Restarting The Engine Of Christianity

Christian scholarship is rare in the context of current university disciplines. Strong is the myth that the basic tenets of the Christian faith belong to that “childish” phase of human history when people were credulous and superstitious, lorded over by a cruel, avaricious church that used ignorance and violence as a means of control. The go-to reference for all this imagined savage theocracy is the medieval era. This myth is deep-seated in the Western mind (thanks to the Protestant Black Legend) – and, despite many worthy efforts, it remains well-entrenched. Myths serve many purposes. This one reifies progressivism, which is the religion of modernity.

But there was also a time when unchristian scholarship was unimaginable, because the life of the mind was aligned with eternity. The abandonment of eternity by academia (the greatest tragedy) unmoored learning from its historical mission – which was to provide an eternal purpose to life by way of reason. This was once called the life of the mind. Education has now begun its Wandering in the Desert.

In all this aridity, it is refreshing to find a spring of Christian scholarship yet living, in the form of a learned and profound book. This is Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary and the Art of Prayer. The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. Given that this book is deeply Christian and rigorously scholarly, its reception will be problematic. Some may find in it a heuristic for recouping the feminine in the medieval past, in the person of the Virgin Mary. Others will quibble about this or that source material, or even the exclusion or inclusion of this or that scholar. And, the sad Protestant-Roman Catholic divide will continue to use Mary to mark out difference. Indeed, the Virgin is unimaginable for Protestants once Christmas is over; while for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, Christianity itself is unimaginable without her. If truth is the goal of scholarship, then scholarship had better first know what truth actually is. Any sort of materialistic construct is incapable of truth, because all it can do is demonstrate cause and effect (fact). This is only the first step, because the fullness of truth also needs purpose. The question, “Why?” needs an answer. Once facts find their purpose, truth is at last obtained.

Fulton Brown offers truth, by successfully tearing away the façade of causes (i.e., feminism) that now distorts so much of education and offering instead eternity. Thus, her book is highly contentious and highly important, and consequently, it will be ignored, dismissed, criticized, found wanting, and even declared to be not scholarly at all. Regardless, the life of the mind runs deeper than the shallow advocacies of professional educators. This is why the majority of academic writing is worthy only for obscure journals that nobody reads. In contrast, Fulton Brown’s book is careful, meticulous, profound, deeply learned – and accessible – and it must be read by all those interested in the history of big ideas.

The book is best described as a meticulously woven tapestry of medieval faith, spiritual discipline, history and natural theology, whereby medieval Christians sought completion (or harmony, as Plato and even Aristotle understood it) – which was the instantiation of divine grace in creation. To cultivate the mind meant leading the soul to salvation.

Fulton Brown demonstrates this process adroitly. Her premise is unique and intriguing – that the Virgin Mary was the dynamic of early and medieval Christianity, in whom meaning itself was determined: “…Mary was the mirror of the Divinity; she was the model of mystical illumination and the vision of God, the Queen of the Angels and the Mother God, as like to her Son as it is possible for a creature to be, enthroned beside him in heaven and absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine.”

Thus, Mary was not some incidental figure thrown in beside the manger and then at the foot of the cross – but that she was the very “logic” of Christianity – for how is the Word (Logos) to be made flesh, if not through the womb? And, therefore, unlike any other human being, Mary also must fulfill the law and the prophets, like her Son. As Rachel Brown brilliantly demonstrates, this summation is not some medieval fantasy, dreamt up by monks, who needed to come up with a “Christianish” figure to replace the supposed “wide-spread cult” of the “Mother Goddess” (this academic fantasy, an invention of Marija Gimbutas, has finally been debunked). Instead, devotion to Mary is as old as Christianity itself – and, like Jesus, Mary’s presence in the Old Testament was widely known, acknowledged and understood, that is, until the Reformation brought on historical amnesia (the blinkers of sola scriptura).

To show the antiquity of Marian devotion, Fulton Brown uses Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology that has uncovered continuity from Judaism to early Christian piety. This, of course, follows Christ’s direction on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 25-27). Therefore, the Virgin is the Ark of the Covenant, the Tree of Life, Zion, the Burning Bush, Jacob’s Ladder, the Temple and the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Wisdom, the Object of the Song of Songs, the Chalice, the True Bread of Heaven, the Rod of Jesse, the Gate of Ezekiel, the Lily of the Valley, and so forth. In short, all those descriptions whereby God allows human access to Himself. It was Albertus Magnus who carefully traced the many references to Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in his classic work, the Biblia Mariana.

But how do we know that this is not some invention of Albertus Magnus, or some other monk? How do we know that devotion to Mary has always been at the heart of early Christianity? Very simply, because the first church at Jerusalem venerated the Virgin (per Dom Thierry Maertens, who has studied this subject extensively). This veneration is present in the two credal confessions – that of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD, and then that of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, in which Mary was recognized as the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” or the “Mother of God.” As Rachel Brown observes: “She was the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing him with flesh as he passed through the veil, magnifying his glory as he came forth from the womb. Mary was the one who, harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Thus, medieval Christianity was neither a perversion nor a corruption of some “pure,” first-century Christianity (as the Reformers always imagined, without any historical evidence). It is also often assumed that Saint Paul’s epistles say nothing about Mary. But even this is not true, since the epistles do not deny the virgin birth of Jesus; and Paul does write that deeply Marian passage in Galatians 4:4-6, in which the entire mystery of God becoming man is summarized, a process in which Mary is essential.

In effect, the medieval veneration of Mary had an ancient precedent in Marian devotion in Jerusalem. There is no early Church, nor early Christianity, without Mary – because Mary was the “Mother of the Word,” as Fulton Brown aptly observes. Whether medieval men and women were aware of this antiquity is immaterial. For example, the core vocabulary of the English language goes back to the Bronze Age (and perhaps even earlier); and English-speakers are largely ignorant of this antiquity. But such unfamiliarity takes nothing away from the actual history of the English language.

For those who might imagine that medieval Christianity has nothing to do with the first-century Church, an appeal to basic logic would be necessary. First, the faith itself depends upon events which are all based in the first-century. Second, the epistles of Saint Paul go back to within a few decades of Jesus Himself, and they contain various pre-Pauline creeds and hymns that come from within a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, for those trying to prove disjunction as “normal” in history would need to disprove the first-century context in all of the New Testament – which was the very same Scripture that the faithful read in the Middle Ages. Therefore, how could medieval Christians not help being part of first-century confessional reality? Again, it matters not at all whether they knew their faith to be first-century (and earlier).

But to be fair, when the medieval mind imagined the world of Christ, it did so through the lens of Romanitas (Romanity, Romanness). Therefore, it is wrong to think that medieval awareness was unhistorical, or even a-historical. The remarkable thing about Christianity is its unbroken continuity with its origins in the first century. This sets it apart from all other religions (including even Judaism). The medieval world understood this very clearly.

