30 January 2017

Mistaking strength and wealth for virtue

Blessedly, the excellent Peter Hitchens waits a good few cycles before weighing in. That’s a good thing. Because when he does weigh in, he throws the scales with insight, clarity and wisdom in abundance. As he says, quite rightly, ‘Just because a lot of squeaky liberals are against these measures, it does not mean they are sensible or right. Indeed, this must be the wise person’s motto in dealing with all controversies of the Trump presidency.

Hitchens, who has now made quite the career of justifiably saying ‘I told you so’, makes a very careful note of Trump’s willingness to put on the table things which he should not, for ephemeral and self-seeking short-term gain (for example, his critique of NATO and its mutation from a defensive to an aggressive pact – which has since been frittered away for the promise of a sleeping tour of Buckingham Palace) and also his willingness to barter substance for appearance (as in the case of putting an immigration ban on all the wrong countries and none of the right ones). Hitchens waxes nearly Grantian in his ‘pessimistic’ (using the term advisedly, knowing that both Grant and Hitchens would reject such a description) prognosis for our civilisation and for what the next four years impend. ‘As long as the “west” doesn’t rediscover Christianity, it flails dangerously about, mistaking strength and wealth for virtue. It puts its faith in reeking tube and iron shard, in bigger weapons, and in “tougher” “securidee” (which bears the same relation to true security as does “charidee” to true charity), in consumer goods and in its own luxurious hedonism. This will not work.

Hitchens does indeed make note of the places where Trump has sounded the right note. As is the case with him, I have also noted that these sounds are appealing; whether on the question of free trade or infrastructure development or Russia. He also notes where Trump is far less appealing – specifically on the question of torture. And at last he notes why the furore over the ‘Muslim ban’, on both sides of the political fence, is silly and misaimed. After all, it is quite true that ‘crude, ignorant attacks on Muslims themselves naturally make any intelligent open-minded person come to their defence when he can, whatever he thinks of their faith’.

I know that Mr Hitchens may not like the term and prefers to be styled a Burkean, but his High Tory voice of caution and restraint, and his attitudes toward statecraft and culture, are desperately, desperately needed – now far more than ever.

Remembering the Martyr-King

Today we honour the memory of the only person ever to be sainted by the Church of England. On the thirtieth of January, 1649, King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland was martyred by the rogue Parliament under Oliver Cromwell, signalling the imposition over the British Isles of the first modern dictatorship. As I wrote then, and mean every word of it to this day:
Through the Divines who to this day carry Blessed King Charles’s name, he was also a champion of a more just and more egalitarian social order than the one portended by the rise of the Puritans. His Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, fought the enclosures movement in the Court of Star Chamber; he championed the Poor Laws to provide state relief and jobs for those victimised by enclosure; he promoted an economic policy of firm economic regulation through the patents system and through Crown monopolies (the beginnings of a modern ethos of public ownership); and he was a dedicated patron of the fine arts, in, as Fr. John Alexander of Providence, RI put it: ‘[witness] in a thoroughly medieval way against the stark utilitarianism of the Puritans who condemned such pursuits as so much frivolity’.

The fight King Charles I waged against the economic anarchy which was fast congealing into a spirit of greed, Mammon-worship and primitive capitalism was far from an unconscious or merely self-interested one, in spite of the claims of Puritan-sympathetic Whig historians to the contrary. Indeed, his fight was expressly one oriented to what he saw as the common good of the kingdoms he ruled, as against the abuse he witnessed against farmers and tradesmen by a rising capitalist class.

The veneration of Blessed King Charles thus does not solely represent an earnest desire and thankfulness for the continuation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in England, but also the hope that a more just social order marked by reciprocity and mutual giving might be realised over-against the ruthless and anti-human logics of the market and of naked power.
To this also may be added, that Alexis Mikhailovich Romanov, the Orthodox Tsar of Russia, in an act without parallel elsewhere on the Continent, reacted to the death of his fellow monarch with a great intensity of feeling. He kicked the representatives of the Muscovy Company out of the country, initiated a Russian boycott of goods produced under Cromwell’s government, threw open the doors of hospitality to Royalist refugees and their families who fled England, and personally offered monetary assistance to ‘the disconsolate widow of that glorious martyr’, Charles’s queen Henrietta Maria. The high crime of regicide which was perpetrated upon the person of King Charles did not concern Englishmen only, but indeed affected the Orthodox world as well, as the swift and uncompromising response of the pious Tsar of Russia bears witness.

29 January 2017

Jacksonian nationalism is not High Toryism

In Peter Viereck’s book Conservatism, he devoted a great deal of attention to both John Adams père et fils, and to John Calhoun. He did not talk a great deal about the presidency or policies of Andrew Jackson, except to intimate that Jackson’s instincts about politics were basically Rousseauian, rooted in ‘faith in an idealised a priori abstraction called “the common man”’, and that he behaved politically ‘[a]s if original sin could cease at the Alleghenies’.

Let that sink in for a moment.

For all my full-throated sympathies with the populist moment of 1896, and for all my Laschian leanings, I’ve never forgotten that populism, and its revolt against the ideology of progress, represents a flawed, ‘second-best’ alternative within the American experiment. Populism’s justification rests solely in the fact that America’s élite class is in a state of permanent revolt against nature and morality, seduced by the ideologies of mastery over man and nature. From the start drawn from the Calvinist merchant class of Yankee New England, the fickle speculators of the Tidewater and the damnable usurer-grandees of the Deep South, America’s élites have never had the deep, rooted ties to the land or the ethic of noblesse oblige that characterised the Old World élites. The hope for anything resembling a humane, human-scaled polity would therefore lie in the inertia of the common people.

Don’t get me wrong. American populism is indeed an attractive direction, for those of us Tory-inflected leftists who want to see the élite class behave with some degree of social responsibility, or – indeed – who despair of the élite class ever gaining such an awareness. Populism, in its nineteenth-century incarnation, was indeed a revolt against the ideologies of mastery of man and nature, that found some resonances with older conservative critiques. It would be historically irresponsible to ignore the close links between Upper Canadian High Toryism – what would later become Red Toryism – and the prairie populists in Alberta and Saskatchewan; those links generated a great wealth of idiosyncratic, anti-capitalist œconomic thought (including distributism, the coöperative federation and the social credit movement). And the attitudes of the populists toward money and resources tend to mirror certain strains in classical Christian, and particularly Patristic thought.

But the raw, Jacobin nationalism represented by Jackson, and its latter-day revival, present a peculiar danger to those of us who would appeal to classical forms of conservatism, or even to its half-forgotten offspring in the historical populist idea. A man who would run roughshod over the great humane inheritance of Anglo-Saxon customary law in pursuit of a propertarian régime, and in the name of the popular will, is by no means a principled friend to conservatism. And consider: the amalgamation of Manchester liberalism with ‘thought-control nationalism’ that Viereck warned us against is upon us again – though now with an invincible shell of postmodern irony and self-awareness, which not only elevates ‘narrative’ above any consideration of truth or reality, but weaponises the former against the latter. In such an environment, the common people are to be pitied and succoured where possible, but truth and goodness and beauty are not to be sought among them, any more than they are to be sought among the élite.

28 January 2017

27 January 2017

The seamless garment, in Russian colours

His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, delivered a most welcome statement to the Russian Duma yesterday – and all too timely, given that January is the month for life issues. Prominently, he said:
It is impossible to be truly faithful, to go to church, to take part in parish and even Church-wide life while taking bribes or profiting from dishonest financial operations… I would like to especially note that Orthodoxy is incompatible with moral relativism, one of the manifestations of which in modern society is corruption. Corruption is a serious spiritual disease.
And according to Interfax-Religion, he also said this:
Thank God, we are seeing some definite progress. However, continuing to receive thousands of letters from the faithful with the request to call upon the authorities to solve the problem of abortion, I ask you not to abandon the gradual efforts to overcome this terrible phenomenon… It is not a revolutionary change, but a return to normal life, without which men and women’s happiness is unthinkable, and the future of our people is impossible.
In addition, he spoke out on the topics of usury, banking and abuse of office.
He also encouraged the Duma to develop measures that support motherhood and childhood, thus creating conditions that will help reduce abortions, including adding large families to the categories of citizens exempt from property tax.

