An Orthogonal Turn at First Things

From its founding, First Things has been the premier journal of high Christian engagement with the public square in the West. The basic proposition of the journal has been that American liberal democracy could be domesticated to Christ by a concerted ecumenical effort of philosophical evangelism. First Things intended to provide a forum for that discourse, and a rally point. Much good has come of this project. But with the recent spate of stunning reversals on sexual policy, and with Christianity ever more clearly in the crosshairs of our secular overlords, the writers of First Things seem to be recoiling from the profane culture of the West and its liberal cult of Moloch. They begin to see that their project has failed, and that perhaps it was doomed to fail from the start. More and more, they seem to realize that rapprochement with liberalism is in any case a pact with the devil.

It’s not just that the editors saw fit to publish an article by our own Jim Kalb back in December. In the February issue, First Things took a decided turn toward orthogony to secular political discourse, as if they all with one mind awoke to a realization that dawned on most traditionalists several years ago: America is too far gone to be saved. As Lawrence Auster then began to say, “It’s their country now.” Likewise also for the West in general.

First Things seems now to have reached the same conclusion.

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Nominalism & Genocide

If nominalism is true, and there are no universals, then there is no God; for, God is the very universal of universals, the sum and source of the whole category of the universals, and so he is the universal in virtue of whom all other universals subsist, and operate, and participate.

If there is no God, then there is no image of God. In that case, men are not made in that image, or for that matter in the image of any other universal – such as, e.g., the universal, “human nature.” There is then nothing to man but whatever we happen to call man, for whatever reason, or no reason.

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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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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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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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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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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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Wherever an Altar is Found, There Every Last Feature of Civilization Exists

The very day that Dr. Bill posted Sport is not about hunting or fighting, David Sansone’s Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport landed on my stoop. Like George Hersey’s Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture, it is one of those little books that knits together a large and diverse range of apparently unrelated items and links them coherently to ancient sacrifice. I highly recommend both books, if only for the fascinating factoids to be found by the dozen on their every page.

Hersey shows that the tropes of classical architecture all derive from the sacrificial rite; Sansone argues persuasively that sport began as a relic of the sacrificial cult that in turn was a fossil of the hunt. Both bolster their cases with overwhelming evidence.

So, Maistre seems with every passing month to be more correct than even he perhaps ever knew, in saying that, “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” Everything seems to go back to the sacrificial rite: to the hunt, to war, to violence and its expiation.

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Real Tradition Must Be Sacred Tradition

We can jaw till the cows come home about how to reform the social order so that it works better, and in so doing improve our own understandings, and those of our fellows, so that we jointly decide matters in such a way as to restore a more humane, realistic and successful social order. Such discourse is not only edifying, but can nerve us to action. We could even implement a lot of quite sensible reforms – indeed, it is within the realm of possibility that all the outward forms of an ideal traditional society could be implemented, sometime after the Collapse of the Liberal Order, when men are casting about for a better way. That would be good!

Political acts can truly make the world a bit better, at the margin, than it would otherwise be.

But in the absence of a fairly widespread metanoia, a spiritual awakening and change of heart, all the clever and salutary reforms in the world will not secure for us a robust and durable traditional society, that reliably supports true human flourishing. They might slow the rot, but cannot heal it; cannot procure for us a healthy body politic.

A merely secular order, that does not consciously refer its ends, forms, and significations to the ultimate source of all order and meaning, has severed itself from the root of all things, and must therefore soon err, and stray, and perish.

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Creatura : Creator :: Map : Territory

According to the invaluable Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “map” is derived from:

… Medieval Latin mappa mundi “map of the world;” first element from Latin mappa “napkin, cloth” (on which maps were drawn), “tablecloth, signal-cloth, flag,” said by Quintilian to be of Punic [i.e., Tyrian] origin (compare Talmudic Hebrew mappa, contraction of Mishnaic menaphah “a fluttering banner, streaming cloth”) + Latin mundi “of the world,” from mundus “universe, world” (see mundane).

Now this is interesting, because while the Old Testament refers to the firmament of the cosmos with the word raqiaà, meaning literally “extent” – apparently a merely abstract geometrical idea – it is described variously in scripture as like a crystalline tent or canopy (Isaiah 40:22, Ezekiel 1:22), or a scroll (Isaiah 34:4; Revelation 6:14). I.e., an expanse of fabric such as are used as a substrate for maps.

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