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Escoffier on Modernity and the Embarrassment of Christians

Embarrassed

Escoffier recently posted a comment at Dalrock’s blog which seemed useful as a standalone post.  It deals with the issue of why so many contemporary Christians appear to be embarrassed with the moral teachings of Christianity.  I’m posting it here in full for comment.  (EDIT:  I see that Donal has also posted it — that’s good, it deserves a broad audience).

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I want to add a supplementary / alternative reason to explain this embarrassment over the text of the Bible. It’s been touched on but not really fleshed out.

That is, that these nominal Christians under discussion are all moderns first and Christians second (if second). Worse, they don’t even know they are moderns, or what it means to be a modern, or what modernity is.

Modernity, to say the least, conflicts with the Bible. It was designed to, on purpose. Yet it has been so successful in taking over nearly all conscious and sub-conscious thought that hardly anyone any more recognizes it for what it is. That includes most contemporary Christians, to whom “modernity” is simply synonymous with “reality” or even “morality.”

There’s a particular strand of modernity that’s particularly relevant here, namely historicism, and specifically rational historicism (as opposed to radical or irrational historicism). This is the idea of “progress.” “Progress” is cooked into the original conception of modernity, but it came to take on a different meaning much later. Originally, it more or less just meant “We can improve the material condition of man on earth; human beings have a lot more power than either the Bible or classical philosophy will admit.”

Rational historicism takes this idea much further and posits a unidirectional progress, which is worked out through impersonal forces (the so-called historical dialectic) over which man may be an unwitting instrument, but which he didn’t design, doesn’t direct, and can’t control. “History” is nonetheless rational, moving “forward” (with occasional, necessary steps back) to ever-“better” states and eventually to an end state in which all dialectical conflicts are resolved, all moral and political problems solved, and final wisdom achieved (if not necessarily accessible to all). In pop-culture terms, the Star Trek universe is basically the cartoon version of this end state.

Nearly everyone today believes in this “arc” at least in a simplified way. The present is believed to be inherently more enlightened that the past. We Don’t Do That Anymore Because We Know Better. And the future will be inevitably more enlightened than the present.

The source of this impression is ultimately perverted or corrupted or mistaken philosophy, but one does not need to have studied philosophy at all to have been affected, even “convinced.” The astounding success of modern natural science and its offspring, technology, serves to “prove” to such people that “progress” is real and that the present is superior to the past. Technological progress is assumed to be coeval with moral and political progress.

But it is never explained why this should be so. Actually, certain modern philosophers did try to make such a case, but they hardly proved it and their case is open to serious theoretical difficulties which have been pointed out by other philosophers. However, that whole dialogue may as well never have happened as far as the average modern person is concerned. He is simply unaware of it and takes on faith that the present is morally superior to the past.

This, then, is a significant source of the embarrassment. The modern Christian (modern first, Christian second) is embarrassed by the evident conflicts between his nominal faith and his actual, if unconscious, modernity. Modernity trumps. So the offending Scriptures have to be dealt with one way or another. There are many possible ways: insist that it doesn’t say what it seems to say, come up with Rube Goldberg interpretations to square it with modernity, call it “metaphoric,” say that it was right for that time but not our time, and so on. The latter is a kind of “Living Constitution” framework for the Bible. It assumes that God has left to us the task of “updating” Scripture as the “times change.” The changing of the times is held to be the true constant, and really the true God, but only implicitly.

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The Struggle Is Spiritual

Jacob_Wrestles_Angel_Dore

As I have mentioned in certain comments on various blogs over the past year or so, I have gradually come to the conclusion that the current “struggles” we face concerning the “culture” — whether we are discussing the impact of the sexual revolution, the decline of religion in the public square, the increase of all kinds of license, the coarsening of society, the decline of family life, etc. — are primarily not cultural struggles at all.  And neither are they political struggles, although certain aspects of these elements have been aided and abetted by political action and legislation.

By contrast, it strikes me that the cultural and political elements we are seeing are merely manifestations of a broader spiritual struggle — a larger element which underlies these other manifestations, and unites them into a larger, cohesive, and more dangerous, whole.

This seems an odd charge to make, given that the loudest and most enthusiastic proponents on the “other side” tend to be either atheists or agnostics.

The key, however, is understanding that while these people are not “theistic believers”, they nevertheless are following what is essentially a system of moral “good” vs. moral “evil”, with the “prime moral directive” being not following the will of God, but rather removing all obstacles to the not-directly-harmful-to-others exercise of the personal volitional will.  That is, human will, or, rather, the autonomous freedom of the individual to act in accordance with his or her individual will (provided not directly harmful to others — let’s call that the “legitimate exercise of the individual will”) has become the supreme moral principle — the “god” of a non-theistic moral system, if you will.  Because of this, actions or inactions are viewed primarily through the lens of whether they promote this legitimate exercise of the human will or whether they restrict it (again, other than in ways that are necessary to prevent harm to others — which would be cases where the exercise of the human will would be considered “illegitimate”), and assigning “moral” to the first category and “immoral” to the second.  This has given birth to a new kind of “pseudo-religion” — a religion without God, centered on the individual will.

From the traditional Christian perspective, of course, this seems to be upside-down (i.e., personal will elevated to that of a pseudo-god in place of the Divine will of the actual God), but also perhaps the inevitable result of removing a supernatural God from the equation.

There is, however, a bit more to the story.

Joseph Bottum has written a new book entitled “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America“.  An interesting review of the book by Spengler can be found here.

