27 February 2017

Feeling like Alcibiades


In the midst of my (re-)explorations into Plato (and specifically the Phædrus and the Symposium) for the sake of writing this series on the realist approach to the pelvic issues, I realised that I had only a vague understanding of what Plato was getting at in the first place, and at that second-hand, largely through John Milbank’s treatment in Theology and Social Theory, as well as Vladimir Solovyov’s own Platonic dialogues. In addition, in attempting to read some of the early Church Fathers, I felt that they were indeed a bit too far out of my grasp, and that I needed to have some meagre grasp on Plato before I could approach, say, Saint Maximus, Saint Symeon or Saint Gregory Palamas with any hope of understanding them. As a result, I decided to try to make my way through the other Dialogues in some kind of rational order.

I’ve started reading the early Dialogues, starting with First Alcibiades and then moving forward through Lysis, Laches, Charmides. I’ve just finished Protagoras and both Hippias dialogues, and am starting the Gorgias. I confess I find myself a bit stunned at both Plato’s skill at drama, at his flair for posing and then working through some of the most basic questions about life and how we can live well, and at the confusion and lack of certainty they evoke in me when I read them. I have to say that I felt so much like Alcibiades, so shaken in my own understanding of basic things like ‘justice’, by the end of reading First Alcibiades, that it struck me that that was Plato’s design all along.

The Socrates of these early Dialogues can come off as a bit overbearing, with biting wit, thickly-layered irony and relentless, rapid-fire questioning. And we might cheer as he steers the preening Hippias into a well-deserved morass of ridiculous contradictions; or as he spars deftly with the intelligent-but-manipulative Critias over definitions of wisdom; or turns the grave, high-spoken Protagoras on his head during the course of his argument – only to find himself defending against Protagoras what Protagoras himself set out to prove in the first place. But he’s posing questions that serve to disconcert us, his readers, all the while (or should, if we’re being honest): about the nature of friendship and courage and wisdom – and how little and vaguely even amiable or brave or wise people even know about what these things are; about the entire aim of living in a society; about the distinctions and overlap between the good and the pleasurable; about what the skills of public speaking and writing are even for. Socrates understands perfectly well that his uncomfortable, intellectually-pugilistic manner of approach wins him few friends and even puts him in danger of his life; and indeed, in the Lysis he mentions this fact outright, though with a bit of an ironic and self-deprecating air. But at the same time it’s clear we have to follow him if we would find out for ourselves what he claims not to know.

One of the mesmerising things about Plato’s Socrates, I’m finding, is the total lack of regard he has for materialist notions of ‘success’. That includes not only wealth, high birth, political power, martial might, ‘meritocratic’ ability – but even the ability to persuade and sway the masses fails to impress him. He stops just shy of mocking openly Hippias’s boasts that he can make a great deal of money by opining about wisdom in many cities (the very model of a ‘public intellectual’!), and he douses even the more subtle Protagoras (whose ideas about virtue end up being proven at least partly right) in thick layers of irony throughout his entire exchange with him. He’s notably unimpressed by democracy and even less – and this is not a contradiction, by the way – by the ‘great men’ he meets. It is indeed somewhat ironic in the end that a man who is, if not the, then certainly one of the major cornerstones of the Western intellectual tradition, stands against, in his own Athenian setting, so much of what the Western tradition is seen abroad to represent. Plato (along with his version of Socrates, which we may assume to be at least partially accurate) shows himself willing to entertain, in dialectical suspension, arguments about how pleasure is the same as the good, or how might makes right, or how the many are worthy teachers of justice just as they would be worthy teachers of Greek, but if only with the satirical twist he feels they deserve before he reduces such propositions to gibberish through Socrates’ questioning.

Again, reading Plato directly, and not just his commentators and imitators, is something I feel I should have done a long time ago. Apologies to my gentle readers if this blog post comes off a bit too much like an eighth-grade book report; that is about how I feel with regard to Plato – every bit as stunned into uncertainty as Alcibiades was in First Alcibiades. I will say that (in addition to, rather than replacing, the Church Fathers), the Dialogues of Plato make for good Lenten reading: not only my sins but my ignorance stand convicted.

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.
Indeed.

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.

Let me be perfectly clear

I will oppose, with the last fibre of my being and with my dying breath, any attempt to declare war on the oldest continuous human civilisation on the planet. I will also oppose, with the last fibre of my being and with my dying breath, any attempt to declare war on the second-oldest continuous human civilisation on the planet.

What is at stake in any such potential conflict, is nothing more and nothing less than human civilisation itself. This is not hyperbole. I am being perfectly sober and serious. Any such potential conflict can and will be as disastrous to the cultural heritage of humanity, as the (first) burning of Persepolis, as the Mongol sack of Baghdad, or as the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.

If the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.

Alasdair MacIntyre was right, certainly about the last part.

02 February 2017

Again - no war in the land of Esther


You know the old saw ‘in like Flynn’? Somehow I don’t think old Errol would agree.

