The Moral Imperative of Beauty

Our aesthetic evaluations are moral imperatives. Beauty presents itself to us not just as an appearance, but as an appeal, and as an alluring proposal for how we might live, and indeed therefore ought to live. If we had no practical interest in beauty and its reproduction in and by our acts, it would be to us dead, flat, mute. It would be, precisely, uninteresting. We would not find it significant or important. Indeed, we would not even notice it.

And aesthetic evaluations cannot but be moral evaluations.

To find one thing more beautiful than another is to find it better; to find it uglier is to find it worse.

Our interest in the beautiful is our interest in discovering how we might be better.

Ugliness contrariwise presents itself as a caveat. It is repulsive. Disgust is the “ugh” in ugliness. It is an aesthetic evaluation of experience that motivates us to take action. We want to flee from it, and we ought to do so. To find a thing repulsive is to find that avoiding it is proper, morally appropriate – good.

Being eo ipso moral evaluations, aesthetic feelings are a guide to morals.

Beauty and ugliness then are moral imperatives. They tell us how we ought to live – not just we ourselves individually, but we together, communally. To feel that a scene or a tune is beautiful is to feel that it is just and proper for society to be so ordered as to reproduce its sort more often; to feel that it is ugly is to feel that society ought to be so ordered as to prevent it and its ilk.

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The Cuisine of Sacrifice

I recently finished another of my favorite sort of book, the sort that brings order and intelligibility to a mass of fascinating facts, many of them new to me: The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks. It is a collection of papers by European classicists and folklorists, mostly French, edited by the eminent scholars Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Three key insights inform everything in the book:

  1. In the ancient world, essentially all the meat available for consumption in human settlements was the fruit of sacrificial rites.
  2. Cookery and sacrifice were therefore aspects of the same procedure. Sacrifice was the way animals were slaughtered and butchered in preparation for cooking; cooking the meat was part of the sacrificial rite.
  3. Participation in the communal feast on the fruits of the sacrifice was the rite of social assimilation. To share the common meal was to declare loyalty to the cult, and to the settlement that it informed. To refuse participation – as with, e.g., vegetarian cults like that of the Pythagoreans – was to refuse membership in the community.

The book examines various aspects of animal sacrifice in myth, history, and down to the present day. It is well worth a read, if only for the factoids that litter its pages by the hundred. What follows are some of my marginal notes, organized not at all. Many of them are speculative; I do not present them as anything more than a record of suggestive associations that occurred to me in reading. Continue reading

Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

Gnosis 02 This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”

The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.

Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous. Continue reading

Thirty Steps from Honest Uncertainty to Christian Faith

When he finished his setting of the Credo, Stravinsky remarked to a friend that, “it is much to believe.” Indeed. If you start with the banquet of the Creed, you hardly know how to begin, and the whole mass of doctrines it encodes can be pretty hard to swallow at one bite. But there are only about thirty steps, more or less, from complete agnosticism to a profession of Christianity. Many are truisms, that if understood could hardly be denied by anyone; those that depend on knowledge of facts might require a fair bit of (absolutely fascinating) background research (e.g., especially, the Shroud). Each step is of course open to quibble, but such quibbles as I have so far encountered at each step are easily settled. Taken seriatim and in the proper order, none of the steps are as incredible as all of them seem taken at once. Continue reading

Chastek Nails It

Reading Romans 1, James Chastek reads it into modernism, to devastating effect:

If one doesn’t see the universe as existing for God, he starts seeing it as existing both for itself and for human use. But this idea will get quickly and inevitably extended to that part of nature which concerns what we most desire, i.e. the objects of erotic desire. These desires then become the paradigm cases of what is both divine-eternal and yet merely for human use, thus making sexual imperatives simultaneously the voice of God and yet only the commands of “my body”. Like anything tied up with the reward system of the brain, however, if we try to make it infinite it leads to a ratcheting-up effect that demands greater and greater novelty, though this novelty becomes difficult to find without transgression of the boundaries of behaviors that were once kept off limits. At this point, the human person becomes simply a transgression machine, seeing in the infinite possibility of spirit only the limitless boundaries to destroy.

He has here in a few sentences summed the entire discourse of the orthosphere upon the modern disease.

It is very old.

The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Mormon theology, as gathered from Sterling McMurrin’s “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the third in a series, and probably the last for a little while as I gear up for the fall semester.  Mormon commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post and the subsequent discussion will be to accurately describe the Mormon faith.  Commenters may respectfully question or register disagreement with this or that LDS tenet, but I will not tolerate the gratuitous insults of Mormonism that are unfortunately common in orthodox Christian circles.]

Despite being highly visible allies in the culture wars, Mormons are by-and-large poorly understood by more mainstream Christians.  Joseph Smith was a genius but not a formally trained theologian, so he ended up using philosophical terms idiosyncratically to express his insights, and this can create misunderstanding among those trained to follow Aristotle’s prior idiosyncrasies.  In this book, Professor McMurrin performs a valuable service translating between Mormon and Trinitarian theological statements.  Usually, misunderstandings lead groups to exaggerate their differences, but McMurrin argues that Mormonism’s innovations are even more drastic and fundamental than either side realizes.

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Gnostic Despair

For the Jew or the Christian, this world and its logos, as creatures of the Good himself, are likewise fundamentally good, and so conformity to that logos can possibly be righteous. There is for them a Way of Heaven, a Tao, that pervades the Earth, forms and guides her and all her denizens as she moves in and with it; a Way to which they may, and indeed ought, to aspire. Such folks have a shot at holiness themselves. So we sometimes find them taking that shot, and trying to be good.

For the gnostic, no such luck. Having rejected the creator of this world, and classed him among the evil ones, there is no way that a gnostic can consistently understand the order of his world as intelligibly good. Nor therefore can he believe that agreement with this world’s corrupt order is somehow good or righteous, let alone holy.

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The Temptation to Improper Reduction

One of the things I have noticed over the short course of my career as a blogger, and before that as a commenter on blogs, is that I often find myself responding to interlocutors with statements of the following general form:

To say that x is y is just not the same thing as saying that x is *nothing but* y.

I sooner or later say something like this in almost every comment thread. Almost every time I say, “x is y,” it generates an irate response from someone or other, sooner or later, to the effect that “x is not entirely y,” or even, “x is not entirely z.” This, despite the fact that I had not said, or implied, anything of the sort to which such responses might be apposite.

It’s a curious thing. I have begun to think that there is a universal temptation to improper reduction – to thinking that x really is nothing but y, so that y totally explains x. Once you have latched on to such a y, you hold onto it for dear life, because it seems to give you so much intellectual leverage. When that happens, you have become an ideologue, and your y has become your obsession – your precious.

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