Bottum, formerly an editor at First Things and a longtime writer of columns in various publications, advances the thesis that contemporary progressive secularism is simply the current manifestation of mainline protestantism, albeit this time without God in the picture.  This will sound somewhat familiar to those acquainted with Moldbug’s ideas (Bottum describes, for example, the continued influence of Puritanism on the intolerant and fanatical mindsets of many in this secular progressive camp), but it also goes beyond them in asserting that the driving force in this movement is spiritual — that is, the desire to be among the “good” in some kind of transcendent way, and identifying this “good” with the public “goods” of non-discrimination, wealth distribution and the like.  That is, there is a desire to support and help achieve the “good”, for moral reasons, and thereby to become or at least be considered to be “good”, again in moral terms, by means of social activism, social progressivism and the like — all quite apart from anything relating to a transcendent, supernatural God and what His own rules might hold for personal behavior regarding things such as, eh, sex.  In effect, it is replacing those “old moral rules” with the more “enlightened”, more “evolved” morality which emphasizes personal volitional freedom (as noted above) plus these social “goods”, which are seen as moral in and of themselves.  I would add this to my own notions described above about the moral priority of the legitimate self-will, and say that the new pseudo-faith emphasizes both that *and* the furthering of social goods (many of which tend, at the same time, to further the exercise of the legitimate self-will, but which are also seen as moral ends in and of themselves).

I have not finished the book yet (more on that when I do so), but it’s highly recommended reading for anyone who really wants to understand the struggle currently taking place, and what it really is about.  It’s a spiritual struggle, a religious war, much more than a cultural or political one.  I think that this is also why the  culture war and the political war have been so generally unsuccessful.  The underlying issue — the underlying morality, the underlying war about what is moral and what is the basis for that — is a spiritual and/or religious conflict, and one being waged with all kinds of weapons as well: artistic, cultural, political, educational, bureaucratic/corporate, etc.  I think this is often missed by many on “our side” of this conflict, because we tend to see the other side as “Godless narcissists”, when in fact they view themselves as the truly moral people who have progressed beyond the morality we have, which they consider to be primitive, obsolete and practically Neanderthal in nature.  In other words, far from perceiving themselves as Godless narcissists, they instead see themselves as morally more advanced, and see our side as being retrograde, backwards, and obstinate in both of these, in moral terms, and therefore, by their own moral standards, fundamentally immoral and evil.

That is the nature of the fight.  It’s why the fight has been, and continues to be, so uncivil.  Religious wars are generally not very civil for the precise reason that the enemy is not merely wrong, but morally wrong and therefore not only personally evil but furthering the cause of evil in the world at large — something that therefore cannot be tolerated in the least, but which must be totally defeated and preferably annihilated from the face of the earth, for the earth’s own good and the good of everyone everywhere.  This is precisely the kind of “totalism” that characterizes this struggle, and which has done so for some time.  It will continue to do so in the years ahead, as the new pseudo-religion — which is rampant among the rising millenial generation — becomes more brazen, hegemonic and increasingly aggressively intolerant of the moral evil (in its view) posed by traditional Christians.

More to come in subsequent posts once I have finished the book.

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Athens and Jerusalem in Dialogue II: The Reformation and Its Wake

It’s an interesting discussion, I think.  I’ll touch first a bit on the King issue, and then on your last parallels there about the odd synchonicity of Machiavelli and the Reformation.

First, about King.

I think King’s substance was never really his issue — I do think that the more informed and balanced people agree that internet posts only get you so far in terms of really affecting change in the world at large.  For many participants, it rather has the opposite impact — namely, it provides a kind of steam release valve, or an outlet for venting, which in the grander scheme dissipates their ire, and channels their desire for change into internet posting rather than towards the things that must be changed in the world outside the window.  Doubtless this is true, and he was quite right to point that out.

I think the main problem he ran into was his means of articulating himself.  I understand his intent was to challenge, but in the context of anonymous people on the internet, that approach likely won’t yield too much success.  Perhaps it works if you are a football coach or a drill sergeant or something like that, but when you are dealing with strangers on the internet, it’s doubtful that this kind of harangue is actually effective.

Hopefully he can find a better way to do what he would like to do, and be more effective in targeting for his audience.  He has some of the tools of a good writer, but he would do well, in my view, to go for simple and elegant rather than adopting a style which too often seems to be quite obviously striving to be clever and seem intelligent.  He obviously *is* intelligent and fairly well-read, but a better writer would find ways of expressing that erudition in more pithy, down to earth, and elegant way.  More Hemingway, and less Proust.  Also, more focused on the kind of style you need for the audience you are trying to reach.

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It’s an interesting point on the odd temporal symmetry between the very beginning of the Reformation in Germany and the publication of Machiavelli’s most influential works.  1517 and its aftermath was truly one of the inflection points of history, and the impact of the event and its wake, in quite real terms, on the contemporary cultural situation in the West is widely underestimated, if not outright misunderstood.  In part  I think this is because the historical memory, when it comes to the Reformation, is itself mixed among various countries and cultures of the West, precisely because it was, and is, a source of division in the culture.  However, this often has resulted in making it a kind of “off limits”  or taboo topic — something which can serve to obscure the fundamental role it has played in forming the foundation for many of the contemporary attitudes that so many find so troubling.

From my own perspective, the impact of the Reformation on subsequent Western history was both collosal and wide-ranging.  It impacts directly almost all of the issues people on this side of the orientational fence, as it were, are troubled about, on a foundational level.  At the same time it appears to create hard limits on the ability of many actually to see down to the root of the problems, and what underlies them, because doing so would challenge an aspect of their own identity which is foundational, and which they perceive as running counter to the problems that trouble them, and instead render this problematic at the very least.  In other words, one of the main problems involved with coming to grips with the issue of the underlying impact of the Reformation on contemporary culture, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere in the West, is that most Christians in the United States are children of the Reformation who revere the Reformation, or at least see it as a fundamental good, and as something that is a part of both their spiritual and historical identity.  So, if one starts to describe the problems that the Reformation injected into Christianity in the West, and into Western spiritual thought and practice, and the various strands of influence this has had on cultural development in the West for the last 500 years, one can very quickly get a rather knee-jerk and negative response — because these are Reformation Christians, or at the very least people who see the Reformation as being fundamentally positive and good.  Hence the problem with this kind of discussion.

