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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The Death of Eros: Higher Education in its Crisis

Flammarion Engraving II[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]

I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.

Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…

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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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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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Article of Interest

Michael Presley’s essay “Sorcerers and Warriors: The Initiatic Journey in Chinese Mythology” is currently the featured article at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  It will be of interest to readers of The Orthosphere.  Presley explores the Traditional meaning of two important Chinese folktales using an exegetical framework based on Marshal McLuhan’s theory of oral narrative.  Presley is interested, not only in the canonical narratives, but also in their recent adaptation to cinema.  The article is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/sorcerers-and-warriors-the-initiatic-journey-in-chinese-mythology/[.]  Presley’s knowledge of Chinese film, in its historical depth, is especially noteworthy.  I have been the beneficiary of it for a number of years.  Chinese cinema has long since surpassed Hollywood in the technicalities of film making and more than that, contemporary Chinese film is a department of moral narrative — a thing now entirely foreign to the American movie industry.

The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith

Thomas F. Bertonneau

This is the first in a series of three essays intended to critique selected aspects of the prevailing modern worldview of the West’s ubiquitous liberal regime. In the present essay, I am interested in the prevailing modern view of education; I argue that various pre-modern ways of understanding education address their topic with a good deal more penetration than that achieved by the modern view, which tends to insipidity. In a follow-on essay to this one I will address the question how revelation is related to reality; a third essay will devote itself to a discussion of memory considered as an institution.

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Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal

My latest at The Brussels Journal is an essay entitled “René Girard on the ‘Ontological Sickness.’” I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning to the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” this semester and found myself re-reading him with a good deal of renewed interest. Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” explains a good deal about modernity, especially about what is sometimes called “entitlement mentality.” In the essay, I try to show how this is so. The essay includes an interpretation of what I regard as one of the major modern parables about the “ontological sickness,” the HAL subplot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The link is http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5178

I offer a sample below.

In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of its every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”

The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation.

The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 – the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”