One piece of evidence of this understanding is the use of exempla (historical anecdotes), which divide time into three distinct categories – diachronic time, retrospective time and eternal time. Historical past, including the era of Jesus, was diachronic. Of course, the tradition of using exempla is Classical (ancient) in origin, which medieval philosophy knew. As well, we should not forget the fact that the calendar evidenced how long ago Jesus lived, since it was (and is still) based on His birthday. This means that the medieval world did know that Jesus lived in the first-century, and they did know that the New Testament came from that time period, with the Old Testament being earlier. This means, then, that the medieval world knew that Christianity possessed historical continuity.

The Virgin, therefore, was always crucial to the life of the Church, because she fulfilled the great hope of humanity by bringing the Savior into the world – she is the starting point of mankind’s salvation. Devotion to her is not a denial of Christ (an either/or proposition is simply a confused epistemology) – but it is an affirmation of God’s salvific plan in Jesus. How? By making the mystery of the Incarnation into a Mother-and-Child relationship. When God is born as the Baby Jesus, He must also take on Mary’s flesh. And in doing so, her flesh, her humanity, merges with the Divine, which is Jesus’ dual nature (God and man). What better example of salvation can there? God made flesh so that humanity can become God-like.

Thus, to assume, as all Protestants do, that Mary just became a regular housewife once Jesus got born and had other children by Joseph, is to misconstrue, and then cast doubt on, the Incarnation – which must be a unique event, a “process” brought about by a unique human being (Mary). Otherwise, Jesus is just a man, the physical son of Joseph, because Mary’s womb was not special and was not meant for only one purpose (giving birth to God as man). When Mary is touched by God in such an intimate way, can she just simply go back to “normal” when what she has done is not “normal?” It can even be said that the denial of Mary brings in the eventual death of theology (which is the condition of present-day Christianity, which now seeks to exist beyond theology). Without Mary, the only thing left is a fatigued reliance on allegory, which is a polite way of saying, “superstition.”

But Fulton Brown’s book is not only about the Virgin in the Middle Ages; it is also a significant study of a discipline long-forgotten in the modern world – that of prayer. Indeed, prayer is an intensely human expression, being found in all of human history. But what sets apart Christian prayer? Two things. First, it is “paying attention to God;” it is an “engine…for lifting the mind to God.” Second, as Tertullian reminds us, prayer is sacrifice. For the medieval Christian, prayer was intense meditation and sacrificial offering, affected through intense discipline.

This discipline consisted of reading, memorizing, and repeating set prayers, or litanies, and Fulton Brown focuses on one such litany, the Hours of the Virgin (the Little Office of the Virgin Mary). The term, “litany” derives from the Greek litaneia, which means “prayer,” or “supplication” and involves a schedule of biblical passages, hymns and set prayers to be recited throughout the day. Constant attention, constant sacrifice to God, such were the ideal objects of medieval piety. The discipline came in two forms. First, the daily recitation itself of the various passages, hymns, prayers and petitions; second, the memorization of large portions of the Bible, such as, all the Psalms. Thus, a life of the mind forever attached to God, and each hour of the day and parts of the night spent in His service. This rigor has long vanished from daily life – not that every medieval individual undertook this rigor either – but it was the ideal and everyone pursued it to the best of his ability. This ideal has now vanished.

In an effort to bring back this rigor, this discipline, Fulton Brown guides the reader along in practicing a medieval litany. The very idea of spending hours at prayer is now foreign, given the fact that for most Christians an hour every Sunday seems sufficient. And the object of medieval prayer? Mary, who was the “engine” that lifted the mind and the soul to God: “A creature herself, Mary reflected the virtues and beauty of all God’s creatures; and yet, she had carried within her womb ‘he whom the world could not contain.’ This was the mystery evoked at every recitation of the angel’s words: ‘Dominus tecum’ (the Lord is with thee)’… She it was whom God filled with himself.” In effect, Mary was the engine that made Christianity work, for without her, the Incarnation is denied.

It must be said that Fulton Brown uses a vast array of source material in her study. Such marshaling of material is indeed rare today in academia (given the plague of specialization) and deserves praise. She provides her two subjects (Mary and prayer) a thorough context in medieval theology, philosophy, literature, art, music, and history, by way of some 265 original sources, which range from Adamus Scotus to Guibert de Nogent to José Ximénez de Samaniego. All of these sources bolster the thesis of the book – the centrality of Mary to early and medieval Christianity.

More importantly still, Fulton Brown provides a systematic experience of what Christian faith was really like in the Middle Ages. Thus, reading this book is to undertake an intense training, not only in medieval piety – but in the earliest aspect of Christianity, which was rooted in devotion to Mary: “…the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing with flesh as he passed though the veil, magnifying his glory as he came froth from the womb. Mary was the one harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Mary and the Art of Prayer is a book that must be on the shelf of every thoughtful Christian who wishes to understand the quality and the nature of his faith – and it must be read by those who wish to understand the importance and urgency of prayer – for piety without good works (prayer) is selfishness.

Fulton Brown concludes her book with an analysis of Maria de Jésus de Agreda’s (or, Sor Maria) Mystica ciudad de Dios (The Mystical City of God), which is a life of the Virgin that was published in 1670. In it, Sor Maria offers this insight: “…for into the heart and mind of our Princess [the Virgin] was emptied and exhausted the ocean of the Divinity, which the sins and the evil dispositions of the creatures has confined, repressed and circumscribed.”

Such “dispositions” are with us still – so much so that the Church today only wants to be “relevant,” because it can no longer make people holy, let alone make them Christian. The Church has abandoned its flock, which now wanders about unshepherded, seeking God in so many false pastures. Perhaps, therefore, Fulton Brown’s book has appeared at the right time, for the world is in sore need of the discipline of prayer, so that it can restart the Engine of Christianity, without which humanity is lost. This Restart will first mean the reestablishment of fidelity to the truth of Christian. Fulton Brown has offered a blueprint. Have we eyes to see?

The photo shows, “Speculum iustitiae” (The Mirror of Justice) by Giovanni Gasparro. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 2007, as a pupil of the painter Giuseppe Modica, with a thesis in art history on the Roman stay of Van Dyck. His first solo exhibition took place in Paris is in 2009, and in 2011, the Archdiocese of L’Aquila commissioned him to do nineteen works of art between altar and altarpiece for the thirteenth century Basilica of San Giuseppe Artigiano, damaged by the earthquake of 2009, which constitute the largest painting cycle of sacred art made in recent years. In 2013 he won the Bioethics Art Competition of UNESCO’s Bioethics and Human Rights Chair with Casti Connubii, a work inspired by Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical. He exhibited at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and at the National Gallery of Cosenza in comparison with Mattia Preti, the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna, the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Alinari Museum of Florence, the Napoleonic Museum of Rome, and the Grand Palais of Paris, among many other venues.