The primate also proposed that the deputies consider creating banks specifically for the poor and to prohibit the system of microfinance loans, which he termed an “immoral practice” of usury.

Finally, he also called upon the state servants to focus on truly serving those whom they represent, rather than personal or corporate interests, and to stop seeking media glory.
Note well, that the approach Vladyka Kirill is advocating – using financial incentives, at-cost lending services and social welfare to combat abortion as well as gradual legal restrictions – is precisely the same sort of ‘seamless-garment’ consistent life ethic approach that gets panned all too often by the American right. But it works, and Vladyka Kirill knows this perfectly well. Godspeed, Vladyka!

25 January 2017

Thedeship, not nationalism

In my prior wranglings with the topic of nationalism, I’ve attempted to stake out an alternative language and space of meaning when it comes to distinguishing healthy forms of national solidarity from unhealthy ones. In the past I have done this by analogy and real-world examples – looking at forms of understanding the nation that I sympathise with (like Johnson, Chesterton, Gandhi and Wang Hui) as opposed to ones I don’t (like Mussolini, Bandera and Modi), and trying to find the factors that sort one kind of solidarity and national fellow-feeling from the other. The rise of the phenomenon of Trumpism makes this question all the more valuable and worthy of pursuit. What sorts of national solidarity are amenable to community-building? What are the markers of those sorts of patriotic feeling, which are best able to resist making carved idols of the state, or the race? What language should we use to describe them?

I have made several distinct attempts to draw the line between the kinds of ‘national’ solidarity that I approve, and the ones that I don’t. It can be tempting to say that the line is between left- and right-nationalisms (Gandhi and Wang Hui, at least, being very much figures of the left), but that would seem a crude and clumsy distinction since there are highly toxic left-wing nationalisms as well as healthy ones, and fascist movements tend to defy a straightforward left-right political topography in any event.

One interesting distinction made by Susanna Rabow-Edling when referring to the Slavophils was that between political and cultural nationalists. This is actually a tempting way to view things, since cultural nationalists tend to be less apt to take the helm of state and seek out enemies to destroy with it, and are more intent on education and cultural edification of their own people. This gets at something important in the distinction I want to draw, but in some ways it doesn’t quite fit, either. The Slavophils (or their High Tory English counterparts) did have certain political as well as cultural commitments, even if they rated politics as a secondary or even tertiary concern when compared with issues of culture and religion and education. That is one of the reasons why I was hesitant to call them anarchists, even after Rabow-Edling’s philosophical, Herderian definition. Khomyakov and Kireevsky were not anti-state; they were merely concerned that the state not encroach on and pollute the communal and social life of the people.

But Rabow-Edling did have the right idea; the Slavophils (and the populists who were inspired by them) made good use of the language they had inherited, in distinguishing between the principles of narodnost’ and natsionalizm. As Mother Maria Skobtsova herself highlighted that very distinction in The Crucible of Doubts:
The usual classical examples of Russian nationalism occur always as right-wing social thought and it relies upon chauvinism in [the Ukraine]. Nationalism in Russia cloaked itself mostly in the aggressive sovereignty-rights and territorial pretensions of the Russian empire.

Populism—the fruition of the thought of the left, the revolutionary circles of Russian society—was little interested in state pretensions to empire and it deciphered itself not in governmental, but rather in social maximalism. It sought after the national labour truth in that
obshchina-community, in those unique social peculiarities of Russian existence, wherein Khomyakov sought after his truth.

In no other language is there a delineation between the inner nuances of the words:
natsiya (nation) and narod (native-populace). In no other language do these concepts lead to the antagonistic word-images, natsionalizm and narodnichestvo. In Russia not only these concepts, but also the truth, contained in each of them—was harshly antagonistic to each other.
And this is the distinction that I want to get at. The nationality I have sought to defend here, before I had even heard of the term, was that of Mother Maria’s narodnichestvo: that is to say, the Slavophils’ narodnost’. It is the social-maximalist idea, that people of the same household, the same community, the same city, the same familial ties and language, ought to be united by bonds of deep love for one another; that we ought to work, give, fight and sacrifice for one another’s good. It is not the idea that our nation needs to be great or exceptional in a materialistic or political sense, or that we need to lord it over our neighbours, let alone countries on the other side of the world.

Because the linguistic distinction Mother Maria gets at between natsionalizm and narodnichestvo (or narodnost’) does not yet exist in English, I feel that we have to get creative. It is worthy of note that the latter term derives from a native Slavic root, and rolls fluidly off the tongue; whilst the former term is a five-and-a-half-syllabic mangle of Latin and Greek, jagged and broken, with hard consonants and a foreign taste. The latter term inhabits the space of the private dominium of pagan Rome and her idolatrous power-drunk Cæsars; the former, the common space of the Slavonic obshchina and the Christian devotion (not always sincere, but devotion all the same) of her foster Tsars.

Which is why English needs a similar construction, a Tolkienish neologism (or rather, a reconstruction), which in its very makeup hints at a way the West had but has since lost, without appealing to ideologies or artificial constructs. For that reason, the common translation of narodnost’ as ‘populism’ (as an -ismós, etymologically, of the plēbs, mixing Greek and Latin roots), though tempting, will not quite do.

What I have in mind, instead, is thedeship.

The poets of Old English talked of þéod, a collective noun referring to a ‘people’ or a ‘tribe’; of þéodisc and of þéodscipe, describing a state of being and a belonging to the people or tribe. The poetic way of referring to the treasure, or to the ‘common wealth’ of the people, was as a þéodgestréon. There is a particularity to þéod and also a commonality, which render it suitable. Also, it belongs to a pre-Norman world in which land not belonging directly to anyone by charter belonged, in fact, to the whole of the people; and at that, not by external authority but by the force of custom and by the wishes of the community itself.

I hope it does not need pointing out, that my pointing to a Teutonic word (indeed, to the word, ‘thede’, from which the ethnonym ‘Teuton’ comes) as a descriptor of a certain type of nationalism, and a counterpoint to its bourgeois forms, is emphatically anti-fascist. Fascism is a deliberate and atavistic revival of that pagan Roman spirit of dominium and Cæsar-worship, which was originally carried over into the Germanic fœderati like a plague, even as Christianity too was beginning to take its root among them. Such a political perversion of the very idea of the ‘folk’, was one to which both Mother Maria Skobtsova and Tolkien himself took strong exceptions.

The idea of thedeship as a deliberate attempt to translate the Russian narodnost’ across a broader spectrum of meaning, a kind of common rule and awareness among a people, rooted by common customs and common-pool property, points instead to those commonalities that great noble sociologist August von Haxthausen saw among the rural Slavs and the other ‘folk’ who lived on their marches. Thedeship proceeds from the love and common care that holds within families, within villages and neighbourhoods, even within and between tribes of people.

23 January 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 3.1: neither Jew nor Greek?

The gentle reader (whose anonymity I respect, and to whom I shall refer as Mr M—) whose comments on my blog post ‘It’s all connected’ inspired the current series on the ‘pelvic issues’, gave me some well-deserved and thoughtful pushback via private communication on my last entry in the series, poking at places I might have overlooked. This is a much needed service, since it helps me refocus on what’s real (as opposed to simply dealing with fictive or selective history – as I said, my historical method tends to be somewhat impressionistic).

