My article on Conformism and Crowd-Violence (subtitled “When the Majority is really a Mob”), appearing at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website, should appeal to readers of The Orthosphere. The article begins with a discussion of René Girard, specifically of his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), from which it moves into a consideration of texts by Seneca (his Seventh Letter) and Saint Augustine (the anecdote of his friend Alypius at the gladiatorial games). Along the way I discuss the parallels between ancient mob-phenomena and what, in modern politics, is called “community organization.” I offer a sample below –
Seneca’s vocabulary anticipates many an observation that Girard makes about the category of the sacred, first that, being collective, the sacred belongs to the mob (that is to the lynch mob) and next that it is contagious. “From the outset of this study,” Girard remarks in Violence and the Sacred, “I have regarded violence as something eminently communicable.” Taking antique discourse seriously where the modern mentality sees it merely as mythic, Girard notes that “at times it is impossible to stay immune from violence.” Again: “The sacred consists of all those forces whose dominance over man increases or seems to increase in proportion to man’s efforts to master them.” From Seneca’s perspective the size of the crowd correlates with its infectiousness, a large crowd being indicative of an especially virulent infection. Rubbing elbows with the vulgate, as Seneca writes, leaves one “bedaubed” by its toxicity. But does Seneca, foreshadowing Girard, associate crowds and violence? The answer is yes and in investigating [the matter] we shall see how Seneca’s discourse differs from Philostratus’ discourse when they both write about theaters and theatrics.
The British writer Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) died last night in Cornwall just before midnight, local time. Wilson, who became a celebrity at twenty-six on the publication of his first book The Outsider in 1956, was a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics from philosophy, with special attention to existentialism, to literature, history, and the occult. Wilson was never what one might call a traditionalist, but he was an inveterate critic of modernity and a defender of religion against its materialist-positivist detractors. Wilson’s authorship encompassed both fiction and nonfiction. In fiction, he exploited genre-formulas in ingenious ways, as in his first and in many ways most ambitious novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960). His science fiction The Space Vampires was adapted to the silver screen by Tobe Hooper under the title Life Force in the mid-1980s, but the adaptation did little credit to its author. Ritual in the Dark, several times optioned for cinema, regrettably never made it to the screen, large or small. Wilson, an impressive autodidact, developed a core of devoted readers who took many cues from his intellectual independence and admired him for the nonconformist freedom witnessed by his contrarian interests.
An excellent introduction to Wilson’s thinking is the immediate sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel (1957), whose chapters on literature, history, and philosophy constitute an important polemic against the deadening cultural assumptions of the mid-Twentieth Century. Wilson had befriended Albert Camus just before the latter’s fatal automobile accident. Wilson’s work may be seen as an Anglo-Saxon parallel to Camus’ work although Wilson, in contrast to Camus, was never distracted by politics.
Given its urban American and Jewish heritage, one would not expect broadway musicals to show much sympathy for traditional communities. But because this art form is generally popular and apolitical, some truth can often sneak in. Consider two deservedly famous musicals, The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof. Both present more-or-less traditional communities: a small town in Iowa and a Jewish village in the Russian Empire, both around the turn of the twentieth century. Interestingly, both are sometimes accused of presenting these communities in an idealized, nostalgic way.
My good friend-and-colleague at SUNY Oswego, Richard Cocks, who teaches on the Philosophy Faculty, has a discussion of the contradictoriness of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Existentialism at Angel Millar’s always-provocative People of Shambhala website. The article is succinct. I strongly recommend it to aficionados of The Orthosphere. The article is entitled “Nietzsche: Allure and Misunderstanding on the Left and Right.”
Here is a sample:
The saint of acceptance tries to accept everything as a consequence of unconditional love. But when he tries to accept Nature, he finds endless death and no mercy. Better and worse. Strong and weak. Out of love and compassion he will send the weak to the gas chambers and deny their pleas for help because in not accepting their fate, the weak are rejecting LIFE. They must be shown the light. Those who seek to protect the weak are the naysayers.
My article on ancient atomism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website. In particular, I undertake a reading of Lucretius’s great poem On the Nature of Things, a strange mixture of bold speculation that anticipates modern physics and cosmology more interesting perhaps for its fairly concerted critique of sacrificial religion. I offer a sample –
Posterity knows only a little about Lucretius and much of what it knows it gleans from autobiographical references in his poem. The poem itself is paradoxical. Alleging to explicate, for the sake of a potential recruit, the scientific truths discovered by Epicurus, the truths that will redeem life for the one who accepts them, On the Nature of Things couches itself in the language of insistent evangelism, making of its intellectual hero, as George Santayana noted in his study of Lucretius in Three Philosophical Poets, a secular saint. The poem attests a powerful experience on the part of its author, which can only be described as spiritual conversion, which he then wishes to foster in another. Already in the generation just after Epicurus, his followers acquired the habit of referring to him under the honorific of soter or “savior,” an etiquette that imitated in turn a propaganda device of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasts. Lucretius, whose time and place knew the afflictions of political breakdown, picks up this thus slightly tainted habit.
I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did. I told that to somebody at breakfast the other mornin and they asked me if I believed in Satan. I said Well that aint the point. And they said I know but do you? I had to think about that. I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I’m startin to lean back the other way. He explains a lot of things that otherwise dont have no explanation.
The current number of The University Bookman devotes some of its space to a symposium on the “summer reading” of its contributors. (R. J. Stove points out that it is winter in Australia, but he participates anyway.) It occurs to me that The Orthosphere could do worse than to imitate The Bookman. I therefore invite “Orthospherians” to say something informally about their summertime reading projects. Continue reading →
Introduction. Paul Johnson, usually acute, prejudices the case against Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the chapter that he devotes to the instigator of modern drama in his Intellectuals (1993), where the author of Emperor and Galilean (1873) keeps company with the likes of Karl Marx, Berthold Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman. Johnson can classify Ibsen under the pejorative label of an “intellectual” only by ignoring Ibsen’s text and concentrating on the biographical details, which indeed make their subject look like a contemptible piece of work. This criticism of Johnson by no means invalidates Johnson’s definition of an “intellectual.” On the contrary, Johnson has defined the “intellectual” brilliantly and his treatment of the phenomenon must bear instructively on any analysis of Ibsen’s play about Julian the Apostate. According to Johnson, the “intellectual,” who appears first in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a politically committed character for whom “a utopian, socialist future [is] plainly a substitute for a religious idealism in which he [cannot] believe.” An intellectual is often the master of a narrow slice of specialized knowledge who, however, feels “no incongruity in moving from [his] own discipline… to public affairs.” Yet when examined closely, even the specialized knowledge of the intellectual, his peculiar theory, tends to be unconvincing and perverse – a type of pleading by the person to himself to protect his theory from inconvenient facts and to preserve his vision of himself as someone qualified to “counsel humanity.” Writing specifically of Rousseau, Johnson remarks that intellectuals see themselves, not as “servants or interpreters of the gods but [as] substitutes” – that is, of both the gods or God and the sacerdotal clerisy. Johnson writes of that “most marked [of the] characteristics of the new secular intellectuals,” namely “the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny.”
For those who take an interest, Angel Millar has published my essay on Gustave Flaubert’s “Herodias,” a tale of John the Baptist, and one of the Three Tales (1877), at his People of Shambhala website. We think of Flaubert as the consummate social novelist (Madame Bovary  and A Sentimental Education ), but he was also, despite not being much of a believer, a powerful religious thinker (Salammbo  and The Temptation of Saint Anthony ).