The Cuisine of Sacrifice

I recently finished another of my favorite sort of book, the sort that brings order and intelligibility to a mass of fascinating facts, many of them new to me: The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks. It is a collection of papers by European classicists and folklorists, mostly French, edited by the eminent scholars Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Three key insights inform everything in the book:

  1. In the ancient world, essentially all the meat available for consumption in human settlements was the fruit of sacrificial rites.
  2. Cookery and sacrifice were therefore aspects of the same procedure. Sacrifice was the way animals were slaughtered and butchered in preparation for cooking; cooking the meat was part of the sacrificial rite.
  3. Participation in the communal feast on the fruits of the sacrifice was the rite of social assimilation. To share the common meal was to declare loyalty to the cult, and to the settlement that it informed. To refuse participation – as with, e.g., vegetarian cults like that of the Pythagoreans – was to refuse membership in the community.

The book examines various aspects of animal sacrifice in myth, history, and down to the present day. It is well worth a read, if only for the factoids that litter its pages by the hundred. What follows are some of my marginal notes, organized not at all. Many of them are speculative; I do not present them as anything more than a record of suggestive associations that occurred to me in reading. Continue reading

Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

Gnosis 02 This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”

The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.

Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous. Continue reading

Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge


Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.

According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.

The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internally self-regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.

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The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology, as gathered from Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the second in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Orthodox 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 Orthodox faith, rather than to criticize or defend it.]

Lossky’s book was first published in French in 1944, so Thomist Catholicism is naturally the tradition to which he most often compares his own, and the “individual” vs. “person” craze of that era definitely left its mark.  These points of familiarity will aid western readers.  Lossky sometimes strikes me as too eager to assert differences between East and West, but the purpose is to explain rather than disparage, making it a good book for our purposes.

Lossky (and, I gather, much of the Eastern tradition) is ultimately motivated by a desire to defend two truths:  1) that God is utterly beyond our knowledge and comprehension, 2) and yet He does make Himself really and immediately accessible to us, especially in mystical experience.  God is both inaccessible and accessible, a seeming paradox that would probably please Lossky and the Eastern Fathers who inspire him.  His goal is to preserve antinomies rather than resolve them; the danger of contradiction worries him far less than that of premature epistemic closure, of replacing the real, incomprehensible God with some construction more amenable to the human mind.

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Gnosticism: Its Self-Representation

Gnosis 02Part I of this series posed the linked questions whether Eric Voegelin’s characterization of Gnosticism in his various books on the topic was valid – and whether, as Voegelin asserted, modernity, in the form of the liberal and totalitarian ideologies, could be understood as the resurgence of ancient Gnosticism. The purpose of Part I was not to furnish definitive answers to those questions, but rather to explore two critiques of Gnostic doctrine from Late Antiquity. These were the essay Against the Gnostics by the Third-Century Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and the discussion in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Books III, IV, and V) of the Manichaean religion, a late variant of Gnosticism. The exposition concluded that the two accounts of Gnosticism although written more than a century apart (Augustine being subsequent to Plotinus) were convergent and largely similar. The argument did not propose that Plotinus and Augustine, in their critiques, anticipate Voegelin, but readers might justly have inferred that as a tacit thesis.

The present essay addresses Gnosticism by examining it in its own terms. It is certainly provocative that two ancient writers, separated by a tumultuous century-and-a-half should have arrived at essentially the same assessment of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, this similitude in the judgment might be because both authors are prejudiced in the same way; thus their agreement could erroneous or bigoted. After all, as the father of modern Gnosticism-scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), averred, the Gnostics were formidable thinkers, masters of confabulation, and connoisseurs of a wide variety of religions, including but by no means confined to Judaism and Christianity. Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy.

What follows concerns itself with details of four Gnostic documents: The Tri-Partite Tractate, usually attributed to Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus; The Origin of the World, of anonymous authorship; The Gospel of Truth, by Valentinus; and Zostrianos, also of anonymous authorship – all of which come from the so-called Nag Hammadi documents and all of which belong to the mid-Second Century or slightly later. Zostrianos likely influenced Mani (216-276) when he was writing his own scripture in the Third Century.