Mr M—’s caveats and approbations of my previous post are as follows. He notes, firstly and rightly, that the Orthodox Church is in fact of many minds on this subject, as on many others; and that there have been multiple Christian perspectives on celibacy and marital relations from Saint Paul onward. On one end is a Stoic-influenced view, as in Saint Jerome’s writings, that sees sexuality as, at best, a weakness of intrinsically-sinful, fleshly fallen man, good only for the begetting of children, which the Church condescends to and indulges only out of grim necessity. On the other end is a broader, more Epicurean-inflected understanding that sees sensuality as a good, an expression of bodily communion between husband and wife – but one which, like eating meat or drinking wine, is to be indulged moderately and in the right season. Mr M— notes, not entirely unsympathetically, that my reading of the canons of the Council of Gangra falls with some extremity on the more Epicurean end of that spectrum without quite sliding off into outright heresy, since I find some agreement there with Saint Augustine. He then goes on to note that, in practice, most monastic disciplines tack to the former view; particularly those which view the monastic discipline to be higher and more perfect than the marital discipline.

As a brief aside, this actually goes back to the discussion I was having with Mr P— in the comments, on the role of Hellenism in Patristic thought vis-à-vis rabbinical Judaism; the two sides of that old argument between Apostles Peter and Paul. Fr Sergei Sveshnikov of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his book chapter on the topic, makes the case that these two ‘poles’ of the Orthodox spectrum of thought on the pelvic issues are both valid and attested, though he associates them not with Stoicism and Epicureanism, but instead with the Hellenistic (the Holy Fathers Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John of Damascus, Maximos the Confessor and John Chrysostom) and the rabbinical Jewish influences (Blessed Augustine of Hippo and Holy Father Cæsarius of Nazianzus – who held that ‘copulation is free from all sin and blame’!) on the Early Church. If Fr Sergei is right, though, it may be necessary for me to revisit to some extent my appraisal of the legacy of neo-Platonism on the Church’s understanding of the pelvic issues more generally.

He also notes, referring to the piece by Richard Webster which I linked in my previous essay, that the Calvinist project is one which does not get rid of, but rather continues, secularises and individualises this aforementioned monastic Stoicism, even as it attacks the outward mystical and communal trappings with which the historical monastic disciplines surrounded themselves. The result was that the sexual imagination of the Puritan was bent inward, and elevated the disembodied will to a state of unaccounted, total, sadistic tyranny over the body. In Webster’s own words,
Human reason was not to rule over the body firmly but justly, consulting at every step with ordinary human feelings and impulses and with the untutored and unprejudiced evidence of the senses. It was to rule cruelly and autocratically… So that the rational soul, which is God’s viceroy, might rule supreme, the carnal body – which was imagined as the repository not only of sexual impulses, but of all sensuousness and all emotions including love, pity, fear and affection – was disenfranchised; in the political processes of the individual body of the Puritan, which were also the intellectual processes, all those elements of the human identity which belong to the ordinary commonwealth of the human imagination had no part to play and were allowed to cast no vote.
Mr M— sees in this a continuity with fourth-century Christian attitudes toward sex, and believes that I should make much more of a case, if I can, for establishing the discontinuity between the monastics and the ‘reformers’, both of whom in his accounting take a Stoic view of sex.

Responding to the second point first, before getting into the nitty-gritty of the former: I don’t think that Webster’s reading of Puritanism as an intellectual turn of individualising and secularising monastic asceticism really runs aground of my previous post – though it can indeed serve to clarify and sharpen it. The Puritans hated and attacked what I will call (with a deliberately ironic inflection) Actually-Existing Monasticism, and in the process of doing so found themselves objecting to the ‘superstition and Popery’ of celibate communal life. But more to the point, Webster lays his finger exactly on the strand of thought I want to draw out: namely, that the Puritan imagination places the disembodied human rationality in firm, tyrannical control over the lusts and appetites of the body, in ways which the Benedictines and the Eastern cœnobites would not dare to do – in ways which the Desert Fathers in the Apophthegmata Patrum, indeed, cautioned against. Self-will and the imposition of extremities on oneself in a spirit of pride: these were held by the Desert Fathers to be even more dangerous than lust! (Was there indeed a masochistic, sensually-inverted element in classical monasticism, though? Absolutely. Otherwise, Saints Basil and Benedict would not have written the monastic rules as they had, in a deliberate attempt to avoid such inversion of the will, creeping in at the edges of monastic renunciation!)

If there is a discontinuity that I wanted to point out, though, it is this. Both the Stoic and Epicurean (or Hellenising and Judaising) ‘ends’ of the classical Christian spectrum acknowledge and account for the weakness of individual reason in the face of the passions. Even the pronouncements of Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Maximos the Confessor, however strict, still make allowances for ‘ordinary’ lapses in rationality, in ways that the Puritans did not. Perhaps it would be better to say, then, that the monastics didn’t so much take a realist view of sex as they did a realist view of the human rational faculties. Views of the superiority of the celibate life over the married life notwithstanding, celibates are held to be every bit as fallible as laity in consummate marriages, and every bit as much in need of the sacrament of confession and the administration of penance. Another of the Holy Mysteries the Calvinists also saw fit to do away with, note.

In the next post in this series I will see fit to talk a little bit about the other side: a realist view of the way the ‘natural’ passions tend to take shape when left to their own devices – again, I expect to get a bit controversial here – and why the institution of marriage (understood as voluntary, heterosexual, monogamous and permanent) needs to be defended not as a ‘natural’ or a ‘rational’ phenomenon, but instead as an ascetic discipline in itself.

21 January 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 3: an argument for celibacy

Here is where I expect my series on a realist approach to the pelvic issues to veer into the controversial, because I anticipate that it will offend (for different reasons) certain Anglo-American ‘conservative’ sensibilities as well as feminist ones. But I don’t fit particularly well into the Anglo-American ‘conservative’ political-cultural schema anyway; nor am I a straightforward feminist, even though I’m sympathetic to some feminist principles and goals. At the same time, I’m going to attempt to examine some of my own a priori attitudes and prejudices, and place myself on a firmer footing. I do so with the explicit aim in mind of attaining the Orthodox ‘mind of the Church’, unclouded by the philosophical or theological pseudomorphosis which has crept in at various places. So if I do say something shocking in that attempt, please realise what it is I am attempting to do.

In my first essay on the subject, I pre-emptively rejected (to the chagrin of my irascible erstwhile gentle reader Mr P—) the Puritanical intellectual legacy as a resource for combatting what I consider to be the evils of prostitution and pornography. Mr P— argued that I was unfairly (and ahistorically) casting the Puritans as censorious prudes, and rejecting them purely for æsthetic reasons. I think it’s fair to point out that the language of ‘prudishness’ I used to describe the Puritan position was clichéd and based on Miller’s caricature. But even after our heated discussions, I think that adopting even an actual (as opposed to a caricatured) Puritan view of sex would ultimately be a detriment to the causes I would seek to serve by it.

Philosophical and ethical realists – from Thucydides to John Maynard Keynes – have all held that rationality is much more malleable than we are tempted to think it is; this holds equally true with regard to sex as it does with œconomics and foreign affairs. I have attempted to be, up to this point, very careful and deliberate in building up a case for the realist view; basing it on an anthropology that acknowledges the protean, animalistic and pre-rational element of the sexual human being (and simultaneously the ennobling potential of erōs), and that acknowledges the sexuate division within human nature. I hold that neither of these elements is ever fully under our rational control. Sex is a powerful and potentially dangerous force in human nature, and the first of the realist philosophers were quite awake to the knowledge that it can and does overwhelm our rationality. In fact, our rationality itself is under the influence of our embodiment and our animal erotic urges. At the same time, in Plato’s work there is the acknowledgement that the sex drive – even as a spark of ‘divine’ madness – has powered men and women to perform great feats of bravery, altruism and self-sacrifice for their beloved; to work tirelessly for the benefit of their children; to produce great works of art and music and poetry; to think deep and profound thoughts about nature.

