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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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!

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.

Krasis & Askesis; Justice & Purity

Justice is krasis: the proper mixture of things, according to the pertinent formal recipe (as in a mixing bowl, a krater (cf. Plato’s Receptacle and our “crater”), a word present in our “theocracy” and “democracy” and “bureaucracy”) that a thing enacts as it becomes. But krasis is possible only in the absence of any accretions that ought not to be present in a thing. Any such accretions drive out what ought to be present in a thing; for, there is only so much room in things. The purpose of askesis, then, is to eliminate from life and from oneself all the accretions that have built up since birth, and that interfere – or could or might interfere – with justice. When we pray that a man may proceed through life “unspotted from the world,” we ask that his adventures may not prompt deformations of his character that push it further away from its original justice by way of such accretions – such deformations being the “spots.”

Properly done, askesis is comparable to the process that we undergo in chiropractic, when the deformities that cascade from an initial compensation for the pain of a wound are worked out of the body. It is also comparable to the ideal of psychoanalysis, in which accumulated neuroses are unwound one by one, until the psyche is restored to its initial pure unblemished equilibrium.

All of this triggered by contemplation of the purity of the ocean; the purity of nature, as compared with man and his societies. In wild nature, unjust accretions are eliminated quickly as the whole system homeostatically seeks equilibrium – krasis. In domesticated nature, it can take a bit longer.

Ritual Purity With & Without God

The Social Gospel, the activities of Social Justice Warriors, Political Correctness, electioneering, and the like (and their counterparts on the right side of the aisle) are all desperate and in the end bootless Pharisaical ritual purifications, undertaken to assuage the universal feeling of having done less well than one might have. They fail, in the first place because scapegoating never provides more than a few minutes of emotional relief, and in the second because they involve no inward purgation, and a fortiori no sort of metanoia, which is the only thing that can salve the sick conscience and repair the wounded mind. They wash the outside of the bowl, but not the inside.

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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!”

No Way Out But In

A proposition that cannot be carried into practice at all cannot be true. An act that cannot be implemented in actuality must be somehow incoherent: self-refuting – for example, you can’t mean it when you say, “this statement is a lie” – or a contradiction in terms either simple or implicit – e.g., there’s just no way to implement “2 + 3 = 4,” for it is a contradiction in terms. That such propositions can’t work logically means that they can’t work in practice.

But a proposition that can be carried into practice might be true. E.g., “It is best not to defer gratification.”

When we sin, we assert one or more of a number of propositions:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. God is not omniscient.
  3. God is amoral.
  4. The world is amoral.
  5. God does not care whether I behave well or not, nor does the world.
  6. Whether or not God cares about my behavior does not matter (to me, at least).

And so forth. When we misbehave, we effectually attest to our belief in at least one of these propositions, or else in one of a number of other propositions like them. And to attest belief in propositions is to testify to their truth, and so is to urge their truth: behavior is an effectual proposal for how it might be well to behave.

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Value is Conserved

I have long been intrigued by the conservation laws. Conservation of energy, momentum, charge, and so forth all seem to point to a more basic conservation, of which they are all instances. I was therefore interested to read in Bill Dembski’s latest book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information, his discussion of Conservation of Information in search routines. He has apparently demonstrated (I have not read the demonstrations, which appear in the technical literature he cites in the book) that increasing the likelihood of a successful search – i.e., a search that has an object and finds it – over and above the walk of a blind drunkard who is not looking for anything in particular may be accomplished only through additional investment of information in the search routine. This can be done in a number of ways: by a more comprehensive specification of the configuration of the object, or by adding a feedback circuit to the algorithm, or by adding strange attractors to the configuration space (so that the environment of the search itself embodies more information) or some other similar measure. But any such improvements of search efficiency – of the likelihood of success – come at a cost of their own: it takes information to inform the search. At best, then, informed search will cost just as much as blind search, and cannot cost less. But then also if the information added to the routine is not essentially perfect – free of noise and error – then the addition will cost more information than it saves: the overall cost of the search, plus the cost of the search for the improvements to that search, will exceed the cost of random wandering about the configuration space.

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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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