18 February 2017

Always two there are

In the second century, two groups attempted to gain control of the Way, the radical new communal movement that had arisen in the eastern Mediterranean. The first of these groups were the ‘poor ones’, the ebionai, who accepted Christ as the Messiah but otherwise did not differentiate themselves from the Jews. The ebionai were unwilling to question the received wisdom of the culture they had come out of, and as a result they adopted a racially- and culturally-exclusionary set of practices that closed the doors to Gentile believers, in addition to denying the Godhead of the Saviour.

In response to the Judaïsing tendency represented by the ebionai, an opposite tendency arose that went to a Hellenising extreme, taking various philosophical insights from various Greek philosophical schools and mystery religions, and arriving at an uncompromisingly élitist position wherein certain people who possessed the true knowledge, the true gnosis, were privileged above all others, and even exempt from normal notions of good and evil. In their eyes, Christ’s human nature was an illusion, and his life on earth merely a veil covering the abstruse, obscurantist ‘truths’ of the nature of God and the pleroma – accessible, again, only to the élite few. The Ebionites and the Gnostics both were condemned by the early Church, even though they fled to polar opposite extremes. And the Church continued to have within its ranks both legitimate Judaïsing and Hellenising tendencies.

Likewise, a century later, the arguments between the heresiarch Sabellius and Tertullian over the personal nature of the Trinity – with Sabellius arguing against the personhood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, holding instead that they were ‘modes’ of one single person in the Godhead – and the resulting controversy over Saint Athanasius of Alexandria’s use of the term ‘homoousios’ to refer to the substance of God, led directly to the opposite heresy of Arius, who in accusing Saint Athanasius of Sabellius’ heresy, held the separate personhoods of the Father and the Son so strongly that he denied the Godhead of Christ. The first heresy preceded the second and opposite. Both heresies were ultimately condemned: the second in the Council of Nicæa; and the first in the Council of Constantinople.

This pattern has repeated itself a number of times in Church history – particularly in the early Church. The heretical teachings of Nestorius in his unwillingness to venerate the Theotokos with any appellation greater than ‘Christotokos’ (holding that she was not the mother of God but instead the mother of Christ’s human nature only), precipitated Eutyches’ opposite heretical view that the Theotokos fused the human and divine natures within herself and produced a new nature.

The Church has only continued to retain her radical witness of the mystery of the Incarnation, because it was able to hold onto the complete truth, and held any partial or biased versions of ‘truth’ in contempt – regardless of which ‘side’ they fell on. Remember that these were as much cultural and political arguments as they were theological ones, and a version of ‘truth’ which privileged a worldly political view over the person of Christ would not end until it had distorted for its followers the image of Christ into that of a false Christ, an image lesser than He Himself. The Ebionites, who valued their cultural heritage and racial purity over the truth of the Church, were so eager to portray Jesus as a good Jew and the Messiah of their folk in particular, that they denied that He was also God (and thus also could save the Gentiles). And the Gnostics, who held the common people (and indeed, the entire material world) in such contempt as to deem them all ultimately unworthy of moral consideration, put forward for their credulous followers a Christ of illusions, a conjurer of cheap tricks.

The same pattern is holding true today. The spirit of our neo-Gnostic age is infected with a rootless hypercapitalist globalism, which seeks its moral and spiritual affirmations in a peculiarly soporific sort of deism, a religion of ‘democracy’ and rainbow flags and trendy inclusive bumper-sticker slogans, which renders its followers uncritical of themselves or of the conditions that alienate them from their fellows. And we are witnessing the inevitable neo-Ebionite reaction: a nihilistic religion of Blut und Eisen, which readily and eagerly wraps itself in the symbols of Christendom, but from which any trace of Christ Himself is conspicuously absent.