I should note here that this textured, realist view of sex preserves a conceptual space for a positive view of celibacy, as an actively-chosen way of life. Erōs is for making babies, but it clearly isn’t just for making babies. Instead it also (when correctly-directed) inspires virtue beyond our ‘rational’ capacities. The erotic urge can be sublimated. Plato himself was not averse to the idea that profound erotic longings could be sublimated in healthy, positive and edifying ways, without being consummated (as Socrates’ was for Alcibiades in the Symposium).

Monasticism from its inception has been guided by such a textured understanding of love – including erotic love – directed toward the Divine. The Rule of Saint Benedict in the West (and particularly in pre-Norman England, which produced hordes of Benedictine saints) has historically prescribed four vows for its monks: those of obedience, stability, poverty and chastity. Similarly, the Rule of Saint Basil in the East has also prescribed four parallel vows: obedience, renunciation, poverty and self-abnegation. In each case, the monk abjures the love of money, the love of sensual gratification, and even the love of self-rule – and directs these desires instead into the love of God and the love of neighbour. It’s worthy of note, actually, that Saint Basil and Saint Benedict were both well aware of the strength and power of the erotic urge, and how it could resurface even in renunciation. They gained this awareness by observing various eremitical disciplines. Both great saints cautioned monks away from excessive mortification and self-abuse (what we would now call ‘masochism’), and instead urged them to focus their energies and desires into prayer and physical labour.

Please note carefully that this is a positive view of sex. Even if the monk forswears sensual gratification and sexual consummation, there is still a deep awareness that the monk is a sexuate being with the same animal drives, the same susceptibilities, to the same forms of madness and inspiration, that the layman has. The difference is that the monk is called to direct all his energies toward God, in a way that is mediated only by the Rule and the community to which he is bound; whereas in married life, consummate erotic love is directed to God in a mediate way, through a self-giving devotion to one’s husband or wife. Very much worthy of note, also, is this: even as the Church was beginning to embrace monasticism, it refused to condemn marriage or the act of consummation, even for those people who did not take vows of celibacy – and it condemned celibates who held sex in abhorrence. Monasticism and celibacy were not to be a Gnostic rejection of the body!

The much-later Protestant reformers (and especially the Calvinists), on the other hand, held such monastic rules in contempt, in part because they had a much flatter conception of erōs. All celibate devotion was rejected as ‘superstition and Popery’, and those who took monastic vows – men or women – were suspected to be feeble-minded, frustrated, impotent or hypocritical. Note what the Puritans have done here in criticising monasticism in this way. All of the reasons someone might choose a celibate life have been subject to rationalisation: celibates are simply to be dismissed, in Puritan thinking, as irrational, or otherwise moral derelicts or physically deformed. But one unintended consequence of this Protestant rejection of elective celibacy, is that in the process it actually limits and denatures consummate sex as well. In order to discredit those who renounce sex as irrational or hypocritical, sex has to be made a matter of rational utility. Instead of erōs being messy, dangerous, thrilling, maddening (and possibly inspiring and ennobling), sex is reduced to its ‘rational’ purposes of procreation and physical pleasure – and in Puritan literature especially, gets cast in terms of duty and debt. The rejection of celibacy on the part of the ‘reformers’ represents one significant turn – perhaps the most significant – in a long intellectual process that ultimately empties sex of its existential and normative content, turns it into a matter for utilitarian barter, and opens it up to post-structuralist tinkering.

Perhaps it sounds like a Chestertonian paradox – and so much the better for it. But the idea that the institutional space and high regard preserved for the celibate vocation, is one of the key factors which kept antique and mediæval culture healthily bawdy, is perhaps not so mad as it first sounds.

20 January 2017

A North American Orthodox social witness

As we are approaching the departure of a deeply-flawed American President and the inauguration of one with even deeper flaws, now strikes me as a good time to put forward one understanding of a political engagement which (I hope!) corresponds to the mind of the Orthodox Church as preserved in the Apostolic deposit, with a particular emphasis on that left by the great Orthodox saints of North America (who, in our own context, ought to serve particularly as our guides in public life).

Firstly, an awareness of our historical background is always and ever in order. (Keep in mind, please, that I speak as a convert – my own proximate immigrant roots are Moravian-Jewish, rather than Transcarpathian. I’m still very much a ‘bohunk’, and I use the term affectionately, but I’m of a rather different ethno-religious extraction.) The Orthodox Church inhabits history, not merely as dry dusty tomes but as a living and immediate reality. To an even greater degree even than our estranged Latin brothers and sisters, to be an Orthodox Christian in the United States is to be a member of a minority faith; and at that, a minority faith which is conditioned heavily by the immigrant experience. Reading the life and letters of Saint Alexis (Tovt), one is struck at once by how very deeply-felt, both by him and by his flock, were the duelling pressures of assimilation and assertion of ethnic identity – not only in the censorious, overweening comportment of Archbishop John Ireland which led to Holy Father Alexis’s embrace of Orthodoxy from the Unia, but also in the more generalised presence of nativism in his own time. Read this excerpt from one of his sermons:
The United States is our new country. It is a land of freedom and, according to its laws, every good person has access to its free doorstep. But some individuals, and even organisations have recently proposed a law that would forbid the entry into the United States of not only the Chinese, but of all foreigners. They have already lobbied in the Congress to pass a law against further immigration. In order to fulfil their objective they have used all kinds of examples – some of them even true! – and some false, examples that rail in both public and private against our workers!

Those under attack include Slovaks and Slavs generally, whom the nativists call ‘Huns’. I do not wish to hurt anyone, but I would like to point out, that many of our countrymen have on many occasions behaved in such a manner as to have injured not only themselves, but also injured the good name of all Slavs. Therefore I would like to suggest a few examples of behaviour, which our people should shun and which would give added material to the ‘nativists’, who are always ready to look for means to injure people…
The same held equally true for the Arabs served by Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, the Russian immigrants whom Patriarch Saint Tikhon (Bellavin) of Moscow cared for, and even for the Aleuts and Inuits on whose behalf Holy Father Herman of Alaska and Metropolitan Saint Innocent of Alaska worked with such tireless devotion – both peoples divided upon two continents, and denigrated as ‘savages’ by Russian and American alike. All of these Holy Orthodox Fathers on the North American continent spoke from the immigrant perspective, and none of them were sympathetic to the know-nothing idea that only Anglo Protestants have a stake in American social life. This did not mean then, of course, and it does not mean now, supporting unlimited immigration or open borders. But to be an Orthodox Christian in America now, and not to have some degree of solidarity with and sympathy for the recent immigrant who has already come here, is to betray an ignorance of our own recent history as beleaguered wayfarers.

Keep in mind also the historical fact that almost all of us Orthodox immigrants were working-class. The Rusyn immigrants who still form the backbone of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese and the Orthodox Church in America, were political refugees from Austria-Hungary, subject to religious persecution in their own home country, who were quickly and ruthlessly exploited by American steel barons and mining bosses as scabs and strike-breakers. Many Rusyns joined, upon finding themselves being used in this way, the only two unions that were open to them as recent immigrants: the IWW and the UMWA. It also behooves us, then, to keep in mind our affinity for organised labour. Holy Father Tikhon (Bellavin) was a notable, vocal and active supporter of the union movement among Orthodox immigrant workers, and had no qualms whatever about giving money even to left-wing and socialist ‘brotherhoods’ in the struggle against concentrated capital. Even if his political inclinations also heavily favoured autocratic monarchy and the Tsar, ‘in these circumstances’, Holy Father Tikhon wrote, ‘it is necessary to come to help the needy. Why not establish a special fund specifically for the purpose of helping during strikes? It would be sinful not to remember the needy and the suffering during the well-to-do times!

