The West’s Cultural Continuity: Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic tribal self-assertion in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term “Dark Ages” insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

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What is Reformed Theology?

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of the Calvinist system, as gathered from R. C. Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology?”, one of the books recommended to me.  Hopefully, this will be the first in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Protestant commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Reformed faith, rather than to criticize or defend it (except against definite misunderstandings, of which there are unfortunately many).]

Sproul’s book attempts to explain the distinctive tenets of Reformed theology.  It highlights differences with other Christians while avoiding a polemical tone.  (Sproul tries hard to be fair to Catholicism.  More often, he contrasts his classical Protestant positions with those of the Arminians; only they could say how fairly he characterizes them.)  This is just right for our purposes.

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Liberalism and Islam

I have been thinking about the coziness between Liberalism and Islam, which became evident about twenty seconds after the jihad attack on the World Trade Center, and now drives policy in the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Scandinavia.  A pair of complementary questions put themselves that I propose for a general discussion.

Does Liberalism embrace Islam, knowing that Islam is a religion and despite its active hostile attitude towards religion, as conceived by it categorically, solely because Liberalism has more animus against Christianity than it does towards Islam and therefore sees Islam as an ally in its campaign against Christianity?

Or…

Does Liberalism ally itself with Islam because it senses that Islam is not a religion, but is rather a secular ideology, utterly hostile to anything transcendent,  just like itself, and is therefore its perfect ally in the campaign against Christianity?

Why Modern Authorities are (Generally) Dishonest Manipulators

[This will not be news to most Orthosphere readers, but we need clear statements of basic principles to educate the young.]

Not all authorities are dishonest manipulators, of course, but the higher their rank, the more dishonest and manipulative they tend to be. And this is not just an unfortunate fluke. In the modern world authorities have to be manipulators. They have no real authority but they must somehow establish and maintain order, so manipulation is usually their only recourse.

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A bit of history: Until modern times (roughly, before the end of World War I), most people made most of their important decisions based largely on tradition and authority. “Tradition” means the ways of thinking and living they inherited from their ancestors, and “authority” means the teachings and the commands of people such as lords, kings, pastors and teachers. Tradition and the authorities were recognized as having the right to answer the important questions of life and to tell us, in broad terms, how we ought to live.

But now, thanks to the successful liberal takeover of the West, tradition and authority are greatly diminished.  The liberal jihad fights, in large part, under the banner of personal freedom, and in the modern world we are all supposed to be autonomous, self-actualizing freedmen who accept no authority not freely chosen and who are liberated from the tyranny of tradition. Continue reading

A Brief Story (With a Moral)

The priest of dwindling parish that is perpetually cash-strapped can no longer overlook the shabby appearance of the church, whose interior walls badly need a new coat of color.  He scrapes up a bit of money and purchases what he hopes will be gallons enough to do the job.  Halfway through the exercise, he sees that he has miscalculated, but he recalls from a few days ago that he had seen several tins of paint thinner in the basement, which he retrieves.  He extends the primary material and at last covers the final wall.  It does no good.  As the new layer dries the crummy-looking old layer shows through with a vengeance, even uglier than before.

At this moment a voice comes booming out of heaven: “Repaint, repaint,” it says, “and thin no more!”

The Liberal Cannot Stop Dancing

Long long ago, in another, an antediluvian world, way back in 2003, indeed so long ago that it was before Zippy Catholic became Zippy Catholic, he came up with the notion of the Hegelian Mambo in a comment thread over at VFR. This at least is how I recall that it happened. Zippy can correct the record, if he wishes. The basic idea is that liberal culture – composed as it is of left liberals and right liberals, of “progressives” and “conservatives” – must move always leftward: two steps left, one step right, or as Zippy put it:

Thesis step to the left,
Thesis step to the left,
Grab Antithesis on your right and step to the left,
Twirl around
Synthesize
cha cha cha

And step to the Left…

The rightward steps are feints only; they are accomplished via Auster’s Unprincipled Exceptions, and are entertained or undertaken only to obscure the absurdity of the two leftward steps.

