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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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.


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

A Father’s Advice to His Son on Becoming a Man, Part Four: the Dos and the Don’ts

[Part One.  Part Two.  Part Three.]

Be a Christian: Trust Jesus Christ

The Bible is not just an ancient holy book. It contains the words that God intended mankind to know in order have a right relationship with God and in order to have true wisdom about the world. According to the Bible, man’s greatest need is to have his sins forgiven through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, on account of Christ’s nature as both God and man and his work of living a sinless life and dying on the cross to take away our sins.

An important and necessary part of faith in Christ is knowing and believing what he taught. This is especially important these days, as the church (that is, the total of all Christian churches considered as one assembly of people) contains a great deal of bad and even false teaching about Christianity. Scripture itself, both Old and New Testament, warns Christians to guard against false teachers, false teaching, and “false Christs.” “False Christs” does not mainly mean people who falsely claim to be Jesus, although such people do exist. Instead, it mainly means false descriptions of Christ, false ideas about Christ, such as the idea that he is not God, or that he did not teach the necessity of faith in him for the forgiveness of our sins.

Therefore a good man studies Christian doctrine (teaching) so that he can recognize and reject false teaching, and so that he can hold more tightly to the true faith in Christ that saves him. But how exactly can one recognize false teaching? Continue reading

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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A Father’s Advice to His Son on Becoming a Man, Part Three: Love and Marriage

But first, we conclude the discussion at the end of the previous post:


 Let’s understand that word “character.” When it refers to human behavior, character is the way you habitually behave. It doesn’t just mean how you behave some of the time, when you try hard to do something you don’t usually do. Instead, it means the way you naturally react to a situation. It’s the way you usually behave. For example, if you’re habitually lazy, this doesn’t mean that you never work hard. It means that it’s your habit to avoid work whenever possible, and it takes a great effort for you to work hard.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but being habitually lazy is a very bad habit to have. Lazy people don’t achieve much in life, they rarely get what they want (unless they only want to be left alone), and other people don’t respect them. You should not want to have a lazy character.

And notice that character is based on habit. If you act lazily often enough, laziness becomes your habit. And when it becomes your habit, then you will either have to fight hard to change your character, a battle that will take a long time and much energy, or else you will just remain lazy for the rest of your life, and you will then be a failure.

And what can be said about laziness can also be said about the other bad character habits: greed, anger, impulsiveness (the inability to control your desires), pride (the desire for others to honor you), envy (the hatred of others for having what you want but don’t have), and so on. Once you have these habits, they are very hard to break, and they drag a man down to destruction. To be a good leader, a good man, you must have self-discipline so that you can control your bad habits and strengthen your good habits.

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Reversion to the Mean

If there is a real world, and if it is consistently ordered, and if this consistent orderliness extends to the living portion of that world – these being the de minimis foreconditions of any sort of life whatsoever – then there must be some basic set of policies best suited to the lives of humans as we find them in the world as it is. Such is the proposition at the crux of philosophical Traditionalism, and of all the unconscious chthonic traditions that arose of old and organically from the practice of life, and were one day noticed and then taught by priests and sages. It is obviously true; it cannot but be true.

The Decalogue is the palmary exemplar of that basic set of policies. It is the quintessential answer for man, and so of man, to the Natural and Divine order. In and by it ordered, man fitly meets his environment – his world, and its God – and, as thus meet thereto, is rendered himself fit, so to fare well, and happy, healthy, numerous, and prosperous.

Any deviations from those policies then are in comparison to following them somewhat disadvantageous; so that we should expect deviants of any sort to find their purposes frustrated, their prosperity and health vitiated, their lives shortened and their reproduction hampered, at least at the margin. And so it is indeed. Deviations are then all self-correcting, sooner or later, as dooming deviants to relative poverty, disease, barrenness, unhappiness, and failure.

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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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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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A Father’s Advice to His Son on Becoming a Man, Part Two

[Part One]

The importance of books

 To gain the knowledge you need to be a good man you must train yourself to be a good reader. Even in today’s internet / media age, most of the world’s knowledge and wisdom, the wisdom you need to live a good life, is in the written word.

There’s a reason for that:  Wisdom cannot be learned through music or video. Music and video, although they have their value, are non-intellectual. They cannot communicate ideas correctly. They can suggest ideas. They can reinforce them. But music and video cannot communicate ideas accurately. Ideas can only be communicated correctly by words.

True, a video can include words that communicate ideas. But the communication of ideas in a video is done in a non-visual way. The words are a non-visual addition to a medium that is primarily visual.

Music and video, in fact, are often used to manipulate you, that is, to trick you into thinking or acting in the way that the author wants. Dishonest or evil people often use video and music to manipulate your emotions instead of trying to teach you truth. Instead of using words to teach you, they use music and pictures to get you to feel that something is true, or that something is good, when it really isn’t. Continue reading