The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, following the leads of Holy Fathers Alexis and Tikhon, affirms and defends the right of the workingman to the fruits of his labour, reminds him of his reciprocal obligations to care for those who cannot work for themselves, and calls for ‘the equitable distribution of the fruits of labour, in which the rich support the poor, the healthy the sick, the able-bodied the elderly’, and emphasises that ‘[t]he spiritual welfare and survival of society are possible only if the effort to ensure life, health and minimal welfare for all citizens becomes an indisputable priority in distributing the material resources’. The hostility of the incoming administration to the just claims of organised labour, is something which should, given our history, give grave pause to Orthodox Christians in America, and we should again lend organised labour our material and moral support.

With regard to issues of civil liberties, we have additional reasons for trepidation. The courageous actions of our brother in the faith John Kiriakou, along with other whistleblowers, have been persecuted ruthlessly by the Obama Administration, and though we should welcome the commuted sentence of Private Manning, we need to recognise that it doesn’t go nearly far enough – and, given Trump’s staffing picks and regrettable stances on issues of basic human dignity, we must be vigilant about still further encroachments on essential immunities by the incoming administration and its agencies. On a slightly more hopeful note, the gender-ideological policies of legal harassment against religious believers actively pursued by the Obama Administration, which have mostly affected our Latin brothers and sisters – but which affect us also – are likely not to be pursued with such censorious zeal under Trump.

But, we North American Orthodox Christians cannot afford to be insular and concerned only with our own well-being. The Orthodox Church abroad is suffering – whether in Syria or in Palestine or in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts of the Ukraine – and we cannot turn a blind eye. Just as Father Herman of Alaska and Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow begged their respective countrymen not to ignore or dismiss the impoverished and politically-distraught conditions of the Alaska natives, we are also obligated to speak up on behalf of those suffering from deprivation, war and displacement in other countries. In the shifting of the administrations, there are reasons for both hope and trepidation. The policy of the outgoing administration toward Orthodox Christians abroad, in both the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, has been nonchalant at best, and displays at worst a callous disregard of their lives and livelihoods. The geopolitical goals of the neoconservative element – goals largely shared by many under the Obama Administration – have taken precedence over any humane considerations of Christian lives since the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq. Trump has thankfully shied away from a potentially-disastrous immediate confrontation with Russia; however, his priorities in Syria remain questionable (particularly given his commitment to a ‘safe zone’ and his ambiguity as to how it will be established), and his policy toward Palestinians is likely to be characterised by a similar callousness and brutality to what came before.

The Orthodox Christian social witness in North America must continue, clear and uncompromising, under the new administration. We must be cognisant of the ways in which it is an improvement on what came before, and equally so, we need to be clear-eyed about the ways in which it represents a backsliding.

18 January 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 2: embodiment and the chain of being

John Milbank has an excellent long-form essay up on the Catholic Herald, which gets well into the philosophical nitty-gritty of how the putative radicalism of the transgender movement in fact draws from and strengthens the capitalist-consumerist homo œconomicus anthropology, which consists of a disembodied rationality which chooses between supposedly-embodied desires. But even apart from that, he highlights a particular aspect of the realist approach to sex which I believe to be valuable and worth noting.

I spoke before – appealing specifically to Plato – of the realist need to consider erōs as a powerful and pre-rational force, which is never fully under the control of our rational faculties; and furthermore, that realists need to consider it as a force which is potentially ennobling, because of that pre-rationality (or even irrationality). Realists have historically understood that rationality is fragile and malleable, and that however valuable and noble our rationality is, it does not and cannot render us masters of ourselves, merely by the fact that we have it and can use it to get what we desire. This insight – in the fallibility of human reason – is what has driven realist understandings of politics, foreign affairs, theology and history. Applying the same insight to œconomics and sex should not pose an insurmountable difficulty.

But one of the key features of the ‘regressive’, post-modern left that it is necessary for realists to push back against is the idea that gender is a social construct and that it is not tethered at all to biological sex. The reader who suggested this theme for a series of essays in the first place, was worried that I was giving in too readily to constructivist and post-structuralist readings of gender, and that’s something I want to address here. The vast, vast majority of human beings (apart from very rare genetic irregularities like intersex) are conceived and born with a distinct biological sex, of which there are only two. This biological sex qualitatively conditions our experiences throughout childhood and into adulthood in ways that are never fully commensurate with the opposite sex (but never fully incommensurate either). The first, at least, is an obvious truth and condition of human experience which should not (but for some reason apparently does) need pointing out again and again. And the second would seem to follow from that. We are human beings (with all that biologically entails, including in the vast majority of cases a given male or female genetic structure), and not disembodied ‘agents’ who choose a gender which has no relation to our biological sex.

To qualify that a bit: gender identity and gender presentation can and do vary from culture to culture, and even from individual to individual. We can talk about certain qualities that appertain specifically to having male chromosomes and genitalia, and how those qualities are best honed, inhabited, socialised – in other words, we can talk about the masculine virtues, and how the acquisition of those virtues can vary based on context and personal inclination. The same, of course, goes for women, their biological equipment, and the acquisition of the feminine virtues. But it is not only naïve, but insane, to think of these things as completely untethered from the brute fact of biological sex which is common to all cultures and modes of human expression.

Many things which are now being trotted out in the wake of transsexualism as ‘identities’ deserving protection – erotic vampirism, ‘furries’, otherkin and so forth – ought rightly to be classified as paraphilias, because they are utterly divorced from biological reality. Such paraphilias can only be sustained on a basis which takes the individual, the consumer, in isolation from all biological-habitual contraints. In fact, the post-modern ideology leads us back to a kind of Gnosticism: the idea that matter and the facts of biology are to be denied and rejected, rather than honed, inhabited and socialised. And that denial and rejection, as Milbank shows, far from making us stronger and more sexually-secure, instead makes us vulnerable to market-driven alienation even from our own bodies, fashioning a consumer ‘identity’ which has very little to do with our actual situated, social, biological nature.

That is not to say, by the way, that we ought to succumb to fallacious naturalistic thinking. The idea that because something occurs in nature or even in our own nature, that it must by that fact alone be good or worthy of pursuing, is another argument entirely. I plan to tackle the naturalistic fallacy in a later essay in this series. But simply observing the fact that we do have a nature, a biological sex and a biological morphology, that is not subject to negotiation without massive technological and social intervention, is not engaging in fallacious thinking.

This is why the (neo-)Platonic scala naturæ is actually such a necessary philosophical conceit for the realist. The ‘chain of being’ serves not as a rejection of what we have in common with proteins, phytoplankton, fish and so on, but rather as a recapitulation and an expansion of that commonality. We do not escape our embodiment (being carbon-based, being cellular organisms, having the drive to procreate) merely by the fact that we have rationality and souls and advanced social organisations; rather, we participate fully in a nature which is common both to more limited forms of existence, while participating imperfectly in higher forms. We are rooted in our biologies, in our physical makeup and in our sex drive, even if the expressions of those fall partially under our social habits and rationalisation.

As Milbank deftly pointed out in his Catholic Herald piece, it is not radical – that is, by definition it does not go to the roots of human experience or allow us to rethink our shared political and social life – to splinter that experience into an endless, atomising, relativistic kaleidoscope of mutually-unintelligible and mutually-incommensurate ‘gender identities’ and ‘narratives’. In short, blowing apart the chain of being does not free us. And the sooner the Anglo-American political left realises this and gets out of the permanent intellectual wedgie that post-modernism has put it in, the better.

15 January 2017

Truth be bought?

Warning: blog-rant ahead.

Binding snobbery be damned. There, I said it.

Look, I’m as much a fan of a physical book as anyone else, and I do understand – and to some extent share – the æsthetic, the psychological and the normative arguments for connecting with a real book in binding as opposed to words in a text file flashed on the screen of a mobile or an e-book. But my liking for physical paper and binding is conditioned by my three-year economic exile in China where English-language books were a rarity and where my old outdated third-generation Kindle device was a godsend.