Of course it’s quite true that, as you have written, the Reformation’s pragmatic impact of dividing the West religiously was damaging to the ability of Chirstianity’s contemporaneous representatives of either camp to resist more effectively the growing attacks of the anti-theistic philosophers.  As a practical matter, division leads to weakness.  In this, however, the Reformation is part of a longer problematic history within Christianity of division leading to weakness with grave consequences as a result.  From my perspective, for example, it is quite appropriate to argue that, had the great schism between the eastern and western parts of the Catholic Church never happened, or had it been repaired relatively quickly, the events and developments within the medieval West which eventually led to the pressures that gave rise to the Reformation, as well as the disastrous demise of Constantinople in the East a few decaded earlier, may never have come to pass.  But that’s a topic for another post, if and when I have the time to write it.  Suffice to say that, yes, division in and of itself leads to rather disastrous outcomes in the temporal world, some of which go well beyond any kind of capacity to predict at the time the division occurs.

Yet the specific kinds of impacts of the Reformation which I see as being more influential over the past five centuries of history in the West, while stemming ultimately from the fruitless division created by the Reformation, lie in other areas — areas which have tended to facilitate the rise of anti-theistic rationalism to the state of its current hyper-dominance in Western culture.  While these areas are far-flung and encompass virtually all aspects of our contemporary culture, for the purposes of this note I’d like to focus on one key aspect — the attitude of the Reformation toward authority, and the impact this has had on the relationship between Christianity and the temporal world in the West (including anti-theistic secularist thought).

In this aspect, and in very broad brush, the Reformation was an assault on the existing system of religious authority — specifically the religious authority of the Catholic Church — and the replacement of that personal, hierarchical authority with the authority of a text.  This critical element – that is, the undermining of a unified religious authority – cascades down the trail of the subsequent history of the West.  Of course, nothing in history is fore-ordained, but the groundwork and the subsequent trends, and the connections between them, are unmistakeable. 

Even within the framework of the religion itself, when you make a text your highest authority, with no dispositive-for-everyone interpreter of said text, you end up with both (1) an endless (and in fact, impossible to end) tendency towards division due to the inevitable proliferation of textual interpretations and (2) a religious experience which is very heavily bent towards the cerebral without any inherent corrective.  Point (1) is why we have a different “flavor” of church on every streetcorner, all with their own versions of the truth, all with disagreements with each other about things which seem trivial to non-Christians (and also to many Christians as well!).  Point (2) is why American Protestantism in particular has constantly had waves of the opposite — emotion-based versions of Christianity, either Pentecostalism, or some kind of revivalism, to counterbalance the comparatively cold textualism of established Protestant Christianity. ( This also informs much of the contours of the “lower” less liturgical forms of Protestant worship services.)   So you end up with a situaton where the religion itself is inherently weakened by division, and which is institutionally utterly incapable of ending the process of division — like some kind of cancerous mitosis it simply keeps spreading its divisiveness.  And the resulting myriad of churches which are spawned by this process tend to careen between a kind of textual fundamentalism (after all, there is no authority beyond the text itself, no living body of authoritativeness beyond the text beyond the power of any individual interpreter to persuade, so if the text is not adhered to strictly, authority itself is undermined with no replacement), on the one hand, and a kind of apocalyptic emotionalism (as a corrective to the relatively cold and cerebral text-based religion), on the other.

The impact of this on the broader Western world and culture beyond religious belief and practice itself has been enormous and in many respects profoundly negative.  With respect to the specific issues you’ve addressed (the victory of anti-theistic philosophers over religion, and the tendency for religion to remove itself from the concerns of the world), these are traceable to the legacy of the Reformation.  As you’ve noted, in part the problem with philosophy and religion in the modern era is that philosophy (anti-theistic philosophy at least) kicked religion’s ass, in a way, because religion came poorly equipped to the fight.  One large reason for this is that the textual authority mindset is, in itself, uninterested in philosophy or philosophical reasoning as a baseline for discourse on these issues.  Instead, all arguments must proceed from, and be validated by, the overaching authority of a text.  This stands in sharp contrast to the prior practice and mode of discourse of Christianity vis-a-vis philosophical argument — whether in the period of the early Church, or later during the scholastic period in the West.  While Nazianzen and Aquinas may not have been personally equipped to address the kinds of arguments that would be raised by Descartes, Voltaire and others, had the mindset of engaging with philosophy been maintained, both in substance and in language, in a more full sense, religion would have had a much better chance in this fight.  A more holistic approach to religion — a more catholic approach — was, and is, needed to deal with this kind of challenge.  A textual authority based approach is simply not equipped to do this, precisely because its own mode of discourse is estranged from that used by the philosophers and their related empiricists in the scientific world. 

A few objections may be raised at this point.  What of the liberal mainline protestants who are all about social justice?  What about people like Francis Collins — doesn’t he engage in dialogue using the contemporary intellectual vernacular? 

Well, the liberal protestants are really an example of very much the same phenomenon mentioned above — namely, reliance on a text-based authority, with simply a different interpretation driving it.  The liberal protestants don’t spend a tremendous amount of time re-ariculating their faith in the language of contemporary intellectual discourse, but have instead simply embarked upon their own text-based interpretation of the religion which is just as removed from the language of Aquinas and Nazianzen, not to say of Robert George and David Hart as well, as are any other forms of contemporary protestantism.  It is simply another manifestation of interpretative pluralism which plagues Protestantism as a whole and weakens it, and the rest of Christianity along with it.  This is evidenced by the singular failure of such churches not only to grow and thrive, but even to maintain their ranks.  Far from articulating their faith in a way that is both intelligible and convincing to a contemporary intellectual mind, they seem to have rather spectacularly succeeded in convincing such minds of the irrelevance of their religion in general.  They are a symptom, therefore, of the same problem manifesting itself in a different way, rather than an exception to it. 

As for Francis Collins, the discovery institute and so on, these are generally people who are critical of  the conclusions of science within its own framework.  In other words, they raise interesting and important questions about whether the scientific conclusions about matters such as species evolution and the like are really justified based on the epistomological rules and conventions of the scientific method, the evidence that is available and the like.  While these are important conversations to have (and the fact that the scientific community, which is supposed to be based on peer critiques to begin with, is so hostile to them is in itself quite telling), nevertheless they are not the kind of conversation we’re talking about here.  Rather, they are pointed conversations that are taking place within the framework of empiricism itself.  In order for religion to regain its place in the world and not continue to be sidelined by the anti-theistic moderns and empiricist fundamentalists, the actual questions concerning the questions religion and philosophy are struggling with must be addressed directly — and not indirectly by means of critiques within the framework of empiricism itself and its epistemology.  So, while this kind of critique can be helpful if it is properly formed and based, nevertheless it is not the kind of direct engagement on the basis of the larger questions, articulated in the framework that the contemporary intellectual mind can appropriate, that is needed to undermine the tyrannical regime of modernism that we labor under today.

