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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Liberalism and Islam

I have been thinking about the coziness between Liberalism and Islam, which became evident about twenty seconds after the jihad attack on the World Trade Center, and now drives policy in the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Scandinavia.  A pair of complementary questions put themselves that I propose for a general discussion.

Does Liberalism embrace Islam, knowing that Islam is a religion and despite its active hostile attitude towards religion, as conceived by it categorically, solely because Liberalism has more animus against Christianity than it does towards Islam and therefore sees Islam as an ally in its campaign against Christianity?

Or…

Does Liberalism ally itself with Islam because it senses that Islam is not a religion, but is rather a secular ideology, utterly hostile to anything transcendent,  just like itself, and is therefore its perfect ally in the campaign against Christianity?

Why Modern Authorities are (Generally) Dishonest Manipulators

[This will not be news to most Orthosphere readers, but we need clear statements of basic principles to educate the young.]

Not all authorities are dishonest manipulators, of course, but the higher their rank, the more dishonest and manipulative they tend to be. And this is not just an unfortunate fluke. In the modern world authorities have to be manipulators. They have no real authority but they must somehow establish and maintain order, so manipulation is usually their only recourse.

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A bit of history: Until modern times (roughly, before the end of World War I), most people made most of their important decisions based largely on tradition and authority. “Tradition” means the ways of thinking and living they inherited from their ancestors, and “authority” means the teachings and the commands of people such as lords, kings, pastors and teachers. Tradition and the authorities were recognized as having the right to answer the important questions of life and to tell us, in broad terms, how we ought to live.

But now, thanks to the successful liberal takeover of the West, tradition and authority are greatly diminished.  The liberal jihad fights, in large part, under the banner of personal freedom, and in the modern world we are all supposed to be autonomous, self-actualizing freedmen who accept no authority not freely chosen and who are liberated from the tyranny of tradition. Continue reading

The Liberal Cannot Stop Dancing

Long long ago, in another, an antediluvian world, way back in 2003, indeed so long ago that it was before Zippy Catholic became Zippy Catholic, he came up with the notion of the Hegelian Mambo in a comment thread over at VFR. This at least is how I recall that it happened. Zippy can correct the record, if he wishes. The basic idea is that liberal culture – composed as it is of left liberals and right liberals, of “progressives” and “conservatives” – must move always leftward: two steps left, one step right, or as Zippy put it:

Thesis step to the left,
Thesis step to the left,
Grab Antithesis on your right and step to the left,
Twirl around
Synthesize
cha cha cha

And step to the Left…

The rightward steps are feints only; they are accomplished via Auster’s Unprincipled Exceptions, and are entertained or undertaken only to obscure the absurdity of the two leftward steps.

The Hegelian Mambo may be understood as a repeated gyration of the liberal as he slides like a snowboarder down the Slippery Slope. It helps him keep a precarious balance, preventing his immediate crash. Thus it enables his continued steady progress toward the abyss.

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Are people getting better or worse at taking others’ perspectives?

Michael Shermer at Reason writes that mankind is being uplifted by a “moral Flynn effect”–not only are we much smarter than our ancestors; we are also much more moral, and the smarter among us are the most moral of all.  Of course, one’s opinion of this thesis will depend on whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral novelties of recent decades.  I’ll leave the critique of the writer’s biases and unwarranted assumptions to readers who feel they’re not getting enough practice at that sort of thing, limiting myself to a quibble over language.  I would say that the trend he describes is not so much men becoming more moral as men becoming more docile.  The very intelligent, I am willing to concede, are a very docile bunch, inclined neither to violent crime nor to questioning the reigning liberal dogmas, these being Shermer’s two measures of moral advance.  Docility is usually a good thing–heaven forbid I speak disparagingly of it!–but it is not quite the same thing as morality, a potentially wilder attribute.

What I’d really like to talk about is an interesting claim that comes up in the essay.  Shermer proposes an explanation for the connection between intelligence and morality:  intelligence helps us understand the perspective of others, which makes us treat them better.  Thus, the more intelligent of us have broader sympathies, and as the Flynn effect raises the general IQ, society as a whole becomes more compassionate and just.  Here we have an empirical claim that can stand apart from the ethical commitments of the writer.  One might even make this claim while remaining ambivalent on the moral value of perspective-shifting.  Traditionally, justice was seen as the “view from nowhere”; just sampling the different perspectives couldn’t reveal which one is right.  Compassion can be misdirected.  Failure to punish can be a defect of justice.  The more sympathetic party is not always the one in the right.

In fact, I doubt we are getting better at perspective-shifting.  My observations all go the other way.  It seems to me that modern men are uniquely lacking in the ability to assume other peoples’ perspectives, and in fact that they have gotten noticeably worse at it over the course of my own lifetime.

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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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Doubly Mendacious Shepherds

It’s not just that our shepherds cry wolf when there is no wolf. They do so all the time, of course, and it is in them quite a wicked dereliction of their duty. But in these latter days we mostly ignore their specious turmoils. So inured are we now to their falsehoods that they must bark more and more loudly just to get our attention.

That they falsely howl wolf is bad enough. But it is not even the half of their treason. For, they also stubbornly insist that the wolves really present among us, ravaging the flock, are not there, or are not really wolves – or, worst of all, that we ourselves are the wolves.

How long before the sheep realize that the shepherds themselves are numbered among the wolves? Will we awaken to our danger before we reach the lip of the abyss toward which they now herd us?

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!

Pulling a Location

The most worldly man I know, brilliant, effervescent, wildly gay (in both senses of the word), generous to a fault, impishly funny, cynical and compassionate, utterly depraved, abandoned in and relishing his slavery to sins – sins that soon killed him – was chatting with me once long ago about a mutual acquaintance, who had surprised all of us who knew him by moving on the spur of the moment to New Orleans. “Seems like something out of the blue,” said I. “He’s pulling a location,” said he. I looked at him quizzically. “It’s an AA term,“ he explained, “for a standard move addicts make shortly before they hit bottom. They try to solve their problems by changing their location – moving to a new town, far away. They figure a fresh start is all they need to get off on the right foot, and stay on the right track. It never works. Their problems have nothing to do with where they are living, or the other people who happen to live there, or who don’t live there. It never, ever works. Sometimes you have to pull two or three locations before you figure out that nothing’s better in one place than it is in any other, and the problem is located in you. He’ll be back.”

So he was, indeed – stone cold sober, thanks be to God, at least for a while – right about the time my interlocutor began to succumb to AIDS.

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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.