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.


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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Nominalism on Steroids

If as the libertines insist sex has no inherent meaning of its own regardless of what we might think, then it can mean “only” whatever we happen to think. Say with modernity that it were so. In the first place, then, a sexual act that had been at first understood by the participants as agreeable, and indeed urgently desired by all of them, might later be understood retrospectively by one or another as rape (or vice versa, for that matter); and no assessment of its sexual meaning at any time, by any one, could be rightly construed as in any sense true. But in the second, the inherent meaninglessness of the sexual act would entail the utter vacuity of the term “rape,” as denoting a peculiarly sexual crime. Rape would then be an empty category, and reduce to the more basic, asexual category  of assault.

But assault is likewise vulnerable to a similar nominalist reduction to morally meaningless contact: not inherently problematic, but only subjectively so. I.e., not really problematic at all. It’s just atoms meaninglessly hurrying about, nothing more.

Under a nominalist epistemology, no juridical procedure then can ever arrive at a verdict that can be properly characterized as such – as, literally, a true speech (vere dictum). If there’s no truth about acts in the first place, such truths cannot be apprehended or spoken of, nor therefore may there be any justice done about them. But if justice be impossible, so is society. All that is then available to us from each other is war.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

The Structure of Reality is the Structure of Revelation

This essay follows a previous one on the relation of education to faith; it is the second of three essays intended to critique the prevailing modern worldview of the West’s ubiquitous liberal regime by demonstrating the narrowness and insipidity of liberal views. I argued in “The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith” in favor of several pre-modern ways of viewing education. I rehearse that gesture again, this time in respect of the prevailing modern sense of the encompassing reality in the context of which people must live their lives. A third essay, following this one, will deal with memory considered as an institution.

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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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The Proper Terminus of Any Science

Explanations, and the understandings they mediate, must all terminate (at least in principle) upon *some singularity or other* if they are to hang together – if they are to succeed as explanations by satisfying our urge to understand. This is as true for explanations of singular phenomena as it is for explanations of regularities. Science then, of any sort, has no alternative but to adduce some singularity or other as the original fact or truth at the basis of all others. The terminus ad quem of the scientific project must be an account of the terminus a quo of all things: a terminal singularity. This, whether the posited singularity be a historical event such as the Big Bang, or a fundamental equation that can work as a Theory of Everything, or what have you.

But only one sort of terminal singularity can ultimately succeed – not at completing inquiry, for (per Gödel) that completion is not possible to finite beings, but rather at satisfying them that things cohere intelligibly. Only one sort of terminal singularity can set the scientist’s mind finally and fully at ease.

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A perfect language

Two visions of a perfect language:

  1. A perfect language should be spare and clear.  Ambiguity and obfuscation should be made impossible or at least very difficult.  It should dissipate word game-induced confusion and allow reasoning in a straightforward, almost mechanical, way.
  2. A perfect language should be expansive and evocative.  It should provide the resources to capture every experience and intuition, every shade of meaning.  Far better to allow the possibility of confusion than to linguistically cut oneself off from a genuine aspect of the world and the human condition.

Analytic and Continental philosophy are divided by adherence to the different visions.  Do we dissolve philosophical puzzles by linguistic therapy, like Wittgenstein?  Does this mean removing pseudo-problems or just taking away the tools for expressing real problems?  Or do we, like Hegel, seek a grand synthesis in which every conflicting intuition can find its home?  This also has dangers, because attempts to “eff the ineffable” (as Roger Scruton once put it) often fall back on vagueness, and it really is possible to lose oneself in a fog of metaphors.

Liberalism is an attempt at a spare political language, one that cuts through problems by eliminating words and the ideas that go with them.  Politics is indeed simplified when one is not allowed to talk about anything other than equal preference satisfaction.  Justice becomes for Rawls a constrained maximization problem, no different than the ones engineers solve all the time.  There is the price that one may only have arbitrary, private preferences, but liberalism disallows the language one would need to criticize this, making it an elegantly closed system.  Russell Kirk’s conservatism of prudence, on the other hand, may do a good job of evoking certain political virtues misplaced by the modern world, but it is too vague to be used as an impartial analytic tool.  (For example, has any traditionalist ever given a criterion, one that could be applied by any third party to give the same result, as to when a proposed reform is prudent vs. a utopian effort to build heaven on earth?)  It’s application is next to arbitrary.