The Orthodox Church, which gives right glory to Jesus Christ, is – as it has always been – caught right in the middle of a war between secular ideologies, behind both of which unhealthy spiritual powers are present. During the twentieth century, the Orthodox Church and some of her most luminary new martyrs offered great resistance to the siren calls of blood-and-soil nationalism; during the twenty-first, we are offering a redoubtable and worthy resistance to hypercapitalist globalism and the most callous abuses of the rootless élite. But we cannot simply define ourselves by what we oppose, if we are to truly witness to Christ in this darkening age. We must witness to the true image and radical logic of the Incarnation. We must speak up for the weakest and most vulnerable persons among us, as the image and likeness of God, without apology, without irony and without rancour. We must speak against the œconomics of fraud and illusion and debt slavery, and against the culture of death (whether in a clinic or in the target crosshairs of a drone). While recognising it is broken, we must not turn against the material world (or, for that matter, against our material bodies), but care for it in ways befitting a salvific and sophic work.

In short, we must do what we have always done: hold firm to the truth even when it is unfashionable, and especially when elements in the culture try to tug us away from it in either heretical direction, whatever that direction happens to be.

17 February 2017

Confucian kindergartens?

As the father of a four-year-old hapa haole girl myself, one who has already studied some of the National Learning under my wife’s guidance, I might be able to get behind this recent Wuhan initiative:
Children in scholars hats bow before a statue of Confucius, the Chinese sage once reviled by Communist authorities but now enjoying a revival as parents look to instil his values in their offspring.

With central government backing, hundreds of private schools dedicated to Confucian teachings have sprung up across the country in response to growing demand for more traditional education.

At a new institution in the central city of Wuhan, about 30 students aged two to six chant: "Our respect to you, Master Confucius. Thank you for the kindness of your teaching and your compassion".

Five-year-old Zhu Baichang admits he does not understand all the maxims he enthusiastically recites, but says: "It's very interesting."
At the same time, clearly there are some questions that need answers with the pædagogical method described here:
The sage "actively encourages debate" and "his disciples had to forge their own ideas", which contradict the rote learning system used in Chinese schools, [Asia journalist Michael] Schuman notes.

He also insisted on reciprocity of obligation, so that leaders owed their subjects good governance, and if they failed to deliver they could lose the "mandate of Heaven" -- which would justify an uprising against them.
I am slightly disappointed by the way this gets glossed in the article (Confucius did indeed emphasise reciprocity and moral governance being key to the Mandate of Heaven, but the idea that uprising was justified against unjust rulers was more explicitly set out in the Mencius than in any of the works traditionally ascribed to Confucius). But Schuman is, as usual, quite correct on the larger and more important point, about rote learning not being everything (or even the most important thing) in Confucian education.

Speaking as one more sympathetic (to say the least) to the institutional strand in Confucianism dominant in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties, than to the heart-mind strand dominant in the Song and Ming Dynasties, the inward meaning of the institution is important. If Confucian education is ever to thrive in China, it needs to cultivate the shoots without pulling them up. And even if ritual plays a large role in a child’s life (as it should), it needs to be underpinned by the living principles that rest within ritual. Confucianism cannot simply be outward display. It needs to let children explore and question. And most importantly, it needs to offer them the tools they need to interrogate for themselves, and reject the mercantile materialism, consumerism, selfishness and individualism that has lain hold on the society around them. For this last goal, the ideas of reciprocity and proportionate responsibility, as a true reflection of harmonious balance, needs to be central.

16 February 2017

Worth asking over and over again

The eminently sensible, yet consistently underappreciated, Peter Hitchens on the hard but necessary question of why NATO even needs to exist anymore.
Russia’s sensitivity about hostile armies on its borders is not some sort of pathology, but a perfectly reasonable position. If we continue to treat it with contempt, we will make trouble where no trouble was, and live to regret it. And for what reason? What do we gain from this? We, who massage our defence expenditure by cramming the intelligence budget and some pensions into it, to look as if we are spending substantially on defence when in fact we are letting our conventional forces fall apart with poverty and neglect.