More to the point, though, I am an avowed fan of Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive and other free public-domain classics – the Jowett translations of Plato, for example, the poems of Robert Southey, the Canterbury Tales, Ivanhoe – which provide an immense store of knowledge, and indeed the better part of it, free of charge. These websites, which do not place a price on ancient wisdom but instead transfer it to anyone who wishes to seek it without asking so much as a penny, are an invaluable service to humankind. And the people who turn up their noses at such things are, indeed, snobs. And snobs of the worst sort, since they prefer the luxury of shelling out anywhere between $10 and $100 – at the least, in the case of some academic works, but my ire on that score will have to wait for another post – to e-books which can be found available for free, to anyone who has internet access and a mobile (which is most people these days).

If one has the inclination, one can immerse oneself in the great works ancient and modern philosophy both, classic literature, history, theology, all for less than the cost of a cup of tea. That is a very powerful thing – something which none of the ancients, or even Johannes Gutenberg himself, would dared have imagine in their wildest of ‘winged visions’.

But – here’s the thing. It’s often contended, more often by people who have no sense of ancient principles and people who actively abuse and contort ancient knowledge to serve ideological ends, that people will only value what they can pay for, and that education (a ‘product’ and ‘service’ in their view, commensurate with all other products and services available on ‘the market’) is no exception. And here’s the thing: they do have a point. Apart from weird ex-expats like me – who depend on Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive Classics for their sanity in places where bookstores were prohibitively out-of-reach, where Amazon was more expensive than it was worth, and where English language books in general were overpriced and of low quality – who really does use these services? And who uses them to expand their horizons and acquire the elements of a liberal education in a day and age where liberal education is itself prohibitively-overpriced for many people?

These are not rhetorical questions – I really would be interested to know. But in my own rather limited experience these are a rather slim minority of people (and, like I said, weirdos). Rather than this showing the virtue, however, of the ‘market’ system the aforesaid Actonites and Pragerites advocate, this shows rather its desolation. The ‘market’ they advocate floods us with cheap – cheap, that is, but not free – entertainment, which is readily and greedily consumed (including by weirdos like me, let me be clear. God forgive me, I’m no less guilty of self-medicating with ‘light’ entertainment, movies and music than anyone else), whilst the wells of wisdom ladling out their medicines for free go nigh untouched.

Capitalists, and indeed the defenders of the capitalist system, understand this perfectly well. They depend on it, in fact. The Mammon-worshipping roaders and running-dogs of the Acton Institute want people to think in brutish, consequentialist terms – the terms of the belly, the terms of comfort and ease and happiness, the terms of ‘utility’. Their sordid sophistries and calculating manipulations of the ancients and of other noble philosophers are aimed at a single goal. They want to convince the everyday American that they have the only ideological system that ‘works’ (and that furthermore is blessed by God), and that any other course would lead them to disaster. And of course that system is sustained by convincing people that the only value there is, is that which can be rendered in terms of economic ‘utility’, and which can be converted into other forms of ‘happiness’ by means of money.

People only value what they pay for, because they are told to value it by a culture which measures success solely in terms of monetary earnings. We are told not to value what has been tested as true, what inspires with beauty, or what persuades with goodness. There is much in our present time that has intrinsic value, which can be simply picked up with a wireless connexion. It’s time we learn to cherish it. And furthermore, it’s time we learn to distinguish wisdom not by the acquisition of costly degrees and titles, or of the prestige (that is to say, expense) of the institutions at which they are attained, but instead by that thirst with which people seek out truth.

12 January 2017

The heavy reading list - 20 modern works and 5 classics

Some days ago now, one of my readers, we’ll call him Jon McC—, suggested in the wake of my last blog post that I draw up a list of twenty books that have been influential on my political, theological and economic thinking. This struck me as an excellent idea, and I will attempt to do so now – though the caveat is that these are non-classics (that is, they have been written at some point after 1688 – a date I’ve picked, somewhat arbitrarily, as the beginning of English-speaking modernity). But, that being said, I’m always happy to pass my readers on to read people a fair bit less muddle-headed than I am!
  1. The Russian Revolution by Nikolai Berdyaev. This is the book that led me to treat Marxism not as a political theory but instead as a (chiliastic) Christian heresy – albeit one from which certain economic and social insights were still retrievable. It is also worthwhile as an introduction to Berdyaev’s somewhat fragmentary and existential philosophical thinking; a style which I then found (and still find) compelling!

  2. The Russian Idea by Nikolai Berdyaev. This is a far fuller exposition of Berdyaev’s historical thinking, tying it more directly into his religious philosophy, and explicating the various strands in Russian thought. It broadened my reading list exponentially (leading me back to Dostoevsky, to Gogol, to Pushkin, to Leont’ev, Solovyov, Il’in and Pobedonostsev) and led me to a fuller and deeper appreciation of the religious tradition I had embraced.

  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. This book a.) helped me tremendously through a rough bout of depression coming back from my Peace Corps service, and b.) demolished entirely what little remained of my beliefs in the cult of ‘progress’. And Vonnegut’s wry, cranky, often contrarian socialism in the tradition of Eugene V Debs was one of the reasons why I couldn’t so easily put socialism behind me – and why I still refuse to condemn the socialist intellectual stream uniformly.

  4. Unto This Last by John Ruskin. A true Tory socialist treatise and a broadside against what had not yet come to be called homo œconomicus, calling for a balanced ethic of consumption and production, this tome also happened to be a guide for Gandhi’s ethic of swaraj, and a direct progenitor of English distributism and the agrarian rising. ‘There is no wealth but life.’ Very, very highly recommended.

  5. Conservatism Revisited by Peter Viereck. A highly useful bird’s-eye view and anthology of a number of different strands of conservatism, ranging from Metternich, Bonald and Chateaubriand to Adams and Calhoun, and even ranging to the conservative ‘Wobbly’ labour-unionism of Frank Tannenbaum. If you want to take a first step into the larger world of conservative and reactionary thought, there are few better places to start than this.

  6. From the Soil by Fei Xiaotong. The single definitive sociological treatment of traditional, rural Chinese culture. Many things that do not make sense to an American visitor of China begin to make sense, even today, after reading this book in particular. Fei furthermore explores the collectivist psychology of the Chinese people, and posits that any form of democratic governance in China will have to be conditioned locally and with respect to this collectivistic psychology. Something of a standing rebuke to China’s zapadniki.

  7. Lament for a Nation by George Parkin Grant. A decidedly dim view of Canada’s future as a nation independent of the United States, conditioned by the election of Lester Pearson over John Diefenbaker, George Grant here lays out his view of the Canadian national project as a conservative one, yet one characterised by a strong sense of social equity and fairness. Though he doesn’t believe the Canadian project will survive American imperial designs, still he holds out a Christian hope for something better to take its place; as such, this book is best not described as a ‘pessimistic’ one.

  8. Technology and Empire by George Parkin Grant. Another masterful work in Canadian High Tory thought from the pre-eminent philosopher of that tradition. Technology and Empire is a series of essays touching on matters of social history, education and the impact of technology in light of the North American cultural inheritance, facets of which will appeal both to radicals and traditionalists. Jacques Ellul and Simone Weil both leave strong impressions throughout this work, as does Leo Strauss.

  9. Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank. Milbank’s most famous work: a sceptical, radical-Platonic read of the history of modern social theory, from the Middle Ages down to the postmodernists. I am not sure that I would now agree entirely with the entire sweep of the book and its fingering of John Duns Scotus as the cause of all our modern woes, but this work definitely got me drinking from a number of different wells, and most deeply from those associated with the saints and Scholastics of Late Antiquity.