What does this look like?  What does it mean?  It simply means that rather than basing the entirety of its legitimacy on fidelity to a text, Christianity must articulate itself in a more robust, holistic way — in a way that the world understands, in its contemporary idiom intellectually, in a way that embraces the goodness of what is already in the world, and in us.  The early church embraced this in its dialogues with the philosophically-minded Greeks (**) and in its use of philosophical terms and discourse to articulate Christian truth in ways that were intelligible and intellectually sensible to the mind of that world.  The medieval church did so as well, and not in a completely unproblematic way, either, but nevertheless refused to see philosophy, mental reasoning and work, and intelletctually sophisticated articulations as being inappropriate because they did not all proceed from a text.  To be sure, none of these Christians saw their philosophizing or discourse as being inconsistent with scripture — far from it.  Yet it was always recognized that there is much that is not addressed in scripture in a way that is clear enough to avoid division and dispute, and that therefore some articulation is not only beneficial, but necessary in order to maintain unity, and preach the faith truly to achieve the goal of the great commission itself.

Of course, in order to work, this must be based on the idea that there is an authority, or an authoritativeness, that exists beyond the mere text of scripture.  That relies on the idea that not only is scriptural text, as revealed truth, true, but also that there is a human, worldly element of authority which is also authoritative precisely because of the action of God in the world through the Church.  The authority is that of God, not only speaking through the text of scripture, but speaking through the Church itself, and the humans, flawed though they may be, who inhabit that Church.  This is very difficult for Protestants to accept, because it goes against the very thing that the Reformation was aimed against, at least in part.  But it remains the case that this is the link that is missing, the block that comes between the strong faith of many Protestant Christians, on the one hand, and the kinds of failures you’ve articulated in your earlier note.

And that link is this — when Protestantism ditched the personal, living authority of the Catholic Church and its Tradition, and tried to replace this with a text in an effort to avoid the corruption inevitable with human involvement in that authority, it created (unwittingly for sure) a rather narrow, rigid type of Christianity which, eventually, would become disconnected with the world.  Why is this?  Because Protestantism, in ditching the Catholic Tradition, also ditched sacramentalism (***), the aspect of Catholic Christianity (by which I mean not just the current Catholic Church, but also the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches) which makes the world transcendent, holy and sanctified — which transforms the world, the physical, the temporal into an encounter with the transcendent and the infinite, and which confirms the ultimate goodness of the world, and its status as gift from the creator to man.  The sacramental approach to Christianity constantly affirms to the believer that the world is good, that the world is gift, that the world is holy and sanctified by God’s grace, and is a tangible means of encountering God in the here and now, and not just in some future place.  This is why these churches have ALWAYS been very concerned with the world at large, with the cultures in which they exist, with the state of morality and the like — because the world is gift, the world is being saved, the world is being transformed, and the Church is the main means by which this is supposed to occur.  Catholic Christianity is holistic, it embraces the world in this way, and transcends it.

It follows directly from this that the kind of authority which would be embraced by a church which retains sacramentality would itself be sacramental — that is, would itself be in the world, be a part of the world which is being transformed by and through the power of God.  It would be an authority which is not of the world (God’s authority comes from God himself, who is not of the world), but which is very much in the world, very much a part of the world, very much reflecting the world in all of its variation, in all of its articulation — and not merely a scriptural text, as central as that text is to the Tradition which is articulated over time by this authority in the world, in a way that the world can understand, and in a way that can reach the world in its own idiom.  This authority inheres in the episcopate, in the papacy which is its center, in the tradition articulated by the church through these, and through councils, and through theologians accepted by the church and so on.  It is ulimately more holistic, and more engaged on most levels with the world, than the most seeker-friendly hipster-worship-band Protestant church can ever be with its text0-based-authority system.  Ultimately, it is also much more open to the world, because the world is the locus of sacramentality — including things like mental articulation and philosophical discourse, two avenues of “the world” that the Church has historically embraced as a part of its mission to be “in the world”.

From the perspective of this kind of authority, and this kind of Christianity, it isn’t really an option to stand aloof from the world, or from a particular culture in the world — precisely because all is cherished, all is shot through with grace, all is in the process of being transformed and renewed by God through the Church.  The Church is central in this process, but it presupposes an embracing of the world as fundamentally fallen but being in the process of being transformed and redeemed.  It cannot countenance a stand-offish aproach to the world as irretrievably fallen, or as being of limited relevance to a faith that is solely based on fidelity to textual revelation.  By contrast, if you are a text-based believer without a sacramentally-based faith whose approach is based on a text and a mostly cerebral understanding of it, coupled with the occasional emotional reaction, rather than an actual physical encounter with God on a regular basis (“oh taste and see, that the Lord is good”), well, you’re going to be tempted at the very least to reject entanglements with a fallen world, or a particular civilization, or what have you, because it ultimately “doesn’t matter”.  What matters is fidelity to the textual authority for a small remnant. 

This is why protestantism has been an unmitigated disaster for Western Christianity in particular, and for Christianity as a whole.  That is not to say that the Western Catholic Church of the early 16th century was not in desperate need of reform — it was! — or that many of the reforms that came about as a part of the counter-reformation were not very useful — they were!  But it does mean that the trajectory that Protestantism set much of Western Christianity on was a deeply tragic one, and quite apart from all of the blood that was spilled in its wake.  It is simply the case that by creating a kind of Christianity which was non-sacramental and mostly careening between hyper-rationalism and hyper-emotionalism in a roller-coaster type fashion over the course of time, a gradual withdrawal from the actual world took place — a kind of vacating of the space, which allowed other ideations to move into, and eventually take over, that space.  The Catholics have never really stopped their engagement with the world, both in practical and in intellectual terms.  But the trends unleashed by the Reformation were very powerful, and had huge and negative impacts on Catholic countries and cultures as well, precisely because the countries which were Protestant came to dominate the world, and spread their own culture together with that domination (a process which continues today).  The tide has been a global one, and the voice of the Catholics (and the smaller voices of the Orthodox in their own contexts) has been all but drowned out.