The Moral of Jephthah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postmodern Understandings of Language and Power – Explanations and Refutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theodore Adorno On Barbarism

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

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

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

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

I

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

II

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynicism As Anti-Philosophy

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

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

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

Parrhesia and Embodied Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antiphilosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antinomianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cosmopolitical Subjectivity

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

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

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

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

Assessment and Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miraculous And Holy: Famous Russian Icons

Orthodox Christianity, the most influential confession in Russia, provides the faithful with many objects of worship, especially icons: beautiful, spiritual and believed (by some) to perform miracles and protect the country from the enemy.

Our Lady of Vladimir

One of the finest examples of Byzantine iconography is the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus snuggling up to her cheek. Thisicon was sent to Rus as a gift in the early 12th century. The Patriarch of Constantinople gave it to a Russian prince; subsequently it changed owners during periods of wars and strife, finally finding a home in the city of Vladimir.

In 1395, Prince Vasily of Moscow took the icon to his city, seeking the help of God – that year Tamerlane, a powerful and ruthless conqueror from Middle Asia turned his eye on Moscow. His army would have defeated the Russians and burned the city, but Muscovites prayed to Our Lady of Vladimir. Tamerlane changed his mind and decided not to invade. Of course, believers attribute this to the Virgin Mary.

Two more times, in 1451 and 1480, the pattern repeated: Moscow was just about to be invaded, defeated and burned by the Mongols, but in the end they didn’t fight the Russians.Orthodox believers were sure that the icon saved their city. This is why the icon is believed to be miraculous.

Where to find it today: in St. Nicholas Church near the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

 

Our Lady of Kazan

Yes, Russians love the Virgin Mary, so here is another Byzantine icon of her. Lost in the 15th century, it was mysteriously found 140 years later, in 1579, after a great fire in Kazan. According to legend, the Lady of Kazan came to a little girl, Matrona, in her sleep and asked to look for her image in the ashes. The girl listened and later became a nun in the monastery where the icon was kept.

Much like her “sister” in Vladimir, the Lady of Kazan was later moved to the capital. In 1612, the Russian army carried it as a holy banner during their battle against the Poles who occupied Moscow – and won. Since then, the Virgin Mary of Kazan is also known as the Holy Protectress of Russia.

In 1904, the unspeakable happened: someone stole the icon from the monastery in Kazan. Since then, the fate of one of Russia’s most worshipped symbols is unclear. Nevertheless, there is an excellent copy of the original icon, which traveled the world and was given back to the Orthodox by Pope John Paul II.

Where to find it today: in the Bogoroditsky Monastery of Kazan (copy)

 

“The Trinity” by Andrei Rublev

This is the first (and the last) non-Virgin-Mary icon in this list and one of the few proven conclusively to be created by Andrei Rublev, the great Russian icon painter who lived in the 15th century. There are no legends or rumors around this icon; it’s not considered miraculous. Yet it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of art and one of Russia’s symbols.

“The Trinity,” also called “The Hospitality of Abraham,” portrays three angels that, according to the Bible, came to the house of Patriarch Abraham symbolizing “one God in three persons” – the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The icon is astonishingly harmonic and tranquil. “It shines with the highest, unearthly light that we can see only in the works of geniuses,” said Russian painter Igor Grabar about “The Trinity.”

Where to find it today: in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

 

The Theotokos of Smolensk

Like we said before, for Russians there is no such thing as too many miraculous icons of the Virgin Mary. This one, rumored to be painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, was given to Prince Vsevolod by the Byzantine emperor in 1046 when Vsevolod married his daughter, thus turning Kievan Rus’ into a powerful ally of the Orthodox Church.

Kept in the city of Smolensk (400 km west of Moscow), this icon was believed to protect Russian lands from western enemies. That’s why in 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia, the army took the icon to Moscow and the whole city prayed for salvation.

The original icon, however, didn’t survive another invasion from the West: during World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied Smolensk in 1941-1943,Theotokos was lost. Now the city owns only an exquisite copy.

Where to find it today: in the Cathedral Church of the Assumption, Smolensk (copy).

 

Our Lady of the Don

Yet another of Russia’s many ‘ladies,’ this one is believed to be painted by Theophanes the Greek, Andrei Rublev’s teacher and another great icon painter. Legend says the Cossacks gave this icon to Prince Dmitry of Moscow a day before he defeated the Mongols in the glorious battle of Kulikovo. Though it’s most likely a fake, Our Lady of the Don had its fame as Russia’s protector, like the others on this list.

Where to find it today: in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

 

 

 

 

Oleg Yegorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The Katechon In Carl Schmitt’s Philosophy

The concept of the katechon first appears in biblical literature with two hapaxlegomena occurring in the second deutero-Pauline epistle to the Thessalonians (2:6-7): “And now you know what is now restraining him [τὸ κατέχον], so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains [ὁ κατέχων] it is removed.”

In the context of apocalyptic literature, the function of the katechon is to constrain the eschatological enthusiasm of the Christian Thessalonian church who are eagerly awaiting the return of Christ.

The restraint that the katechon enforces is directly related to the forces of evil — the evil one — who brings about disorder and lawlessness. God’s historical agent, the katechon, not only tempers the eschatological enthusiasm for the parousia of Christ, but also by doing so, attempts to restore order in the midst of crisis and chaos.

The image of the katechon is clearly situated within the context of the metaphysical conflict between the forces of good and evil. The period of the eschaton, wherein we wait for the heavenly kingdom to be instituted in our temporal reality, is marked by evil forces.

God, however, appoints the katechon to bring about the necessary stability in these last days. The deeply ambiguous figure of the katechon can thus be viewed both positively and negatively: restraining the forces of evil, but also holding back the return of Christ.

The symbolization of the katechon in Schmitt’s thought is used not only to legitimize his concept of sovereignty, but also becomes the basic structural principle around which the totality of history is to be conceived.

The figure of the katechon is not treated systematically by Schmitt, although it appears frequently between 1942 and 1944 and also in the postwar period between 1950 and 1957.

This later usage of the katechon is revealing. On the one hand, it begins to explain the defensive and apologetic tone of his work after the war, and on the other, by way of this defense, evinces the first major reason for its deployment. Namely, as a justification or legitimization of the sovereign decision: a defence of a concept of the political which would justify the option of the total state to prevent chaos and produce order.

During Schmitt’s time, this chaos would have been a direct reference to the on-going parliamentary crisis under the newly constituted Weimar Republic, as well as the persistent threat of the communist faction, spurred by recent events in Russia and Hungary.

Nowhere more clearly is the defense and desire for order seen in an often-quoted piece of text from Jacob Taubes:

“Schmitt’s interest was in only one thing: that the party, that the chaos not rise to the top, that the state remain. No matter what the price. This is difficult for theologians and philosophers to follow, but as far as the jurist is concerned, as long as it is possible to find even one juridical form, by whatever hairsplitting ingenuity, this must absolutely be done, for otherwise chaos reigns. This is what he [Schmitt] later calls the katechon: The retainer [der Aufhalter] that holds down the chaos that pushes up from below.”