The Hegelian Mambo may be understood as a repeated gyration of the liberal as he slides like a snowboarder down the Slippery Slope. It helps him keep a precarious balance, preventing his immediate crash. Thus it enables his continued steady progress toward the abyss.

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Are people getting better or worse at taking others’ perspectives?

Michael Shermer at Reason writes that mankind is being uplifted by a “moral Flynn effect”–not only are we much smarter than our ancestors; we are also much more moral, and the smarter among us are the most moral of all.  Of course, one’s opinion of this thesis will depend on whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral novelties of recent decades.  I’ll leave the critique of the writer’s biases and unwarranted assumptions to readers who feel they’re not getting enough practice at that sort of thing, limiting myself to a quibble over language.  I would say that the trend he describes is not so much men becoming more moral as men becoming more docile.  The very intelligent, I am willing to concede, are a very docile bunch, inclined neither to violent crime nor to questioning the reigning liberal dogmas, these being Shermer’s two measures of moral advance.  Docility is usually a good thing–heaven forbid I speak disparagingly of it!–but it is not quite the same thing as morality, a potentially wilder attribute.

What I’d really like to talk about is an interesting claim that comes up in the essay.  Shermer proposes an explanation for the connection between intelligence and morality:  intelligence helps us understand the perspective of others, which makes us treat them better.  Thus, the more intelligent of us have broader sympathies, and as the Flynn effect raises the general IQ, society as a whole becomes more compassionate and just.  Here we have an empirical claim that can stand apart from the ethical commitments of the writer.  One might even make this claim while remaining ambivalent on the moral value of perspective-shifting.  Traditionally, justice was seen as the “view from nowhere”; just sampling the different perspectives couldn’t reveal which one is right.  Compassion can be misdirected.  Failure to punish can be a defect of justice.  The more sympathetic party is not always the one in the right.

In fact, I doubt we are getting better at perspective-shifting.  My observations all go the other way.  It seems to me that modern men are uniquely lacking in the ability to assume other peoples’ perspectives, and in fact that they have gotten noticeably worse at it over the course of my own lifetime.

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The Order of Memory is the Order of Being

This is the third in a sequence of three essays examining aspects of reality from a Traditionalist perspective. The two previous essays took as their topics education and its relation to faith; and, the other, revelation and its relation to reality. The present essay, “The Order of Being is the Order of Memory,” assumes the conclusions of the two preceding essays, which it rehearses briefly in the first paragraph.

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In the Philosophical Fragments (1843) Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) explores the existential paradox that while men must live their lives forwards they can only understand their lives backwards. Kierkegaard’s observation is far from being an item of attention-grabbing rhetorical cleverness: It explains both the precariousness of cultural transmission across time and the difficulty of philosophical maturation in the individual; it also throws into brilliant clarity the absolute dependence of the individual on the line of cultural transmission. In his study of Order and History (1956 – 1986), Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985) carefully traces out and analyzes the historical process, which he calls “symbolization,” by which Western Civilization gradually and arduously constructed its adaptation to the absoluteness of reality, reaching an acme in Christian revelation only thereafter to embark on a long decline. In respect of Kierkegaard in the essay that I devoted to the Philosophical Fragments, I focused on education, arguing that modern education, which likes to teach to the test, is not truly education because education requires faith and modern educators have banished faith from the curricular horizon. (I referred not to any particular faith – but, as I wrote, to “the very structure of faith.”) In respect of Voegelin in the essay that I devoted to him, I focused on the modern rejection of revelation, arguing that phenomena are indistinguishable from apocalypse and that a rejection of revelation entails a rejection of reality. I characterized the modern rejection of reality, moreover, as a recrudescence of archaic cult-activity, complete with the scapegoat ceremony.