I do think that engagement with philosophy is critical.  One author you may want to look into is David Bentley Hart.  He’s a philosopher and theologian — he’s Eastern Orthodox, but he isn’t a partisan.  He takes a view similar to yours in that the battle needs to be fought on both fronts, and that Christian philosophers are needed to do so.  He has written a few good books, although they can be difficult reading at times in part due to his own style of writing (which he has admitted himself can be difficult).

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(**)  I realize that many Protestant Christians, perhaps most of them, view this as having been a terrible mistake.  They could not be more wrong, actually, and in my view it is precisely this kind of knee-jerk reaction against any kind of philosophically based articulation of religion that lies at the heart of the problem we’re discussing here. 

(***) By sacramentalism I mean not merely embracing baptism, or perhaps baptism and communion as “sacraments”, but rather an entire worldview which sees the world itself as a living sacrament, shot through with the presence of God, and something which, in very specific and concentrated moments, becomes what the Church refers to formally as “sacraments”.

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Athens and Jerusalem in Dialogue I — L’Affaire King

Recently there was something of a dust-up over the commenter Matt King at Dalrock’s blog.  This is a storm that has been brewing for some time, I think, but the recent kerfuffle provides a useful opportunity for a bit of reflection.  Escoffier and I have been in some dialogue about this privately, and it struck us that it might be useful to share parts of this dialogue here for others to read.  This first installment is a post from Escoffier laying out his perspective.  I will follow that with a post later today or tomorrow with my own perspective, and then a third post with some concluding remarks over the next couple of days.

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I was absent during “l’Affaire King” but I read through it over the last couple of days and have a few thoughts.
 
First, I was always and remain quite sympathetic to his world view and find very little to disagree with.  Your main criticism—that he needs to take his mission to his own platform and that his delivery needs a major overhaul—I completely agree with.  I would add one that I think is more fundamental.  King would often say that more talk was not the answer, the time for action had come.  A fair point.  However, he never said (unless I missed it) what that action should be, even at the individual level. Now, I myself, as we have discussed, have no idea what should be done now, as a matter of action (thought I will cover below).  Which is why I have no practical or political program whatsoever.  Not because I don’t care but because I don’t know what to do.  I really have no idea.  So I am not criticizing King for that, but for the harangues to action when he could not articulate any action.
 
This raises an interesting dilemma in and of itself.  Not knowing what to do can be a temptation or excuse to inaction.  That is certainly true in my case.  I tell myself that I do nothing (to reform society, to be clear, not nothing literally, though I can be quite lazy) because I don’t know what to do.  And to an extent that is true, I don’t know what to do.
 
However, I also believe that we in a downward cycle of civilization.  I believe in the classical teaching on the cycle of regimes or sects.  All civilizations have a life cycle.  Ours appears to me to be in winter, in its dotage and decay and decline.  If I am right about that, then there is nothing I or anyone can do.  But do I hold that view out of genuine conviction or because, in my laziness, I prefer to believe that there is nothing I can do?
 
Despair is a sin.  It is also, in a secular sense of the virtues, a vice.  See, e.g., Churchill’s great but forgotten inter-war essay “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”  Churchill was an agnostic (at best) and he makes an entirely rational case for why man has a moral duty to KBO (“keep buggering on”).  The essay itself is great thought Churchill as an example might be bad in that there seems to be the implicit promise of a happy ending: be vindicated, chosen for high office, win the defining struggle of the age, go down in history as one of the greatest heroes ever …
 
This of course overlooks the ways he did NOT win: Britain broke, empire gone, great power status gone, half of Europe enslaved, etc.  I suppose the best example I can think of, of a man who had a just and great cause, who was losing, who knew he was losing, who KBOed anyway and still lost, both personally and in his cause, is Cicero.  (Plutarch is very hard on Cicero but leave that aside).  Well, how many of us are prepared to be murdered with a sword in a losing cause?
 
King would no doubt raise his hand.  I don’t disbelieve him.  But I still don’t know what he would do or have the rest of us do.
 
However, I will say two broad things in his defense, regarding his ideas, which are the important thing here. First, his “teaching” or message was not merely more positive than those he attacked (and who attacked him) but also, in my estimation, closer to the truth.  Too many of his critiques tend to see everything, including the high, in the light of the low.  They are afflicted with what others have called intellectual vice of “probity” which is as it were the flipside of naïve idealism.  “Probity” is the tendency always to believe the worst BECAUSE it is the worst, to see the noble always in the light of the ignoble out of a misplaced fear of self-deception.  The pose is “I alone live without illusions.”
 
This is endemic to many red-pillers.  They learn some truths about the sordid side of female nature—truths which are verboten not merely to say aloud but even to think in the modern West—and they think that is it, the end-all, a kind of Hegelian final wisdom.  Counter-examples are dismissed with a curt wave, or a snarky “NAWALT” HawHaw guffaw, but of course we know they are, you moron, etc.  Men who can honestly say they have long, direct experience with good women are attacked as delusional fools who got lucky, like some illegal Mexican gardener who won PowerBall.
 
This arises from two contradictory, but also complementary, modern response to or attacks on religion.  Modernity of course at every step takes for granted that religion is false, the Bible is a poetic fable, written entirely by man, with the same cognitive status as (say) the Iliad, or better yet the Aeneid, which was known at the time of its writing to be a poetic fable written by a man.  Modernity begins by considering religion the enemy, on essentially three grounds: 1) religion is false and men should not live by falsehood but by the truth; 2) religion terrifies man with the prospect of eternal torment; which, though false, to the extent that it is believed, is a terrible detriment to man’s happiness; and 3) religion takes men’s mind and effort off of earthly goods, the only real goods, and man’s only chance for happiness in this life, the only one he gets.
 