Or, rather, here we go ‘understanding the right of all nations to put their own interests first’ (who ghostwrote that, I wonder?). As David Lindsay rightly says, ‘Bernie would have won’.

General Mikey is now putting Iran ‘on notice’ because Yemeni Shi’ites have the temerity to defend themselves against indiscriminate Saudi attacks. Let that sink in, please.

Iran is our ally in Iraq, against the extremist ‘Islamic’ State, which in our magician’s-apprentice-like naïveté we summoned up to battle against Assad in Syria. (We actually do have an interest in fighting the ‘Islamic’ State. We have no such true interest in the Houthis either way.) Even prior to then, the ‘Islamic’ State represents a judgement upon America’s foreign-political sins. The arming of Saddam against the Iranians and both of the Gulf Wars have shown, to what ought to be a mortifying degree, our inability to learn from our political follies in meddling in the region’s affairs.

Iran, a country which never has been and never will be as anti-American as either American or Iranian hawks would like it to be, has since the dawn of its ancient civilisation been a beacon for creativity and organic spiritual unity, and one which valued the freedom of the spoken word. In its cultural infancy, in contrast to every single civilisation around it (except China, far to the East) it promulgated an ideal of just kingship – khvarenah – which blessed the right of the monarch to rule only when that monarch behaved in a virtuous and morally exemplary fashion, particularly toward his poorest and most vulnerable subjects.

When Iran forged an empire, it banned slavery and guaranteed the religious and cultural integrity of each linguistic and ethnic community it governed. When its empires fell, as under the Tatar and Mongol yokes, Iran put up an indomitable resistance. Even the form of Islam which it adopted, when Islamic Arabs overran its borders, was a radical form of Islam – best expressed in Dr. Ali Shariati’s ‘red Shi’ism’ – which placed its priorities not on attaining and keeping political power, but with speaking up for the downtrodden even at the cost of personal and national martyrdom. Iran has long integrated and infused its artistic life with its moral and spiritual life, and as its artistic traditions show, it has never had much use for or interest in modern utilitarianism. But Iran is the home of the tombs of Daniel, Esther and Mordechai (which are still in existence and under the protection of the government), was the home of the three Magi who first visited Jesus and remains one of the region’s few safe havens for ethnic Armenians and Jews.

Iran has long – and indeed, always! – been characterised by its unswerving, even martyric passion for independence. Not independence in the narrow, materialistic, bourgeois sense of the word as we take it in the United States (though economic independence from Britain and the elimination of BP’s corporate stranglehold over Iran was of great importance to Mosaddegh and to the Iranian democrats of the time). But more important in the Iranian lifeworld is spiritual independence from all false idols and ideologies. (It is no accident that Iran of Late Antiquity bore forth some of our Church’s greatest saints.) Even in the throes of its revolution, Iran never succumbed to the shadowplay of the two great falsities of communism and capitalism. And now, as we see, even in its ‘black Shi’ite’ theocratic state, it shows itself a ready ally against the extremes of political, Wahhabi Islam! Though Iran holds near and dear to its heart the principles of creativity, of spiritual unity and independence, these principles are not and cannot be held on terms amenable to bourgeois, individualistic Western-style liberalism – any more than the similar Russian principles can be.

It should indeed be clear that they have their own interests which may not coincide in every particular with our own. But it took Obama far too long to learn that; Trump cannot be afforded the same degree of leniency. We must also learn that we should not make our friendship with Iran conditional upon ideological conformity; otherwise, they will spurn us and rightly so.

01 February 2017

Thedeship, state and idolatry


One of the reasons that Eastern Orthodoxy is so attractive, is that its lived history invalidates all the great idolatries of the modern age. This holds true for the two great idolatries of the modern Left: Marxism (which, as numerous Christian thinkers have pointed out, is actually a chiliastic and materialist heresy) and postmodernism-constructivism (with its dæmonic urge to demolish and deconstruct what is true). But it also holds true for the several great idolatries before which the modern Right invariably bows: capitalism, fundamentalism, technocracy and nationalism.

The incompatibility of the truths of Orthodox anthropology and metaphysics with capitalist praxis has been well-documented and explored in other places: in short, human beings in Orthodox teaching are made for communion with each other and with God, and not for separation into constellations of disembodied wills and negative rights; and (Actonite fantasies aside) the œconomic ramifications of this teaching set the face of Orthodoxy, as it were, solidly against capitalism. Read in an open spirit, the Fathers of the Church were not particularly great fans of the idea of private property – accepting it as, at best, a necessary evil in a fallen world; and at worst, one of the great stumbling blocks to salvation. Still less were they fans of the idea that acquisition of material wealth was in itself virtuous or praiseworthy.