Why did NATO’s pen-pushers not go home, when its soldiers did? It’s a question worth asking over and over again.

14 February 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 4: an ‘unnatural’ good

from Vladimir and Rogneda (1770)

Some profoundly unromantic thoughts for the day. Here again I feel like I will run the risk of offending both the Puritanical conservatives and their rebellious feminist offspring, by making points that would seem to be grounded in the ‘red-pill’ logic of the ‘manosphere’ and the men’s rights movement, or which wouldn’t sound out-of-place in a misogamist tract. Given the end I want to have in view, the points I make in this section may seem counterintuitive and perhaps even a bit self-contradictory. But there is a reason I want to touch on this issue, and up front I want to make clear that I have already in this series made three points – and I want to put my gentle readers in mind of a fourth before they judge me too harshly for what I am about to write.

Firstly: sex is irrational (or, more properly, pre-rational). Erōs is a form of divine madness – but madness all the same. The winged charioteers of Plato’s Socrates were yoked to two very unlike beasts for a reason: the one noble, obedient, clear-eyed and swift; and the other wild, bestial, sullen and vicious. There is in sex both a worshipfulness, a holy fear and awe of something godly – and also the beastly urge to take, to ravish, to conquer and use for self-gratification. Both horses are not the charioteer; both horses represent drives within the human spirit that are not rational. But one is ennobling, and the other is not.

Secondly: people are weak. This is ever and always the realist conviction. In Socrates’ myth in Phædrus, even the souls of the noblest of philosophers lose their wings as they try to get glimpses of the divine! The desire to consummate, and the impact this desire has on our reasoning, is every bit as much present in the philosopher as in the tyrant – though the true philosopher, Socrates believes, will understand how to control the urge.

Thirdly: men and women have different natures, which subjecting to an arbitrary disembodied will cannot complete but only damage. The flesh is not neutral with regard to the will – that is to say, the ‘chain of being’ goes both ways. Human beings do not stop being animals merely by the fact that we are capable of reason; just as animals and plants do not stop being living organisms merely because they are made up of non-living matter. Being animals, we are also sexual dimorphs, subject to different hormonal patterns, different reactions to our environment, differing views of reality.

And the fourth point I want people to remember as I explore this third point, is that our natures alone cannot inform us fully about what is good; we cannot fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. The Orthodox Church would likely correct me on this point, to say that the nature we see around us has been damaged and that it is not nature as it was intended to be before the Fall – which was created good. That is fine. For our present purposes, I’m dealing merely with the realities that can be observed in the sinful, post-lapsarian world, without the aid of faith.

With me so far? Good. Whew. Here goes.

Marriage – defined as voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual and indissoluble – is not natural. It is an ascetic discipline and a transcendent social good which had to be deliberately cultivated.

For the vast majority of recorded human history across the vast majority of the globe, the prevailing model of sexual relations between men and women has not been monogamous, heterosexual marriage. It has been polygyny for wealthy and powerful men; monogyny for lucky, less-wealthy men; and whatever-you-can-get for the rest. This was the normal state-of-affairs in almost every single pre-Christian civilisation, Old World or New. In old China, the Emperor had hundreds of women of various ranks at his beck and call; even lower-ranking officials might have a couple of concubines or mistresses as well as a wife; and uprisings and rebellions in China often grew out of the ranks of unattached, poor young men. Concubinage was not unknown among the upper classes in classical Greece. Having two wives, or bed-thralls in addition to a wife, was normal among wealthy pre-Christian Germanic men. Before becoming Christian and marrying Anna Porphyrogenita, the Norse tribal chieftain Valdimárr Sveinaldsson had five wives (including Rogneda, shown above) and eight hundred concubines – all of whom he provided for, but put away, upon converting. The Hebrew patriarchs had numerous wives and various mistresses with whom they had children (think Hagar and Abraham, or the two wives of Jacob, or the harems of David and Solomon). Polygyny is still broadly practised with legal sanction in the Muslim world.