So, it’s a long story to say how this happened and I don’t want to get too in the weeds here, but eventually, late modernity flips the script on parts of this.  Religion becomes damned not because it is terrifying but because it is alleged to be “comforting.”  Precisely the promise of eternal life and divine justice, both of which needless to say late modernity takes for granted are false, are attacked because they give man false hope.  Man must learn to face his forsakenness, his solitude, his existentially terrifying situation without any comforting delusion.  And it turns out that anything comforting is held to be an illusion, to the point that all truth is understood to be “bad.”  So, all the Socratic concern with the noble, the good, the just, etc.—which the tradition for 2,000 took very seriously and believed to be metaphysically real—late modernity discards all this as myth, along with religion.
 
This is the root of “probity” and it’s quite amazing to see how successful it has been.  E.g., the pop psych argument that noble deeds—such as charging into a burning building to save a little old lady—are essentially selfish because the rescuer only wants the praise, or perhaps the inner satisfaction of feeling like a hero.  But there is nothing noble about it because nobility doesn’t exist, it’s just a resplendent mirage thrown up by selfishness.   Amazingly cynical but what’s most amazing is the spectacle of a bunch of professed Christians essentially resorting to a profoundly anti-Christian argument with profoundly anti-Christian roots in order to attack a guy, whatever his faults, for trying to state an essentially hopeful Christian teaching.  It’s yet another sign of how fundamentally modern our entire intellectual framework is.
 
Which brings me to the other point.  King scored some good points about t the worst tendencies of the sphere comment zone.  But, let me stick to what I think is the most impotant point: the seemingly permanent witch hunt for “enemies” defined as people who deviate .001%.

I am something of a student of the New Left.  I really, really hate them with a mouth-frothing passion but I study them because I think they are important and influential.  One of their hallmarks was to attack with the greatest vigor those closest to them politically and intellectually.  They did not focus on their natural enemies but on their nominal (or natural or potential) friends.  That is the sphere, to a “T”.  Bill Bennett is a bigger villain that Betty Freidan.  Not that I think their criticisms of Bennett are without merit, but the feminist left hates and wants to destroy them whereas Bennett means well but is deluded.  Perhaps Bennett cannot be corrected but his followers and listeners could but certainly they will not be by the tactics now prevalent in the sphere.

I could understand this, sort of, a matter of intellectual or philosophical intransigence, the unwillingness to bend on certain points for the sake of comity or “being a good sport” or whatever.  But that is not what is at play here.  First of all, most of the discussion is simply not at that level.  Second, the vitriol is completely inconsistent with the “truth before friendship” spirit that Aristotle propounded before stating his disagreements with Plato (to cite the highest possible example).
 
I got into it once over the issue of natural right, which is what alerted me to the fact that something in the sphere is very seriously messed up.  Basically that is the idea that right and wrong exist by nature, independent of man’s will.  This was attacked with some vigor.  As if the God who created nature and pronounced the commandments somehow forged no connection between the two.  As if he created a natural world in which might makes right, but then commanded a righteousness based only on His word or will, which could be changed at a whim.  Aquinas of course saw it exactly the opposite way (as did Augustine, Dante and many others).  But the idea of natural right is now so lost to us that even devout Christians reject it and rail against it when it is by rights their birthright. To say nothing of the American founders (“nature and nature’s God”).

This is where it gets to the main point.  Modernity is the true enemy.  Modernity culminates in the rejection of natural right. It begins with the rejection of religion, proceeds to the rejection of teleology and culminates in the rejection of all morality.  The “Christian” rejection of natural right is really a product of modernity.  Christians who oppose natural right are influenced (really, corrupted) by modernity and they don’t realize it.  All the (just, correct) complaining that they do about “Churchianity” boils down to prelates following modernity rather than the Bible (and the Christian medievals).  But they themselves also have the same problem, to a lesser degree, certainly, but it is not absent.  The rejection of natural right is the core, the black heart, of modernity.  Any “Christian” who shares that outlook is fundamentally a modern and his faith is corrupted.

So, to turn briefly to the “what is to be done” question.  Cane Caldo (I think) made the argument that Western Civ should not be a concern of any serious Christian.  His argument played right into the hands of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Gibbon and the most effective and influential of the anti-Christians.  Basically he said that the next world is what matters, this world does not.  Well, that is EXACLTLY the argument that the early moderns made AGAINST Christianity.  It makes men fatalists and passive.  Indifferent to the here and now.  You can say, that’s an incorrect interpretation, and I won’t fight you.  But it’s a PLAUSIBLE interpretation, which is why it had great currency, both among Christianity’s nominal adherents and especially its determined enemies.

Because, let’s face it, the moderns won the argument.  Philosophy picked a fight with religion.  Religion didn’t know what hit it.  Religion lost.  At least, it lost in the temporal realm.  A believer would say, (Matt King often does say) it cannot lose in the final analysis because truth is truth and truth will out.  I can’t dispute that.

But it is indisputable that religion has lost in the temporal and has been losing for 500 years.  And, contra Cane, the temporal matters.

First, because, the Bible is to a very large extent a set of commands about how to behave in the temporal, in this life, on this earth, in the here and now.  So God rather obviously cares about that.  Thus it is absurd for man to say, only the next life matters, when God Himself says, “This is how you MUST behave in the earthly life.”  One might rejoin, “put not thy faith in princes,” etc., (which is really identical to the classical teaching on moderation, but leave that aside for now).  But that is not a case for disengagement but for realistic expectations about what is possible in the flawed world,  a world which is not yet and may never become fully Christian, and even if it did, will always be governed by flawed men.

Which leads to: disengagement makes the world worse, not better.  Disengagement may be prudentially necessary in certain circumstances, but it is never desirable for its own sake.  The more that God’s word is in retreat, the fewer people will live righteously here and be saved later.  How this is good or is what He wants is, to say the least, not evident.