  10. The Justification of the Good by Vladimir Solovyov. A broad-ranging work of anthropology and ethical philosophy, which puts paid to a number of the utilitarian and egoistic arguments that characterise much of modern ethical thinking. A selective use of the Christian-humanist intellectual patrimony to articulate what would now be thought a ‘postliberal’ position; though nowadays some of his conclusions might seem dated, it still makes for important reading.

  11. The End of the Revolution by Wang Hui. A collection of essays from one of modern China’s most important literary men, all touching on the topic of China’s revolutionary heritage, the depoliticisation of China’s politics, the challenges facing the Chinese intelligentsia, with an extended meditation on the work of Lu Xun. Even when I was first reading it, I was struck by how he appealed to China’s traditional intellectual heritage to interrogate the present - China desperately needs more like him!

  12. China from Empire to Nation-State by Wang Hui. Here is where Wang’s radical-conservative streak really comes out to play. He takes on the foundation of the Chinese nation on the framework left behind by the Qing Dynasty, and argues that the continuity in China’s form of government that allowed it to transition from an empire into a modern nation is a continuity which takes its legitimacy from a malleable acceptance of a Confucian ethical worldview, which is neither racially- nor linguistically-exclusive. Very intriguing thesis, very much worth reading, though you do have to put up with Wang’s occasionally-circuitous writing style.

  13. Reflections of a Russian Statesman by Konstantin Pobedonostsev. Pobedonostsev, though he reserves his harshest criticism for Russia’s fourth estate and for the institutions of democracy in general, nevertheless gives ample attention to the problems of Russia’s common people. He often comes off as a populist or as one of the paternalistic socialists of Ruskin’s vein; assuredly his infamous reactionary convictions are something very different from what many in America are used to.

  14. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s famous ‘philosophical novel’ which tackles with a genially-humorous eye the ways in which modern Europeans of his own age attempt to make themselves happy, though it ends on a somewhat melancholy note. He uses the outside perspectives of Rasselas, Imlac and Nekayah to lampoon modern pretentiousness and ‘wisdom’, though in more serious terms he attacks the institutions of slavery and colonialism as inhumane.

  15. The Fleet Papers by Richard Oastler. The Tory Radical statesman and his crusades against slavery and workhouse conditions in Britain, informed by a conscious idea that the powerful and the comfortable have a responsibility to ensure the welfare and betterment of the weak, poor and miserable. His formulation of ‘Altar, Cottage and Throne’ makes appearances both subtle and not-so-subtle.

  16. On Spiritual Unity: a Slavophile Reader by Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. My first and strongest introduction to Slavophilia, apart from Nikolai Berdyaev’s introductions. Intimations on the meaning of the concepts of sobornost’ and integral knowledge, expressed through meditations on ecclesiology and Russian history. Khomyakov and Kireevsky both show a clear dislike for Western social theories of both left and right, though it is clear they are keen on preventing particularly capitalism from taking root, and place a great emphasis on the institution of the obshchina as a bulwark against it.

  17. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. A more direct, Juvenalian work than Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, but it touches on many of the same themes; in addition to being an attempted repudiation of the social-contract theories of Hobbes and Locke, it uses fantastical settings (Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, the land of the Houyhnhnms) and the person of Lemuel Gulliver to lampoon European colonial endeavours, militarism, sectarianism, scientism and slavery - themes which Swift repeats in his other works.

  18. My Life in Christ by Saint John of Kronstadt. The diary of the great Russian saint and cleric, who addresses his accounts of his own spiritual struggles primarily to his fellow clerics, though there is much also to interest the Orthodox layman. His writings, dense, challenging and spiritually-profound, place great emphasis on humility, hope, patience, single-heartedness, service, kindness to others in the pursuit of emulating Christ. In addition, many of his aphorisms touch on the spiritual challenges of modern life and distractions, and particularly on greed and mammon; his calls to hold possessions in common and to give freely to the poor might be surprising in someone of his reactionary reputation, but they are very much in keeping with Patristic thought on the topic.

  19. The Lord of the Rings by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The one great work of high fantasy to which all others which followed would be indebted, though Tolkien himself was deeply indebted to the fantastic imagination and antiquarianism of William Morris. Even so, his vision of a good society in which the small pleasures are valued, in which the green and wild spaces are preserved, in which the neighbourly and hospitable virtues are exalted, in which small and ordinary everyday deeds of good add up to something greater - these things did leave a far deeper impact on my middle-school mind than the high adventure and epic battles.

  20. A Confucian Constitutional Order by Jiang Qing. An admittedly-ambitious and Utopian institutional-Confucian take on modern governance and legitimacy, but one which draws rightly upon a broad array of intellectual resources both modern and ancient. Jiang’s critiques of the political inheritance of the High Middle Ages share a great deal with Slavophil critiques of the same, and in many points he parallels the thought particularly of Ivan Kireevsky. I have some reservations about his faith in China’s intellectual élite class, but he does come by that bias honestly, considering the same bias inheres in the Confucian canon through the centuries.
With regard to some of the classical works I would recommend, the following is a short but growing list as I delve further into them:
  1. The Book of Rites, traditionally attributed to Confucius. A compilation of behavioural prescriptions for people of every age and from every walk of life, regarding how they should treat the people around them and how they should treat nature, and why. There is a great deal of practical, natural perennial wisdom contained herein, though obviously it is meant for a society that is no longer with us. Still, the idea that we should respect the people who lived before us, and love and care for the people who will come after us, is timeless.

  2. An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by Saint John of Damascus. A classic of the Scholastic tradition, written by a philosopher and polymath with a high respect for the advanced learning of the time, also a Saint and Father of the Church who speaks authoritatively on matters of doctrine. He occasionally gives voice to a Platonic metaphysics regarding time, forms and images in his defences of the doctrines of immortality and the use of icons in worship.

  3. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Saint Bede the Venerable. A historical classic for multiple reasons, including that Bede was among the first scholars of history to place overwhelming reliance on primary sources instead of secondary ones. But Holy Father Bede was also a master hagiographer, prosopographer and Scriptural scholar in his own right, and his mastery of classical learning shines through in his master-work, describing the Christianisation of his own island and people. A must-read for any Anglophile, Christian or otherwise.

  4. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, arranged by Sister Benedicta Ward. A collection of stories and maxims handed down in traditions of various cœnobitic communities, meant to inform and edify seekers after the spiritual life. By turns serious, enlightening and even humorous, the Apophthegmata Patrum is one of the great classics of Christian spirituality, and can be used to make much sense of later Christian thought (and especially, but not solely, Orthodox Christianity).

  5. Beowulf. A tale in the elder Germanic fashion, of hospitality and heroism and comradeship; of facing the unknown; of understanding and appreciating death to meet it with equanimity. The one great ‘secular’ Old English work, it displays the tragic character of the elder Germanic literature, which follows the last glories of a dying line and seeks to preserve its deeds faithfully.

05 January 2017

‘Winged visions’ – an occasion for metanoia

Having gone through an intensely heated discussion on the subject, I have found myself needing to take stock, to a certain extent, of my own weaknesses and stumblings, the places where I engage in idolatry and self-delusion. This blog, thankfully, provides an excellent opportunity to do that, since my journey from liberalism into some kind of postliberalism (call it Slavophilia, Tory socialism, Christian reactionary thought, realist-leftism, what have you) has been fairly meticulously documented.

Saint Maria Skobtsova spoke in her writings – specifically her essays on the ‘Crucible of Doubts’ – on the need for (and the dangers of) ‘winged visions’, and she was referring to Plato and Saint Sir Thomas More when she spoke thus, as well as to the various utopian projects of communism, nationalism and fascism that were quickly taking hold all around her, and against all three of which she witnessed – even unto her death in Ravensbrück. It is an account of the ‘winged visions’ I’ve put forth here that I want to bring forward for critique and reflection; not because I necessarily think they are wrong (else I would not have put them forward), but because I can see them as being potentially dangerous and a stumbling-block to the spiritual edification both of myself and of my readers, whom I do very much value.