Without question, the relations between men and women in the pre-Christian world were characterised by a significant degree of brutality; the feminist critique of pre-Christian civilisations is not without basis. But women did much more than simply passively acquiesce in them. Even in societies where women had recognised legal rights outside the home (such as the heathen societies of the Germanic peoples), women still participated willingly as unequal partners in polygynous relationships. Without getting too far into the weeds of evolutionary psychology (more than half of which I still consider to be bunk, by the way), history does seem to be indicative that women, in general, are indeed sexually drawn toward powerful and influential men, even when they know that such men will not be exclusively faithful to them. Likewise, heterosexual men are erotically drawn to youth, physical beauty and variety, and historically those who had the means and opportunity to take more than one partner, did so gladly.

The history of the ways in which men and women have related to each other, sexually, have therefore been intrinsically inegalitarian. And I have a strong suspicion that if you look at the history of ‘free love’ movements, on close examination, the vast majority of them will be characterised by intrinsically inegalitarian power dynamics.

So what does this mean for marriage – defined as voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual and permanent? Is marriage a kind of doomed utopianism? Is ‘mundane conjugal love’, as my commenter Mr C— put it, a lasting love which is characterised by ‘sanctified domesticity’, an unattainable ideal, when faced with these amorphous and protean beasts of our animal natures, hungry for dominance or voluptuousness or novelty, that constantly cut against our rationalities?

Okay, so maybe I’m not hopelessly unromantic. But the short answer is ‘no’.

The sorts of asceticism demanded by marriage, if they are approached in an ascetic way, are not unattainable or utopian. Again, we don’t have to appeal to evo-psych or to Christian dogmas to make this case: it’s enough to appeal to history. In cultures where (voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual, permanent) marriage has been normative for long periods of time, the vast majority of marriages have been successful, stable, and even happy, the vast majority of the time. Not to sound too much like an agony aunt here, but suffice it to say that it’s really common to hear that having a lasting marriage is work. Even in the best marriages, self-denial, compromise, sacrifice, vulnerability, trust and just plain damn hard work are necessary.

But such marriages aren’t impossible. They are attainable goods, to a degree of work that is reasonable for most people. The danger only happens when we attempt to convince ourselves that the goods of marriage are ‘natural’ – when we buy into the myth that marriage is something that comes to us as naturally as sex does, and that it does not require either individual effort or social support. The idea that sentiment alone is enough to sustain a marriage (or worse yet, hormones alone): that’s the real killer.

09 February 2017

The world’s longest-reigning monarch

Very many happy returns to Her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Queen, Defender of the Faith!

Having spent sixty-five years on the throne of the United Kingdom, she has well-earned the love and respect of her subjects both at home and among the countries which still swear fealty to her, and she, having comported herself with grace and an unshakeable civic spirit, has single-handedly preserved (as Victoria did 150 years previous) the good name and reputation of her office, such that even the few republicans in power (including noncommittal ones like Jeremy Corbyn) cannot see fit to abolish it.

Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us. God save the Queen!

04 February 2017

Let us Lieven the lumps

It seems this is the time for leftists of various stripes to be discussing the problem of the nation in various forms, as Anatol Lieven seems to be doing in Prospect. In some sense, his analysis dovetails nicely with my duelling notions of ‘nation’ and ‘thede’; in another sense, though, he gets some things rather badly wrong.

First, let’s start with where we agree.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with his diagnosis of the Eurozone and the structure of the European Union generally. A common currency without a common culture, a common rooted sense of solidarity, and most importantly a common governmental structure responsible for finical policy, was from the beginning a recipe for disaster. The Greeks were shafted, badly (along with the Romanians, the Spanish, the Bulgarians), by a structure which accrued the benefits of trade to the core (Germany and Poland especially), and left them responsible for the debts they incurred as a result – denominated in a form of money over which their government had no control! The resulting spectacle of victim-blaming by the victimisers – faulting the Greeks and other southern European peoples for being spendthrifts and cultural profligates – was so truly hideous, so un-Christian, that it was baffling to me that the European Union was able to survive it.