Christianity then must be concerned with the temporal for the same reason that philosophy must. Its own health and even survival depends on it. Christianity “won” by engagement with “this world.”  It waged spiritual warfare against paganism and, to a lesser extent, against classical hedonism.  It won.  It did not sit on its ass or bitch on the ‘net (whatever the ancient equivalent might have been).

The moderns appropriated spiritual warfare and used it against Christianity.  The faith and especially its institutions proved too corrupt and sclerotic to resist.  The modern interpretation of course is that Christianity was false and was always false.  It was a “sect” like any other, of purely human origin, subject to the cycle of regimes.  It came into being, matured, and would inevitably die.  Modernity gave it a hard push, and more importantly, formulated its replacement.

In a way, Christianity’s situation today is analogous to its beginning.  It is once again the minority, a persecuted minority, persecuted more “softly” but not less intently.  And today it has a disadvantage that it didn’t have then: so many, perhaps even the majority, of people who now claim to be Christians are in fact moderns.  Whether they know it or not.  (And most do not.)  There is an “enemy within” today whereas in the beginning there was confidence and coherence.

Modernity is the true enemy.  Modernity is a perversion of philosophy.  This argument cannot be won on religious grounds alone.  Religion already lost.  It did not lose because it is false.  It lost because it was totally unequipped to fight the fight that was forced upon it.  Religion, as it were, brought a knife to a gun fight.

[EDIT:  For some reason I had omitted the conclusion to this, likely due to a transposition failure -- it follows now ...]

Victory in the temporal must be a philosophic victory.  It means overcoming the errors of modernity and returning to the true and correct understanding of philosophy, which is an ally of if not a brother to religious faith.

You could say that none of this matters because Christianity shows the truth and the true way and as such has “already won.”  But that, I think, is King’s deepest error.  Not that he is wrong about the fundamental point.  But he is wrong in the way he discounts the temporal.  The truth can lose in the temporal.  It already has.  And the temporal matters.  If the temporal is lost, all is not lost, to be sure, but far fewer people will have access the eternal.

Which is a tragedy.  For both Jesus and Socrates.

Finally, I note one thing that has preoccupied me for many years.  Machiavelli finished his two great books in 1517.  Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door in Wittenberg in 1517.  Whatever one may think of the Reformation, it is I think indisputable that as a practical matter that Luther’s action launched a fratricidal war that blinded Christendom to Wicked Nick’s atheistic spiritual war and weakened it in the face of its true enemy.

ALL our problems grew from these two fateful (and seemingly unrelated) acts.  There is no direct evidence that either knew of the other.  To the secularist, it appears to be the most amazing coincidence in the history of Western thought, or even in all of history.  To the believer, it appears to be the strongest evidence available of Satan’s power in the temporal realm.

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Xenophon’s Wisdom

Reader and commenter Escoffier has offered to write an interpretation of an excerpt from Xenophon‘s Memorabilia, a 4th Century BC collection of Socratic dialogues.

In this post, I am simply going to present the text itself.  Escoffier will be providing his reading of it in the next couple of days.

Enjoy!

——–

There was once a beautiful[1] woman in the city whose name was Theodote[2] and who was the sort to keep company with[3] whoever persuaded her.  When one of those who were present mentioned her and said that the beauty of the woman surpassed speech, and when he said that painters, to whom she displayed as much of herself as it was noble to display, visited her to draw her likeness, Socrates said, “We must go to behold her, for surely it is not possible for those who have merely heard to learn what surpasses speech.”  And the one who had described her said, “Hurry up and follow.”

Thus they went to Theodote and came upon her standing for a certain painter, and they beheld her.  After the painter left off, Socrates said, “Men, should we be more grateful to Theodote for displaying to us her beauty, or she to us because we beheld?  If the display is more beneficial to her, is it for her to be grateful to us, while if the beholding is more beneficial to us, for us to be grateful to her?”

And when someone said that what he said was just, he said, “She, then, already gains from our praise and will be the more benefited whenever we should report it to more people, while we already desire to touch what we have beheld and will go away rather excited and will long for what we have left behind.  From these things it is possible that it is we who serve and it is she who receive service.”

And Theodote said, “By Zeus,[4] if this is so, then it is I who should be grateful to you for the beholding.”

After this, Socrates—seeing that she herself was adorned in a costly manner and that her mother, who was with her, was dressed in served in no chance manner and that her maidservants were many and good-looking and that not even these were inattentively maintained and that her household was furnished with the other things in abundance—said, “Tell me, Theodote, do you own a farm?”

“Not I,” she said.

“How about a household with revenues?”

“Not a household either.”

“But some artisans, perhaps?”

“Not artisans either,” she said.

“Then what source do you have for your provisions?” he said.

“If someone who has become my friend wants to treat men well,” she said, “he is my livelihood.”

“By Hera[5], Theodote,” he said, “it is a noble profession indeed, and far better to possess a herd of friends than a herd of sheep, goats and cattle.  But,” he said, “do you entrust it to chance whether some friend will light on you, like a fly, or do you yourself contrive something?”

“How could I find a contrivance for this?” she said.

“It belongs much more, by Zeus, to you to do this than to spiders,” he said.  “You know how they hunt for things for their livelihood: for, of course, they weave fine webs and use whatever falls into them for sustenance.”

“Are you advising me too,” she said, “to weave some hunting net?”

“No, for you surely shouldn’t think that you will hunt so artlessly the prey that is worth the most: friends.  Don’t you see that even for rabbits, which are worth very little, hunters can craft many artifices?  For, since they graze at night, they procure for themselves dogs fit for nighttime hunting and hunt them with these.  And because they run away when it is day, they acquire other dogs who find the rabbits out by perceiving through scent the path they take from their grazing ground to their lair.  And because they are swift-footed enough to escape by running even when they are visible, they furnish themselves with still other dogs, swift ones, so that they may capture them by following on their heels.  And because some of them escape even from these, they set nets up on the paths through which they flee, so that when they fall into them they may become enmeshed.”

“So with what thing of this sort,” she said, “could I hunt friends?”