Schmitt’s interest was in only one thing: that the party, that the chaos not rise to the top, that the state remain. No matter what the price. This is difficult for theologians and philosophers to follow, but as far as the jurist is concerned, as long as it is possible to find even one juridical form, by whatever hairsplitting ingenuity, this must absolutely be done, for otherwise chaos reigns. This is what he [Schmitt] later calls the katechon: The retainer [der Aufhalter] that holds down the chaos that pushes up from below.

For Schmitt, the jurist, no matter the cost, chaos could not rise up (nach oben kommt) to the level of the state; the ‘restrainer’ is necessary, therefore, to suppress (niederhält) this chaos.

As Michael Hoelzl comments, “The katechon is used here as a political and existential category to explain and justify Schmitt’s option for a total state in order to prevent the chaos that threatened the Weimar republic.”

Despite Schmitt having joined the Nazi party and having not regretted this decision in the future, Taubes’ apologetic interpretation of Schmitt’s understanding of the katechon was apparently welcomed by the latter, which lends credence at least to the fact that it was meant to justify a conception of state — and the decision taken by its sovereign — to suppress whatever it saw as the source of evil or chaos.

But more than an apology, the katechon is also the central eschatological principle which gives context to Schmitt’s entire concept of history. This is a Christian eschatology of the present that makes possible a ‘politics of the present.’

In a remarkable passage from Der Nomos der Erde (1950) Schmitt confirms the centrality of the katechon for his understanding of history:

Ich glaube nicht, daß für einen ursprünglich christlichen Glauben ein anderes Geschichtsbild als das des Katechon überhaupt möglich ist. [I do not believe that for an original Christian faith another view of history other than that of the Katechon is possible.] The belief that a restrainer holds back the end of the world, provides the only bridge between an eschatological paralysis of all human effort and so great historical power like that of the Christian Empire of the Germanic kings.

Schmitt here establishes the katechon as both the condition for immanent politics and authentic Christian faith. Without the katechon which ‘holds back the end of the world (ein Aufhalter das Ende der Welt zurückhält) we enter into a ‘paralysis of all eschatological human effort’ (eschatologischen Lähmung alles menschlichen Geschehens) and lose the explanatory power of the Roman empire and its Christian continuation to maintain itself against the forces of evil and disorder.

A similar conclusion with respect to history was reached in the posthumously published Glossarium: “ich glaube an den Katechon; er ist für mich die einzige Möglichkeit, als Christ Geschichte zu verstehen und sinvoll zu finden [I believe in the katechon: it is for me the only possible way to understand Christian history and to find it meaningful]”.

Even though Schmitt was never explicit about where the katechon was to be found, the places where he does mention it all refer to its function as creating or maintaining order.

In a profound irony, if read from the political and juristic point of view – which is what Schmitt claimed at most he was trying to do — the desire for order in the present, which elicits a politics and eschatology required to maintain it, issues in a performative contradiction in Schmitt’s work.

As Steven Ostovich has noted, “Schmitt developed his political theology as a criticism of legal positivism and its instrumental logic,” but “his concept of the restrainer reintroduces instrumentalism: politics is not substantive but a matter of doing whatever is necessary to maintain order.”

The principle of the katechon in Schmitt’s eschatology is therefore about maintaining a political order, it is properly a ‘politics of the present.’ It defines “the space between the radically spiritual and the purely political. It is the time window, the mean-time, the in-between of the first and second coming of the Lord.”

Calvin Dieter Ullrich is a PhD Candidate at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. His current project involves an analysis of the notion of sovereignty, read alongside postmodern theology.
The photo shows, “Scene from the Apocalypse,” by  Francis Danby, painted ca. 1829.

Carl Schmitt: The Man And His Ideas

Carl Schmitt, preeminent antiliberal, is that rare thing, the modern political philosopher relevant long after his time. The simple remember him only for his grasping embrace of Nazism, but the more astute, especially on the Left, have in recent times found much to ponder in Schmitt’s protean writings.

He did not offer ideology, as did so many forgotten political philosophers, but instead clear analysis of power relations, untied to any specific system or regime.

So, as the neoliberal new world order collapses, and the old dragons of man, lulled for decades by the false promises of liberal democracy, rise from slumber, such matters are become relevant once more, and Schmitt informs our times, echoing, as they do, his times.

This book, Gopal Balakrishnan’s The Enemy, slickly analyzes Schmitt’s complex and often contradictory writings. Because Schmitt offered no system, and often contradicted himself in sequential writings, or at least offered ideas hard to rationalize with each other, too often he is seen as an “affectively charged symbol, not as someone whose thought could be understood through a comprehensive and systematic study.”

Balakrishnan’s goal is to accomplish that latter task. “My objective is to reconstruct the main lines of his thought from 1919 to 1950 by identifying the problems he was addressing in context.”

The author makes clear up front that he wants to explore Schmitt’s thought, objectively, not through the lens of his association with Nazism: “Those who still insist on adopting the role of either prosecutor or defence attorney in discussing Schmitt can, I hope, be convinced that there are far more interesting issues involved.”

And, critically, while Balakrishnan is a leftist, his views never, as far as I can tell, infect the text in any way—perhaps, in part, because he feels strongly that Schmitt is not himself monolithically on the Right.

I have not read any Schmitt directly, yet, and so I cannot say if Balakrishnan’s summaries of Schmitt’s thought are accurate or complete. But I turned to Schmitt because his name kept coming up in modern books by leftists (and was used by #NeverTrumper Bill Kristol when trying to tar his opponents). Certainly, at first glance, his thought is relevant not only to the Left, but is just as relevant for today’s reactionaries, such as me.

This is because Schmitt’s thought did not revolve around a retreat to the past, imaginary or otherwise. He was not interested in such restorationism; he correctly saw it as a false path. Rather, all of Schmitt’s thought revolved around taking what exists today and, informed by the past instead of by some Utopian ideology, creating the future. He was master of identifying and rejecting the historical anachronism in favor of reality; such clarity is one key to effective Reaction.

Born in 1888, of a provincial Roman Catholic family in the Rhineland, Schmitt studied jurisprudence (which then included political science and political philosophy) in Berlin in the early 1900s.

At that time, the legal philosophy of positivism dominated German thinking. Positivism held that the law consisted only of, and was derived only from, legal pronouncements, and formed a seamless whole through and by which all legal decisions could be made uniformly and predictably, if only one looked hard enough.

This, a modernist concept beloved of liberals, had erased the earlier philosophy of natural law, under which much of the law existed outside specific legal mandates written down in books, whether divinely mandated or the result of custom and human nature.