I also agree that nationalism has been, in part, a driving force for equitable economic policies in several countries in the world (particularly outside the Anglosphere and the European Union) – and that certain forms of ‘conservative’ resistance to demands for austerity have been cast as ‘national’ populism. I agree wholeheartedly that the ‘central task of the social democratic left today is to conserve civilisation in the face of the multiple threats generated by globalised capitalism’ – and I was tickled pink particularly when he rallied Burke and Confucius in defence of this cause. And I agree that this task presents certain challenging demands, particularly upon a Left which is wont to think in global, multicultural, brotherhood-of-man terms – but which is confronted with the failure of these terms to generate anything approaching equitable outcomes or opportunities.

And finally, we absolutely agree on the need to distinguish healthy forms of nationalism from unhealthy forms. But then we get into the weeds of what this will look like, and I discover some possible points of disagreement.

Lieven wonders if ‘civic’ nationalism can be opposed constructively to ‘ethnic’ nationalism. This is a valid dichotomy, as I have expressed elsewhere, but I don’t think it holds the distinction he wants it to hold. The love within one ethnos, within one thede, does not automatically equate to a hatred of others. And the spirit of the ‘civic’ nation can turn against out-groups in truly horrific ways – as in the Vendee, where the vanguards of the French ‘civic’ nation slaughtered peasants en masse for their loyalty to the King. The social, communal bonds of kinship (writ small) and thedeship (writ large) do not necessarily demand strong stratification – whereas the civic state does, even and especially when it pretends it does not! On its face, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we need to be clear-eyed about the distinction.

If I have one major bone to pick with Lieven, though, it’s this. If he truly is serious about recovering the virtues associated with patriotism (because, let’s be honest, when he says he wants ‘solidarity; equality; community; equal justice; self-discipline and self-sacrifice’, we’re really talking about a specific set of competencies, habits and modes of being rather than abstract ratiocinations), then he needs to get serious about shoring up not only the country as one level of practice and habituation against selfish interests, but ALSO religion and family loyalty. (After all, if the British nation truly is struggling to acculturate Muslims, are the claims of religious loyalty really as weakened as Lieven claims they are?)

There is a reason the ‘left’-thedish patriotisms, the ‘ethnic’ loyalties of Samuel Johnson, Richard Oastler, Aleksey Khomyakov, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Mohandas Gandhi and Patriarch Pavle of Serbia didn’t shade over into narrow chauvinism or bigotry. And that reason rests in Oastler’s formula – or Uvarov’s, if you will: altar, throne and cottagein that order. Pravoslavie, samoderzhavie, narodnost’in that order. (The Slavophils were not reviled because they repudiated Uvarov or Nicholas I, by the way. On the contrary, they were reviled because they took Uvarov’s formula more seriously than Uvarov himself did, let alone Nicholas I – they placed the theological principle of sobornost’ above the principle of the mechanisms of the state!) The theological and the homely virtues were practised along with the thedish ones.

And the practice of these virtues must be local and situated, rather than merely national.

03 February 2017

The last true Tory

My hat is off, very much so, to John Baron MP for his recent address to the Prime Minister. Mr Baron is one of the very last representatives of the non-interventionist Tory parliamentarian tendency, and one who walks in that noble and venerable (but now sadly near-forgotten) path of splendid isolation attributed to the Victorian diplomatic policies particularly of Lord Salisbury, of ‘drift[ing] lazily downstream [and] occasionally putting out a boat-hook to avoid a collision’. It is noteworthy that the Honourable John Baron is, in fact, a veteran. If Prime Minister May could use a voice of realist conscience in her corner, she could ask for few better than his.

Kudos, sir! May you live long, prosper, and keep up the good work for your constituency.