“By Zeus,” he said, “if instead of a dog you acquire someone who will track and find for you those who love beauty and are rich, and who, after finding them, will contrive to throw them into your nets.”

“And what sort of nets,” she said, “do I have?”

“To be sure, one that is indeed very entangling: your body,” he said.  “And in it a soul, through which you learn both how you might gratify with a look and delight with what you say; and that you must receive with gladness one who is attentive but shut out one who is spoiled; and that when a friend is sick, at least, to watch over him worriedly, and when he does something noble to be exceedingly pleased by it along with him; and to gratify with your whole soul the one who worries about you exceedingly.  I know very well that you know how to love, at any rate, in a manner not only soft but also well intentioned; and as to the fact that your friends are best for you, I know that you convince not only by speech but by deed.”

“By Zeus,” said Theodote, “I, for my part, contrive none of these things.”

“And yet,” he said, “it makes a big difference to approach a human being according to nature and correctly.  For to be sure you would neither take nor hold a friend by violence, but this prey is both captured and kept constant by means of benefaction and pleasure.”

“You speak truly,” she said.

“You must first, then,” he said, “require that those who worry about you do the sort of things that they will least regret doing, and then you yourself should then make a return by gratifying them in the same fashion.  For this way they would most become friends and love for the longest time and confer the greatest benefactions.  And you would most gratify them, if you should give of yourself to those who are in need.  For you see that even the most pleasant of foods, if someone offers it before there is desire, appears unpleasant and even provokes disgust in those who are satiated; but if someone offers it after inducing hunger, even if it is very common it appears quite pleasant.”

“How then,” she said, “would I be able to induce hunger in someone for what I have?”

“By Zeus,” he said, “if, first, you neither approach nor offer any reminder to those who are satiated until they stop being full and are in need again.  Then, if you offer reminders to those who are in need by means of the most decorous intimacy possible and by visibly wishing to gratify, yet fleeing—until they are most in need.  For it makes a big difference to give the same gifts at that point, rather than before they desire them.”

And Theodote said, “Why then, Socrates, don’t you become my fellow hunter of friends?”

“If, by Zeus,” he said, “you persuade me.”

“How, then, might I persuade you?” she said.

“You yourself will seek this out and will contrive it,” he said, “if you have some need of me.”

“Then visit often,” she said.

And Socrates, joking about his own lack of busyness, said, “But Theodote, it is not very easy for me to find leisure, for in fact many affairs both private and public deprive me of leisure.  And I also have female friends who will not allow me to leave them day or night, since they are learning love charms and incantations from me.”

“Do you understand these things as well, Socrates?” she said.

“Well,” he said, “why do you think Apollodorus here and Antisthenes[6] are never absent from me? And why do you think Cebes and Simmias are present from Thebes?  Know well that this hasn’t happened without many love charms, incantations and spells.”

“Then lend me the spell,” she said, “so that I might draw it first against you.”

“But by Zeus,” he said, “I myself do not wish to be drawn to you—but that you come to me.”

“Then I will go to you,” she said.  “Only receive me.”

“But I will receive you,” he said, “unless some female dearer than you is inside.”


1.  Translates the Greek word kalos, which has a variety of meanings in English, including “beautiful,” “fine” and “good.”  This ambiguity is a key feature of Xenophon’s writing and Socrates’ thought.  For instance, one of the other three of Xenophon’s Socratic writings, the Oeconomicus (or “Skilled Household Manager”) hinges on Socrates “discovery” that those who appear kalos on the outside are not necessarily kalos on the inside.

2.  Theodote was a famous courtesan or hetaira, sort of a high class whore or, if you want to be generous, a kind of escort/call girl/geisha.  To be distinguished from an ordinary prostitute (porne) who supplies sex only.  There was no bright line between a hetaira and a “kept woman” so the moral distinction based on any open transaction is ambiguous.  Athenian women (as was true of most Greek women) were expected to stay in the home most of the time and their education was poor.  Hetairai on the other hand were highly educated in music, the arts, and poetry.  Hence some sophisticated (and rich) Greek men felt that hetairai made more interesting companions than their own wives.   The most famous hetaira of all was Aspasia, mistress of Pericles.  Theodote herself eventually (later than the date of the dramatic action depicted here) became the mistress of Alcibiades.

3.  suneinai; ambiguous, can also imply sexual intercourse.

4.  Oaths are often overlooked in reading Socratic writings in both Plato and Xenophon but they are key to the dramatic action of the work.  In general, they convey the speakers’ emphasis and surprise.

5.  Hera was Zeus’ wife (and sister) and the goddess of women and marriage.  This oath would typically be used by women—see, e.g., Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen (155-156, 189-190), in which women disguising themselves as men give themselves away by the use of this oath.

6.  Two devoted followers of Socrates.  Apollodorus serves as the narrator of Plato’s Symposium.  Antisthenes was an early follower of the sophists but later “converted” to Socratic philosophy.

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Addendum on Yahoo!

Just a brief addendum to my post of a few days ago regarding Yahoo!‘s change in policy on telecommuting.

As it turns out, apparently CEO Marissa Mayer based the decision on a review of VPN logins which indicated that, in fact, the work-from-home crew wasn’t really working as much as the work-at-work crew, after all.  They were not logging in enough, and that is the basis of the change in policy — a need for increased productivity.

As I noted in my earlier post, this can be an issue, and so this piece of news comes as hardly a surprise to me.  Neither is the related bit of news that this change, rather than being a morale killer in general for people who work for Yahoo!, has actually been a morale booster for the majority who do not telecommute:

Likewise, we’re hearing from people close to Yahoo executives and employees that she made the right decision banning work from home.

“The employees at Yahoo are thrilled,” says one source close to the company.

“There isn’t massive uprising. The truth is, they’ve all been pissed off that people haven’t been working.”

Again, what I would expect to be the case.  Telecommuting boosts morale for those who are working (often less) from home, while it hurts the morale of those who are working (often more) in the office.  This underscores my belief that most of the whining about this on the internet has come from people who like to work from home themselves, knowing full well the costs and benefits of this to the company as a whole, and not from people who actually, you know, go to work every day.