Voegelin’s “symbolization” is an activity, spiritual and intellectual, carried out “forwards,” but its beneficiaries only understand it “backwards.” In understanding the history of the symbols, indeed, the inheritor places himself thematically with respect to the endeavor; he acquires a relation to the past that transforms his notions both of himself and his social-temporal situation, enriching them and making them more real. In this way, readers may understand Kierkegaard and Voegelin as conducting complementary analyses. The former elucidates the way in which the individual subject, in opening himself to inherited experience, redefines himself; the latter elucidates the way in which the collective subject, opening itself to reality, creates cultural order and bequeaths it to posterity, so that later individuals might orient themselves with respect to that order. Both the individual and the collective forms of self-understanding concern memory, that function or organ of consciousness that permits the formation of identity and insures its continuity beyond a fleeting moment. The philosophical investigation of memory suggests furthermore that the Order of Being is the Order of Memory.

Ancient peoples regarded memory as divine or supernatural. Memory is thoroughly bound up in Antiquity with the Cult of the Dead, whose constituency cries out for commemoration. In ten-thousand-year-old Çatal Hüyük in Central Anatolia the dwellers lived in apartments built over the sepulchers of their ancestors. The past – in the form of the dead – was physically ever-present to those living people. At mealtimes, the dead ate around the hearth with the living, receiving blandishments of food and drink, as the documented custom elsewhere permits one to infer. For the archaic Greek poet Hesiod (Eighth Century BC), memory was not personal, but self-evidently transcendent and godlike. The Muses, who taught Hesiod about the generations and order of the gods, were the daughters of a personified Mnemosyne (“Memory”), their mother, and the chief Olympian deity Zeus, their father. In the Invocation of the Theogony, Hesiod, whose name translates as “the poet,” writes, “From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.”

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The Insatiable Maw that Devours Men & Nations

Some habits can be relatively benign, even when addictive: caffeine, the athlete’s highs, haute cuisine, tidiness. A benign addiction to coffee can tend to its own daily limit, where the marginal cup of coffee decreases the sought after acuity of thought that motivated the habit in the first place. And you can only run so many miles every day without crippling your ability to run.

Some habits – as prayer, music, discipline, training, courage, thoughtfulness, care, attention, gratitude – are virtuous, and incline us more and more to virtue in every department of life. Virtue is in itself, and in all its varieties, an addictive pleasure, that tends to the general increase of virtue and to the correction, harmony and vim of the whole organism. The virtuous addiction to prayer, for example, tends to permeate life, integrating, settling, and healing it.

Benign addictions then are self-limiting, while virtuous addictions salve and ennoble the whole person, more and more. Both sorts tend toward balance, toward what the Greeks called krasis – the just mixture of ingredients in a mixing bowl or Receptacle (a krater).   

But many addictions catch the addict in a vicious positive feedback loop wherein ever stronger doses of the addictive pleasure are needed in order to reproduce its characteristic hedonic effect. Eventually the doses, and the need for them, grow so large as to be all-consuming, toxic, and so eventually lethal, somehow or other: to the body, the balance sheet, the career, the family.

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A Father’s Advice to His Son on Becoming a Man, Part Four: the Dos and the Don’ts

[Part One.  Part Two.  Part Three.]

Be a Christian: Trust Jesus Christ

The Bible is not just an ancient holy book. It contains the words that God intended mankind to know in order have a right relationship with God and in order to have true wisdom about the world. According to the Bible, man’s greatest need is to have his sins forgiven through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, on account of Christ’s nature as both God and man and his work of living a sinless life and dying on the cross to take away our sins.

An important and necessary part of faith in Christ is knowing and believing what he taught. This is especially important these days, as the church (that is, the total of all Christian churches considered as one assembly of people) contains a great deal of bad and even false teaching about Christianity. Scripture itself, both Old and New Testament, warns Christians to guard against false teachers, false teaching, and “false Christs.” “False Christs” does not mainly mean people who falsely claim to be Jesus, although such people do exist. Instead, it mainly means false descriptions of Christ, false ideas about Christ, such as the idea that he is not God, or that he did not teach the necessity of faith in him for the forgiveness of our sins.

Therefore a good man studies Christian doctrine (teaching) so that he can recognize and reject false teaching, and so that he can hold more tightly to the true faith in Christ that saves him. But how exactly can one recognize false teaching? Continue reading