matter. This game is not important – it’s just a game.

The difficulty with engineered religions, or causes that serve as substitutes, is that they fail to transcend. Regardless of how great many moments or ideas might be, they easily die a thousand deaths as their many non-transcendent failures come to mind. In the late 1960’s, the singer Peggy Lee registered a hit single, “Is that all there is?” It is a song with the lilt of a French chanson, à la Edith Piaf. It moves through the great moments of life, including love and even death itself, but offers its sad refrain:

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

This is our context, the world of modernity. It is also our sickness, an empty lassitude whose hunger invites never-ending experiments of conferring meaning on our world. The “better world” that modernity pursues shifts relentlessly and changes as though it were directed by Paris fashionistas. At the same time, it is met with increasing anger and frustration, a predictable response to what are essentially imposed religious views.

William James offered the interesting observation that war is a “sacrament” of the nation state. He had in mind the larger conflicts of his time. War grants a unity and a sense of purpose and participation to the country that is almost unrivaled. In our time, the response to the attack of 911 comes the closest to that sacramental purpose. However, with conflicts that dragged on for two decades, it began to wane in its effectiveness. It remains a touchstone at present, an event to which others are compared in efforts to foster another occasion of sacramental war. All of these sacramental efforts and the public liturgies that surround them, however, fail to serve any transcendent purpose. The nation state and modernity itself (which is primarily a form of economic activity) simply do not and cannot rise to the level of eternal significance. Indeed, their ultimate banality mocks us.

I am often asked, when writing on this topic, what response Christians should make. What do we do about the state? How do we respond to modernity? For the state – quit “believing” in it. We are commanded in Scripture to pray for those in authority. We are not commanded to make the state better or participate in its projects. We are commanded to serve our neighbors as we fulfill the law of God. However, I think it is important to work at “clearing the fog” of modern propaganda regarding the place of the nation state in the scheme of things. I would frame a response to modernity in this manner: we are not responsible for foreign religions. Though Christian language and carefully selected ideas are often employed in the selling of modernity’s many projects, it is a mistake to honor its false claims. Make no mistake, modernity will offer no credit, in the end, to Christ, the Church, or to people of faith. Its interests lie elsewhere.

The proper response to these things will seem modest. Live the life of the Church. The cure of modernity’s neurasthenia is found not in yet one more successful project, but in the long work of salvation set in our midst in Christ’s death and resurrection. Our faith is not a chaplaincy to the culture, or a mere artifact of an older world. The Church is the Body of Christ into which all things will be gathered, both in heaven and on earth. It is the Way of Life as well as a way of life. It is not given to us to control how we are seen by the world, or whether the world thinks us useful. It is for us to be swallowed up by Christ and to manifest His salvation to the world. We were told from the very beginning that would should be patient, just as we were promised from the beginning that we would suffer with Christ.

I think the sickness that haunts our culture is that we fail to know and see what is good and to give thanks for the grace that permeates all things. When that is forgotten, nothing will satisfy, nothing will transcend. There is no better world to be built, nor great wars to be won. There is today, and that is enough.


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 the progress of cholera; watercolor, dated 1831.

Bearing Shame

In 401 AD, twenty-nine Saxon “slaves,” strangled each other to death with their bare hands in their prison cells. They chose this death rather than being forced to fight one another in Rome’s arena. Better death than shame. Their “owner,” the Senator Symmachus (famously known as the “Last Pagan”), wrote of them that they were a rebellious “band of slaves, worse than any Spartacus.”1

In the pages of the New Testament we see some interesting public events:

A woman taken in the act of adultery is dragged into the street by her accusers where she is threatened with public stoning.
Jesus is nearly thrown headlong off a cliff after speaking in the synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4).
Stephen the Deacon is publicly stoned after preaching about Christ.
King Herod issues orders to arrest more Christians after his execution of James is seen to please the people.
Public life in earlier centuries could be brutal and dangerous. In many locations across the world, little has changed. Recently, there has been a growing problem with spectators at American sporting events, shouting outrageous insults at players and throwing items (beer, bottles, etc.). No doubt, the problem is far more widespread.

But all of these events share something in common: the public use of shame. The language of shame essentially attacks who-a-person-is rather than what-they-have-done. A person who is guilty of murder thus becomes a “murderer.” And though this is technically true, it is also not true. The language of guilt isolates responsibility for a single event; the language of shame assumes that you are now that event waiting to be visited upon all. Guilt suggests punishment or restitution; shame declares that no matter what you might do, you will always be that person.

There is a world of difference, for example, between being wrong about something and being “stupid.” But, as one comedian has it, “There’s no cure for stupid.” Shame labels us as incurable.

The language of shame is far more powerful than the language of guilt. Guilt can be answered and atoned. Shame, however, has no atonement – it is a declaration of “who we are.” There is no atonement for stupid, ugly, incompetent, mean, evil, etc. On occasion, I have been accosted by those who use shame as a verbal weapon. Recently, in an exchange in which I was the object of someone’s labeling, I was told that no apology need be made when speaking the truth – that is, shame is fine so long as it is “true.”

Shame is not only permitted in our culture; it needs no apology.

There is a strange phenomenon about shame, however. I describe this as its “sticky” quality. When we see the shame of someone else, we ourselves experience shame. This can be as innocuous as watching someone’s public embarrassment and sharing the feeling of embarrassment. It is equally and more profoundly true in darker and deeper encounters. We cannot shame others and remain untouched. The very shame we extend reaches within us and takes us with it.

It is there, in its depths, that shame does its most devastating work. It is a primary creator and maintainer of the false self, an identity established largely through the energy of shame that leaves the truth of the soul shrouded in darkness. It becomes the source of acedia, in the words of the Fathers, or anger, anxiety, and depression, in modern parlance.

Unattended shame lives within us like a dybbuk, an angry hurt and hurting soul that breeds death. We ignore the role of shame in our lives to our own spiritual peril. Much that we imagine to be righteousness is only shame in a fancy disguise.

If you have ever engaged in one of the typical shame fights on social media, then think about how you felt when it was over (or even if you only read such a shame fight). There is no inner peace. There can be burning anger and a nattering inner voice of opposition that lingers for days. In terms of shame, it doesn’t matter if you are right. Shame loves the categories of right and wrong. It only matters that your opponent disagreed and that you shamed them. Shame is like the game of global thermonuclear war: the only option is not to play.

Shaming is easily justified by many. Whether it is doctrine, the Church, the state, the culture, whatever institution stands most in danger, shaming, like violence, is considered an effective tool in guarding the fort. However, it remains the case that shame cannot be used without causing damage to the one who uses it. Like the One Ring of Power, shame takes the one who uses it into the darkness and binds them there as well.

The mystery of our salvation cannot be found in living life on its most literal, surface level. Such a life can make no sense of forgiving enemies, doing good to those who hate you, rendering good for evil, being kind to all and sharing your stuff. In short, such a life cannot bear the shame of love. But only such love can know God. We only live by dying. We only heal shame by bearing shame.


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, “After the Misdeed,” by Jean Béraud, painted ca. 1885-1890.

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.