Schmitt’s early writings expressed some doubt about positivism, which in the pre-war years had come under some attack as permitting, then ignoring, gaps, as well as for ignoring who made the law. The war, however, firmly set his thought on the path it was to take for the rest of his long life, which was opposition to positivism, as well as all other liberal forms of law.

Schmitt volunteered, but due to an injury, served in a non-combat capacity in Berlin. Here Schmitt associated not with the Prussian elite, but with a more bohemian crowd.

After the war and the post-war revolutionary disturbances, the mainline left-center parties, over the objections of the defeated rightists and cutting out the violent Left, promulgated the Weimar constitution, in August of 1919.

This document governed Germany until 1933, and it was ultimately the springboard for the most important of Schmitt’s thought. But Schmitt’s first major work was not on the new constitution; it was a book about aesthetics as related to politics, Political Romanticism.

Here, he attacked the German Romantics for refusal to politically commit, instead remaining detached observers of critical events, manipulating words to create emotional effect while standing back from history. They would not decide what was worth fighting for; they merely engaged in “endless conversation,” all talk, no action.

As Balakrishnan notes, this book is neither Left nor Right, and one cannot tell where on the political spectrum the author fell, though Romanticism was generally associated with the Right. Schmitt even cited Karl Marx to support his arguments. He thus, at this point, had very little in common with the anti-Weimar Conservative Revolutionaries, men such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck or Ernst Jünger. Not that he was a man of the Left; he was merely hard to classify.

Declining to work in government, Schmitt began his academic career in Munich, and in 1921 published The Dictator. Though the book was written earlier, 1921 was immediately after the various Communist revolts, as well as the Kapp Putsch; the political situation was, to say the least, still unsettled.

Article 48 of the new Weimar Constitution allowed the new office of President to rule by decree, using the army, in order to ensure “public safety,” a provision that assumed immense importance later.

Even though he mentioned this power, The Dictator wasn’t narrowly focused on Weimar; it was an analysis of all emergency power itself, and its use in the gaps that existed even under a system of legal positivism, where gaps were supposed to not exist.

Schmitt maintained that dictatorial power of some sort was essential in a political system, but distinguished between “commissarial dictatorship,” used to defend the existing constitutional order through temporary suspension (with the classic example of the Roman dictator), and “sovereign dictatorship,” a body or person acting to dissolve the old constitution and create a new one, in the name of, or on behalf of, the people as a whole.

The commissarial dictator has no power to change the structures or order of the state, which remained unchanged and in a sense unsullied by the dictator’s necessary actions; the sovereign dictator does have such power.

This had obvious applications to Weimar, but Schmitt did not focus on the modern; instead, his analysis revolved around sixteenth-century France, where the King claimed the right to suspend customary right in the execution of royal justice.

Opposed to the King were the Monarchomachs, part of a long tradition of political philosophy holding that a tyrannical or impious king could justly be overthrown, and that no extraordinary measures could be taken by the king without tyranny.

In between was Jean Bodin, author of The Six Books of the Republic, who argued that the king could indeed overthrow customary law, but only in exceptional situations, and only to the extent he did not violate natural law as it ruled persons and property.

This view, endorsed by Schmitt, rejects Machiavelli’s instrumentalism, and holds that the dictator is he, of whatever origin, who executes a commissarial dictatorship, as opposed to a sovereign, one who claims the right to execute a sovereign dictatorship. In the modern context, though, for Schmitt, the sovereign dictatorship is not always illegitimate, because the old structures have imploded.

What was wrong for the King of France in the sixteenth century was right for the Germans in 1919. That is, through his analysis, Schmitt concluded that the Weimar Constitution was wholly legitimate, even though it was the result of a sovereign dictatorship, because the sovereign dictator, the provisional legislative power, the pouvoir constituent (the power that makes the constitution), existed for a defined term and then dissolved itself.

The resulting political problem, though, was that if a new constitution was promulgated in the name of the people, the people remained extant, as a separate point of reference, from which “emerges ever new forms, which it can at any time shatter, never limiting itself.”

This, combined with the revolutionary proletariat threatening civil society, created at least the conceptual need for quick elevation of a commissarial dictator, to deal with illegitimate revolutions, before the possible need for a sovereign dictator arose. Such was Cavaignac’s suppression of the Paris mob in 1848.

(It is no accident that Schmitt’s book, Dictatorship‘s subtitle, often omitted in mentions of it, is “From the Beginnings of the Modern Conception of Sovereignty to the Proletarian Class Struggle,” and Schmitt has much to say about internal Marxist debates of the time, another reason he is still read by the Left).

Schmitt viewed Article 48 as authorizing such a commissarial dictatorship—but under no circumstances authorizing a sovereign dictatorship, which had been foreclosed upon the promulgation of the new constitution, whatever external threats might still exist. Though that did not preclude, perhaps, another such moment, which, in fact, arrived soon enough.

As you can tell, The Enemy is in essence a sequential look at Schmitt’s written output, trying to fit each piece into the context of its immediate time, and with other pieces of Schmitt’s work. Balakrishnan next covers two short but influential books revolving around Roman Catholicism, Political Theology and Roman Catholicism and Political Form.

Although often Schmitt is seen as a Catholic thinker, he had a tense relationship with the Church (not helped by his inability to get an annulment for his first marriage), and much of his thinking was more Gnostic than Catholic. While very different from each other, both books more clearly set out Schmitt’s views on how European decline could be stopped, and it was not by more liberalism.

Political Theology begins with one of Schmitt’s most famous lines: “Sovereign is he who decides on the emergency situation.” The book is an exploration of what the rule of law is, in real life, not in theory; an attack on legal positivism as Utopian through a presentation of the critical gaps that positivism could not address; and an explication of the actual practice of provisions like Article 48.

Someone must be in charge when it really matters, in the “state of emergency”; who is that to be? It is not decided, at its root, by positive law; deep down, it is a theological question (hence the title).

Turning from his earlier suggestion that only a commissarial dictatorship was typically necessary, Schmitt came closer to endorsing sovereign dictatorship of an individual, not derived from the people, in opposition to the menace of proletarian revolution.

He praised another anti-proletarian of 1848, the obscure Spaniard Juan Donoso Cortes, who saw “reactionary adventurers heading regimes no longer sanctioned by tradition,” such as Napoleon, as the men who would fight back atheism and Communism, until the earthly eschaton would restore traditional rule.

This vision did not entrance Schmitt for long; it smacked too much of restorationism, of trying to turn back the clock, rather than creating a new thing informed by the old. Still, this was and is one of Schmitt’s most influential books.

Less influential, perhaps, but more interesting to me, is Roman Catholicism and Political Form. Schmitt had fairly close ties to the Catholic Center Party, but this book is not a political work. Nor is it a book of natural law; as Balakrishnan says, in it “names like Augustine and Aquinas are nowhere to be found.

His portrayal of the political identity of the Church was a cocktail of themes from Dostoevsky, Léon Bloy, Georges Sorel and Charles Maurras.” A diverse group, that.