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What is to be Done? Samizdat Classical Education

The most effective thing that we can still do to conserve our civilization is raise and educate our own children in the way that they should go. Shortly after the Orthosphere began operating in early 2012, I posted an item about the superiority of homeschooling. But what about middle and secondary school? What about college?

Two of our most luminous and percipient writers, both themselves professors – Anthony Esolen and Roger Scruton – have recently posted on these questions.

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Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Continue reading

Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic

INTRODUCTION: Plato’s Symposium is one of the author’s middle-period dialogues composed, according to scholarship, sometime between 385 and 370 BC, some thirty years at least after the event that it commemorates, taking advantage of its temporal remoteness to capture a moment of the past as objectively as possible. Some commentators – F. M. Cornford, for example – have yoked the Symposium with the Republic. Like the Republic, the Symposium takes as one of its themes the proclivity or proclivities of the soul. With the Phaedrus, the Symposium, both by itself and through the medium of Neo-Platonist commentary, exerted enormous influence on Christian philosophy, especially its theory of the soul. Thus in Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony (356), readers find the desert monk describing the desire of the awakened soul for union with God in metaphors that would not disturb the text of the Symposium were they to be inserted there. When the religious contemplative focuses on “the source and origin of happiness,” it happens that, “our mind… becomes gentle and calm, illuminated by the angels’ light,” whereupon, “the soul, aflame with the desire for heavenly reward, breaks… from its dwelling in the human body” and “hastens towards heaven.”

Certain hazards attend the study of Plato’s dialogues. Often the declared topic yields in the dialectical exchange to a new topic, attained by subtle processes of association that are not obvious on a first reading. The previous topic never disappears, but finds its sublimation in the new topic, which now contains it even as it supersedes it. The reader must keep the parallel strands in mente while making progress through the text, or the meaning will vanish. Such is the case in the Symposium, where the announced topic is Eros or Love, but where the necessary topic turns out to be beauty, and finally the Absolute Beauty, the celestial magnet that draws Love from the earthly towards the heavenly realm, just as it does in Athanasius’ biography of the saintly Anthony. Indeed, Love and Beauty barely exhaust the range of themes and topics of the dialogue. Structurally, memory is a theme, just as, again in an unspoken way, the hubris and nemesis of Athens in trying to impose its hegemony over Greece are themes.

In considering the Symposium, sensitive readers should keep some historical dates, relevant to the dialogue’s composition, in mind: The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC); Agathon’s First Prize in the Tragic Competition (416 BC); the Athenian genocide against the Melians (415 BC); the failure of Athenian campaign against Sicily, led by Alcibiades (413 BC); Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta (413 BC); the end of the Peloponnesian War – the Athenian surrender and the Spartan occupation (404 BC); the trial and execution of Socrates (399 BC); and finally the composition of the Symposium (between 385 – 370 BC). The war, which is in progress, midway through its course, provides the haunting background of the dialogue, all the more so because no one on the occasion refers to it. The coincidence that the discussion of Love occurs in the same twelvemonth as Melian massacre demands to be considered. The silence becomes almost deafening.

Sensitive readers should also keep in mind that the participants in the dialogue belong to the opinion-setting elite of Athenian society, who, in assembly, voted to sustain the war, one of whom, Alcibiades, directly urged the genocidal punishment of the Melians when they refused to be incorporated in the Athenian League. In Plato’s authorship, the individual dialogues rarely yield their full meaning when taken in isolation. The dialogues collectively tell the story, not only of Socrates, but of Athens, in the second half of the Fifth Century BC. Plato traces out a pattern of large-scale spiritual and political causality in which the moral character of opinion-makers and trend-setters determines the fate of their nation. Plato criticized the myth-poets, but in his epic of Athens he might well be illustrating what Zeus tells Athene in Homer’s Odyssey, Book I: “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly.” The discussion will return to these opening observations in the “Remarks” after the exploration of the dialogue. The discussion assumes no detailed familiarity with Plato’s text, but only an educated person’s general awareness of it. Summary and commentary accompany one another. The quotations come from Benjamin Jowett’s translation, which is widely available.

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