I think I can say with some honesty that my philosophical ‘first love’ (I use the term quite deliberately) was China – her classical philosophy and her long-lived material culture as well as her people. It was in China that I awakened to some of the problems in my own life and my own way of thinking. It was in China that I first began to consciously doubt the creed of ‘progress’. And my exposure to the philosophy of Confucius in particular jarred me out of my dogmatic slumber, if I may shamelessly borrow the Kantianism. Here, after all, was a man of noble birth who gave up everything, and was exiled from his home country, because of his own thirst for a more humane, just, truthful and beautiful order in the world. And yet he did so not by appealing to some hypothetical state of future perfection, in the way things ought to be, but by digging in the examples of China’s past to find what was valuable and true and worth keeping. He lived – not only preached but lived, through the rites – reverence for the elderly, care for the young, and solidarity for the powerless. He inspired numerous generations of scholars who criticised the powerful and the wealthy. The Analects, and later the Rites, made a deep impression on me – that past eras and people in past times could care so deeply about the same things we moderns care about, and indeed agitate for social arrangements which, even if hierarchical and vertically-ordered, could still be fair and distinguished by equity, and which in their own way were to be valued in themselves. It still pains me deeply to see him misrepresented in his teachings as defending, or conciliating himself with, unjust powers.

But that much is pretty much ancient history predating this blog. I began the current blog (which underwent several name changes and drifts in purpose) as a preparation for a volunteer term of service in Peace Corps which never materialised. That preparation threw into my path the philosophical, combative, patriotic-yet-Russophile poetry of the Qazaq bard Abay Qunanbayuli, and the fragmentary philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev, both of which lodged deep in my heart and mind and refused to come loose. In Berdyaev in particular, I found the expression of a synthesis I had been searching for, for a very long time: a way of reconciling, through a religious, apophatic and experiential method of seeking truth, the shortcomings of the German idealist philosophers to whom I had devoted so much of my undergraduate career. Berdyaev, with his unsparing eye and his unique, colourful read on history (particularly Russian history), has been an active and constant informant of my ‘winged vision’. Berdyaev’s influence was in no small part responsible for my decision to be chrismated into the Orthodox Church.

And then there is the Tory streak, the Scott-and-Homer ‘violent Tory of the old school’ streak, that has been with me in an unfinished form at least since my contrarian middle school days. The streak that ultimately led me to read a (by now familiar to many readers of this blog) litany of (anti-)modern High Church Anglican and British Catholic – that is to say, High Tory – authors of homily and poetry, theory and fiction: Shakespeare, Hooker, Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Austen, Oastler, Porteus, Strachan, Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, Morris, Gore, Chesterton, Grant, Tolkien, Sayers, Lewis, Pargeter, Dart, Milbank, Hitchens. Through them all ran a subtle thread, a humane yet quietly-religious thread, that pointed to a way of living that was devoted, familial, agrarian, organic, localist, colloquial, never-quite-egalitarian but scaled in gentle slopes. A way of living which would lift its eyes to God with the aid of monasteries and hermitages (Benedictine monasticism in England being a distinctly Saxon heritage of the seventh and eighth centuries), uphold nobility (albeit with a certain degree of deprecation), tolerate grudgingly the petit-bourgeois and their quirks. But a way of life which was organised on behalf of the great majority of the common people. A vision which can best be summed up in Oastler’s formula: ‘Altar, Throne and Cottage’, wherein the common ‘cottage’ is by no means the least important element. Or, alternatively, in Milbank’s ‘old, spiritual, Platonic England’.

This Tory streak itself eventually found an answer from deep within the Orthodox world – that of the Slavophils, who themselves were concerned most about the fate of the common people, and indeed felt the common Russian peasant had much more to offer to the Slavic world than did the artificially-Frenchified and -Germanised nobility, and the weak, transplanted bourgeoisie – whose Westernising influence was far out of proportion to its relatively narrow importance. Alexis Khomyakov himself displayed facets of both that backward-looking ‘winged vision’ (as Herzen mocked him and John Kireevsky for seeking the living Rus’ in the Primary Chronicle), and that radicalism that Herzen himself exemplified. Yet in spite of all his great influence on the Russian (and broader Eastern European) populists, he was never numbered among them, and this was largely because he still saw value in the elder traditions – both those that predated the Mongol invasion, and those the Muscovite state plucked from it. On a path consciously akin to the Tories of England, Khomyakov and Kireevsky saw, in that body of lived traditions and mutual care that was the agrarian-communist life of the obshchina, the best and most durable form of resistance against both the bestial predations of capitalism and the all-consuming fires of the modern revolution.

From Khomyakov and his Patristic upbringing, too, I get a love and admiration for the philosophical and religious traditions of classical Iran – as mediated by Persianate Christian saints such as Holy Father Isaac of Nineveh, who were of a manifestly different ‘type’ than either the Greek or the Latin Fathers. The relentless, kenotic, martyrific pursuit of truth at all costs, the expression of spiritual freedom with nothing reserved for the sake of necessity – this Khomyakov identified as a peculiarly Persian genius. The all-consuming detestation the Zoroastrians of classical Iran inculcated in the Iranian people for druj, for the lie, and the corresponding love for truth, is something that found its full expression also in the Jewish prophetic tradition. But Khomyakov was convinced that the Russians had imbibed of this spirit in a way which bypassed the more necessitarian pagan-Roman civilisational impress (a historical view of which I’m sceptical, but which nonetheless has something of a ring of truth to it).

Insofar as I have a ‘winged vision’, then, it does take bits and pieces from many places, many incomplete utopias and false starts, many glimpses of Atlantis, many suggestions in history at a better way to live. It borrows from China’s Han Dynasty (and creative reinterpretations thereof); from the classical Silk Road generally, stretching from Byzantium to Luoyang by way of Iran and the Turkic lands; from Christian England of the eighth century; from newly-Christian Rus’ of the eleventh; from the Stuart monarchy; from the Family Compact of Upper Canada; from the Green Rising. It refuses chronological snobbery. It does have a classical Chinese veneration for the human dimension of ritual, albeit one leavened and lightened by a ‘barbarian’, Persian-Slavic infusion of inspiration, spontaneity and extemporisation. It does have a radicalised, late-antique Cappadocian take on œconomic ethics, tempered with a realistic (Platonic?) view that different people and different classes have different duties. Yet the High Tory (or, indeed, Slavophil) conviction on the duties of class – that more material demands will be made on the materially wealthy, because that is not only socially stabilising, but also just and right – can be and has been informed by both.

I hold all this up in love. And yet this may all turn out to be the empty dream of a fool, the sorry idolatry of someone mired in romanticism and myth, clad only in the ashes of a past long and deservedly dead. Without Christ, indeed, that is exactly what it would be.

But in Christ all things are possible, and all things are included. Christ and His Church embrace these things, and constantly – weekly, hourly – breathe into them new life, where they are found healthy and filled with love, or burn them away if they are not. Christ came among us as a lowly woodworker on the far southeastern border of the Empire, heralded not with royal pomp and fanfare but by a lone voice in the wilderness. His kingship was not one of power or wealth or cunning or libido dominandi, but one of healing, teaching and self-emptying. Yet, let us remember still, He is the personal, incarnate, flesh-and-blood recapitulation of all three of the elder, prophetic Israel; the highest aspirations of philosophical Greece; and the universal reach of imperial Rome. The dove that descended on this day, near two millennia ago: that is the true winged vision.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, the sinner. May I be bold to ask You, not to turn away Your face from me.

God has appeared

On a remote bend of the Jordan River, on the edge of the Empire, near the eastern wilderness, far removed from Jerusalem and even further removed from Rome, came a vision and a voice: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

A blessed Theophany to one and all!