The book portrayed the Roman Church as the potential pivot around which liberalism and aggressively sovereign monarchs of the old regimes could be brought together, through its role in myth and in standing above and apart from the contending classes, as well as being representative of all classes and peoples. (It sounds like this book has a lot in common with a current fascination of some on the American right, Catholic integralism, a topic I am going to take up soon).

What the people thought didn’t matter, but they should be represented and guided, in their own interests, by a combination of aristocrats and clerics, presumably.

Both these books, and for that matter all of Schmitt’s thought, saw modernity as a mistake, however characterized: as bourgeois capitalism, liberal democracy, or what have you. Spiritually arid, divisive, atomizing, impractical, and narrow, it had no future; the question was what future Europe was to have instead.

In 1923 Germany, it certainly seemed that things were about to fall apart, which called forth Schmitt’s next work, translated as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (though as Balakrishnan points out, and I have enough German to have noticed first myself, a better translation of the title is The Spiritual-Historical Situation of Today’s Parliamentarianism; the word “crisis” is not in the original title).

Here Schmitt lurched away from the idea of the sovereign imposing good government on the masses, and focused on the mass, the mobilization of the multitude that can give authority to the sovereign who decides on the state of exception, citing men like the violent French syndicalist Georges Sorel and impressing on the reader the power of political myth, rather than Roman Catholic truth.

Schmitt discussed the tension between liberalism and democracy, among other things focusing on rational discourse as the key to any parliamentary system, and that rational discourse tends to be lacking in proportion to the amount of direct democracy in a system, though Schmitt attributed that to the power of political myths creating political unity, not to the ignorance and credulity of the masses, as I would.

(This was once something that was universally recognized and assumed, but today the divide between rationality and democracy is ignored. This change, or debasement, derives from a combination of political ideology, in part informed by Marxism and cultural Marxism, and ignorance, from the forgetting of history and thousands of years of applied political thought. It will not end well).

Schmitt is not recommending a particular resolution or political program; Balakrishnan attributes that to Schmitt still building his own thought, without an ideological goal in mind.

To this extent, as I say, Schmitt is the correct type of reactionary: a man who sees what is wrong about today, and what is right about the past, and seeks to harmonize the two to create a better, but not Utopian, future.

Various other writings followed, responsive to the events of the 1920s. Among many interesting points, Balakrishnan notes that “Schmitt rejected what would later be called ‘Atlanticism’: the idea that the USA and Western Europe belonged to a common civilization, and thus shared political interests.”

(In the years after World War II this was a particular focus of Schmitt, giving him something in common with the later French New Right, as well as the Left in general).

He also mocked the League of Nations; if what matters is who is sovereign, international “law” is the final proof of the contempt in which positivism should be held. He wrote a massive work on German constitutional law (which is untranslated to English), analyzing the relationship between democracy and the Rechtstaat, the core structures of German law revolving around the rule of law, which did not presuppose any particular form of government.

In these writings, Schmitt addressed a wide range of thorny problems, including the legitimacy of law and who authorizes a new constitution, from which arise questions of legitimacy, and, just as importantly (and about to become more important at that time), questions of whose interpretation commands assent.

This latter set of questions began to crystallize Schmitt’s adherence to “decisionism”—the idea that what matters, above all, to the legitimacy of a decision is not its content, or its tie to some underlying document or system, but that it be made by a legitimate authority. This is, needless to say, directly contrary to the claims of legal positivism.

As German politics moved toward its climax, Schmitt’s next work was more theoretical, The Concept of the Political (first published in 1927, then substantially revised in 1932, in part as the result of correspondence with Leo Strauss). This book sounds like the most relevant to today, both in its topic and in the specifics it diagnoses about modern liberalism.

Its overarching theme is the most famous of Schmitt tropes: the enemy. While, like all Schmitt’s works, this book is complex, its premise is that “the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political,” and what ultimately defines the political is the opposition between friend and enemy—not, as Balakrishnan notes, private friends and enemies, but political communities opposed to each other.

Politics is thus, at its core, not separate from the rest of life, but, ultimately, the way in which a political community determines its destiny, in opposition to those who hold incompatible beliefs, through violent conflict if necessary. This is an internal decision to each political community, not susceptible to rational discussion with those outside the community, and it is not a moral, but rather a practical, decision.

Liberalism, which believes that politics is a matter of pure rationality with a moral overlay, not only misses the point, but by being wrong, exacerbates the chances of and costs of conflict, especially by turning all conflict into a crusade where the enemy is evil, rather than just different. Liberalism makes war and death more, rather than less, likely…

“Schmitt claimed that the logic of these decisions cannot be grasped from a non-partisan perspective. The point he was making was directed at those who, failing to understand the irreducibly partisan, emergent dynamics of such scenarios, see the causes of major political events in the small tricks and mistakes of individuals. Lenin, he said, understood that such people must be decisively refuted.”

In fact, conflicts which seem irrational after the fact are not at all irrational; we just cannot, if we ever could, see clearly the rational impulses that drove them, which, again, boil down to the friend/enemy distinction.

In the late 1920s, Schmitt moved to Berlin, and became part of circles there, mostly conservative but idiosyncratically so. He became close friends with Johannes Popitz (later executed for his role in the Stauffenberg plot), who opened doors in government for Schmitt.

He wrote on various topics, including, interestingly, on technology, noting presciently “From its onset the twentieth century appears not only as the age of technology but as the age of religious belief in technology.”

He did not think this was a good thing; it created unrealistic expectations, especially among the masses, and encouraged belief in technocratic, “Fordist” government, a disaster in the making, because technology could never solve human problems, or eradicate the friend/enemy distinction that underlay all human political relations—but it could make war worse, and it “dissolved the protective atmosphere of traditional morality which had shielded society from the dangers of nihilism.”

In many places throughout his career, whatever his own religious beliefs, Schmitt was very clear that man needed the view of history as a struggle reaching toward redemption. The disappearance of that belief would destroy the enchantment of the world, but would not reduce conflict, which would be more and more meaningless.

That’s pretty much the state we’ve reached today; Schmitt would not be surprised, nor he would be surprised by the attempt to resolve this problem by seeking redemption through technology.

As the clock ticked down to National Socialism in power, Schmitt became more involved in government, especially in advocating various forms of constitutional interpretation. Among other works, he wrote Legality and Legitimacy, analyzing the tension between majority rule and the legitimacy of its decisions with respect to the minority, casting a jaundiced eye at the ability of liberals to resist Communists and Nazis.

At this point, in the early 1930s, he was anti-Nazi, but that changed as the Nazis came to power, and Schmitt (always keenly interested in his own career) saw on which side his bread was buttered, although he was also fascinated by the Nazis and what their rise said about politics and political conflict; moreover, he made the typical error of intellectuals, to believe that he could influence and control the powerful through his intelligence.