Scholasticism attempts a compromise practice between the two schools of modern philosophy:  openness to the whole of reality–even though it means dealing in subtleties–while demanding the sort of clarity needed for the laws of logic to operate.  It attempts to do this by making very fine distinctions, even at the risk of being cumbersome.  In theology, the students of Aquinas and Scotus–and, for that matter, Calvin–have an austerity to them, a refusal to be carried along by pious sentiment past where their “data” will go, that I find beautiful.  They strike me as being men of firmer faith than their more extravagant contemporaries, because they act like they care about what is actually true.  Did Balthasar really believe that Christ descended into an otherwise-empty hell, or was it just for him a good story that expressed his own religious enthusiasm?  The ratio of real evidence gathering and reasoning to opaque verbiage does not inspire confidence.

One might say that we at the Orthosphere are attempting to practice a scholastic politics.

How to Become an American Traditionalist, Part Seven: Responding to the Intuitive Skeptic

[Part OnePart Two.   Part ThreePart FourPart FivePart Six.]

We’ve been saying that traditionalism reconnects man with the wisdom of his ancestors, that the most important wisdom is to acknowledge God, and that intuition is the foundation of wisdom. But what about the liberal who refuses to acknowledge the order of being?

Or, more generally, what about the man who denies what intuition suggests? The most basic truths are known through intuition but since intuition sometimes seems irrational, not based on clear-cut data and sharply-defined modes of logical reasoning, the man who wants to deny an intuitive truth can easily fool himself into thinking that since “it isn’t supported by evidence” (or so he thinks), it must not be true.

Consider a simple example that is nevertheless a paradigm for all valid intuitive knowledge: The existence of your consciousness. If someone challenged you by saying “Prove to me that your consciousness exists,” how would you respond? Continue reading

The Ontological Arguments

Once and Future Traditionalist blogger and orthospherean Casey Ann, now on hiatus from her doughty online efforts so that she can concentrate on college, recently commented on a post from 2013 in which I offered an ontological argument for the existence of God, asking for help with the covalent ontological arguments of St. Anselm of Canterbury and of Alvin Plantinga. She wrote:

I’m currently suffering through a Philosophy of Religion course (the democratic nature of these courses is sickening), and we have just gone over the cosmological arguments, arguments from design, the ontological arguments, and their respective criticisms. I’m writing an essay about which I prefer and discussing its strengths and weaknesses. I immediately go toward the ontological argument per St. Anselm, which I have loved for years now. The problem is that each time I study it I find myself peering at it through seemingly various aspects that become obscure to me as the next one approaches (this also could be linked to sleep issues, but anyway). I would love to get your perspective on it. What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it? Can a Thomist use the ontological argument? Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm? How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being? Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously). Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga? I’m very unfamiliar with analytic philosophy, so I hardly even tried to tackle his writing on it. I wrote on a paper for a concise summary of his argument, “If it is possible for God to exist, then it is impossible for God not to exist,” and yesterday morning it CLICKED, wonderfully (but at the same time I feel as though there’s a strange gap between the two statements that I need to work out). Is it possible to reconcile this with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)? What about Aquinas? Please, Kristor, don’t be vague (not to say that you tend to be); I really could use your help even from a personal position. Thank you.

The rest of this post is my response.

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Nominalism contra Everything

The modern crisis all goes back to nominalism. The modern muddlings of clear definitions, confusions of really and essentially different things, and denials of essences or definitions in the first place are all outworkings of the nominalist turn. Once suppose that categories are merely conventional, that universals are merely nominal, that life is never simply black or white, but rather only shades of grey, and you find yourself on a steep and slippery slope to chaos.

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How to Become an American Traditionalist, Part Six: Other Authorities

[Part OnePart TwoPart Three.  Part FourPart Five.]

Recall from the previous parts that traditionalism reconnects man with the wisdom of his ancestors, that the most important wisdom is to acknowledge God, and that intuition is the foundation of wisdom. Recall also that man also needs revelation and personal repentance in order to be wise, and that once he has begun to repent of liberalism he is ready to find teachers of wisdom.

We have said that man can know the answers to many of his deepest questions or, in other words, that he can know the basic nature of the order of being, through his intuition. Since intuition can be corrupted or obscured, man needs to have these intuitions articulated, guided, and affirmed by authorities. And the highest authority is the Bible, God’s Word.

But there are other religious authorities. The Bible is not the only Christian authority. It is the highest (and the only infallible) authority, but you will need creeds and confessions, pastors and bishops, teachers and theologians to guide you. To become wise about God, you will need eventually to join one of the existing Christian traditions. Continue reading