Likewise with fundamentalism and technocracy. The Orthodox Church has been dead-set from its inception against the idea of sola scriptura, instead holding that Scripture is given authority and life only within its rooted context of living and lived Tradition. This is a needed witness against those (even within the Church itself!) who would point to a dead letter, uprooted from all its context of pastoral oikonomía, as the sine qua non of Christian praxis. And the idea that human salvation can be attained in a secular way, by technical advancement and eugenics (one of the more grotesque conceits of the neoreactionary movement, and one which CS Lewis rightly recognised as dæmonic) is opposed strongly by the Orthodox teachings of sobornost’ and theosis. Human beings are saved through communion with each other, even and especially with the broken ones; and they are saved through participating together in the energies of God.

But it’s nationalism I want to focus on here.

It is important to note, over and over again, that Orthodox teaching has historically considered nation and state as separate concerns. This is owing, to a large degree, to its long association with the Eastern Roman Empire, and the distinction that needed to be drawn between the citizen as Rhōmaios (a political description, a ‘Romanity’ defined as subjection to the Emperor) and as Graikós (a linguistic description, a belonging to a thede with roots in earlier classical Antiquity). Though in its declining years the two came to be more conflated, in the Eastern Roman Empire one did not have to be ethnically or linguistically Greek to be a ‘Roman’! Syrians, Bulgars, Serbs and Dacians were all ‘Romans’, even though Greek was to them a second language. The Church had a close relationship to the State – expressed in the idea of sumphonía; and it had a close relationship to the thede through its tradition of preaching in the popular, common language. However – and this point deserves to be emphasised – the two relationships were separate and hierarchical in nature.

The disastrous, lamentable disintegration of the Eastern Roman Empire, however, and the opposition and cruelty to which the Turks subjected the Church and its subjects, created a situation whereby the Orthodox Church began to sympathise with (and allow itself to be used as a basis for) levelling, revolutionary movements of national liberation, which in secular logic conjoined the state with the idea of the nation in ways which were foreign to the classical mind of the Church. Although for contemporary purposes the Church was useful to the Byronic nationalist ‘liberator’, the identification of the state with the thede largely destroyed the monarchical principle that had held in place the layered, both-localist-and-cosmopolitan concept of ‘Romanity’, and in the process crowded out the Church from consideration. In the Empire, the Church served as the conciliar weft that could unite bickering and parochial ethnoi into a greater brotherhood, in a way the Emperor alone, with his ‘Roman’ dominion, could not do. In the secular-republican-nationalist era to follow, between the crowds screaming for Barabbas and the republican Pilates who rode to power amongst them, Jesus Christ and His Church would not find a place – except on Golgotha. Not socialists – no, not socialists; socialists, however wrongheadedly secular, at least have shades of the old brotherhood of Christian ‘Romanity’ left in them – but nationalists, for all their vaunted ‘right-ness’ as they march under their godless tricolours, will always, always be among the first to clamour for the crucifixion of a true Emperor!

And herein lies the rub. Just as nationalism and its sins will always be a temptation and stumbling-block for our separated Latin brethren on account of their doctrinal relationship to power during and after the Investiture Controversies, so it will always be a temptation and a stumbling-block for the Orthodox Christians on account of our history. And there are no greater victims of those sins, than those thedes who, like the Hebrews in the Exodus or in the Babylonian Exile, wander the deserts without a land and a state of their own. ‘Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.’ Not only Jews, but even Orthodox thedes like the Gypsies and the Rusyns, are exemplars of this. It is worthy of note – and it ought to be a matter for deep shame among us Orthodox – that Rusyns, for all their closeness to the broader world of the Rus’ both Russian and Ukrainian, fared far better (both culturally and materially) under the non-nationalist, quasi-Catholic Czechoslovak government of Švehla (and later under the Slovak government of Fico, which recognises them as a minority), than they ever would under the nationalist, ostensibly-Orthodox Ukrainians, who continue to regard Rusyns as simply backward ‘highlanders’ to be assimilated. For shame!

Loving your thede as your family, loving your neighbours, laying down your life for your friends as suggested by the Basis of the Social Concept – these things are all good and admirable. Having a thede, having kinship ties, being rooted to a particular community, is a good thing! But nationalism – as a revolutionary ideological tendency which kills monarchs, which confines religion to the realm of the private, which stokes enmities among thedes, which oppresses the poor – this is not an ideology which Orthodox people should abide. ‘It is contrary to Orthodox ethics to divide nations into the best and the worst and to belittle any ethnic or civic nation. Even more contrary to Orthodoxy are the teachings which put the nation in the place of God or reduce faith to one of the aspects of national self-awareness.

EDIT (2 February): Father Stephen Freeman has some profound thoughts in a similar direction on his own excellent blog, Glory to God for All Things; I might pick some nits with a couple of the historical readings (or perhaps not; I get the feeling his knowledge of history is far deeper than mine!), but I decidedly and emphatically agree with his conclusions. The modern nation-state is to be treated as a temporal convenience; it is not to be held aloft as the source of revealed truth.