He ramped-up his own anti-Semitism and, infamously, publicly justified the Night of the Long Knives as “the leader protecting the law.” Even here, he was precise in an interesting way—although his purpose was “nakedly apologetic,” he objected to the retrospective legalization of the Röhm purge, holding that part of the role of the sovereign was, in extreme cases, to extra-legally implement actions dictated by the friend/enemy distinction.

Soon enough, though, despite his attempts to become ever more shrilly anti-Semitic (among other dubious offerings, suggesting that Jewish scholars referred to in books have an asterisk placed by their name to identify them as Jewish). But he was still viewed with suspicion by the Nazis, as a Catholic and an opportunist, and within a few years he was exiled from political life, before the war began.

He did not suffer worse consequences, in part because he was protected by Hermann Göring. Still, he kept writing, among other things, using Thomas Hobbes as a springboard, developing a theory of the supersession of nation states by larger blocs embracing satellite states, as well as related theories of the political implications of Land and Sea.

After the war, Schmitt refused to submit to any form of denazification, so although he was not prosecuted, he was barred from teaching for the rest of his life—another forty years. He maintained intellectual contacts with a wide circle, though, and remained somewhat influential—an influence that has increased since his death in 1985.

Most interesting to me in his later writings is Schmitt’s theory of the katechon. This concept is taken from 2 Thessalonians, which discusses the Antichrist, the Man of Sin, who, verse 6 tells us, is restrained or “withheld” by a mysterious force, the katechon.

When the katechon is withdrawn, Antichrist will become fully manifest. Saint Paul, however, implies that his listeners know who the katechon is. Schmitt expanded this into an idea that some authority must restrain chaos and maintain order, perhaps the Emperor in Saint Paul’s time, another force now—but not the popular will, certainly, and not any element of liberal government.

To grasp the importance of this idea to Schmitt, it helps to know that he once wrote (although this quote is not in Balakrishnan’s book), “The history of the world is like a ship careening aimlessly through the sea, manned by a bunch of drunken sailors who scream and dance until God thrusts the ship under the waves so there will be silence.” Schmitt wasn’t big on history having an arrow, a key claim of liberalism.

Into the idea of the katechon fit most of Schmitt’s prior ideas, including the commissarial dictator, the sovereign who decides on the state of exception, and the variations on Hobbes’s Leviathan that Schmitt explored.

That’s not to say that Schmitt was predicting the rise of Antichrist, or offering a religious concept, rather that the acknowledging the key role of a Restrainer embodies the central theme of much of his thought. I think one can, perhaps, contrast such a role with the role suggested by the Left, of some person or a vanguard, who creates a wholly new system, often conceived of as Utopian.

In reactionary thought, therefore, the katechon plays the essential role of being rooted in reality and human nature; the force that, through a combination of power and inertia, prevents the horrors unleased by Utopian ideology.
As can be seen from the title he chose, Balakrishnan sees the distinction, organically arising in every time and place without the will of anybody, between friend and enemy, as the key distinction of Schmitt’s thought.

In Schmitt’s own words, “Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are.” You only have to pull a little on this string to come to disturbing conclusions, though, about today’s America. If the premise is that at some point the members of a once-united nation can be split by a friend/enemy distinction, which is certainly objectively possible, the question only becomes how it can be determined if this has happened, and what to do then?

Certainly the American Left long since recognized, since it is the necessary belief of any ideological worldview seeking Utopian goals, who is friend and who is enemy. And even a casual listen to the words of the Left today, from their foot soldiers to their elites, reveals an explicit acknowledgement of this view.

It is not just ideological, either; the Left thrives on the solidarity that comes from recognizing who the enemy is. The American Right, on the other hand, is still delusionally trapped in the idea that we can all get along, or at least, their leaders hope to be eaten last.

Meanwhile the Left marches its columns ever deeper into enemy territory, stopping at nothing and only avoiding widespread violence (though, certainly, there is plenty of Left violence already) because it is not yet adequately opposed. All this fits precisely into Schmitt’s framework; the only surprise is the one-sided nature of the battle.

The Left’s approach is subtly different, perhaps, than the one Schmitt outlined, because the Left insists on politicizing literally everything, rather than only the key points of difference (although maybe that is simply required battle on all fronts, since their ideology presupposes no private sphere).

This spreading thin, driven by ideology, potentially erodes their power, or would if they were being opposed at all, more so if effectively. Beyond that, though, the fatal weakness, in Schmittian terms, of the American Left’s approach, is total lack of both any sovereign decision-maker or source of legitimacy for its decisions, even within a strictly intra-Left frame.

Perhaps this is a universal flaw of the ideological left, from the French Revolution on, and the source of the truism that Left revolutions eat their own. Without a sovereign, no stability, and no future—only the capacity for destruction, on full display now, after which those not poisoned by the beliefs of the Left pick up the pieces.

But first, they have to be recognized as enemies, and treated as such. No time like the present to begin, and better late than never. Certainly, a competent, disciplined leader on the Right could take Schmitt’s theories and weave a coherent plan of defense and attack. Instead, we get Donald Trump, who is better than nothing, but not by much. Don’t get depressed, though, since that Man of Destiny may be just over the horizon. 2019 will be soon enough.

 

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Again,” by Thomas Hart Benton, painted in 1941.

How Should We Read And Interpret The Bible?

How should one interpret the Bible? What rules should govern our exegesis? One approach is to tow the party line, a kind of exegetical “be true to your school” approach. This approach looks not primarily to the Biblical text itself, but to one’s ecclesiastical confession, and then reads what that confession says into the text.

For example, a Lutheran might approach the Biblical text of Romans through the confessional lens of the Augsburg Confession and conclude that Paul is there teaching justification by faith alone, exactly (and coincidentally) like Martin Luther would later teach.

Scholars today are unanimous that this is not an adequate or respectful way of dealing with Holy Scripture. Of course one believes what one’s church teaches and of course nothing like complete objectivity is possible. But one should nonetheless strive as best one can to set aside or at least turn down the volume of (say) the Augsburg Confession while one is exegeting the Biblical text and try to read the text on its own terms.

When reading Romans, one listens for the voice of St. Paul, not for the voice of Martin Luther. It is important to realize that “reading the text on its own terms” involves reading the text in its original cultural context. Thus one reads Romans knowing that it was written by a first-century Jew, not a sixteenth-century Catholic.

The task of turning down the volume of one’s confessional statements while exegeting the Bible is easy if one has no such confessional allegiance to those documents. The task is correspondingly difficult the more one gives one’s allegiance to those documents and confessions.

In the case of Orthodoxy, it can be difficult indeed, because our documents and confessions—the Church Fathers, or the consensus patrum—are the lens through which we read the Scriptures. This does not mean that we cannot or should not try to read the Scriptures on their own terms. It just means that for us the exegetical task is more complicated.

For some people, fidelity to the Fathers seems to mean effectively junking the idea of a scholarly reading the Scriptures in their original context and taking the “be true to your (patristic) school” approach. It is certainly an easy way to go. It saves one the work of investigating the cultural background in which the Scriptures were set and allows one to jump straight to the patristic conclusion.

I don’t need to determine how ancient Israelites would have read the text; I just need to read what St. Basil wrote (or perhaps Seraphim Rose’s take on what St. Basil wrote). But fidelity to the Fathers means more than simply agreeing with their exegetical conclusions.

It also means participating in their spirit and phronema, and reading the Scriptures with the same trembling respect that they did. It is this trembling respect that we bring to our exegesis when we insist on reading the Bible in its original cultural context.

Perhaps an example might be helpful. Take what is arguably one of the most famous lines in the Bible, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). One asks, “Given the monotheism presupposed in the Book of Genesis, why the plurals? Why did God say, ‘Let us make man in our image’ rather than ‘Let me make man in my image?’ What do such plurals mean in the Old Testament?”

If we read Scripture on its own terms, we must begin by asking the question, “How would the original readers/ hearers of this passage have understood by it?” A refusal to ask this italicized question constitutes a refusal to situate the Scriptures in its own cultural context. It is true that for Christians this context cannot be the place we finish (Christ is where we finish, since He is the telos of the Law; Romans 10:4), but it must be the place from which we start.

As Orthodox in our exegesis we must end with Christ and the Fathers, but we cannot begin there. Exegetically we begin with the original hearers of the texts.

So, beginning in the time in which Genesis was written and read, we must ask, “How would the original readers of this text have understood the plurals? Are there any other times when God found Himself (as it were) not alone in heaven?”

There are indeed a few instances of such plural usage. In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (The Greek Septuagint was apparently a little embarrassed at the plural, for it rendered it, “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?”) Who was God addressing here? Was it simply that He was using what is called “the plural of majesty”, as Queen Elizabeth once did when she famously said, “We are not amused”?

We can begin to find an answer by looking at other passages in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah said that he “saw Yahweh sitting on this throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left, and Yahweh said, ‘Who will entice Ahab that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’”

This reference to Yahweh’s divine council is reflected in other Old Testament passages as well. In Job 1:6 we read of the “sons of God” (i.e. the angels) coming to present themselves before Yahweh and Yahweh conversing with them, and in Job 38:7 we read of the sons of God cheering when He first made the world. These “sons of God” are exhorted to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh in Psalm 29:1.

In Psalm 82:1 the Psalmist says that God has taken His place “in the congregation of God [Hebrew el], in the midst of the gods [Hebrew elohim] He holds judgment”. These “gods” (Hebrew elohim) were clearly His angels, the “sons of God” (Hebrew bene ha-elohim) Job 1:6. In Psalm 89:5-7, we read the same thing: “Let the heavens praise Your wonders, O Yahweh, Your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the sky can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of gods [Hebrew bene elim] is like Yahweh, a God [Hebrew el] feared in the council of the holy ones?”

The idea that a god acted in council and concert with the other gods was common in Mesopotamia. What we have here in the Old Testament is the monotheistic transformation of that cultural commonplace. There is no other deity except Yahweh. His council consists not of fellow-deities, but simply of lesser beings, angels, “sons of gods”.

But the idea that the king always has his council, whether an earthly king or Yahweh the King of heaven, was assumed in both pagan Mesopotamia and monotheistic Israel. It seems clear that it was to this council that Yahweh spoke and referred when making momentous decisions, whether those decisions involved enticing Ahab, sending a prophet like Isaiah to Judah, or creating man in His own image.

The picture of the divine counsel offering input is anthropomorphic, to be sure, as are pictures of Yahweh baring His arm in the sight of the nations, rolling up His divine sleeves before working to redeem Israel (Isaiah 52:10). It constitutes more a cultural backdrop to Yahweh’s acts than it does Scripture’s main message. But it is just this cultural backdrop that we find in Genesis 1:26.

That is where we must begin our exegesis, for that is how the original hearers, long familiar with the concept of Yahweh addressing His council, would have heard it. But although we begin there, we do not end there. All the teaching of the Old Testament forms a pedagogical trajectory, for the Law was a pedagogue to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

Taught by our Trinitarian experience of the grace of Christ, we ask about the sensus plenior, the deeper hidden meaning of the text. Why did the Hebrew Scriptures preserve such images as God’s divine council, with the resultant use of plurals? Historically this was clearly a cultural vestige of the common Middle Eastern picture of deity. But prophetically it serves as a foreshadowing of the tri-personal God.

The richness of reality that led the ancient authors to speak of a divine council (and in Israel to also use a plural name for God, viz. Elohim) would eventually find fulfillment in our understanding of God as Trinity. If one follows this trajectory of divine majesty it leads us in the end to the insights of the Fathers—in other words, it leads us to Christ.

The ancient instinct was that Yahweh was too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad in the Middle Eastern sky. Just as a king must have his council to be a true king, so Yahweh was too glorious not to be attended by the council of His holy ones. This is why the Old Testament texts spoke of other gods (Hebrew elim) even when they asserted Yahweh’s unique monotheistic status. And this instinct was not wrong.

Later on we discovered that God is indeed too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad. He was Trinity, bursting the bonds of solitary personhood in the effulgence of tri-personal deity. And the roots of this concept found initial and faint adumbration in those Old Testament plurals, as well as in the mysterious references to “the angel of Yahweh”.

One need not therefore toe the party line and shrink from reading the Old Testament in its cultural context. Such a cultural reading is not preferring “Jewish interpretations” to Christian ones as some might think. It is only recognizing that Judaism came before Christianity and the Old Testament before the New.

It is also preferring scholarship to partisanship, for the scholars who recognize that the plurals of Genesis 1:26 refer to Yahweh’s divine council are Christians (e.g. John Walton who teaches at Wheaton, and the authors of the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible). It might be a Jewish interpretation if we stopped in the Old Testament and refused to see that interpretation as one stage in a trajectory that leads ultimately to Christ or denied the Holy Trinity.

But in fact we do not stop there, but go on from the Old Testament interpretation to find the richer sensus plenior in all the Old Testament. This fuller meaning of the text, so well expressed by the Fathers, is its highest meaning, and that which is of most use to us in our walk with God.

In this sense we must begin with the Fathers, in that they reveal Scriptures fullest meaning and the destination to which the Old Testament trajectories are leading.

But the highest does not stand without the lowest, and we must first understand the Old Testament as the message of God to Israel before we can understand it as the message of God to His Church.

If we insist on beginning at the end of our exegetical journey and confuse the sensus plenior for the original sensus, we are poor scholars and show unintentional disrespect for the Scriptures. Exegetical anachronism is not the way to go. If the Fathers teach us anything, they teach us that we must hear what the Scriptures have to say and that we must read them on our knees.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.
The photo shows, “The Magdalene Reading,” by Rogier van der Weyden, painted before 1438.